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Common Unhealthy Family Dynamics

In my own experience, I have become aware that I spend a lot of time avoiding a normal and healthy human experience – having emotions. As a therapist, I encourage my clients to connect to their emotions. I am a firm believer that you cannot give away what you do not have. With that being said, I am on my own journey to connect with myself and others more deeply. Learning to manage emotions, vulnerability, and honesty are essential skills learned at home. Growing up, I was not taught these skills. I have spent my adult years learning how to experience and process emotions with healthy expression. There are many different ways one can learn to manage emotions and identify feelings.

Family therapy is an excellent approach. It is common for families to fall into dysfunctional communication patterns with each other. Typically, people fall into these traps to avoid feeling. This can feel more comfortable in the moment; however, it is not beneficial to the person or the family in the long run. Facing emotions and connecting with others can feel scary and uncomfortable. It does not always look pretty and can be messy. Having a therapist guide the process can make it more tolerable and give family members greater insight into what is not working and to what is working in the family system. 

Below are examples of dysfunctional communication techniques that families fall into instead of being honest with one another. All of these communication techniques are ways to avoid emotions and confrontation. When I learned to identify these patterns, I discovered I was also missing out on connection, love, and intimacy with my family members and other loved ones. This awareness has helped improve my relationship with myself and others. As you read through these examples, I encourage you to ask yourself if you identify with any of these patterns. If so, then ask yourself, “what am I missing out on in my relationships?”. When a therapist asked me these questions, it struck a chord within me, and I realized some things needed to change. I hope this can be a good start for whoever needs to read this, as it was to me.  

  1. The Blame Game   

Failure to take accountability for one’s actions and emotions leading to the inability to validate another person’s experience. 

Example:

Sister: “My feelings were hurt when you yelled at me”  

Brother: “I reacted like that because you egged me on”

  1. Being Right

 Defending oneself instead of finding a middle ground.

Example:

Partner (1): “I do not like the way you made our bed. It needs to be done this way.”

Partner (2): “I was trying to help; I knew you would be busy this morning”.

Partner (1): “Thanks, but it’s not done the way I like it.” 

  1. Changing the Game  

Deflecting from the issue or question.

Caregiver: “I told you that your room needs to be cleaned before you can go to the movies with your friends”

 Child: “Jane hasn’t cleaned her room and she is out with her friends”

  1. Playing the nice guy

Making other people feel comfortable at the risk of your own beliefs, values, and/or needs.

Example:

An example of this would be a mom that confided her young adult child about her fight with his dad. The child listens and comforts his mom even though he feels uncomfortable and now feels pressured to take sides. 

  1. Gossip 

Talking about someone when they are not present instead of direct confrontation.

Example:

Brother: “Mary is always fighting with mom and getting her way because mom is scared of her”.

Sister: “Yeah, it’s annoying and mom just lets it slide”.

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Eve Unleashed with Special Guest, Kathleen Baxter

Join Kathleen Baxter on the Eve Unleashed Podcast to talk about sex. Kathleen discusses the difficulties of navigating sex conversations in the home with spouses and children. Join through this link and wherever podcasts are streamed.


http://eveunleashed.buzzsprout.com/1365421/5712997-lets-talk-about-sex-with-special-guest-kathleen-baxter-lmft

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Anything that is human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers

I love this quote from Mr. Rogers; it is the epitome of what I believe as a therapist and strive to achieve with my clients. We are all human and we have immense capacity for handling emotions, but sometimes those emotions feel completely and utterly overwhelming. Having a person that we can trust can make those emotions feel more manageable and we might, just maybe, even be able to talk about them more openly.

 We all want to feel like we matter and that someone cares about us; that is a universal human desire. No one wants to feel like they are all alone in this life, but often that is a feeling that we experience. How do we combat those feelings of being alone, isolated, not heard, or not cared for? Connection. Connection to someone or something that allows us to feel seen, heard, and understood. Connection requires vulnerability and vulnerability can be scary. Let’s be honest, we have all probably experienced a situation that we chose to bury, ignore, or deny an emotion rather than risk being hurt by being vulnerable and sharing.

Many of us grew up with Mr. Rogers as our introduction into learning about feelings. He didn’t shy away from talking about the hard topics either: death, divorce, pain, rage, and anger all featured on his show aimed at children. His forthright presentation of issues that we, as human beings, all struggle with was not typical for the time where children were, largely, encouraged to be seen and not heard. How refreshing to help children, and the adults that we became, to learn to recognize, identify, and name the emotions that we were feeling and that it was ok to be scared, it’s human. And if it’s human, then it’s mentionable and manageable with a little help from our friends in the neighborhood. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Henley, Y., Saraf, P., Turtletaub, M., Holzer, L. (Producers), & Heller, M. (Director). (2019) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Motion Picture]. United States: Tristar Pictures.

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Are We Compatible? We Fight!

If you frequent the many on-line resources (message boards, blogs, advice columns, podcasts, etc.) related to dating, specifically dating at a more “advanced” age, you will surely encounter at least one article about “compatibility” in relationships. What exactly does compatibility mean? If you read all the advice on the internet, this post included, then you’ll find that there is a wide array of opinions offered. Opinions range from the alignment of interests and goals to the notion that there can’t be any disagreements or conflicts within relationships. However, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary compatibility is, “being capable of existing together in harmony”.  Dr. John Gottman (2016), the world-renowned relationship researcher, described compatibility as, “Agreeability and conscientiousness are the characteristics that people really mean when they talk about “compatibility.” These qualities are indexed by a person being able to say things like “Good point,” or “That’s interesting, tell me more” or, “You may be right, and I may be wrong” during a disagreement.”

It’s always interesting to me that couples often fear that they are incompatible if they encounter conflict within their relationship. Conflict and the ability to address and resolve it are important aspects to relationships; it says a lot about the relationship’s strength when a couple or family is willing to confront the areas of conflict in their relationships. However, there is a myth perpetuated by society and the media that “healthy” relationships are conflict-free. That’s an unachievable expectation that can be dangerous to a connected relationship.

How can everyone’s needs be met if unmet needs can’t be expressed because it is seen as starting a fight? You’ll notice I changed the wording in my last question from conflict to fight; I’ve noticed that many times the two words are used interchangeably. Fight, typically, has a negative connotation that denotes a level of aggression or force, however. While conflict simply implies a disagreement. Often though, couples and families see any form of disagreement as a fight and it can feel dangerous to the relationships. I teach my clients that it’s important to recognize that you can have a conflict/argument/disagreement and the relationship can still feel safe. How can you safely have a disagreement? I believe that if couples can set up a few rules to how they are going to “fight” that they can maintain safety, not just physical but emotional and psychological as well. Below I’ve listed a few of the boundaries that I recommend couples start with while encouraging them to add their own personal ones that are relevant to their situations:

  1. Use “I” and “me”- if it’s important to you than make sure you are keeping it about who it is important to. “You” statements can feel very blaming.
  2. Keep the volume in check- while some people’s voices get very animated and the volume increases as they get elevated, regardless if it’s from excitement or frustration, it can be very scary. No yelling and screaming!!!
  3. Keep the language respectful. Personal attacks on character, name calling, mocking, being sarcastic, condescending, or patronizing are all ways that can leave people feeling devalued and demoralized.
  4. Telling your partner how they do or should be feeling. Everyone is entitled to their feelings regardless of whether they make sense to others. Use this as an opportunity to be curious about your partner and their experience.
  5. Timeouts aren’t just for kids. A negotiated and stated 20-minute timeout to re-group and calm down can do wonders for a disagreement while reinforcing the importance of safety in the relationship.

Conflict is an important part of relationships, as Dr. Gottman said they introduce diversity and make relationships more interesting. Additionally, they can be used as avenues to deepen our connections with partners by exposing and discussing vulnerabilities. However, for a conflict to be an opportunity to grow it must feel safe for both parties to express those vulnerabilities. Fight for your relationships and connections, not against them!

photo credit: canstockphoto.com – dolgachov

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A House on Fire

 

If you think back to the last time you experienced a crisis in your relationship, you may remember the feelings of panic and fear.  You may even remember feeling uncertain about whether your partner was going to be there for you.

 

In those moments, it is easy to let our fear build, until it transforms from a few sparks into a full-on house fire.  When our relationship-house is on fire, we turn to the person we need the most for help.  In our panicked state, we don’t always have the mindset to calmly explain that we are in crisis and need help.  More often, we attempt to let our loved one know that we are in crisis, that our house is on fire, by throwing little bits of the fire in their direction.  What we intend as a “hey, I’m really hurting right now, and I’m scared and need to know that you’re here for me”, comes out as anger directed toward the person we are turning to for help.

 

If I throw fire at my partner’s house, they’re going to take protective measures to keep their house from also catching on fire.

 

This intensifies whatever cycle has already been occurring in the relationship.  One partner feels uncertain, and lashes out (when really, they’re looking for reassurance), the other partner backs away further, uncomfortable with the intensity of the first partner.  This backing away leads the partner to feel further abandoned, and deeper into their crisis, fanning the flames, and turning the small bits of fire they throw at their partner into a raging fireball.

