Listening, one of the Keys to a Good Relationship

One of the biggest issues I hear couples complain about is communication.  They often tell me they “just don’t know how to communicate” with each other.   I hear the desperation in their voices.  I know they each have been trying to get understanding from the other person for a long time and they just haven’t been successful.  Usually due to exasperation the couple comes in and informs me they just can’t communicate, and they are desperate to find help.

I know that when people categorize their issues with the word “communication”, there is likely a lot more going on then just the phrasing of words.  I know that what’s missing is a very vital part of communication and one of the most basic human needs; and that’s the need to be heard.

Often times when couples begin therapy they have no problem expressing their individual points of view to me.  What they have a hard time doing however, is getting their partner to actually listen to what they are saying.

When two people have been trying to get understanding from each other for a period of time without success, it’s possible they might become angry or resentful trying yet again one more time to make their point.  It’s usually after years of dismissing the importance of being heard that a couple might decide to try counseling as a “last ditch effort” to fix the relationship.

And that’s when I can begin to help.  It starts by giving the couple awareness.  No one signs up to be mean to their partner.  No one starts out being indifferent, resentful or angry toward their mate.  These stances come after trying over and over to get one’s point across and failing.  So the first phase of improving communication is helping each person learn how to listen.

But before anyone can develop the patience and understanding to be a good listener they must be HEARD, because that’s what has been missing in their relationship.  They have not felt heard or listened to.  That’s where my job begins and I provide it for each person; I listen, hear, understand, help if needed, I am available and present.  This provides a release to the person expressing, and it models for the partner how to do it.

After the exercise it’s not surprising to feel a lot of tension leave the room.  It’s so simple, and so important.  As humans we require some basics; to feel safe, to feel loved, and to feel like we matter.  When we listen to our partners, I mean really listen, we give them exactly what they need.

Be sure and watch Feel Better Live, our show about relationships, live on the web, Thursdays at 6:00PM.

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Make The Coffee For Someone You Love

I was making the coffee this morning for my mate and I thought about how I have been doing this for years.  I get up earlier then him and while making my tea I just make a pot of coffee for my husband.  It is a routine, and it’s nice.  I don’t do it because I want to earn his praise.  I do it because it feels good to know he will be pleased to pour himself a cup of fresh coffee the minute he walks into the kitchen.  In other words, I am doing an act of kindness for someone I love.

I guess there is some selfishness going on too, I get to know that he feels pleased with this routine and that makes me feel good.  It’s a small act of kindness that I am using to illustrate how it’s possible to bring a little joy into a relationship.  Most people I counsel as a Marriage and Family Therapist come in to the office to tell me why their relationship isn’t working.  I hear many difficult issues that keep couples apart.  I get how hard it is living with someone who does not understand you.  In fact I think this is the most difficult part of being in a relationship… not being understood.

So I know it’s hard to perform an act of kindness when you are feeling so hurt and isolated from your mate.  People just want to feel appreciated by their partner, in any relationship this is the hallmark.  I get that you may be disappointed.  I understand that you may have been mad at him or her for a long time.  I can see that feeling misunderstood by your partner has kept you feeling alone.  AND  having said all that I have a challenge for you.

Just because you love your partner, or maybe because you used to love him or her, for what ever reason, do a selfless act of love for them.  Do something that you think they will like.  Do something because you can, and do it not expecting anything in return, not even a thank you.  Do it because you care about your partner.  Do it because you want to give your mate something intangible, you want to give them the feeling of being thought of.

And that’s really what we all crave; Are we thought of? Do we matter to the other? Are we important?  We all want to feel special.  Do your part to help your partner feel that way.  Clean the bathroom.  Fix a meal.  Walk the dog.  Bring home dinner.  Go shopping for them.  You don’t need my help thinking of what you could do to make your partner smile.  Just do it.  Just do it because it would give them a good feeling.  That’s love.

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Top Five Relationship Killers and How to Avoid Them

Most people know what doesn’t work in a relationship. If you thought about it, you could probably come up with your own list and it might include; yelling, blaming, criticizing, and ignoring each other. I think we can all agree that any physical violence would definitely be a relationship killer too.

People know inside themselves what doesn’t work in a relationship. You can feel it. I think we all know whether our relationship is in a good place or not.

Relationship experts know there are certain behaviors that get in the way of good communication and trust.  These behaviors, over time, will corrode the quality and strength of the bond between two people.  Sometimes the thread between a couple has deteriorated over time and it’s just too hard to repair.

But for many relationships, repairing and strengthening is exactly what is needed.

