If you have attended couple therapy in the past, you may have heard your therapist talk about “healthy relationships.” What makes for a healthy relationship and how do you know if yours is healthy? There are several common factors present in thriving partner relationships.
1. Freedom to Speak Your Mind – A hallmark of a healthy relationship is feeling comfortable to speak to your partner about your thoughts and emotions without fear of retribution and without fear of it turning into a major conflict. Clear, respectful and gentle communication is vital to the health of your relationship. A strong partner connection that feels emotionally safe will encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings freely and enable you to reciprocate creating a safe space for your partner to share.
2. Feeling “Heard” – Another sign of a good relationship is when you feel “heard” by your partner, literally feeling that your partner can hear you. This happens in relationships in which partners listen well to one another and try to understand one another. It creates a space where your partner feels understood and that his or her feelings are validated and valued. Healthy couples work on their listening skills and use some nonverbal cues like eye contact to help their partners feel heard.
3. Mutual Trust and Respect – Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. Healthy relationships allow for respect for differences between partners and frame these differences as non-threatening to the relationship. An indicator of a healthy relationship is that you trust that your partner tells you the truth and has your best interests at heart, and that trust and respect are reciprocal. You feel secure in the knowledge that your partner respects you and has your back and vice versa.
Your relationship does not have to be perfect to be a healthy relationship. In fact, many imperfect relationships can model very healthy and constructive ways of expressing negative feelings and resolving conflict, which every relationship will endure at some point. Putting your own personal effort into creating an emotionally safe space for your partner, being a good listener, and being trustworthy and respectful will go a long way towards building a healthier relationship with your partner.
One of the most overlooked processes that is critical for the well-being of a relationship is expressing gratitude. What is gratitude? Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. I have worked with many couples over the years, and I have discovered that while saying “thank you” to your partner is necessary, gratitude comes with a bit more energy, effort, and action. Couples can go beyond saying thank you. Gratitude allows for expressing a genuine and heartfelt appreciation. Research shows that couples that engage in expressing gratitude often are happier and more hopeful about the relationship, and that expressing gratitude serves as a stronger predictor of relationship satisfaction as compared to forgiveness, patience, and self-control. Gratitude in a relationship manifests love, devotion, and commitment in ways that encourage longevity. These are three critical ways to express and maintain gratitude in your relationship:
Speak to Your Partner’s Impact: It is important that when you say “thank you” to your partner, take it the extra step and walk them through how their efforts and gestures impacted you (no matter how big or small). For example, saying something like, “Thank you so much for taking the garbage out for me. I appreciate it because it allowed me to grab some coffee before my next Zoom meeting.” Why say all of this? It works because we, as humans, want to hear the impact we have on this world and in the lives of our loved ones. To go beyond “thank you” and share the impact of your partner also boosts their self-esteem and reinforces this positive behavior again. NOTE: I use this strategy in my own marriage, and I have seen it play a huge role in how my wife and I stay connected daily.
Don’t Forget about Touch: Michaelangelo once said “to touch can be to give life.” Expressing gratitude does not only need to take the form of verbal gratitude. One of the most prominent ways to stay connected is through touch. Expressing gratitude via touch such as hugs, kisses, petting, etc., becomes the vehicle of emotional expression and displaying gratitude. Touch is fundamental in communicating with your partner to promote bonding and health for you both. So, while words matter and stick with us, let’s not forget that physical forms of gratitude strengthens powerful connections between our brains and our bodies, and lets us know we are safe, secure and appreciated.
Make it Mutual:Reciprocity is the key in any romantic relationship and expressing gratitude must go both ways. Both partners need to sit down and talk about ways of expressing gratitude and establish a commitment to reciprocity. A critical part of this conversation would be to figure out what to do when a partner feels that there is an inequity around expressing gratitude. Another way to increase expression of gratitude as a mutual experience for both partners is to create gratitude rituals. These rituals can serve as explicit spaces for both partners to share in the experience together and be intentional about expressing gratitude so that it does not fall to one person.
