Life, Love, & Everything In Between

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.

Forgiveness Follow Up

Last year, I wrote a blog about forgiveness. I wrote about how not forgiving is like carrying around a backpack full of all the things for which you had not forgiven. I want to take that a step further- imagine you’re walking down a path. That path is your life. Imagine that every few steps, you pick up a rock and put it in your backpack. You continue to do this until that backpack becomes so heavy that you cannot take another step. That is what not forgiving does to your life- it stops you in your tracks. How can you move forward if you are carrying around all of that negativity? The only way to move forward on that path is to take the rocks out of the backpack and leave them behind.

There are times, though, that forgiveness is more complicated than that. I think forgiveness is most difficult when it is ourselves we are trying to forgive. I often find that people are more forgiving toward others than they are toward themselves. It is possible they have higher expectations for themselves than they do for others, or hold themselves more personally responsible for the outcome of things. Let’s say you’ve had a really horrible fight with a friend, one where you both have said things that you didn’t mean or shouldn’t have said. Maybe you forgive that friend more readily because you know they’ve had a rough day or a difficult time lately, but you don’t grant yourself that same courtesy. In situations like this, you’re empathizing with your friend- a useful and important skill when it comes to forgiveness, but you have to leave room for forgiving yourself, too.

I’ve heard that staying angry is easier than forgiving. This is absolutely true, at least in the short term. Forgiving someone is a much more difficult process than just being angry, but staying angry takes a lot more energy long-term. Anger is a negative emotion: it pulls you down, makes it impossible to see the good in anything, and pushes people away. Forgiveness, while definitely more difficult at first, is actually quite liberating. It frees you from negativity, and lets you drop those rocks out of that backpack to walk around without weight on your shoulders. Forgiveness allows you to distance yourself from negative emotion and things that hold you back. I believe that in order to effectively forgive anyone, including yourself, you have to practice that most difficult of virtues: patience. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily or quickly; you have to have patience. It’s like the metaphor of seeing the forest through the trees. You may be holding on to something that seems big right now, but overall is quite small and eventually rather inconsequential. Don’t hold on to the little things. Perhaps that is the best way to practice forgiveness: start with small things, and work your way up to bigger things. Start with forgiving yourself first to make it easier to forgive others in the future.

Anxiety as a Healthy Response

Anxiety: it’s something everyone deals with at one point or another, whether we all admit it or not. It’s one of the main reasons people seek therapy, and often medication. But what if I told you that anxiety is a completely normal reaction?

Not only is anxiety normal, it’s necessary. Anxiety is our body’s “fight or flight” system kicking into gear. Most anxiety is rooted in fear- fear of the unknown, fear of failure, etc… Without anxiety, we wouldn’t recognize potentially dangerous people or situations. Anxiety can also be a motivator- say you’re anxious about your first day at a new job. That anxiety can help you be more determined to do well and pay attention to what you’re doing.

Obviously, not all anxiety is healthy. If it monopolizes your day because you can’t think about anything else, if you’re losing significant amounts of sleep, if it’s causing stomach or physical reactions, then it can definitely be a bad thing. Those are times when seeking help to control the anxiety, through therapy and sometimes medication, is absolutely warranted and can be quite helpful.

However, I often encounter clients who want help “getting rid” of their anxiety around situations and people that warrant an anxious response. You’re worried about running into an ex-partner at a particular party that you may both be at? That’s a normal response. You’re a bit hypervigilent when walking to your car after getting off of work because it’s dark and you’re in a bad neighborhood? You’re in a new relationship, and you’re unsure of the other person’s feelings and where they stand? All normal. It’s difficult for any therapist to help clients “get rid of” this type of anxiety, because the last thing we want to do is stop you from having a healthy response to what’s going on in your world.

So, how do you tell the difference between “normal” anxiety and anxiety that warrants more concern? If you have a therapist, talk to them about it. If not, then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I consistently losing sleep over this?
  2. Where do I feel the anxiety? (stomach, head, jaw, etc.)
  3. Is this interfering with my day-to-day life? (For example, is it affecting your relationship, work, social life?)
  4. If one of my friends told me they were having this problem, what would I say to them?

Losing sleep, physical pain and interference with your daily life are key indicators that there is something more serious. The last question is about determining whether or not this is something you can work through on your own or if you need to ask for help. Asking for help is never wrong and sometimes issues that wouldn’t normally get to us throw us off track because of other things going on in our lives. Regardless of what type of anxiety it is, talking to a therapist can help you work through underlying issues, as well as learn was to self-soothe and lessen anxiety overall.

Who Wears the Pants?

