Couples counseling

Pokes, Prods and Provocations in Relationships

Pokes, Prods and Provocations in Relationships

All relationships have helpful, and harmful patterns. Some patterns are obvious and others are more subtle. When they turn to provocations they can become toxic. Here is an example of how a therapist can help couples realize their toxic behavior.

An Emotional Family Tree

I like to make emotions, thoughts, and feelings tangible for my clients.  One of the ways I do this is by creating a genogram.  Think of a family tree but with emotions, events and patterns instead of pictures.  A good genogram provides a rich history of family nuances.  They help explain how patterns and problems evolve and why they are often repeated through the generations.  

During couples counseling, we talk about the merging of 2 cultures.  That’s true if you are from the same small town or from different countries.  Every person grows up in their own unique culture that often clashes with how their partner grew up.  If you grew up in a small southern town, you might be a polite person who is sensitive to social norms.  If you grew up in a fiery tempered Italian family, you might have a loud arguing family who lets the tempers flare and then regroups immediately with no ill will. Pairing people from these different worlds often causes some relationship issues.  But when we are able to map out the family structure on both sides, it becomes clear to both partners why the other acts like they do.  We get clarity but also understanding and acceptance.

The genogram has a myriad of different uses.  Monica McGoldrick, in her book Genogrmas: Assessment and Intervention, notes the many uses genograms serve:

-to elicit family narratives and expand cultural stories


-to reframe and detoxify family legacies

-to discover unique strengths and resources

-to look at key family or personal events that were life changing

-to sensitize clinicians to systemic issues

-to uncover sources of current dysfunction

-to find sources of resilience

-to place the current issue in the context of the family evolutionary patterns

The list really goes on and on.  The genogram shows patterns vertically and horizontally.  They expand your mind to see multiple patterns at the same time and how they impact one another.  Family patterns not only grow from past generations, but, according to Goldrick, via larger social structures like religion, politics, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, schooling, etc.

Genograms are fascinating.  They are colorful and have lines and symbols drawn all over them to depict emotions and events.  I once made a genogram in one of my drawing programs for a couple I was counseling.  It turned out to be about 5 feet wide and 2 feet high.  We went back multiple generations.  They wanted to stop the generational abuse from showing up in their children’s lives.  When we put it all out on paper, they were amazed.  After about 6 months of working together, they moved away from all those negative habits.  

If you have a complicated relationship or situation, examining your family through a genogram might shed a ton of light on the issue and help you solve it faster.  We keep gigantic sticky notes in the office and lots of colored pens to make the genogram a fun and enlightening experience.  Please call us today so we can map out your history!



Advice From Mark Twain

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that. But the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” - Mark Twain

You know these “small people”, they are competitive, jealous and live in a world of scarcity.  They are combative and often think they are the best, they know more or that their ideas or the only way.  Do you have somebody like this in your life or maybe several?  If they are friends, let them go.  If they are family, learn to set up some hardcore boundaries.  

Surround yourself with people who have your back, people who cheer you on and those who will give you a little tough love when you need it.  Drop the ones who fail you.  It’s like a load off your back.

If you happen to be in a romantic relationship like this, we can help you.  It might just be that your partner isn’t realizing the amount of damage being done.  I have worked with many couples where this is the case.  They think they are encouraging you to be a better person when you are happy just the way you are.  You partner needs to realize that they in fact are not lifting you up, they are stifling you and feeding your insecurities.  Let us help you deliver the message in a very clear way that your partner can hear and not take offense. Reach out to us today and start rebuilding your relationship.



How to Tell Your Partner You Want Couples Counseling

Telling your spouse or partner you want to go to couples counseling can be really tricky for some people. In fact, I often get calls from people asking this very question. They know they need help but aren’t sure how to approach their partner and they aren’t sure what to say.  Here are my suggestions.


First, make it about you. Do not make it about them. Try something like this: “I am having trouble communicating with you and think I need some help in figuring this out. I think it would be great if we both went together. We could get a few tips and some new skills. What do you think?” Or:  “I would love to learn how to approach you in a new way so that maybe you can hear me better. And sometimes I don’t do a good job of hearing or listening to you either.  Would you be willing to go to couples counseling with me?” Or: “Honey, we know we are both really struggling right now, we have the same fights over and over. I think this is at least a 50 / 50 thing between us and I think we could use a little help here. I don’t think either one of us is to blame. How would you feel about some couples therapy to get us both back on track?”

