How to Successfully Love Yourself While Simultaneously Loving your Partner

by Jasmine Mauss, MS, LGMFT


January 15, 2020

Love can be (and often is) ultra-consuming. When we discover love, we often find ourselves immersing our time, happiness, emotions, spaces, and future into those of another. “Me” becomes “we”, as the equilibrium of our lives shifts for this new person and new relationship. As time progresses, a new foundation is created and an intricate series of changes occur. Our identities transform to accommodate the growth of our partner, shared rituals and pastimes are enjoyed together, and the future we create is influenced substantially by their presence in our lives. Too often in the midst of this beautiful creation, it becomes easy to lose important parts of ourselves. When we are in a deep-seated relationship, it becomes increasingly challenging to remember who we were, before this relationship, and who we are now, outside of it. If you are in a relationship, take a moment to reflect on the question, “Who am I, irrespective of my relationship?”

1. Identify what is important to you: What brings you authentic joy and happiness? What are the activities that make you, YOU? This could constitute a number of things: reading a book in your favorite armchair, meditating in the mornings before work, playing soccer with the boys on the weekend, painting when you feel inspired, hiking your favorite trail, traveling with your favorite friends, etc. Capitalize on your individual passions early on in your relationship and maintain consistency of them throughout its progression. These are parts of yourself that you can claim as your own and fall back on in times of need. You can also also share these parts of yourself with your partner as a way to connect and show them more of who you really are.

2. Revel in healthy “me time”: While it may seem counterintuitive to think that being away from your partner would be conducive towards connection, taking this time for yourself can actually be beneficial to the relationship. Taking some space away from your partner to center yourself in your passions, career, and family is not a selfish act! These micro-doses of distance can actually cultivate fondness and admiration for your partner, while simultaneously assisting you in tapping back into your inner self. Allow yourself to miss them in these moments and reflect on why you appreciate them. More importantly, take a moment to identify your individual strengths and foster your sense of agency outside of your relationship.

3. Put the “U” in “F(U)ture”: Self-love and self-identity should not be limited to just the past and present. Make sure to formulate concrete goals for yourself and your future. Ensure that these goals are somewhat independent of your relationship so that they put the focus on your personal growth as a person. This is a sound way to keep yourself preserved and allows you to flourish and transform as an individual. Always be mindful of your boundaries and what you are and are not willing to compromise for your relationship. Staying true to your unique goals and plans will allow you to stay tuned to the fabric of who you are.  Loving ourselves first provides a healthy avenue for loving our partner!

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Looking Beyond the Corniness of Hallmark Christmas Movies

by Natalie Krenz, MS, LGMFT  

Monday, December 16

December is here, which means so are the Hallmark Christmas movies! These movies are frequently over-the-top, cliché, lack diversity, and can pull us into the same, recycled plots. Further, they are far from reality, in that they make difficult life situations look easily resolvable with just the help of ‘Christmas spirit and romance’. After watching way too many of these oversimplified movies, however, I have learned they do have a few productive takeaways:

1. Use your support system: Holidays can be a difficult time for many people. There are stressors from finances, to holiday commitments, to family issues. It is important that in times of stress you turn to your support system to help you cope. Hallmark characters are often discussing their difficulties with others whether it’s family, a romantic partner, an old friend, or a new, trustworthy person. This offers the ability to vent to an empathetic listener, hear a new perspective, and feel validated and encouraged.
 

2. Celebrate new traditions, in addition to old: In Hallmark movies, characters are often discovering new traditions that enhance their holiday season. When two people from different backgrounds come together, conflict can occur with which traditions should be celebrated. It is imperative for couples to learn how to integrate traditions from each of their families of origin to create new, shared rituals. This will bring you closer as a couple and create new and intimate moments.
 

3. Find a work-life balance: Hallmark characters often come to the realization that they have wasted their time in their work life and have been missing out on time with family and romantic partners. Work can often create distance in family relationships, and it is important that partners discuss how best to balance work and quality time. Individuals might not always have the privilege to take time off of work so creating dedicated family time is important. Some ways to do this are by setting up date nights, family game nights, even a family breakfast, if dinner is not possible.

