New Roots Therapy Blog

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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Understanding Relationship Ambivalence: Part 2

Co-Written By: Melissa Kroonenberg & Corinne Carter, Registered Psychotherapists and Relationship Therapists

Last week’s blog focused on understanding relationship ambivalence and highlighted some common factors that keep people feeling stuck in a state of uncertainty about their relationship, including: fearing the consequences, experiencing a split between values, and issues related to self-esteem. This week, in Part 2, we will focus on specific strategies to help you address ambivalence in your relationship. These strategies will be framed as “antidotes” to each of the common factors outlined in Part 1. Please note: the term “antidote” is used here to illustrate that the following suggestions may be helpful for “counteracting”, or responding to, the common factors of relationship ambivalence, not to imply that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to resolving relationship ambivalence, or that these are the only strategies available!

Go or Stay concept with three red dice on a white background.

Factor #1: Fear of Consequences

Antidotes: Practicing Courage & Staying Present

Whether it’s fear over your partner’s reaction to your concerns, fear of accepting your concerns as real and valid because of the internal upset this creates, or fear of dissolving the relationship altogether and being alone, if fear is the main factor keeping you stuck in ambivalence about your relationship, your antidotes include: practicing courage and staying present.

Although it may sound painfully simple (and come at the risk of a few eye-rolls from our readers…), when it comes to making change, courage is a necessary mindset. Practicing courage means that you’re open and willing to do something different, even if it’s something small (change is change, after all!). Operating from a place of courage within yourself means that you’re developing awareness of the default behaviours that keep you stuck (e.g., shutting down after conflict, getting defensive, staying quiet about your concerns, etc.) and then, rather than allowing your default reaction to take over, thoughtfully and courageously choosing to do something different.

Where staying present is concerned, so often we hear our clients speaking in “what if’s” when working through their experience of relationship ambivalence which, by its nature, takes them out of the present moment and into some imagined future (or past). Because we’re so invested in our relationship, and we feel a lack of control over the outcome of our situation, it can be easy to become caught up in “what if’s”, such as: “What if talking about it makes things worse?”, “What if we can’t resolve this concern?”, and perhaps most common, “What if I try and work things out and nothing gets better?” The thing about “what if’s” is that they ultimately focus on trying to problem solve the future (or time travel to the past). The future is unsolvable because it hasn’t happened yet, and the past is unsolvable because it has come and gone; yet the mind feels the discomfort of inner conflict and tries in vain to solve the unsolvable anyways. This is part of what keeps people stuck in ambivalence because if you tell yourself you have to solve a problem before moving forward, and that problem is unsolvable, then presto – you’re stuck! The only way to make change – the only way out of “stuckness” – is by focusing on what’s happening right now. It’s healthy to process unresolved experiences from the past, just as it’s healthy to be mindful of the potential consequences of your behaviour as they may unfold, but wishing the past had been different or trying to control the outcome of something that hasn’t happened are impossible and are part of what keeps you stuck.

Factor #2: Split between Values

Antidote: Practicing Curiosity & “The Death Bed Question”

It can be hard to imagine how to move forward if you find yourself facing a split between two strong values in your relationship, particularly if your understanding of one (or both) values isn’t yet fully formed. Practicing curiosity is all about meaning-making where your values are concerned; the goal is to help you better understand your values so that you are well-positioned for decision-making. The names that we give to the values we hold – honesty, conscious parenting, engagement and connection, self-growth, etc. – are simply words used to describe a set of characteristics or a way of being that is precious to us. While the words we assign to our values can be meaningful in and of themselves, to fully understand our values and the importance they have in our lives, we have to dig deeper, past our descriptors; we have to adopt a curious attitude in order to understand not only what is important to us, but also why. If we use the value of parenting that was discussed in Part 1 as an example, practicing curiosity would mean asking yourself questions like: what is it about “parenting” that holds the most meaning for me? Is it the aspect of nurturing another being? Teaching someone? Is it the desire to create something special and unique? You may also benefit from asking yourself the question, “Whose value is this really?” Without realizing it, many of us go through life living with a set of values and expectations that belong to other people. Our parents, extended family, friends, bosses, society, culture, etc. all give us ideas about how we “should” live. Most of the time, we don’t even realize how powerful these messages are until a process of reflection and examination takes place. The process of disentangling our authentic core values from the expectations and values of others is a challenging task. Some questions that we have found most helpful for this process are:

  • Has this always been a value of yours?
  • Who else in your life shares this value?
  • Who would be the most disappointed if you did not prioritize this value?
  • Are there times when this value is not so important?
  • How important is this value to you, on a scale of 1-10?
  • What will you be risking if you do not prioritize this value at this time?

