Your partner isn't an emotional super-human

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Let’s talk about dreams and romance. Ah, romance! Before we were partnered (and sometimes even now when things are rough in our relationships), many of us dreamed of finding the perfect person, The One, our other half, the person who completes us. This person anticipates our needs, knows what we want without us having to say anything, is a great lover, and our best friend. We can tell them anything. And they always know just what to say to make us feel better. They are never too busy for us. They never make us mad or disappoint us. They’re perfect.

Dreams dashed

That dream, my friends, is a fantasy. It’s not real. It doesn’t leave room for our partners to be real people. With our couples therapy clients, we often see people experience disappointments because they are holding on to versions of this fantasy. And there’s no way their partners, who are real humans, can ever measure up. You might be left constantly disappointed and wondering if you’re with the right person. And your partner is left frustrated and blamed, feeling they will never be good enough.

A new dream

I’m giving you a new dream, one where you have increased intimacy and closeness by sharing and expecting less of your partner. What?!? Sharing and expecting less is going to bring you closer? Yup!

This new dream, the new view of romance is one that allows space for you to both be full, complicated humans, who choose to love, support, and commit to each other. This relationship is infused with thoughtfulness, kindness, and love. And yes, there is romance too.

Limited Resources

We all have the same 24 hours in each day. Each one of us has multiple relationships and responsibilities we manage and balance, including responsibilities to care for ourselves. Unavoidably, we each live life through our own perspective. We are the protagonists of our own stories. Sometimes we forget that our partners are people too, living their own lives, and not just supporting characters in our story.

We come to them expecting their attention and energy whenever we want it, often without thought for whether this is a good time for them or whether they want to give us that attention and energy. Males in male-female relationship pairings often struggle with this. You may feel stressed, angry, or overwhelmed and turn to your wife or girlfriend expecting that she help you deal with your stress, anger, grief, sadness, or overwhelm. That’s what she’s there for, right?

I often see men get hurt or resentful when their female partners aren’t willing or able to help them in this way. It feels like rejection. The emotional support your female partner gives to you is work; it takes her energy and drains her resources. If coming to your partner at the end of the day or calling her when you’re overwhelmed helps you feel better, it’s because she’s taken some of your emotional load and done the emotional processing work for you.

I’m not saying that you should never turn to your partner for support. I’m suggesting that you are thoughtful about when you turn to her for support. I’m suggesting that you recognize that you are taking her energy when you ask for her help with your emotions, knowing that her resources aren’t unlimited and can run out. I’m suggesting that you express appreciation when she helps you, that you look for ways to similarly help her, and that you are understanding when she is drained or overwhelmed herself and doesn’t have anything to give you. She’s human too, remember? If your female partner isn’t there for you when you need her, it may not be that she’s intentionally withholding to punish you, it may be that she just doesn’t have anything left to give. (Or maybe what you’re asking isn’t something she wants to give right now, and that’s okay too.) You aren’t entitled to her emotional resources, after all; they’re hers, not yours.

Not everything needs to be said

I can easily imagine many female partners reading the above section and cheering inside. “Yes! Yes! This is what I experience!” Maybe you even thought about forwarding this page to your partner or reading sections out loud to him. Temper your excitement just a bit. Men in male-female pairings aren’t the only ones guilty of expecting their partners to have super-human emotional skills.

In wanting to lean on our partners for emotional support, to have a relationship where we can say anything, many women say too much. You might go into intense detail about how your partner disappointed you, what they said that was insensitive, or how their social skills are lacking. Then, to make sure they really get it, you detail precisely the negative effects of these actions on you, how your dreams are dashed, how you thought more of them, how this reminds you of other similar hurts.

Let’s sit and think about that for a second. How do you hope your partner would respond when you do that? He’s not an emotional super-human. It’s too much to expect that he hears all the ways you’re hurt and how he caused that and to have no emotional reaction to it at all. Of course he’s going to feel shame, blame, guilt, or embarrassment, and maybe react with anger or defensiveness. Or maybe he just pulls away because he doesn’t know what to say or how to fix it.

