5 Signs you Might Need Couples Counseling

Most people tend to see couples counseling as an absolute last resort, when their relationship has deteriorated significantly. But couples have a better chance of resolving their conflicts and hurts if they seek help sooner than later. The longer you stay in crisis with your partner, the greater chance you will become emotionally distant, hurt each other through words and actions, or otherwise harm your bond. This article is intended to empower you to find guidance as soon as you need it, as opposed to waiting until things really get out of hand. If you resonate with any of the following signs, there's a good chance you could benefit greatly from couples counseling:

 
 

1 | There was a major betrayal

If you and your partner experienced a huge betrayal within the relationship, such as an affair (whether physical or emotional), financial infidelity, or another type of deception that has recently become known, I imagine this has shaken things up quite a bit. You may not even know how to proceed with this newfound information. Couples counseling can help you both process through the feelings of the betrayal and assist you both in deciding how to move forward. A professional can facilitate a conversation between you two that doesn't devolve into a screaming match or the silent treatment.

2 | There's more negativity than positivity

Dr. Gottman's "Magic Ratio," developed through a career of researching couples, posits that a couple that has a ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative interaction is most likely to remain together. However, if that ratio is thrown off, watch out! The more negativity you see, the less likely the relationship will survive long-term. Pay attention to the interactions you have with your partner over the next week or so. What's your ratio looking like? If you're noticing a fair amount of negative interactions without a great amount of positive interactions to balance it out, couples counseling may be an option for you to consider. 

3 | You're unable to communicate

Some couples simply don't know how to communicate with one another about emotionally-charged topics. This often occurs in two scenarios: 1) in couples where one or both partners has an avoidant style – meaning they prefer to disengage from connection completely when emotionally flooded, preferring to "zone out" with electronics, become immersed in work responsibilities, etc. or 2) in couples where one or both partners has an aggressive style – meaning they tend to use a loud volume, harsh tone and make accusations that make it almost impossible to have a rational conversation with this person. Couples counseling can help create a safe environment where both partners feel comfortable and empowered to communicate honestly and authentically with one another.

4 | You go in circles with issues

Are you in one of those relationships where you and your partner communicate, respect one another's opinions, and treat each other kindly, yet cannot find resolutions for certain issues? Maybe you're needing to make a big life choice such as whether to live in the city or the country, whether or not to have children, who will be the main earner, etc. Sometimes couples need a facilitator to have these tough conversations and finally find some clarity and closure. Couples counseling could be a great way for you guys to close the book on some of these nagging problems.

5 | You have different visions for the future

Over time, people change and evolve in many ways. This growth can have beneficial impacts on a couple, or can leave them feeling as though they've grown apart. If you and your partner have vastly different ideas about what the future should hold, this can make it difficult to envision a future together. Couples counseling can help you both clarify what you'd like for the future and if those dreams can be reconciled within the relationship.

It's common for couples to come up against challenges that seem insurmountable at the time. But if you and your partner love one another and want very much to make the relationship work, you can improve your chances of relationship success through therapy. Seeing a therapist can help you communicate vulnerably and effectively with your spouse, process through traumas that have impacted both of you and give you tools and resources to deepen your connection with one another. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments below. As always, I'd love to hear from you. Thank you for reading and be well!


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

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10 Tips for Communicating with a Spouse

One of the most common goals for treatment that I hear from couples counseling clients is that they would like to communicate better. By the time couples come in for therapy, they typically know that their communication patterns are not serving them anymore and that they need to learn new skills. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of strategies for improving your communication with your partner:

 
 

1 | Use “I” statements

When communicating with your partner, it’s essential that you speak from your own experience and avoid blaming your partner for your feelings. This has two benefits, 1) you allow yourself to be seen and heard and 2) you avoid putting your partner on the defensive. Utilizing “I” statements is probably the most commonly taught technique in couples counseling.