Upon reflection, most people we meet with can acknowledge that some aspects of a particular value are more important than others, and they can begin to identify their true values from those of others. By becoming more specific about your values, you may be able to create more space for negotiation with your partner where there was once no breathing room, and new possibilities for resolving the split in values may begin to emerge. For example, if upon reflection you realize that parenting a child is not really what you value but, rather, it’s the aspect of creating something special with your partner that matters most to you, this becomes a very different conversation than one where you want children and your partner doesn’t. Resolving a split between values doesn’t necessarily mean that you and your partner come to share the exact same values in the exact same ways; rather it means that both of you can find a way to live out your values together, without either person feeling like they’ve had to repress or disown an important aspect of themselves. Most differences in values are resolvable. However, there are times when, after much curiosity, reflection, and conversation, people find themselves facing a difference in values with their partner that cannot be bridged. If you’re facing an unresolvable split, this is when the “death bed question” comes in: that is, if you imagine yourself on your death bed looking back on your life, would you regret that a value (or set of values) was never realized? If the answer is “yes”, then it’s time to get really honest with yourself about whether avoiding the temporary pain of relationship dissolution is worth the life-long pain of living inauthentically. You deserve to live your best life – a life that’s in line with your values – and so does your partner. Give yourself your best chance at your best life.

Factor #3: Issues related to Self-Esteem

Antidotes: Repairing your Relationship with Yourself & Practicing Self-care

Part 1 talks about how, when needs go unvoiced (and, as a result, go unmet!) for long periods of time, this inevitably creates a sense of inner conflict which, in turn, can erode a relationship. It can be hard to understand how shifting your focus from your partner to yourself could be useful when it feels like your relationship is in trouble, but sometimes paying attention to and investigating your relationship with yourself is a necessary step towards managing relationship distress.

A healthy relationship requires that each partner is attuned to their own needs, and values themselves enough to share those needs with their partner in a direct and specific way. For example, in our work with clients, women especially seem to struggle with being specific and direct with their partner about what their needs are and how they want their partners to respond. Most commonly there is an idea that their partners should “just know what they need to do” – that asking for a need to be met somehow makes the gesture of meeting the need less meaningful – or the idea that their partner’s ability to just “know” what they need is related to how valuable they must be to them. These ideas can lead women to feel uncomfortable and disempowered when it comes to having their needs met in a relationship, resulting in tension and a fear that their partner doesn’t “know” them or “care enough” to meet their needs. Although it may seem surprising, this experience of not having your needs met in this case is less about your partner and more about your relationship with yourself. When you remain detached from what you need, or rely on your partner to “just know”, you are sending a message to yourself that you are not entitled or powerful enough to get yourself what you need. To love yourself enough to connect with your needs and validate their worthiness is the first step towards feeling better about yourself and your relationship.

Learning to love yourself and value your needs is essential for developing a healthy self-esteem. Self-love develops when you regularly turn towards yourself with kindness and engage in self-care practices. Since healthy relationships are made up of healthy individuals, caring for yourself and focusing on maintaining a positive self-esteem is an important part of caring for your relationships too! Check out our previous post on self-care for more information on how to enhance your sense of self and bolster self-esteem.

If you’re experiencing relationship ambivalence, we hope that these suggestions will be helpful to you in moving out of “stuckness” and into the sense of freedom and groundedness that come from knowing where you stand.

Grow Courageously!

-Melissa & Corinne

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The “C” Word: Understanding and De-escalating Conflict in your Relationships

Post written by: Melissa Kroonenberg, Relationship Therapist

According to Webster’s dictionary, there are three definitions of conflict:

1. Fight, Battle, War (an armed conflict)

2. (a) Competitive or opposing action of incompatibilities: Antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)

(b) Mental Struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands

3. The opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction

I’ve found throughout my life and my experience as a therapist that “conflict” is often viewed as an uncomfortable, unnecessary, and damaging thing.  A characterization that makes sense if you consider the first definition of conflict listed above.  And when I discuss my client’s experience of conflict with them, they often describe it in a way that is in line with the first definition.  Each person comes to “battle”, “armed” with a tonne of psychological artillery that is sure to win the overall fight.  What a terrifying prospect!