If you make it about the other person, you are assigning blame. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. Plus, the research shows that when couples are in conflict, it is almost always a 50 / 50 deal where no one person is more at fault.  

What’s best is if you can pinpoint the things you want to work on personally and name them.  Perhaps you want to figure out how to be more flexible, a bit more forgiving, not running away when things get tough, learning how to control your temper, not lashing out when the dish is left in the sink (it’s never about the dish anyway).

Another option is letting your partner know that you sense this pattern that gets played out over and over again and you want to figure out how to jump out of it before it takes over again.  Think of the pattern as a weapon that is wounding each of you.  We can lay the weapon on the table and disarm both of you.  When we know what we are dealing with (the weapon, the pattern), we can then tease it apart and put you both back on the path to success so that you can thrive in your relationship.  

Ready to start working on your relationship? Call us today so we can help you and your partner get back to where you want to be.


Pre-Engagement Counseling

I know this seems counterintuitive, yet it is true.  The majority of couples come to counseling when? When there is a pretty major rift already in place and both parties have dug their heels in deep. I help couples in distress on a daily basis. They get new communications tools to put into practice and begin to climb out of the hole they have fallen into.


This month, I have several new couples seeking pre-engagement counseling. All the couples are in a good place and want to know how they can stay that way for the long haul. Several come from divorced families and they want to avoid that outcome at all costs.  

So what are we doing in therapy if they are in a good spot? With a little digging we uncover a lot.  Couples are typically very good at ignoring or putting up with bad habits in the beginning, but as time goes on, the habits become pain points for both partners. For example, one of the partners is not good at speaking up for herself. He on the other hand tends to make plans which are great but isn’t great at asking for her opinion. This will be fine and dandy until a few years down the road when her resentment is peaking because she kept quiet and he has no clue about the distaste simmering just beneath the surface. The resentment will show itself in other ways that most likely won’t make sense to him. She might finally explode and he will be baffled because he thought he was doing a great job planning fun trips.  

Guess who is the culprit in this ordeal? Both of them. He never asked or inquired about her perspective and she never voiced her unhappiness. Get curious, check in with each other, do not hold your feelings in and stand up for yourself.  

In pre-engagement counseling we unearth the stuff you don’t realize is a potential disaster down the road. We also discuss how to have a productive argument, what triggers certain personality types and how to avoid this, how to take total responsibility for yourself and how to keep your personal power.

Don’t become one of the statistics and go through a painful breakup or divorce. Let us help you get all the tools and relationship advice before you think you even need it. Check out our pre-marital couples counseling or couples counseling and make an appointment today! 


....You Might Be Codependent

In couples therapy, I often encounter codependent relationship dynamics. A person may arrive at codependency for a variety of reasons and from a variety of circumstances, but here's a list to help reader's awareness and curiosity. Being a goofy comedy nerd, I wrote it in the style of Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck" bit.

If you grew up in a house that was chaotic (addiction, abuse, contentious divorce, trauma) might be codependent.

If you grew up with at least one family member who demanded a lot of attention (either narcissism, special needs, highly emotional) might be codependent.

If you were parentified as a child (caretaker or given too much developmentally inappropriate information) might be codependent.               

If your reality either wasn't talked about or was invalidated (ie. There was addiction that wasn't discussed. You were told that you were too sensitive when you expressed emotion, you were straight up told not to feel something) might be codependent.   

If you relate to any of these, we are here to help. Call or email today.

"We don’t have anything in common anymore" PART TWO: Tell better stories!!

I listen to podcasts. A lot. Excessively.

I’ve listened to ones by comedians and ones about serial murderers. Ive listen to shows about athletes and shows about gamers. Ive listened to ones about rappers and one's about farmers. You get it.

So what makes those random podcasts interesting to me? It’s not that I relate to the day to day comings and goings of a rap star or farm hand. It’s not that I've actually played a first person shooter video game or done a triathlon. It’s that these podcasts tell good stories.

I say this because many people get trapped in this notion that "our relationship suffers because we have nothing in common." Some are trapped because they are not listening to the other person to see the human experiences of success, pain, and emotion in a story (see my last blog on listening). Others are trapped because they don't tell good stories.

