Loneliness: Our Need To Connect

Feelings of loneliness are a natural part of our emotional experiences in which we internally feel disconnected or rejected from other people.  However when feelings of loneliness and isolation become chronic or severe, it puts us at risk for physical and emotional/mental health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, cancer, gastrointestinal issues, cognitive decline, dementia, depression, and anxiety.  In fact, research has shown that loneliness is a predictor of premature death because it targets the same parts of our brain as physical pain does.  

In order to effectively manage feelings of loneliness, we must first understand the root, or cause of them because not all feelings of disconnection or isolation are the same.  According to happiness expert Gretchen Rubin, there are 7 types of loneliness states that we can experience:

New situation: When we find ourselves in new circumstances, whether it is at a new job, place of residence, school, or in another unfamiliar setting.

I’m Different: When other individuals with whom our core beliefs, traits, or preferences differ surround us.

No Romance: Regardless of the amount or quality of the relationships someone may have with friends or family, the void of having an attachment to an intimate or romantic partner can create feelings of isolation.

No pet: Some of us seek out connections or attachments to animals because of the type of experience it provides that human connections oftentimes do not. 

Insufficient time: Relationships with friends, family, or intimate partners can leave us feeling lonely or disconnected when we find that the time and attention we are receiving from them is not enough.

Shallow friendships:  Lack of meaningful or authentic interactions and experiences and the inability to trust individuals we spend time with.  

Quiet presence: The need or desire to have someone else around just to hang out or spend quiet time with. 

And of course, one of the most common triggers to states of loneliness and isolation is the loss after the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship.

Once we can identify the type of loneliness we experience, we are then able to direct our efforts into the appropriate channels for alleviating it.  Here are some suggestions to creating connections with others:

  •       Initiate and engage in conversations with strangers
  •       Make efforts to get to know your neighbors, co-workers, or other people you come across          on a regular basis
  •       Volunteer in a setting that you have a passion for
  •       Schedule social events with friends on a regular basis
  •       Try a new hobby or activity that may involve the presence of other people
  •       Get involved with creative arts
  •       Adopt a pet or volunteer at an animal shelter
  •       Carve out uninterrupted quality time for family and intimate partners on a regular basis
  •       Set healthy boundaries around social media use

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Increase Your Relationship Satisfaction By Redirecting Your Mindset

Like most aspects of life, relationships go through highs and lows, which often correlate to how contented we feel about them at the time.  Because no one is perfect, it is normal to experience gripes and complaints about people we are in relationships with.  It can be easy to fall into a problem-focused mentality when we feel that our needs are not being met in the ways that we seek them to be.  This pattern of negative thinking can create distance, tension, and toxicity, which ultimately promote low levels of relationship satisfaction.  

Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected which means when we are able to alter one of these parts of ourselves, the other parts will be influenced.  Therefore if we find ourselves ruminating and focusing on all of the things we do not like about our partner, we will experience negative feelings and behave in ways that exhibit our disdain.  On the other hand, by redirecting our perspectives and thoughts to focus on the positive aspects of people we are in relationships with, the degree of satisfaction and type of interactions we experience will improve, even in difficult and challenging circumstances. 

One challenge I give clients who are experiencing low levels of relationship satisfaction is to offset each complaint they have about his or his partner by identifying a strength or positive aspect of the relationship.  For example, one client complained about her husband’s tendency to work all of the time, causing her to feel lonely however this client was then able to challenge this grievance by acknowledging her husband’s loyalty and commitment to provide for her and their children.  

Here are some of the prompts I often use with clients to help redirect their problem-focused mindset about his or her relationship:

  • What is it about my partner that initially drew me to him or her?
  • If I was no longer with my partner, what would my life be lacking?
  • What are some exceptions to my complaints of my partner? In other words, identify specific times or instances of when I am feeling happy with my partner.
  • How does my partner express care or concern for me?
  • What traits or characteristics does my partner have that I find admirable or that I feel balances me out?
  • What are the strengths of my relationship?
  • How does my partner show me that we are a team?
  • What sacrifices has my partner made for me?
  • What values or goals do I share with my partner?
  • In what ways has my partner and I grown together?

The next time you are feeling like your relationship is in a rut or you feel like nothing is going right, challenge yourself to think about and answer the above questions.  Oftentimes shifting our perspective allows us to reestablish positive affect and feelings for our partners.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Simple Ways To Date At Home

Over the years of working with couples, I have found that the majority of couples express a desire to go on dates in order to feel more connected.  This makes sense since most couples build an emotional foundation through dating and the process and effort it involves.  In the beginning stages of dating or courtship, we are more likely to plan and follow through with dates than we are later on in a relationship which is a typical pattern that most couples experience.  

As I discussed in my previous article on limerence, otherwise known as the ‘honeymoon phase’, the adrenaline and excitement that a new relationship offers significantly influences our motivation and willingness to be creative and open to participating in regular dates.  Unfortunately, limerence has an expiration date, which is often associated with changes we experience with the onset of more responsibilities in our relationships that tend to come with a typical progression.  The stressors and responsibilities that come with children, work, caring for older family members, financial obligations, and other factors are common reasons couples slowly decrease the frequency of going on dates.  

Couples often feel fatigued and stretched thin emotionally, physically, and financially and the thought of having to plan and follow through with a date can feel like an insurmountable task that is often easier to forgo.  Over time couples may find themselves going through the motions of sticking to routines and managing day-to-day tasks, which often creates distance if the relationship is not being nurtured. 