It’s not like I don’t identify with this perception of conflict, too.  However, over the course of my life, my relationship with conflict has shifted. At first, it began as a terrifying possibility – when I thought someone was mad or upset with me – rendering me passive and paralyzed in the relationship. Then it moved into a protest phase where I spent considerable time and effort trying to control the people and elements involved in order to avoid conflict at any cost. Finally, it moved into a place where I could begin to see conflict as an opportunity for growth and empowerment, rather than letting it bulldoze me or actively trying to stop or avoid it.

Ultimately, conflict – despite its bad rap – is an unavoidable, natural, and (wait for it) healthy part of close relationships. Over time, relationships transition and require a renegotiation of needs and hopes in order for the relationship to evolve and thrive, which is much more representative of the second definition of conflict.  What it comes down to is understanding the distinction between generative conflict and degenerative conflict.

Generative conflict is a process where the participants involved have an awareness for, and acceptance of, the core emotions they’re experiencing, as well as the ability to clearly and respectfully communicate those feelings to the other(s) involved. The focus isn’t on squashing your feelings or denying them – it’s about responding to your emotions consciously and with intention vs. reacting to them automatically.  Generative conflict also requires flexible thinking and an openness to hear the emotional experiences of the other, which means holding multiple perspectives simultaneously (e.g., yours and the other). The desire for mutual understanding and resolution, as well as the appreciation of complex feelings and perspectives, underlies this type of conflict.

Degenerative conflict, by contrast, is a process where understanding, awareness, and flexibility are undermined by the desire for one or both members to control the argument.  In this way, people are either mutually interested or invited into a power struggle to the psychological death!  The goal of mutual understanding and appreciation for the outcome of the conflict is obscured by the desire to “win the fight”.  This can look like one person “emotionally attacking” while the other “defends” their position, or it can look like both/all parties involved mutually attacking one another with insults, accusations, judgements, sarcasm, and harmful criticisms.  Degenerative conflict not only eliminates the possibility of evolving the relationship into something healthier, it also erodes trust, facilitates emotional injury, damages the emotional bond, and sets the stage for future degenerative conflict and tension.

Everyone deserves the right to be treated with respect, openness, and curiosity, even during times when anger is present. Although it can be difficult at times, we all have a responsibility to the people we’re in relationships with to take care of each other, and ourselves, even in the face of anger. And if anger gets the better of you – and sometimes it will – then the ability to own it and take responsibility for your own emotional reaction is imperative for conflict to remain generative. Making mistakes in an argument from time to time (e.g., criticizing, attacking, etc.) does not create degenerative conflict in and of itself.  Rather, it’s the lack of responsibility taken for the mistakes over time that will distinguish generative from degenerative conflict.

Below are some tips for staying generative during conflict:

  • Awareness: practice awareness of your feelings and be clear and specific about what is causing the tension or distress before engaging someone in a conversation about it. It’s also important to practice awareness of your emotions during the conflict. Pay attention to your feelings as things come up in the conversation. If you feel like you’re getting too heated, take a break to cool down until you feel like you’re able to return to a more generative conversation.
  • Self-care: If you’re feeling really angry with someone, wait to talk to them until you feel like you can be more flexible and open to what the other has to say; respond to your anger first, don’t react to it!
  • Decline the invitation to engage: If someone comes at you with a complaint and they’re acting hostile, aggressive, attacking, critical, or disrespectful, respectfully decline the invitation to engage with them until they feel more able to be generative. This can be done with kindness and compassion.  For example: “I’m feeling attacked, I can see you’re angry but it’s hard for me to have a conversation with you when I’m feeling attacked”. There will be times when you won’t be able to get that sentence out because the other person might be so heated that they will talk over top of you. In this case, just remove yourself from the situation and try to explain later why you had to go. Trying to discuss anything with anyone who is so worked up that they’re acting hostile, is like talking to someone who is intoxicated- you will not get anywhere productive.

When I reflect on the times that I’ve felt most anxious about bringing up a concern with someone or discussing tensions, it was when I believed that degenerative conflict would take place. Ultimately, you cannot control how others will respond when you raise concerns but you can decline the invitation to engage in ways that you know will be harmful to you and the relationship. In fact, showing people that you will not engage in degenerative conflict will not only help you feel empowered over which kinds of tension you allow in your life, it’s also likely to lessen the fears and anxieties that others have when they need to approach you about something awkward or tense.

Is the distinction between generative and degenerative conflict helpful to you?  Let us know how in the comments below!


