Relationships

Rituals for Connection

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I have been thinking a lot lately about busyness and paying attention.  As summer transitions towards fall, a lot of families are adjusting to new schedules and a more stressed, less relaxed attitude.  I think people generally know that it is good to pay attention to your partner and/or kids (for a more detailed look at paying attention in romantic relationships, google “Gottman bids”) but it gets harder as stress and busyness increase.  Paying attention sounds simple but isn’t easy. So this post is about one tip for making paying attention easier with a few suggestions for how to get the most out of it. 

The tip: Make a ritual out of paying attention and connecting.

Ritual is not a common word these days but I use it because one of its definitions is “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time” (Merriam-Webster). I think of a ritual as like a conscious habit with a specific goal and find that to be a very useful concept.  Willpower is like a muscle in that you can strengthen it over time and in that, when you use it, it is weaker for a while and takes time to recover its strength. Rituals are a way to reduce over time the willpower needed for a specific task as it becomes the automatic option. As much as possible, we want to make paying attention to and connecting with our loved ones something that isn’t dependent on how many hard decisions we have already made that day.

The details (this applies to kids as well, just replace “work” with “school” and “partner” with “kid”):

Come up with a time before or after work to regularly connect with your partner about their day. If the time is before work, ask about what they are looking forward to about the day and what they are nervous about. If it is after work, ask about highlights and lowlights of their day. Listen and reply with empathy or shared excitement. Bonus points if you remember what they say and ask follow-up questions later.  For the less verbose partners it might be helpful to ask more specific questions like: “Are there one or two things your looking forward to at work today?” or “Who was particularly annoying today?” It’s that simple. Do this for a few weeks and you will have a built-in point of connection with your partner without having to use your willpower to make it happen.

Connection & Empathy Before Problem Solving

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One of the most important things that happens in family or relationship counseling is growth in, and practice of, adopting the perspective of another person.  Perspective taking is a versatile life skill that is helpful in everything from interviewing for a job to staying out of trouble in school. The better a person is at perspective taking, the more fully they can put themselves in another person’s shoes and the more effectively they can interact with that person.  Since no one lives in isolation, improving interactions with others is an investment that pays dividends all the time.

These benefits are even more significant in the relationships where we interact most frequently and often most abrasively: our family.  Let’s look at a common situation in families and how effective perspective taking can help.

Someone in your family is upset about something outside the family.  

Often our first response (especially with kids) is to dive into problem solving mode and try to fix things. This is a mistake because there are almost always at least three different problems and it is most effective (and strengthens your relationship the most) to address the other two problems before tackling the most obvious one.  

  1. The first problem is that the family member feels alone.  Being upset is isolating and studies have shown that simply removing aloneness can help improve someone’s outlook (click here for an example of one of these studies).  Perspective taking helps us understand what someone is experiencing and communicate that we are there for them.

  2. The second problem is that the family member is hurting.  No matter what feeling we express when we are upset, it springs from pain.  This could be physical pain but is most often relational. It also could be based on something the person is anticipating rather than something that has already happened. When we provide comfort, the pain goes away more quickly and becomes more bearable.  Perspective taking allows us to identify the pain and provide comfort more effectively. What I’ve outlined in these two steps could also be called empathy. To learn more about empathy, check out this blog post by one of our directors.

  3. Once the first two problems are addressed, you can help your loved one with their problem solving but after the first two problems are addressed, they are often able to solve their problem themselves.

Following the steps outlined above can often lead to significant improvements in family and couple relationships. Perspective taking can also be extremely helpful, and much harder, during conflict. 

If you would like help applying perspective taking in your relationships, I encourage you to reach out to a therapist.