Time, energy, and money are the primary constraints that couples I work with say prevent them from going on dates despite their interest and desire to do so.  In order to manage these constraints effectively, I assist couples with identifying creative ways they can date without having to leave their home, pay for a babysitter, or put in energy to get dressed up.  This requires a minor shift in how couples think about what it means to go on a date and the ability to change the meaning of how time is spent at home together.  Here are some ideas for “dating at home”:

•    Unplug from technology for an hour and catch up on the “highs and lows” of the week
•    Have a picnic in the living room or outside
•    Exchange massages or foot rubs
•    Listen to favorite or meaningful songs
•    Karaoke (YouTube has channels)
•    Put a puzzle together
•    Dance lessons in your living room (YouTube helps with this too)
•    Reminisce over photos from the beginning stages of your relationship, engagement, and/or wedding photos
•    Talk about your dreams and goals for the next 5, 10, and 20 years together
•    Take turns cooking a meal from a different culture
•    Plan a vacation or trip together
•    Order take out and watch a movie
•    Stargaze together

Most couples engage in some of these activities on a regular basis however they don’t tend to think about them as dates because they don’t leave the house.  I encourage couples to have a discussion about what date activity they are going to engage in at home each week.  When couples begin to label these activities as dates, it creates more opportunities for connection that seem easy and realistic to follow through with.   

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Growing Your Emotional Bank Account

As I have discussed in previous articles, research has indicated that relationships that fail tend to possess negative defense mechanisms that are manifested both overtly and covertly when conflict or concerns arise.   These relationship killers include criticism, contempt stonewalling, and defensiveness (Gottman, 1997) and are associated with the tendency to turn away from a partner and his or her needs, which ultimately destroys any emotional connection.  

Emotional connection is one of the primary motivators we use to seek out and maintain relationships however the needs that each of us associates with emotional connection varies, making relationships complex.  When we enter into relationships, we make what Dr. John Gottman calls bids for emotional connection (1997) to our partners, which is a mutual process.  We can decide to either embrace and accommodate these bids or turn away from and reject them.   When we choose to turn towards our partner’s bids for connection, we send the message that we care about his or her needs and thus strengthen the relationship foundation.  When couples actively seek out opportunities to accommodate each partner’s emotional needs, the ability to manage and resolve conflict increases due to elevated degrees of contentment.  

Embracing a partner’s bids for emotional connection does not require grand gestures (although those don’t hurt) but rather can be done through simple avenues of attunement, which is the ability to read our partners from moment to moment.  Here are some examples of ways couple’s can grow their emotional bank account:

•    Compliments
•    Hand-holding or affection when near one another
•    Provide undivided attention when talking
•    Text messages or phone calls to indicate thoughtfulness “just because”
•    Offer to initiate conversations when one partner appears stressed or upset
•    Join in on housework, chores, or other tasks  
•    Offer a jacket when one partner appears to be cold
•    Plan activities of interest that have been enjoyable in the past

Hopefully these examples show that simple, day-to-day behaviors can go a long way and if done regularly, these accommodations can help establish a robust relationship foundation, which will come in handy during times of tension and conflict.  

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

The Remedy For Contempt In Relationships

Contempt is one of the four primary relationship destroyers, or what Dr. John Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and has been found through research, to be the most damaging.   Name-calling, sarcasm, passive aggression, mocking, and ridiculing are examples of the ways contempt is expressed and can result in partners feeling worthless, unloved, and loathed.   Contemptuous behavior is associated with a position of superiority as well as blatant disrespect.  When contempt is present in a relationship, it breeds tension and toxicity among partners, which can be challenging to recover from, especially if it left unaddressed.    

Contempt occurs when partners harbor negative feelings about one another over time and instead of addressing concerns as they occur in a healthy way, the negativity builds.  The focus is targeted on all of the things a partner does wrong, which promotes reinforcement of the negative thoughts and feelings within the relationship.  

Through years of work and research with couples, Dr. Gottman was able to identify 7 stages, or levels, that couples can work on in order to build and establish a strong relationship foundation, which he terms the Sound Relationship House.  The second level of the Sound Relationship House focuses on the process couples can navigate in order to eliminate contempt within a relationship.  This process entails couples to engage in a conscious shift in mindset from focusing on the negative aspects of a partner to acknowledging and highlighting the actions that a partner does that is right and positive.  This shift aims at developing the ability to filter out destructive thoughts and feelings so that feelings of respect, fondness, affection, and appreciation are promoted.       

Some examples of exercises couples can practice to promote fondness and admiration include:

  •     Identify at least 5 positive thoughts or traits about your partner for every 1 complaint or                 negative thought about him or her.
  •     Create a daily ritual of sharing at least one reason you appreciate your partner.
  •     Identify and share the reasons you initially became attracted to one another.
  •     Verbally acknowledge when a partner does something to meet your needs.
  •     Identify actions or traits about your partner that you admire.

~ Cory Stege, M.S. LMFT

Limerence: The Honeymoon Phase

Starting a new relationship can be exciting and leave us feeling like we are walking on water. Nothing can get in the way of the natural high we experience with a new partner and we tend to accentuate the affirming characteristics of this person even amidst some warning signs of concern.  We find ourselves spending the majority of our time daydreaming about what we hope this new relationship will turn into and may find it difficult to focus on other tasks.  We strive to spend every waking moment with our new partner and seek out signs that the feeling is mutual.   

This “puppy love” or more commonly referred to as the ‘honeymoon phase’ of a relationship is an actual phenomenon called limerence.  Limerence occurs at the onset of a new relationship in which falling for an intimate partner is easy and instinctive and lasts up to two years on average.  Limerence can be experienced in the following ways:

•    Strong sexual attraction
•    Obsessive thinking or infatuation
•    Emotional dependency
•    Yearning for reciprocation
•    Emphasis on positive characteristics which may be unrealistic or irrational
•    High degree of hope for future of relationship

Generally limerence is a normal, pleasurable, and thrilling phase for most of us however as you learned in the above characteristics, it can also be unhealthy or pathological because of the involuntary and intense emotions that may promote our judgment to be impaired.  Another challenge of limerence is that it ends at some point. The end of the honeymoon phase means that couples must maintain their relationship by focusing on other aspects besides the initial attraction that drew partners together.  This is when reality can hit and many relationships do not survive as a result.  