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Avoiding the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy: How To Build Trust and Connection in Lesbian Relationships

Post Written By: Lisa Shouldice, Individual, Couple, and Family Psychotherapist

As a lesbian, as well as a Psychotherapist who works with both heterosexual and LGBT couples, I have found that issues of jealousy and possessiveness are frequent concerns reported by lesbian couples who come to see me for relationship counselling. Although, no two relationships – lesbian or otherwise! – are the same, for many reasons, both societal and physiological, lesbian couples often share with me their experience of feeling very deeply connected, very quickly. And while this deep bonding can lead to an intense, beautiful “honeymoon period”, these intense dynamics can also lead to an increased fear of loss and jealousy that, many lesbian couples say, plagues their relationships resulting in escalating fights and the erosion of healthy intimacy. This loss of intimacy can be especially difficult in lesbian relationships where partners tend not only to be lovers, but also friends who belong to the same social circles, which often means more time spent together.

Based on my experiences helping couples maintain healthy intimacy in their relationships, the following are some points to help lesbian couples, in particular, work through issues of jealousy and possessiveness (note: couples of all types may also find these points helpful for promoting emotional connectedness, so please take note if any tips resonate for you!):

  • Stay Connected Throughout the Day. Text, chat on lunch hours, and generally just touch base on what you’re up to.  It can help you feel connected and sends the message that you’re open, available, and have nothing to hide.
  • Be Open.  When it comes to communication, there is no reason to keep secrets and be vague.  While it may seem this mysteriousness is sexy, it does not lead to long-term health as a couple.
  • Show You Are Thinking About Her.  Bring a coffee home for her.  Forward a joke you saw on social media you think would make her laugh.  Small gestures to show her she’s on your mind can go a long way in creating/maintaining connection.
  • Maintain Strong Boundaries in Your Friendships.  Sharing a bed with a female friend when you are straight may feel like sisterhood, but when you are gay it can result in insecurity for your partner.  Discuss boundaries with your partner and make sure you respect them.
  • Communicate About Individual Needs. As in the point above, decide together when flirting is fun and when it is over the line.  Respect this line.  Be willing to share your needs, and be open to hearing your partner’s.  Be curious and clarify when you do not understand.
  • Trust Her Judgment. If she tells you she feels a colleague is hitting on you and not just being friendly, consider it as possible. Do not write it off as her “insecurities” and ignore her. Decide together how best to approach the situation.
  • Validate Her Sexuality. Flirt with her.  Kiss her and be affectionate.  She has to feel sexy and know you are attracted to her.

If these ideas are incorporated into your role as a lesbian partner, I truly feel you will have healthier, happier relationships with the connections you desire.

Lisa Shouldice is a colleague of New Roots Therapy.  She works as an individual, couple, and family psychotherapist in Toronto.  She specializes in working within the LGBT and multi-cultural communities.  She also works with trauma and all other mental health issues.  For more information on Lisa’s therapy practice, please visit www.lisashouldice.com or contact her at 416-953-6880.


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Improving Communication in Your Relationships

Written by: Corinne Carter, Relationship Therapist

Communication is a key element in all relationships; whether it’s the relationship you have with your partner/spouse, the relationship you have with your boss, or the relationship you have with your morning barista, communication matters!  And when communication breaks down, that’s usually when our relationships get into trouble.

We often work with clients who are looking to improve the communication in their relationships.  The process of improving communication is different for everyone and we like to spend time with our clients clarifying what exactly “better communication” means to them so that we can use strategies that best fit their unique situation in our work together.  That being said, there are some general ideas worth keeping in mind when it comes to enhancing communication in your relationships:

1)      You alone have the ability to change the patterns of communication in your relationships.  Communication is an exchange between people.  As such, when communication breaks down, it’s ideal if all people involved can participate in the repair process.  However, what is ideal is often not realistic; it’s both important and empowering to realize that you alone can influence the communication patterns in your relationships!  You don’t have to wait for your partner, mother, friend, etc. to change their approach in order for you to change yours.  You can interrupt negative patterns of communication all by yourself.  Communication is like a dance; if you change your moves, suddenly the whole thing looks different.  At first, it probably looks a bit sloppy while your partner gets used to your new moves but, over time, it’s likely you’ll find yourselves swaying seamlessly to a whole new groove.

2)      Set your intention(s) at the outset of a conversation.  Chances are your intention is to maintain or improve your relationship, rather than to have it deteriorate, especially if this is an important relationship to you!  It can be helpful to set your intention(s) from the get-go, as well as remind yourself of these throughout the conversation, particularly if you find yourself becoming emotionally escalated as the interaction unfolds.  For example, having something tangible that you can look at or hold onto to serve as an anchor for your intention (e.g., written notes on a piece of paper, a piece of jewellery such as a ring or bracelet, an age old ribbon on your finger, etc.) can help remind you of what you hope to accomplish, as well as how you hope to act/who you hope to be, during the conversation.  This is particularly useful if you feel yourself starting to veer off course (e.g., becoming frustrated, etc.) in a way that might actually go against your intention and become damaging to the relationship.

