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A group of independent counselors serving Kingwood and Houston
Specializing in Gottman MethodTM Couples and Marriage Counseling

Archive for 2013

Rituals of Connection Strengthen Relationships

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Sound houseThanksgiving is upon us and that warms my heart.  Over the past 20 years my husband and I have unwittingly developed  rituals around this day of gratitude.  We honor his family tradition of tamales and football and my love of Brussels sprouts and my friend Mary, who has spent 18 of the last 20 Thanksgivings with us.  When any of these things are missing from our day, it simply doesn’t feel right.

And that is how rituals go.  They are routines that create shared meaning in relationships and strengthen emotional connections.  Notice that Creating Shared Meaning is at the top of the Sound Relationship House, the model we use in Gottman Method Couples Therapy.  Rituals are important in relationships because we look forward to them  . . . they symbolize who we are as a couple or as a family.  They have the power to smooth over rough spots and transitions that we all naturally experience over the course of time.

We tend to think of rituals on holidays, especially ones that honor cultural heritage, faith or family values.  But rituals on a smaller scale are equally important.  How couple and families routinely come together creates a sense of belonging.  Rituals demonstrate that we take time out of our busy schedules to make one another a priority.

Here are some examples of rituals from my own family, as well as ones I have heard from other couples and families:

  • Six second kiss when you wake up, when you say goodnight, and when you come and go
  • Family dinnertime where everyone talks about their day
  • Walking the dog every evening
  • Making a cheesecake for your partner on their birthday because it is their favorite dessert
  • Going for pancakes every Saturday morning
  • Weekly date night
  • Returning to your honeymoon destination every year on your anniversary
  • Leaving love notes by the coffee maker for your partner to find every morning
  • Training for a distance bike ride together
  • Watching a favorite TV show together
  • How you approach your partner for sex
  • Family game night
  • Going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
  • Snuggling for 10 minutes every morning after the alarm goes off
  • Parents and kids volunteering once per month at an animal shelter
  • Planting a vegetable garden every year
  • And my son’s favorite . . . serving his “lucky” foods (Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino and shrimp cocktail) before he plays a football game

Rituals create positive memories and are like glue in relationships . . . they keep you connected. What are the rituals in your relationships?

 

 

 

How Does Weight Gain Affect Couples?

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

“You’ve gained so much weight . . . I am no longer attracted to you”.

More than 34%  of Americans are now obese and it has become a national epidemic.  Co-morbidities related to obesity, like diabetes, often take the spotlight but weight issues have deleterious effects on relationships as well.

Weight Gain Often Accompanies Marriage

Couples can become couch potatoes, watching TV instead of being on the go.  Working out may take a backseat now that one is no longer on the prowl for a mate.  Nurturing your loved one with delicious meals, celebrating with food and frequently enjoying cocktails together can pack on the pounds.  Couples can influence one another with eating patterns, often to their detriment, and this can boost caloric intake.

Much to my chagrin, weight and body shape changes can and do occur over time.   Pregnancy, menopause and the aging process all contribute to changes in size and shape.  Couples who support each other through these transitions tend to be the happiest.  Change is inevitable and it is best to accept that some change in weight and physical attractiveness will happen for both of you over time.

Weight and Marital Unhappiness

Unfortunately for many couples weight issues take front and center stage in marital unhappiness.  When one partner gains weight, the other often doesn’t know how to handle it.  Sometimes they try unsolicited advice like “Go to the gym with me” or “Maybe you should give Weight Watchers a try”.  Advice giving can morph into nagging or ultimatums, and this constant pressure adds conditionality to the relationship.

Derogatory remarks about weight are devastating to a relationship.  Name calling, telling your partner you are no longer sexually attracted to them or saying oink oink every time your overweight partner reaches for seconds all cut to the core.  Being critical of your partner is toxic and according to John Gottman is one of the predictors of divorce.  We all want to feel loved for reasons beyond the number on the scale or our clothing size.

