Relationship Problems: Where Do They Start?

Image from Unsplash by Marl Clevenger

Have statements like these caused problems in your relationship?
1. Our relatives take too many liberties with us and our time
2. Our son has temper tantrums. We need to figure out how to respond

As a couples counselor, I hear statements like these on a regular basis. What I can tell you straight up is that the approach to resolving and managing problems come from will differ depending on where they start: inside or outside the relationship.

In my counseling practice, I help couples identify and externalize their problems. One of the patterns we find in happy couples is that they take an “Us vs The World” approach to conflict management. They can identify a problem and position themselves as a united front in managing the problem.

For example, if the problem is “Our relatives take too many liberties with us and our time,” the problem to be managed is setting boundaries with extended family. If you can view the problem as external to you as a couple, it is a matter of teamwork in managing that problem together. 

The external problem, “Our son has temper tantrums. We need to figure out how to respond” can easily become a relationship problem. I often hear couples say things like, You criticize me and don’t respect my parenting or You think your way is the right way and you don’t listen to any of my ideas about how to parent.

External problems become relationship problems when we personalize them and don’t honor each other’s perspectives. 

Managing External Problems

External problems should be addressed as a matter of compromise. Try not to personalize those that are differences in perspective.Try to externalize the problem, which will create space for you to work as a team.
• Listen to your partner’s perspectives, emotions, and wants. Ask questions so you truly understand one another
• Mirror and summarize what each of you thinks and feels so that you both feel understood
• Validate the cognitive logic or emotional logic that your partner has expressed in how they address this problem. Validation is an important part of conflict management, even if you don’t agree with that perspective
• Explore and validate underlying emotional needs to the conflict
• Explore the similarities in how you view this problem. Somewhere in there is a compromise to your different perspectives

Managing Internal Problems

Internal problems are about emotions. In some way one or both of you feels rejected, unsupported, disrespected, or betrayed. Whether intended or not, there is damage to the bond.

• Listen to how each of you experienced the conflict. Accept the differences in perspective—don’t argue about what happened
• Validate the hurt feelings and the distress they have caused. Even if you don’t agree with your partner, honor their emotional experience
• Take ownership of your contribution to the conflict. Apologize for anything you said or did that was particularly hurtful
• Talk about what you can learn from this conflict so you don’t have the same fight again. What have you learned about each other that is helpful?

Learning to identify a problem and position yourselves as a united front in will go a long way in building a “happy couple” foundation.


Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Thinking “Maybe We’re Just Too Different?” Think Again!

Image from Unslpash by Henri Pham

In couples counseling, I often hear partners express hopelessness, saying, “Maybe we’re just too different.” They feel their efforts at communication have failed too many times, and almost everything ends in a conflict.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Consider this ray of hope:

A couple is made up of two unique people. Your backgrounds, family cultures, and life experiences are different. Sometimes partners come from different ethnic cultures, and gender can also play a role. Like every other couple on the planet, you have individual personalities, preferences, and styles.

When we’re dating, we find similarities in views and interests. That’s a great place to create bonding experiences, but as we move to deeper commitment and marriage, we get to know each other in greater depth. We cannot explore these differences in depth in a new relationship—it takes time, and is part of what makes up true intimacy. 

To expect that the two of you will align in preferences, wants, and needs puts a lot of pressure on a relationship.

Don’t set yourselves up for failure by expecting similarity! Explore and respect the uniqueness of your partner, and understand that you each view life and the world through your own set of values and priorities—and that is perfectly okay. 

I work with all my client couples in stepping out of the personal lens, and into the lens of the partner. Can you see a situation from their perspective and understand the emotional logic in their responses? How well do you acknowledge and validate a different perspective?
This is, essentially, the ability to empathize, and it is a core skill for marriage and intimacy. We need to postpone our own agenda in order to understand the perspective of our partner. 

This is not easy work! It is difficult to listen when we so desperately want to be heard. But when partners can remember that the relationship itself is more important than the problem at hand, some of the urgency and anxiety is removed from the conflict.

There is time and space for empathy.

Expect differences, and accept them. Focus on your ability to step into each other’s lens and convey empathy and validation. Feeling understood is the first step to compromise and problem solving between partners.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Why Non-Verbal Communication Matters

If you were to ask, How are you? and I responded I’m fine, but my voice was stern or mocking, my brow furrowed, and my hands on my hips in an aggressive stance, what would you think? My words send the message I am fine, but my non-verbals send a very different message: I am definitely not fine. As a listener you are probably confused by the completely contradictory messages. 