I’ve never really been a “traditional gender roles” person. My father raised my brother and I on his own from the time I was 13. I was taught from a very young age how to run a household, manage a budget and hold a job simultaneously. The 1950’s housewife persona has never appealed to me; I’ve always known that I’m a career woman and the person that I marry will have to accept that I’m never going to be a stay at home mom or actually learn how to iron.

In a society where gender roles are becoming more fluid, people are having to adjust what they may have previously known or believed. Particularly within the LGBTQ community- how can you have “traditional gender roles” when both members of the couple are the same gender? Which begs the question, in a same-sex couple… who wears the pants?

There’s a saying out there that in successful relationships, no one wears the pants. I disagree. As a couples therapist, I believe that in successful relationships, you share the pants. That is to say, there is a healthy balance of power and control; no one person has more than the other, decisions are made jointly and no one feels bombarded or railroaded. One person may make more money than the other, one person may be more of a stay at home parent, but in healthy relationships neither of those things are held over the other person’s head because each person is contributing in their own way. It is normal in any relationship for one person to be better with money and budgeting, or at household chores, or at getting the day to day things done around the house. If one person works more hours or works later, it makes sense that the other one makes dinner most nights or takes on a few extra things around the house. That balance is not difficult to achieve, but it does involve having discussions with your partner about what expectations there are  and what each person is comfortable taking on.

I personally think that same-sex couples have an advantage over heterosexual couples in this regard: they’re already familiar with defying some of the standard hetero-normative stereotypes. It can be difficult to achieve the balance I mentioned earlier in any relationship, but I believe that in same-sex relationships, that balance comes more naturally because there aren’t any expectations set in advance about who does what. As we get further and further away from what used to be “traditional gender roles,” we open ourselves and our families up to a new kind of tradition- one that includes teaching our children that there doesn’t have to be a division between male and female, that gender isn’t necessarily binary, and that they don’t have to exist within a box created by someone else. So share the pants. Talk about the balance in your relationship, look for ways to improve that balance and work every day to maintain it.

Family & Coming Out

I grew up in a family where we believed in the idea of unconditional love. We all messed up on occasion, but at the end of the day, family is family and we were there for each other no matter what. I had instilled in me a “no strings attached” approach to family- when your family needs something, or when there is something that you can do for them to make their lives easier, you do it- no questions asked, no strings attached. Money doesn’t matter, time doesn’t matter, even political differences and differences of opinion don’t matter, because that’s what family means.

When I hear about LGBTQ people being afraid to come out to their families, it really bothers me. “Family” and “fear” don’t go together in my book. Family should be a safe place, not one that invokes fear or makes you feel like you should have to hide anything. Of course I know that isn’t the case in many families. The thought that I could lose my family because of some aspect of me as a person that they don’t approve of would definitely make me second guess whether it was something they really needed to know about.

I’m an academic, so of course I have to ask why this is. If you love someone, why does their sexuality or their gender matter? In what way does it change who they are as a person? I’ve never heard a reasonable answer to these questions because there isn’t one. Sexuality and gender do not define a person; they are aspects of a person. They don’t make a person who they are; their personality, morals, values, beliefs, etc. do that. None of that changes when a person comes out.

I would never advise a client to come out in a situation where they don’t feel safe. I would; however, advise all families to consider the following: according to GLSEN, 30% of suicides each year are LGBTQ individuals, and greater than 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide. Much of this is due to fear of not being accepted by family, friends and peers. According to PFLAG, LGBTQ youth who experience family rejection during adolescence are three times more likely to use illegal drugs. I have counseled many LGBTQ teens and young adults, and I can honestly tell you that the ones who have supportive families are much happier and well-adjusted than those who face discrimination and judgment within their own household and family.

It comes down to this: what kind of family do you want? Adjusting to the news that someone you love identifies as LGBTQ can be difficult, but there are many ways to help that do not involve rejection, discrimination or judgment. Ask them what they need. Seek therapy as a family to figure out how to be the kind of parent or family member that they need, and how to find acceptance. Rejection is a choice, and so is acceptance.- Choose the latter for them and for you.

I am the Eternal Learner

Most people spend a majority of their lives before the age of 20 in school. We start around five years oldand continue till age 18. Some of us go to college, which is another 4 years, and some go further and complete graduate school. I’m one of those- I was in school from the time I was five years old until I was 26, with nothing more than a few months in between. I was used to working 30 hours a week, interning 25 hours a week, and taking roughly 3-9 hours of classes a week. After completing my graduate degree, there was a major adjustment period. I had a job that I worked 40 hours a week… and that was it. I had been in school for over 21 years, and suddenly there were no tests to study for, no papers to write and no projects to complete. What was I going to do with all that free time?

