Relationships can bring up all kinds of unexpected obstacles, and therapy can be a helpful tool to navigate them. But what if there's no significant conflict at play? I get asked this very question pretty frequently as a therapist who works with many young couples who are just starting their journey together. My answer to them is that you don't have to go to couples therapy just because you're in an argument. You can go to couples therapy to make your relationship with partner better—which is actually a pretty sufficient and healthy enough reason to begin in the first place.
It doesn't matter if you've been together for one week or five years, you learn new aspects of your partner's personality all the time. It's not like you enter a relationship and have your partner fill out a personality questionnaire (or do you?) so you know as much as possible about them right off the bat. No, you figure it out along the way.
There are ways to understand your partner better that don't entail a personality quiz (although sitting down together to learn your Myers Briggs or Enneagram types could be a fun date, but I'm a dork so what do I know?). Couples therapy is one way to do that. I can hear you now: "We never fight. Why would we go to therapy together?" Well, couples therapy isn't just for couples who are on the brink of breaking up. It can actually be a beneficial tool to know your partner better in many aspects of your relationship. Couples therapy can help you learn about those little quirks a little bit faster, and in a setting that allows you both the space to air your thoughts in a safe manner.
By attending therapy when you're not in a fight or experiencing a crisis you can improve the quality of your relationship and deepen your empathy and understanding, and to communicate in a clearer and healthier way.
When you come to therapy before your ship starts to sink, we can more quickly work to gain heightened sensitivity to each person's feelings and needs, boundaries and vulnerabilities. Couples therapy increases knowledge and understanding of yourself and your partner, which helps both of you be kinder to themselves and each other. And that helps each person know and express their needs, communicate more skillfully, and be more attuned to the feelings and needs of their partner.
And guess what? All of these practices are useful for any couple at any stage in their relationship.
You and your partner don't need to be at each other's throats to reap the benefits of couples therapy. And in fact, getting comfortable with communicating honestly now might save you from an emergency session with a couples' therapist down the road.
We've all experienced being hurt by someone we love. It's inevitable. Even when two people have a connected, secure and healthy relationship, they will end up hurting one another at some point. We're human. That's just the way it is. When couples come to see me for therapy, it's often due to an experience or pattern of experiences that caused one or both of the partners to feel hurt. The couple decides to come to therapy because they are having a difficult time resolving this hurt. They need some help in order to feel safe with each other again.
When working with couples, I want to understand the nature and significance of the hurt before moving toward resolution. How bad is it? How deep is the impact? First, we must understand the two levels of hurt: relational hurts and attachment injuries.
Relational Hurts (Hurt Feelings)
Couples who are secure in their relationship can usually navigate relational hurts on their own. Some examples of relational hurts might be forgotten anniversaries, reactive insults, or blow-up fights that sneak into relationships. For couples who feel they can depend and rely on each other in times of need, relational hurts are pretty simple to navigate. Attuned couples do this by sharing their hurt feelings with each other, hearing and empathizing with the hurt of their partner, and they provide comfort and reassurance. Partners can then move forward in the relationship with trust, security, and safety despite the hurtful experience. This is a natural and expected experience for healthy relationships.
I can often tell when a hurt falls into the category of a relational hurt. In our sessions, couples may share feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, and pain in response to an experience. But when I ask them if they feel their partner loves and cares for them, they can quickly answer “yes.” For them, even though the hurt happened, it hasn’t significantly changed the way they view each other or the relationship.
Attachment injuries are trickier. These injuries require a lot more care, consideration, and guidance, sometimes from a couples counselor.
When couples are trying to respond to attachment injuries as if they are merely a relational hurt, they can stay stuck. Without recognizing the significance and impact of the injury, they can go down a long road of frustration and more hurt. An injured partner can feel even more hurt that the other person is not responding in ways that provide healing. The hurt deepens, becomes more complex, and can create great distress in the relationship.
Dr. Sue Johnson defines an attachment injury as “a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need.” When an attachment injury happens, a partner may view their relationship as changed or they may view their partner in a different way. An affair is a good example of an attachment injury. Infidelity often causes a partner to view a previously safe relationship as unsafe. While they used to view their partner as trustworthy, they now wonder, “Can I ever trust this person again?”