How to Put the 5 Love Languages to Work in Your Relationship

Photo by  Evan Kirby  on  Unsplash

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

January is a month of reflection. Let’s take a moment and consider your relationships… Are you feeling fulfilled and satisfied by your partner? What about your closest friendships? Do people around you swear that they are trying to please you, or show you love, but they are consistently missing the mark? What feedback have you been given? Have you found that you are consistently being asked to “do more” in your relationships, but are feeling unsure how to “give” anymore of yourself? As we move out of the holiday season and into the “season of love” (aka February), it is normal to begin to re-evaluate some of your relationships. For some, the holiday season is an opportunity for people in their life to “make up” for past wrongs and lackluster celebrations, often in the form of some grandiose gift or gesture. For many, that gift or gesture doesn’t meet the expectation, and then they are left with disappointment.

Enter Valentine’s Day: another opportunity for those close to us to show us love. But if they/we follow the same recipe from the holiday season, we are bound to fall short. Why are the efforts of those around us, as well as our own, not communicating the love and commitment that we are intending? In today’s blog (part 1 of 2), we are going to explore Dr. Chapman’s Five Love Languages, and how, even with your best effort, if you and your partner (or friend) are not speaking each other’s love language your (and their) communication of love is going to be seen as “not enough.”

So what is a “Love Language”? Essentially, Dr. Chapman, the author of The Five Love Languages, describes the way we show others love (and expect love to be shown in return), as our love language. Often times, people assume that the only way to display your love is to give a physical gift, but if everyone only utilizes gifts for love, there will be a lot of exhausted and unfulfilled couples. Understanding love languages gives couples, and relationships in general, an opportunity to thrive when the specific language of each individual is being “spoken” or met.

Imagine this: You come through the door at the end of a long day. What action from your partner would have the most impact on you?:

  1. They immediately tell you that you look great, and how important you are to the family unit (Words of Affirmation)

  2. They approach you, place your coat on the rack, and hand you a snack or meal (Acts of Service)

  3. They stop the task they are working on, sit with you, and engage in a full conversation about your day (Quality Time)

  4. They present you a card they have made with designs and funny sketches (Gifts)

  5. They approach you, give you a kiss and quick shoulder rub (Physical Touch)

While all of these options sound like a nice way to come home at the end of the day, not all of them are going to provide you with the same level of satisfaction and fulfillment. This is the idea behind The Five Love Languages. It is not that you or your partner are completely void of the need for any of the five languages, but instead, one or two love languages will have more value to you and to your partner. As you read the possible options, did any of them stick out to you as a way that you or your partner consistently attempt to show love? Consider all of the ways that you have reached out to increase closeness and intimacy with your partner, as well as some of the actions that they use to reciprocate that love. The best part of Love Languages is that they allow you to work smarter, not harder. If you knew how to make fewer, more personalized attempts at affection that would make a bigger impact and satisfy your partner more, would you?

Here is a breakdown of the Five Love Languages. As you read the descriptions, try to identify which one or two resonates most with you. Now consider which love language most closely matches the way you show your love and affection to your partner. Are they the same? Different? Take a moment to sit down with your partner, and go over the five languages in detail. Which Love Language do they most identify with? Have they been attempting to express themselves to you in a language other than your preferred Love Language?

Words of Affirmation - Compliments, loving language and notes, verbal (and written) appreciation for partner

Acts of Service - Completing jobs and tasks that reduce the workload and burden on partner

Quality Time - Undivided attention; spending time to fully be present with your partner

Gifts - Whether bought or created, giving items to your partner (this includes free items, such as a flower picked from the yard)

Physical Touch - Physical affection such as hand holding with your partner, giving them hugs, kisses, and back rubs (not to be confused with sexual intimacy, which is desired in most romantic relationships)

If you and/or your partner are struggling to narrow down a specific love language, I invite you to consider the most recent times you or your spouse “nagged” at one another. What was the topic of contention? Is one person feeling neglected, as if they are not getting enough “face time”? Or is someone looking for more help with tasks around the house? Whoever was doing the “nagging” is likely feeling as though their love language is not being spoken in the relationship, and the complaints that they have expressed in the past are great insight into what needs are not being met for that individual. If you find that you and your partner are still struggling to decide which love language best suits each of you, or you have several that seem like they may be good fits, I encourage you to take the Love Languages Quiz on Dr. Chapman’s website. As you answer the questions, remember that you want to choose the one that you MOST prefer, although both options may feel like acceptable choices. When finished with the quiz, calculate the results (instructions are at the bottom of the quiz), and determine which language best suits both you and your partner!

