Ah, March. Temperature begins to hike up into the 50s, it starts to get occasionally sunnier, and you finally find yourself heading towards that spring boost to go outside and participate in society. The end of March and the beginning of spring is such a lovely concept, unless you’re stuck still dealing with residual winter blues.   Winter can come with some really frustrating and seemingly insignificant annoyances. Weight gain, lack of daylight, and feeling cooped up in your apartment are just some reasons tension can increase between you and your partner. On top of this, the perpetual ennui that comes with spending all your money on food and alcohol because it is too cold and wet outside to leave the apartment can be weighty. And finally, the layered results of having nothing to do other than eat and drink also start impact your body and mind, and can make you feel stuck, not sexy, and lonely. Don’t fret- it happens! There are definitely ways to avoid this in future winters, but for now, allow me to focus on stepping out of this cycle and into spring with your partner.   Switch It Up During the spring, summer and fall, it is so much easier to plan small day trips and get out of your apartment. Dips back into routine feel like welcome old friends, and are there to help ground and stabilize you.  During the winter, and especially after the holidays, all most of us have is consistency. After the holidays you avoid traveling due to the long awaited decrease in chaos, the flu season, and the potential for ice. The outside world seems a bit overwhelming, so you stay home. At first, this feels comfortable and much appreciated after a few busy seasons of travel. But eventually this can become monotonous and featureless, and turns into feeling stuck and bored.  So, my suggestion? Disrupt your routine! Find a way to get out of the city and spend some time outside, even if it is cold. An article by Florence Williams in the Wall Street Journal explores research that has found that people are generally happier when: 1. They are with friends and lovers, and 2. They are outside. The true takeaway from this research is that people did not realize how much happier, healthier, and more creative they would be when they are in nature.  Grab your partner and bundle up to go for a walk on the highline or on Brooklyn Bridge. Make a day out of it! Get some hot chocolate and gloves and walk around Central Park, even if only for 30 minutes. If you have the time and money, try to make a day trip upstate or to somewhere in Long Island. You and your partner can even get a hotel room for one night just for something a little extra special. You two deserve the strengthening of a bond that comes with marching out of a difficult time together.   Eat Well and Exercise The dreaded suggestion that is applicable for just about every ailment is equally as relevant when alleviating your winter blues. Ironically, struggling with weight gain and feeling sad can make eating well and exercising more difficult than it already may be. I’m sure you can only imagine the cycle this creates! But, according to this article (and many others), research has shown that diet and exercise have such a significant impact on mental health that they can actually treat depression.  To motivate yourself to exercise, try going with your partner. Make it a team activity and do some research on exercises that require two bodies (such as throwing a medicine ball back and forth). You can also try writing down how you feel after you exercise so you can refer back to it during moments that feel a little less enthusiastic. And don’t forget to add some variety to your workout- if you cycle and your partner does HIIT, try trading off every now and then and see how you feel! As for eating well, find a cookbook with your partner and commit to making dinner together two to three times a week. If cooking is a comfortable topic for you two, do a cooking competition! Cook for each other and/or your friends and family, and embrace the small healthy habits your partner shows you (maybe they add a little less butter to a recipe you already love). Don’t forget to send each other motivating messages throughout the day to help you connect and remember that you are in this tricky time together.   Spend Some Time Apart I know this may sound counterintuitive for a couples therapy blog, but a hugely undervalued piece of information is that a healthy relationship balances both time together and time apart. If you and your partner have spent the last 4 out of 7 nights arguing about what shows to watch or what to eat, try spending an evening apart doing something fun. This means avoiding working late or a work happy hour, and instead going out with some friends you haven’t seen in a while.  Space is not only for when you are upset with one another! This article emphasizes just a few of the many reasons why time apart is vital for any relationship. This can be extra hard to snag in the winter, and may have to be planned out a bit more consciously (especially if you and your partner live together). Set a reminder in your phone or ask your friends to hold you accountable for a couple nights together a month.  Now what?  Get to it! Find ways to motivate yourself to take the steps towards the actions mentioned above. Leave sticky notes around your apartment, send yourself voice notes, and remind yourself that you are more than your winter lull. We have faith in you!  **A caveat: Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real. If you think what you or your partner are experiencing is more than just the “winter blues,” reach out for help! Seasonal Affective Disorder can impact your relationships and overall functioning, and you truly deserve to have this addressed if it is happening to you.   Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW  

When I tell people I am a couples therapist, they look at me wide eyed and in shock, and typically exclaim something along the lines of, “But… why?” This does not surprise me. Honestly, before I started doing couples therapy I had a similar response. There is so much complexity going on in each individual that I thought couples therapy sounded like absolute chaos. Therefore, it is not astonishing how scary the idea of couples therapy can be to people who really need it to help their relationship. So, here is my suggestion: start with a couples workshop! This can be a beautiful and engaging tool to help you build your understanding of what couples therapy actually is, what it can help you achieve, and whether it is the right move for you. A couples workshop will help you get your feet wet rather than diving in headfirst, and will allow you the space to process whether you and your partner just want the workshop as a booster, or if you need the space to process your relationship more deeply. So, lets dive into why a couples workshop can either be a first step or an endgame in helping to deepen and strengthen your relationship. A workshop can help you understand whether your problems are within the realm “healthy relationship problems.” I think this is just about the scariest sentiment you and your partner can sit with, which is, in this case, indicative of its importance. You never know what is going on in other people’s relationships, especially given the exaggeration of happiness that so often occurs on social media, in movies and shows, and in casual conversation. This can make it near impossible to tell whether your relationship is healthy or not. Acknowledging the question “is there something wrong here?” is acknowledging that there is a little signal inside of you that is telling you something is off. This in itself can create anxiety! So, lets slow it down. A good way to begin to assess your relationship is by asking yourself some of these questions. Allowing yourself space for honesty will show both you and your partner that you are being authentic in your work towards improving your relationship. This first step of awareness is a feat in itself; bee-lining to therapy sounds so intimidating that can feel unrealistic! You may have just come to terms with the fact that your marriage is not ideal, so to dive right in may just feel too overwhelming. Enter: a couples workshop. A workshop can be a space for you and your partner to honor the fact that you profoundly care for each other and want to make things work, even if you are not yet ready for couples therapy. A workshop will provide you and your partner with a concrete idea of what is on the spectrum of“healthy” in a relationship and what may not be. You’ll be in a space with other people who want to understand their partnership better (though you definitely do not have to talk to them or about yourselves), and you’ll hear your facilitator normalize a whole slue of problems. You’ll also learn about which issues require more steps to be addressed, and which problems are potentially not as colossal as you thought. For example, you may learn that arguing is not an indicator of an unhealthy relationship. This article begins to explain the difference between“healthy” and “unhealthy” arguing, and is just one of the common misconceptions you will learn to deconstruct in a couples workshop. A workshop can help you begin to take responsibility for individual “oops”without blame. A fear that I often hear from my clients is that they are scared the couples therapist will take sides. I should probably start by informing you that this is absolutely not the job of a couples therapist. This blog post explores the importance of looking at the couple as a system that interacts, rather than blaming an individual.That being said, I know it is hard to feel connected with this thought and the only way to know it for sure is to actually attend therapy. Of course, this becomes cyclic: “I’m scared my couples therapist will take sides,”“They won’t! That is not their job.”“They might.”“Try it out! You won’t know until you try.”“Can’t. I’m too nervous.” And around and around we go. Instead, one way to shift the fear of blame is to learn about what you can take responsibility for. In couples therapy, this can be immensely difficult, especially considering real life examples are used. A workshop is wonderful because your own life isn’t being used as the example. So, if you hear that criticism leads to divorce, you, your partner, and your therapist do not need to immediately unpack this. Instead you can become aware of your own behaviors, and start to work on it yourself without feeling blamed. A couples workshop is a great tool to help educate you and your partner on which behaviors you are displaying that are predictors of separation or divorce. You can both try to focus on shifting your own individual behaviors as you learn about them. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know! If you are not aware that criticism is a predictor of divorce, and your partner continues to frustrate you and not respond to your attempts at change, it is much harder to stop. A workshop helps initiate and fast track the path to success. A workshop is a fantastic tool for introducing some concrete information to couples that want to improve their relationship. It will provide you and your partner with the education you need and deserve on what patterns can be destructive in relationships, which patterns are most helpful, and how to understand your own responses in a practical and non self blaming way. A workshop will also help you gain the confidence in practicing the skills prior to entering couples therapy. This might be all you need! Sometimes, just understanding which patterns are harmful and gaining the tools to counteract the mare extremely helpful, and leave partners feeling fulfilled and connected. Other times, partners attend a workshop and can use the skills, but feel they would benefit from further exploration into their own relationship. Either way, a couples workshop is a reliable instrument to help you determine what you and your partner need to thrive now and in your future. Should we go? You and your partner are the experts in your relationship. Trust yourself and your gut when determining what is best for you. Maybe you know the end goal is couples therapy, but you two just do not have the emotional or logistical openness quite yet. Or maybe you truly believe you just need some skill building and information on how to navigate conflict. Or, maybe you want to seek individual therapy/an individual workshop prior to venturing into vulnerability with your partner. We trust that you are attuned to your own process, and will do what is best for you and your relationship.​ Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

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Other Blog Posts:

Five Small Indicators You Should Consider Couples Therapy​

How do you make the decision to go to couples counseling? I mean realistically, how do you get to the point in your relationship, with enough honesty, intention and awareness, to suggest that healing may be out of your own control?  The courage this takes has always astounded me, and has led me to immense respect for every couple that walks in my door. 

 

The swell of respect and empathy for the distress in my couples has led me to wondering if there is a way to intervene earlier. How can I help get couples to come to therapy more confidently and more quickly than the nationwide average of six years post problem onset (Gottman Institute)? I hear a lot of couples tell me they waited because they thought it would get better, or they thought this is just how relationships progress. I have heard others say they just felt that if they ignored the problem it would go away, or, on the contrary, that if they talked/yelled about it endlessly it would start to feel less bad. Finally, and the most heartbreaking one for me, is that if they admit they need couples counseling then that must mean they are on the path to divorce or separation. 

 

I hope this article can help add to the movement of breaking the stigma of couples counseling, and can help you and your partner understand how to assess the very first signs of a problem. Couples counseling does not have to mean divorce, especially when these small signs are addressed sooner rather than later (after all, timing is everything).

 

 

You’ve found that time spent having fun together is infrequent

 

After nearly 40 years of research, Drs. John and Julie Gottman (founders of The Gottman Method) found that the first thing to go in a marriage breakdown is friendship (Gottman research overview). This is critical information- losing friendship creates emotional disengagement and a deficit in connection, which can make arguments more frequent and more biting. 

 

So, nip it in the bud! When you’re feeling a little lonelier than you have in the past, or like your routine is all “work, kids, sleep, repeat,” check in and assess when the last time you had fun with your partner was. This does not have to be an extravagant date night, but can even just be hanging out and laughing on the couch after the kids have gone to sleep. It is so easy to talk yourself out of this for the sake of a few extra minutes of sleep or work, but remember: your relationship is one of your biggest investments: of time, energy and emotion. Try to make it a priority, and be aware when it is not. 

 

 

There have been, or will be, big changes

 

This does not necessarily mean you need to be having blow out arguments about these changes. Sometimes partners will come to a decision together, only to have one partner feel resentful in the long run. Couples counseling will ensure that you both are on the same page about the decisions you make, and will help you address and process potential blind spots, miscommunications, or confusions.  

 

 

Your arguments are repetitive and/or cyclic

 

This one can be a little misleading. “Perpetual issues” are actually a part of a healthy relationship, and take up about 69% of the attention devoted to arguing within a relationship (see Gottman research overview for a better understanding of “perpetual issues”). When I refer to the cycle of arguments as an indicator for considering couples therapy, I am thinking of the ones that are destructive and hurtful. These types of arguments are not only making no progress but also are ending in a way that feels wounding. These arguments are not always about the same exact thing, but they can take on the same patterns or have the same theme. To assess for this, try to take note of the feelings coming up during your arguments. Do you feel consistently undervalued or deprioritized? Or unheard? Take a step back from the content of the argument and try to be aware of the feeling behind it.    

 

 

Things at work are a little extra stressful

 

And there is no end in sight. If either you or your partner are coming home a little more irritable and anxious than usual, or are having trouble sleeping due to overworking and/or increased work stress, the relationship can get a bit tricky. This is especially apparent when both partners are struggling with increased work stress. When you come home from a stressful day, the last thing you typically want to hear is about your partner’s stress. For some couples this can become a subtle competition of “who is more stressed”? When this competition takes over, it is hard for either of you to feel empathized with when one partner’s pain must not be as bad as the other’s. Couples therapy can help build some stress management techniques, and some ways to step out of your own thought process and into your partners for just a moment. Here are some ideas on how couples can cope with professional stress.

 

 

Something just feels “off”

 

Trust. Your. Gut. A psychoanalytic interpretation of a “gut feeling” is that it is a visceral or body memory popping up from something that has happened in the past (Dr. Puder and his guests explain the impact of the unconscious on “gut feelings” further in this episode of his podcast).  This means that if something feels funky in your relationship, it might not be an indicator of the relationship as a whole, but it is triggering something uncomfortable for you and deserves to be addressed. Attending therapy can help you put words to your feelings for both you and your partner in a neutral and non-blaming way.

 

 

All in all…

 

You may be thinking, “These issues seem relatively small, and feel like they might just go away. Why go to therapy?” Yes, you definitely may be right. They really could just get better on their own. But the point I want to emphasize is that you do not have to wait until something catastrophic happens to go to couples therapy, and it is actually exponentially more effective if you do not wait. So, if you see some small signs and feel a few booster sessions might be helpful, why not? Your partner is your world, and someone you (may) hope to spend forever with. You and your partner are deserving of making sure your relationship is a deep, strong, and happy as it can be- for mental, physical, and emotional health reasons. 

 

Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

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