2 | Avoid over-generalizations

Making statements such as “you always” or “you never” is not only unhelpful, but it’s also simply untrue. It’s impossible for someone to always or never do something, so let’s keep the over-generalizations out of the conversations. For a more helpful and healing interaction, express the way it makes you feel when your partner behaves in a certain way.

3 | Listen fully

This means that you need to pay close attention to what your partner is saying, as opposed to planning your response. I find that when I feel revved up and really want to say something, I notice my body begin to tense up and wanting to interject. In these moments, slowing down and focusing on my breath allows me to stay present to what my partner is saying.

4 | Face your issues

When people don’t address and resolve the things that bother them with their partner, they may think they are just “letting it go,” but typically these annoyances and resentments build up over time resulting in one of two scenarios, 1) the frustration can be insidiously expressed as passive aggressive behavior or 2) the anger can build up over time causing the individual to lash out at their partner. Do these sound familiar? As uncomfortable as it may be to do at the time, you and your partner are both better off dealing with issues head on instead of putting them on the back burner.

5 | Practice honesty

This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it can be understated that trust is the foundation of an intimate relationship and deception (even when it seems innocuous) slowly erodes at that foundation. Even if you’re tempted to cover up the truth about something to avoid discomfort or conflict, remind yourself that your relationship will benefit more from telling the truth and dealing with the consequences. It will ultimately bring you closer.

6 | Be vulnerable

In any relationship conflict, it takes two to tango. Even if one person is 99% at fault for something, the other partner is 1% accountable. So, if you’re angry or upset with your partner about an issue, take responsibility for your part in it. This will set the tone for the conversation and encourage your partner to open up with you about their part in the conflict. If being vulnerable is challenging for you, I recommend watching the above TED talk about the power of vulnerability. It's one of my favorites.

7 | Know “The Four Horsemen”

John Gottman, the psychologist famous for his research on relationships, writes about the “Four Horsemen” of relationships which are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. In order to have successful communication and a long-lasting relationship, couples must avoid these classic traits that can doom relationships. Here is a short summary of Gottman’s Four Horsemen:

  • Criticism – Offering your partner helpful feedback on ways they can improve within the relationship can be a healthy habit, but once your criticism crosses the line into a pervasive pattern of diminishing your partner’s sense of self, this becomes unhealthy.
  • Contempt – This characteristic is often expressed as name-calling, mimicking, ridicule and using body language such as eye-rolling that denigrates the other person. These behaviors have a serious negative effect on relationships and need to be avoided.
  • Defensiveness – It’s challenging not to get defensive when your partner addresses an issue with you, but it’s critical to take feedback in stride. Defensiveness turns what could otherwise be a productive discussion and turns it into an argument immediately.
  • Stonewalling – The term refers to when a partner becomes overwhelmed with the conflict with their partner and decides to completely withdraw from the interaction. This behavior can be incredibly frustrating and invalidating for the other partner.

8 | Speak directly

You may wish that your partner knew what you wanted and needed at every moment, but the truth is, they don’t! Therefore, you need to assert your needs often and clearly, to help your partner out. This process may be rocky at first (it can take a while for people to get used to assertiveness!) but if you can master direct communication with your partner, the rest of your relationship will flow much more smoothly.

9 | Stay calm

When people get triggered in a conflict with their partner, they can often raise their voice and say things that they don’t mean. To combat this, stay connected with your internal experience during a discussion with your partner. If you notice physiological symptoms of stress (like sweating, increased heart rate, etc.) slow the conversation down, take a few deep breaths, and if you need to, tell your partner you need to take a break in the other room for a minute before returning to the conversation. This mindfulness will help prevent unnecessary outbursts.

10 | Table discussions

This may seem contradictory to tip number 4 (Face Your Issues), but it actually complements it. Sometimes it is simply not a good time to discuss a particular topic. If you’re on your way to an important work presentation and need to be on your A-game, you probably don’t want to bring up that huge issue with your spouse on the car ride to work. Instead, mention to your partner that you’d like to discuss it when you get home. This way, you’re not avoiding the issue, but finding the right place and time to address it.