**Note: You and your partner may have different Love Languages, and that is okay! Keep in mind that Love Languages is not a matter of compatibility. Every relationship has the option to evolve and adapt with the identification and implementation of the Love Languages Principles

Now that you have identified your Love Language, join me for Part 2 of the Love Languages series to find out how to apply that information into meaningful actions!

LoveTip: How Starting New Holiday Traditions Can Add Shared Meaning to Your Relationship

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Since I was a small child, my favorite time of year has always been the time in between the week after Halloween and the week after New Years. My family has countless traditions, ranging from Thanksgiving Day meals to Advent Calendars, tree decorating, donating to those in need, and we even have step by step rituals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. These traditions have led me and my brothers to always feel connected to family, even when we live hundreds of miles apart. Each of us, in our own unique ways, have continued these rituals with our own families and have begun building even deeper connections with our spouses around this time of year.

Outside of my family, depending on who you ask, the holidays can be described with a smile, as “amazing,” or with a shudder, as “stressful.” Those in the first group will likely tell you all about the music, distant family, shopping, and ambience that contributes to their positive outlook on the season. Those in the latter will often cite expenses, traffic, repetitive tunes, and family drama as contributing factors to their “bah humbug” attitude. While traffic patterns and the music selections blaring at every department store, likely won’t change in the near future, I want to invite you to view the holidays as an opportunity. In this case, an opportunity to build shared meaning and intimacy with your significant other. The best part is, this opportunity does not have to cost a fortune, and most of these tips can be done in very little time with an impact that lasts long after the holiday season.

Before we identify ways to increase intimacy and shared meaning, let’s further discuss the idea of “shared meaning.” Drs. John and Julie Gottman have created an entire theoretical approach to couples and marriage counseling, with one of the ultimate goals being that couples have shared meaning in life. This shared meaning is the deeper connection that binds you and your spouse, and is created through rituals, traditions, goals, dreams, and appreciation for one another. Couples who have shared meaning tend to be “masters of their relationship”, and feel stable and loved by their partner.

So how do you achieve shared meaning? The Gottmans designed the Sound Relationship House, complete with 7 levels that culminate in Shared Meaning. Along with the levels, there are skills and understandings gained at each step that help propel your relationship towards greater satisfaction and shared meaning. Today, I want to focus on “creating rituals of connection,” which is one way to increase your shared meaning. The holidays provide a unique environment to incorporate and create new traditions and rituals that will fuel and connect your relationship for years to come.  

Begin by sitting down with your partner and talking about any current rituals you may already have in place (ie: birthday celebrations, daily greeting/departing affection, weekly dinners, etc.). Now examine the rituals and traditions that you have surrounding the holiday season. Which rituals have ties back to one or both of your childhoods? What were your favorite childhood traditions? Least favorite? What memories do these traditions evoke? How would you change these rituals to fit your current lifestyle? What meaning/symbolization do both past and current rituals have for you? How can you and your spouse continue to expand the traditions and rituals that you share? Consider the list below, as well as brainstorming together, to come up with new and exciting ways to celebrate the holidays, year after year, and to feel closer and more connected to your spouse, throughout the year!

Example Rituals:

  1. Plan a holiday meal or party together - Even if you spend the actual holidays away from home, plan a special dinner to enjoy at your house, with both you and your significant other contributing to the menu and preparation.

  2. Decorate your home in fall and/or winter/holiday décor together - Bonus points if you make the decorations, adding to your collection each year!

  3. Take Holiday Pictures- This one serves a few different purposes. Not only is this a great opportunity to create a ritual of getting dressed up or dressing in a theme with your spouse, but it will also give you the chance to look back at these photos in future years! With selfie-sticks, camera stands, filters and timed/remote photo apps, taking pictures at home has never been easier. And now there is no excuse not to include yourself in the pictures!