Communication studies find that the words we use are the least powerful element in defining the nature of a relationship. Voice, tone, gestures, facial expression, body postures, inflection hold much more power.

Your goal is to have congruency between what you feel, what you say, and how you say it. Anything else contributes to miscommunication, and communicating is challenging enough already. 

Relationships are complex and emotions get stirred up in counseling sessions. Emotions can be hard or soft, and your communication should reflect these nuances. It is not genuine to always be happy, always be sad, always be meek. I work with couples to develop ways to match their verbal and nonverbal communications, and have that communication be in harmony with the underlying emotion. 

When You’re Speaking
When you are talking about vulnerable, painful, or fearful topics, I encourage you to match that affect. Slow down your speech, soften your tone, sit in a non-threatening posture, perhaps hold hands. 

In contrast, if you are discussing something that you are very angry about, match that affect as well. Speak with a clear and direct voice, be expressive, go ahead and furrow that brow. Express your anger rather than repress it. Release that tension and convey to your partner the depth of importance the topic holds for you. 

When You’re Listening
As a listener the same rules apply. Maintain eye contact with your partner. Turn your upper body to face them directly, sit or stand in a comfortably close proximity. This sends the message I am listening and what you are saying is important to me. If I say I’m listening but I am standing half way across the room, my body is facing away from you, and my eyes keep darting to the television or my cell phone instead of you, the message I am sending is I am not fully listening and what you are saying is not fully important to me. 

I work with couples on these basic listening skills but also on matching each other’s affect. If your partner is telling you their deepest fears, hurts, and wounds, check in with the non-verbal message you are sending as a listener. Is your facial expression hard or soft? Are you leaning towards or away from your partner? Are your arms crossed in front of you—which says, I am guarded—or are you offering a hand to hold in a soft way—which says, I want to connect with you?

Why Does This Matter?
Research finds that people respond to and connect more with non-verbal messages. Expressing emotion allows others to feel them and connect with you.

This is how we empathize.
This is how we bond.
This creates deeper emotional intimacy. 

How might your conversations change if your non-verbal communication offered the reassuring message: I am here with you and it is safe to tell me how you feel?

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Communication Skill: Positive Phrasing

Couples seeking counseling often tell me, “We just can’t communicate.”

Most of us want to feel understood and supported by our partners – but what that means can differ from person to person. Sometimes deeper emotional conflicts need to be resolved, but in most instances, focusing on how partners express themselves is the first positive step toward resolving bigger emotional issues.  

One common mistake we make in intimate relationships is that we talk naturally, like we would in any other context. But our conversations with our partners — especially on emotional or intimate topics — should be purposeful, not casual.

When talking with your partner, focus on positive phrasing. Here are a few examples: 

Negative: I’m not discouraged about that
Positive: I feel encouraged by that

Negative: I don’t want to be late
Positive: I would like to arrive early

Negative: I don’t care where we go for dinner
Positive: I like both of those options for dinner

Negative: Don’t ignore me
Positive: Please focus on me when I talk to you

Do you hear the difference? After I point out this pattern and ask clients to restate their thought in a positive sense I find that even their tone of voice and facial expression are softened, more lively. As a listener, it is more engaging to hear positive phrasing as it draws us closer together. 

I encourage you to give more detail when stating positive needs. Try to be specific, give good information to your partner on exactly how they can meet your needs.

For example, instead of simply stating “Please focus on me when I talk to you,” go further. Say something like:

“Please put down your phone and look at me, so I know you are focused on me. It helps me feel heard.”

These changes in the way partners express may seem small, but keep in mind that communication in relationships is a big picture made up of many small elements. 

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Making Up is Hard to Do

People in “good” relationships never argue or have conflict, right? Not really. All couples argue – unless, of course, their issues are not being addressed or resolved.

Don’t be afraid of conflict – be more afraid of not being able to resolve the issue or conflict.

How you reconnect with each other during and after the argument is more important than the argument itself. When we are in conflict, we are hyper-aware of our differences. We feel disconnected. It can take a terrible toll on the bond we have created.

The key to a long-lasting relationship – after a difficult argument or conflict – is the process of reconnection. Understanding how the argument went, apologizing for your part in it, and most insightful of all, learning what you both can do better next time an issue arises. This is a critical step in healthy conflict resolution because it reattaches the sense of closeness and bonding that felt lost during the conflict.