There are some strategies that new couples can implement in order to bolster the honeymoon phase as well as promote a smooth transition into the next relationship phase. These include:

•    Recognize that no relationship or person is perfect
•    Make efforts to be open and realistic to challenges or negative traits associated with your               partner
•    Express appreciation
•    Find healthy alternatives for meeting emotional needs outside of the relationship
•    Focus on establishing a strong friendship

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Understanding Codependency

Codependency is often used to describe a type of person or relationship but what exactly does it mean? Originating from Alcoholics Anonymous, codependency was first used to illustrate how individuals in an alcoholic’s support system act to enable the addictive behavior rather than promote recovery from it.  This concept was developed after a pattern was identified among this population in which individuals sought acceptance and approval by focusing on and becoming engrossed in an addict’s behavior instead of being able to find healthier avenues for meeting their own needs. 

Over time, codependency became applicable to other dynamics outside of alcoholism and can generally be understood as a relationship in which one person enables problematic and unhealthy behavior in another person.  Codependency is a “dysfunctional helping” type of a dynamic that is the result of one individual’s inability to function on his or her own and instead relies on an ill, unhealthy individual’s behavior to build self-esteem and meet emotional needs.  Just as a drug addict becomes addicted to a substance, a codependent individual becomes dependent on the addictive behavior of another individual.

Codependent behavior is viewed as excessive and compulsive and results in individuals losing sight of who they are and what they need because of a preoccupation with the needs of someone else. Many codependent individuals confuse their behavior as caring and empathetic however most efforts to help are not a conscious decision in which consequences to one’s self are acknowledged.  An individual who is considered healthy is able to be attentive to his or her own needs while providing help to others in appropriate ways which is an ability that a codependent individual struggles with.

Codependency can occur in any type of relationship including intimate, family, work, friendships, or groups as well as to varying degrees of dysfunction.  Here are some common behaviors associated with codependent relationships:

  • Poor boundaries
  • Denial and deceitfulness
  • Unhealthy communication
  • High reactivity and conflict
  • Instability
  • Absence of trust
  • Intimacy problems
  • Power and control issues/manipulation
  • Worthlessness
  • Avoidance of being alone
  • Resentment
  • Excessive sacrifices made for other person
  • Clinginess or enmeshment

Codependency that goes untreated has been found to put individuals at risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, addictive behavior, physical and psychosomatic illness, as well as other unhealthy behaviors.  However, codependency issues can be resolved effectively through a number of treatment methods that include psychotherapy, support groups, or psychotropic medication to treat co-occurring mental health disorders.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Love Maps: The Key To Relationship Foundation

Relationships can be viewed like houses: in order for them to be weather the elements and be long-lasting, they must develop by establishing a strong foundation first.  Without this, a house or relationship will experience cracks that can be detrimental (and expensive).   Relationship researcher, author, and expert Dr. John Gottman, has found that relationships that have 7 levels built into their relationship, which he terms “the sound relationship house”, tend to be emotionally intelligent couples.  So what does an emotionally intelligent couple look like? These types of couples are able to know and store the ins and outs of each partner’s world, which promotes friendship and intimacy and the ability to manage conflict and stress effectively.  To be emotionally intelligent also means that partners have the ability to be attuned to changing thoughts and feelings of one another as time goes on.

Dr. Gottman has termed this detailed knowledge about each partner’s life as “love maps.” Love maps allow couples to learn about the inner life of each partner, which strengthens connection as well as provides insight into how to couples can best support and love one another.  The more couples feel they know one another, the stronger their connection will be and thus they will experience their relationship as rewarding. 

Love maps include significant events and memories, hopes and dreams, fears, preferences, dislikes, etc.  Here are some examples of questions that elicits information that makes up a love map:

  •       What is your partner’s most embarrassing moment?
  •       Name your partner’s best friend.
  •       What current stressors is your partner experiencing?
  •       What is your partner’s greatest fear?
  •       Describe your partner’s day yesterday.
  •       What side of the bed does your partner prefer?
  •       How does your partner like to spend their free time?
  •       What is one thing your partner would change about their past?
  •       What are your partner’s career goals?
  •       What is your partner’s worst childhood memory?

The bottom line is this: get to know your partner! Couples who are friends tend to develop a deep bond, a strong level of intimacy, and the ability to handle stress and conflict in effective manners.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Relationship Destroyers: The Four R's

What separates healthy, long-lasting relationships with relationships that fizzle is the absence of specific unhealthy and problematic behaviors and coping mechanisms.  In addition to Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen that includes criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness, there are four other predictors of the dissolution of a relationship: resistance, resentment, rejection, and repression. Otherwise known as the four R’s, these toxic behaviors support and promote ongoing and increasing tension within a relationship.  The four R’s can also be understood as defense mechanisms that individuals engage in to help manage painful or uncomfortable feelings associated with an interaction or relationship dynamic.  The problem with these unhealthy defense mechanisms is that they breed disconnection and negative feelings instead of achieving resolution and feelings of connection.

Have you ever noticed that you feel annoyed, critical, or have the desire to distance yourself from your partner after he or she has said, done, or expressed a feeling that you do not like or agree with?  If so, you may be experiencing resistance, which in and of itself, does not end a relationship.  Resistance becomes a problem when a partner deals with these feelings by ignoring or minimizing it, which promotes the second R, resentment.  An effective way to cope with resistance is to acknowledge and share it with your partner in a respectful way so that a mutual process of resolution can take place.

Resentment is the result of unmanaged feelings of resistance that is characterized by hostility, anger, and increased criticism.  Resentment prevents couples from emotionally connecting and creates distance within a relationship.  The longer a partner decides to manage his or her feelings through resentment, the more likely they will begin to engage in the next R, rejection.  However in order to prevent rejection from developing, couples must be open and honest in their relationships about the feelings that are contributing to tension so that opportunities to resolve them can be created. 