From my years working with individuals and couples and from my voracious consumption of comedy, podcasts, movies, books, etc, I offer a few tips to connect better by telling better stories:

  1. Show up. If you want to tell a good story, show up. Don't be talking while watching t.v. or checking Facebook or looking for who else is at the party that you can talk to. If you want others to be present and engaged listeners, be a present and engaged talker.
  2. Know your audience and try to connect with them. Try and speak their language and use examples they might relate to as a way to illustrate your point. People generally like to feel like you're talking spontaneously to them and not doing the same canned monologue that you've been telling at every water cooler for the past year. They also probably don't like feeling lost or left behind when you only speak in jargon without humbly offering to educate them. When people feel seen as a unique listener and that you are invested in helping them follow your story, they are often more open to listening.
  3. Check for understanding. Its cool to geek out on details and minutia. But if you're going to take a deep dive into a topic, make sure your conversation partner is keeping up. Ask "does that make sense?", "Did I lose you?", "Do you know what I mean?", "You picking up what I'm throwing down?"...well maybe not the last one. And don't shame or belittle your listener if they don't get it.  They could have bull-shitted you but they cared enough to be honest and learn, so honor that.
  4. Include a liberal amount of commentary and behind the scenes footage. People may not connect to how you're using a new code to work on the financial concerns of middle age men in Nebraska, but they may be interested in how you felt as you struggled to figure it out or the relief of completing it on time. Insights into the human experience behind the story, help connect. Authenticity is attractive in a speaker, so practice letting your guard down and speak from your heart.

Happy storytelling!!

The Anatomy of an Argument: Step 5 - Offer Assurance with Flexibility

In Step 2 of Anatomy of an Argument, we look at avoiding a judgmental attitude when fighting with your partner. Step 2 is integral to Step 5 - offering assurance.

When you offer up assurance, the goal is to communicate to your partner that you are doing your best to keep an open mind.  For lots of folks out there, this is insanely difficult because they think their way is just fine, no problem.  The other person feels strongly about their position.  You each have to figure out how to come to terms with the other’s place when neither of you are wrong but you still have a hard time tolerating the other’s perspective.

For example, my husband and I are polar opposites when it comes to privacy vs sharing on certain issues.   I like to get counsel from friends and colleagues, he’s not into me doing this.  He actually has a brilliant mind.  But to my dissatisfaction, his mind instantly jumps to all the potential risks involved.   I don’t mind risk, he craves certainty.  This is an ongoing struggle.  We typically come out of these arguments ok and with a better understanding of the other person and usually with a lot of sympathy going back and forth between us.  But man it’s like clawing my way out of a hole sometimes.  

When all's said and done and I have regained my emotional balance, I actually do see his point of view.  I don’t like it, I don’t think like he does, but I accept that this is the way he is / has always been / most likely won’t ever change.  Neither will I.  Our task is to continually strive to let the other person just be and to learn to cope with our differences in more meaningful ways.  It’s a never ending journey.  Make it count.

The Anatomy of an Argument: Step 4 - Finding the Underlying Needs, Values and Worries

When we are arguing with a spouse, in the heat of the moment it’s so hard to do anything but concentrate on OUR needs and the outcome WE want.  That needs to change ASAP.  In step three of the Anatomy of an Argument series, we learn to identify the underlying needs, values and worries of our mate.

When we assume that our partner’s reasons for wanting something a certain way are stupid or make no sense, we aren’t making room in the argument for the possibility that they actually have valid concerns or worries.  If your partner’s reasons aren’t making any logical sense to you, take a step back and get curious, ask questions.  Ask if there is a fear that they haven’t disclosed.  Ask if there is an influence behind their argument that is steering them in one direction. 

You also need to get clear on your underlying needs, values and worries.   Don’t just put up a fight because you think you are more right or that your way is best.  Remember that most often you two just have a difference in opinion.  If you two can come together to discover each other’s needs, you will be solidly more empathic towards one another.  

A few years ago my husband and I got into an argument because I said something to his mother that he asked me not to.  It was a complete accident, I forgot that he had made that request (which at the time I thought was so stupid!!!)  So by the end of the argument, he was finally able to explain to me that I had actually shamed him.  EWWWW, that felt terrible to me.  The clearer you can be from the get-go, the better.  

When you find yourself in a fight with your partner, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and start digging around.  You will be far more productive if you can help each other figure out the underlying needs, values and worries.  I would love to hear if any of you can conjure up some stories from your own life where you didn’t do this.  What happened and what do you wish you had done differently?  Please share!