There are also more subtle attachment injuries. One example to consider is that of a wife, grieving the loss of her mother, crying in her bedroom. The wife observes her husband walk by on his phone, consumed in a work call. He sees her in tears but, because he was so focused on his work, he never returns to check on her. In that moment, the wife decides she is not important to him and she must go through this pain alone. In that moment, everything changes in how she views the relationship and how she views her husband. She was in need and he wasn’t there.
There are three ways to determine if a hurt is an attachment injury. First, partners report they have apologized, but their hurt partner keeps bringing up the hurtful experience. In addition, the hurt partner may report feeling as though they relive the hurtful experience when they think or talk about it. They can still feel the pain, almost as if it just happened. Finally, couples report a significant, defining shift in the relationship felt by one or both partners that can be traced back to a specific time or incident. If any of these things are happening in your relationship, there may be an attachment injury.
If you believe you are dealing with an attachment injury in your relationship, here are some helpful things to think about:
GoodTherapy.com: Relational Hurt or Attachment Injury? How to Tell the Difference.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.
The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. Criticism attacks your partner at their core. When you criticize, you're actually working to dismantle his or her whole being.
The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean. W treat others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.
“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid – try to be more pathetic…”
In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner—which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated.
The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on shaky ground. When we feel accused unjustly, we search for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.
Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you. Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.
Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your children. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved.
Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Take the first step to discovering healthy, productive methods of communication and patterns of interaction by starting couples counseling today.
From a recent study comprised of 40,000 "Relationship Checkup" participants, Dr. John Gottman, a primary figure on the relationship research and couples therapy scene since the mid 80’s, has new data. Here are just a few relationship research nuggets on heterosexual couples from his study. You might find some of the results surprising!
What percentage of couples presently engagee in therapy is at least one partner considering an exit? 66%
82% of couples are having problems with loneliness in the relationship
What About Problems with Intimacy and Sex?
Sex Quality: 55%
Sex Frequency: 49%
How many partners have problems with trust? 66%
The Top 3 Things Couples Fight About:
86%: Not having fun anymore
74%: No emotional connection
Speaking of conflict, the biggest obstacle to productively navigating conflict in relationships is flooding. Flooding means that the heart gets to 100 beats per minute, and when that happens it is nearly impossible to communicate from a calm, grounded place. In fact, when flooded, communication can be erratic, irrational and possibly damaging to the relationship. The antidote is self-soothing or helping each other soothe, if possible. Sometimes leaving the situation (in a structured time out) is the best thing a couple can do for a relationship. 96% of couples are flooded during conflict. It is interesting to note that LGBTQ couples seem to do a much better job than heterosexual couples with conflict and communication.
I will leave you with one more nugget and it’s an important one to consider for those who are struggling in married or long term relationships: The #1 predictor of divorce is contempt. If you are calling your partner names, assassinating their character or hitting below the belt in other ways…and you would like to save your relationship, please seek counseling for help.
When inquiring about my services, many people ask why I don't accept their insurance plans. The answer can be a bit complex, but it really comes down to my ability to offer my clients the best care in the most effective, flexible and efficient manner possible.
Fee-for-Service counseling is a great option when you find a therapist that you'd like to work with. You may assume that it means a greater financial commitment from you, and sometimes it does, but often a clinician like myself is willing to work with you on a sliding scale so that you're are able to afford care without being burdened financially.
The benefits of fee-for-service counseling are many; the first of which is the fact that you're putting yourself in control of your treatment by being able to choose the therapist you want to see instead of being put on a waitlist.
Another big benefit of working with a fee-for-service therapist, is the ability to remain in counseling for as long as you and your therapist believe it is beneficial to your change and growth. Insurance companies often put a limit (6, 8 or 12 sessions) on what they will pay for, not taking into consideration whether or not the client is "better" or ready to leave counseling.
Further, insurance providers require a mental health diagnosis to be assigned to each patient in order for payment. Many people do not want a mental health diagnosis associated with themselves for a variety of reasons. Choosing to remain separate from their insurances for their mental health care, allows them this peace of mind.