Attacking the overweight spouse compounds the problem by adding layer upon layer of shame and humiliation.  Making negative comparisons or ogling a sexy stranger makes the overweight partner feel worse, more insecure and vulnerable.  Instead of feeling cherished, one feels disrespected and devalued.  Using shame as a tool to motivate always backfires.

Shame is different from guilt.  According to Brene Brown, shame researcher from University of Houston, shame is very painful and focuses on our self worth and sense of belonging.  Shame says “I am fat and unworthy of love”.  Guilt focuses on behavior and says “I overate and feel miserable”.  Shame interferes with our connection to self, as well as to our partner.

Women who have engaged in lifelong battles with their body are especially prone to shame when they plump up after marriage.  They feel big and unsexy and often dress to hide their curves.  Whereas they once pranced naked in front of their partner, now they dress and undress in private.  They often avoid sex in order to avoid rejection.  They simply feel “not good enough” or unworthy.

We used to think that men were less prone to body image issues, but the truth is their issues were present but off the radar.  They often share the same feelings of shame when they gain weight.

Secrecy is often a component of shame and weight issues.  This wreaks havoc in relationships, especially if the overweight partner has binge eating disorder (BED).  People with BED eat salads in front of their partner and gorge on junk food in private.  Bingers are not only grazers and chocolate cravers, but they feel out of control with eating.  They avoid eating in front of others to avoid judgment and in the process destroy intimacy and emotional connection.  It’s like an affair, only the affair partner is food.  Not only does the couple need marital counseling, but the binger will also need individual therapy to deal with their issues.

Many other dysfunctional patterns arise in couples where eating issues or BED are present.  Chronic dieting to compensate for overeating affects how couples approach food in social situations.  It also affects rituals of connection like family dinnertime and holiday food traditions.  Sometimes we see issues of codependency or enabling by placing the responsibility of the eating issue on the normal weight partner.  Other times we see sabotage through the form of temptation, especially if the binger loses weight and there are underlying power struggles in the couple.  And sometimes couples abuse food together to promote a sense of closeness.

The Real Cause of Marital Unhappiness

But is the excess weight or the presence of BED to blame for plummeting marital happiness and sexual intimacy? Not so according to Gottman.  In his extensive research of couples he found that 70% of both men and women report satisfaction with sex, romance and passion when the quality of their friendship was good. Additionally he found that couples whose sex lives go well after the birth of a baby stem from the man keeping his mouth shut about the changes in his wife’s body.

Friendship, fondness, admiration and deep emotional bonds are what keep couples connected as they traverse changes over time.  Attraction to your partner has more to do with what’s in the emotional bank account than the number on the scale.  Physical changes are not at the heart of deteriorating marriages.  Happy couples see their partner as worthy of honor and respect.

In couples where weight has become a weighty issue, there are underlying problems that are being overshadowed by the weight gain.  It is easy to point the finger at the obvious, but loss of the friendship system, emotional avoidance or problems with conflict management are more likely the root cause.  Weight loss alone will not change the trajectory of a troubled relationship.

As we say in Gottman Method Couples Counseling, every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay.  Never comment adversely about your partners weight or your attraction to them.  Instead be affectionate and appreciative.  Focus on their positive attributes instead of dwelling on their weight.  Kind comments reassure your partner that you love them no matter what their body looks like.

As for dealing with shame, the antidote is empathy.  Replacing shame talk with positive self talk is crucial.  In other words, if you are overweight talk to yourself like you would talk to your child.  When shame is present it grows by leaps and bounds when it is stuffed.  Release shame by talking to your partner . . . their job is to express empathy and understanding.

Couples need to maintain positive regard for one another to cope with the changes that time brings, and that includes changes in weight and physical attractiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Teenager

Monday, October 14th, 2013

IMG_0715My son has always had a good balance of being stuck to us like glue and being fiercely independent.  He was the kid who could easily leave us for a week long camp and also the kid who wanted to climb in bed with us, not because he was afraid but because he wanted to be close.