Rejection occurs when resistance and resentment within a relationship go unmanaged and can be exhibited either actively or passively.  Active rejection occurs when partner makes his or her anger and resentment known through complaints, criticism and verbal abuse, threats to end the relationship, refusal to engage in activities or interactions with his or her partner, stonewalling, and efforts to create time apart from his or her partner.  Passive rejection is exhibited through indirect means in which a partner may not have awareness of it. Examples include losing interest in activities or interactions with a partner, spending more time at work or in other activities, fantasizing about being with others, engaging in an affair, ignoring, or challenging a partner. Rejection means that unmanaged tension has evolved into physical and emotional distance and often relationships end when rejection occurs. However if couples remain together through rejection but do not effectively acknowledge and resolve it, the fourth R, repression, occurs.

Couple’s who evolve into a repressed state as a result of unmanaged resistance, resentment, and rejection have become emotionally numb to one another as well as may begin to experience numbness in other areas of their lives.  Repression is a defense mechanism that couples engage in to help make their lives more comfortable with unpleasant feelings, which can often promote a false sense of satisfaction.  Therefore repression leads to the end of a relationship when couples bottle their unpleasant emotions over a long period of time and feel that too much distance has been created to come back from it. 

Hopefully it became obvious that the only way to avoid the Four R’s from occurring in a relationship is to:
1.    Acknowledge and take responsibility for any negative or unpleasant feelings when they occur; don’t wait and stew on it.
2.    Use assertiveness skills to share your true and honest feelings in an open and respectful manner.
3.    Verbalize the behavior or actions you would like you and your partner to engage in that you believe will effectively manage the negative feelings.
4.    Practice active listening and be responsive to when your partner speaks. 
5.    Negotiate and engage in a process of resolution with your partner. 

~ Cory Stege, M.S. LMFT

Tips For Baby-proofing Your Relationship

Expecting a baby brings a multitude of emotions for couples that range from excitement, joy, fear, stress, and worry.  This significant life event will no doubt change couples’ lives in various ways and having an understanding about the potential impact a baby can have on a relationship is crucial for couples who want to prepare and promote a smooth transition.  

The needs within a relationship begin to change the second a couple learns about a pregnancy because of the biological instincts that are triggered.   When pregnancy enters the picture, women tend to highlight the need to nurture and protect the baby and thus the bonding process between mom and baby commences from the get-go.  For men, pregnancy promotes a need to be able to provide for the baby, which influences men to focus on work or other means of providing.  Because of this, men typically do not begin the bonding process until later into pregnancy or for some, after the birth of their baby.

Along with other competing needs that couples manage prior to childbearing, these innate pregnancy-related needs can accentuate areas of disparity between partners and have the potential to create tension, conflict, and disconnection if couples do not anticipate and manage them effectively.   Here are a few suggestions couples can consider to help “babyproof” and preserve their relationship:

·      Acknowledge and anticipate that your relationship is going to change.  Engage in ongoing conversations together about the specific areas of your relationship that will likely be impacted once baby is here (quality time, intimacy, finances, etc.) Once the areas have been identified, begin to brainstorm and problem-solve how each partner wants to manage them.

·      Develop regular self-care habits before baby comes. This includes eating healthy, engaging in some form of regular exercise even if it is taking a short walk, following healthy sleep hygiene, and staying connected to friends and family). 

·      Re-evaluate finances and create a baby-friendly budget.  Often times income for couples changes as a result of taking time off of work or when one parent transitions to being at home full-time.  Couples who can agree on and follow a budget that reflects the new needs of their family are less likely to experience stress and conflict.

·      Develop a plan for managing sleep deprivation.  The first few months of parenthood means sleep will be one of the first lifestyle changes to significantly decrease in quality.  Sleep deprivation can lead to moodiness, a decrease in cognitive functioning, illness, and conflict between partners.  Couples who are able to establish a plan for taking turns or accommodating one another during late night sleeplessness tend to tackle this transition more effectively.

·      Address the elephant in the room: sex.  Sex and intimacy are the most common aspects of a relationship that are hit hard once a baby enters the picture.  For women, their bodies are healing and going through physical and emotional changes from pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding and their main priority is focused on taking care of the baby.   Because men are not directly impacted by the biological changes that women are, they tend to focus on feeling needed as well as desired by their partner in the capacity of both partner and father.   Thus, the needs of each partner conflicts and leads to feelings of rejection and disconnection.  In order to prevent or resolve these relationship hazards, couples are encouraged to renegotiate what their intimacy needs are and how they can be met.

As I have addressed in a previous article about the benefits couples experience by engaging in premarital counseling to help them be successful, there are also many benefits couples can obtain by participating in pre-baby therapy. Incorporating some of these tips into an expecting relationship can create and promote opportunities for growth and connection instead of tension and distance.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Rid Yourself Of Toxic Feelings Through Forgiveness

Being in a relationship means that at some point there will likely be times when we experience feelings of hurt and betrayal as a result of feeling like our expectations or boundaries were violated in some way.  This can happen in our relationships with an intimate partner, friend, family member, or coworker and can influence us to varying degrees depending on our thoughts about the betrayal as well as how we decide to manage it. 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to forgive is defined as an action “to give up resentment or stop feeling angry” (2017).  It is imperative to debunk the assumption that forgiveness is a process we go through for the individuals who have hurt us but rather forgiveness is a choice we can make in order to improve and change things for ourselves.  When we feel hurt and betrayed by others, we are likely to experience feelings of anger and resentment, which are emotions that have the potential to prevent us from experiencing what we want.  Holding onto these negative feelings have a more direct and negative effect on the individual doing so, rather than on the individual we are angry with.  To forgive does not mean that we are condoning or ignoring behavior that caused hurt but rather it is an avenue for gaining peace within our hearts and minds.  

Here are some steps we can take to help us promote forgiveness in order to gain relief and resolution within ourselves:

1.     Acknowledge what happened.  In order to better understand what you are thinking and feeling, identify triggers to your hurt, anger, and resentment. Sharing your experience with an objective person or journaling so that you can express yourself instead of bottling your thoughts and feelings can assist with this step.