  4. Pull out your photo albums and reminisce on past holidays.

  5. Kiss under the mistletoe when you leave and return from work - This adds a holiday twist to a ritual you may already be doing (sending off and greeting your partner, when you leave and return home each day).

  6. Watch holiday movies together, or make a list of movies you haven’t had an opportunity to see this year, and use the extra time off from work to catch up together.

  7. Make cookies or gingerbread houses. Hate baking? Grocery stores now have pre-made ginger bread houses and sugar cookies with icing and candies included so you can save time on baking and focus more on decorating!

  8. Shop for extended family gift(s) together. Shopping often becomes a solo job, but when looking for gifts for hard-to-shop-for extended family, two heads can be better than one. Plus standing in long lines doesn’t seem so bad if you have company!

  9. Visit a Christmas tree farm - If a live tree that sheds in your living room doesn’t have you jumping with holiday spirit, lots of tree farms have other activities to enjoy (such as photo ops, petting zoos, corns mazes, festive gift shops, and delicious treats)!

  10. Sing Holiday Karaoke. Afterwards, every time you hear “Santa Baby” you will be inclined to laugh at the thought of your significant other belting it out in your living room or at the bar around the corner!

  11. Take a drive and listen to holiday music. Maybe singing isn’t your thing, but a scenic drive with spirited music can engrain the feeling of togetherness and bring back those feelings each time you hear those songs.

  12. Take a walk around your neighborhood after dark to look at the lights.

  13. Call family and friends together - Instead of you and your spouse calling or talking individually, facetime/skype/speaker phone friends and family to have group chat!

  14. Play in the snow or in the grass, depending on your local weather (snow: ski, snowboard, sled, snow ball fight; grass: bocci ball, horseshoes, washers, toss a ball or frisbee, etc.) ** The Gottmans describe play as, “dreaming while you are awake” and believe it to be a vital part of healthy relationships.

  15. Volunteer together. Whether you assist at a food bank, homeless shelter, or donate gifts to “Toys for Tots”/Angel Tree/Blue or Brown Santa, helping in your community is often easiest during the holidays because there are so many active organizations. This is a ritual that can also translate to your life after January 1st, with many organizations desperate for additional help after the holiday rush!

Keep in mind, when you are choosing rituals, you want to find activities that both you and your spouse can enjoy. If your ideas of holiday traditions are drastically different, try to find a balance between rituals geared towards you and your significant other’s interests - being aware that none of these new traditions should be “painful” for you or your partner, because that will likely only cause you to abandon them before you have an opportunity to recreate them year after year. As your repertoire of traditions and rituals grow each year, take time to discuss the ones you enjoy the most, the ones you enjoy the least, and discard unfavorable traditions, so you have time to introduce new rituals and spice up your holiday season!


LifeTip: How Setting Boundaries Promotes Intimacy

Recently, I’ve felt inspired by both my personal and professional life when it comes to interpersonal boundaries. Setting boundaries in our relationships can be challenging because it requires a bit of finessing, but in the long run it can actually help promote intimacy with others.

Often when we talk about setting boundaries in relationships, we refer to creating metaphorical lines that are not to be crossed or tampered with in order to protect ourselves. This idea may appear to create distance in a relationship, perhaps in one that requires nurturing and closeness, but in most cases, the opposite is true.

Boundaries are not only a way to protect ourselves in relationships, they also create healthy structure, promote predictability and safety, and are a form of self-care. A boundary can be as simple as setting guidelines with your child about phone usage at the dinner table. Other boundaries can be more complex, such as telling a parent or family member that certain topics are off-limits because they personally result in unhelpful consequences and emotional discomfort. In either case, we set boundaries with the people we care about in order to increase the safety, intimacy, and long-term sustainability of each relationship. Setting boundaries can be appropriate in any relationship: your child, parent, sibling, partner, friend, coworker, the list goes on. If it’s a relationship you care about, it can certainly benefit from setting healthy boundaries.