These are just a few reasons why I choose to remain separate from insurance companies. I'm happy to discuss further with you the benefits of working with a fee-for-service therapist or answer questions specifically pertaining to my rates and sliding scale if you're interested in setting up an appointment with me.
Couples who share rituals are able to create shared meaning together. Daily rituals help shape our lives in positive ways and habits are super important to our success in all areas of life. Generally speaking, habits and rituals make us more productive and healthier. In a relationship, world-renowned marriage and relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, calls these habits rituals of connection. Here are 5 rituals that you can build into your relationship right now to begin creating new or renewed connection in your relationship.
1. Eat meals together without screens, your texts and emails can wait. So can the Instagram photo of your plate of food.
2. Have a stress-reducing conversation. Take a few minutes each day to ask how your partner is doing. The purpose of this conversation is to process external stress, not to bring up problems in your relationship. Couples who engage in "active listening" by taking turns sharing how they feel and to sho compassion to one another, will grow immensely in their emotional connection.
3. Take a vacation without the kids once a year. If your budget doesn't allow a big trip, try camping or a weekend get away.
4. Exercise together. Studies show that sharing an exciting experience can bring couples closer together. Experiment with new and different ways to get moving.
5. Share a kiss. A daily six-second kiss will increase your emotional and physical intimacy. Physical contact releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone), can improve our mood (for days) and can help you stay calm. Holding hands, hugging, touching, and making out can reduce your stress hormones (cortisol) and increase your sense of relationship satisfaction.
Dr. John Gottman suggests that couples commit to a magic six hours a week together, which includes rituals for saying goodbye in the morning and reuniting at the end of the day. Sticking to these rituals will help you grow stronger in your relationship.
What are some of the reasons that you become stuck in your ability to create? Many reasons and excuses exist for stopping ourselves from being creative. If we are able to become aware of when and how we block ourselves, we can make a conscious effort to change our habits. We can let go of the excuses and give ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the creative energy that we all possess.
Are you aware of the inner critic that seems to sit on the shoulder of each of us? It's hard for me to think of a time when I've created a picture or written an article that I didn't, at some point along the way, judge myself: "Is this good enough? Is it worth it? It's terrible, isn't it?" I know I'm not alone. I've met enough people throughout my life and work to know that most of us seem to go through this same thought process, constantly. It's funny, though, that as young children we were able to be creative without any worry about our creation's "rightness," "beauty," or "good" or "bad" qualities. We were absorbed by exploration and experimentation. But as we've grown we began to incorporate the critic for many reasons - to help us discriminate aesthetically, to help us improve the way we approach a project, or even to be useful to others in society. However, just like many tools that we develop over time, the critic becomes unhelpful when it puts shame, embarrassment, and fear into our lives. These things prevent us from being creative.
Good news! We can acquaint ourselves with our inner critic so that it does not dominate our feelings and behavior. One way to do that is to let go of that harsh judge. Simply notice it and tell it to pass by: "Oh, I'm feeling judgmental about myself. I can continue to be hard on myself or get back into the process of doing this project." This kind of meditation allows the inner critic to be a part of your experience but keeps it from blocking your ability to act. You can also say to the critic: "Mr. Critic, you may be useful later in this project, but not now."
We also have a need for approval that can block creativity. "Will anyone like my sculpture?" "What will people think of me if I try to dance and I'm clumsy?" "What if I'm off tune and someone hears me sing?" We are asking a basic question: "Will anyone love me if I'm all of me?" We all need love an approval, but the key to launching our creative power is to find the deepest sense of approval within ourselves. If we put the locus of our worth in the hands of other people...well, that ain't gonna turn out well. We damn ourselves to a life of trying to please other people.
Will anyone love me if
The use of the expressive arts in the creative process is a path to self-discovery, self-esteem, and self-empowerment. Becoming your own best source of approval might take a while. Practice paying attention to the part of you that needs approval. Accept it but don't let it dominate your behavior. You can say "I am aware that I would like someone to tell me I am doing well. I can give myself that pat on the back for now."
