Eight Dates Challenge – Week Three – Sex and Intimacy

Welcome to the third week of our progress in the Gottman 8 week couples challenge!

Quick recap:  Joella and I have decided to read and participate in the activities featured in the Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by John Gottman, Julie Gottman, Doug Abrams, and Rachel Carlton Abrams and then share some of our reflections on the experience.  Last week, we addressed conflict in our intimate relationships.  This week, the topic moves on to addressing sex and intimacy.

WEEK THREE

Administratively, week three registers at twenty pages of reading.  It was very quick and got right to the point, while still making and admirable effort to be inclusive, including vignettes that represent a variety of couples.  The authors are transparent about the lack of research to support any recommendations for transgender couples and make a call for more research in this area.  About 20% of the content of this week’s chapter was dedicated to giving actual guidance and advice on how to make this date happen for couples.

REFLECTIONS

This might just be my therapist attitude toward life… but this chapter made me realize how difficult it is to write about sensitive topics.  I’m certain that I could write a book about how to cook gluten free biscuits that would be very helpful and informative for some with food sensitivities, but would infuriate a large percentage of my fellow native Carolinians (that’s not a real biscuit!!!), or might induce some to try a recipe that would be ultimately unsatisfying (if you can still ride the gluten train).

Food examples aside, I want to emphasize that this chapter and the last chapter about conflict could be distressing for some readers or couples, based on their lived experience.  Joella and I agree that these books were written for a very specific audience, namely couples who are looking to improve the quality of their relationship.  If a reader with a history of sexual trauma or intimate partner violence, or grew up in an environment where violence or control dynamics between partners was common, these topics would probably be better discussed with the guidance of a qualified, skilled and experienced therapist.  This is one of the main reasons that we insist on doing an in-person consultation before we take on couples clients.  It helps us identify whether some clients may need an opportunity to work through specific primary concerns or challenges in order to be able to safely benefit from all that couples work can offer.  This is not a criticism of the book, it is just a reflection on its targeted audience.

Most of the information shared in this chapter is similar to themes from other Gottman publications.  They encourage developing open communication around sex and intimacy,  creating rituals in the relationship that foster intimacy, highlight some of the most common “Sex and Intimacy Killers”  that invade our relationships from time to time.  They share some of the findings of their research about sex and intimacy, which has spanned nearly four decades.  For example, that married couples have sex more frequently than unmarried couples, or that couples that are able to talk openly about sex have more sex, and that the women in these relationships have more frequent orgasms.

I appreciated their efforts to normalize the individuality of our sexuality.  They define normal levels of desire for sex or intimacy as “Whatever frequency is comfortable for you…”  Not everyone is on the same page, and not everyone will be able to get on the same page.  Learning to navigate that in a open, curious and connected way is the formula for creating a more satisfying relationship.  The Gottmans and Abrams/ Carlton Abrams return to that theme again and again, whether the content of the chapter is sex, money, conflict, etc.

The  specific recommendations for the date on page 109 are highly detailed and well thought out, and I would be comfortable handing it out as a verbatim homework assignment for some of the couples that we work with.  It is a great way to close out this chapter and practice the research-based principles.  I especially like the affirmation at the end of this chapter.  These affirmations are designed to be recited together in order to cement some of the principles of connection that this work espouses.  It’s a great way to develop the habit of using rituals to enhance connection because it is something special that you only share with your partner.

We hope that the readers are finding these reflections useful and we welcome your comments and reflections of your own, whether you are reading the book, participating in the online (e-mail based) Gottman 8 week couples challenge, or just browsing the blog.  Let us know what you think or if you have any questions.

Next week the program dives into work and finances and we are eager to dive in!

 

 

 

Eight Dates Challenge – Week One – Trust and Commitment

It almost never fails that when Joella and I are introduced to new people and they find out that we are both Marriage and Family Therapists either one of two lines will follow.  Either, “You guys must have the perfect marriage… I bet you never fight.”  or “Wow, I bet you guys can really duke it out!”  This always highlights for me that we live under the impression that relationships are either “good” or “bad”.  That either partners get along, or they don’t.

I believe that this oversimplification is what keeps a lot of couples stuck in a state of continual co-isolation and distress.  Couples therapy, the way we see it, often revolves around undoing that oversimplification and helping couples see the vast array of ways that we “couple.”  And yes… I’m using couple as a verb!

Joella and I had been considering using the Eight Dates to help couples build some of the principles into their daily lives.  But over time, we’ve developed a personal and professional value that we don’t ask clients to do things that we wouldn’t do ourselves.  So we’ve decided to do the series first, blog some of our reflections on the experience.  We believe that it is certainly worth purchasing the book, so we will refrain from getting too in depth regarding the specific exercises and keep it to a summary of our own experience.

WEEK ONE

LOGISTICS:

Week one required about 37 pages of reading on the introductory principles behind the work.  This primer is very helpful and sets the tone for the rest of the book.  Like a good therapist, it explains why it is important to do the work, and fleshes out the “how” on what it actually looks like to incorporate these practices and teaches some basic communication skills.  Once you complete the intro, you move on to the Chapter One that outlines the theme of the first week’s date, which is “Trust and Commitment”.

TAKEAWAY:

The most important thing that I took away from the first week’s Trust and Commitment Topic was that creating the habit of going on dates is a practical way to incorporate the practice of commitment and trust.  In order to even go on a date, you have to block out time on the calendar in order to prioritize your relationship, you have to select a location, you prepare yourself and then you show up.  Any guesses what gets built when you repeatedly create time and space for someone, intentionally prepare and actually show up?  It’s simple… Trust!

This date gave us an opportunity to review the ways that we had learned about the meaning of commitment and trust from our families-of-origin, from our education and from our life experience.  When you create space to review things like that, you have the opportunity to ask yourselves the question, “So we learned it that way… is that working for us now?  Is that the way we want to keep doing it?”

The first date also touches on a theme that we’ve been highlighting from the very first days of our clinical training and continue to say over and over again in session after session.  Commitment is more than the words you say at a ceremony.  Commitment is something that you make  choices about every day.  Effective commitment is the process of choosing your partner every day… choosing the life that you build together.

As Gottman, Gottman, Abrams and Abrams (2018) said in the first chapter,

“We choose it even when we are tired and overworked and stressed out. We choose it no matter what attractive person crosses our path.  We choose it every time our partner makes a bid for our attention and we put down our book, or look away from the television or up from our smartphone…to acknowledge their importance in our life.”

If I had to choose a single thing to frame from this chapter it would be the previous quote.  If we were unable to choose commitment on a daily basis, regardless of circumstances, it would be very difficult, if not downright impossible to build trust, or put together any of the pieces of the relationship puzzle that the rest of the Eight Dates book covers.

Even as an experienced couples therapist, I still enjoy being reminded that many of the events and dynamics that seem to perplex us in relationships can be traced back to choices that we make on a daily basis.  Holding on to this perspective shift really puts us in the driver’s seat in our own lives and relationships.

Speaking of driver’s seats… Next week, in the disagreement chapter, I get to learn how to take ownership of the fact that I drive way too slowly and that can be stressful for my partner 😉

See you all next week!

 

Repairing a Relationship

It has been an embarrassingly long time since I have sat down to reflect and write in this space. Michael and I have been spending most of our time providing therapy to some incredible couples over the past few months. Time flies when we are working together… it is such a privilege to do this work.

Something we keep running into time and time again is the myth that when couples enter therapy the past wounds will be covered with immediate action like homework. Clients are eager to ask for the next task but the work is a little harder to spot and it certainly cannot be checked off a to do list.

The work lies often in holding both realities. The reality that the relationship is being worked on and will improve and the reality of the damage that has been done. Part of repair then is being able to sit with your partner in those tense moments when one or both of you lacks confidence in the relationship. Having compassion for one another and being able to see that the past hurt is just as real as the new future you are creating together.

The magic ingredient is not letting those moments set you back. Instead have confidence that this uncomfortable space of rehashing isn’t the past argument, it is a new conversation because it now exists in the context of working on the relationship. Rehashing for couples before therapy often happens in the context of “will we stay together” or “is this relationship healthy for me/us.”

Can you hold both the past hurt and the desired future just long enough to start to see it change?