It’s important to note that setting boundaries can be really challenging, especially if this is something new you’re trying. It might feel awkward, it might also create some short-term confusion/anger/resentment, and it might even take a handful of tries before it feels authentic. Be patient with yourself and this relationship. If you care enough about this person and yourself, allow the time and space to work out the kinks.

Here are some helpful tips when setting interpersonal boundaries:

  • Practice saying no/yes when it comes to your needs/desires and reflect on how you manage hearing “no” from others. Practice tolerating any uncomfortable emotions that come up.

  • Reflect on your sense of identity. Practice accepting and respecting yourself.

  • Practice speaking up when you feel you have been abused or disrespected by others.

  • Take time to identify your wants, needs, and feelings. Practice using direct communication to share these wants, needs, and feelings with others.

  • Identify your limits and allow others to define their limits.


Finally, remember that we set boundaries out of love and not punishment!

Practice compassion for yourself and within your relationships 😊


LoveTip: How to Be Silly (and How to Become a Rockstar Romantic Partner)

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Have you ever witnessed children in play? How easy it is for them to laugh, dance, sing, use silly voices, imagine they are dinosaurs, play dress up with their friends for hours? Children are so natural at play because they lack the restrictions and limitations that get layered on as life happens. But what happens when you grow up? Play becomes so much harder. We have work and find ourselves dealing with relationship and financial issues, and then we have to get the kids to school, soccer practice, ballet class, etc.

Much of the work I do with couples in couples therapy and parents in my parent coaching sessions is focused around learning how to be your true self around your partner, and how to be more spontaneous and silly as a couple. Being silly creates connection which cultivates intimacy, which generates trust. It’s a circular thing, because you have to trust your partner to be silly with them, and you have to feel safe that if you try out a silly or playful activity, they will respond with warmth and care. You could set the stage by speaking with your partner before these activities and say something like, “I love being silly! I think it might make us more connected, will you try out some of these things with me?” (Be brave here! Your inner heart might be saying, “I’m scared he/she won’t respond and he/she will think I’m weird” - but, remember, I’m weird. You’re weird. We’re all weird, and it’s so important to keep trying to stay connected to your partner). See how your partner responds.

10 ways to be silly with your partner:

  1. Spoil your dinner with ice cream. Talk about your favorite ice cream, and try out each other’s favorite.
  2. Buy temporary color hair spray and try out rainbow hair. Surprise each other with a new hairdo!
  3. Talk in a silly voice and make up a secret, inside joke that only the two of you know.
  4. Do artwork together and put it up on your fridge.
  5. Build a blanket fort and drink hot chocolate together.
  6. Make giant bubble solution and blow bubbles together (it’s relaxing!)
  7. Cut snowflakes together and hang them up on the windows in your bedroom.
  8. Play a couples version of Pictionary. Draw things that are special and unique to your relationship history - see if your partner can guess what you are drawing! The sillier the drawing better.
  9. Plan an activity with your partner that feels kid-like: go to the zoo, or climb trees, or to a kid’s movie! It can feel so nice to be reminded of our childhood experiences, and when we do this with our partners, it expands our interpersonal connection in a deep and meaningful way.
  10. Sing a song to your partner, even if you don’t like your voice. Ask them to sing one to you back. Oh, and dance. Dance to your favorite song.

Some things to remember are that not everyone responds to playfulness in the same way, and a lot of people need a bit of time to get comfortable with the outside-the-box activities. Try one activity, and then go onto the next one, if the first one doesn’t work! Give space to your partner if they don’t respond right away. And, don’t forget to say thank you to your partner for experiencing your activity. Verbal appreciation can be very helpful in reinforcing what we want to happen again.

As we move into the new year from this holiday season, it can be stressful to think about expectations related to your relationship and the ever important, “date night.”  But, try sitting down with your partner and taking just 10 minutes together to plan out some playful moments of connection, which don’t have to be limited to one specific night!  I would love to hear about your silliest moments with your partner. Share below!