Life, Love, & Everything In Between

Say it, Mean it, Do it

One of the things I often discuss in couples counseling is love languages, which comes from Dr. Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages. The main concept behind love languages is that everyone has a primary love language that they speak (there are five all together- Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts), meaning that they tend to give and receive love in that language. Imagine you’re in a relationship with someone who speaks Words of Affirmation, but your language is Acts of Service. This is like being in a relationship with someone who speaks Portuguese when you speak English- if you receive love only in the language that you give it, you may not appreciate love when it is given to you.

Words of Affirmation and Acts of Service are the two love languages that I see at odds most frequently, which is why I am introducing the idea of “say it, mean it, do it.” Words of Affirmation (“saying it”) places value on compliments, verbal acknowledgement, etc. Acts of Service (“doing it”) places value on actions, specifically things that are done for them that make their lives easier or without having to remind their partner to do them. Someone who speaks Acts of Services is less likely to put worth on promises and verbal commitments unless they are followed through on. Someone who speaks Words of Affirmation is less likely to notice and put worth on the things their partner does for them without them having to ask. Both people are showing love to the other person, but in the language that they themselves want to receive love in, not necessarily in the language their partner wants receive love in.

If you have two people who speak such different love languages, how do you get them to recognize and appreciate the love that is being given to them? For someone who speaks Acts of Service, the words (“saying it”) are fine as long as they are followed by corresponding actions (“doing it.”) That’s where intention (“meaning it”) comes in. If your words and intentions are good, that’s awesome- but unless you follow through, they mean very little to someone who speaks Acts of Service. In a relationship, if a Words of Affirmation person says the words and has the intentions, but does not follow through consistently and reliably, the Acts of Service person will likely feel wronged and disappointed. If an Acts of Service person does nice things for their partner that they would appreciate themselves, their actions and intentions are fine, but the words aren’t there, which for a Words of Affirmation person is often the more important part.

The solution to this is simple- follow the pattern of “say it, mean it, do it,” regardless of your personal love language. Make your words match your intentions and follow through with actions. If you’re able to commit to all three parts, it is very likely that both you and your partner will be pleased with the outcome.

Talking About Your HIV Status with Loved Ones

When discussing your HIV or AIDS diagnosis with your loved ones, it is important to remember that their knowledge of HIV/AIDS is probably limited. In many cases, their knowledge base may be incorrect due to the ongoing stigmatization and fear about what it is and what it means. Since its official discovery in the early 1980s, our knowledge of what HIV and AIDS are and how they’ve evolved has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, people have clung to outdated information. A lack of widespread education and awareness is largely to blame for this, so when a loved one finds out you have HIV or AIDS, they may react out of fear: fear for you and what it means for your life, fear for them and whether or not they’ve been “exposed,” and fear of the unknown- what happens next?

You can’t predict how your loved ones will react, but you can prepare by arming yourself with as much information as possible. It is important to educate yourself as thoroughly and accurately as possible. There is a lot of information on the internet, but it is best to stick to sources that are medically based, like www.aids.gov or www.thebody.com, both of which serve to educate people, not scare them. You also don’t want to overwhelm your loved ones with too much information at once, so sticking to the basics is often best.

What do the basics include? First and foremost, a positive diagnosis is not a death sentence. HIV and AIDS are not considered terminal illnesses. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and it is possible to live the rest of your life being HIV positive, but never progressing to AIDS. The difference is your t-cells, or white blood cell count. Because HIV compromises your immune system, it lowers the number of white blood cells in your body that fight off infections. With treatment, living a healthy lifestyle, and medical monitoring, your t-cell count can stay above 200; if it falls below 200 at any point, that is when a person is considered to have AIDS. While this irrevocably damages the immune system, it still doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy, healthy, long life. Doing that includes taking your medications consistently, eating healthy, exercising- all things you should be doing regardless. Another important basic fact is that HIV is not transmitted by things like sharing utensils, kissing, holding hands, hugging, sneezing on someone, toilet seats, handrails, or any of the ways a person may catch things like the common cold. HIV can only be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk.

Your loved ones may be overwhelmed at first, but as they become more educated and see you are taking care of yourself, it will become easier to process. Often, counseling can help with this, especially if the counselor has experience working with HIV/AIDS. An accurate understanding of what is happening to your body is important for you and those you love, but your mental health as you navigate your diagnosis is critical to how you handle it and should be a priority just as your physical health is.

The Reality of Bisexuality

Gay rights, marriage equality, the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or foreign countries’ extreme positions on homosexuality: a lot has been happening to draw attention to the topic of homosexuality. At the same time, heterosexuality is considered “the norm” for many people; some even believe it is the only “acceptable” sexual preference. But what about the people who fall somewhere in between?

Bisexuality is a taboo topic, in both the gay and straight worlds. Often, people who identify as bisexual are not accepted in either community and experience discrimination from both. Many people don’t believe it even exists; that bisexuality is just a phase, or a stop on the way to determining whether someone is actually gay or straight, because you have to be one or the other. Or do you?

Bisexual as a label is confusing- how could one person be attracted to both sexes? The differences between male and female are obvious in many cases, but just like any one person can be attracted to two people of the same sex who are vastly different, the same is true for two people of opposite sexes. The attraction has little to do with body parts, and more to do with connection and chemistry.

Alfred Kinsey, a biologist and sexologist who studied human behavior and sexuality back in the 1940s and 50s, determined that a larger percentage of people fall somewhere between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual. He developed the Kinsey Scale, which is a way of representing where someone falls on a scale of 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual) and said, “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

Scientifically, it makes perfect sense however, the social aspect seems to be what is confusing for people. There are many myths about bisexuality- bisexuals are promiscuous, they can’t be in monogamous relationships, they can’t make up their minds and want the best of both worlds, etc. None of that is true. As bisexual activist Robyn Ochs said, bisexuality is “the potential to be attracted- romantically and/or sexually- to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” If someone who is bisexual is married or in a relationship, that does not mean their needs are not being met or that they have “chosen” to be straight or gay. Bisexuality doesn’t disappear in a monogamous relationship, but it doesn’t force someone to look outside either.

The ability to find love and connection with another human being is something to be treasured, regardless of the label it comes with. The reality of bisexuality is this- no one likes being put into a box. Having someone else define you is something to be avoided, not sought after. The focus should be on love, not labels.

Let’s Talk About Oxytocin

           Oxytocin, often referred to as “the cuddle hormone” or “the bonding hormone,” seems to be appearing quite frequently in the news these days. I see articles about oxytocin everywhere I go, and as a couples counselor, I’m a big advocate for anything that increases cuddling or bonding; especially when it is something easy, natural, and doable without spending any money or even a whole lot of extra time.

            So what is it? Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain. Its primary function is intimacy: when released, it increases feelings of trust, love, connection and bonding. It is released in a variety of ways and situations, one of the most important of which is during childbirth. It helps move the labor process along, and also literally creates the mother-child bond. It is also released during physical contact with another person, whether that person is a friend or a partner or a relative.

            But oxytocin is so much more than that. The benefits of oxytocin are innumerable: in addition to facilitating bonding between people, it also lowers blood pressure, lowers cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, relieves pain and increases pain thresholds, decreases anxiety and aids in recovering from PTSD, helps develop better social skills, better self-esteem, better sleep, lowers the risk of heart disease, increases the functioning of the immune system and helps it to recover from illnesses more quickly, etc. It has even been found to reduce drug cravings in addicts.

            All of this, without having to spend money or put medicines or drugs into your body. So how do you increase your oxytocin levels? Very easily, actually. Touch. The simple act of human touch, whether it is platonic or romantic, releases oxytocin. When touch is given with intention and care, it releases even more oxytocin. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with another human being, that touch is even more effective in releasing higher levels of oxytocin. Higher levels of oxytocin lead to increased levels of trust, so it’s a cycle- the more you do it, the more you get, and the more easily and quickly it is produced in the future.

            If we look at oxytocin from a relationship perspective, its easily one of the most effective ways to increase your feeling of connection and bonding with your partner. It really is as simple as cuddling more, touching each other more, kissing more, focusing more on intentional loving physical touch. The immediate benefits of oxytocin are great, but the long-term benefits to a person’s mental and physical health really demonstrate why oxytocin is so important. Lack of physical touch is a major cause of depression, so it follows that increased physical touch can serve as an effective way to combat depression, but also serve as method for improving relationship connections and trust.

Contempt: Every Couples’ Worst Enemy

Of all of the things that couples do that are the most harmful to their relationships, showing contempt towards one another is by far the worst. Contempt can be shown in a lot of ways: rolling your eyes, making an inappropriate noise, belligerence, condescension, saying hurtful or spiteful things or attacking your partner’s character, etc. The most common theme of contempt is disrespect. There is absolutely no room for disrespect in a relationship.

Disrespect and contempt are expressed through conveying a sense of superiority over your partner. Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute says that contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce in a relationship. It is so toxic that it can actually impact a person’s health. The number of contemptuous statements a speaker makes to their partner in a 15-minute period is directly correlated to the number of infectious illnesses the listener will suffer through the following year.

The difficult thing about contempt is that it comes from long-standing negative thought patterns about your partner. It stems from unresolved conflicts: fights and disagreements that you don’t let go once they are finished or that you never fully resolved in the first place. It can sneak up on you, to the point where you hear yourself saying things that you weren’t aware you felt. It can start with something as simple as sarcasm, which many people say is just part of their personality. This is an excuse; a shield. While some people do have a sarcastic sense of humor, there is a difference between sarcastic humor and condescendingly sarcastic remarks to your partner.

