Life, Love, & Everything In Between

Texting: The De-Evolution of Human Communication

With many of the couples that I work with, one of the primary themes is miscommunication. Couples will often come to therapy for that very purpose: to learn how to better communicate. And while I definitely have some higher-level tricks up my sleeve to deal with conflict, decision making, and parenting (among other things) there is one very basic rule that I often ask couples to start using: stop having important conversations via text. In fact, stop using texting to do anything more than the simplest of things: last minute grocery items, checking in during the day, the occasional dirty text to keep the flame alive- you get my drift.

So many of the essential pieces of human communication are completely lost in text. Tone, intonation, emphasis, and often little mistakes (like grammar or punctuation errors) can change the entire message behind a text. For example, you could interpret the following sentence seven different ways depending on which word you emphasize:

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I don’t know about your phone, but as smart as my phone is, it still can’t underline, italicize or embolden my texts, and if it could… well, that sounds like a lot of work, and still misses the point. If one brief sentence can be interpreted seven different ways, imagine how much room for misinterpretation there is in all of the texts we send each other on a daily basis. Many of the arguments I hear couples get into involve at least one or more misinterpreted text messages. This goes back to a topic I’ve discussed in my earlier blogs: assumption and ascribing intention. If you shouldn’t make assumptions about your partner’s feelings or intentions from what they say verbally, then you absolutely should not be doing it with what they say in text.

I’m guessing that each of us can probably think of at least one (or many) time(s) when something that we have said in text has been taken completely differently from how we intended it, and we had no idea how that happened. And I bet that at least a few times, that’s led to an argument- probably not about the thing we were actually texting about, but about our “attitude” or “tone.” Some of my more high-conflict couples will actually whip out their phones in session to prove to their partner (or to me, but this is rather irrelevant and will result in me redirecting the conversation) what was said. When it’s in text, all bets are off; you don’t get to win an argument based on your assumption of what was meant in a text message that to anyone else in the world might look completely benign.

I understand that texting is a convenient and quick way to communicate with one another, but we live in a society where texting has replaced the art of verbal human conversation, and that’s a problem, especially in long-term relationships where there are more important things going on that deserve more time and energy than texting. Take the time to have those important conversations in person. Agree as a couple what issues should never be discussed via text, and if you’re in a particularly rocky place in your relationship, maybe take texting off the table altogether for a while. Focus on rebuilding communication through genuine human connection, rather than technology.

And no, just because you use emojis doesn’t mean you are conveying your message effectively 🙂

Religion in Therapy

I had a conversation with my father the other day where he asked me about alternatives to therapy for those who would prefer a more religious route. This question confused me, as I don’t believe that religion and therapy are mutually exclusive, any more than I believe that one is necessary for the other.

As a former practicing Catholic, I understand the desire to engage in a faith-based approach to healing; faith is often what keeps a person grounded and gives them hope for better things and that they serve a great purpose and/or entity. Many therapists practice faith-based therapy, and intertwine their personal religious beliefs into their work with clients. Many clients seek out therapists whose religious beliefs and/or practice coincide with their own. When the clinician and the client are on the same page, it works. When they are not, it doesn’t go so well.

I have had many clients over the years tell me that they’ve had therapists in the past who have tried to push a religious approach when it was not welcome. My stance as a therapist when it comes to things like this is based in the teaching of Carl Rogers. He said that there are three attributes needed to form a healthy therapeutic alliance. The first is congruence, which necessitates that the therapist be authentic with their clients by letting them see that although they are an expert in their field, they are human and have struggled, too. This facilitates the second, which is accurate empathy, or the ability to sense and understand the client’s world and their experiences in it, while refraining from judgement. That lack of judgment leads to the third principle, which is unconditional positive regard. It is not the therapist’s job to approve or disapprove of the client or their choices, and by expressing unconditional positive regard, the therapist expresses a complete lack of judgement and creates an environment of acceptance.