The need for love and approval is legitimate. But that need is tricky. The more we long for love and approval, the less we seem to get. I know from my own experiences that when I'm the neediest for love and approval, I don't get them. But when I'm in love or loving, more comes my way. Be authentic and true to your highest self. That's a straighter path to receiving genuine love and appreciation.
Fear of failure is another trip cord that gets in the way of us being fully creative. What is failure? "I did it wrong," "I'm no good," "I made a big mistake!" In the creative process—and in life generally—these are unhelpful statements. More helpful would be to say: "What can I learn from this situation?" "What would make this process or product more to my liking?" As a therapist working with artists, I see people struggling with their process and I remind them that there is no right or wrong to what they're doing. When they hear that, the tension releases.
Using expressive arts in an accepting, supportive environment such as therapy helps greatly in overcoming these blocks to creativity. If you're interested in exploring and re-discovering your creative process let me know!
The thoughts, beliefs, values, and emotions of artists are inescapably represented in their work – and on some occasions, intentionally depicted. Three of the more familiar connections between art and the functions of the mind are the ways in which artists express their own thoughts, feelings, and mental distress in their paintings; the use of art to help individuals with mental disorders; and the occasional emergence of a person with mental illness, untrained as an artist, who proves to have a unique artistic vision.
There are several famous artists throughout the course of art history who have documented psychiatric disorders and who expressed their thoughts and moods through their art. Some of these artists are: Mark Rothko, Edvard Munch, and Bernard Buffet. They each were known to have said that their artwork reflected their depressed mood. Art historians and writers have interpreted the paintings of some artists (including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock) as showing evidence of various psychotic disorders.
Psychotherapy clients are often at a loss to describe how they feel. The discipline of art therapy is devoted to helping individuals express themselves without the need for language or logic and their lack of artistic skill or training is no barrier to self-expression.
A few individuals with mental disorders have produced works that have gained the attention of artists, art dealers, art historians, collectors, and curators. Jean Dubuffet called their work “Art Brut,” (“rough art,” or “coarse art”). Roger Cardinal later defined a category he called “Outsider Art,” which included Art Brut and also the work of folk artists, primitive artists, and untrained artists without mental illness who were indifferent to the prevailing culture. Outsider artists are not influenced by the formal art world, and are therefore free of the restraining conventions of traditional art.
As a psychotherapist and a trained, professional artist, I am discovering another intersection of art and the mind: artwork produced by the psychotherapist with the emotional experience of the client as the subject. For several years, I have used my studio practice as a time where I can create paintings and drawings that reflect what I felt after leaving one of my own psychotherapy sessions. But recently I have been making paintings that depict the depression, mania, psychosis, and compulsions that my clients experience. These paintings have become valuable to me and have helped provide me with insight into my client’s journey. My initial purpose was to enter into the clients’ world of mental illness to help me understand it better, but now I am hoping to bring the paintings into therapy sessions to show to the client and use them as a springboard for the client further explore their universe.
A basic method of communication, given to us by God, is the ability to make and share images with one another. Whether or not the psychotherapy client creates the work him or herself or if he or she is simply responding to an image in front of them, it is often helpful for the client to direct “stuck” thoughts and feelings onto something outside of the self in order to get past the hurdle that they are facing and to enter into one’s personal experience more deeply.
As I continue on in my work as a therapist, my practice as an artist and my identity as a Christian, I will continue to pursue the use of God given creativity as a method and means of healing in the therapy room.
Art matters to your journey.
Creativity is both a fully human and fully divine experience. It is an acknowledgement that something eternal and full of truth lies behind the temporal world in which we live. Art is powerful. Artwork, whether it is a beautiful paintings, an emotional dance, or powerful melody, focuses our eyes on and tune our ears to the pain that pierces us, the injustice in front of us, the joy abounding within us, and the pull we feel to live meaningful and significant lives. Music moves us. Poetry connects us. Paintings shout at us. Dance energizes us. Art draws us back into the reality of our humanity when we wander away from it—full of pain, discouragement, and bitterness. Art whispers to us: “You are not alone.”