2.     Ask yourself what you want to have happen.  Being able to identify what you believe will help you feel better can direct your focus to productive problem solving rather than ruminating on an event in the past. 

3.     Identify constraints that may prevent you from letting go of your anger and resentment.  Look for reasons you are using to justify your negative feelings and challenge whether they are rational or not.

4.     Ask yourself how you are benefiting from holding on to your anger and resentment.  It can be helpful to remind yourself that forgiving does not mean condoning but rather it can alleviate toxic feelings.

5.     Consider different perspectives of your anger and reframe your needs.  It can be beneficial to empathize with the individual who hurt you as well as use meditation or spirituality to gain a healthier outlook on how you would like to manage your relationships.

6.     Decide to let go.  Even though you may never forget how someone hurt or betrayed you, you have the power to decide how you want it to affect you.  Don’t allow your anger and resentment to be in control. 

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT



How To Get Your Needs Met By Focusing On Your Partner's Needs

It can be a common experience for couples to think and feel ‘‘my needs aren’t being met so why would I go out of my way to meet my partner’s needs?” This thought process highlights one of the major challenges of relationships: managing the needs of both partners to promote mutual satisfaction.   We tend to seek out and engage in relationships in order to fulfill specific needs we have, which tend to be made up of emotional, physical, spiritual, and social aspects of our lives.  When we find our relationships to be rewarding, it is generally because we are benefitting from them in some way, which tends to mean that one or more needs we have are being met. 

Along the same lines, we start to question our relationships when we feel less satisfied as a result of our needs not being met.  When this happens, we tend to express more complaints and place more demands on our partners, which often promotes emotional and physical disconnection and therefore creates the opposite effect of what we are seeking in our relationships.   It can often turn into the mindset of “which came first, the chicken or the egg” in which we think, “I would be willing to put in effort to meet my partner’s needs if they meet my needs first.”  This type of thinking can put barriers between partners rather than motivate partners to accommodate one another.

When we feel understood and cared for by those we are close with we tend to be more open to reciprocating that same process to others, even if it means that we may have to go outside of our comfort zones to do so.  So try applying this line of thinking to your relationship: whenever you are feeling like your needs are not being met by your partner, instead of nagging or making demands for your partner to do more of what you want, consider that your partner may be feeling similar.  Then challenge yourself to identify one or two specific needs that are important to your partner and make an effort to meet them.  For example, if quality time is important to your partner, arrange your schedule to spend uninterrupted one-on-one time together.  This action will send the message to your partner that you care about them because you understand what they need from you.  And like I previously stated, your partner will likely reciprocate by focusing on meeting your needs as a result of feeling understood and cared for by you. 

So the next time you are feeling unhappy, frustrated, or even resentful of your partner because your needs are not being met, consider refraining from acting on any urges to complain about it to them and instead make a genuine grand gesture by directing your attention and effort to meeting one of your partner’s needs.  Not only will you feel positive about doing something thoughtful for your partner, but you will also create opportunities for your partner to focus on how they can meet your needs.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

Does Emotional Intimacy Exist In Your Relationship?

Intimacy is a vital interpersonal aspect for any significant relationship and comes in many forms: physical, emotional, and social avenues. All three types of intimacy are fundamental in establishing and maintaining healthy and satisfying relationships however we are going to focus more closely on what makes up emotional intimacy and the role it plays for couples.  

So what exactly is emotional intimacy? It is the experience within a relationship in which a deep sense of connection exists through mutual closeness, loving and caring feelings, comfort, understanding, and feelings of affirmation. In order for some level of emotional intimacy to occur and subsist, the presence of a sense of mutual safety and security within the relationship must exist.  This means that partners are able to engage in openness and transparency with one another regarding personal beliefs, deep and honest feelings, fears, and dreams.  Couples who are able to be vulnerable with one another means that they have the ability to share and tolerate uncomfortable or intimidating thoughts and feelings without it threatening the integrity of the relationship.     

Emotional intimacy can be expressed through both verbal and nonverbal communication and is experienced to various degrees and intensity from relationship to relationship.   Simply engaging in regular conversation by sharing, listening, and supporting our partner can set the stage for closeness and connection.  Or engaging in a task or duty without being told can also indicate to our partner that we care about them.  

How can you measure whether emotional intimacy exists in your relationship and to what degree? Here are some helpful questions that can help you evaluate this?

•    Does my partner care about me? If so, how do I know?
•    Does my partner understand my thoughts and feelings? 
•    Do I feel affirmed by my partner? If so, how?
•    Is my partner willing to do whatever they need to in order to help me when I need it?
•    Does my partner accept me for who I am?
•    Do I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts and feelings with my partner, even if they are not always positive?

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

The Power Of Gratitude In Our Relationships

Since November is the month to give thanks, it seems appropriate to focus on the role that gratitude can play in a relationship.  It is probably safe to say that everyone likes to feel appreciated and receive positive feedback from others, especially from those people that we are close with.  However it can be easy to get caught up in the daily grind with routines and tasks that can direct our focus away from the things our partners do for us and to some extent, lead us into the habit of taking things for granted.  When the latter occurs, we can develop feelings of resentment and lack of appreciation, which can pull partners apart. 

Years of research has shown that the presence of gratitude within a relationship is a significant predictor in relationship satisfaction and has the power to help couples manage conflict more effectively than couples who do not express gratitude towards one another on a consistent basis.  In other words, the more we value our partner and feel appreciated, the more we are going to be open to seeing things from our partner’s perspective, which greatly influences the way we manage conflict.

Here are a few tips to incorporating gratitude in your relationship:

1.     Acknowledgement: Instead of pointing out the things that you do not like about your partner, shift your attention to the effort your partner engages in that you appreciate, however big or small.  This can include casually acknowledging that your partner put the toilet seat down or expressing acknowledgement for planning a surprise getaway.