Grief and loss can be a difficult subject for many people to talk about. After a loss many people feel stuck and unsure of what to do next. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Yet, hopefully utilizing some of these tips will help you through your journey of grief and loss:
Accept Your Feelings. You will experience a variety of difficult and unexpected feelings throughout this process. It is important to remember that no feeling is right or wrong. There is nothing that you “should” be feeling. Instead embrace your feelings as they arise. Embracing the emotions that accompany the loss will help you move towards healing.
Express Your Grief. It is important that you find healthy ways to let out your emotions. Try crying, journaling, music, art, exercise, or whatever you find helpful to let out your grief. Also, remember to allow space for rest given that expressing emotions can be mentally and physically exhausting.
Lean Into Your Supports. It can be easy to isolate yourself while grieving. Instead, seek and accept the support of others. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and your religious community (if you have one) are all great options. If you need professional support or just outside support, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. There are also many grief support groups that are available to you in your area.
Laugh. Engage in activities that will bring you joy. Sometimes people who are grieving mistakenly believe that having fun or laughing will dishonor the memory of those they have lost. However, this is far from the truth. In fact, engaging in fun hobbies and interests can help you connect with others which can help you throughout the grieving process.All in all, grieving is an unique process that is unpredictable. One day you may feel like your world is falling apart. Another day you may feel a sense of peace. It is all your journey. Just remember to be gentle with yourself wherever you are in the process and go at your own pace.
Q: On behalf of the Relationship Counseling Center of Maryland (RCC), thank you for being on staff as an office administrator! What has been the most exciting part in working with RCC and its clients?
A: Working for RCC has been such a great experience. It’s hard for me to narrow down what my favorite part of it is. But if I had to, I would say that it comes down to creating a good “match” for an incoming client and a therapist. I’m always happy to see a long standing therapeutic relationship begin to form between one of our therapists and a client that I was responsible for scheduling.
Q: Have you yourself been to therapy?
A: Yes! I actually began my personal therapeutic journey recently. I believe that therapy is a rewarding experience for any human, regardless of our personal struggles and joys. I think it is a great way to begin connecting with and understanding yourself. I find that it also helps individuals be a better friend and family member to their loved ones, since they are able to relieve some of the burdens of life by having a professional to whom they can air their grievances.
Q: What do you like most about working with people?
A: I feel honored to be a part of helping people who are beginning their therapeutic journey. I think that deciding to begin therapy is such a personal and vulnerable decision to make. And the fact that RCC’s clients and potential clients trust me to assist them in starting or restarting that process means the world to me.
Q: Outside of being an office administrator what are some of your hobbies?
A: Anything related to music. I enjoy singing, making playlists, going to concerts, and listening to songs in my free time. I think that music is very healing and comforting for me.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
A: Every Saturday I like to have a “pamper” day. This usually means getting a pedicure, doing a face mask, yoga, or getting a massage. I think taking time for yourself to do things that make you feel good is important. It seems intuitive, but it’s easy to forget to make time for yourself.
Q: In your experience, what is the most important thing that can strengthen a relationship?
A: For any relationship, romantic or platonic, I believe the best thing you can do for a person you care about is truly listen to them. Listen for their wants, how they would like to be treated by you, and the things they enjoy/want to do. Once you know more of what makes them happy, it becomes easier to create joyful experiences between the two of you, and to do things that make them feel special and cared for. I find that giving someone kindness is the surest way to get it back.
Have you identified your goals for 2022? Do not neglect your marriage/relationship when you think about the things you would like to improve this year. Your relationship requires just as much attention and effort as your savings goals or wellness goals. Here are three goals to consider as you begin a new year with your partner:
Fight Fair: Utilize your communication skills. I-statements, reflections, and VALIDATION are your friends. These will also help to improve communication between you and your partner. Conflict is inevitable, so when it does occur, make sure to fight fairly. This means not using degrading language, no stonewalling, taking turns talking, no yelling, and taking a time out if things get too heated.2.Prioritize Your Emotional Connection: Do you know your partner’s love language? If not, you both should take a quiz to find out and take time to do something to fulfill one and another’s love languages. When was the last time you all went on a date? Try to make it a goal to have weekly or bi-weekly dates. These do not always have to be outside of the home if this is not realistic for you all, but be intentional about spending quality, uninterrupted time together.