So if that’s what contempt looks like, how do you counteract it? It isn’t easy; however, it is necessary in order to have a healthy relationship. The path begins by creating what Gottman calls a culture of fondness and appreciation within your relationship. Start by acknowledging contempt and disrespect when you see them, either from yourself or from your partner. When you find yourself feeling contemptuous, remember what it is that you love about your partner. See your contempt as a failure on your part to recognize and remember the good, admirable and likable qualities they have. Conflict by nature is not unhealthy; what makes it unhealthy is when it comes from a place of disrespect. If you approach your partner from a place of respect and love, they are much more likely to receive what you are saying and be able to respond appropriately. Use “I feel…” and “I want…” rather than “You are…” and “You never…” and similar statements. Every human being is deserving of respect. By expressing contempt within your relationship, you devalue your partner as a human being. Your partner is deserving of the same respect you would give to others and that you would expect to receive yourself.

Basic Tips for Couples

There are an unlimited number of ways that you can be a better partner and have a better relationship. Learning is a lifetime process. Especially in your relationship, learning should be constant. There are, however, some very specific things that you and your partner can do that will increase your relationship satisfaction, as well as help you communicate with one another in a healthier way.

  1. Establish and maintain a 5 to 1 positive to negative interaction ratio. According to Dr. John Gottman, this is essential to having a healthy relationship. Negative interactions are powerful, and inevitable in normal relationships. The best way to counteract the effects of negative interactions is to have as many positive interactions as possible, with a ratio of at least 5 to 1.
  2. Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and know their antidotes. The toxicity of these “Four Horsemen” as Dr. Gottman calls them cannot be underestimated. Criticism, to which the antidote is complaining without blaming. Contempt, to which the antidote is showing respect and trust. Defensiveness, to which the antidote is taking responsibility for your part in the conflict. Stonewalling, to which the antidote is physiological self-soothing (deep breathing, slowing down your pulse, counting to ten slowly). These four habits are poison in relationships.
  3. Ask. If your feelings are being hurt, if you partner is giving you attitude, if something they’ve said has come across badly, ask them about it. Take it as an opportunity to check in with them, let them know how they are coming across and give them an opportunity to correct it. So many couples let little things evolve into big things because they misinterpreted, assumed or mind-read. Do not do that. Instead, ask your partner, in a kind way, “What’s going on?” Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe it has nothing to do with you or the situation you’re in. People don’t always realize how they come across to those they love, because when we love, we let our guard down and we say things without thinking about their impact. Give your partner an opportunity to explain their thought process, what they are going through, and what you can do to help them. Relationships are give and take; use this as an opportunity to ask your partner what they need from you.
  4. Never stop dating each other. When we first meet our partners, we present the best version of ourselves. Not that we are not authentic, but we tend to only show the things that make us attractive to others. Over time, we discover things about our partners that are less flattering. They do not necessarily make us love them any less; however, as the newness of a relationship wears off, the spark can, too. One way to keep the spark alive is to keep dating each other throughout your relationship. Dinner dates, movies, concerts or anything where the two of you can spend quality time together, without the interference of everyday worries and stress. Time together includes time without the interruptions of children, social media and work which is all helpful in keeping that spark alive.

Writing A Letter You’ll Never Send

In the age of email, texting, Facebook and Twitter, letter writing in the traditional sense has fallen to the wayside. Writing a letter used to be a major form of communication; long distance phone calls cost a lot of money, whereas a stamp was less than fifty cents. Writing a letter gave you time to think about what you were going to say, how you were going to say it and who you were going to say it to.

Nowadays, its so easy to pick up your smart phone and send a quick text, most of the time knowing that you’ll get a response back in a few moments. But what about the times where there are things you want to say, but don’t feel comfortable saying them? Or when the person you want to say them to is no longer around. How do you get that need to say what you need to say to them out of you?

Writing a journal is an excellent means of getting things out of your mind and off your chest. But sometimes, the things you want to say are directed at someone in particular; for example, an ex partner, a deceased parent, a friend you lost along the way due to too many differences. Some therapists use what we call the Empty Chair Technique, where you air your grievances and feelings, good or bad, to an empty chair where you imagine your particular audience member to be sitting. While often an effective form of therapy, it can feel awkward and unfulfilling to some.

When the Empty Chair Technique isn’t quite your speed, writing a letter that you will never send is another way to unburden your thoughts. Letter writing is private, intimate, and allows you time to think about what you’re going to say before putting it down on paper; or for some, to just let the words flow out of you until you feel purged of the negativity you’ve been carrying around. You can say whatever you want without fearing repercussions or painful exchanges between you and the person you’re writing to. While most therapists will advocate dealing with your problems as directly as possible, sometimes airing your concerns directly to that other person isn’t an option, yet you still feel the need to get those feelings out. In circumstances like this, writing a letter, or even a series of letters can be cathartic and can help give you that sense of unburdening that you may be craving.