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Office Administrator Spotlight: Sarah A. Rose

Sarah Rose

Q: As Office Administrator, what advice or reassurance do you provide clients calling in to seek services?

A: I always empathize with an interested client and let them know they are not alone. Clients call in exasperated and without hope and it’s a joy to allow them to take a sigh of relief knowing that lots of people experience the same hardships, in the same way. I have heard every story at least once!

Q: What do you find most rewarding about the work you do and why? 

A: Being in the helping profession is rewarding in and of itself. Working with people and seeing them start with us with very little hope and grow to learn that this state of mind doesn’t last forever and that change is possible both in yourself and with your relationships, that is really rewarding.

Q: What pulled you into the mental health field and what keeps you going?

A: I have always been a curious person and my curiosity blossomed when I found psychology in college. I started to learn more about the most interesting organism on planet Earth – humans. Why they do what they do and how the brain is the human “control center.” How fascinating! And yet, we still don’t know enough about humans and the brain.

Q: Have you been to therapy yourself and has it been helpful? 

A: Yes, I find therapy a form of self-care. It’s a designated time and safe space for me to work through the past week and learn from my challenges to better move forward in my future. It has definitely been the best thing I have done for myself and I recommend it to anyone.

Q: What is your favorite rainy-day activity?

A: Rainy days make me more mindful of how I am spending my time. Instead of reheating a leftover and bingeing Netflix, I cook a meal, sit down to enjoy it, and then relax to a new film (foreign film, preferably). Just describing that makes me feel more relaxed!

Q: What is the most memorable place you’ve traveled to? 

A: I have definitely had my fair share of travel – Italy, Norway, South Korea, Peru, not to mention the vast United States! The travel that resonated with me the most has been to visit my best friend in Japan. Being able to live alongside her for a week was exactly how I like to experience a new country. I got to see the real Japan and I cannot wait to go back!

Q: What have you learned about people in general, from your role at RCC? 

A: I have learned that people are complex, but everyone wants to be loved, listened to, and respected. I think if we treated each moment and interaction with that in mind, our world would look differently.

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Setting Boundaries: Do Not Cross

by Rolonda Williams, LGMFT

October 22, 2019

What are boundaries and why do we need them? Boundaries can be best explained as a means of creating a balance between social connection and personal limitations. Setting boundaries can be seen as a means of self-care and is often exhibited through positive, assertive language and behavior. When contemplating about boundary-setting, ask yourself if you can do what is asked of you, without it negatively impacting you, draining your energy, time and/or finances. The best way to use boundaries appropriately is to challenge common misconceptions about boundary-setting and to use positive language to set boundaries with others.

1. Misconception #1: “Boundaries make me seem like a mean person.” Setting boundaries are healthy and creates a more positive experience for yourself and others. It is about knowing your limits and not pouring from an empty cup. Others may perceive you to be “mean” when, in fact, they may be upset that you are no longer overextending yourself to meet their needs. This is especially problematic if the effort is not reciprocated. Having limits does not equate to being an aggressive person.

2. Misconception #2: “If I set boundaries, I will lose friends or family.” While setting boundaries may create rifts in relationships, what happens most often is that there is only a temporary period of shock and disapproval from the person who is on the receiving end of the boundary. Although it is not uncommon to lose friends or family, most people find there are more benefits to productively changing these relationships. Boundaries are most difficult to set with those who are closest to us. However, those who care for you and are close to you will eventually respect and follow the boundaries that you have set.

3. Use Appropriate Language: It is essential to use respectful and appropriate language to set boundaries and learn how to say “no.” Here are some suggestions for how to phrase boundary-setting with others in a way that they can better hear it:

“I would love to do this for you, but…”
“I am happy to know that I can be the person you count on to do this, however, this time…”
“I care about our friendship/relationship, however I cannot …”
 
It is important to remember that the key to setting boundaries is really setting them with yourself and not necessarily with others. Set good boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.