I became bored pretty quickly. I’m a person who NEEDS to be busy. I like down time, but I can only enjoy it if I feel like I’ve earned it. Granted, 21 years of school and work probably earned me that down time, but I felt incomplete. I’ve always been an avid reader, so I spent a lot of time reading. I enjoy reading the most when I feel like I’m learning something, which is a theme throughout my life. Nothing is interesting or stimulating to me unless I’m learning something new. Many of the jobs I’ve had I’ve left not because I had to, but because there wasn’t much else to learn and it became monotonous.

Because of this, I’ve deemed myself an “eternal learner,” which makes counseling the perfect career for me. I really do learn something new with every client; every client teaches me something. Counseling is a constantly evolving field, because psychology is still a fairly young science. There is so much that is yet undiscovered, and being part of that discovery is a huge motivator for me.

I believe that learning is what makes life worth living, which is why as a therapist, I not only counsel my clients but educate them as much as possible. I believe that in order to overcome something, you have to understand it and how it uniquely affects you. If counseling is to be truly beneficial, whatever you learn you should be able to apply to other situations that come up later on. People will always need therapists, but the goal of therapy isn’t to make you dependent upon us, it is to teach you the tools you need in order to be able to handle similar problems and situations in the future on your own. So I get the best of both worlds- I get to teach and learn all at the same time.

Appreciation in Relationships

One of the reoccurring themes I see in couples counseling is appreciation, or the lack thereof. Particularly with couples that have been together for a long time, appreciation can fall to the wayside when they start to take things for granted. This could be something as small as minor household chores. If your partner has always done the dishes, you may not think to thank them or acknowledge how much you appreciate it. What if they just stopped one day? The dishes would pile up, the kitchen would be a mess, it may attract bugs or pests, etc. Often, we don’t realize how important something little like that is until it doesn’t get done. When I ask couples to start acknowledging the little things their partner does around the house, they often think that it is a ridiculous suggestion. Why should they thank their partner for something that they should be doing anyway? That attitude signals a problem to me: the little things your partner does are just as important as the bigger things. Those little things help your household and relationship run more smoothly. Why wouldn’t you thank them for their contributions to that, just as they should be thanking you for yours?

There are several other reasons that appreciation is so important in relationships. One of them is because it increases your positive interactions. According to John Gottman, renowned couples researcher and therapist, couples need a positive to negative interaction ratio of 5:1, meaning for every one negative interaction or thought you have regarding your partner, you need 5 positive ones to make up for it. Thanking your partner for the little but important things they do is an easy way to increase that number. Gottman also discusses what he calls “building a culture of appreciation, fondness, and admiration” within your relationship. Many people struggle with what is called “hyper-vigilence for negativity.” This is when you search your environment and your situations for the bad things instead of the good. If you’re looking for bad, you’ll find it. The same applies if you’re looking for good… so why wouldn’t you choose to look for the good instead? The happiest couples are the ones who look for opportunities to recognize their partners for the good things they do.

Another way to show appreciation is to compliment your partner. Reminding them of the things you love about them, particularly when they’re having a bad day or are feeling down, is an excellent way to show them appreciation, fondness and admiration. It’s very important to remind your partner that you support them, you’re proud of them, you’re attracted to them, and all of the things you admire about them. Give affection and compliments as often as possible. Remind yourself and your partner of what made you fall in love in the first place, and do that as frequently as you can. Making appreciation a priority in your relationship is a surefire way to keep the spark alive, and to increase both partners’ happiness and satisfaction.

Mental Health Awareness

Because I work in the field of Mental Health, I’m constantly surrounded by people who are seeking help. Unfortunately, there are still millions of people who need help, but don’t ask for it. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults have a mental illness, but only 60% of those people seek help. Why?

As far as we’ve come as a society, we still attach a stigma not only to mental illness, but therapy in general. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “Therapy is only for people who are crazy,” or “I would never talk to a complete stranger about my problems.” We have no problem gossiping about other people’s issues and condemning them for their problems, yet we judge others for seeking help with those same things. In order to stop this from happening, we have to dispel the stigma surrounding mental health and therapy, and see it for what it really is.

So how do we change the way people see mental health? I believe it starts with changing the conversations we have about mental health. When we see a friend who eats healthy or goes to the gym regularly, we don’t judge them and say horrible things about them; we admire them for taking care of their body and often wish we had the willpower and the time to do the same. The same rule should apply for people who go to therapy- it’s like going to the gym for your brain. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand, and should be looked at the same way. When you have a cold or the flu, you see a doctor. When you are experiencing depression or anxiety, you see a therapist. Both provide you with the tools you need and the path to healing to help make the problem better. The added bonus with therapy is that those tools are reusable and often applicable across various situations.