Remember, change in humans is the same as a growing plant. It is hard to detect until you look for it.

 

Self-Care and Restoration

I used to think self-care was quiet time or that I could feel restored after a long night of interrupted sleep.

As a new therapist you are encouraged to “practice self-care” as it can be a shock to the system to begin this work. So my first several years as a therapist were spent seeking quiet solitude, watching movies, or attempting to ensure 9 hours of sleep as often as possible.

However, as I enter into 2018 I have drawn a new conclusion about what practicing self-care looks like… at least for myself.

  • Self-care is actually found in adventure.
  • Restoration is found in sleepless nights in the wilderness and bumpy flights to foreign lands.
  • Caring for myself means shaking off the limits that seem to settle on me like dust on trail runs and ski slopes.
  • A restorative night can be found staying up late connecting and catching up with loved ones.
  • Self care can be found in everyday chores or a commute when I am with my partner or listening to a good podcast.

It seems there is a message that self-care means being alone or disengaging with life. I have found the opposite to be true. Self-care and that feeling of being fresh and restored actually comes from truly living and engaging with life. Try it out 🙂

Resolve

I still love New Year Resolutions. I love that there is a time of year that people feel some sense of inspiration about their future. There is a magic in the air as one year closes out and a new one begins. A magic that seems to help some people give themselves a chance to dream or reimagine themselves.

The problem comes when they wake up two weeks later in a culture that doesn’t support change and growth. We live in a time when it is easier than ever to keep the status quo, avoid personal responsibility, and busy ourselves into oblivion.

Still, I believe in people. I have the honor of seeing people change their lives all the time… not just in January. I also know that sometimes people need a few false starts. Sometimes the journey is trying out new ways of being and discarding what doesn’t work. I don’t blame people for quitting gyms after two weeks. Have you been to most gyms during January? The place is packed and its cold and flu season… gross. Maybe it will lead you to finding the right gym, the right workout community, or the right sport that keeps you fit. Sometimes we make progress in quitting.

But I digress.

I promised myself this wouldn’t be a blog of “Joella’s new year opinions.” Rather, I wanted to talk about Cascadia Family Therapy’s resolve to provide the highest quality couple and family therapy we possibly can. We are more committed than ever in 2018 to creating massive change in the lives of our clients and in our industry.

It is time for the old way of therapy (you know the once a week, bill your insurance, only to get a bill months later, all the while wondering what your therapist is trying to accomplish with you kind) to get out of your way. It is time for a new way of therapy. Therapy that is transparent, empowering, and collaborative. Therapy that trusts the clients to do the work and believes in people’s resilience and possibility. 

We are here to do that work. When a couple or family is ready for change, we are here to work, support, encourage, provide skills, whatever it takes.

We believe in YOU to build the life you want. Make your resolution stick!

Interconnected

One of my favorite parts about being a marriage and family therapist (or systems therapist) is that we can pick from a wide variety of context to create change. Our minds and bodies are deeply connected and our relationships and environment are also connected to us. When you think of humans in the way, you can see how picking one area of life and making a positive change can impact the other areas.

If you are stuck in some area of your life or if you are feeling depressed or anxious pick one of these areas and do something different:

  • A relationship
  • work environment
  • home environment
  • physical health
  • give yourself the benefit of the doubt
  • how you greet your loved ones
  • go to bed earlier
  • eat more fruit and veggies
  • spend time outdoors

All of these things alter our chemistry and help us to get into another state of being.

What works for you?

Escape Rooms and Therapy

A friend recently told me about their experience trying out Bend Escape Room. In case you are not sure what I am talking about here is a summary of the games growing popularity.

I had two take aways from listening:

One, people are genuinely interested in spending more time with other human beings. In a world with exponential growth in technology and a variety of ways to avoid human interactions, things like Escape Rooms, outdoor sports and recreation, therapy, coaching, and shared office spaces keep growing and growing. It seems every time I hear of a potential job market becoming obsolete I hear an equal increase in these interactive spaces.

Secondly, people are searching for paths to connection. There is a shift in society from behind the computer screen to these spaces where ideas are built upon and connections form. It seems there is an underlying realization that human beings need each other. We need collaboration, cooperation, and all of the fine skills required.