In my experience, those who advocate religion to others sometimes do so because they feel that religion will provide some moral compass that they believe the other person lacks, which is based in judgment. That’s not the only reason, but even when that’s not the intention, it is often the received message. But that’s not our role as therapists. If you are not interested in faith-based therapy, most therapists (whether they specialize in faith-based counseling or not) will do one of two things: proceed with the type of therapy best suited to your needs or refer you to someone who can. Same goes if you’re looking for faith-based therapy.

My personal practice in regards to religion in therapy is this: I don’t bring up religion until my client does. I don’t advocate my personal views to the client. If they express that they believe something particular, I ask about it. If it is a religion I’m unfamiliar with, I learn about it. Even if it is one I feel well-versed in, I do my best to learn from my client what their beliefs are and work within those. Often, religion never comes up at all. And although I personally do not currently ascribe to any particular religion, I govern my life and my practice by this simple rule: let he among us without sin be the first to condemn.

Common Mistakes Couples Make

As human beings, we engage in patterns. No two humans’ patterns are exactly alike, but there is a great deal of overlap and many similarities to be found, particularly in relationships. What I’ve found through much of my couples’ work is that often we perpetuate patterns that are more hurtful to our relationships than they are helpful, and many of those hurtful patterns are not exclusive to any one couple. Here are some common mistakes I see couples make, along with some helpful tips:

  1. You think the goal is to win. I hate to break it to you, but you don’t get to win anymore. I tell couples that all the time: if you’re “winning” that means the person you love the most is “losing.” How exactly is that productive? I like to use my co-worker Danny Adam’s analogy for this: you’re not on opposing teams, you’re on the same team. You may have two different strategies for how to win the game, but you’re trying to win TOGETHER from the same side.
  2. You aren’t touching each other enough. If you’re having constant or reoccurring conflict, I guarantee you’re not touching each other anywhere near as much as you should. Touch is something that we need as infants and children in order to feel soothed and safe; that doesn’t go away in adulthood. We need the touch of those we love to feel connected, and touch facilitates the production of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Hold hands more, kiss more, hug more, sit closer together on the couch, cuddle before you fall asleep. The conflict won’t necessarily go away, but it’s a lot harder to be mean to someone by whom you feel soothed.
  3. You think your perception is the ONLY perception. Have you ever had the experience with your partner where you feel like you each remember something that happened completely differently? That’s because it you experienced it differently. Each partner filters the things that happen during a disagreement through different emotions, body sensations, timing, etc. Of course your recollections won’t be the same. But don’t get caught up in the details. It isn’t important if you were 15 minutes late or 30, or if it happened two weeks ago or three. Each person has their own version of events, and both are valid because they remember that event through their own filters. Focus on the solution, don’t get caught up in the minor details of the problem.
  4. You think your partner hates/doesn’t want you because they say mean things during conflict. Sometimes, we hurt those we love to see if the hurtful things that we say and do will actually cause damage, because if those things do cause damage, that means the other person still wants and loves us and that is somehow reassuring. Human beings aren’t perfect by any means; put us in a relationship, and we’re that much more likely to be seriously flawed. Of course the mean things we say to each other hurt, they’re usually meant to. Trying to see your partner as hurt and scared rather than hateful can change the way you respond to one another.

Polyamory 101

If you would have told me when I was in graduate school that I was going to wind up working with polyamorous relationships as a specialty, I would have laughed in disbelief. I didn’t know much about polyamory back then, or even until the last year or two. They don’t exactly teach you in graduate school how to work with polyamory. I learned how to work with these clients in two ways: the first was trial by fire. They showed up on my couch and needed help. I don’t turn anyone away simply because their relationship structure differs from the societally programmed structure to which I was taught to apply my graduate school knowledge. For the most part, the same rules, tools, and theories apply. When they don’t, that’s when the second way of learning comes in: I let my clients teach me. They gave me books to read, websites to peruse, articles to research, etc. They were more than willing to answer my questions. They appreciated having a therapist who was not judgmental about their lifestyle, willing to admit that she didn’t know much about it, but eager to learn and ask questions in order to better help them.