Seeking counseling does not mean you’re “crazy.” It means you’re human, and more importantly, that you place importance on taking care of your mental health. Some people are equipped with the tools they need to be able to handle things on their own most of the time, but a lot of people need help learning and employing those tools. There is no shame in that. Not everyone was born into a family where effective problem solving and coping skills were modeled for them and not everyone has the perfect balance of chemicals in their brain that work to keep them from experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, anxiety and depression. For the millions of people who need help, and especially for those afraid to ask for it, support, awareness, and empathy are absolutely crucial. Remember, physical health and mental health are equally important: change starts with those of us willing to stand up and advocate for it.

 

Gay Marriage: Now What?

Six months ago, when gay marriage was finally legalized in Florida, I co-taught the workshop that couples have to take if they want to be married within 3 days of getting their marriage license. A few weeks ago, I had the honor of marrying two men who have been together for more than 28 years. With the great things that are happening in our country for equality right now, I started thinking… what really changes for couples when they legalize their union?

Marriage, as an institution, has been around longer than recorded history. In fact, it wasn’t even recognized as a religious sacrament until 1184. Even after that, churches stayed out of marriage for the most part until the 16th century, because marriage was considered a contract between two families. It seems like lately, though, parts of society are intent on defining marriage as something that is ordained by God and reserved for those who fit into the “traditional” view of marriage that much of society holds. Luckily for those of us who don’t subscribe to that view, our laws are changing to reflect a more inclusive definition for marriage.

As a marriage and family therapist, I work with both straight and gay couples, and the problems that occur within marriages are fairly similar across the board. Couples don’t come to me when they’re at their best; they come when they have run out of options and want to make a change. Those changes range from improving communication to learning healthier conflict styles to what to do when there has been infidelity. When I look at couples who come in for counseling who are married versus ones that aren’t, the biggest difference I see is the level of commitment. Marriage is a huge commitment: it is the legalization of the desire to be with the other person for the rest of their lives. In my experience, no one goes into marriage thinking, “If it doesn’t work out, there’s always divorce.” Additionally, there is a legally binding contract that influences the outcome of any separation, particularly if there is a prenuptial agreement or if the couple resides in a state where “what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours.”

For many gay couples, this is a fairly new concept, at least from a legal perspective. I asked several couples, many who have been together for 20+ years why they would want to legalize their union with marriage. I heard that they wanted to because they want the same rights as everyone else, they had always wanted a traditional wedding, they wanted to do it for their families, but also to pave the way for future generations.

Marriage isn’t about a church, a dress or a party. It is about two people having the right to formally express their love and devotion to one another in a way that binds them emotionally and legally. You don’t have to get married to love someone and be with them for the rest of your lives- but having the option is something we all deserve, and now have.

Forgiving vs. Forgetting

“The things two people do to each other they remember. If they stay together, it’s not because they forget; it’s because they forgive.” –Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal

Forgiveness is often mistaken as something you do for other people; in truth, it’s much less altruistic than that. Imagine carrying around a backpack full of all the times someone in your life had done something that required your forgiveness. Imagine that instead of forgiving them, you had held on to all of those things. The weight of all of those unforgiven actions would be unbearable, and you would crumble under that weight. When we forgive someone, we not only accept their apology and make them feel better, we unburden ourselves of the weight of the negative feelings and thoughts that came with the action.

There is a major difference between forgiving someone for something they’ve done wrong, and forgetting it ever happened. That difference lies not in the way you treat the person who wronged you, but in how you carry what is left over from what happened. Forgiveness means acknowledging that people are fallible; that they make mistakes and are not perfect, but choosing to love them regardless. It does not mean setting aside everything they’ve done wrong and ignoring it; it means choosing not to use their past mistakes against them, but remembering things that have happened as a lesson. This may seem difficult, because often people are eager to engage in an all-or-nothing thinking, they either forgive and forget, or don’t do either.

The ability to forgive and move on is a learned skill, and not something you can automatically be great at. If you’re prone to holding on to things, learning to let go of them may feel like you are betraying yourself or your feelings. I often tell my clients that if you can change your perspective on something, you can change pretty much anything else as well- the way you feel about the situation, the way the situation effects you, and your relationships. Once you’ve done it enough times, the struggle ceases.

I’m definitely not saying that everything deserves forgiveness, or even that forgiveness should be your automatic response to every wrong that is done to you. I firmly believe that ninety percent of a problem is how you react to it- forgiveness is a reaction, and while we may not always feel like it is true, we are fully capable of choosing our reaction to things that happen to us. There will always be things that we feel are unforgivable, and sometimes choosing not to forgive is about self-preservation and is necessary. Ultimately, it boils down to picking your battles. You get to choose the things that go inside that imaginary backpack that you carry around. Choose things that help you, not hinder you. If all else fails, give yourself time to decide how you want to react, and if forgiveness is a possibility.