I hope this list is helpful to you and your partner in optimizing your relationship. I know these strategies have helped me immensely in my own relationship. Now I’d like to hear from you! What works for you in communication with your spouse? What seems to always backfire? Do you have any questions about how to employ these tips? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. Thank you and be well.


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

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Strategies for Strengthening Your Bond

When things are going smoothly in our relationships, it's easy to feel connected to our partner. We naturally want to spend more time with them and engage in enjoyable activities. But when times get tough and the road is bumpy, it can be more challenging to find ways to connect. Think of your relationship bond like a muscle – if you want to strengthen it, it takes consistency and practice. Here are some tips for you and your partner to implement if you feel like your relationship needs some extra TLC:

 
 

1 | Set aside “us” time

If you live with your partner, it may seem unnecessary to schedule “us” time, since you may see that person a lot. But remember, quantity of time does not make up for quality of time. Set aside some time that is without distraction (i.e. no phones, laptop, T.V. or books) just for the two of you to be together. This time could be used for simple talking with one another, giving each other a back rub or cuddling and connecting.

2 | Mix it up!

Sure, a dinner and a movie is always a great staple for a date night. But the same ol’ same ol’ can get stale as old bread. Mix it up with something fun and new! If you want some new ideas for creative date outings, browse Groupon and Goldstar to see what strikes your fancy. The bonus is these sites also offer steep discounts for fun activities. Like live theater? TodayTix is a website and app for discounted last-minute tickets to plays. Love museums? Here’s a list of museums in Los Angeles that are either free or have free days.

3 | Make it sensual

Usually when couples are feeling disconnected, the first thing to go is the romance and affection. And when that’s not there, it’s really tough to employ the “fake it till you make it” approach to dealing with challenges. Instead, wake up the senses on a daily basis to start feeling more sensual and more interested in shared connection with your partner. How does one do this? Begin noticing throughout the day what naturally feels good (for example, walking through a park on your lunch break and feeling the leaves of a tree brush up against your arm) and share that with your partner. Have them do the same so you both know what’s pleasing to the other person. This will inspire you guys to want to create more physical pleasure for one another.

4 | Use the atmosphere

We’re going for the power of association here – think of how a spa atmosphere automatically makes you feel more relaxed, even before you’ve begun to receive your treatment. Simply walking into the spa and hearing the gentle music and noticing the pleasant smells invites you to feel calmer. We can do the same at home. Create an environment at home that’s more stimulating to the senses through lighting candles, putting salts in the bath, spraying aromatherapy, playing soothing music etc. When you intentionally make your surroundings more amenable to romance, you’re more likely to want to connect with your partner.

5 | Get inspired

It helps to get some outside inspiration when we’re not feeling so great about our relationship and need some new tools and ideas to work with. Here’s a list of 10 books that are great for learning about the dynamics of relationships and how to strengthen them. Don’t have time to read a whole book? Use Audible to listen in the car or choose a podcast instead. You can check out this round-up of 10 relationship podcasts you can sink your teeth into.

6 | Reflect on the good times

When we’re in the throes of conflict with our partner or seriously doubting our relationship, it’s easy to forget all the amazing memories we’ve shared with that person. Simply pulling out photo boxes, leafing through scrapbooks or looking at Google photos can remind you both of the fun times you’ve had together. If you and your partner are in need of some serious bonding time, set aside an afternoon or evening to sit together and look through old photos from vacations, dates and other occasions. The act of looking at these pictures will bring up stories, jokes and anecdotes that will surely bring you closer.

7 | Pull out all the stops

By now, you can probably tell that date night is a good idea. But don’t stop at that! Pull out all the stops. Spend some time getting ready and dolled up for each other. Buy flowers. Go to a restaurant you can’t really afford to go to. Get a couples massage. Your relationship is an investment and it’s worth the splurge every now and then! You’ll send a strong message to one another that the relationship is worth it. Most importantly, enjoy the royal treatment.

