Counseling

Kindness in Our Marriage

I am excited to introduce everyone to Waymon and his wife Charla. Waymon is a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist, a researcher, and an advocate in matters related to social justice. I recently asked Waymon to contribute some thoughts about how kindness impacts the marriage relationship from the perspective of a marriage and family therapist. Waymon blew me away when he and his wife Charla decided to go even further and authentically share how kindness has impacted their own marriage of 47 years. Thank you, Waymon and Charla, for your generous contribution and the gift of your transparency:

Kindness in Our MarriageBy Charla and Waymon Hinson

Kindness in marriage? What is it? How does it get shown? We have wondered about these questions and have enjoyed the discussion and hopefully our marriage will be stronger as a result. Since the earliest of days of our marriage, we have been a highly ritualized couple. We have been intentional about these matters. From the earliest days of our 47 years of marriage to each other, we have created rituals, or patterns, around daily events as well as celebrations that signify to each other that those things matter and that we within the circle of those behaviors matter uniquely to each other.

For me, Waymon, as a theologian, I want to make sense out of relational matters within a framework that fits us both.  That, for me, is related to Shalom (peace). In the garden there was Shalom between the first woman, man, and their God, and within their world as it was created. Once selfishness came in, the opposite of kindness, things got crazy, and here we are.  So, in our day to day lives, I think, we attempt to create Shalom in small ways each day.

Kindness in our marriageA second idea comes from the biblical text in Ephesians 5: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The words for submission and love, both inferred and made explicit in this lengthy text, can be defined as “being lovingly response to the needs of the other person unconditionally.”  If that is the case, kindness, generosity, love, and loving responses can guide the day and its decisions, in the big things and the smaller things. Sometimes, as we all know, the little things are really the big things. Kindness and love mean taking that first step together.

For me, Charla, I do not give a lot of thought to the theology of things like that. That’s the way he thinks, but not me.  I just want to do well before my Lord and Savior. If God is pleased with things, then so am I.

In our early days now of “retirement,” those patterns with their meaning for us continue with an extra sweetness. While our human frailties certainly come out way too often, generosity of heart and spirit also come out. For us, kindness involves giving each other the freedom to do that which is uniquely our calling.  For us, kindness also involves the reconnection of ourselves at specific planned and random times during the day.  For instance, Charla graces me, Waymon, with time in the morning for reflection, reading, writing, and other creative things.  Words are not exchanged until breakfast time.  Then, we share in the morning meal and ritual. Thankfully, I, Charla, cook, because he is not very good at that. Also, with gratitude, I know that he will make our coffee because he is good at that, and then we’ll pray, eat, read the newspaper, plan the day, and read a section from a spiritually oriented book. That is not Waymon’s choice, but because of his kindness, we do it.

The whole love languages conversation fits here, it seems to us.  Each of us has a preferred way of receiving love. I, Charla, am very action oriented, so a way he shows kindness to me is doing action-oriented things that show his love for me, or that “acts of service” thing.  A kind thing for him to do is to vacuum the floors or take out the trash without being asked. Since words of affirmation are also important to me, using affirming language in meaningful ways, saying words of gratitude, for instance, is another way of showing kindness to me. Words of affirmation after a time with our youngest grandson or after a well-planned out meal are important to me.

Since Waymon’s love language is also about words of affirmation, I, Charla, know to encourage his advocacy efforts or his writing efforts with words of encouragement, and there is another kindness done.  Another of his love languages is time together, so, I know that watching ball games with him or sitting and drinking coffee Saturday mornings is a kindness that I give to him.

These are just a couple of slices in time for us.  We believe that kindness and generosity are interwoven with what we say, do, think, and feel toward each other. Each other with God as our witness is the focus of kind actions, thoughts, and emotions.

Kindness in our marriageOut of kindness, generosity, and mutual respect, we develop a spirit of “us” that guides our decisions and behaviors. “Us-ness” is critically important to us, and with a spirit of kindness and generosity, we are very careful to do those things that encourages that spirit of “us.” Thanks to Terry Hargrave for coaching us on this point.  Kindness says that Waymon likes baseball, so “us” likes baseball. Kindness says that Charla likes fixer upper shows, and so the “us” in the relationship likes those things. Individually we might not like baseball or HGTV, but the “us” in our relationship really likes baseball and HGTV. Kindness also encourages the other to see personal goals and ambitions that only serve to make better the couple relationship. Waymon has his friends and interests.  Charla has her friends and interests.  At the end of the day, we always come together, back to where we started.

This has been a curious exercise for both of us as we have discussed and looked into our marriage and how kindness is a part of who we are and what we do.

Join Our Kindness Community:

Last week, marriage and family therapist, Diana Walla graciously contributed a guest post, The Gift of Uncertainty.

We can all share great ideas about building more positivity into our society. Join the conversation on our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.

3rd Annual Houston Compassion Week

Houston Compassion Week

The city of Houston is celebrating it’s 3rd Annual Compassion Week April 22-29th. For more information on festivities, workshops, and service projects, click at Compassionate Houston Website.

As a part of the celebration, Shannon McClain and I are teaching our workshop on Self-Compassion at the Healing Space. We would love for you to join us. Be sure to RSVP. Space is limited. (713) 520-6800, healingspacehouston@gmail.com.

  • Date: May 11
  • Time: 6:30-8:00

self-compassion healing space

 

The Gift of Uncertainty

I am thrilled to have another contribution as part of the conversation going on in the Kindness Community, A Word Imagined, from Diana Walla, a seasoned marriage and family therapist, recently relocated in Austin, Texas. She discusses the opportunity for us to look for the potential gifts in disorienting experiences. She explores the opportunity to sift through the struggle to learn what is most important and meaningful both individually and collectively. Thank you, Diana, for your hopeful insights:

The Gift of Uncertainty

By Diana Walla MS, LPC, LMFT

We live in uncertain times. Long-held traditions and definitions of decency are under attack from all sides. Families and friends are divided along political and religious lines, and we seem to have forgotten our way back to one another.

It is uncomfortable, to be sure. We humans would like life to be served up in predictable nuggets, thank you very much. The unprecedented uncertainty of these times keeps us awake at night, creates anxiety, and encourages us to circle the wagons and protect everything we can from everything and everyone we fear, whether that fear is based in reality, or is just a product of incorrect information that leapfrogs across the internet and onto our social media feeds.

The truth is, our attempts at protection during this uncertain, messy time might just rob us of the opportunity to be our best selves. Throughout history, spiritual mothers and fathers of major faith traditions have observed the potential for personal or spiritual growth in dark or uncertain times. It far outstrips the level of growth that occurs when times are good or smooth.

Theologian, author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor sums it up:

“We are all so busy constructing zones of safety that keep breaking down, that we hardly notice where all the suffering is coming from. We keep thinking that the problem is out there, in the things that scare us: dark nights, dark thoughts, dark guests, dark emotions. If we could just defend ourselves better against those things, we think, then surely we would feel more solid and secure. But of course we are wrong about that, as experience proves again and again. The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there. The suffering comes from our own reluctance to learn to walk in the dark.” ~From Learning to Walk in the Dark

As difficult as it is, we have an opportunity to look not to the “other” in fear, but within ourselves in courage and curiosity. We could wonder what opportunities will present themselves, opportunities for our own growth. Would we ask for this tough time? Surely that would be masochistic. But since it is upon us, we can look for the chance to grow, to push beyond what is comfortable, to reach out to others, to create peace and show mercy and kindness.

As cliché as it sounds, these are the times in life that define us, individually and as a culture. It is time to dig deep, to practice mercy, which writer Anne Lamott defines as “radical kindness.” Kindness shown in difficult times packs a powerful effect. Love that reaches beyond fear is muscular and strong. People do not forget what others do for them, especially when the kindness comes at some cost. Perhaps that cost is a stepping beyond what is most comfortable, a willingness to find the gifts of personal and spiritual growth seeded in these strange and uncertain days.

Join Our Kindness Community:

Last week, Dr. Jeff Christian graciously contributed a guest post, The New Dinner Table.

We can all share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join the conversation on our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.

 

Self-Compassion Fuels Kindness

I am excited to do something a little different this week. Kim Fredrickson, counselor and author of the book, Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend, graciously contributed a guest post as part of the conversation going on in the Kindness Community, A Word Imagined. Her message is both inspirational and healing for me personally and to many throughout the world. Thank you, Kim, for blessing us with your generous contribution:

Healing Power of Kindness

By Kim Fredrickson, MFT

I’m so blessed to offer words of compassion and kindness today. Our world desperately needs the healing power of kindness. We need kindness when we are hurt, and we need kindness when we are the ones doing the hurting.

But how do we muster kindness for others from within? How do we speak words of compassion to others when our own inner critic speaks so loudly about our own mistakes and faults? That is the question…

The well of kindness we want to give others starts with a more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

A Compassionate Friend

Healing Power of KindnessBeing a compassionate friend to ourselves helps us become better friends, spouses, parents, bosses and co-workers. We have more love and energy to give others when we are in a more settled place inside and aren’t wasting time and energy fighting with our inner critic.

But wait! Isn’t this just being selfish and self-centered? The answer is a resounding “No.” Jesus knew we’d have trouble figuring this out, so He explained it here:

Mark 12:28–31 says: One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”  

Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest and He gave them two commandments encompassed by one principle: Love.

Love God with everything in you. Love your neighbor, and use your model for loving them as the way you love yourself.

Wait! What? Our model for loving others is how we love ourselves? Uh oh! Wait…I’m judgmental toward myself for lots of things! Exactly.

Wanting to be kind toward others is good, very good. We can even sustain this effort for a while if we try really hard.

A Changed Heart

Kindness heartTo live a life of kindness requires a changed heart.

We need God’s love to permeate our heart, mind and soul. We need His love and kindness to fill us in order to share with others. But, His love for us alone isn’t enough. That is what He’s talking about in Mark 12 – Love is a three-part deal…love God, love yourself and love others. Unless we also learn to love ourselves and be compassionate with ourselves, our inner critic will sabotage our heartfelt efforts to be kind to others. The ways we are critical of ourselves will spill onto others. Without meaning to, we will judge others harshly for the things we’ve never forgiven ourselves for.

We cannot live a life of kindness, if we do not have kindness and compassion for ourselves. Until we face our own brokenness with compassion and forgiveness, we cannot truly love others in the ways we want for the long haul.

We want to be changed people, instruments of healing and love to this very broken world. We want to do this as a lifestyle, and pass it on to our children, friends, family and community for generations to come.

To live a life of kindness requires a changed heart.

Practicing self-compassion changes our heart. As I treat myself with the care and compassion I would give a good friend who is struggling, I have more love to give others.

Improve Well-being and Relationships

Many studies link the practice of self-compassion to an increase in emotional resiliency, self-worth and contentment; reduced stress and healthier relationships. We become better friends, spouses, parents, bosses, co-workers, etc. We handle disappointments more smoothly and understand our own humanness, which helps us handle the humanness of those around us.

Just as I am an imperfect person, with great worth and value, so are those around me. The internal transformation of accepting God’s love for us and then extending it to ourselves, sets the stage for the sharing of that love and kindness with others.

Don’t worry if you haven’t got a clue how to turn your inner critic into a compassionate friend. You can learn, and your heart, family, community and world will never be the same.

Join Us

We can all share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join the conversation on our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.

A Word Imagined

A Word Imaginedby Jennifer Christian, LPC and Dr. Jeff M. Christian

Words of hate tear at the fabric of our society; words of kindness mend.

Imagine.

Imagine life without unkind words. Imagine comments sections on your favorite website that only allow constructive criticism, words meant to further the conversation rather than out-shout those who disagree.

Today, online words of hate, abuse, fear, and violence are rampant. The intensity of negativity overwhelms us, a tsunami of words altering our lives without us realizing their enormous power. This new world often feels devoid of kindness. Few of us would choose to pass on this world to the next generations, so we begin this project in the hopes that we can change the future by changing the present.

We have power to create a better world.

Imagine.

Imagine a world that offers encouragement. Imagine a world where people matter. Too often, though, we feel helpless in even thinking about making a change. Where should we begin?

Well, we have some ideas.

Start with some simple things. Appreciation and gratitude, for instance, are powerful tools that can help rebuild this world. Every word of kindness heals, builds resilience, and draws people together.
A Word ImaginedJohn Gottman found that it takes five positive interactions to overcome one negative interaction. Relationships find balance when positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. At times we will misunderstand each other and say the wrong things. We are human, after all. However, for the health of all our relationships, we have the power to create better worlds for ourselves, as well as all of those around us. Our hope that we can do this together is reminiscent of John Lennon’s line, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

 So let’s imagine a better world. One word of kindness can create ripples of healing across our society. If we come together to dedicate building reserves of gratitude in our families, places of work, and all other communities, we can change the tide of negativity.

Here are some other practical suggestions to get us started:

  1. Get creative. We can share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.
  1. Remember the magic ratio of 5-to-1. Each week send five notes of encouragement, whether online or handwritten.
  1. Practice gratitude at home as a family. “Researchers found that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.” (Susan Heitler)
  1. Notice the words you say to yourself. Learn how to offer yourself words of kindness and compassion: “Life can be rough without the comfort, balance and guidance of a self-compassionate friend on the inside. Lack of self-compassion affects our relationships and our well being in profoundly negative ways. What a difference it makes to go through life with a kind friend on the inside rather than an internal critic or bully!” (Kim Fredrickson)

Please take a moment to share this article and this project with friends and family. Together, we can create the world we imagine.

For Further Reading:

On appreciation and gratitude:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/mental-health/7-powerful-ways-gratitude-will-change-your-life/

On John Gottman’s five interactions:

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-positive-perspective-dr-gottmans-magic-ratio/

On practicing gratitude at home as a family:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/relationships/four-ways-to-build-trust-with-your-partner/?preview_id=538&preview_nonce=b7d0d3d768&post_format=standard&_thumbnail_id=542&preview=true

On Susan Heitler’s work on gratitude in marriage:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201207/does-gratitude-matter-in-marriage

On Kim Fredrickson’s work on self-compassion:

http://www.jenniferchristiancounseling.com/counseling/self-compassion-is-vital-for-a-healthy-life/

Gratitude Is Healing

GratitudeWith Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it would be a nice time to focus on the healing benefits of a gratitude practice. I experienced an impact when my husband and I decided to start an active gratitude practice about five years ago. Over time we noticed subtle changes in our home, stress levels, and marriage. Recently, I spoke to a group about the benefits of gratitude in a marriage relationship. My teenage son happened to be in attendance. During the comments time he told the group about the positive difference he noticed in our family. He said he could tell a difference in the way my husband and I related to one another. It was incredible to hear our son share his own experience of our decision to practice gratitude as a couple.

Gratitude Nourishes the Brain

An active gratitude practice has the power to change the way we think and feel. According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we choose to place our focus has the power to shape our brains.

“If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.” (Hanson, 2013)

Gratitude Builds Resilience to Stress

Over the past few months I paired my gratitude practice with an app called the Heartmath Inner Balance Trainer. The Inner Balance Trainer has a heart rate monitor that works with a smart phone or tablet to guides your breath while it monitors your heart rate. As you breathe, you bring to mind gratitude and thoughts of compassion. The science of Heartmath has shown a powerful correlation to our heart rhythm pattern and our emotions:

“When we experience uplifting emotions such as gratitude, joy, compassion, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave. It’s no wonder that positive emotions feel so good – they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work better.

Gratitude

During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes – actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.” (www.heartmath.com/innerbalance/)

Gratitude Over the Holidays

The holidays add stress to our normal daily routines. In my last blog post, I discussed how “turning down the thermometer” on stress can create balance, especially since practicing gratitude has proven to reduce stress. The article “Seven Powerful Ways Gratitude Can Change Your Life” shows multiple ways this practice can enhance your health and your relationships.

I wish you and your families a grateful Thanksgiving. Thank you for your continued encouragement and support of Jennifer Christian Counseling. I am deeply thankful.

Hanson, Rick, Ph.D. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Creating Balance to Deal with Stress

Stressed
Photo by Mike Wilson

I hear more and more people talking about stress. Increased feelings of stress. I hear it on Facebook, emails from friends and family, even in everyday conversations. I spoke recently on the topic of self-compassion and stress-management at a major corporation in Houston. After I finished, I was amazed at the number of women that came to talk with me about their own struggle with stress and anxiety. The number of personal stories validated the stress in our society and the feeling of being overwhelmed as we attempt to manage too many expectations.

Most people experience an abundance of stress. The election and approaching holidays add an extra layer of stress and worry. The stressors are not going away, but we can use helpful tools to take extra care of our relationships and ourselves. 

3 Types of Stress

Stressed
Photo by Elijah Henderson

Before we talk about balancing stress, it is helpful to understand how stress functions in our daily life. In simple terms, we face three types of stress: balanced, acute, and chronic. Whenever I talk about types of stress, I like to use the example of a zebra.

  • Balanced Stress: When a zebra is lion-free, he is in a balanced state. A balanced state is the ability to relax and also be ready for threat when stress is present. The zebra can relax, eat juicy nutrient grass, enjoy his zebra companions, and play with his zebra kids and wife. Balanced stress is like getting the temperature just right on a thermostat.
  • Acute Stress: When a zebra senses a nearby lion, everything centers on the threat of the lion. Stress chemicals and hormones release to focus all energy toward reacting to the lion. All internal systems shut down to focus energy on escape. The zebra will not sleep, digest, enjoy intimacy, or relax until the threat has been averted. When the lion leaves, the zebra’s body readjusts to a normal, balanced state. Eating, intimacy, relaxation, and play resume.
  • Chronic Stress: In the zebra world, chronic stress does not exist. Chronic stress would be similar to the experience of a lion stalking the zebra 24-7. This chronic stress negatively impacts the zebra’s digestive system, sleep, intimacy, and leads to chronic fatigue. Imagine driving a car continuously even when the temperature gauge shows the car overheating. Keep driving, and the car will break down.
Stressed
Photo by Corentin Marzin

What does a zebra have to do with me?

The human body’s threat system is much like a zebra’s threat system, except for some important factors that maintain chronic stress and make it difficult to rebalance:

  • The stressors at work, home, and in our society do not go away.
  • We have the ability to replay past mistakes or rehearse worry about future threats.
  • We can be harsh with ourselves in our own minds. Some of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. Negative self-talk is like having a lion in our heads 24-7.

How does chronic stress impact our bodies?

When we are in a state of constant stress, our bodies continually stay in threat mode. Like the zebra, all of our internal systems are diverted to face the threat. We keep driving our bodies even though the temperature gauge is redlining. Unaddressed chronic stress impacts our digestive system, our ability to sleep, intimacy, our ability to think clearly, as well as our joy in daily life.

Adjust the thermostat

Stressed
Photo by Alexa Wirth

The first step in compassionate stress management is to take a moment to notice. Where is my internal temperature gauge right now?

  • Exhausted
  • Issues with digestion
  • Anxious
  • Loneliness
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Sleep difficulties

We can feel so rushed that we may not notice what is happening in our own bodies. Can we give ourselves permission to pause at least a couple of times during the day and check in? Allowing ourselves to notice may be challenging. The stressors can seem too big. For instance, what if I feel torn between my work and my responsibilities at home? What if my marriage is struggling? These issues take time to explore. Reaching out to a counselor can offer much needed support to take a close look at some tough areas. The counseling process organically creates options for moving forward and reducing stress.

The second step is to respond with care. What do I need? Explore different tools and see what brings some needed stress relief.

Resources for Stress Relief:

Help! My Phone Is Impacting My Relationships!

If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?

Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.

What are interactional patterns in relationships?

An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.

What is a bid?

“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)

What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?

According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:

Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?

Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?

Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)

relationships with smartphonesThe fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.

Smartphone Interference 

Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life.  However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.  

The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence: 

  • Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting. 
  • IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
  • Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)

How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?

Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.

I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:

  • Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
  • Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
  • Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
  • Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
  • One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.

A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:

Discussion Points:

  • What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
  • Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
  • What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
  • Do you exchange passwords or not?
  • Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
  • When is it okay to be anonymous online?
  • What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
  • What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
  • What are the rules for the car?
  • When is it okay to post photos of your children?
  • How much checking on each other is okay?

Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.

Managing Anger In Relationships

I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.

“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)

But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.

Seek to Understand

The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.

Learn to Cool Off

Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.

Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.

Boundaries that Protect

Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.

  • No hitting
  • No cursing
  • No name-calling
  • No yelling
  • No throwing
  • Stay focused on one issue at a time

Commit to Resolving Issues

It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.

A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.

In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.

Healing Practices Series: Gratitude

On Thursday, April 28th, we hope you will consider joining Jennifer Christian and Shannon McLain at The Healing Space, as they facilitate a class on the healing practice of Gratitude.

Practicing gratitude increases positive emotions, reduces risk of depression, heightens relationship satisfaction, and increases resilience in the face of stressful life events. But, gratitude doesn’t always come naturally.

Explore the benefits of a gratitude practice and learn ways to implement practice into your daily routine.

Space is limited, so be sure R.S.V.P. at healingspacehouston@gmail.com  or call (713) 520-6800

Gratitude