Now that he’s a teen the same balance still exists, it just looks different.  Staying connected is not as hard as some may think, but it does require a shift in parenting.

To Stay Connected with Your Teen:

1.  Go with the flow and change your parenting style as your teen develops.  It is during this critical time that parents need to shift from managing their child’s every move to being their consultant.  Micromanaging your teen will create emotional distance in the relationship, not to mention some rebellion.  The developmental task of the teen years is to become increasingly more independent and parents need to facilitate this process.  Our job is to be their coach, guiding them through their emotional and social development, without trying to do it for them.

2.  Get to know their friends.  Make your home a welcome environment for your teen and their friends.  Offer to be the chauffeur.  You will learn a lot about your teen by observing how they interact with their friends, and from that you can generate some great conversations.  A word of caution about interacting with their friends online . . . . if you have a presence on their social media sites, simply read and DO NOT comment.  Your teen will think this is a boundary violation and quickly unfriend you.

3.  When your teen comes to you with an issue, be sure to listen to what they are saying and validate their feelings before jumping to advice giving.  They may just need a sympathetic ear.  Trying to solve their problem can send the message that they aren’t capable of solving them on their own.  Try asking “What do you want to do about that?” and then generate discussion from there.

4.  Develop rituals of connection with your teen.  Try to find activities that you and your teen can share, such as walking the dog together, baking cookies, going to Starbucks, watching a favorite show or playing catch.  You may need to be flexible and join in activities your teen likes, but it is important to come together a little bit each day.  Be sure to keep these rituals positive so both you and your teen come to value the time together.

5.  Take advantage of times your teen may be more open to talk.  Circadian rhythms change in the teen years and you will find that your teen is wide awake in the late evening and may be more willing to open up.  Hang out in the kitchen once in a while (even if it is past your bedtime), knowing your teen will wander there for a snack, and share a bowl of popcorn or polish off the rest of the pie together.  Being available to them when they are ready to talk is half the battle.

6.  Be conscientious of how you say Hello and Good-bye.  Setting a positive tone with separations and reunions conveys your desire for connection with your teen.  Be sure to say Good Morning when they wake up.  Before they leave for school find out what is happening in their day and give them a hug before they go.  When they return home greet them with a smile and talk about what happened during their day. Barking out orders as soon as they walk in the door is harsh, so avoid saying things like “Take the trash out” or “Put your bike away” before you’ve had a chance to positively connect.

7.  When your teen is moody, don’t take it personally.  Understand that everything seems like a big deal to them  They are dealing with cheerleading tryouts, chemistry tests, dating and many other pressures.  They are still not adept at managing their confusing feelings so their emotions ooze (or explode) out.  Being in the line of fire is equally confusing for a parent, but don’t match their mood and tone.  When your teen is emotionally flooded, give them some time and space to calm down and then address it with them.  Validate their feelings and tell them it is OK to feel whatever they are feeling but at the same time set a limit on them being disrespectful to you.

While your teen may drive you crazy at times, having a positive connection with them with help them feel more safe and secure as they move towards adulthood.  And best of all it will be filled with mutual respect for one another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We Need Couples Counseling and My Partner Won’t Go” – 5 Strategies to Try

Friday, September 13th, 2013

We are on the brink of divorce and I can’t get my husband (or wife, or life partner) to go to marriage counseling?  What can I do?

Believe it or not, distressed couples wait an average of SIX years before seeking the help of a marriage counselor.  Unaware of the slow erosion that is taking place, they don’t notice the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse have set up camp in their home.  Oh, they may know they have some degree of unhappiness, but they keep waiting for the other person to change to get the relationship back on track.

When the fog begins to lift and one partner accepts that the relationship simply is not working, they have an AHA moment and begin googling couples counselors.  Finding a few names they are sure their partner will want to dispel their pain with the help of an experienced therapist.  When they are met with There’s no way in hell I am airing our dirty laundry in front of a therapist.  I had a previous bad experience in counseling and I don’t believe in therapy, a sense of panic sets in.