8 | Be spontaneous

It’s great to have plans, but sometimes plans don’t work out for one reason or another or sometimes something more exciting comes up. In your bonding time together, allow yourselves to divert from original plans and go with the flow. This will allow you guys to reconnect to a younger, more spontaneous side of one another. Often as we get older, we become more set in our ways and less able to let the night take us to unexpected places. If it’s a gorgeous night and you get the idea to take a drive up Mulholland for a gorgeous view or a drive up the coast to smell the salty sea air…do it!

9 | Have limits

Are there certain topics that inevitably spiral into arguments or stress? Take a vacation from those themes for a night or weekend to simply enjoy one another. No, this doesn’t mean putting off dealing with your problems forever. It means that it’s okay to set limits on what you won’t talk about for your bonding time together. If something gets brought up, and you don’t want to forget to address it later, simply write a short note in your phone about it and table it for another time.

10 | Hire a babysitter

If you have kids, and if you don’t have a babysitter yet, you need one! This is essential. I’ve known many couples who rely on their parents, neighbors or friends to watch their kids and this is not enough. You need and deserve to have professional childcare that is available to you on a regular basis so that you can go out on dates without the guilt associated with asking for a favor and without relying on other people’s availability. If you don’t know a sitter, there are great nanny websites such as Urban Sitter and Care.com.

Now I'd love to hear from you! How do you reconnect with your partner in times of conflict or emotional distance? Every couple is different and a strategy that works great for one pair may not fare well for another. That's why I'd love to get some varying opinions on what works and what doesn't work for couples who've hit a rough patch. Please share in the comments below. Thanks for reading and be well.


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

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Intimate Partner Violence Series: Part IV – "Tell me, is my Relationship Healthy?"

Last month (in honor of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month) I decided to develop an Intimate Partner Violence Series that is intended to equip individuals with the information necessary to 1) determine if they are in an abusive relationship, 2) develop a safety plan for while they are in the relationship, 3) seek support and resources to help them get out of the relationship and finally 4) identify signs of healthy relationships. This series is intended to be educational in nature and is not a substitute for seeking professional help. Please seek the help of a therapist in your area. Today’s post is Part Four and the final installment of this series. If this is a topic that has special relevance for you, please follow the above links for previous articles.

If we didn't receive good (or any!) modeling from our parents about how to be in a healthy, loving intimate relationship, it can be hard to know if we're "doing it right." When I got into my first serious relationship in college, I honestly didn't know what a healthy relationship looked like, and unfortunately wound up in an abusive relationship for almost 5 years with someone who at the time I thought was a "perfect boyfriend" and who I assumed I'd spend my life with. It wasn't until having friends and family intervene that I became awake to the fact that I was in a very unhealthy relationship and needed to leave.

Not once did I receive education in signs of intimate partner abuse or the cycle of violence as an undergraduate in psychology nor as a graduate student in counseling. Had I been aware, I might've been able to notice the warning signs and leave sooner. I hope you, the reader, keep yourself informed of traits of healthy and unhealthy relationships so you can avoid the pain of abuse and have a satisfying, lifelong relationship with someone you love. Please read on for my round-up of characteristics of healthy relationships:

 
 

1 | Communication

One thing that I often tell psychotherapy clients is that your partner is not a mind-reader! Just because you wish your partner new what you needed and could meet your needs all the time doesn’t mean that they can. In a relationship, we need to take responsibility for our obligation to keep our partner informed of what we’re thinking, feeling, needing and expecting so that we don’t find ourselves constantly resentful and disappointed. If you and your partner are in sync with your communication, this is a strong indicator that your relationship is headed in the right direction.

2 | Vulnerability

This is a tough one for people because making ourselves vulnerable can be an intensely uncomfortable and difficult task, and can be even harder for those who’ve experienced much betrayal, deception or trauma in past relationships. However, as risky as it can feel, making ourselves vulnerable to our partner allows us to be fully seen and loved by our partner and help us resolve conflicts with love instead of anger. If you and your partner allow yourselves to be vulnerable with one another, then you will likely find it easier to connect on a deeper level and move through challenges with ease.

