Category: Couples Therapy

Finding Connection in the Here and Now

One of the moments in life that brings me pure joy is to look into the eyes of an infant and with such perfect attunement they track me and smile back at me that toothless grin. Time passes with lots of funny faces, shrieks and giggles. Those kinds of moments could go on forever, yet the realities of my day pull me back into the business and messiness of life. The to do lists, the repairs, the work, the worries pull me out of the present and often into the future. Have you asked yourself lately am I living in the present moment?

I have worked with couples for many years and I observed in their rush to get to solutions they often missed opportunities to connect in the present moment. Feeling flooded with various emotions, one or the other’s mind was racing to figure out whose fault it was, how to protect themselves from the anticipated onslaught, or thinking, “Oh no, here we go again and what’s the point?” In these moments, they were not listening to their partner or seeking with curiosity to understand their point of view or acknowledging the emotion being expressed. Rather, they were flooded with thoughts from past failed attempts or fearing this negative outcome would be a predictor of their future together. The point is without even noticing it, they had exited the present moment going back to memories of the past or jumping ahead to worries about the future.

As a marriage and family therapist, I help couples slow down their dance around connection. They discover this whole new space in the present moment where vulnerability and empathy are powerful tools fueling connection and often healing past hurts or reassuring fears or insecurities. My first goal in treatment is to restore safety. If our amygdalas are too busy firing, then we exit our prefrontal cortex and go to three simple protective solutions: fight, flight or freeze.

If your partner is coming at you full force with criticism, it makes sense that you may feel defensive. If your partner ignores your bid for connection and leaves the room, then naturally over time you may feel rejected. If your partner shuts down, becomes overwhelmed and just doesn’t know what to do, you may feel lonely and long for a sense of team effort. One of the best solutions to these often-occurring challenges is to learn how to connect with our partner in the present while remembering to be respectful, share appreciation, and share feelings without casting blame.

The tool I most often share with my clients initially when asking them to practice living mindfully is to practice tuning into their five senses. Choosing an activity that you already do daily such as showering or brushing your teeth, practice at these moments tuning into your sense of taste, touch, smells, sight and sound. After spending a few minutes tuning into your senses, complete a body scan taking note of any sensations in your body. Label the feeling you have in the present moment such as, “I am feeling sad, overwhelmed or calm,” and then label the thought such as, “I am having the thought, ‘I am going to be late’,” or, “I am having the thought, ‘I have no friends’,” or “I am having the thought, ‘I am so smart why don’t they listen to me’.”

When parents become afraid for their child, often they are flooded with a series of thoughts containing “What Ifs.” The time and energy is spent on worrying about the child’s future and the precious moments of connection in the present are lost. Worrying about the future does little to help solve the problems as the problems you are worrying about have not actually occurred. Schedule time in your day to worry about the present problems, come up with measurable solutions and then let go of the problem until the scheduled time tomorrow. Be sure when considering solutions to make note if the focus is only on correction or control rather than on connection. Whether you choose to focus on your breath, practice meditation, go on a mindful walk or take time out to play and laugh together, you will find that living in the present moment brings an increased sense of peace and hope. When you find yourself in a relaxed state it is more likely for you be creative, find solutions and to connect in loving ways with your child.

Increasing your ability to live in the present moment takes practice. Those of us who take the time to practice, find that when we are in moments of distress or we are not connecting with our partner or child, we become increasingly aware of our own thoughts, feelings and actions and how those are impacting the other person. We then consciously make a choice to respond in new ways, communicate more clearly and effectively and enjoy increased moments of meaningful connection. I never said it would be easy but it is always worth it!

Feeling Disconnected? There’s Hope

Each of us longs for connection.  There are innate needs that we come with that are hard wired in to our systems at birth.  I often ask my clients what they need to survive.  Most will list things like air, water, food and shelter.  Some include things like love or connection.  All human beings experience fear, sadness, anger, joy, disgust and surprise.  Similarly all human beings at their core desire to be heard and understood; free to make choices, to know that they matter, that they are a priority to someone and that they are acceptable and lovable.  If for a period of time these core needs are not being met, then a person will respond emotionally usually feeling an intense primary emotion like shame, fear, rejection, sadness or despair.  Most of us don’t know how to stay present in our bodies for very long with this kind of intense emotion and will shift to a more reactive emotion like anger, frustration, overwhelm or indifference.  Then in connection with this emotion, people will start to think thoughts and behave in certain ways intended to regain connection yet often leading to disconnection.

Some of the more common ways people might try and cope with the emotion associated with the disconnection are to get busy, numb or blame.  Let’s explore each of these a little deeper.

Busy: If we engage in the business of life and keep busy then we don’t have to feel the hurt or pain.  Most of us can imagine being on a treadmill and working out and initially this is great for the stress.  Yet metaphorically speaking, if the treadmill represents us running from our problems then eventually even the strongest person will fatigue and have to get off the treadmill for a rest.  When this happens, often the pain has intensified and feels even scarier as it has gone on for a long time without being addressed directly.  Staying busy doesn’t in the end get you what you need at your deeper core level, and you feel more like a hamster spinning it’s wheel rather than moving towards and in the direction of what you really long for and need.  This provides the ingredients for despair.

Numb: Most of us can relate to the need to distract ourselves from negative emotion.  At some level, this is healthy and necessary for us to keep going with enough energy and psychological strength.  However, when people turn to alcohol and drugs or other numbing agents like food, sex or Netflix, they too feel the initial benefits of relief and the longer term consequences of going without their core needs being fulfilled.  Whatever you choose to use to numb the pain of rejection or squelch the fear of failure or shame, in the end it will not get you what you need and you too will find yourself in the perpetual spinning hamster wheel.

Blame: Who among us hasn’t played the blame game?  When we blame someone else then we don’t have to feel the hurt or shame of it being our fault.  At least for the moment, we can avoid that discomfort.  Unfortunately, the other person will feel defensive and react by either attacking back or going away.  Either version does not in the end leave either one of you feeling connected or rest assured your deeper needs will not be addressed and your level of safety in asking or reaching for your partner again is likely to go down.

Brené Brown said, “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness within will we discover the infinite power of our light.”  We can learn to be aware of what is blocking us from connection and choose to do things differently.  Usually we are reacting to either a fear or shame we feel deep inside.  First, we must be willing to face the fear or the disowned part of ourselves that feels like it is not enough or worthy of love.  We also learn from Brené Brown’s research on shame, that connection is vulnerability plus empathy.  To truly be vulnerable with another person, we must first be able to sit in our own experience long enough to identify what is going on beneath the more reactive emotions.  Once we are in touch with these more vulnerable feelings, then we can risk sharing our story with another.  When we do this with someone who responds with empathy and understanding then, shame can’t survive and fears are quieted and reassured.

Two skills you will want to nurture within yourself first are empathy and vulnerability.

Empathy is learning to be in another’s shoes, share their experience and feel with them at a deeper level.  It is very difficult to put your own “pain on the shelf” and remain fully present with another person.  When we do, the other person feels heard, seen and valued.  This fosters a connection and leads the relationship in the direction of meeting core needs.  Both parties leave feeling a greater sense of safety and fulfillment in the relationship.  Rather than reacting to our fears, we choose to take action that addresses the core needs.

Vulnerability is taking risks, being uncertain and doing it anyway, exposing you emotionally to another person, and the courage to admit imperfection.  This is one of the most courageous things we do as humans; let another person see our true selves and to realize that we are truly lovable and acceptable.  If we never let others see the whole person, we never allow ourselves to truly take their love in and a part of us doubts and fears that if they really knew me then they might go away or reject me.  Finding other people that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with fosters within us an increased sense of self-efficacy.

It is not advisable to let just anyone in to your deepest emotional core or share your story with everyone you know, yet with the people who are truly worthy of your love, the rewards are worth the risks.  Many times people in our experience have not yet learned the skills and it may be necessary for a time to seek professional help to slow things down for the couple until they feel safe enough to take these risks.  There are times when we choose to let people in who are not safe and will not respect healthy boundaries.  Then it becomes our responsibility to make sure we have healthy boundaries and know what we will do if someone crosses those boundaries.  Once you know how to clearly communicate your needs, have healthy boundaries and are willing to take appropriate actions to hold to your boundaries, you will be on a path that leads to a more connected and fulfilling life.

 

Finding Connection in the Here and Now

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Feeling Disconnected? There’s Hope

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