2.     Say ‘thank you’: Simply stating ‘thank you’ to your partner after a gesture was made can go a long way.  This helps to reinforce to your partner what you like and appreciate about them, which will influence them to want to continue to do things for you because they know their effort is going into the right place.

3.     Give out compliments: Try to remind yourself about the traits that initially drew you to your partner and make it a point to verbalize these things to your partner.  These traits may be related to your partner’s personality, physical appearance, career, or a specific talent or ability.

4.     Focus on your partner’s love language: One of the most effective strategies we can use to express and show our partner gratitude and appreciation is through their (not your) love language.  This can include gift giving, spending quality time together, engaging in acts of service for them, providing words of affirmation, or providing physical touch to them.

5.     Public praise: Expressing gratitude and appreciation for your partner when it is just the two of you is essential however voicing your praise and compliments about your partner in front of other people will reinforce how proud you are to be with him/her. 

In addition, I always encourage my clients to challenge their criticisms of their partners by identifying at least 5 positive traits they appreciate about their partners for every 1 complaint before they air it.  This helps to promote positivity and softens couples when differences arise.  Just remember…when you are thinking about what you want, don’t forget about what you already have.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT  

Essential Daily Rituals For Couples

Early on in our intimate partner relationships, we tend to experience a “honeymoon” phase in which much of our time and attention is focused on our partner and we feel excited and optimistic about the future together. Our relationships progress over time and often involve marriage, children, and other life circumstances that unfortunately draw our attention away from our partners and instead on other priorities.  When this happens couples can morph into ‘autopilot’ regarding their interactions and experience a decrease in feelings of connection and intimacy.   When we are on autopilot we are generally following schedules and activities on a consistent and regular basis in order to manage everything, especially if children and work are involved.  

As I have reinforced in previous articles, relationship maintenance needs to be viewed in similar ways as we think about our physical and emotional health.  We take vitamins, follow a healthy diet and exercise regime, and engage in other habits in order to keep ourselves healthy.  Along those same lines, we can create daily rituals, or meaningful interactions, with our partners to keep our relationships strong and fulfilling.  When we think about what specific rituals we want to establish and engage in, there are some crucial ingredients to think about:

1.     Consistent and repeated occurrence. In order for a behavior or interaction to be considered a ritual, it has to take place more than one time and on a regular basis.

2.     Clear and mutual expectations about what to expect. Both partners need to understand and agree on when a ritual will take place, what happens during the ritual, how long it will last, and when it will end.

3.     Shared meaning. Both partners should feel that the ritual carries some form of emotional meaning to them that serves to promote emotional connection and intimacy.  

Every couple is different in terms of needs, preferences, and availability for the relationship, which will influence the type of rituals that are appropriate.  However, here are some common rituals that couples are encouraged to establish and engage in on a daily basis in order to foster connection and intimacy:

1.     Greeting/Reuniting ritual: Partners should consider how they would like to address one another after spending some time apart. This type of ritual helps to signify the transition from separateness to being together. This ritual tends to involve hugging or kissing for a brief time.

2.     Quality conversation ritual: Most of our days can be chaotic and requires our attention to be focused on tasks, which normally impacts a couple’s ability to engage in one-on-one time to talk.  Couples are encouraged to identify a time every day in which they can minimize distractions and focus on catching up and checking in with one another on a personal and emotional level.  This ritual can often be incorporated into a couple’s nighttime or bed routine and should not involve topics of conflict. 

3.     Physical intimacy ritual: Couples should discuss and negotiate when, if, and how they would like to engage in physical intimacy so that it meets each partner’s needs.  A physical intimacy ritual can help couples better understand what to expect as well as ensure that this part of the relationship is not being neglected.    

4.     Appreciation ritual: We tend to feel good when we give and receive positive feedback in our relationship.  Appreciation rituals allow couples to know how much each partner values and honors one another on a regular basis.  This ritual can involve love letters, gift giving, acts of service, or words of affirmation through text or post it notes.

5.     Spiritual ritual: For those couples who maintain some form of spirituality in their lives, creating a shared ritual that promotes reflection can foster emotional intimacy and connection.  Prayer, meditation, and visualization are examples of this type of ritual.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

What Does A Healthy Relationship Look Like?

Every relationship is different and comes with its benefits and challenges however there are specific traits that can set healthy and functional relationships apart from unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships.  Relationships that are centered around power and control, dishonesty, blaming, poor communication, or abuse are dynamics that we should aim to avoid and instead we should strive to establish and maintain relationships that are grounded in respect and equality.  Here are some specific aspects associated with healthy relationships:

Respect: This means that partners accept one another for who they are and value one another’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions even if they are different from each other.  Respect can be exhibited through expression of appreciation for one another and does not involve demands for the other person to change who they are.

Shared power and responsibility: This means that decision-making within a relationship is mutual because each partner’s input is experienced as being equally valuable.  Partners are aware of one another’s needs and wants and maintain the position that a relationship requires ‘give and take.’ Couples who possess shared power within their relationship believe that the sum is greater than its parts, meaning that together they experience more benefit as a result of working together.

Negotiation and fairness:  When differences arise, partners are able to acknowledge each other’s viewpoints, wants, and needs and engage in a process of working together to reach mutually satisfying resolutions, which can sometimes be let’s ‘agree to disagree.’ Negotiation and fairness does not involve the belief that an argument needs to be won by one partner but rather is associated with the belief that the relationship is far more important than any single issue or disagreement.

Trust and accountability: This means that partners are able to take responsibility for their past and present behavior without blaming or providing excuses. Partners admit when they are wrong and follow through with what they say they are going to do.  Trust is established when couples feel secure in sharing intimate and private thoughts and feelings and can be vulnerable with one another.  Trust does not include jealousy or possessiveness.

Open and honest communication: Healthy communication occurs when partners are able to express their true thoughts and feelings in a non-threatening way even if their partner may disagree.  Openness and honesty mean that partners feel comfortable and safe expressing themselves with one another.