3 | Honesty

Transparency in a relationship allows it to grow and thrive. Knowing that your partner is in the loop about your actions will allow you to be more present in your interactions with them and prevent guilt and shame from creeping in. If you and your partner find it easy to admit transgressions to one another and share information – even if it might hurt the other – then you’re likely in a relationship with a high level of honesty and integrity.

4 | Trust

What I often tell my psychotherapy clients is that trust is the foundation of a relationship – without it, there’s not much of a relationship at all – it’s more like two people living parallel lives, loosely connected to one another. In a relationship where the trust is well-established and strong, the couple’s bond can withstand ambiguity and fear, because their trust in one another serves as the bedrock of the relationship – unshakeable, despite challenging external factors.

5 | Boundaries

As much as we want to experience closeness with our partner, in order to have a thriving relationship, we need to balance that out with maintaining healthy personal boundaries. Relationship boundaries are limits that we set within the relationship – for example, people can have boundaries around their time, their personal space, their finances, how they expect to be treated by their partner among many other areas. It’s important to establish clear boundaries and uphold them, in order to prevent feeling taken advantage of by our partner.

6 | Fun

One of the many benefits of being in a relationship is the ability to share the enjoyment of life with your partner. We’re wired for connection, so it makes sense that we would be naturally inclined to seek a life partner with whom to share fun times with. If you and your mate are cracking each other up, having a blast on dates, and fully engaging in the moment, chances are your relationship is healthy and thriving.

7 | Intimacy

A hallmark of healthy relationships is the intimacy shared between the partners. Physical intimacy is a pivotal aspect of a healthy relationship for many couples, but is not always necessary. For partners in long-distance relationships, or partners who choose to abstain sexually, emotional intimacy can be enough to satisfy both partners. Intimacy, in this sense, indicates sharing deeply with that person and letting them in on parts of you that you don’t share with just anyone.

8 | Loyalty

Of course many couples choose to have polyamorous relationships, but in a monogamous relationship there is an expectation of physical and emotional loyalty to one another. In a healthy relationship (whether monogamous or polyamorous,) both partners honor the agreements and expectations set forth at the beginning of the relationship about what is acceptable (and unacceptable) behavior. Also, remember that emotional affairs can cause as much (if not more) damage than physical affairs.

9 | Equity

Equity and equality are two different, yet similar, ideas. Saying that a relationship should have equality would be unrealistic, because each partner has different strengths, abilities and resources to contribute to the relationship that will never be equal – that would simply be impossible to achieve! But to say that a relationship is equitable means that both partners are contributing what they can and treating one another with dignity and respect.

10 | Reliability

In order to feel secure in your relationship, you need to know that you can count on your partner – whether it be expecting them to show up for a date when they say they will, or being able to drop everything and come help you in a crisis situation. Without dependability, we’ll feel like we’re on our own within the relationship. Knowing that our partner is available to us makes us feel closer to them and safer in general because we know we have support when we need it.

I hope you found today’s post informative. Although there are many other qualities of healthy relationships that I could identify, theses are the ten that really stood out to me when I sat down to write this post. Please leave a comment below if there’s anything you’d like to add or ask.

If you feel that you are in imminent danger, please seek help immediately, by calling The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or by calling 911. If you are not in immediate danger, but would like to find someone to talk to, you can find a therapist at PsychologyToday.com or if you are in the Los Angeles area, feel free to contact me for therapy. This is the final article in this series. Be safe and be well.


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

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Intimate Partner Violence Series: Part I – 10 Signs of Intimate Partner Violence

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and in honor of this, I’ve decided to develop an Intimate Partner Violence Series that is intended to equip individuals with the information necessary to 1) determine if they are in an abusive relationship, 2) develop a safety plan for while they are in the relationship, 3) seek support and resources to help them get out of the relationship and finally 4) identify signs of healthy relationships. This series is intended to be educational in nature and is not a substitute for seeking professional help. Please seek the help of a therapist in your area. Today’s post is Part One of this series. If this is a topic that has special relevance for you, stay tuned for future posts.

