Marriage Counseling: Don’t wait too long!

When should a couple seek counseling?    In almost 28 years as a counselor I would say that at least 1/2 of my clients have come to therapy for relationship difficulties.  A great number were marriages in trouble and many were seeking help as a “last ditch effort” to avoid divorce.   (Though research shows that less than 5% of couples seek counseling before getting divorced. ) So…when should a couple seek counseling?   For many the answer would be “years earlier!”

As researcher Dr.John Gottman has reported, many problems in marriages continue for up to 6 years before anyone seeks help.   Given that the average marriage lasts 7 years, its clear that many people live with unhappiness and relationship distress far too long.   What would happen if we waited that long before seeking medical attention for something wrong in our bodies?  Marriage therapists agree that more couples can be helped if they seek help much earlier and that the odds are against success if you wait too long.  What we’ve learned about early detection and treatment in the field of medical survival rates is also true in the area of couples counseling.

Here are a few “red flags” that might indicate therapy could benefit you as a couple:

1.  You have problems communicating.

  • Do you find that whatever the issue, it seems to quickly escalate?
  • You can’t bring up issues.
  • Nothing gets resolved.
  • You fight over the same things again and again:   You’re stuck.
  • You have difficulties listening, understanding and validating each other’s position on issues.

2. There is a growing sense of distance or alienation, and a lack of enjoyment of each other.

3  Your sexual intimacy is diminishing or changing.  (One partner could be feeling arousal from another source.)

4.  You have experienced a family trauma – a death, bankrupcy, etc. – and one or both partners can’t seem to adjust.  It’s affecting your marriage.

5.  You have financial disagreements that you are not able to resolve, or one partner is withholding decision-making power.

6.  There are conflicts due to parenting styles or in deciding whether or not to have a child(ren).

7.  Or perhaps, you are being pro-active!    You love each other and want to learn some new tools.

 

Couples counseling doesn’t cause divorce or save marriages.   But it does give you a safe place with a trained, impartial and non-judgmental professional to help you discuss issues and work toward a better, more satisfying relationship.   And isn’t that something we all want?

 

 

Stress-reducing exercise: just 15 minutes a day!

It is the inevitable by-product of living in a technologically-dependent, socially-connected, and minute-managed world that peace and calm get left in the wake.     Texts, emails and cell-phone calls fly in faster and more frequently than a speeding bullet.  It seems there is hardly a moment in the day when we’re not busy managing the demands of work, family and our increasingly larger social world that no longer can be shut out of our lives even for a few minutes.    We can no longer close the door behind us and expect that the world will be left outside.    Though staying connected is important, it is no more valuable than time alone to calm our thoughts and our bodies, to restore energy and peace,  and to reduce the ravages of stress.     And, you have a right to a few minutes to yourself!    You can decide to make time alone an equal priority.     Try this 15-minute a day refresher:

First:   Establish a quiet place in your home.   Use a candle, a cross, icon or other meaningful symbol for focus.  Pick a book of short devotional thoughts or spiritual / Scriptural readings.    Decide if you want to sit or kneel and prepare your place accordingly with a pillow, mat or stool.  When it is time, go to your quiet place and wait silently for a moment; breathe…relax…gently focus or close your eyes.   After awhile read your devotion then be quiet again and let the thoughts settle in….pray….don’t leave quickly, but quietly move back into your day.  

1.  5 minutes in the morning:   How you begin your day is most important!     Almost every important religious tradition speaks to the necessity of starting the day correctly.    After one of the busiest days recorded in Jesus’ ministry, the next morning the disciples found him out alone, having risen early to pray.    Get up just 5 minutes earlier and spend it in quietude and you will come to see what a difference it will make!

2. 5 minutes at lunch:   If at home, go to your quiet place again or find some place at work where you can retreat for just 5 minutes.    Go there around noon and shut out all thoughts of work.   Sit quietly, eyes closed, and body relaxed.    Breathe gently and just think about your breath.  Recall, if you wish, the truths of your early morning devotion.    Keep your thoughts away from work, problems, or ”to-do”s.   For a few minutes, just be at peace.   End with a simple prayer of thanksgiving and then resume your day’s activities.

3.  5 minutes to end the day:    As the day ends, return for just a few moments to your quiet place.    After your few moments of relaxing, focusing and breathing you may want to give thanks as you recall the day just past.    Briefly examine your conscience and pray, clearing it of all that disturbs you.   

