If you’re in a committed relationship, you might wonder from time to time why you can’t get through to your partner or why you struggle so much to get on the same page. I should say, like most everything in life, there is not a perfect algorithm to resolve this challenge. However, in a couples counseling setting, I often observe a common tendency– the failure to consider emotional context.

It might help to discuss what I mean by “emotional context.” In basic terms, I’m referring to how you AND your partner feel. Emotions can be like one of those photo filters on Snap Chat or Instagram. They have a tendency to distort reality, sometimes making things seem much better or worse than what they actually are.

The problem is if we are not in a mindset conducive to dealing with reality, then we probably aren’t dealing with reality. And if we aren’t dealing with reality when attempting to solve complicated relationship problems, then our problem solving won’t be very effective.

So here is a general rule of thumb. When possible, work through and de-escalate emotions first. This may take 30 minutes, a few days, weeks, or longer depending on the severity of the emotions involved. The key is to remove the filter of emotion as much as reasonably possible before engaging in the problem-solving process.

Now, you might say, “but dealing with feelings isn’t my strong suit.” Or, “dealing with feelings isn’t [insert partner’s name]’s strong suit.” I understand that. The good news is that people can get better at this skill set. I see it happen all the time in session. You may not be a believer now, but you can and will get there if you’re willing to do the work.

I should note that this may take professional help, so consider seeking couples counseling if needed. The job of a couples therapist is to be an advocate for the conversation, not to pick sides. But if you are looking for a place to start, here are a few strategies:

  1. Distinguish between emotion-focused and solution-focused discussions: It’s helpful to clearly define the goal of communication. Are we processing emotions? Or are we problem solving? Some people can walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s harder than it sounds. If the goal isn’t clear, premature problem solving can come across as dismissive of feelings, while emotional expression can come across as self-centered. This disconnect will lead to bigger blow ups. So ask yourselves: what are we trying to accomplish here?
  2. If needed, tap out: This is one of the most effective strategies when learning to consider emotional context. Tapping out of a conversation when emotions get too heightened can break maladaptive communication patterns. It also can improve self-discipline and the ability to observe emotional cues in oneself and others. Tapping out works best if it is coupled with a statement of commitment to resume the conversation when BOTH partners are ready. In fact, this extra step helps prevent avoidance and power imbalances.
  3. Reflective listening: So you say you’re listening, but how does your partner know that? Facial expressions and head nods can be faked, but accurate verbal reflections of your partner’s statements cannot. Reflective listening is more than just regurgitating what has been said, and to be effective, it must be done without engaging in “straw man” arguments (making your partner’s point of view seem as weak as possible). The key is to summarize your partner’s feelings in your own words and when you’re finished, calmly ask, “did I get that right or did I miss something?” This is not easy to do, but it will force your mind into a state of understanding rather than a state of competition or debate.

Difficult feelings and problems in relationships are not going anywhere. They are inherent to being with someone that is different from yourself, which is everyone. That said, the strategies above have the potential to be a game changer for your relationship, leading to more fulfilling emotional experiences and more effective problem solving with your partner. Yes, it will take practice, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Appreciating Moments

I was watching a Royals game recently and thought to myself, “This is nice. I love baseball.” Such a simple thing, yet totally worth my conscious appreciation. By acknowledging the moment in this way, I felt a bit more connected, as if I was wrapping my arms around the experience.

Perhaps it sounds trite, but I live for moments like this. Yeah, yeah, many things are more important than baseball, but that’s precisely the mentality that keeps us from embracing moments of joy.

I think many of us are married to stress. After all, it’s connected to our productivity, our alertness as a parent, our ability to form intelligent opinions, our motivation to exercise and/or eat healthy, our compulsive urges to “get ahead” and “to stay on top of everything”– the list could go on and on.

For those reasons, stress might deserve our thanks. So thank you, stress. Perhaps we can be friends, but I don’t want to marry you.

Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in our analytical minds. This is what allows us to solve problems. It’s good to solve problems. The shot of dopamine once the task is complete is energizing, keeping us coming back for more. But, if we aren’t careful, this can lead us to an all work, no play life. What’s that line in the The Shining? “All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I agree.

I had a drama history teacher back in college who made a great point. He said that most of our schooling is geared around developing skills associated with critical thinking, while the skill of appreciation goes to the wayside. I think he hit the nail on the head. To learn how to appreciate a piece of art, or even just a simple and sweet moment, are lessons we often don’t get enough of. That’s a real shame.

Let’s change that, and do life a little different. How about today? How about right now? Literally, take some time to smell the roses. Move away from your analytical mind. Punctuate the moment by consciously acknowledging your appreciation. Turn off the news. Watch a baseball game.

Small moments of appreciation can get us through the day. They can lift our spirits when we are down. Sure, this alone is not a psychological cure-all. But appreciation can make our lives a little bit better, a little more tolerable, and, who knows, maybe a little more joyous too.

At minimum, we owe it to ourselves to appreciate the little gifts of life wherever we may find them.

When it comes to race, people seem to want two things: honest conversations and real solutions. Yet the best I can tell, our society is struggling with both. It makes sense though. The quality of our solutions depend on the quality of our conversations, and since we’ve been having bad conversations, we’ve come up with bad solutions.

Yes! People want action now. This isn’t just an intellectual exercise. The stability of our society is at stake. But if we botch the honest conversations piece (again), we will botch the real solutions piece (again). So, here is my basic diagnosis of the problem: we really, really struggle with disagreements, which results in scolding, labeling, ganging up on, threats, violence, belligerence, “defriending,” “unfollowing,” stalemates, and just poor decision making in general.

From what I’ve observed, the dominant personalities tend to jump right in. The conversation gets out of hand rather quickly, and then productivity gets lost. After several failed attempts, many people begin to think, “Screw it, I’ll just stay quiet. It aint worth it.” This happens all the time– not just with race, but many controversial subjects. The outcome ends up being that the most important and meaningful conversations either become one-sided or, even worse, get thrown out altogether. No wonder why so many people would rather talk about the damn weather.

Here’s my two cents on how to fix this problem. If we are going to talk about race issues honestly, we need to agree on how honest, uncomfortable material and disagreements will be handled. Are we allowing name-calling, yelling, punches? Or can we lead with the assumption that “maybe there is more for me to learn?” We need to figure that out first, so we have an idea of what the consequences will be for our honesty. In other words, start with a conversation about conversation. Agree on some rules, then engage. It will make a substantial difference.

Again, I know people are desperate for solutions, and some may roll their eyes at what I’ve suggested. But I wholeheartedly believe we’ve skipped this necessary step for too long, and we can’t afford to make the same mistake again. We must get it right this time.

Simply feeling good is not mental health. Yet when normal aspects of the human condition are over-pathologized, it’s easy to see how one could think that is the case. Afterall any level of anxiety and/or depression is increasingly considered a “mental disorder,” when they are often expected and appropriate symptoms of adjustment, setback, novelty, learning, resolving conflict, and other general life challenges. As a result, the line between basic human struggle and genuine human misery has been blurred.

To make matters worse, we live in a culture where there is endless promotion of the “fun life.” We only need a quick browse through our social media platforms to find supporting evidence of this quite obvious claim. We’ll find photos upon photos and videos upon videos of people seemingly living in a state of perpetual joy. This, combined with a constant doom and gloom perspective from the news media, can lead to a joy/misery, either/or paradigm of interpreting our experience. In my view, this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of human psychology.

It’s normal to look at such superficial representations of others on Instagram or Facebook and ask, “why don’t I feel like that all the time too?” The answer: because no one feels like that all the time. Now it may not always be fake joy, but it certainly is an incomplete model of mental health. In my studies and practice as a professional counselor, I have come to understand mental health more so in terms of how one functions, opposed to how one feels (disclaimer: not saying feelings don’t matter).

It is impossible to extract unpleasantness from the human condition, so attempts to consistently avoid or eliminate unpleasant feelings is to deny a basic element of our existence and ultimately set us up for failure. Therefore, it is imperative to realize, in reasonable amounts, unpleasantness and discomfort (which are too often mistaken for clinical depression and anxiety) are actually the building blocks of personal growth.

In fact, turning towards, not away from, struggle is an essential pillar of mental health and adaptive functioning. Frequently clients come in to see me for what they believe is a problem with how they feel. However, over the course of several sessions, the common finding is that it is not the feeling that it is the problem, but rather, it is a struggle that they are not yet equipped to turn towards and effectively manage. So the goal becomes to address that, while learning to see the “negative” feeling as a biproduct of a properly functioning internal alert system misinterpreted as pathology.

Let me be clear. Of course there are such things as chemical imbalances and mental disorders, but at the same time, we should be careful not to jump to those conclusions when assessing psychological symptoms. Because if we remain sloppy, we potentially reinforce the idea that one has attained mental health only when they are completely happy and comfortable. If that’s the case, the treatment model will always be to just take more pills, instead of also improving one’s functioning in the face of life’s challenges.

So many questions. So few answers. The theme of the day.

It helps to ask ourselves meaningful questions that we can actually answer, though. It can give us a sense of direction and reduce our anxiety, which is such a wonderful thing, especially in times like this. So let’s do some pondering.

Before we start, I ask that you read each question slowly. Take your time. This is less like high intensity interval training and more like yoga. Hold each question in awareness.  

What is it that you want? What is important to you? Is it different now compared to just a month ago?

Obviously, the world has changed. But have you changed too? How so?

What’s one thing you can do to get closer to what you value most? Make a phone call? Be more patient with your spouse, children, or roommate? Adjust the blinds to let some light in? What about reading a good book? Pray, meditate, take a walk? I don’t know, just some ideas.

Do you really see yourself as a part of nature? Or separate from nature? Is this a practical question? Or is it just hippy talk?

How are your family and friends doing? Are they well? You sure?

To parents, do you ever take a moment and pat yourself on the back? Do you give yourself the permission to be imperfect?

To kids, what is it like not being able to play with your friends or go to school? That has to be tough. But hey, have you gone outside recently? The weather is starting to get nice again.

To couples, so you’re spending A LOT of time together, right? Have you learned something new about each other? How are you satisfying your need for “me time?”

To those who live alone, how are you using all this extra time at home? Any new hobbies? How are you maintaining relationships?

To all, who do you want to be when this is over?

If we use this time to get a little bit better, we’ll look back on it with a sense of pride. If we don’t, we’ll kick ourselves. We have a choice. What will you decide?