Lately, you’ve been feeling a little alone. You go home to your partner each night, ask each other how your day was, respond with a platitude, and scroll through your phones. Sometimes, when you do try to engage in conversation, it feels like you’re communicating via broken telephone wire: you hear every fifth word, and then one of you gets frustrated and hangs up. On top of this, it is Valentine’s Day “season,” and there are constant reminders all around you of how everyone is seemingly happier in their relationship than you are.  Your disconnection manifests in long silences and a lack of intimacy. How has this become the only alternative to attempting to communicate about something as benign as your day? You’ve decided arguments are a drain of energy. You already work a full time job and may even have kids to take care of. How are you supposed to focus on feeling more connected to your partner when every other aspect of your life requires all of your energy? How do people do this?! Okay yes, this all sounds pretty drab. Keep in mind that just because you’ve temporarily stepped out of your relationship emotionally does not mean you cannot step back in, especially if both you and your partner are game. So instead of focusing on disruption from your relationship, lets shift gears and place the spotlight on a few ways to help you enhance your connection.   Fire up curiosity  As couples therapists, this is something we hear from peers and supervisors all the time. “Stay curious; ask questions!” This feels next to impossible for new and anxious therapists, and may require a lot of effort from a seasoned but routine-stuck and burnt out therapist.  I write this to help you understand that curiosity is not necessarily something that comes naturally, and this is not indicative of failure. It does not mean you are doomed to a life of minimal passion and disconnection. Sometimes it may feel like you are too on guard with frustration or anxiety to open yourself to new understandings of your partner. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes you and your partner may be too ingrained in your routine to remember that every day is not the same, and deserves some exploring- no matter how mundane it feels.  Try switching your questions up. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” try remembering something specific you know from the week prior, and ask about that. Or, better yet, ask about your partner’s thoughts or feelings instead of events. In this article, Dr. Carol Bruess explains that loneliness in a partnership comes from lack of emotional connection and openness. So, she suggests, ask about emotions! This may feel strange at first, but it is a great way to step out of the pattern of disconnection.   Gift yourself with honesty It is relatively easy to slip into the “blame game.” How many times have you and your partner been off the mark on something you truly thought you were on the same page about, and wound up feeling hurt and alone? Instead of honing in on your individual responsibility for miscommunication, it is much easier to blame your partner for the confusion and disconnect. In fact, it is so much easier that sometimes you won’t even realize you’re doing it.  Chances are good that your partner had some responsibility here, but chances also pretty good that you missed the mark as well. Instead of evading accountability, try to reflect on what you could have done differently. For example, lets say your partner said he was going out to the bar until 10pm, but came home at 11pm. This infuriated you on a surface level, and left you feeling abandoned and alone on a deeper level. You immediately either escalate to yelling, or shift into a shut down and silence. After all, your partner lied and abandoned you! How are you supposed to forgive him?  Lets take a moment to reflect- yes, your partner definitely could have communicated better. In addition to his difficulty with communication, maybe there are some steps that can be taken to avoid this in the future. For example, did he say he was leaving the bar at 10, or would be home by 10? Did you find a moment to express that it was important he be home by 10, or were you already feeling a little shut down and frustrated from an earlier argument that was not repaired?  Remember, the direction towards acceptance of accountability is not an extension of the blame game. It is an understanding that both parties hold responsibility in each misattunement, and being the first to break the cycle of blame and accept accountability may allow your partner to feel safer and to follow suit.   Let go of myths, comparisons, and where you “should” be This is one that my clients quite literally roll their eyes at. Humans are driven to compare themselves to others. It is totally adaptive, in that it helps you understand what is missing in your life and allows you the space to grow. However, the comparison approach is absolutely not helpful for relationships.  Why, you ask? As I’m sure you conceptually understand but may not connect with emotionally, what you see in other’s relationships in not a reflection of their reality. It is really difficult to scroll through Instagram and see constant floods of seemingly flawless relationships, especially when you are feeling lonely in your own, and especially when there are not footnotes at the bottom of each post stating, “we do not look this happy all the time.” Here are some suggestions to counter the comparison virus: First, try putting social media away for a few days to recalibrate. Does your thought process shift at all? Next, try exploring what you do have instead of what you do not have. Yeah, maybe your partner constantly forgets to do her dishes. But she is also so supportive and responsive when you have a tough day at work. And lastly, try expressing gratitude for the moments you do feel connected to help both you and your partner notice and build on them.  Make a plan for your inevitable future of disconnected moments As mentioned, it is okay to be a little off or to feel disconnected! You both have full, individual and private lives. A successful and fulfilling career and friendships outside of your relationship are actually important for making your relationship thrive. It is not beneficial to depend on your partner to fulfill all your needs. This being said, this creates room for connection with your partner to expand and contract over time.  Fortunately, relationships are less about avoiding misattunements and discomfort, and more about the reparative moments. Reparative moments build trust and help you feel validated and understood. They allow your relationship to grow, and are most effective when done consistently and during small misattunements rather than waiting until a massive blow out (see this article for deeper dive into repairs).  So, the idea is to plan for these moments of disconnect rather than unrealistically avoiding them entirely. Help your partner understand what you look like/what you say when you are feeling unheard or dismissed. Tell your partner what you need for a repair- whether it’s a small joke, a silly face, or an acknowledgement of your feelings. And, of course, don’t forget to stay curious about what your partner needs during moments of misattunements as well.   Summary If you are going to take away one thing from this article, please let it be the fact that disconnection is completely normal for two people with busy, successful and individual lives. There are ways to repair these moments, and techniques to prepare for them in the future. If you feel you are out of your depths and have given the repair everything you’ve got, consult a couples therapist, a couples workshop, or any third party to help you understand where to go from here. You and your partner deserve to feel connected and in love- your partner is your biggest supporter, best friend, and intimate lover, and you are theirs. Together you’ve earned a relationship where you can feel loved and connected. So, take the steps to get there and give it your best shot. You can get close to that relationship you’ve always dreamed about with some effort, commitment, and the desire to get there.   Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