Polyamory is defined as the “non-possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously” (Franklin Veaux).  For those of us who have only ever really been exposed to monogamy, this can sound foreign, complicated and exotic. And it is certainly not for the faint of heart. Polyamory is based in the idea of compersion, which is defined as “the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that your beloveds are expressing their love for one another” (Franklin Veaux). As a couples’ counselor, I see it like this: in order to achieve true compersion, you have to be capable of a level of emotional maturity that many human beings have never achieved. I wouldn’t call that a fault; I would call it a preference. Franklin Veaux, co-author of “More than Two” and a well-known polyamory expert says that “Polyamory doesn’t mean an inability to commit. We are often taught to view commitment through the lens of sexual exclusivity, but a more nuanced view of commitment to building lasting relationships that meet the needs of the people involved. If those needs don’t include monogamy, then commitment doesn’t have to be tied to exclusivity.” In order to do this, one has to let go of possessiveness, ownership, and for the most part jealousy. There can be no double standards, honesty is key, and transparency is a must. Some experts would say rules and boundaries are absolutely necessary, others would say not at all. I say each relationship is different, and you have to decide what’s right for you and your partner, often through trial and error. Seeking counseling to help you navigate that path is never a bad idea; I’ve helped several couples who decided to give polyamory a try and needed help figuring out what that looked like for them, and it’s never the same for any two couples. There is no shame in exploring something new, as long as it is mutually consensual and it enhances your relationship.

Things to Talk About Before Marriage

Marriage is such an exciting time in a couples’ life. There are so many decisions and plans to be made that often couples completely bypass some of the more important conversations that should be had before they decide to dedicate their lives to one another. I’m not talking about where they will live or with whose family they will spend the holidays. I’m talking about the stuff that has a serious impact on the rest of a couples’ life together.

For starters, do you both want children? If yes, great. If no, great. As long as you’re agreed. If you’re undecided, that’s fine too, as long as you’re both open to the other person’s influence. If, however, one of you is firmly opposed to having children, and the other has dreamed of having children their whole life, this is a core issue that must be resolved prior to engaging in a lifelong commitment. If you stay together, one of you will wind up giving up something that matters to them. It is entirely possible that either way, the person who relented will grow accustomed to the situation and be perfectly fine, even happy. It’s equally likely that they will instead become resentful, and harbor that resentment until it grows into contempt. If you make the decision to give up something that is important to you, or to take on something you never wanted, make sure you thoroughly understand your motives and that you are not engaging in quid pro quo (agreeing to do something for them in return for them doing something for you- this is also unhealthy.) How you will raise children is a big topic too, but that in itself is a whole blog.

Finances are another major topic. I worked in finance for five years before transitioning to therapy full-time, and I saw plenty of couples both in that job and this one who struggled with the language of money. Some people are great with money, some aren’t. Most couples are comprised of one of each type of person. Money is a tough subject, but it is something that must be discussed in any successful relationship. One of the keys to successful relationships is delegation. When combined with another one of the keys, communication, delegation of responsibilities within a couple based upon the individual strengths of each partner contributes to the success of that couple. Talk about money openly and admit when one of you is more responsible with it than the other. Do this before you’re married, not after. Establish good habits and patterns early and they will serve you well.

I think one of the reasons that society balks at people who get married so soon after meeting is that it is hard to believe that people who literally just met could have possibly had all of the important conversations that need to be had prior to legally binding themselves to one another. Maybe they have a point. On the other hand, I’ve seen couples who were together for years before they got married who still didn’t have those conversations, and couples who were together for mere weeks before they got married who did. I think it’s more about quality than quantity. You can spend years with someone and barely say a word that means anything at all, or days with someone and say thousands of words that mean the world. Moral of the story: make what you do say count.