Physical and emotional intimacy: Intimacy requires vulnerability between partners and is established when partners show respect for each partner’s boundaries around privacy and preferences. 

~Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT

How To Keep Your Marriage Strong After Having Children

It is an understatement that once children enter the picture for most couples, life as as they know it will most never be the same.  Children can provide couples with a new meaning and purpose for love and life as a family however parenthood also comes with new types of stress and sacrifices that directly impact relationships.  Becoming parents means that priorities shift and thus time and attention that was previously directed at one another is now focused on meeting the needs of babies and children.  Lack of sleep, a decrease in intimacy, and a decrease in adult time and conversation often come with children and can promote emotional and physical distance in a marriage. Because of this, it can be very easy for couples to fall into routines centered around children that can result in neglect of the primary relationship.   According to the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, two-thirds of couples reported that they experienced a decrease in relationship satisfaction within the first three years of parenthood.   The good news is that there are steps couples can take to combat the challenges and stressors that come with parenthood that can help promote feelings of connection, new meaning, and elevated levels of relationship satisfaction.  Here are few that may be helpful to implement:

Make your partner your priority. Children require couples to modify their priorities to better fit the needs of the family, however this means that it is even more important for couples to put in the time and effort to put each other in the forefront of day-to-day life.  Marriage is the foundation that lays the groundwork for a family system to be created therefore it must be tended to in order to prevent it from crumbling.  Simply greeting your spouse immediately with a hug and kiss or checking in with each other throughout the day just to reinforce thoughtfulness can go a long way and sets a positive example for children.  

Promote mutual parenting through respect and openness.  It can be easy to get caught up in micro-managing or undermining each other regarding how to parent especially for the primary caregiver however dictating how and when things should be done creates an imbalance of power and control within the marriage.  Instead, couples should aim towards allowing each parent to make decisions and to support one another with their chosen decisions.   However, safety is always a priority so when concerns arise regarding safety issues with children, couples should engage in open, respectful communication in order to identify an agreed upon course of action.  Children who experience their parents as cohesive and supportive of one another experience less confusion and stress and are more stable and secure in their relationships among the family.

Make emotional and physical intimacy a priority.  It is ironic that the very activity that couples engage in when the goal is to create a baby is usually the first thing to go after a baby is born.  Two critical aspects that helps to establish a strong and healthy relationship in the first place are emotional and physical intimacy; therefore even if it easier to focus on the children or come up with an excuse for why you cannot put in effort to connect with your partner, it needs to be done.  If it means that couples need to schedule in intimate times in order for it to happen, then so be it. This can often give couples something to look forward to amidst the chaos of their days.

Spend quality time together away from the children.  In order to prevent the role of parenthood to take over the role of husband and wife, it can be helpful for couples to continue to engage in activities that they engaged in before having children that they found enjoyable.  Couples who are able to spend alone time together generally experience an increase in both relationship and parenting satisfaction because quality time without children offers opportunities for couples to decompress and connect.  Quality time as a couple can also illustrate to their children the importance of nurturing a marriage, which will help create positive messages and meanings for children about relationships.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT


Attachment: Understanding How You Relate To Others

The specific way we relate to other people in our intimate relationships as adults is something that is established during the first two years of our lives as a result of the type of relationships our parents or primary caregivers fostered with us.  The type of attachment style we develop is determined by the ways our parents or caregivers responded to us in our early childhood, especially during times of distress and discomfort because it influences our social and emotional development.  Understanding our thoughts, feelings, and expectations regarding individuals we are in relationships with as adults as well as when we become parents ourselves can help us better manage these relationships by increasing insight and identifying areas of improvement in order to promote secure attachments.  So what is your attachment style?

Secure: Individuals who possess a secure sense of attachment to those they are close with exhibit a positive view of both themselves and the people they are in relationships with. Secure individuals place great value on both their independence as well as their close relationships.  Secure individuals most likely formed secure attachments to their parents or caregivers as infants and children as a result of being attuned to in a way that they felt confident in exploring the world because they were able to seek out and receive emotional support when needed.

Dismissive: Individuals who possess a dismissive sense of attachment to others tend to place little to no value in their relationships and prefer to be by themselves.  Dismissive individuals tend to suppress their feelings as well as avoid and distance themselves from others, especially when conflict arises.  Dismissive individuals most likely formed avoidant attachments as infants and children as a result of experiencing their parents or caregivers as insensitive and emotionally unavailable, especially during times of distress. Avoidant parents or caregivers send the message to children that their needs are not important and that they should be able to take care of themselves.

Preoccupied: Individuals who possess a preoccupied sense of attachment to others exhibit a negative view of themselves that is manifested through self-criticism and feelings of insecurity.  Preoccupied individuals tend to constantly seek out approval or validation from others however the desired responses are usually not rewarding for them.  Preoccupied individuals typically exhibit a lack of trust and a fear of rejection from other people, which can promote clinginess and dependency on other people.  Preoccupied adults most likely formed anxious and ambivalent attachments as infants and children as a result of experiencing their parents and caregivers as being inconsistent in their responses; at times they felt attuned to whereas other times they felt dismissed and never knew which response they would elicit.  Parents or caregivers who are unpredictable in his or her parenting behavior tend to promote suspicion, lack of trust, confusion, and feelings of insecurity in their children. 

Fearful-avoidant: Individuals who possess a fearful or avoidant sense of attachment to others tend to be emotionally detached from themselves even though they seek out relationships with other people. Once relationships reach a level of emotional intimacy, fearful-avoidant individuals usually become uncomfortable which triggers painful thoughts and feelings from his or her past and prevents them from being able to separate the past from the present situation.  Fearful-avoidant individuals most likely formed a disorganized sense of attachment to their parents and caregivers as infants and children.  Disorganized attachment is generally associated with parents or caregivers who are emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abusive towards their children, causing children to feel afraid of the individual who is supposed to provide safety and support. It is common for abused children to dissociate from themselves as a way to block out the trauma from their consciousness, which is a reason fearful-avoidant adults are detached from themselves and others.