In our American, western society, real art is slowly becoming less and less present in our every day experiences. It’s true that our current generation experiences “art” in abundance, as a constant stream of marketing—creativity is often times now merely used to push product. The sad reality of this is that when we only experience art in advertisements, websites, brands and logos, we lose the invaluable ways that it helps us understand who we are and what life is all about.
Our world today has lost sight of the fact that art is worthy without first having to prove it’s worth.
We live in a culture that values prestige and monetary success as the ultimate goal and because of this, the artist is beginning to fade away. In order to survive, artists must strive for success; even though that is not why they originally create. Artists create because they feel. Artists are emotionally connected and invested in the world and people around them and they are compelled to share the story of their experience with those around them. The reality is that creativity demands more materials, time, space, and funding. The act of creating becomes costly. If an artist is lucky enough to succeed, he or she usually struggles deeply with the fact that success dictates their art becoming a fad that requires mass approval. This fad only ever demands more of the same, which leaves the artist exhausted from trying to please the hoards of people who have jumped onto the latest trend.
I believe that humanity is losing a vital connection to God and to our souls when the arts begin to become unworthy in society. In order to prevent this from happening, action needs to be taken so that art can be restored to its rightful place. We are all responsible to change things.
So what can you do?
Make art part of your daily experience.
We all enjoy creative expression in some shape or form. Find out what form this is for you and make space in your schedule for it. Creativity can look like many things and will be different for each of us. Creative expression is refinishing furniture, gardening, experimenting in the kitchen, and even working passionately in the world of science or math. Another important way to elevate the arts is by supporting art within your local community by purchasing tickets to the ballet or symphony, checking out a local art show, attending local and regional theater productions, entering a writing contest, painting a mural, starting a band, singing at church, drawing on the sidewalk, organizing community dance lessons, or simply donating funds to an artist you know or creative organization that you love, and by purchasing original artwork!
Bring creativity to your workplace.
Creativity is becoming more and more essential in today’s businesses. Creativity and passion are becoming increasingly necessary to companies who desire imaginative and innovative ways excelling in their areas of expertise. Seth Godin, the author of Purple Cow: Transforming Your Business By Being Remarkable says, “I call it the [new] art system. People doing work that matters, feeling human about it, feeling connected, and making an impact. Companies now want their employees to step up and do something interesting.” Perhaps it’s time for you to start thinking outside the box and getting in touch with your creative side at work. It may help you stand apart in your current job or gather the courage to go after your dream position. Our lives are valuable and our time in this world is limited. It is important for each of us to do what we are passionate of and to stop wasting time chasing dollars and cents and to focus on work that is powerful, innovative and life giving. When we go to work each day we should be dreaming less about getting ahead and cashing in more at the bank and more about creatively solving the world’s needs and speaking life into the people around us.
Encourage your church to engage artists.
The Church is losing its culture makers and is hurting because of it. 1 Corinthians: 25-26 presents a model for churches where all different types of people are integrated into the community, “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don't, the parts we see and the parts we don't. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.” (The Message)
How can churches re-incorporate artists when many of them feel that in order to have their art welcomed in church, it needs to be tame, cute and kitschy? Churches seem to censor so much, but forget that historical Christian art displayed naked people, bloody scenes, and crosses. Congregations could be much more welcoming by actually allowing creative, evocative and challenging work to be displayed.
In a world that encourages us to become more materialistic and anesthetized to our souls, we desperately need the re-emergence of art in all aspects of our lives. Let’s all do our part to make this happen.
Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives. Creativity is foundational to our sense of purpose and meaning. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of creativity. All of the things that set us apart from our closest animal relatives—our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology—is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognized, rewarded, and transmitted through learning.
When we allow ourselves to be creative, we sense that we're living our lives more fully than when we are trapped in the monotony of the day-to-day. The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. In my work, I have the joy to learn the ins and outs of how creative people live and work. I get to experience them as they work through the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. In my work with artists and other creative individuals, I have found that they are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity. Creative people show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are separate. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."
Here are a few antithetical traits often present in creative people that are integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.