Some people choose to burn the letters after they are written, as another form of purging. Some put them away in a box; some keep journals specifically for those letters. Whatever you find works best for you, do that. And in the event that the person you are writing the letter to is someone that you may have an opportunity to approach directly one day, writing them a letter now may help to organize your thoughts and feelings to help you approach them later on.

Relationship Red Flags

We’ve all done it. Met someone, established a relationship and developed feelings for them, only to find out that they’re “the same as all the others.” We don’t often stop to question why every person we fall for winds up having the same and/or similar faults and problems as the last person.

It’s a combination of two things: what we’re putting out there that we want, and what we’re attracted to. Often, what we’re attracted to isn’t what we think. We go for the same types of people repeatedly because the qualities that we think we find attractive in another person are actually red flags for exactly the kind of person we say we don’t want. But we’re programmed to look for those things. As human beings, we crave balance. We often look for things in others that we lack in ourselves, because we think that by being around them, we will naturally become more like them. For example, maybe you’re shy and a little introverted, you like being around people but you’re more of an observer than a participant. The people you’re attracted to are generally outgoing, social butterflies. They exude a confidence that you wish you had. Over time, however, that confidence becomes arrogance, and a tendency to only ever talk about themselves, that social butterfly is suddenly out everynight- without you. They have excuses for all of it, but eventually, you realize you’ve been here before with other people in previous relationships, and you don’t like it.

Craving that balance is perfectly natural thing. But sometimes we tend to look for people who have an overabundance of those things we’d like to be ourselves, rather than just a healthy amount. The overabundance is a red flag. Too much of a good thing is rarely actually a good thing; it’s a sign that something isn’t right. But because we’re programed to be attracted to that overabundance, we find ourselves repeating the same patterns in our relationships.

So how do we break the pattern? How do we see those red flags for what they really are, instead of what we’d like them to be? That’s where the other part of the combination comes in we have to change what we’re putting out there. The people that have those red flags are programed to look for people who are attracted to those red flags; people who will put up with their potentially negative attributes because we think that’s what we want. And by the time we realize it isn’t, we’re already in over our heads and they’re getting exactly what they want. To change what we’re putting out there, we have to break out of our boxes. Rather than looking to others to provide us with the balance we crave, start creating balance for ourselves. Be the things we look for in others. Two people are not two halves of a whole; they are two whole people, and in order to be in a healthy, happy relationship, we have to first become that whole person on our own. Otherwise we will always be searching for someone to fill a void that can only be filled by first being happy and comfortable with who we are.

Committing to Therapy vs. Going to Therapy

Therapy is something I would recommend to anyone who wants to make a change in their life. That change can be anything from changing jobs, getting a divorce, coping with stress, to dealing with pervasive mental illness. Regardless of the reason you’re seeking therapy, one thing remains true: going to therapy and committing to therapy are very different things.

Going to therapy looks something like this: you make an appointment with a therapist, you show up on time, you talk to the therapist, you listen to the therapist, you leave, and return at a later date (a week or two, maybe month depending on your circumstances). But nothing changes. Your life stays the same. You’re regularly seeing a person who is an expert in mental health, and don’t feel any different.

Committing to therapy looks similar, but with one major difference: you take what you’ve learned in therapy and you apply it in the real world and in your everyday life. Sometimes, just talking about things with an objective third party is all a person needs. More often than not, that isn’t the case. The role of a therapist isn’t to tell you what to do to fix your problems. A therapist is there to help you identify and navigate the path to handling your problems on your own in a healthyand productive way. If you had to consult a therapist every time a problem came up, youwould be spending an awful lot of time and money on therapy. But therapy does not end when you walk out of the therapist’s office. A good therapist is an educator. They teach you the tools you need to deal with your problems and help guide you when you reach snags or obstacles that come up along the way. The ultimate goal of therapy, in most cases, is to not have to go to therapy anymore (at least not regularly), but to put into practice what you’ve learned.

As therapists, we can’t control what you do once you leave our office. Your life is your own, as are the decisions and choices you make. It is a conscious choice to truly invest yourself in the therapeutic process by taking the tools you are given and using them, trying them on, seeing what works and what doesn’t for you. The most important thing to remember about the therapeutic process is that change doesn’t happen overnight; trying the tools out once or twice is not enough, you have to make them part of your everyday life in order for them to be effective. And that’s what committing to therapy really means: taking the tools you are given, using them in place of the behaviors you’re trying to change, and putting them into practice.