There are about a thousand things a healthy relationship has- kindness, honesty, love, connection, etc. For the sake of this blog post, I will do my best to boil this thousand down to four main bullet points that I and other couples therapists have identified as healthy, foundational necessities for a couple to thrive.

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Re-learning to love: What should I know about couples therapy?

Beginning to think about couples therapy can be downright anxiety provoking, especially considering it is typically not the first choice of couples hitting a marital rift or lull. In fact, not only is it not the first choice, it is typically one of the last choices. According to The Gottman Institute, the average couple spends about six years being unhappy prior to seeking marriage counseling. This means six years (or more) of hurt feelings, anger, and sadness. How can couples therapy help you heal and process interpersonal wounds when your wounds are constantly reopened? This is an excellent question, and part of why it is so important to seek help when feeling gridlocked in your relationship. 

 

So, lets quell those nerves and start with understanding what couples therapy looks like- in those first few sessions and in general. 

 

 

The First Session(s)

 

The first session is essentially an assessment period, and content varies among therapists. Depending on what method and approach your couples therapist is utilizing, he or she will typically ask both parties for their narrative of what has brought them to therapy. Your therapist may ask for you to dive into a conflict for about ten minutes to learn about the patterns of arguments that are occurring (don’t worry- your therapist is well aware that you will both be on your best behavior during this argument, and will learn more about your conflict patterns as therapy progresses). Sometimes there will be an assessment conducted to get a better understanding of your strengths and needs, and your therapist may send you home with questionnaires to complete. He or she will possibly request to schedule a session with each partner individually to gain a better understanding of family history, development, and relationship concerns. 

 

 

The Treatment

 

All couples therapists conduct therapy differently, however, there are some fundamental skills and processes that you will be engaging in with your couples therapist. The primary goal of most couples therapy is to develop a secure and fulfilling attachment and connection to your partner. This is typically done through three main processes: building friendship and fondness/admiration, increasing ability to emotionally regulate, and learning to manage conflict (even the perpetual gridlocks). 