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Meet RCC Owner, Meg Tenny!

Meg Tenny

Q: As the owner of the Relationship Counseling Center of Maryland (RCC), you just successfully passed ten years of being in business! What has been the most fulfilling? 

A: Thank you! We are really excited about reaching that milestone last year. The most fulfilling part is to watch the growth and progress of our clients. It is very rewarding to see individuals, couples, and families doing well in their relationships.

Q: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a marriage and family therapist?

A: I volunteered for a domestic violence shelter when I was in college and I enjoyed talking to the women and children who lived in the shelter and understanding their life experiences.

Q: For anyone seeking therapy, what is essential to having a successful experience? 

A: Client readiness (that is, the client’s readiness to do the necessary and difficult emotional work in therapy) is a big factor. The couples who do well are also the ones who are committed to their relationships and are open to some of the suggestions for trying new modes of engagement. They work hard to make positive efforts at home and to be vulnerable with their partners in session. These couples take responsibility for themselves and their actions.

Q: In your experience, what have been the most common issues couples face?

A: Many couples experience communication problems, such as verbal conflict and invalidation of one another’s feelings. Couples also commonly deal with issues around infidelity, finances, and emotional and physical intimacy.

Q: When you have issues in your own relationships, do you utilize any of the techniques from therapy, and, do they work? 

A: They work! I take a deep breath, stop, and listen. I also explain my side from an emotional (feelings) standpoint and take responsibility for my part in the misunderstanding or issue that was created.

Q: Are there times when the work becomes too overwhelming and if so, what do you do to manage?

A: I am a strong believer in self-care, particularly for our therapists, and that includes myself. I do deep breathing exercises and try to stay current with yoga, exercise, and social activities. I also see my own therapist to process my own emotions.

Q: Is there a secret ingredient you look for when hiring associates to be a part of RCC?

A: We look for a good team member, warmth in personality, responsiveness, and excellent clinical skill. We choose therapists who are passionate about their work and love what they do, and are interested in always improving and growing. We have added many fantastic therapists to the RCC team and they have added wonderful new elements to the RCC family. We are very fortunate to have our therapists and because of them, our practice is growing every day!

Q: If you could give an aspiring therapist advice, what would it be?

A: One of the most important things you can do as an aspiring therapist is to do the personal work on yourself. Go to individual therapy and explore who you are and what makes you tick. Resolve any past emotional issues and work on healthy boundaries with others. You will also experience therapy from the client’s point of view, and that is valuable information. These things all translate to the therapy room when you are finally sitting in the therapist’s seat.

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Can People Really Change?

by Meg Tenny, MS, LCMFT

Monday, August 12

The therapeutic process is about change. A key element in achieving change in yourself or in your relationship is effort. When couples start therapy, they ask, “Do people really change?” What they are really asking is, “Will my partner be willing and able to meet my needs?” The short answer is yes, people can change, but you have to want to change. The old adage, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” accurately describes change momentum. Here are some tips about how to succeed in your transformation.

1. Share Responsibility: Change starts with taking personal responsibility. No one can make change happen for you, including your partner and your therapist, so focus on what you do have control over – yourself. Couples may consider asking themselves, “What am I contributing to the positive and negative issues in my relationship?” Take an honest inventory. Even if you believe your partner is responsible for creating most of the strife in your relationship, you still carry some responsibility here. Verbalize your thoughts to your partner and hold yourself accountable for any issues you have created, compounded, or aggravated.

2. Take Action: Change occurs in two steps: awareness and action. If you committed to making efforts towards change, what would it look like? What are some smaller concrete steps you can take to achieve change? Your list may include making commitments to being more positive or patient with your partner, eliminating criticism and verbal interruptions in your relationship communication pattern, or resolving to avoid verbal escalation with your partner. Steps could also be addressing your own mental health and self-care by scheduling an appointment with an individual therapist or a psychiatrist to manage depression, anxiety, and stress, starting an exercise regime, taking a mental health day, or starting treatment for substance use concerns.

3. Take Stock of Desire: Once you have identified the problems you are contributing to your relationship and have a plan, it is time to truthfully assess your desire to implement changes. Change, for most people, is challenging and anxiety-provoking. As human beings, we prefer maintaining homeostasis; that is, keeping things the same even if they are not the healthiest situations because it feels familiar and safe. For true change to occur, you will need to take stock of whether you really want to make changes. Ask yourself, “Do I want to continue my relationship?” “Do I see value in making a reinvestment of time, love, and energy to my partner?” “What is my motivation to improve my relationship?” If the will to improve yourself or your relationship is missing, it will be difficult to muster the momentum to realize change. Don’t underestimate the power of hope and the willingness to try. A positive attitude and hopefulness about the future can be the strongest driving forces in helping you accomplish the change you desire in your life.

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Therapist Spotlight: John Hart, PhD, LCMFT

John Hart, PhD, LCMFT

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 about working at RCC is that we are very collaborative here as staff and with our clients. I have been a part of this practice for 5 years now and I appreciate the spirit of working together as a family with our staff and how we make it clear to our clients that the therapy process is a collaborative process as well. This makes everyone feel that they have agency and our clients always seem empowered knowing that we value their efforts, thoughts, and growth in their treatment. 

Q: In your style of therapy, do you like to tackle the main issue head-on, or focus on the deeper issues first?

A: Clinically, it is helpful to start understanding the main issue first. Clients need answers or insight about their issues quickly. My style is to understand the presenting problem first and start to explore the deeper issues over time. Tackling the main issue head on also gives clients reassurance that you understand their concerns and that you are dedicated to addressing their problems. But, my current clients will tell you – I give a lot of attention to the deeper issues for the majority of the treatment because we need to “treat the wounds” and not just apply band-aids.  

Q: Have you yourself been to therapy?

A: Yes, I have been to therapy myself. I was in therapy for about 2.5 years and I wrapped up my treatment a couple of months ago. Going to therapy is one of the most important decisions I have made in my life both personally and professionally. In fact, going to therapy and working out my own inter- and intrapersonal issues has made me stronger as a person and a therapist. The best reward is seeing how my clients are getting the best version of myself. I honestly feel that you cannot be a therapist and not go to therapy yourself at some point – practice what you preach!

Q: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a marriage and family therapist?

A: I always knew that I wanted to be a clinician but I realized that I wanted to be a marriage and family therapist when I was in college and I took a class on couples’ relationships my senior year. There, I started to understand romantic relationships and divorce better. I did not understand how complicated relationships were when I was younger and so I was curious to go into a field that allowed me to understand relational dynamics in a clear and effective way. 

Q: What do you like most about working with people?

A: Getting to know them – hands down! My clients and I have a strong connection. This strong bond exists because it is important to take the time to get to know them outside of their presenting problems. My clients are amazing people and my job is to keep reminding them that they are not their problems and there are strengths and endearing qualities about them. This therapeutic relationship provides the trust that keeps them secure during the treatment process.  

Q: Outside of being a therapist, what are some of your hobbies?

A: I like to travel domestically and internationally, work out (I do a lot of cardio throughout the week), play video games, try different restaurants and watch movies with my fiancée. I am a very busy person so most of my hobbies are predicated on me relaxing and having a great time with my fiancée and friends. 

Q: What do you do for self-care?

A: I do a couple things for self-care – I work out, watch my favorite shows, and laugh. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe that laughing is the best self-care tool because it is the cheapest and easiest way to stay healthy and sane!

Q: In your experience, what is the most important thing that can strengthen a relationship?

A: Being non-judgmental. In my opinion, we live in a society that is so polarized and judgmental that it inhibits folks from truly being themselves. I see it play out in couples’ relationships where partners feel that they cannot always be who they are, in fear that their partner will either judge them or not want to be with them. That is a shame. Not judging your partner allows for more emotional intimacy, it fosters a deeper level of trust, and it honestly makes things much more relaxed. I always want my couples to be clear with their partner; it is preferred to be your true self (whatever that may look like) and love yourself because authenticity without judgments allows for the best version of the relationship to surface. 

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Tips for Blended Families

by Diamond Greene, MS, LGMFT

A blended family, also known as a stepfamily, is a family consisting of children from the current relationship and all previous relationships. About 1 in 6 children live in a blended family (Pew Research Center, 2015). Blended families come with a unique set of challenges as children may be used to a specific parenting style and family routine and must learn to adjust. It is also important to be aware that this can be a period of grief for children as they are dealing with the loss of the family that they knew. Furthermore, conflict between stepparents, biological parents, and ex-partners can also create stress, as well as conflict between children, stepparents, and stepsiblings.

Connection Before Correction: For stepparents, get to know your partner’s children. Stepparents can do this by setting aside a few minutes each week to dedicate to their stepchild. This time should be spent doing what the child wants, within reason, and the stepparent should avoid teaching or critiquing their stepchild during this time. If the stepchild is being disrespectful to the stepparent, avoid disciplining the child and let his or her biological parent do it. Parents should also spend special time with their biological children, as much of the parent’s focus will be on their new partner and joining the families together. Parents should encourage their children to maintain close relationships with both biological parents.

Traditions, Rituals, Routines: This is often a tough transition for children so it can be helpful to establish new traditions and rituals for the blended family, such as a weekly game night or family dinner. This shows children that they are part of a new, stable family unit. Children require stability and predictability, but with so many changes already taking place, such as moving into a new home, adjusting to living with new people, and likely seeing one biological parent significantly less, this can seem impossible. House rules can help to establish some sort of routine (i.e. chores, bedtime, homework, discipline, and rewards).

Respect, Empathy, Communication: Respect for everyone involved is essential and respectful communication should be emphasized as a standard. For example, parents should not talk badly about ex-partners to their children and children should show respect for stepparents and stepsiblings. It is likely that everyone will not like one another at first and arguments will happen, but families must learn to communicate effectively with one another and discuss solutions, while still considering everyone’s feelings. This will require empathy for and from all parties, as it is not easy to bring two families together.

This can be a very difficult time for both parents and children, so listening to one another and providing support is important. Families may seek family therapy, as this can help with building communication and conflict resolution skills.

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Therapist Spotlight: Wilson A. Llerena, MS, LGMFT

Q: Welcome to the Relationship Counseling Center of Maryland (RCC), Wilson! We are excited to have you on staff as a therapist. What are you most excited for in working with us and our clients? 

A: Thanks for having me! I’m most excited to be working with such a strong team. The therapists here are all well-trained and very supportive. They offer many different perspectives when discussing cases that allow me to take a step back and re-analyze my approach.

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 focus on the deeper issues first. The main issue that brought the client to therapy is usually the tip of the iceberg of a more vulnerable issue. However, vulnerability is quite difficult for anyone to address, so I take my time slowly addressing themes around those deeper issues until the client feels comfortable enough to openly discuss their most vulnerable parts.

Q: Have you yourself been to therapy? 

A: Yes! Attending therapy has been one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. There is a lot of negative stigma around therapy that makes people think if you go, you’re admitting that you’re weak, or something is wrong with you. I think it is unrealistic for anyone to think that they have no weaknesses. Many people experience shame when asking for help, but it takes courage to advocate for yourself in that way. I think therapy provides a vehicle for people to identify their blind spots in a healthy way in order to grow as an individual. As a therapist, it makes me more mindful of my clients’ experiences and perspectives in the therapy room.

Q: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a marriage and family therapist?