3)      Listen to understand, not to reply.  Oftentimes, people are more focused on what they are going to say next in a conversation than they are on what is being said in the moment!  This is quite often the case when one or both parties involved start to feel defensive.  Defensiveness limits our ability to understand and see the full picture; it limits our ability to be curious.  If you notice yourself becoming defensive during an interaction, use this as a cue to become more curious and ask some questions.  For example, try using clarifying statements, whereby you reflect back what you just heard and ask, “Am I understanding you correctly?”  Clarifying statements/questions might be phrased differently from one person to the next but, by nature, they are always non-judgmental and are focused on increasing understanding.  Additionally, validation is another way to increase understanding, as well as feelings of connection.  Sometimes, people are hesitant to use validation in their interactions because they mistake validating another’s feelings for validating their behaviourShowing empathy to your communication partner by validating their feelings doesn’t mean you necessarily approve of their behaviour; rather, it’s simply a way of saying, “Your feelings make sense”.  Everyone wants to be heard; everyone wants to be seen.  Validation says, “I hear you and I see you”, regardless of anything else.  Validation is about supporting the person, not the behaviour.

4)      Extend curiosity to yourself.  In addition to practicing curiosity with others, healthy communication requires you to be curious about yourself, as well.  It’s important to pay attention to your feelings during an exchange so that you can better understand what happens for you when communication begins to go awry.  If you start to feel angry, defensive, frustrated, etc., ask yourself some important questions: How am I feeling right now?  What was said or done just before I started feeling this way that might explain why I’m feeling ____?  Is there a history of me feeling this way in my relationships?  How would I prefer to respond in this moment and why?  Etc.  When you have a clear understanding of your own emotional reactions, you are better equipped to respond more effectively (i.e., more thoughtfully, more mindfully) in your interactions, instead of giving way to automatic reactions which have a tendency to send communication patterns spiralling downwards in no time at all.  Additionally, when you’re curious about your own feelings during interactions, you’re more likely to notice when you start to become upset and you can choose to take breaks as appropriate, and resume communication at a later time.  Taking breaks is important when you feel yourself approaching the “tipping point”; that is, the point where you begin acting in ways that are out of line with your intentions to preserve the relationship and, instead, become destructive.  Note:  it’s helpful to have an agreement with your communication partner ahead of time about taking breaks – e.g., when and how to take breaks, as well as when and how to resume the conversation.

5)      Share information about youOne of the best ways to do this is through the use of “I” statements.  “I” statements focus on sharing how an experience impacted you, rather than focusing on the other person’s actions.  “I” statements tend to be experienced as less threatening to our conversational partners.  They also encourage the speaker to take greater responsibility for their own experience, which can once again be very empowering!  Try using the following set of “I” statements the next time you’re faced with conflict in a relationship and want to interrupt a negative pattern of communication:

  1. I see… (name the incident, behaviour, etc. that was initially upsetting to you)
  2. I think… (say what you thought about yourself, your relationship, etc. as a result of the incident)
  3. I feel… (say what you felt about yourself, your relationship, etc. as a result of the incident)
  4. I wish… (say how you hope things might go differently next time)

Here’s an example of what this type of “I” statement might actually sound like in conversation:

“When I got home from work tonight and saw that you hadn’t made dinner like we had discussed [I see], I thought that my needs aren’t important in this relationship [I think] and I felt hurt and frustrated [I feel].  I hope next time, when we make an agreement about our household responsibilities, that you will let me know ahead of time if you aren’t able to follow through on your commitment so that we can figure out a solution in advance [I wish]”.

When using “I” statements, it can also be helpful to indicate your desire to work together with your communication partner towards making things better (e.g., “…so that we can figure out a solution in advance.”).  After you’ve expressed your concern(s) and the impact they had on you, saying something as simple as, “Can you help me with this?” or “Can we work on this together?” can be incredibly helpful for increasing feelings of connection and understanding, as well as communicating an openness to resolve conflict.

If you’d like help developing healthy communication skills and wish to speak with one of our therapists, please feel free to give us a call (905-665-8150), send us an e-mail (info@newrootstherapy.com), or visit our website for more information (www.newrootstherapy.com).