 

 

 

Depression or Sadness?

At least a few times a week, I have clients who sit down on my couch and immediately say, “I’m soooooo depressed.” My first question is usually, “Why are you depressed?” My general rule is that if you can tell me specifically why you’re depressed, it isn’t depression. It’s sadness. Sadness is a normal emotion to have when something bad has happened. Your dog dies, your best friend moves away, you break up with your partner: these are events that cause sadness, and yes, if the feelings persist for a long time, it may develop into depression. But the difference is this: sadness is an effect, caused by an event. Depression doesn’t necessarily have a causing event; it can come out of nowhere and completely disable the person suffering from it. Sadness is an emotion; depression is a state of being.

Trying to describe depression to someone who hasn’t suffered from it is like trying to explain color to someone who has always been blind. How do you describe the color green if you can’t reference trees, grass, nature, your best friend’s eyes, etc.? You can’t. They have no reference point. For those who live with depression, explaining what it’s like to someone who has never felt it is impossible. But I’m going to try.

Imagine everything in your body hurts, like when you have the flu, but the pain isn’t physical, it’s psychological- but no less real. There is no medication that you can take to make the symptoms even the slightest bit less intense. You can’t predict when it will hit or for how long it will persist  and doing the simplest of tasks feels impossible. Imagine that in addition to the pain and discomfort you feel, your brain is telling you that it will never get better, that it will always be this way. It may even tell you that life isn’t worth living, that you should just end things now because that is the only release from this hell that is now your life. It could also tell you that you deserve this for one or countless wrongs you have done others in your life, and this incredible pain is your punishment for those wrongs.

I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there. Most therapists don’t admit their own struggles to their clients, but I’m going to let you in on a secret: the best therapists have had mental health issues, faced them, and speak from experience. We as therapists are no better than you, no smarter than you, and we’re certainly no less human than you.  Acknowledging and embracing that makes us better at what we do and makes it easier for our clients to trust us. We’ve learned how to conquer these things and when we can admit to our clients that we’ve suffered from them we can also share how we got past them- and that’s the whole point. If we can get past them, so can you. There is no cure for depression, but there are definitely ways of easing the pain and learning to function in spite of it.

 

The Rainbow Child: My Coming Out Story

I started volunteering at The Center when I was in my undergraduate program at UCF. I frequented local LGBTQ+ bars and clubs even before I had really come out. One of my first “real” dates with a girl was at Pulse. It was the first time I had ever danced at a club with another woman and not felt ogled and sexualized by straight men for just having fun. It was the first time I ever really felt safe as a bisexual woman in public, that night, years ago, dancing at Pulse.

I came out in stages, first to people I dated, then to friends, then slowly to some co-workers. But not to family. I love my family. They’re wonderful. But for the most part, they are much more conservative than I am, and while I have never really heard them say anything against the LGBTQ+ community, I was scared. My family is very close, my aunt and uncle are more like my second parents and my cousins are more like my siblings. The thought that I could lose them because of my sexuality, or that they would think less of me because of it terrified me, and I couldn’t handle it. So when I dated men, I brought them home and introduced them. When I dated women, I didn’t bring them home at all, or I introduced them as friends. Then I married a man, a wonderful man who knows and understands and supports me and is an advocate and an ally, and that was that.

When I started working for Two Spirit Health Services, Inc., no one in my family was really surprised; I had always been outspoken about my advocacy in the LGBTQ community and my work in the HIV+ community. They didn’t totally understand why my passion was so fierce in those areas, but they respected it and supported me. And then the Pulse massacre happened.