An effective “tool” in conflict resolution is the repair attempt – a phrase coined by Dr. John Gottman – couples researcher, clinical psychologist, and founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, whose methods I practice.

A repair attempt is a small attempt at some level of resolution that takes place in the midst of a conflict. Keep in mind that we don’t have to wait till we’re completely wrung out to start making up!

Making up is hard to do unless we remember to give the relationship higher priority than the issue itself.

When we see conflict as a necessary step in the relationship that we need to get through, it’s easier to make those repair attempts. But if we are afraid of conflict, uncomfortable or have a me vs you attitude, we don’t make the repair attempts.

If we can make up as we go through it, and at the end, conflict is not to be feared.

Here are three ways to begin with a repair attempt:
1.  Ask for a break, but be committed to coming back to the issue
2.  Validate some aspect of your partner’s position… I agree with your statement that…
3.  Find common ground in the frustration: be frustrated together rather than with each other

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

When Your Partner Says, ‘I just want you to listen’

Somewhere along the line this has probably happened in your relationship:
Your partner, upset about something, vents their frustrations, saying something like, I just want you to listen.

What do they really want from you in that moment?

Here’s the important part, friends. Generally, what they don’t want is you telling them what to do – unless they specifically ask what would you do? or What do you think I should do?

The real problem is simply that your partner is stressed about something. Helping them with stress can involve some simple steps:

Listen! Don’t interrupt. Let them finish their train of thought.
Make eye contact, nod, use your non-verbals to communicate “I am listening and you have my full focus.” 
Ask open-ended or clarifying questions so you clearly understand the situation. Say, “Help me understand what you mean,” then ask your question. Avoid Wolf-in-Sheep’s-Clothing questions such as: “Have you tried…?” These are actually just your efforts to solve the problem, dressed up as a question. 

Deep down you really just want to help. But consider this: When we are frustrated or upset and complain to our partner, we are seeking emotional support, and that makes us vulnerable. When our partner jumps to problem solving instead of listening and validating, it has the opposite effect.

Express Empathy
Say things like I get it, or That sounds stressful/frustrating/irritating, or my personal favorite: That sucks, babe. Express support and camaraderie. Say things like, I’ve got your back, anything that conveys an Us vs the World approach.

Validate your partner’s feeling or thinking. We all want to know that we’re not crazy in feeling what we do. It is comforting to hear a loved one say: I understand why you feel that way.

Before you move into a problem solving mode, ask whether advice is actually wanted. Say something like: Would it be helpful for you if we come up with some solutions together? Convey that you care more about your partner than solving the problem. But remember: If this comes too early the conversation, it won’t be helpful at all. 

At the end of the day, it’s their problem, and probably perfectly capable of finding a solution. They may have already thought through most of the suggestions you would make, and are just not emotionally ready to take action yet. 

Just Listen.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker

Intimacy: When Your Expectations Don’t Align

The question of intimacy, for many couples, is sort of like the age-old question, Which Comes First, the Chicken or the Egg?

One partner needs quality time, romance, and connection in order to feel turned on for intimacy. The other feels the act of intimacy is what turns on their sense of romance and connection.

Intimacy is like so many other aspects of your relationship. You need to understand that you are two individuals with differences in personality, style, worldview, and emotional needs. We can’t assume that two people will align completely. And that’s okay!

So the question becomes: How do we cope/manage the differences?

One of the secrets to success of happy couples is the realization that all interactions flow into each other. Courting, flirting, and foreplay is a continuous cycle throughout the life of the relationship. There really isn’t a beginning or an end.

What I mean by this is: When dating, you have your courting, flirting, and foreplay in “doses” – date night, an afternoon together, maybe a weekend away – then you each head back to your own home.

Things don’t work that way when you live together. Taking out the trash, commenting on how nice, sexy, beautiful, or handsome your partner looks, holding his or her hand when you take a walk, even the way you deal with personal stress, is part of the flow of your continuous courtship, flirting, and foreplay.

How Couples Therapy Can Help

There are many strategies couples can use to cope with differences of all types. I work with couples on finding ways to:

  • Prioritize time for the relationship because intimacy, for many busy couples, isn’t something that just happens, but needs to be nurtured. In a sense, you should never really stop dating each other!
  • Cultivate a culture of appreciation so you are more assured of a sense of teamwork and support in your daily lives.
  • Speak more openly, directly, and effectively about intimacy so you can start to work together to honor each other’s needs and style.

Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker