Stand Up Against Self-Bullying

I don’t have much time for reading in this season of my life. I’m a full time professor for a doctoral psychology training program. I have a wife and three kiddos that I spend time with any chance I get. I enjoy seeing clients and supervising pre-licensed clinicians one evening a week. All told, there’s not a lot of wiggle room in my schedule. So I don’t read books. I listen (grateful shout out to my library apps: Libby and Hoopla!).

“12 Rules for Life”

During my commute a couple weeks ago I was listening to a book by a Canadian psychologist and professor named Jordan Peterson called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Dr. Peterson is considered a bit of a controversial figure by many. He has been involved in some political mix ups in recent years, but that’s not what I’m interested in writing about. While I know that many folks out there disagree with some of his political stances, theories about society, etc., I have to admire that he tends to say exactly what he believes to be true.

In an age where being politically correct at the expense of personal honesty and integrity is commonplace, Dr. Peterson says what he is thinking…backlash be damned. In 12 Rules for Life, Dr. Peterson digs into (among many other issues) the concept of standing up for yourself against bullies. More specifically, he says, “It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully even if that bully is oneself” (p. 59).

Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

This statement reminds me of the “Oath of Enlistment” taken upon joining a branch of the United States armed forces. In this oath, a pledge is made to “…defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This oath is not taken lightly, and much sacrifice is required of them who make it.

Let’s consider Dr. Peterson’s quote in light of the above pledge. To accept victimization from a bully is to, in a way, validate the purpose and message of that bully. To not stand and fight is to acknowledge one’s own inferiority or powerlessness. It perpetuates the negative message you tell yourself and the world. Many of us would sooner stand up against a stranger for the mistreatment of a stray dog than we would stand up against an acquaintance for mistreating ourselves. What does that say about us? Are we not more important than dogs? (I know some of you may disagree with me and say “Dogs are people too.” That’s fine and I know you get a lot out of your relationships with your animals. I just would caution you against replacing higher order, mutually challenging human attachment relationships with animal relationships).

Standing Up is Risky!

That said, to stand and fight also involves risk. Not only physical risk, but emotional and social risk as well. What if you lose the fight? What if you end up getting hurt or looking foolish? A thousand things can go wrong. But some things, important things, may go right. 

This concept would be a great discussion for another article, but the real thing I want to focus on here is not bullying by an outsider (foreign). I want us to consider self-bullying (domestic). How many times do we hear a message from someone else, some terrible assessment of our character, our identity, perhaps our very existence (“The world would be better off without you!”), only to turn around and internalize that message? How often do we absorb criticism from others and then levy that same criticism against ourselves?

Self-Bullying

There is nothing “virtuous” about self-hate, self-loathing, and self-pity. They aren’t helpful. They don’t fix your problems, your relationships, or your mood. Sure, they may garner you some attention, but probably not the kind you really want. Being self-deprecating can be funny. Many a professional comedian has made a living with self-hating jokes. But you’re probably not a professional comedian. And many of them aren’t that happy despite having a socially acceptable outlet for their self-bullying.

All self-victimization will likely bring you is depression and awkward relationships in which your loved ones take pity on you, but do not enjoy your company as much as they could if you were healthier. Staying in a terrible relationship without setting some boundaries and speaking up for your desires and needs does nobody any good. Neither of you grows. At least not in a positive direction.

Both Parties Should Be Strong

Relationships tend to be healthier when all parties involved are strong. But all elements of the relationship need not be equitable at all times for a relationship to remain strong. What matters is that there is an understanding that each party may go through seasons of greater than usual need, and the other picks up the slack. When this season extends beyond what was originally intended, however, the relationship terms may need to be discussed and possibly renegotiated to ensure a greater degree of equality in support of each party, even if that support looks different than it used to.

Exceptions to the Rule

Accommodations may need to be made for serious injuries, illnesses, sudden changes in employment, particularly busy seasons at work, birth of a new child, hospice care for a parent, etc. All of these things, however, should never result in the benefit of one party through victimization of the other. Successful relationships involve mutual decision-making, gratitude, sacrifice, challenge, tension, and growth.

Next Steps

There is no place for self-victimization in a healthy relationship. If you find yourself in this place in a relationship, it’s time to have some hard conversations with yourself, your friends, your partner, your parents, your boss, and maybe a therapist.

Take stock. Assess whether in each of your relationships you are valued appropriately. Ensure that anywhere you are not appropriately valued and treated that you are not playing a role in your own mistreatment. To the degree that you are, it’s time to do something different.

Will YOU Stand Up For YOU?

I can’t tell you exactly what your next step is because I don’t know your exact situation, the social, physical, and legal risks involved, etc. What I can tell you is that while depression sometimes resolves on its own, failing relationships and self-victimization seldom do. For something to be different, somebody needs to do something different. Maybe that someone is you! What or who is your next step?

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Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 949-478-0665 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

 

 

Mirror photo credit: Min An

Does Your Spouse Have A Love Accent?

Lisa and Chaz have been in couples therapy with me for several sessions, and Chaz is starting to finally hear what Lisa has been trying to tell him for years. Chaz almost always dismisses Lisa’s feelings without realizing it. It’s only natural for him. He is, in Lisa’s words, “an avoider.” He usually protects himself from conflict by pretending everything’s ok, minimizing problems and feelings, and “getting some space.” But now, for the first time in their 9 years of marriage, he’s making an intentional effort to “speak Lisa’s language.” The only problem…Lisa feels really weird about it and is having a hard time enjoying the change.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Chaz and Lisa’s story is one that is told in my therapy office time after time. Even a good change, one that you’ve specifically asked for, can feel awkward when you’re used to things going a certain way. One of the many reasons it’s difficult for Lisa to take in the good that Chaz is offering, is that there is not a foundation of trust and security to stand on when they have meaningful conversations.

History comes rushing back the minute Chaz says any of a number of “trigger phrases” that have become all too common over the years. Lisa has wanted to have children, but is afraid to have them with Chaz, because she’s not sure she wants them to experience the same dismissed and unwanted feelings she so often feels with Chaz.

Lisa easily gets emotionally flooded and reacts disproportionally to several triggers in their marriage. In response, Chaz then becomes flooded and runs for the hills (the mancave, the back yard, really anywhere without a flooded wife to deal with). He doesn’t know how to access and manage his own feelings, let alone those of an angry wife (who is really more hurt than anything). One of the most difficult things early in therapy for couples like Lisa and Chaz, is hearing that I don’t have any magic therapist ninja tricks that will make it all better.

What’s “The Secret Solution?”

I can tell you from experience with plenty of couples over the years that there is no secret sauce, no magic phrase, no “3 quick steps to marital happiness” that ANY therapist can offer Chaz and Lisa that will make things right. Sure, there are some processes–sometimes quick, more often slow– that can bring a great deal of healing to the relationship, but they tend to be more about rebuilding trust and security than about having just the right words to say in a given situation.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve offered a “perfect phrase” to a spouse, only to have them be utterly clueless about how and when to deliver it. Even when I’m sitting there gently telling them, “Now is the time. Say the line!” there’s a blank stare, or they deliver another dismissive, defensive comment, explanation, or accusation.

“We need to communicate better”

Bottom line, it’s not really about communication skills. Yes, communication matters a great deal in any relationship. But you can still have a wonderful marriage with a terrible communicator whom you know will always be there for you, who has your back, who assumes the good in you, and, maybe above all else, wants you more than s/he needs you. It’s good to be wanted, and knowing your partner’s heart helps ease the pain of their relational failures.

Say “Thank you!”

So the next time you have a moment where your spouse has FINALLY tried to do the thing you’ve been asking them to do (the dishes, planning a date, saying I love you, initiating physical intimacy, making the bed, or whatever!) try to say “Thank you!” before you question their motivation.

“He’s just doing it now because you told him to.”

While there’s always a chance it may a manipulation tactic, there’s also a decent chance that somewhere deep down your spouse loves you and is motivated by wanting to please you. So what if they’re terrible at it? So what if they fumble the words or sound like C-3PO from Star Wars when they try to say something romantic? So what if they just want to have sex because you asked for it? So what if they only did the dishes because you complained about it last week? If they’re checking a box on your list after so long of ignoring the list altogether, praise the progress! Don’t dismiss a good faith effort.

“This is painfully awkward!”

It may not have been a great effort, and it may not have looked at all natural. It’s probably not. Remember, they need practice! Reward their effort by saying thank you and letting them know that it matters to you that they made an effort.

Accents Can Be Sexy! (Or At Least So Awkward They’re Cute)

They’re trying to speak your language for the first time in a long time. If you’ve been speaking different love languages (or maybe not speaking much at all!), there’s a good chance your spouse is going to “have an accent” for a while as they learn to speak your language.

Try to give your spouse some time, maybe a little forgiveness or grace (give undeserved good things, withhold deserved bad consequences), and consider offering a 2nd, 14th, or 957th chance. Then try to find the good intention in the awkward delivery. Even though they’re speaking with an accent, it’s still your language. Remember, it’s not about communication skills, but whether they are trying to create a safe space for you to be you, and they shouldn’t have to be perfect to let you know that you matter a great deal to them.

Chaz and Lisa are not real clients, but everything about their story is real and true, and comes straight out of my counseling office. Every word is something I’ve heard countless times from frustrated, angry, sad, and hopeless couples. And I’ve also seen every one of those problems overcome by two people in a room who wanted something different and who were willing to endure some awkward, accented love-speak from each other as they learn to be with each other in new ways.

Is Your Marriage Too Far Gone?

I’m a big believer that any marriage can be saved if both people really want it to happen. I don’t say this lightly. I just say it knowing that many couples have fought through some terrible things together and came out better on the other side. Again, there’s no magic elixir to be had, but by doing the arduous and often painful (at first) work of learning to trust and support each other in new ways, it’s possible.

Be Realistic About Your Healing Time Frame

If your marriage is a dumpster fire, it’s not going to get solved overnight, so don’t put that pressure on yourself or your spouse. But consider some of the advice above (all based in solid marriage research by leading experts in the field), and pack your bag for a journey together. Whether it’s at a marriage conference, a retreat, reading a good marriage book together and talking seriously about the questions the author asks, or calling up a psychologist like me, I hope you’ll give your relationship a fighting chance. Sometimes even the awkward moments can be fun, if we’re willing to make the choice to see them that way.

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Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 949-478-0665 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

One Question To Ask Before You Fire Your Therapist…

Are you ready to fire your therapist? If you’re like a lot of therapy clients, you’ve invested significant time, money, and emotional energy into the therapy process, hoping that your life will improve in some important way.

That said, if you’re reading this article, you may be feeling stuck in therapy. Maybe you’ve seen some progress or improvement, but not as much as you envisioned. Maybe your therapist said something that is really bothering you. Maybe you used to feel a strong connection with your therapist and that connection has waned in recent weeks.

Whatever your experience has been, I have a question that might be worth asking yourself before you stop working with your therapist. Regardless of what your answer to the question is, if you decide to leave your therapist in the dust, I encourage you to consider sticking with therapy in general.

It may be the case that another therapist could help you in ways that your current therapist could not. Or, perhaps you’ve simply gotten the majority of what you’re going to receive from the work with your current therapist and are now experiencing the “law of diminishing returns.”

If this is true for you, it might be helpful to move on and either try proceeding without a therapist’s support, or seeking out another clinician who works from a different perspective (e.g. cognitive-behavioral therapy, emotion-focused therapy, EMDR, etc.), is a different sex/gender/age/race than your current therapist, or is different in some other way. Sometimes shaking it up can be helpful.

BUT WAIT!!! THERE’S MORE!!!

Before you decide to call it quits, I want you to ask yourself a very important question that I’ve learned to ask after 15 years as a therapist.

“Is the reason I find myself wanting to leave therapy the very reason that I need to stay?”

Okay. Let me be ultra clear that this is not meant to be a gaslighting, blaming/ shaming/ guilting attempt against you! If you think you are being harmed or exploited by your therapist, it’s probably time to leave!

Certainly, there will be cases in which the therapist has acted inappropriately, unethically, etc. Many of these instances may be clear grounds for a complaint to the therapist’s respective licensing board, but thankfully these tend to be rare, and involve egregious acts like insurance fraud and sexual misconduct.

I don’t know you or your situation, but I have worked with many clients over the years who were so close to making what some people might call a “breakthrough” if they had only continued to press on when they hit a wall in therapy, and taken action to address the wall head on.

These walls can take many forms, but they often involve running into a very difficult feeling, facing a new and difficult life stressor, or encountering the realization that personal change (and usually discomfort) will be necessary to achieve a desired goal.

Are You Upset About Something That Can Be Fixed?

Most of the time, when clients are unhappy with therapy, it is due to something that can be overcome to preserve the body of work to that point, potentially growing even more through the difficult experience.

Maybe your therapist said something insensitive or insulting about your culture, your faith, or a group involving someone you care about. Maybe they forgot to tell you they were going out of town and you showed up at your regular time, only to have to turn around and go back home. Whatever the reason, ask yourself the question again.

Is Your Feeling Related To Why You Started Therapy?

Many clients hit one of these walls in therapy when they bump into their core clinical issue. Sometimes they are making good progress, but have a hard time when certain interpersonal issues come up (e.g. abandonment, disappointment, inequity in the relationship, etc.).

Let’s take abandonment as an example. A therapist might make a simple scheduling error such as accidentally double-booking clients for a particular hour without writing one down. This might be experienced as abandonment by a client who is particularly mindful of behaviors of others that indicate the other person is about to leave the relationship. Out of self-preservation, they may become angry with the therapist and leave or threaten to leave therapy, rather than discuss with the therapist what it was like to be forgotten that day.

I would argue that in many such cases, the client would likely get much more out of staying in therapy with their current therapist and working through this unpleasant experience, than simply firing the therapist and leaving. This is a primary concern that the client needs help with, and the therapist has unwittingly opened the door for experiential learning (arguably the best kind of learning because it tends to stick!).

If you happen to have found yourself in a situation like this, whether it is abandonment, or any other issue in therapy, I encourage you to consider our question again.

“Is the reason I find myself wanting to leave therapy the very reason that I need to stay?”

Is A Door Opening To More Meaningful Work?

There’s a chance that the situation you find yourself in might just be a door opening to do some particularly meaningful work with your therapist, even if you’re upset with them right now.

Maybe you have a hard time confronting people. A good therapist should be able to handle being confronted by a client in a way that is actually helpful and conveys safety and compassion.

Maybe you have concerns about the progress you hoped for but aren’t seeing in therapy. A good therapist should be able to hear that kind of feedback, receive it non-defensively, and make appropriate adjustments to improve your treatment. Not only that, but they also may be able to help you to consider any ways that you have grown that you haven’t noticed on your own.

The Client-Therapist Relationship Is Key

So much of the progress in therapy comes from having a positive working relationship with your therapist. The vast majority of clinical therapy research continually demonstrates this. If you’ve got a good relationship with your therapist, use that to your advantage by talking with them about your concerns. Don’t do the text message/email break up thing. Don’t just no-show for your last appointment. That’s not usually helpful in the long term, because saying goodbye in healthy ways is one of the most important things we can learn from therapy.

If you hesitate to have a “termination session” with your therapist, ask yourself the question again.

“Is the reason I find myself wanting to leave therapy the very reason that I need to stay?”

Maybe goodbyes, confrontation, and assertiveness are hard for you. These are all good things to talk about with your therapist, and may represent additional goals to continue working on after your concerns are addressed.

The bottom line in all of this is that therapy is hard work. It involves two or more people in a room, sharing things that we don’t usually get to talk about with other people. It involves confrontation (hopefully gentle and positively-framed). It involves being vulnerable. And, at some point, it involves saying goodbye.

Saying Goodbye is Important

Therapy is not meant to go on forever. If you’ve been with the same therapist every week for many years, it might be healthy to consider whether you still need therapy, or whether you need to try things out on your own. Again, this is a great conversation to have with your therapist. “Am I ready to be on my own?”

Therapy should end once goals have been met, or it is determined that the work is no longer substantially meaningful, or, in rare cases, when there has been a substantial ethical breach. If you are thinking about leaving your therapist, make sure to ask yourself the question above.

This might be the perfect time to take a courageous step and, instead of leaving immediately, tell your therapist that you are considering leaving during your next session. It may just be the most meaningful conversation you have with your therapist.

Only you know your situation, and only you can make the decision when it comes to whether you stay or go. Whatever you decide, be sure to consider the possibility that your desire to leave may be connected to the reason you started therapy in the first place. 

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Get Out of the Bleachers, and Into Love!

I was in session a while back with a client when he said something that I immediately wrote down after our session. He had been working through personal, family, social, and romantic relationships, and eventually started seeing himself and others in very different ways than has been the case most of his life. The results have been tremendous, and it’s never been more evident than when he said the following, speaking of the truth he’s learned about his own relationships.

“If you aren’t yourself in a relationship, you end up watching your false self get all the love, while the real you is still alone and watching from the bleachers.”

People Like Shiny Stuff Until They Realize It’s Fake

What if you found out your beautiful diamond ring was a fake? You probably wouldn’t think it was quite as amazing anymore. But if you knew all along it was a cubic zirconium and just wanted it to look pretty, whatever it was made of, you’d feel better about it.

For those of you who aren’t into diamond rings, think of it this way…You’re looking to buy a home.  You have an idea of what you’re looking for, and you search Zillow day and night looking for the home of your dreams. You end up buying what looks like the perfect home, but your inspector misses a few important things that the seller did not disclose, and you end up having to make costly repairs a couple years after taking ownership of the home. Yikes! Nobody likes being on the wrong end of a bait and switch deal! But if you knew about the needed repairs up front, you could have still bought the home (probably at a lower price) and moved in knowing it was going to be a journey to fully turn it into the home of your dreams.

Don’t Bait and Switch Your Partner

Unfortunately, this is how many people end up feeling in their relationships. You date someone and put your best foot forward for weeks, months, or years. You put up with behaviors you have no desire to tolerate in the long term. You let your physical boundaries get pushed around. You say yes when you want to say no. You do all of these things because you want the relationship to continue. You accept your partner’s flaws without sharing your own. You make sure to show off your best qualities and try to minimize your weaknesses, avoiding any chances that they’ll see the real you and head for the hills. You tell yourself, “If I don’t complain, maybe they’ll stick around longer than the last person.”

Then you get married, let your hair down, let your flaws show, start naming all your complaints, and your partner, rightfully so, is not pleased. What happened to the woman who couldn’t get enough of him in the bedroom? What happened to the guy who loved staying home for candle light dinner and a romantic comedy? Why don’t you go on dates anymore? Where did this temper come from?

When partners finally feel safe (often after marriage contracts get signed), they tend to let their true colors show. Sometimes all at once, sometimes gradually. But safety in commitment tends to breed authenticity, for better or worse.

The problem comes when we think we got something that we didn’t. We feel tricked, misled, cheated. Better to just be who we are from the beginning!

Be Loved For Who You Are

Remember, if you are authentic and show as much of your true self as possible at all times, when you get love in return, it’s for the real you. It’s not for the fake self that you put out there to meet the other person’s expectations. Wouldn’t you rather be loved for who you are? Someone who truly cares about you (not just what you can do for them) will accept you as you are and walk with you as you continue to grow.

You never end up with the same person you married, even if you never get divorced. We all change over the years as we learn about ourselves, the world, and our partners. You won’t stay the same. Neither will they. We are molded by our experiences and by those we surround ourselves with. Expect change, and help it to be in a positive direction. Be authentically you, knowing that how that looks may change over the years. As long as you stay authentic, your partner will get to go along for the ride with you as you grow together.

How’s Your Authenticity?

If this seems pretty daunting, you’re not alone. I help people all the time in my practice to work through the things that are holding them back from being authentic in their relationships. Fears, insecurities, old hurts, and the like all get in the way of people experiencing amazing and authentic relationships. If this sounds like you, it might be helpful to talk to someone who can help you work through any barriers to authentic relationships you might be experiencing.

It’s hard to be loved for who you are if your partner doesn’t really know the real you. A good place to start is taking a good look in the mirror and figuring out whether the person you see is the person your friends, family, and romantic partner see as well. Then you can decide whether you want to do things differently to be more authentic, get out of the bleachers, and get in the game!

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

You Didn’t Marry Your Parents (They’re Hiding in Your Suitcase)

You’ve probably heard the age-old line about how we all tend to marry our mother/father in some way. Maybe your mom was bossy/demanding, and you’re starting to notice that your wife can be pretty controlling and you never measure up. Maybe you had your dad wrapped around your little finger and you picked a husband who does everything you ask, but doesn’t seem to have any ideas of his own, and now you’re feeling bored.

The problem with these kinds of relationship dynamics is that they’re great at first. We love to feel comfortable in relationships, so we often end up dating and marrying people who make us feel things we’ve felt before. We seek what we know. And once we get comfortable, it’s hard to change things, even if it’s for the better!

Comfort in Discomfort

I can’t recall where I first heard this, but I can’t tell you how many times it rings true with my clients: “People tend to stay the same until the status quo becomes more painful or scary than trying something new.”

What this means for our adult relationships is that we likely had a particular way that we felt in our early relationships that we’ve carried into our romantic relationships. The feelings are not always good or bad. They can be anything- fear, comfort, apprehension, security, longing, inadequacy, etc.

Let’s take fear as an example. If your relationship with one or more of your parents consistently involved fear, you likely try to avoid fear at all costs. You may settle for someone less than ideal simply because s/he is not overtly threatening. Maybe your fear leads you to avoid being truly vulnerable, no matter how sensitive, gentle, and inviting your partner is around you. Maybe you take a more active approach and your fear has led you to be controlling in relationships, making sure that you manage minute details of the relationship (e.g. your partner’s schedule, their messaging habits, their social life, etc.). Whatever the behavioral response, it’s important to recognize where it may be coming from.

Emptying Your Suitcase

We all carry around a relationship suitcase from childhood. The trick here is to recognize what feelings or patterns you’ve carried around in your adult relationships, and be intentional about seeking something different and healthier. Staying present with your partner is a great first step. If you think you can trust them to be on your side and to be invested in improving the quality of your relationship, however poor your combined communication skills might be, ask them to monitor some behaviors for you.

Tell them about the old family baggage you found in your relationship suitcase, and that you’re trying to get rid of it for the sake of your relationship. Tell them the ways that you are trying to improve/adapt/change, and ask them to gently bring it to your attention when you start sliding into old habits. I tell all of my therapy couples that it’s important for them to start letting go of their history and start telling a new story. This requires forgiveness, eventually, and a good way to start down that road is to focus on personal humility and collaborative problem solving around these suitcase issues in the present moment.

No Shaming Allowed

When they call your attention to a problem behavior, they should only bring it to your attention, not judge you. There should be a collaborative feel to the whole process. No shaming allowed (by either of you). This is an opportunity to come together over a shared goal: having the most amazing relationship you can! The things you share in a vulnerable conversation are not allowed to be used as ammunition in future disagreements.

For that matter, past hurts/flaws are unhealthy forms of ammunition as well (again, history is a dangerous weapon!). Heck, if we’re calling it ammunition, let’s just put down our relationship guns and work together. Each of you should think of your job as being whatever your partner needs at any given time, and the work gets a lot simpler. If your focus tends to be on each others’ needs, negativity tends to diminish.

Suitcases Can Show Up Anywhere

Our family suitcase baggage can show up anywhere, but we tend to unpack most of our baggage with the people we’re closest with. This is often our spouse and our children. You might not notice it, but you probably have some similar relationship dynamics with your children as you do with your partner. Some of these may be good/helpful/healthy, and some might need some work.

If it’s a pretty mild problem, there’s a chance that you might be mainly responding to a recent difficult situation, and the problem may resolve once the situation changes. If not, and you happen to notice some unhealthy/unhelpful patterns in any of your important relationships, it’s time to do something about it.
Depending on how severe the problem is, you might just want to talk to a friend about it, or you might want to find a book, podcast, workbook, or perhaps more blogs like this one to give you some basic pointers. I recommend just about anything written by John Gottman that deals with successful relationships (e.g. What Makes Love Last?). For those looking for a religious/Christian perspective on healthy marriage, I recommend Tim Keller’s, The Meaning of Marriage.

Will This Go Away On Its Own?

The reality is, however, that most relationship patterns don’t tend to go away unless we do something intentional about them. If the problem is severe enough, meaning that it’s having a significant impact in some major area of life functioning (work, marriage, friendships, parenting, finances, self-care), it may be important to reach out for some professional assistance.

If you think you might need professional help, that’s okay! No matter where you live, there are trained professionals who can help you through the change process. Try to think of therapy as an investment in not only you, but in your relationships and your future happiness.

If you haven’t noticed what’s in your suitcase, it’s probably sitting in your closet waiting for you to open it. Your loved ones probably already have a good idea of what’s in it. If you’re feeling brave, you might just ask them about it! Whatever you decide to do, do something. Who is going to be your first text/email/call? It’s never too late to start having better relationships, and you might as well start now!

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Tuning Your Relationship Radio

My first car was a beige 1985 Ford tempo. Yeah…I know. Pretty bold choice, right? Well, my grandparents gave it to me and it was the best (and only) free car I’ve ever had. For a teenage driver with a job making 4 bucks an hour, that was exactly the kind of car I needed! The clutch was mostly burned out, and the brakes ended up going out one day, and it didn’t have a digital radio until I bought one at Best buy with the money I made from my job at The Disney Store (where we wore long sleeve denim uniform shirts…and yes, we knew how cool we looked). But it had everything I needed.

The original radio in my beige tempo had a tape deck and dial that you would to turn to tune into the particular station you wanted to listen to. It’s the knob on the right in the picture above. For any millennials and beyond reading this, the way that radios used to work was that there was not a button to tune to a very particular frequency a specific frequency, but rather there were knobs that you would turn that would approximate a signal. They didn’t click with each station you passed like the knobs in our cars today. If you wanted to listen to 102.7 you would to turn the knob until you got close and then use your ear to find the best signal possible. To get the best listening experience you had to pay close attention to the sound coming from your radio and finely-tune your actions to best attune to the station.

Radios and Relationships

In my work with couples over the past 14 years I’ve found that relationships are a lot like the radio in my old Tempo. If we don’t listen closely, and finely tune our actions according to what we hear, we tend to experience a lot of unpleasant static. Attunement is the term for this concept that social scientists use when they study relationships. Attunement essentially is your ability to “tune in” to your partner’s feelings, thoughts, and experience of a situation. Our partners have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that, if we pay attention, can give us helpful information about what they need and how we can respond.

How Can I Get Better At Tuning In?

If you tune in closely to your partner’s signal you’ll see those helpful hints they provide. If, however, you don’t tune in to the station, or at least get close, there’s going to be a lot of static. You won’t clearly hear the music that they’re playing for you. Some couples therapists talk about relationships as being a dance, with feelings often being considered the music of the dance. Your job as a partner in a relationship is to tune in to the music of the dance, the feelings. You need to get your radio dial tuned as finely as possible to the music coming from your partner’s station so that you can best respond.

If you are tuned to a different station, distracted by your phone, or thinking about work, your kids, or a “to-do” list, you can’t be paying close attention to the signal that your partner is sending you. You’re going to miss what they’re trying to tell you. You might hear the unpleasant corrective words, and miss the good intention behind them.

Do I Have To Be Tuned In Perfectly?

Sometimes you might tune in to the station but you might be a little off. You might not have gotten your dial perfectly fixed on their signal. And that’s okay. Sometimes you might misinterpret something. Your job in those moments is not necessarily to fix what was wrong but just to tune in more closely. Be curious about what led them to send out the signal you heard. Recalibrate your radio by humbly asking questions before making statements. The next time your partner speaks strongly about something, commit to tuning in to their signal so that you can respond in a more helpful way, even if they trigger an upset feeling in you.

Partners in successful relationships are not about brute force, blunt communication. Successful partners communicate with nuance, and are willing to recalibrate their attunement to meet their partner’s needs.

But My Partner Is Such A Terrible Communicator!

If you find yourself hearing only static in a relationship, try not to blame your partner too much. The static is not what was meant to be heard, at least not initially. Some people learn to send out static, instead of a clear signal, because it’s scary for them to be truly known. It can feel vulnerable or scary for them to be seen, heard and understood by others. They have often been hurt by others. It can be hard for them to send out a clear signal without someone first being closely attuned to them and accepting them as they are. Sometimes their partner is able to help them work through this; other times, it can be helpful to involve someone with training and experience with relationship attunement.

What Should I Do Next?

Attunement isn’t everything in relationships, but it is vitally important. If you feel like your radio dial isn’t quite tuned to your partner’s station, or if you feel like there’s a lot of static in your relationships, it might be time to talk to someone about it. The best person to talk to about the static in any relationship is often the other person in that relationship. Make sure to engage them with humility and curiosity so as not to put them on defense right away. If you’re not sure how to do that, it might help to talk with someone else first.

A good friend can often lend perspective on tough relationships. Or you might want to talk with a therapist trained to “listen between the lines” and see the nuanced processes impacting your relationships. Or, if your partner is willing, it’s often even more helpful to talk to someone together, so you both can tune in more closely to each other. Whatever you choose to do, do something. The music won’t change in it’s own. Someone has to turn the dial.

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Should You Pay for Your Adult Child’s Therapy?

My wife and I were able to spend some quality time last night with a few other couples, each of whom was grateful to spend a night away from tending to multiple young children [huge shout out to all you amazing grandparents out there!]. During our time together, one of the couples was sharing the story of their relationship, their struggles, their celebrations, and the things that have gotten them through to this point.

The wife, Melanie, recounted the difficulties faced in her childhood when her parents divorced, spent a few years apart, and then ultimately remarried. She also talked about the fears and insecurities that lingered after these experiences, as well as the many things that have kept her going and growing.

For several years, Melanie’s husband has been her rock. Her group of supportive friends and her faith community round out the supports many of us might similarly turn to in hard times. In addition to these people, however, she mentioned a support that many of us don’t often think to turn to: therapy.

Melanie shared how her experience in therapy helped her identify strengths to deal with fears, and find new ways to think about events so that they wouldn’t have as much power over her life and relationships.

Investing in Outcomes

But that’s not what struck me most last night. Perhaps the most unusual thing I heard last night was about how her therapy was paid for. Melanie’s therapy was paid for by her parents. And while it’s not entirely unusual for parents to pay for their child to go to therapy, it’s far less common for adults than for minors. But the thing that really jumped out at me was why her parents offered to pay for counseling.

They said that they felt responsible to help Melanie find healing from the damage that they caused through her witnessing their tumultuous relationship. What!? It was so touching to hear about how her parents, who had found healing for their own relationship, were willing to help their daughter pick up the pieces of a broken childhood to live a full and healthy adult life. They didn’t have to, but they showed humility and generosity and decided to help.

Melanie is an amazing mom, thoughtful friend, and deeply cares for everyone around her. I am personally grateful for her parents’ insight and eagerness to not only secure the health of their own marriage bond, but also to invest in Melanie, who continues to positively impact people like me.

What Are You Saving For?

Many parents spend a great deal of time worrying about how to help their kids pay for college. And yes, college can be pretty expensive. As as college professor, who spent 10 years in college and graduate school racking up loans, I can testify to what a tremendous stressor that can be on a student and their future family.

That said, if you are a parent and are starting to think about helping your kids pay for college, can I make one suggestion? In addition to talking to your financial advisor about starting a separate savings account or a tax-sheltered insurance/investment policy, start thinking about therapy. Paying for therapy may be a more meaningful gift than all the birthday and Christmas presents you ever give them combined!

But My Kids Are All Grown Up!

Whether your kid is 6 months old, 6 years old, or 6 minutes past his or her welcome in your house as an adult, I encourage you to consider thinking about whether your kid(s) might benefit from therapy at some point, and whether you’d be willing to help them out with that. If you don’t think you can afford both, at least help them to select a college with a great counseling center with easily accessible and free/inexpensive therapy for students.

Therapy often carries with it an unfortunate stigma. I tell my clients all the time that there’s nothing magical about therapy. Yes, I’ve spent 6 years in graduate training, several years teaching and researching what works best to help people, and have thousands of hours of experience helping people cope more effectively and improve their lives and relationships. But after all that, at its most basic, therapy is just two people in a room together, talking about life.

Be Part of the Healing

No parent is perfect. We’ve all had moments we wish we could take back. If you think your child needs healing from any parent-inflicted wounds, you’ve got an opportunity to be part of the repair process. And remember, we’re never too old to start healing.

If you happen to know that your child (even an adult child) is going through some rough times, whether they’re a minor or an adult, consider whether you might be able to pay for some professional help. That gesture alone may go a long way in healing ruptures in your relationship if you sense that you’ve caused them some grief over the years.

For families who have undergone particularly traumatic experiences, paying for therapy may even turn out to be a much greater investment in the child’s life than paying for college. After all, what good is a degree if they’re not emotionally and relationally healthy enough to use it!? And if you help them access both, all the better!

Be Awesome, Stay Humble!

I don’t know Melanie’s parents, but I’m grateful for their example. To all you hard-working parents out there, I salute you in your efforts to do one of the most thankless jobs on the planet. Here’s to doing our best to maximize the good, minimize the harm done, humbly and vulnerably admit when we have fallen short, and do what we can to help our kids find healing and repair moving forward.

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Life is too short to not have satisfying relationships!