A: I knew I wanted to be a therapist when I was 16 years old after talking with a friend who was struggling with their parents’ divorce. I didn’t yet know, though, what kind of therapist I wanted to be. I considered Child Psychologist, Criminal Psychologist, and Social Worker before landing on Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). I really appreciate the systemic approach a MFT takes in their work, which is what attracted me to that profession over the others.

Q: What do you like most about working with people? 

A: Everyone has a story. I’m not good at reading, but I still enjoy the adventure clients take me on with their story. I see myself as a co-editor of the story each client is writing. My goal is to help them construct their preferred narrative and finish their book. I’m also aware I don’t look like/act like a typical therapist. I’ve had many clients enter the room and say “You’re not what I expected a therapist to be like.” I think that really speaks more to the stigma that scares people away from therapy. I’m hoping in my work I am able to show people that our community isn’t one to be feared.

Q: Outside of being a therapist, what are some of your hobbies?

A: I really enjoy singing. I find it very therapeutic and enjoy attending karaoke events. I also play volleyball competitively about 3 days a week.

Q: What do you do for self-care?

A: While I see my hobbies as a large component of self-care, I also meet with some friends once a month for a game night where we engage in some fun board games. I also love food, and therefore love to cook. At one point, I was considering culinary arts school before pursuing a career in mental health. Cooking for one is okay, but there is no greater joy than cooking for friends.

Q: In your experience, what is the most important thing that can strengthen a relationship? 

A: Validating our partner. Hands down. Everyone wants to be heard, but nobody wants to listen. It is so easy for us to ignore our partner when they are expressing themselves because we are focused on waiting for them to finish so we can get our point across. Being able to understand our partner’s experience is valuable in order to have our own subjective experience understood. It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing. It’s simply acknowledging that your partner feels a certain way, and that they are allowed to feel that way.

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The Art of De-Escalation

by Wilson A. Llerena, MS, LGMFT

Most of us hope that the partner we choose in life will always make us happy. We usually try to see the best part of that person rather than the worst. At some point, however, you find yourself butting heads with the person you care about the most. It’s unfair to expect ourselves or our partner to be perfect all the time or meet every one of our needs. Sometimes, in the heat of an argument, frustration escalates to hurt and pain. Though it is not our intention, once certain things are said, they can’t be taken back. Here are some ways to de-escalate an argument before it gets out of hand.

1. Breathe: Everyone gets angry. It’s a natural human emotion. Notice the physiological signs that escalation is approaching (i.e. tension in face, increased heart rate, dry mouth, grinding teeth, feeling hot, talking louder). If everything is happening too quickly, take a slow, deep, breath. Slow, deep breathing increases blood flow to the brain and reduces your heat rate, which will allow you to take a step back and think more clearly. Anger can blind us and make us forget why the fight started in the first place.

2. Be Mindful: You are the expert on yourself. As you notice the physiological signs of anger during an argument, do some self-reflective work and ask: What is coming up for me? What was I doing/feeling right before the argument started? Are the emotions I am feeling related to something more personal, or about something from the past? Is this argument similar to past arguments? Once you are able to take a step back and reflect, you can switch your focus to your partner, similarly asking: What do I know about them that is making this argument so personal? What was my partner doing right before the argument started? What struggles have I seen them go through that may be influencing this argument? What is happening that doesn’t make them feel safe right now?

3. Take a Time Out: Time outs are important because they remove us from the environment so we can re-evaluate the situation. No, this doesn’t make you weak, and this doesn’t mean you see your partner as a child. Think about the time outs that coaches call in sports – time outs are used all the time to rethink and restructure strategies. Mention that you feel you need a quick time out, and plan to discuss the issue with your partner in a few minutes. Set a timer so that you will both know when it is time to regroup and start the conversation. Perhaps wash your face off with some cool water or take a walk outside to get some fresh air. While the two of you are away on your breaks, try not to think of how to continue the argument when you return. Instead, refer back to steps 1 and 2 by breathing and being mindful. Now that you’ve had a break and your physiological responses have gone down, the two of you can try to piece together a reconciliation.

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