Try using this 15-minute a day refresher for a month and see if your sense of peace and calm have increased and stress decreased.  You’re worth it!

Boundaries in Relationships

I got a warning from my brother recently.    It was about a piece of grazing-land in a remote part of Kansas, which I own title to and lease to ranchers to raise cattle.    It seems a calf had broken through the fence and run out onto the country road.   “What would happen if someone hit it with his car?!”, he cried in exasperation when he realized I didn’t have insurance.    I had been counting on the ranchers for that.   “You could be sued for all you’re worth!”    He was right.   “Enough, bro’!    You’re right.   I need to protect my boundaries!”

That’s probably similar to what most people think about when they hear the phrase “ boundaries in relationships” – that we need them for self-protection.  But boundaries imply much more than that.   In fact , if that is our main notion, then trying to erect some could cause more harm than good for ourselves and for the people in our lives.

Boundaries are about our ‘space’, for sure, and it needs to be acknowledged and honored.   But boundaries include taking responsibility for our own behavior and choices, not just being on the alert for the other person’s perceived boundary-crossing.   Our personal boundaries or “ownership”includes such things as:

  • My attitudes
  • My thoughts
  • My feelings
  • My desires
  • My values
  • My limits
  • My abilities
  • My choices
  • My behavior

Boundaries start with self-control, not control of others.    They define us as persons and help us know just exactly what we can and should be working on changing, if anything!     It actually sets us free to know that we are not responsible for changing the behavior, thoughts or feelings of those people around us.   We can influence them, of course.    But our real task in life is to best manage our own lives – that which we do “own”- and see to it that it is a life of integrity, honesty, intentionality and generosity.     Loving relationships begin with the freedom created by a healthy understanding and respect for boundaries.  And this begins today with me!

7 Tips for Managing Those Holiday Blues

Beat the holiday blues

Don’t let the holiday blues mar what should be a time of joy and love.

The holidays tend to introduce a bittersweet mix of joy and sadness into our normal lives. On the one hand, they’re a delightful time to gather together with people we love to share meaningful family and sacred traditions. But on the other hand, it is full of expectations and sentiment, loneliness and tension that often bring the dreaded holiday blues.

Some people approach the rush of gift buying, decorating and baking, parties and extra activities with excitement and anticipation. But memories of happier times and of loved ones who used to be a part of our lives can combine with overcommercialization of what once seemed beautifully simple and bring us to the dread and stress of the holiday blues as the days click off and the holidays draw near.

Symptoms of “Holiday Blues” can include headaches, muscle tension, problems with sleep, melancholy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and excessive thinking and worrying. This is not to be confused with clinical depression or seasonal affective disorder. Remember, these holiday blues are situational and short-lived. Shortly after the New Year begins, they will pass! And remember that many of these feelings are a normal response to a very stress-filled time of year. That being said, here are a few common-sense tips to help you manage those holiday blues and chase away the Grinch:

1. Watch your diet!

Most people start slipping into poor eating habits, especially with those extra sugar-and-fat-laden holiday goodies. This will only deplete your body of proper nutrients, adding to that run-down, stressed-out feeling. A healthy, balanced diet will strengthen a sense of well-being and give you the energy to manage extra responsibilities and keep your immune system resilient against seasonal colds and flu. Use caution to not overconsume alcohol; it’s a depressant. Moderation is the key to all drinking and eating.

2. Exercise

Our regular exercise program is often the first thing to go when the schedule gets jammed. But we need those endorphins that get stimulated by physical activity to boost our faltering mood. There’s nothing like getting your blood pumping and your muscles working their hardest to encourage the feeling of “I can do it!” Moderate exercise will help you to get the replenishing sleep that you also need during stressful times.

3. Take quiet time

Though you may feel you must jump out of bed and start running through your day – and keep going until you drop to sleep, take a few minutes of quality time at the beginning and end of the day and intersperse a few breaks in the middle of the day for calmness and re-centering. Relax, breathe deeply and focus outside of yourself and away from your busyness. Pray, contemplate, meditate. Find a devotional reading to deepen your thoughts. Remember: “This too shall pass!”

4. Simplify and believe that “less can be more”

Holidays provoke perfectionism. We are led to believe that our gift, our food, our party will make or break someone’s Christmas. It is rarely true that someone is that fragile! Determine to not overextend your bank account or your energy trying to make everyone happy. Share responsibilities for food preparation, cleaning, gift buying, etc. You by yourself don’t have to do it all! Sharing the work can also be sharing the joy, especially when done together.

5. Organize and plan ahead

Start early in the pre-season weeks and months and pace yourself for events and gifts so that by the time you get to important events you will be not be exhausted by last-minute preparations and buying that could have been done days or weeks earlier.

6. Limit social gatherings

Make room for the truly meaningful gatherings. Some can be saved for after the holidays. Do you really “have to” say yes to every invitation or attend every event? Prioritize and set some healthy social boundaries for yourself.

7. Consider volunteering

When we’re in the rush to buy and get more it’s good to have reminders that we already have so much – and so do most of the people on our gift list. Volunteering and giving to those who can’t give back help us to value as our best treasures those things that are not tangible: kindness, caring acts, simple pleasures. Life shared with others is a blessing providing mutual happiness for giver and receiver.

Beat the holiday blues

Don’t let your expectations overshadow the reality; holidays are to be enjoyed! Finding a few common sense ways to manage your holiday blues and stress will enhance and deepen your experience and the memories thereafter.

Life is too short to let it be dragged down by the holiday blues. Enjoy!

Image: Ho Ho Ho — Meowy Christmas, by Skley, on Flickr

It’s not that easy being green.

Kermit the Frog sings about how “It’s not easy being green:

When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold or something much more colorful like that.  (It’s Not That Easy Being Green,” by the Muppets)

If we can be honest, one of the biggest hurdles to get over in life is accepting who we are.   Not that we don’t want to grow and improve, but first we have to start with the basic package: “me.”  

The problem starts when we compare ourselves with others. Someone’s always taller, thinner, richer, smarter, better looking.   Someone’s got more talent and social graces and attracts people and good luck like a magnet, it seems.  

And is it only imagination that everyone else out there doesn’t have all those hidden weaknesses you have, those insecurities and doubts, fears and emptiness?  Have you got the only troubled marriage?   Are you the only one who can’t make life work out right?  Oh why, oh why, can’t I be more like everbody else?   

“It could make you wonder why,” Kermie ponders.   

At about this point our defenses kick in and we begin excusing, avoiding, rationalizing, blaming or maybe just eating and drinking.  

But if we stop a minute and think about it, there’s something unique about “me” and my life.   I’m one of a kind.   The mold is broken.    For good or for bad, I have a place in this world and people around me with whom I will share a few moments or years in space and time.    I am a link between the generations past and future.   In my own daily life I have power and influence.   I can make other lives happier or sadder, richer or emptier, better or worse.  

Mother Theresa said something that I’ve never forgotten – that it doesn’t matter what you do;  what matters is the love with which you do it.  In some meaningful way you need to accept your intrinsic worth and value in this world – and that of those around you.  Whoever you are, you need to know that “green will do fine”, in fact “it’s beautiful”.   Even more, “it’s what I want to be!”… because the world will never have another you.

Reviewing your past

About those past “unresolved issues“:  A poet and philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century, George Santayana, is quoted as saying,   “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” If that’s true, then my clients should be heading for better days after a few sessions!

I am not a therapist who starts from “here and now” and moves forward, though laying aside the past is certainly where we want to end up.

My approach is generally to encourage each person to tell their story, starting with their childhood.    Often I use what’s called a ‘genogram’ — diagramming the family tree on my whiteboard and noting the different personality styles, how people related, and what losses they suffered.   Patterns begin to emerge and make sense as we talk about how this might be impacting them in their current life.

This is especially important groundwork for Adult Children of Alcoholics, people recovering from abuse, and those with multiple deaths or losses through divorce.  Though it’s understandable why a person would just like to forget a painful or unpleasant past, taking time to revisit it briefly and thoughtfully in therapy can be surprisingly beneficial.    Out of this, healing can emerge like the phoenix rising from ashes to new life!

Benefits of the Changing Family Landscape

It is now estimated that between 17-20% of homes in America are multi-generational.   Increasingly, several generations opt for the financial, social and emotional support that living together affords.

In some cases, grandparents are helping to raise the next generation by moving in with their adult children.  But sometimes it’s the young adult children, now jobless, who are moving back with their parents.

Perhaps this is a real upside to the politically and financially dark landscape that we are in these days.  We need each other!   A benefit to hard times is that we change our perspectives about the glories of being “self-made” and “self-contained.”   Forget the Lone Ranger!

We’re into extended family and community these days.   So get out the board games and fire up the bar-b.   You don’t need expensive restaurants and entertainment when you have a friend at home.