Psychotherapy not only provides the skills necessary for collaboration and cooperation, it is also a space to try out those skills. After all, psychotherapy in my opinion should be an exercise in my expertise in relationships/emotional wellbeing and my client’s expertise in their own life. Therapy requires us to work collaboratively and cooperate toward a shared goal. Those skills then translate to your friends, family, and professional environments… which then translates to their friends, family, and professional environments.

It is all about connection!

Thanksgiving Guilt

Last year at this time I addressed boundaries and how to use them effectively to have a good holiday season.

After giving a presentation to my community about boundaries and family of choice I heard a resounding theme.

Guilt.

It seemed the crowd had a great grasp on the concept of boundaries including how to use them and how to make them effective. The questions came as we shifted the focus to family of choice.

Family of choice refers to those who find the holidays are best spent with the family members they have chosen. Some times these are blood relatives, some times they are friends collected along the way.  These are the people who make up the inner circle of your world. They are the people you trust fully and are there for you through thick and thin.

Two reminders:

  1. Guilt is a feeling associated with doing something wrong. Usually intentionally wrong. Or how dictionary.com puts it “the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability:He admitted his guilt.

  2. When one gets married and especially when they have children, this is your family. Parents, siblings, and other relationships take a back seat to your marriage and children.

I suggest another word for the feeling associated with recognizing that a family of choice doesn’t include a parent(s) or sibling(s).

Sad.

It sucks. No one in the world likes recognizing that a family member or someone they were raised by or raised with has a negative impact on them and their partner or children. And often those who need to build a family of choice the most have given way too much time, thought, consideration, and has given too many second chances.

Let go. Grieve. And give yourself permission to spend your holidays with people who make you feel loved, connected, and cared about.

 

 

When to seek Couples Therapy:

It can be difficult to tell when you need outside help in your relationship. Relationships go through phases just like people and sometimes the stress we feel is simply a point of growth. However, when the stress or issue begins to inhibit growth and linger, it’s important to tend to the issue. Also if these behaviors or interactions occur for a long period of time or become primary ways of coping in the relationship they are red flags.

  1. You stop talking and start avoiding: Is there a topic you can no longer discuss because both of you get to mad or hurt? Is there a topic that you have discussed at great length with no resolution or understanding? When both partners begin giving up on finding understanding, it is an issue. It can be beneficial to have a professional guide you two to better understanding of one another instead of just avoiding.
  2. Withholding affection or stonewalling: when one or both partners participate in this behavior it is dooming the relationship. The good news is it’s just a coping skill, with therapy you can find more productive ways to move through issues.
  3. Keeping secrets: It doesn’t matter if they are financial, emotional, or any other type of secret, keeping secrets in a long term relationship doesn’t work.
  4. If you feel like the only problem is your partner. That isn’t how relationships work. It takes two people to build a relationship and chances are your behavior or attitude could be fueling what you don’t like in your partner. Keeping yourself stuck in the victim seat only prevents both of you from growing together building the life you do want.
  5. When one or both of you can no longer lighten up once in a while. When the topics or issues being avoided or the pattern that gets you two no where is so large you are no longer having date nights or having a good time together that’s when it is time to see a professional. Relationships need care and attention to survive.

 

Community

For the past year it seems headline after headline reminds me of the importance of community. From the circus of a presidential election to a harsh hurricane season when I read the news Monday about Las Vegas, it was too much. I find myself attempting to learn as many facts in a short scan of the news and then needing a break from it.

It is important to remember flashy news headlines can be addictive. They make us feel under threat and rope us in. And now with social media broadcasting many of the same news stories, it is hard to get away from it.

My true hope is that you can dig deep into your community. Make eye contact and genuinely ask your neighbor, “How are you today?” Take a pause and thank the people you interact with throughout the day. Make plans with friends and family. Play games with your children. Take a break from media. For example, Michael and I quit watching/reading any news or social media after 6pm every day. This gives us a full 12-13 hour break each day. Go for a fall walk with a hot cup of tea.

Be in touch with your humanity.

Media is fear based. Fear sells things and makes people feel isolated.

The only antidote is to be in touch with your humanity and to love the wonderful people in your life.