Think about how you say what you have to say. Take a moment to put yourself in your partner’s shoes: what would it be like to hear those same things about yourself? Is there a kind and gentle way you can let your partner know he hurt or disappointed you? If you can achieve the same result—that he understands you and apologizes or makes a change or doesn’t do it again—without hurting him too, isn’t that worth it? It’s better for your relationship. If you need to process through your hurt and anger with a trusted friend or through journal writing before you can come to your partner with kindness, it’s worth the extra effort. He’s worth the effort. Your relationship will benefit.

The closeness comes

We talked about expecting less—your partner has limited emotional resources—and sharing less—your partner doesn’t need to hear every bad thing you have to say about them. Now we get to talk about feeling closer, more intimate, more connected!

Imagine yourself feeling stressed and lonely. You know your partner has a lot going on. You do some emotional work on your own and then ask your partner if you can get some support. This person you love, with their own totally busy life, shifts around their day to make time for you. You talk together, you feel better, and then you leave the interaction full of gratitude for how your partner made time for you and showed you that you matter. You know your partner didn’t have to give you their emotional support, they chose to. And that’s romantic!

Imagine you had one of those common but frustrating misunderstandings with your partner. You feel angry, disrespected, and hurt. You do some emotional work on your own. You ask for a minute of your partner’s time; you tell them what you need next time instead of the detailed description of the way you were wronged. Your partner, whom you love and who loves you, says “Sure, I can do that for you. I didn’t know this mattered so much to you” or “No problem. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” You leave the interaction feeling loved, supported, close. You know your needs and your comfort matter to your partner. And that’s romantic! Your relationship is a dream come true!

What’s next?

Does any of this sound inspiring? Do something about it!

Why the first suggestions from your marriage counselor sound dumb

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The idea for this post came from a conversation with a couple as they were graduating therapy. (See our post about why we love it when our clients graduate therapy here.) We were discussing how far they’d come and what they had done to make all these dramatic changes in their relationship. As we looked together at the list of changes they’d made, each one seemed small in itself but together they added up to a big difference.

I asked them, “If I’d told you at the beginning of couples counseling that having regular date nights, talking every day, making sure you understand before you react, asking for help, and taking time outs would bring about these kind of changes, how would you have reacted?” “Oh! We would have thought you were crazy,” they responded emphatically.

And yet, those are exactly the things that made huge changes for this couple.

A big, messy knot

Humans are complicated beings. And human relationships are messy. It’s just how things are. We’re not simple, logical, and linear. Our relationships are an intricate net of intertwined threads. Usually by the time a couple comes to marriage counseling, their intertwined threads are less of a beautiful tapestry and more of a big, messy knot. Think of a pile of fishing line or the tangle of necklaces and laces at the bottom of your kid’s dress-up bin.

When you’ve got a big, messy knot of problems to work through, you can’t just grab at one thread a pull. This inevitably makes the whole situation worse. What you’ve got to do is gently loosen one portion, then move over to another area and loosen there, then move back to the first part and work on that again. You may get some clarity as one of the threads comes out. Eventually, with enough unwinding and gentle tugging in a variety of areas, the whole mess gives way and you can start to make sense of it. You really feel like you’re getting somewhere.

The “dumb” suggestions

Okay, so your marriage counselor isn’t giving you dumb suggestions, maybe just things that seem overly simplistic or inadequate. It’s pretty normal for you to be skeptical at the beginning of therapy. Your therapist might talk to you about date nights, self-care, your interaction patterns, your family history and you might be thinking “this is so simplistic! There’s no way this one thing is going to help! What about all these other problems?”

If you’ve read some of the other articles in our blog or talked briefly with a therapist before, you might have thought the same things, and you’re right. Any one of those suggestions isn’t going to solve everything. All the little tools, the questions we ask are how we start untangling that messy knot.