3. Commit to the Daily Question: Is there anything I can do to make your life easier today? Teamwork is very important for successful couples. Figure out how you all can support each other and be sure to express gratitude when your partner fulfills your request.
December 3rd, 2021 Q: On behalf of the Relationship Counseling Center of Maryland (RCC), thank you for being on staff as a therapist! What has been the most exciting part in working with RCC and its clients?
A: The most exciting part of working with RCC and its clients has been being part of a warm, caring, and highly skilled team that is focused on supporting each other and helping every client produce the results they are seeking. I love the fact that while we may be working independently to serve RCC’s amazing, courageous, and fiercely committed clients; we are not doing it alone!
Q: In your style of therapy, do you like to tackle the main issue head-on, or focus on the deeper issues first?
A: I believe all relationships, including those between therapists and clients, build over time as both parties grow in trusting and investing in each other. Consequently, in my style of therapy, I like to address each client’s stated goals first and address the deeper issues as they naturally unfold throughout the course of therapy.
Q: Have you yourself been to therapy?
A: Yes! I sought the services of a therapist in my 20’s to help me with a long-term relationship that I found particularly troubling. I have never forgotten how helpful it was to have the support of my therapist as I went through a significant transition in my life. That early therapeutic relationship helped start me on a journey of personal growth and development that still continues today, and I hope, will continue to unfold and expand throughout the rest of my lifetime!
Q: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a marriage and family therapist?
A: I was in a personal growth and development workshop segment that focused on pursuing your dreams, when I realized I wanted to be a marriage and family therapist. At that point, all of the training, skills and experiences gained throughout my whole lifetime culminated in a flash of insight and inspiration. It occurred like the last, giant piece of a jigsaw puzzle being settled into place so that I could clearly see my purpose and vision for the future, in the context of all that I had already accomplished in the past. Afterwards, I started taking steps towards my vision, (including returning to graduate school), and I began happily working as a licensed clinician in the field less than 3 years later. Q: What do you like most about working with people?
A: I feel it is the ultimate challenge, responsibility, privilege, and reward to work with people and walk with them through some of their most difficult challenges. I find it inspiring and deeply satisfying to support my clients as they have breakthroughs and take new actions that help them create the kinds of relationships and experiences they want for themselves. Q: Outside of being a therapist, what are some of your hobbies?
A: Outside of being a therapist, I enjoy singing, photography, planning and attending fun social gatherings to connect with family and friends, traveling, beach-going, and interior decorating. Q: What do you do for self-care?
A: For self-care, I seek to maintain a healthy balance in my life which includes attending to my spiritual, physical, financial, emotional, occupational, and social health. I prioritize spending time with family and friends, engaging in Bible study to ground me and give me perspective, and taking long walks to enjoy the outdoors (including spending time at the MD/DE beaches). I also maintain my own therapy as a commitment to my self-care. For me, it is both an act of “pouring in” to myself so that I can “pour myself out” for my clients from a “full cup,” and it also helps me stay in touch with the experience of being a client.
Q: In your experience, what is the most important thing that can strengthen a relationship?
A: I think the most important thing that can be done to strengthen a relationship is to actively listen to your partner with compassion and an open mind. Specifically, I believe this includes seeking to understand situations from your partner’s perspective and demonstrating to them that you really heard and understood what they have said (regardless of whether you agree with their thoughts or not).
Fall is traditionally a season filled with transitions and new beginnings. While there is excitement about growth, as well as opportunities to return to something that more closely resembles the “normal we used to know,” there is still much stress associated with the fall transition. Students are returning to school in person, as others make their way back to the office. People are returning to these public environments despite the ever-changing COVID-19 health epidemic. So, it is of utmost importance, now more than ever, to maintain a healthy balance in our activities and the expectations we have of ourselves and our loved ones. The states of our mental, emotional and physical health all impact our ability to manage stress and enjoy our lives. If stress is beginning to affect you and/or your family in a negative way, consider trying these tips that are designed to help get you and your family back on track:
Adjust Your Attitude – Recognize the added stresses you, your partner and your children may be experiencing and try to give yourself and others “a little grace,” (i.e. a little unmerited forgiveness; the benefit of the doubt; kindness and favor; easing of expectations). Shifting your thinking and easing the height of the expectations you hold for yourself and others you care about during periods of transition can provide everyone with a little more room to be “perfect in their imperfections” and reduce stress.