 

If we can understand this cycle, and recognize it when it happens, we can begin to stop it.  Initially that might look like a “hey, I see what we’re doing here- we’re in our fire cycle”.  Next one partner might say, “yes, I know I’m lashing out, because I’m anger, and under the anger is fear that you aren’t going to be here when I need you”.  Or the other partner might say, “I see you lashing out, I know you feel anger, but I want you to know I’m here for you”.

 

If we can acknowledge the anger and the more vulnerable emotion behind it, we can slow the cycle and find connection in our relationships.

 

If you find yourself stuck in this cycle, and need help getting out of it, set up an appointment with Alice today by calling 801.944.4555.
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Getting Naked in Marriage

Many people believe they want to get naked in their marriage. Truly naked. They go into marriage with a belief that good things will just “happen.” That methods they’ve learned from their friends or even their parents will allow their clothing to just come off. No risk! Just the potential for an excellent reward.

The deeper challenge is that getting emotionally naked in your marriage takes focused practice and understanding. So much so, that people often don’t put forth the effort to get there.

Over the years I’ve developed a number of key strategies for couples to peel off their emotional clothing. To become truly naked to their spouse in ways that seems foreign at first. In reality, somewhat painful at best!

Staying Fully Clothed Emotionally

When working with couples I’ve had derivations of the following conversation on a number of occasions. It goes something like this: addressing the husband, I may say something like “You know your wife wants to hear from you even when you’re having a terrible day. She wants to connect deeply with you.” When asked supportively if this is correct, she will often give a knowing and definitive nod. He seems completely taken aback by this as he was taught essentially that sharing feelings is “weak.” Certainly not manly or desirable. And who wants to be seen as a wimp in marriage? No one!!!

Of perhaps greater import, is that unless a couple can become emotionally open with each other they’ll rarely (if ever!) feel completely connected. She will be unable to trust him on a consistent basis. He will feel that she doesn’t want to dig in deeply on things that matter to him. In reality, why should she want to do so? When she does reach out to him he can seem to be aloof and disinterested. Meanwhile, he can perceive her as distant and not wanting to connect with him in physically intimate or affectionate way. This leads to disconnection and a belief that this will never change. Ouch!

Learning to “Bare It All” Emotionally  

I’ve heard it said that it’s easier for some couples to be physically naked with their spouse than risking emotional nudity. Acquiring new ways to trust emotionally doesn’t need to seem like rocket science. Indeed, it isn’t really rocket science. In fact, it takes two people gradually becoming willing to share, errr, BARE it all. One key item for men is making the paradigm shift from essentially always keeping feelings hidden to sharing even his most key fears. This can be done with a well-trained marriage therapist or even gradually at home as the couple is ready. Either way, it can work.

One key challenge is that most believe “we’ve already tried that. Believe me, it did NOT go well!” The difference now is that you’ll be following three key ideas. Check this out.

First, realize it will be a gradual journey to go from emotionally withdrawn to connective. I like to ask some of the couples I work with to just improve one out of four times initially, i.e., that’s just 25 percent. That is, wives risk asking your husband how he is feeling when he looks really overwhelmed by his day. Husbands, be willing to share your feelings with her, even when it looks like your job may be at risk of being RIF’d in the near future.

Next, recognize that ANYTHING worth doing in this life comes at a risk. Going back to school comes with a risk. Asking your boss for a raise comes with a risk. In fact, asking (and accepting!) your wife to marry you came with a risk. The key point here is that if you don’t risk you’ll be in the same position 1 month or even 10 years from now. Do you REALLY want that???

Thirdly, make sure that you recognize that improvement takes consistency. Don’t just try for awhile and then give up because it wasn’t perfect. Recognize what the universe wants you to know, it will NEVER be perfect. Just keep risking and recognize it will get better.

Becoming Naked Together

Now you maybe thinking “Michael, I’m getting major goose bumps from the cold winds just thinking about becoming exposed emotionally.” Hey, I get that. Please know that there are wonderful resources to help you out. One on my favorites is speaker/author Brene’ Brown (https://Brenebrown.com). One of her most profound concepts is that of “vulnerability.” When I ask men what the word means to them, almost exclusively they’ll respond “weak.” Women generally see it as something to be desired. Totally sought after. Pursued and captured. Exactly!

Moving from seeing vulnerability (or risking) as “weak” to a strength is a journey. One that is so worth it for your marriage to truly become amazing. And, isn’t your marriage worth the effort to go from emotionally disconnected to a feeling of comfort as the emotional clothing peels off? I absolutely believe it is!

Michael Boman, LCSW has years of experience helping couples to reach their full potential in marriage. You can reach him by email at Info@wasatchfamilytherapy.com.

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Six Sexual Health Principles to Discuss With Your Partner

I often hear stories from men and women who discover their partner has sexual secrets. Sometimes those secrets involve pornography, sometimes they involve infidelity, sometimes they involve fantasy or sexual preferences. The individuals who share these stories with me often feel betrayed because the expectations they had about the sexual agreements within their relationship were not kept. The first problem to address is that most of the time, these sexual agreements were unspoken.

I want to encourage couples to make these unspoken agreements spoken. All couples should talk about their expectations for their sexual relationship. In order to facilitate this discussion, here are six principles that constitute healthy sexuality. Spend some time with your partner and discuss each one, what it means to each of you as individuals and how it relates to you as a couple. (One word of caution, avoid having this discussion during or after sex. Those times are likely to bring with them heightened vulnerability, which if the discussion is difficult in any area, can lead to increased defensiveness and conflict. The discussion will go much more smoothly if you schedule it for another time.)

*******

The following 6 principles of sexual health were developed by Doug Braun-Harvey. Learn more about his these principles in his books Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction & Sexual Health in Drug and Alcohol Treatment

1. Consent

Consent in this context means that someone has given permission for something involving their body to occur. Are there sexual behaviors in your relationship that you’d like your partner to ask specific consent for each time? Are there sexual behaviors that you don’t feel your partner needs to ask first? Talk about these, and create clear guidelines to shape how consent looks in your relationship. Remember that feelings about specific sexual behaviors can change, and it’s okay to change your sexual agreements in the future.

2. Non-Exploitative

Non-exploitative means that one partner does not take advantage or manipulate the other into sexual behaviors. This includes using power dynamics to coerce the other person. Are there behaviors that one partner participates in hesitantly? Use this opportunity to talk about what those behaviors mean to each partner. If there are exploitative behaviors in your relationship, this is an area where reaching out for help with a therapist may be necessary to resolve them and set healthy boundaries.

3. Protection from STIs, HIV, and Unplanned Pregnancy

If either person has had previous sexual partners, have they been checked for sexually transmitted infections or HIV? What is the plan surrounding birth control?

4. Honesty

Are both partners able to be fully honest about their sexual history, and is there room in the relationship to honestly discuss fantasy and sexual preferences?

5. Shared Values

Creating sexual agreements are crucial for couples, and the largest part of the discussion will likely revolve around values. What behaviors fall within your value systems as individuals and as a couple? If there are value differences, can you create workable compromises? If there are value conflicts within a relationship, a professional can help explore resolutions that feel workable to both partners.

6. Mutual Pleasure

Sadly, many individuals grow up with the idea that sex is something men like and women tolerate. When this is the background, women can feel used and resentful about sex, even when they’re otherwise happy in their relationship. Breaking out of this mindset is going to be difficult if the couple has not found mutually pleasurable sexual activities. If one partner wants a specific type of sex exclusively, and the other partner doesn’t enjoy that activity, neither partner will be able to truly experience the kind of sexual relationship that is fulfilling and strengthens the relationship.

If after reviewing these six principles, you find some areas that you and your partner need help with, schedule an appointment with Alice today.  801-944-4555.

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War and Peace, the Internal Version

A few months ago, I stood on the edge of a 15 foot cliff overhanging the ocean. Several family members had already jumped and were calling to me to join them.  This may not seem like a particularly high distance to some, but it was high enough for me to activate an internal battle.

Part of me wanted to jump. The water was clear and beautiful. My family was having a great time in the water below. Part of me was afraid of hurting myself. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a theory that uses the idea that all of us have internal “parts”, which generally work together, creating the unique individual that we are. When our parts are not fully integrated, we can experience internal battles, which cause difficulty in our ability to function the way we would like.

IFS categorizes our parts as managers, firefighters, exiles, and Self.

Managers act as our protectors. They are manifest as controller, striver, judge, caretaker, passive, pessimist, planner, and self-critic. These managers work to keep things in our lives going smoothly to avoid pain or rejection.

Firefighters are also protectors, but do so in a reactive way, attempting to soothe our exiles through compulsive behaviors, distraction, or rage.

Exiles are the parts of us that hold pain and vulnerability. Our managers push them away to protect the rest of us from having to experience the pain, shame, dependency, neediness, worthlessness, or grief that exiles carry.

Our Self is the core of who we are. Our Self is calm, curious, compassionate, connected, confident, creative, and has clarity. When we are able to look at the world or situations with these eight “C’s” we’re working from our Self. When managers, firefighters or exiles take over we lose our ability act from our true Self.

As I stood on the cliff with my internal battle, I wasn’t able to recognize the various parts involved. Looking back on the experience, it’s much easier to identify the manager that created anxiety, the one that told me “if you jump, you’ll get hurt.” I can also identify the manager who told me that I had better jump to avoid being teased by my family. It was this manager who pushed through and reminded me that the cliff wasn’t that high, the water was clear, and that everyone else had jumped safely.

Often, the internal battles our parts engage in are of more significant consequence than whether we will be teased for not jumping into the ocean. Sometimes our care-taking managers prevent us from setting clear boundaries with others, leading to resentment or exhaustion. Sometimes our firefighters seek to soothe scared exiles by numbing with behaviors or substances that are not in line with our value system.  When this happens, our managers beat up on our firefighters, and our firefighters respond by doubling down on their soothing behavior.

When we experience these internal battles, it’s tempting to try to ignore or reject the parts of us that seem to be causing the problems. Instead of ignoring or rejecting (which doesn’t work anyway), we can start a conversation with these parts to examine why they are behaving the way they are. We might discover that our firefighter is pushing us to lash out in anger in an attempt to protect our exiles from having to experience the pain of rejection that we’ve felt before. We might discover a manager who constantly tells us we’re lazy is really just terrified of becoming the thing it was called as a child.  Understanding why our parts behave the way they do, we can begin to have some compassion for them. Compassion helps us soothe the internal battles and increase our ability to act as our true Self.

If you recognize some of these kinds of parts within yourself and would like help integrating them, call and schedule a session with Alice today.  801-944-4555.

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That’s So Meta

That’s So Meta

In couple’s therapy, one skill that I regularly work on with clients is increasing the ability to communicate effectively with their partner.  Sometimes our communications get twisted up with fears, expectations, and familiar patterns, which can be difficult to break out of. 

One tool that I find useful is to “go meta”.  Meta means self-referential.  Another way to view it is the thoughts we have about our thoughts (or our words).  

If you are feeling hurt that your partner forgot your lunch date, you might lash out at them in anger.  As you are lashing out, if you examine the thoughts in your head, you might discover that you are lashing out because you are angry and you are angry because you are hurt.  You are hurt because having your partner forget your lunch date triggers a fear response in you that tells you your partner doesn’t value you in the way you hope they do.  The story you are telling yourself, that your partner doesn’t value you is scary, and that fear drives the hurt and the anger to more speaking out in anger because it matters to you so much and you really want your partner to see your hurt, and in turn, see you.  

Speaking the meta means that instead of lashing out, you verbalize this internal dialogue.  You might try, “It really hurt me that you forgot about our lunch date.  I know you love me, but when things like that happen, part of me worries that you don’t really enjoy spending time with me.  That scares me, because spending time together is so important to me and really helps remind me how much you care”.  

Being able to share the fear that had previously remained tucked away inside your head creates vulnerability instead of anger, and reinforcing that the vulnerability is there precisely because your partner is so important to you helps create a place where your partner will also be able to express vulnerability rather than defensiveness.  

Next time you find yourself in a sticky spot with someone you love, examine the thoughts you have about the words you are saying.  Where are those words coming from?  You might find those thoughts give you greater insight into what the real issue is.  Figuring out the real issue is the beginning of greater effectiveness in your communication with your partner.  

If you and your partner could use help identifying these meta thoughts, and learning new ways to communicate with each other, schedule an appointment with Alice today.  801-944-4555.

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Emotional First Aid and Vulnerability

Do you watch or listen to Ted Talks? I do, and I love them. There’s something satisfying about listening for ten to twenty minutes while I clean my house. I recently listened to one that is fantastic and really taught me a lot. 
Dr. Guy Winch is a psychologist who writes and speaks about the discrepancy between physical first aid and emotional first aid. His thesis is that we are very quick to take care of our physical health, but we often put off taking care of our emotional health. This discrepancy becomes difficult because we often experience more emotional problems than physical ones. One of the most consistent conversations I have with people in my practice is about the importance of taking care of ourselves emotionally. For some reason, we don’t see it as weakness when we break our leg and need a doctor. However, when we are struggling emotionally, we may find it difficult to see a therapist. We brush our teeth daily to maintain dental hygiene, but what do we do to maintain our emotional health? 
I invite you to listen to this talk and take some notes on how to administer some emotional first aid to you, your spouse, and children.
The second Ted Talk I love is by Brene Brown. Watching this talk is a common homework assignment I give people I work with. Vulnerability is such an important, and difficult thing. As you watch this talk, I hope you think about ways you can be more comfortable being vulnerable with yourself, and especially your spouse. 
 
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