Be patient with the process

When we try to talk about all the problems in the relationship at once, we don’t make progress on any one issue, and you end up frustrated, feeling like you’re spinning your wheels. It can seem artificial and simplistic, but we’ve got to pick a place to start, one area to work on first. When you start to see change in that area, we can work on another or look at how that area impacts the other challenges you face.

Part of our job as your marriage counselor is to help you prioritize issues and stay focused. We use our education and professional experience to help you understand how all those messy threads interact. We can help you sort it out. We can help you see how you keep creating the same knots and give you the skills you need to untangle them.

As we get near the end of couples counseling, we’ll be talking about maintenance skills. What do you need to do on an ongoing basis to prevent these giant knots from forming in the first place? It takes a while to get there, and we ask you to be patient with the process. But once you get to that magical place where your threads aren’t a mess anymore and you can start weaving a tapestry, you’ll feel excited and empowered. Your happiness and your relationship are worth it!

Not sure where to start?

Check out our FAQs or contact us today to schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation with one of our therapists.

Why you don't want a "neutral third party" to help your relationship

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“We need a neutral third party” Do you, though?

We talk to a lot of people. We talk to our clients, we talk to people looking for therapy, and in our personal lives, we talk to people about what we do as marriage counselors at Inland Empire Couples Counseling. Every so often someone will say something like “we need a neutral third party to help us with our problems” or “I bet it’s hard to be a neutral third party when working with couples.” 

Getting a truly neutral third party would be like asking a stranger at the mall or grocery store to weigh in on your relationship problems, someone completely uninvested in your relationship or the outcome. 

We’re not neutral!

Our marriage counselors are pro-you! We care about what happens to you. We are invested in your happiness and success. We are not neutral. 

We’re not referees

The idea of having a neutral third party to fix your relationship presumes that all that’s needed is for someone to say definitively who is right and who is wrong. The thinking goes something like this, “If I could just have someone tell my spouse that I’m right, they will see things my way and change.” If the solution were that simple, you would have fixed your problems already. Certainly you’ve both been trying to tell each other why you’re each right, and it’s not enough. 

Sometimes a frustrated person will describe how awful their partner is, and then say to us “Don’t you agree?” While it might feel great to have that ‘neutral’ person side with you and agree that you’re right and your partner is the worst; it’s not usually what’s best for your relationship. The reality is most often that you’re both right and both wrong and that very little of that matters. What matters is that you love each other, you miss feeling connected to each other, you want to be in a relationship that works for both of you.

We are professional relationship experts

The couples therapists at Inland Empire Couples Counseling are not neutral; and we’re not referees. We are experienced, licensed professionals who specialize in relationship issues and relationship health. 

Marriage counseling is so much more than “you’re right, and you’re wrong.” It’s understanding who you are as individuals, what your goals and dreams are as a couple, and where you’re getting stuck. We get into the messy details with you and help you sort it out. We will help you create strategies that work for you and get you connected to other helping professionals when needed. We create a plan for success that’s just for you, not what generally works for some people, but something that really meets your needs.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

As awesome as all this expert help sounds, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Many people hold on to the irrational hope that if our partner can see things from our point of view, they will change and everything will be fine. You may have been desperately trying to get your partner to wake up, to see how bad you’re hurting or how lonely you are and to change. The early work of couples therapy frequently involves helping you and your partner understand each other. And then, it’s not uncommon for couples to experience a drop in motivation, for some discouragement to set in. You realize, through experience, that understanding alone isn’t enough to help you feel more connected and more in love.

When your partner really sees how hurt you’ve been and how lonely you are and tries to change to meet your needs, you have some hard work to do too. You have to accept the changes. You might have some grief or forgiveness work to do. You might have some resentment to let go of. This is much harder than most people expect. And you might also have to hear things about yourself that are hard to hear. You will probably see how you’ve been contributing to your relationship problems or be presented with work you have to do to make solutions happen. Relationship work is hard!

We’re here for you

We don’t want to discourage you; we want to be realistic. Working on your relationship is hard and it’s also so rewarding! If you’re ready to take those first brave steps toward having the relationship you always wanted, contact us today. We can give you so much more than a “neutral third party”!

Why we love when our clients graduate therapy

We love it when couples or individuals we’ve been working with finish therapy. Sometimes it’s a bittersweet experience. We’ve invested a lot into your relationship and your progress. We’ve seen you through some ups and downs and have no guarantee that we’ll see you again or get to know what happens in your future.

How far you’ve come

At the final session (at least when we know it’s the final session, sometimes people just stop coming to their appointments but that’s a story for another day), we reflect on where you were when you started therapy and how things have changed since then. Sometimes when you’re living your own life day-to-day, you don’t realize how much has changed. 

We review the goals we set for our work together. If it’s a final session, we’ve likely accomplished the goals and sometimes more. And this is something to celebrate! As therapists, it is so fun for us to see the amazement in people’s eyes when they realize things really have gotten better. 

How hard you worked

Next we talk about what happened that made the amazing changes you’ve seen and helped you reach your goals. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s you. It’s always you that makes the changes and does the hard work. There’s nothing magical about being in therapy. Therapists aren’t mythical creatures, where simply being in our presence makes your dreams come true. 

Always, always, always when we talk with our clients about how the changes in your lives and relationships happened, it was you that made the changes. These amazing results happened because you worked hard, you changed, you apologized, you forgave, you fought for what you wanted. It’s your commitment, love, and dedication to each other that pulls you through. Therapists can’t do that for you; we support you, coach you, help you identify and overcome road-blocks, but it’s your work that makes the difference.

At this stage, we love seeing our clients’ proud smiles as you realize how hard you’ve worked. We love witnessing couples look into each others’ eyes with gratitude and love for the sacrifices and dedication you’ve put into your relationship. We often see you reach for each other, squeeze hands, or scoot closer on the couch. 

More work

What? More work? Yes! You don’t get to just ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. That’s a fantasy. Graduating from therapy doesn’t mean that your life or relationship problems are solved forever. You’ve done some great work and built some awesome momentum up to this point. We don’t want you to backslide. Part of how we help ensure your continued success is to help you identify new goals for the future. What are the next 6 months of your life going to look like? What are the red flags you should watch out for? We’ll help you make a plan for how to handle it when you fall back into old patterns. We want you to finish on a high and keep going. Finishing therapy is launching further growth, not a time to relax back into old ways.

We’re always here for you

We know you’ve come to rely on the support of your therapist. We understand. And we also know that, as much as we like you, keeping you in therapy forever isn’t going to be good for you. We honor and respect the trust you’ve put in us. If a few weeks, months, or even years in the future you need to come back for a booster session, we’ll be here for you. After successful graduation from therapy, sometimes just one session is enough to get you back on track when you slip. Or maybe you face something new and would like to schedule a group of weekly session to deal with the challenges you’re facing. As long as we’re in business, we’ll be here for you and will do our best to find time for you in our schedules even if we’re “full.” 

Why are you talking about ending therapy? We haven’t even started!

Most people browse around our website before starting therapy, so why are we talking about ending it? We want you to have a vision of what’s possible. We’ve celebrated with couples graduating therapy who were so discouraged at the start of therapy that they were afraid to even dream that they’d work out. We’ve seen people at the final session making retirement plans together who started out living separately with divorce papers ready to file. And we’ve seen other couples end therapy with a decision to dissolve their relationship, sad but with the peace of knowing they each did all they could and that this decision is what’s best. 

If you read any of the above and felt a little tickling of hope, maybe it’s time to start couples counseling. If you read the description of a final session and felt a little jealous, wishing you could sit with your spouse, snuggling close, feeling full of love, and celebrating your hard work together, give us a call today. We’ll explore whether working together is the right fit for you and get you started on your journey.

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: Book Review

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: Book Review

This book looks at the long-term effects of having emotionally immature or distant parents. The book is just under 200 pages. At first glance I thought it'd be a quick read. Though the information was easy to understand, I found myself re-reading paragraphs or stopping to think about and process the concepts discussed. It's not long, but it is concise and packed with information.

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