Never have I felt more ashamed of hiding my sexuality than I did that day. I never lied about it, but there were times that I didn’t correct people when they assumed I was straight, or when my mom referred to me as a “straight ally” that I let her. How could I sit in my office and encourage people to be themselves, not to hide, not to live in fear while doing that myself? I felt like a hypocrite. That day, when members of my community lost their lives or were horrifically injured because of that hateful act, I just couldn’t do it anymore. My mom had been texting me to check on me to see if I was okay because she knows how much this community matters to me, and to see if there was any way she could help. I just did it. I came out. She was wonderful, supportive and loving and it changed nothing; if anything, our relationship is better. I then came out on Facebook. Most people knew, but there were some who didn’t and the support was overwhelming. On Father’s Day, I came out to the rest of my family. Again, no one was really surprised and there were lots of hugs and affirmations, not a word of disgust or discontent.

The other night, I was talking with my mom and she referred to me as her “rainbow child.” I laughed, and she said she was serious. She said that the rainbow that had appeared over Lake Eola the night of the vigil one week after the shootings looked exactly like the one that had appeared over Orlando the day that I was born, and that she didn’t think that was a coincidence. She even told me to go look in my baby book, that she had written about that rainbow. She was right: there it was, a letter written more than thirty years ago by my mother, “The Lord gave me rainbows while we were waiting for you.”

Maybe I was always meant to do this. Maybe that rainbow was an announcement of some sort. Or maybe it was just a random rainbow in a city where it rains a lot. I don’t know, but that’s okay. Knowing that I serve a greater purpose, that I serve a community as united, strong and beautiful as ours warms my heart and gives me the strength I need to support those who need it through the days that have passed, and the days to come.

Trust in Relationships

As a couples’ counselor, trust is a topic that comes up daily in my world. Often, the subject of trust is brought up in response to a betrayal in the current relationship, and sometimes it’s an unresolved issue left over from a previous relationship. Regardless, trusting one’s partner is imperative to a healthy relationship.

When you’re in an intimate relationship with someone, in order for love to grow, trust has to grow as well. The trust that you have in the beginning of a relationship is different from the trust that you have after ten or twenty years. The relationship evolves and grows and so does the trust. In the beginning, trust is a choice: you choose to trust the other person because you want to build something with them. They haven’t done anything to show you that your trust is misplaced. But no one is perfect and it is inevitable that at some point, someone will do something that causes their partner to feel betrayed in some way. Sometimes it’s small betrayals over time, like a partner who often says they are going to do things but doesn’t follow through. Others, it’s one big event, like infidelity, that calls everything you believed to be true about your relationship into question. How can you possibly trust someone who has gone back on their word to such an extent?

Couples come to therapy because the efforts they’ve made to rebuild trust aren’t working, and they need help getting back on track. Zack Brittle, LMHC and Certified Gottman Therapist says that it’s very difficult to establish trust on a conditional basis. The best example of this that I can give you is one that I’ve seen over and over again: there is an affair. The betrayed partner chooses to forgive the other partner, but only on the condition that the partner who cheated makes their phone, email and social networking available to the betrayed partner for monitoring for the foreseeable future. Trust cannot possibly thrive in these circumstances.

The answer to how to rebuild trust is simple: you do it all day every day in every action that promotes connection and understanding in your relationship. According to John Gottman, trust is built in small incremental moments over time. It really boils down to whether or not you believe your partner is there for you, and vice versa. Choosing to give them your attention when it’s clear they need it, acting in the best interest of your partner rather than choosing self-interest, putting their bad day ahead of your own, etc. Gottman calls this “turning toward,” and says that trust is an action, not an idea or belief. We trust our partners because of what they do, not what they say, thus enforcing the idea, “Actions speak louder than words.” When you sacrifice your wants or needs to focus on theirs, you promote trust and they in turn can do the same.

Ascribing Intention: Assumption’s Ugly Cousin

Last month, I discussed the dangers of assumption. This month, I want to take it a step further. Assumption’s ugly cousin is ascribing intention, or taking something someone says and infusing meaning into it based on your perception of what they’re saying instead of what is actually coming out of their mouth. Perception is colored by a lot of things: your mood, the other person’s tone of voice, your personal opinions and views on the subject at hand, and personal insecurities. Any of these things can affect how you hear what someone else says, so when you find yourself assigning a specific negative intention to what someone is saying, the best course of action is to ask, rather than assume. By asking, you’re giving them the opportunity to explain their thought process and clue you in to what’s going on with them, which can help you to understand where their perspective. You’re also preventing unnecessary conflict and negative emotion, which are the natural byproducts of assumption and ascribing intention. In the event that you can’t ask them, then ask yourself this question- why are you automatically going to the worst possible scenario? That indicates that there may be a deeper issue, that your internal radar for other peoples’ intentions towards you is automatically set to “negative,” and you may need to consider where that is coming from and why.

Experts call this behavior “hypervigilance for negativity.” It has very little to do with what is being said, and everything to do with how you’re filtering what is being said. If you are looking for negativity, you’re inevitably going to find it. I am not expecting everyone to go through life ignoring every negative thing they come across, but as an expert on mental health, I’ll tell you this- progress and growth does not come from focusing on negativity. It comes from finding a silver lining whenever possible and reframing what could potentially be seen as negative into the most realistic positive perspective.

Ascribing intention through hypervigilance for negativity is a recipe for complete disaster. People often fall into this when they’re at their worst: if they’re depressed, when they’ve had a bad day, when they aren’t getting what they want from their partner, etc. This occasional behavior can easily develop into a pattern, and it’s a hard one to break because it goes hand in hand with feeling victimized and like the world is out to get you. If you fail to recognize your role and accept responsibility, you get caught up in the idea that you have no control and things just “happen” to you. This is rarely the case. You have more power than you realize. By simply asking instead of assuming and ascribing intention, you are taking control of the situation by admitting that you don’t know everything and allowing the other person to provide you with the information you need to reframe the situation and look at it from a more positive perspective.

The Dangers of Assumption

One thing I see come up frequently in counseling is assumption. Often, when people are in relationships with one another, they start to think they know what their partner is going to say before they say it, and will sometimes play an entire conversation out in their heads rather than actually having that conversation with their partner. Even worse, sometimes people build resentment towards others based on the imagined outcome of conversations that never actually happened. I like to compare assumption with the ability to read minds. Can you read minds? No? That’s what I thought.

Once you start assuming that you know how a situation is going to play out before it happens, you’re making two major mistakes: you’re saying that you have the ability to predict the future, and you’re not giving the other person the opportunity to have an actual say in a conversation that affects them. I know that if you’ve been with someone for awhile, especially if it is a conversation that you’ve had more than once, it can be easy to fall into the trap of avoiding that topic because it never goes the way you want it. This is inevitable when you attempt to have the same conversation the same way every time; it makes no sense to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. You have to change your approach, which often means empathizing first with the other person’s position and seeing things from their point of view, or as Dr. John Gottman would call it, “accepting influence.”

Accepting influence is a struggle for many because it forces you to not be defensive. When you’re being defensive, you listen to respond rather than listen to understand. When you accept influence, you open yourself to the idea that your way is not the only way, and that the person you’re speaking with has valid opinions and ideas that you need to take into consideration. Assumption is the ultimate manifestation of defensiveness, because you’re literally being defensive about something that hasn’t even happened yet based purely on the notion that you somehow know what the other person is going to say before they have been given the opportunity to say it.

Consider this: have you ever been in a conversation with someone where you felt as if everything you said was being ignored or discarded? This is an example of what it feels like when someone doesn’t accept your influence. Now imagine being in a relationship with someone like that; it’s a recipe for disaster. It leads to assumption because it means that you’ll eventually stop investing your time and energy into them because you know that they are going to ignore what you say and not take your advice. In order to prevent assumption and facilitate accepting influence, both partners have to be willing to find common ground and compromise instead of expecting that they will always get everything 100% their way.