After learning about the different types of attachment, hopefully it is obvious that secure attachments are the healthiest and most satisfying styles.  Even though the type of attachment we form during our childhood likely carries on to adulthood, it is possible to change it if it falls in the other three categories.  Because our attachments are formed within relationships, they must also be altered within relationships and usually requires professional support in doing so.  An experienced and well-qualified therapist can assist individuals with making sense out of their attachment history in order to begin to rewrite a new story that is more aligned with a sense of security, both individually and in our close relationships.

~Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT 

Ingredients For A Successful Marriage

As a follow-up to my previous article on Four Predictors of Divorce And How To Combat Them, which focused on Dr. John Gottman’s four horsemen, this article offers insight into what it takes to establish and maintain a long-term loving and rewarding marriage.   In his book The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work (1999), Dr. Gottman shares his research-based concepts that are associated with healthy and satisfying marriages.  Dr. Gottman’s theory is based on the idea that couples must first establish a strong friendship, which lays the foundation for marriage and the other elements that come with it.  Through his work and research with thousands of couples, Dr. Gottman has found that in order for marriages to sustain, seven principles must be present:

1.     Enhance “love maps”: According to Dr. Gottman, “love maps” are how partners within a marriage store and reference information about one another’s life.  “Love maps” include information related to each partner’s fears, dreams/goals, history, beliefs systems, and other intimate information. The purpose of using “love maps” in a marriage is for partners to express understanding, fondness, and admiration of one another.

2.     Nurture fondness and admiration: It can be easy to focus on the aspects of a partner that is negative or problematic however that just breeds criticism and contempt, which are marriage killers.  Instead, Dr. Gottman believes that partners must focus on the specific factors, traits, and aspects that initially drew one another together in order to promote a culture of appreciation and caring within a marriage.

3.     Turn towards one another: In order to foster a sense of connection within a marriage, couples must look to one another instead of turning away.  This is especially necessary when partners make attempts to gain attention from one another through intimacy, affection, humor, or support during trying or stressful times.

4.     Accept influence: This principle means that partners seek out and welcome one another’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions even if they are not the same.  When couples allow for each partner to actively influence the other, it promotes shared decision-making and the sense of mutual power within a marriage.

5.     Solve solvable problems:  When couples utilize healthy conflict resolution techniques to address problems instead of attacking one another, it prevents the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness) from existing.  Dr. Gottman suggests that healthy conflict resolution involves softening the start-up (being direct in a positive manner); making and receiving repair attempts (comments/actions that prevent negativity and deescalate tension); the ability for both partners to self-soothe when feeling emotional; the ability to compromise (allowing influence of one another); and the ability to be accepting of one another’s shortcomings.

6.     Overcome gridlock:  Couples experience gridlock when they engage in ineffective and problematic conflict resolution techniques when an issue arises.  Gridlock leaves couples feeling rejected, polarized, disengaged, and unable to compromise.  However gridlock can be overcome when both partners within a marriage are motivated and willing to be open to identifying and addressing the underlying concerns that have caused the stalemate. 

7.     Create shared meaning:  When couples are able to identify and establish a deeper understanding of each partner’s roles and responsibilities within their marriage and family they can develop meaning and value to their relationship.  Shared meaning is often created and maintained through rituals or in a spiritual sense.  Shared meaning can promote a strong sense of connection and understanding, which is associated with minimal conflict and negativity within a marriage.

Although these principles may seem simple and straightforward, they each require a high degree of motivation and openness by both partners to achieve and maintain them.  Marriage can feel like a lot of work at times however if couples direct their attention and efforts in the appropriate ways, marriage can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of one’s life.

~Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT  

Effective Co-Parenting After Divorce

Divorce is the termination of a spousal relationship however if children are involved, a new relationship of co-parenting between exes needs to be established and maintained.  Assuming the absence of high risk factors such as domestic violence, child abuse, substance use/abuse, and high conflict, co-parenting is necessary in order to promote emotional stability in children of divorced parents.  With divorce comes change, which can be extremely stressful, confusing, and difficult for everyone involved, especially children.  In order for children to go through healthy adjustments as a result of divorce, they need to maintain positive relationships with both parents, feel confident that their needs will be taken care of by both parents, understand that they had nothing to do with the divorce, and expect that they will not be placed in the middle of their parents’ conflict

So what does effective and healthy co-parenting look like?  For one, co-parenting may look different from family to family as a result of factors such as location of residence for each parent, work schedules and responsibilities, children’s ages, as well as the degree to which parents can communicate without conflict.  However, despite each different situation, there are some common aspects that each family should consider in order to develop and implement an effective co-parenting plan:

1.     What decisions need to be made regarding the children’s involvement with education, religion, extracurricular activities, medical and mental health treatment, sporting events, and social activities? 

2.     What avenue of communication will be used between parents as well as how often will communication occur? Will it be done over the phone or through text messages, emails, or done in-person?

3.     How will the exchange of children be completed? Will it happen in a neutral public place or will drop off/pick up happen at each parent’s house?

4.     How much time will children spend with each parent? What type of schedule will be established so that the children know what to expect?

5.     How will discipline be addressed with each parent?

6.     How will emergencies be handled? Which parent will be notified in cases in which an emergency happens outside of the home?

These are just a few decisions that need to be well thought out amongst parents in order for day-to-day life to run smoothly for everyone involved.  Solely developing a co-parenting plan is not enough but also requires each parent to follow through and maintain consistency with it in order for it to truly be effective.  Because life can change in an instant, it is also crucial for parents to be open to making adjustments to the plan when indicated.  Many divorcing parents benefit from seeking professional support with a therapist to better help them to address any issues as well as to identify, establish, and implement a co-parenting plan that satisfies everyone involved.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT