Earlier in the year, we published a blog post on what to expect from couples therapy. At the bottom of this post, we had a brief section called “What couples therapy is not.” Since this time, we have gotten some feedback expressing curiosity regarding what exactly couples therapy is supposed to look like, and what it is definitely not supposed to look like.  While I could probably spend days exploring this subject, I will stick to the basics and give you a general idea of what couples therapy is not supposed to look like, and the types of situations that may not be appropriate for couples therapy.  1. Couples therapists will not take sides This is the point I ended with in my previous post about what couples therapy is, and one I think is super important to help everyone understand. Couples therapists will not take sides, and will never assign blame or shame. You and your partner both deserve to be heard. As this article beautifully phrases it, “You are not the client, the couple is the client.”  A couples therapist’s job is really to look at how both parts of the couple create one unit. This means paying attention to patterns that cause those frustrating and repetitive cycles that make both you and your partner feel they’re never ending. Emotionally focused couples therapists will help you both explore how they begin, and where the misunderstandings/trigger points are happening. A couples therapist will not shame or blame you, but instead will help you explore ways in which both you and your partner can feel seen and heard.   2. Couples therapists will not be punitive In a similar vein, couples therapists are not working to penalize couples when they make a mistake or when they do not follow through with an action. Instead, couples therapists will provide a warm and nurturing environment to help you. A couples therapist is there to provide encouragement, identify strengths, and to support you and your partner when you are feeling hopeless about what steps to take next.  When next steps are difficult, a couples therapist will help you problem solve problems by identifying barriers and deeper preventatives to reaching your goals. This article explains how a couples therapist is really there to help you explore what you’ve been doing that is helpful for your relationship, and what you can add to make it even better!   3. Couples therapy is not a solution While a couples therapist can help you solve some logistical problems-- such as making a schedule for laundry-- they cannot heal all wounds (though we’d love to). Ideally, a couples therapist will help you identify and explore patterns that have developed within your relationship. They will use evidenced based practice to help you and your partner understand how you got to where you are, and how to shift the dynamic. Patterns may have developed due to the way you two interact, but also likely as a result of your overall understanding of relationships learned earlier in life. Your couples therapist will help you understand how you and your partner can break the cycle of feeling misunderstood through connection and empathy.   4. Couples therapy is not easy Typically, couples therapy is not a “one and done” resource, and is not a quick fix. This being said, couples therapy can help provide you with the tools to take the baby steps towards increasing overall relationship satisfaction. It will help you think critically about your relationship and the patterns you and your partner both engage in. It will also allow you to understand how these have developed and what you can do about them. This takes time, and requires a deep emotional dive. As this article says, “to preserve your marriage, you must prioritize it.”  Don’t forget to keep your couples therapist in the loop about how you two are feeling about the process. You and your partner will feel comfortably uncomfortable during session- this is the sweet spot!  5. Couples therapy is not a place to go to “convince” your partner of anything  In order for couples therapy to be successful, both partners must be invested (though level of investment may vary, and this is totally normal). It is not suggested that you and your partner attend couples therapy if one of you is trying to convince the other of anything; including staying together, that one partner is at fault, or that the other partner’s parents are to blame for couples issues, etc. A couples therapist (and any therapist, for that matter) will not try to convince you in one direction or the other. They will work to help you see all your feelings, behaviors, options and choices clearly so you can make the best informed decision for your relationship.  While all therapists are different and often use different methods and approaches, the above five explanations of what a couples therapist does not do are what I have gathered from communication with trusted colleagues. If you have further questions about what a couples therapist does, or how to understand the process as a whole, give one a call! We are here to help support you in understanding which decision about therapy is best for you, whether you are a client or not. ​Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

As the weather gets nicer, people have been venturing out of their apartments and reentering the real world. You’re seeing the country reopen, and your friends and family are beginning to do the same. While quarantine has felt simultaneously exhausting and boring, you’re surprised the first feeling you’re having at reopening up is not relief. Instead, you feel a rumble of anxiety in your belly. How are we, as a culture, supposed to just “go back to normal?” And what is the new normal? ...And what if quarantine has felt restorative for me?  Everything you’re feeling is okayI think it is super important to start with this one. Even though you were excited for quarantine to be over, it is 1000% okay to be nervous for what is to come. Maybe seeing your friends for the first time is unsettling, or going to see your family feels a little funky still. You could be worried about contracting coronavirus, worried about your career and finances, or worried about re-engaging with others in person. Whatever it is, it’s a normal response to an abnormal situation.  Just like acclimating to the slower life of quarantine was tricky, reacclimating to post quarantine life may be tricky too, but for different reasons. Ramping your working and socializing odometers back up to full force may feel not only anxiety provoking, but scary.  Notice these feelings, and allow yourself to have them. In-person situations might feel more exhausting than usual, because your body is not used to the consistent in-person interactions. Humans are typically more sensitive to other people’s energies than they realize, so interacting with others can be surprisingly draining. Do your best to be aware of what is happening in your body, and take a break when you need it/when you are able to. Slow down and focus on the day to dayThis is so difficult for someone who is always buzzing and getting things done. You’ve planned your career and you’ve succeeded, so why can’t you plan your future too? As someone who likes to pretend I can predict the future, I am well acquainted with the fear that comes with not knowing what is next. This is a gentle reminder that you cannot predict the future, and you do not need to in order to cope with the present.  The thing about predicting the future is that most predictions are mistakes. All a human can do is base the future off of what they know about the past and present, but there will always be curveballs. For this reason (plus others), it is much more productive to focus on how you will manage the day by day. For example, what does your schedule look like tomorrow? What is for dinner tonight?  As hard as it is to connect with this thought in the moment, no amount of worrying will prepare you for what is coming next. Things will happen that are unexpected (*cough* coronavirus *cough*), so try to settle your mind on the next days or weeks in order to feel as in control of your next steps as you’re able to. Baby stepsIt is SO exciting to get to see your friends and family again, but remember, baby steps! I know you want to jump back in, but hear me out… The world is reopening in waves for a reason. Try to notice what is coming up for you as you reenter the world. A million feelings can happen all at once- excitement about seeing your loved ones, fear for catching the coronavirus, or grief over the loss of the past few months and what is to come. For this reason, it is especially important to stay slow and steady, and to notice the conflicting parts of you. How many times have you been invited somewhere, and both did not want to go, but also wanted to go at the same time? This is completely normal, but is important to pay attention to after being semi isolated for 2-3 months. Forgetting to tune into the moment can lead you to ignore your body signals telling you to reel it back, which can lead to anxiety and other types of discomfort.  Am I bad if I don’t want quarantine to end? Any of my clients will tell you how rarely I provide direct answers during session, but I can give you a resounding “No!” for this one. Quarantine has allowed humans to slow down and notice the small joyful moments happening that they were not able to take note of when life was moving at such a fast pace.  This is beautiful information! And you can absolutely use this awareness to bring it to your day to day outside of quarantine. For example, if you learned that having some more time in the morning to enjoy your coffee is something that makes your whole day better, leave time for it upon return to “normal.” There are tons of benefits of working from home/lockdown. Notice them and see if you can get creative about them as the world reopens.  All in all…Your emotions are a normal response to an abnormal situation. Instead of avoiding them or self shaming, embrace them and use them as information. If you are feeling anxious, or are dreading returning back to work, then something about the security of a lockdown probably felt safe and comforting. How can you bring this into your daily experience?  Finally, take small steps. You are so driven to make up for lost time, but the only way to actually optimize your time is by paying attention to your mental health. Doing so will make you more efficient and productive. If you are really struggling with adapting to post quarantine life, give us a call! We are here to help you readjust.  ​Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

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How to communicate during times of high stress​

Picture this: you and your partner are on a roll. You’re in sync, communicating healthily after a long day at work, and finding time to make the most of your small moments of connection. You’re feeling as connected and in love as ever. 

 

This does not have to be a figment of your imagination, even during quarantine. I am going to give you some key communication tips to help you and your partner manage high stress situations such as quarantine, moving, job changes, extended family time, and more! 

 

Be thoughtful about your language

A common question I receive from couples, especially during quarantine, is “How can I communicate my needs without hurting my partner’s feelings?” It is so incredible how mindful the couples I see have been of one another. But, even with this mindfulness, it is easy to start to feel stuck when you have a need that you just can't let go. 

 

Here is a time when you can be creative about getting your specific need met. For example, a really common need is space, especially when two people are cooped up together for months on end with little reprieve. But, if you know the word “space” triggers feelings of abandonment for your partner, you can easily switch this up and use a different phrase to get the same need met. Saying something like “I need some quiet time” may feel a lot less threatening to a partner who feels anxious about being separate. 

 

Make it about you...

Yes, this is most definitely about those ubiquitous “I statements.” When used correctly, these statements have true and deep value. They are created to help the speaker take responsibility for their feelings and, by doing so, help the listener feel less attacked and more empathetic. 

 

Softened start ups, or statements designed to reduce defensiveness, are a great way to take those “I statements” a step further. Using the space example from earlier, saying something like “Hey babe, I’m feeling really overwhelmed and need some quiet time” can show your partner it is about your need, not about their behaviors. In other words, focus on the complaint and the solution instead of the blame. The hope is that this will shift the dynamic out of attack mode and into mobilization. After all, there is nothing more loving than being gently corrected and still accepted.

 

And make it about the couple

As mentioned in various previous posts, it is normal for partners to have different needs. Balancing these needs can be really tricky if they’re very different- I’ve been seeing a couple where one partner wants to relax together by jogging, while the other partner wants to relax together by watching a movie.

 

Instead of jumping into a convincing argument about why your partner should do the thing that you want to do, focus on the couple as a third party. Each partner can relax by doing their individual tasks, and then they can come together afterwards to explore some ideas about what will make the unit the happiest. 

 

This is less about compromise, and more about finding an activity that will satisfy both of you. For this couple, it happened to be cooking. This had nothing to do with staying energized with running or calming the nervous system through a funny movie, but instead introduced a separate activity the couple wanted to do together. 

 

 

Bonus: Create a list of couple approved activities that you two can return to when you’re feeling less creative!

 

 

Regulate, always

This suggestion should really just be at the top of every blog we post. When you are not regulated, you will not be able to communicate. You will not hear or empathize with your partner, which will put you on attack mode, which will shift your partner into attack mode, which will escalate an argument. When you communicate hurt feelings, you need to be regulated enough to be able to hear and receive hurt feelings, too. 

 

Preserve your needs and focus on what you need to stay regulated. Keep in mind that sometimes this could be up-regulation (when you are feeling tired, it is sometimes more effective to energize through something like jumping jacks) or down-regulation (when you are feeling anxious or on edge, it is typically more effective to belly breathe or smell calming scents). Once you’ve entered your place of regulation, your mind can open up to your partner’s. Check out this article on how self regulation can be helpful for your work team, too. 

 

Speaking of opening your mind to your partner’s…

Remember that their world is different than yours. Maybe they’re doing something excessively annoying, or they’re constantly forgetting to do the thing you asked them to do ten thousand times. While this is frustrating, stay regulated to remember that they are likely not trying to hurt you or ignore you. Maybe your partner is a bit spacey, or maybe they need to increase their listening skills. Regardless, they are not (I hope) out to get you. 

 

Remembering this innocence will help you begin to assume good intentions, and will allow you to be a bit more patient with their faux-pas. After all, you fell in love for a reason! Channel that love and ask your partner to help you understand their thought process. 

 

This too shall pass

Keep in mind that it is normal to feel a bit more sensitive during times of high stress. The world can feel like chaos, so stay united as a team with your partner through these communication tools (and some extra success strategies to help you get there). 

 

Finally, if you have already decided you want to go to couples therapy, and your wife/husband/partner is refusing, use their perspective as a home base. What are they afraid of, and how can you soothe their fears? 

 

Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

 

 

 

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