Stay Connected to Your Loved Ones – Taking time to talk about your concerns, joys and fears, as well as listening to the feelings of others can help. Even if you are unable to solve a problem expressed by a loved one, just listening to them can help relieve stress because they know that you heard them and that you care. If appropriate, you might try making a simple, specific request for, or offer of support, (i.e., “Would you help me fold the laundry while we watch a movie together? “ or “You look a little tense. Would you like me to entertain the kids while you take a 20-minute walk after dinner?”)
Stay In Tune with Physical Needs – When you prioritize getting enough rest and exercise and complete a short mindfulness meditation over finishing one more thing on your to-do list, you can greatly reduce the harmful effects of stress.
Seek Professional Assistance – If you feel the stresses are compounding and “getting out of hand,” know that it is okay to ask for help, and to seek professional assistance.
By allowing ourselves to prioritize care of our mental, emotional and physical needs as this pandemic continues, we are giving ourselves and our loved ones the best chance of riding the waves of stress successfully, while vigorously enjoying life during this unprecedented fall season of transitions and new beginnings.
You made a mistake. There are plenty of reasons why this happened, but now it’s time to own up to your lapse in judgment. You go to therapy (because your good pal Wilson told you to ☺), but you’re finding the process to be slow, and it just feels like you and your partner are arguing more now. All you want to do is fix the problem and pretend it never happened. The journey to healing is a long one, but there are some things you can do to help move things along more smoothly.
1. Be Transparent: Your partner’s trust has been badly damaged now. You can’t rely on your previous experiences with them to re-establish trust because the foundation is gone. You must go the extra mile. Your partner will come back to you again and again to ask you to repeat the story of how everything happened. You need to do your best to be honest and not leave anything out. You need to take responsibility and be patient with your partner’s process, because they are questioning everything that they thought was true in your relationship. Yes, it will be repetitive and painful to retell the story over and over again. Keep in mind that your partner needs to know you will protect the relationship from damage going forward.
Identify Triggers: Your partner is hypervigilant right now. They are on edge when you get a text or a phone call after work, or when you leave home. Trust that your partner doesn’t enjoy feeling this way. It is important to continue being transparent and inquiring about their triggers so that both of you are aware of them, and so that you can set reasonable expectations. You may need to show more effort by notifying them regarding any changes in plans or schedules and being transparent about phone calls and text messages after-hours. This includes setting appropriate boundaries with people who may be threats to the relationship. This part of the healing process is temporary, as your partner needs to see that they can trust you before allowing themselves to be vulnerable again.
Validate Fears: Once triggers have been identified, you may be able to more easily empathize with your partner. Your partner will continue to come back to you and express fear about your actions when they coincide with one of their triggers. Biologically, the part of our brain that controls emotion is right next to the part of our brain that controls episodic memory. Validate their fears based on your past actions, then re-direct and remind them of your efforts by saying, “I hope you can trust me based on the effort I’ve been making recently for the relationship.” Invalidating their fears will be detrimental to the progress made towards healing. Your partner needs to know that they are being heard and that you are being mindful of their needs in the relationship. Do your best to reject that knee-jerk reaction to defend yourself. Take a breathe, validate, and re-direct.