It can be tough to know what is just normal fighting or a few harsh words within a relationship and what defines intimate partner abuse. A main component of being in an abusive relationship is the denial that one experiences in relation to their partner’s behavior, making it challenging to identify potential abuse. Another common component to an abusive relationship is the alienation of the abused partner’s support system, meaning that those who may have wanted to speak out about the violence are now estranged friends and family members. If you’re concerned about behavior within your relationship I recommend you read through the following list of signs and see if any resonate with your experience:

 
 

1 | You feel on edge around your partner

If you feel you have to watch what you do or say in front of your partner to prevent a blow-up, that is a red-flag. We should be able to feel comfortable, safe and able to be honest and vulnerable in the presence of our partner without fear of setting them off.

2 | You constantly feel like you’re “in trouble”

In abusive relationships, the abuser constantly wants the abused to feel that they are in the wrong and that they’ve done something bad to “deserve” the abuse they’re receiving. I’m going to clear this up right now – no one EVER deserves abuse of any kind, whether it’s physical or verbal.

3 | Your partner spends a lot of time apologizing

Part of the cycle of violence involves the abuser apologizing profusely after an episode of abuse. For example, many abusers may drink or use heavily, engage in abusive behavior while intoxicated and the next morning (once they’ve sobered up) apologize and try to take back what they said.

4 | Your partner buys you expensive gifts

Especially in the beginning of an abusive relationship, the abuser will attempt to gain favor and control of their partner through the use of buying expensive gifts. Abusers also will buy their partner gifts or flowers as a way of asking for forgiveness following abuse.

5 | Your partner denies the truth

Often, abusers will completely deny saying or doing something abusive. This is why many survivors of abuse will claim that they felt they were “going crazy” in the relationship – in other words, abusive partners will manipulate the truth so often that you may begin to doubt your own memory or sanity.

6 | You have fuzzy or incomplete memories

Abuse is traumatizing and while experiencing traumatic events, the brain will often dissociate from the present moment or the physical experience of the trauma, making it more challenging in the future to recall abuse. If you have a difficult time remembering certain events, this could be an indicator of abuse.

7 | Your partner alienates you

This will often manifest as all your friends being your partner’s friends (so that you have no outside support) or could present as you having fewer and fewer relationships over time. An abusive partner will slowly erode away your other support and resources so that you don’t feel you have the option to leave.

8 | Your partner throws objects

Most people know that any form of non-consensual physical violence perpetrated against someone else is a form of abuse. But a lesser-known sign of abuse is a partner throwing objects around the house. Although one might say this is benign behavior, objects can inflict physical pain if thrown carelessly.

9 | Your partner talks down to you

If your partner belittles you, makes fun of you, calls you names, denigrates you, or in any way makes you feel badly about yourself as a regular practice, this is highly concerning. The way that abusive partners assert their control over their mate is through over time chipping away at their sense of self-worth.

10 | You make excuses for your partner

You may find yourself constantly explaining away your partner’s behavior such as “oh, he was just drunk,” or “he’s not usually like this,” or “she’s going through a really tough time right now,” in order to manage people’s perceptions of your partner. But in a healthy relationship, no excuses are necessary.

Although this list is far from exhaustive, it’s a good start to take the temperature of your relationship and see if there are any concerning attributes. If you'd like to learn more about warning signs of domestic violence, I suggest you visit this linkIf you feel that you are in imminent danger, please seek help immediately, by calling The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or by calling 911. If you are not in immediate danger, but would like to find someone to talk to, you can find a therapist at PsychologyToday.com or if you are in the Los Angeles area, feel free to contact me for therapy. I hope you found today’s post informative. Please leave a comment below if there’s anything you’d like to add or ask. Stay posted for future articles in this series. Be safe and be well.


about the author

Hi! I'm Natalie. And I'm passionate about helping people create healthy relationships in their lives. Through couples counseling in Pasadena and here on the blog, it's my mission to help foster stronger connections, healthy communication and life-long love.

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