If your partner is resistant to therapy, all hope is not gone yet.  Try the following:

  1. Stop making your partners flaws the main reason you need counseling.  Take ownership over your feelings and say things like I am so sad that we have become so distant.  I miss who we used to be as a couple.  Please go to counseling with me so we can get our happiness back.
  2. Ask your partner to go to ONE session.  Many times resistant partners will relax with an experienced therapist and agree to join in the process.
  3. If your partner is using the cost of counseling as a reason to not go, check with your insurance company.  Many plans cover marriage/family counseling.  It is possible that you have this as a covered benefit and will only have to pay a copay.  Or your employer may offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and you can get a few free sessions.  Check with your Human Resources Department.
  4. Consider a couples workshop or marriage retreat, like The Art & Science of Love.  This Gottman Method workshop is ideal for resistant partners because itimage004 (2013_06_02 20_47_53 UTC) is not therapy, although the effects are like having six months of couples’ therapy.  The workshop is educational, research based and there is no public disclosure.
  5. Go to counseling on your own.  While nothing replaces the dynamic setting of couples counseling where both partners are working on issues, individual counseling may be of some benefit.  You will have a safe environment to explore your feelings.  If you are truly willing to work on the relationship, you will begin to take ownership over how your behavior has contributed to negative patterns.  A word of caution though, individual counseling that is just used for venting or trashing your partner will not be effective, and in fact, can be harmful to the relationship.

If after trying these things and your partner is still unwilling to get help, you might be faced with the fact they are unwilling to work on the relationship.  Not only are they avoiding the therapist’s couch, they are avoiding working on it in any form or fashion.  This can be a painful realization and you may want to seek individual counseling.

 

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Friday, September 6th, 2013

No one gets married with the intent of getting divorced, but statistics show that once-blissful couples can turn into bitter enemies over the course of time.  Wouldn’t finding an antidote for that bitterness and preventing divorce be potent medicine?  We actually do have information on what prevents divorce thanks to world renowned relationship researcher John Gottman.  He studied over 3,000 couples and the data collected has been useful in predicting the trajectory of relationships with 94% accuracy.

If you do a Google search of what causes divorce you will find many sources that cite infidelity, growing apart/falling out of love, finances or addiction as the reason(s).  But that’s not what Gottman’s research showed.  He found four clear patterns that lead to relationship demise and he aptly named them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The first Horseman is criticism.  When our partner criticizes us it feels anything but constructive.  Criticism fuels fights and escalates conflict.  While it might momentarily feel good to give our partner a zinger, it’s hurtful and destructive.

The second Horseman, defensiveness, swiftly gallops in on the heels of criticism.  When we are attacked we naturally defend ourselves.  But defensiveness is really just blaming or criticism in disguise.

Gottman calls the third Horseman contempt, the sulfuric acid of love and the best predictor of divorce.  Contempt is about having an air of superiority over our partner and belittling their character.

Stonewalling, aka the silent treatment, is the fourth Horseman.  When one is angry and ready to fight but their partner is shutting down, it truly is like hitting a stone wall.  Anger gets more inflamed and shutting down turns into running away.

The Four Horsemen are toxic to any relationship and unless couples learn effective antidotes, relationship demise may be on the horizon.  If the Four Horsemen are hanging around your house it may be time to get rid of these unwanted guests.

 

How Building a Sense of Community Enhances Relationships

Monday, July 8th, 2013

Relationships can be enhanced in many ways, one of which is building a sense of community.  When couples, families or work groups come together to participate in their community, positive feelings abound.  A sense of community gives us a feeling of belonging and that what we do matters to others.

When two or more people in relationship work towards something meaningful in their community, whether it is for the benefit of a school, civic organization or by volunteering, they share an emotional connection.  Not only do they feel positive about their good-deed-doing, there is a sense of reward for their efforts and a deepening of their roots in the community.  By socializing within the community and working with others towards a common goal, couples, families and groups can feel more closely connected.

DSCN0937Building Community With a Work Group

On the Fourth of July, Couples Counseling and Psychotherapy Associates built a sense of community by participating in the Kingwood Civic Club annual parade.  Our families joined in the fun by helping in various ways.  Not only did we feel more closely connected as a group, but we got to meet many other parade participants, deepening our roots in Kingwood.  We distributed stress balls (of course we did, we are therapists), magnets, candy for the wee ones and a special discount for our upcoming Art & Science of Love Weekend Workshop.  We shook hands and waved and felt the warmth of our community.

Building Community as a Family

On a more personal note, my family and I build a sense of community by volunteering at  Greyhound Pets of America.  A few Saturdays a month we head into Houston to work with greyhounds that are former athletes or surrendered pets, all waiting for a loving home.  Admittedly, I am the dog lover in our home, but my family gladly joins in because it feels good to help.  We follow this community building activity with another ritual . . . going out for brunch afterwards.  When it is all said and done we feel closer and it sets the tone for a great day.

When we work with couples who are struggling, one of the things we assess is how they build a sense of community.  Working together towards something you both believe in can be a great way to add some much needed connection.  For example, my husband and I recently volunteered to work together on creating an athletic booster club at my son’s school.  This simple activity has generated great conversation and we feel united in our efforts.  In addition to dates and working on better conflict management, think outside the box when trying to enhance your relationship.

How are you doing on building a sense of community in your relationships?

 

 

 

Sex and the Midlife Woman: 7 Tips to Get Your Sexy On

Monday, May 6th, 2013

It is not unusual for middle aged women to think of great sex as a distant memory.  If your once fiery sex life has reduced to burning embers, there are things you can do to bring the passion back.  Hot sex and hot flashes don’t have to be incompatible.

  1. Lubricate, Lubricate, Lubricate:  One of the number one complaints of middle aged women is vaginal dryness, which can cause painful sex.  Use a lubricating agent like Astroglide or Replens to feel more youthful and sexy.  Having lots of sex also helps improve blood flow, which in turn increases lubrication, and self-stimulation counts here ladies.
  2. Build Your Muscles:  At midlife we can visibly see a change in our muscles, but what about the muscles we can’t see?  Pelvic floor muscles need to be toned like other muscles to support vaginal strength and prevent problems like uterine prolapse.  Doing Kegel exercises several times daily helps to keep pelvic floor muscles strong, decreasing the likelihood of prolapse and painful intercourse.
  3. Approach Sex Like Your Younger Self:  When you were younger and sex was more plentiful, chances are you approached it differently.  If you had a date and were hopeful that it would culminate in sex (and yes, you spent time thinking about having sex), you made yourself feel sexy by tending to your hair, makeup and clothing.  Fast forward and thoughts of sex are nowhere to be found.   It might be time for some self care and to start anticipating having sex.
  4. Develop a Ritual of Dating:  After the kids come along, dates with our partner disappear along with getting enough sleep.  We forget how to be a couple and that kills the passion in a relationship.  Making time for our partner and remembering how to have fun on dates is one of the best aphrodisiacs.  Along with the dating ritual  there should be a foreplay ritual.  You may no longer turn on as quickly as a light bulb, so be sure to include some good old fashioned making out on your dates.
  5. Better Living Through Chemistry:  As we age our hormones shift, affecting our genital sensation and libido.  Testosterone and estrogen/progesterone play important roles in our sex lives and we may need to give them a boost at midlife.  While not right for all women, hormone replacement or creams have helped improve many a sex lives.  All hormone therapies, even bio-identical, come with some risks, so be sure to discuss the pros and cons with your health care provider.
  6. Be Daring in the Bedroom:  If you haven’t kept up with sexual trends as you grew older, take a lesson from the younger cohort. Sex toys can add different levels of stimulation and whimsy to a dull sex life.  Used alone or with your partner, sex toys can spice things up.  Afraid to be seen in public purchasing these items?  Try safe internet orders at sites such as Good Vibrations.  In addition to your expanding toy collection, try different positions and locations so as not to fall into a routine.  Allow yourself to fantasize and ask for what you want.
  7. Keep Your Relationship Healthy:  Having deep emotional intimacy with our partner improves sexual intimacy.  If bad relationship habits like criticism/defensiveness, avoidance tactics and lack of appreciation have worked their way into your relationship, it may be time for a tune up.  Working on your sex life without working on the overall health of your relationship is like trying to diet without changing your eating habits.

Don’t accept that lack of libido is the norm for your age.  Find what works for you and enjoy a healthy sex life at any age.

 

Couples Counseling for Affairs – What To Expect

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

If your world has been shattered by the discovery that your partner is having an affair, you may be wondering if your relationship can survive this, or maybe even wondering if you should bother trying.

The word affair conjures up an image of a sexual tryst but that is not the only type of betrayal we are seeing these days.  Emotional affairs, sexting, online or virtual romances can be equally, if not more, destructive to partnerships.

Most think that infidelity stems from availability . . . . a husband on an overnight business trip has opportunity or a wife with a hot personal trainer while her husband is at work.  But that is not generally how the path to a cheating heart is travelled.

Affairs arise from emotional dismissiveness and emotional avoidance in relationships.  These couples avoid expressing their true feelings to their partners in an attempt to avoid conflict. Over time these couples become very emotionally distant and feel very neglected in their relationship.  It is this isolation and loneliness that primes them to make room for an attentive affair partner in their life . . . someone who will listen, give them compliments and laugh at their jokes.  And eventually this leads to make negative comparisons about their partner and permission to stray.

Of course all hell breaks loose when an affair is discovered.  The betrayed partner has a knife jammed in their heart, feeling the deep wounds of broken trust, blindsided by someone they thought they knew.  The traumatic nature of this discovery leads to symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) that include intrusive thoughts, depression, anxiety, emotional numbing and flashbacks.

Often this is the juncture where couples seek relationship counseling.  They are in such crisis that I liken it to an anaphylactic reaction in need of an Epi-Pen . . . they want immediate relief.  Remember, these are a couples that hate conflict and they are at a loss on what to do or how to heal.

A skilled couples therapist will complete a thorough assessment of the current situation, their history as a couple and their individual backgrounds.  In Gottman Method Couples Therapy we follow the Gottmans’ Trust Revival Method for dealing with affairs.  This three phase approach involves:

The Atonement Phase:  This phase involves full confession, expression of remorse and apology, verification that the affair is over and dealing with the betrayed partner’s PTSD.  The couple begins to explore what went wrong in the relationship and why it culminated in an affair, but the cheating partner must take 100% responsibility for the breach of trust.  The most difficult phase of therapy, this stage will last as long as it needs to last, and the cheating partner must have infinite patience while their partner deals with his their emotions.

The Attunement Phase:   In this phase the couple begins rebuilding their relationship.  They recognize that previous relationship wasn’t meeting their needs and it cannot and should not be resurrected in the same manner.  They need to build skill in developing deeper emotional bonds, better communication, conflict management skills, friendship and romance.

The Attachment Phase:  In the final stage we work on forgiveness having real meaning, deepening their commitment, building a shared meaning for the future and re-establishing a strong foundation.

Some couples can survive affairs and some can’t.  The likelihood of survival increases if they can openly talk about the affair, their pre-existing problems and have infinite patience while they work through the three  phases of recovery.

 


Couples Counseling and Psychotherapy Associates provides service to Kingwood, Humble, Atascocita, Porter, Fall Creek, Summerwood, North Houston and surrounding areas.

Couples Counseling & Psychotherapy Associates

2330 Timber Shadows Drive
Suite 106
Kingwood, Texas 77339
Ph: 281-812-7529

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