 

 

Building fondness, admiration and friendship

 

Remember in the beginning of your relationship when you and your partner knew each other inside and out, admired each other, and were able to keep both passion and fun in your relationship? It is so normal to lose some of this as your relationship progresses and things inevitably change. Your jobs become more stressful, you have kids, and you have to deal with each other’s families, all among the plethora of other daily exasperations occurring. The first step of marriage satisfaction decline is the loss of those small, seemingly inconsequential moments of deep care and fondness displayed towards one another (think: expressions of appreciation, date nights, pillow talk, etc.). A foundational component of couples therapy is increasing the ability to rebuild core feelings of respect, love and friendship, and finding ways to do this with limited time, resources, and energy.

 

 

Regulating emotion

 

One of the most important tools couples therapy can provide you with is the ability to communicate while experiencing heightened emotion. On a day-to-day experience, all animals enter and exit something called a “window of tolerance,” a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel to describe levels of regulation*. In our window of tolerance, we are able to think, process and explore relationships successfully and openly. In any relationship, and especially when there is a history of wounds and hurt feelings, we are pushed out of our window of tolerance into a place of hyper or hypo-arousal. These responses can be generalized into the term flooding. Flooding is essentially an activation of the fight/flight/freeze, or survival, response. Our heart rates escalate and we can no longer think, hear, or process effectively.

Now, imagine being in that survival response (think: life or death situations) and communicating openly and kindly about who said they were going to pick up the kids from school today. Yes, impossible. 

Couples therapy can help you identify when you are flooding and find ways to regulate through self-soothing techniques (How To Improve Your Mental Health By Using The Window of Tolerance). Once regulated to heightened emotion rather than flooding, you and your partner are more likely to come to a helpful and respectful resolution (even if still difficult). Keep in mind that while it is not helpful to communicate when your body is telling you to shut down or run for your life, it is actually helpful to communicate during emotional states. This brings us to our next topic: managing conflict. 

    

 

Managing conflict

 

You will also learn techniques to manage conflict respectfully and effectively. Beware- this is not as easy as it sounds. This requires both parties taking responsibility for their faults in communication, and doing this while experiencing any of the pleasant or unpleasant emotions that come up. This also requires a certain level of vulnerability and acknowledgement of emotions in order to develop a felt sense of safety. In her creation of emotionally focused couples therapy, Dr. Sue Johnson emphasizes the importance of identifying and experiencing the emotion during conflict, acknowledging unaddressed needs, and creating an alliance with your partner. Couples therapy can get messy in terms of experiencing heightened and uncomfortable emotions, but these emotions make it more likely for you and your partner to ground in your alliance with one another and work together as a team instead of as opponents (Embracing Emotion in Couples Therapy). No pain no gain, right?

 

The Gottman Institute has identified four core communication styles that predict divorce (contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling) and your couples therapist can help you identify these in real time. An effective couples therapist will also help you replace them with more constructive communication techniques that can both help you be heard and help your partner respond in a way that is helpful. 

        

 

What is couples therapy not?

 

Finally, it is important you know this: Couples therapists are not mediators. Your couples therapist will not take your partner’s side and devalue your experience, and your couples therapist will not pick your side and focus on all the things your partner is doing wrong. Your couples therapist is there to help you with a multitude of facets in your relationship, but they are absolutely not there to penalize, shut down, or referee. 

 

 

So, should I go? 

 

Maybe you’ve been living parallel lives or haven’t had sex in months (or years), and you’re noticing you feel lonelier than ever. Or maybe one (or both) of you has had an affair, and you’re both finding it impossible to move past. Or maybe you’re having 100 different arguments about 100 different tiny and seemingly trivial things every day, and are fed up and frustrated by the small things leading to explosions. Know that a couples therapist is there to help you build on your ability to communicate and regulate, both in general and while arguing, and to help you re-find and build on your foundation of love, friendship, and deep connection. And remember, you and your partner are the experts in your relationship. We trust that you will do what is best for you- whether this means couples therapy or not. 

 

 

*Siegel, Dan (1999). The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: Guilford Press

 

 

Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW

 

 

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