Meditation is often conceptualized as a solitary practice, used ritually for stress management and mindful living. While it certainly can be those things, it doesn’t have to stop there. Let’s spice things up a bit and get your partner involved! Intentional meditation with a partner can help to expand feelings of gratitude, promote relationship satisfaction, and cultivate deeper physical and emotional intimacy. Adopting this simple practice of stillness and reflection helps to slow down the monotony of life and its challenges, create intentional self-awareness, all the while simultaneously bringing you closer to your partner. Here’s how:
Co-regulate: Co-regulation is the meditative art of synching up your breathing, gaze, and heartbeat with that of your partner. Find a comfy place to lie down or sit with your partner. Lock your eyes together and make eye contact. It may feel awkward at first, but that’s okay! Embrace it. After you pay attention to your own breathing for a minute or so, see if you can hear or sense your partner’s breath next to yours. Attempt to synchronize your breathing with your partner’s and maintain a slow steady rhythm together. Practice this for 3-10 minutes. This is a natural way to help self-soothe, minimize stress, and calm down the central nervous system. Our partners often serve as a “safe space”. Therefore, our bodies will naturally slow down and relax as a response to being proximal and close.
Set an Intention: Going into a meditation practice with a goal or intention can help to create a specific focus during the time you and your partner have together. Maybe your intention is to connect deeper emotionally or to have better physical intimacy this week! Perhaps, it is to reflect and share moments of gratitude. Maybe you would like to focus on being more aware of your partner’s emotions to feel more attuned to them. Communicate to your special someone on what you are hoping to get out of your meditation practice. When both people have a similar agenda, it can create a powerful energy! This is especially important after a tense argument. You can set an intention to “reset” and repair after a period of disconnection or misunderstanding.
Debrief afterwards: The moments following a good meditation together can be an excellent opportunity for communication and connection as well. Sometimes when we allow our minds to be still, certain thoughts and emotions float to the surface. Some of these things that come up may be thoughts/emotions that we have neglected to address ourselves. Conversely, there may be things that have been running on repeat in our minds for some time. Spend a few moments discussing with your partner some of the things that came up during meditation and are currently in your heart. This is where you can take your intention and turn it into action! Now is your time to brainstorm ways you can help bring some of those original goals into fruition and optimize the health and vitality of your relationship. Consciousness breeds communication, and communication breeds connection and compromise.
Meditation has the power to deepen your connection and strengthen your interactions by intentionally carving out time to sync together spiritually and emotionally. Take advantage of these moments of silence and stillness that can nurture your relationship both with yourself and with your partner.
June 1st is National Say Something Nice Day, which originated from Mitchell Carnell (also the author of Random Acts of Kindness). Carnell implores you to “be a lifter” and lift others up instead of tearing them down. Carnell understands the importance of positive communication and verbal appreciation in relationships. When was the last time you said something nice to your partner? Do you criticize your partner more often than you uplift him or her? Today is a good day to take part in an honest evaluation of yourself and how you speak to your spouse.
1. Avoid Criticism – Relationships, whether familial relationships, friendships or romantic relationships, do not benefit much at all from criticism. Criticism takes the form of a character attack and gives the message that there is something wrong with the person who is being targeted. We all gain some positive self esteem from healthy relationships in knowing that our friends, family and spouse love us unconditionally. Criticism takes that away from us by making love conditional. Never underestimate the power of positive verbal feedback on the recipient. However, communication lines must be open to express both positive and negative experiences. So how do you address negative interactions without using criticism?
2. Learn How to Complain – There is a difference between criticism and complaint. Healthy couples do occasionally complain to one another if they see something going wrong in their relationship. The proper way to complain is to be specific, take some responsibility, use “we” language and avoid blaming language. It is more effective to discuss behaviors that can be changed as a team. You can also leave the complaint until your couple therapy session so that your therapist can help you present your complaint fairly to your spouse.
3. Be Genuine – Make an effort every day to be a “lifter” in your relationship. Chances are that you already notice when your partner looks nice or does something helpful, but do you take the time to point it out to them? When you give a compliment or say something nice to your partner, make sure it is heartfelt and genuine. If you don’t have anything nice to say, sometimes it is better to say nothing at all. Making small changes like this can make a huge difference in how your partner feels about you and your marriage.
By avoiding criticism and learning how to complain properly, we are able to master the art of being a “lifter” to our loved ones. It creates space for us to be heard but to also maintain genuine and emotionally gratifying relationships. Let’s practice ways to uplift, so that we may receive the same acts of grace and kindness in return.