So first, here are The Five Top Relationship Killers, according to John Gottman, PhD. The worst things you can do in a relationship are the following:

  1. Criticize – We all do it, and it hurts.  Just imagine what it feels like when someone criticizes you.  It feels terrible.  You might even feel bad, like you’ve done something wrong.  This is a top relationship killer.
  1. Contempt – If you’ve ever felt this you will not forget it.  It feels as if the one you love hates you.  If you have felt it toward your partner, they have felt your hate.  It hurts deeply.
  1. Defensiveness – It’s not uncommon to defend yourself against unkind words or accusations.  It’s something many of us do to protect ourselves.  But if we go immediately to a defensive posture every time we feel threatened there is little room for true communication.  The relationship loses.
  1. Stonewalling – Not communicating is a posture many of us find ourselves in also.  In this position we just don’t talk.  We keep our feelings stuffed inside ourselves and we don’t communicate them to our partner.  We just block them out and go about our business… alone.
  1. Blame – Sometimes when we accuse the other of something we might initially feel better, but blaming the other for things they did or did not do is a sure fire way of starting something even bigger between the two of you, and that may be really unpleasant.

If you are in a relationship chances are you may dip into the above positions.  That’s pretty normal.  If you live in them you probably are feeling pretty lousy about your relationship and could be helped by couples counseling.

For a quick guide to help couples get closer let’s explore the word “attune” which means “to bring into a harmonious or responsive relationship”.

Spelled out, here is your guide for closeness and understanding:


A = Become aware of what you are feeling, especially if it is negative – This means you just look at what’s happening to you, that’s all, just get an idea of what you bring to the table.

T= Turn toward you partner, even if you are angry, don’t turn away and go upstairs and slam the door.  Even when you are feeling your worst, turn toward you partner, don’t shut him or her out.

T= Remember to be Tolerant; there are at least two different opinions here, yours and your partner’s.  Each of you is right. Take a step back to realize that both of you are here, not just you.

U= Understand where you partner is coming from.  This part is hard if you are still wanting to get some relief from your partner because you got your feelings hurt or something, but it’s important to understand that each of you come from some place different and they are both valid.

N= Non-reactive responding.  Don’t get upset when you talk.  This is a hard one too because if you are still angry you may not be able to be calm and understanding and be able to listen without reacting.  But if you can do it you are on your way to healing and connection.

E= Empathy, feeling your partners pain and other feelings.  This is a wonderful place for a couple to be in.  This is where you feel safe and you can say anything because you know your partner will listen and love you no matter what.  This is the place where you feel accepted.  When couples can get here, they pretty much can figure out the rest.

To improve our relationships, like anything else in life, it takes practice. It’s O.K. to try something new, especially when you realize the two of you could become happier.

Let me know what you think.  Send me your comments.  Let’s talk about it.

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What To Do When It Feels Like Things Are Broken

 Sometimes when people call to find out about couples counseling I can hear panic in their voice.  I can sense a feeling of worry and fear.  Something is broken and the person on the phone doesn’t know how to fix it and that’s why they are calling.

This is a terrible place to find yourself, not knowing if you can make it in your relationship, wondering if it’s broken, and daring to hope it can ever be better.  All this is pressing on the individual who is making the call.  It’s a helpless kind of feeling.  As if all the things the person knew doesn’t amount to anything and they have to do something absolutely radically different to survive the current difficulty.

It’s a scary call to even consider.  It’s an even harder call to make.  And yet hundreds of people make these calls to therapists and counselors every day.  They call because they are looking for help.  Often they call because they fear everything they know will go away and they have one last effort to make before that happens.

What ever the reason, it’s always a good sign.  People turn to others when what they know doesn’t work anymore.  It’s O.K. to do this when our car breaks down, or if we need a medical check up and to get our taxes done.  But when it comes to our relationships we are not taught to turn to outsiders to help get the relationships back on track. We are taught to take care of it ourselves.  Maybe we are from the thinking that it’s not that bad, it could always be worse or, it will get better, eventually.

Most people feel their relationship is their business, not the business of an outsider, even a therapist.  I get this.  I understand this.  It’s so hard to uncover all the parts that have been hidden from us, from our partner and lay them out in front of a stranger.  I know.  I also know it works.  The process works.  People get a chance, maybe for the first time in their lives to tell their entire story without someone telling them their vision is off or wrong. 

That’s the beauty of counseling.  It comes without judgment.  Therapists are trained to help you say what will be helpful to you, understand what it is you feel and help you ask for what you need to be happy.

It’s so scary to move into this when you have relied on yourself or your partner for everything else.  It’s so hard to even think that someone who doesn’t know you can actually help you make your life and relationship better. 

And that’s exactly our training.  That’s what therapists and counselors do. We help people feel better.  It’s what I do and I love it.

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