How Can I Help My Relationship Last?

How Can I Help My Relationship Last?


Reflections on 15 years of marriage…

 

Today is the anniversary of the best decision I’ve ever made. This sounds cheesy, perhaps, but it also happens to be true. Fifteen years ago, I married Meg, and it’s been a wild ride ever since. Depending on how you recount history, our story either started in grade 5 or when I was 16. I went to school with her twin sister when I was in grade 5, and I remember when she came into our class for the first time to deliver a message to her sister. Now, you have to understand, I was in no way, shape, or form smooth at that age (many would argue that never changed). But, I distinctly remember turning to my friend and saying, “Wow, she could come back more often.”

Fast forward to when I was sixteen and started working at a summer camp. I walked along the boardwalk and low and behold, there was a beautiful girl that I recognized. I walked up to her and asked her, “Do I know you from somewhere?” She, thinking I was feeding her a line, literally got up and ran away. Now, I’m not using the word “literally” in the new-school hipster way, I actually mean she literally got up, moved her feet at a rapid pace, and in the opposite direction. Great start to a relationship.

Needless to say, it took a few years of work to get her to stop running away and to actually consider that I might be marriageable material. But, when I was 20 and she was 21, I asked her to marry me and, as they say, the rest is history.

As I was trying to fall asleep last night, my mind kept circling the question, over and over, “How is it that our relationship has lasted, and gotten infinitely better over time?” See, it hasn’t been easy. We got married young, and in our first year of marriage we went kamikaze with school, work, and other activities and didn’t see each other a whole lot (I definitely do not recommend this approach…). We are quite different people in many ways, and we often don’t see things the same way. And now, we’re business partners full time. Our recipe for success isn’t so simple! I also realize that we’re still in our infancy in our relationship at 15 years in – my parents will be celebrating 48 years of marriage this year, something I aspire to. So, this article isn’t definitive, because we have a long way to go!

I can’t write nearly as much as I wish I could hear, so I’ll save some for a later article. Here are three things that have been helpful to me in our marriage, and I hope will be helpful to you in your relationships.

 

  1. If you know you’re wrong, admit it. If you know you’re right, shut up.

A very close family friend wrote this on the wedding card he gave us on our wedding day. I didn’t realize that this was a quote from Ogden Nash at the time, but it’s always stuck with me. Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good argument, and I’m pretty opinionated. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but if we’re arguing, I’m going to try to win the argument.

This is not a recipe for success in marriage. If it’s simply an intellectual argument it might be ok. If the argument is about something you’ve done wrong, arguing that you were right is not going to help things. Similarly, if you know you’re right it may not be your best course of action to beat this over the head of your partner. Chances are they know you’re right (even if they don’t want to admit it), and forcing the issue will just breed resentment.

 

  1. Accept influence from your partner.

This one does not come naturally to me, at all. I’m not even sure why because I often say, and I sincerely believe, that I married up. It would only make perfect sense for me to accept Meg’s influence as a matter of course, but for some reason, it’s still challenging for me. There’s still a little birdie on my shoulder that, when I’m under stress, tells me that accepting influence is admitting defeat. Let me assure you, it’s not.

Accepting influence from your partner means that we shift from a focus on me and instead, focus on we in the relationship. John and Julie Gottman refer to this as the we-ness of the relationship and it’s something they measure in their research i. If you’re a research geek like me, feel free to have a read of this article that highlights how John Gottman has shown that relationships are far more successful when men accept the influence of their partner. It’s important for women to do this too, but the research seems to show that most women are already pretty good at it.

 

  1. 69% of conflict in relationships is due to perpetual problems.

This fact can either be encouraging or be discouraging depending on how you look at it. This statistic comes from John Gottman’s research and it’s been replicated. Perpetual problems are the issues that come up in the relationship over and over again. These problems are due to fundamental personality differences or lifestyle needs and are not going to be solved. These problems simply need to be managed. The conflict stems from the idea that we can change these things, rather than accepting them and managing them.

Part of me finds this frustrating. My brain and my passion drive me toward creating positive change and my superhero complex leads me to believe I can solve all of life’s problems if given enough time. When I’m stuck in this mode, I get frustrated and wonder why, after 15 years, we stumble through the same issues and I haven’t figured out how to solve them yet.

My more reasonable, rational self-finds this encouraging. I find it encouraging that after 15 years of struggling with the same issues, we still have a great marriage. We haven’t given up. We haven’t grown resentful. Somehow, even though we can’t change it, we find a way through it together. Over, and over, and over again.

 

We’re not perfect, even after 15 years of working at it

 

I didn’t want this article to come across as Andrew’s guide to having the perfect marriage that he has with his wife, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. We’re not perfect, and we regularly screw it up. But when we do, we work hard at it.

Relationships are difficult. My marriage is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to work on, and I can say without reservation, that I’ve had more work to do on myself than my partner has. She’s better at this than I am, she’s more of a natural, and Gottman’s research seems to support this.

What their research also shows, however, is that if I continue to work on this, and continue to accept Meg’s influence, my doing so is one of the most powerful forces to effect positive change in our relationship – and that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 50 years, God willing.

 

I love you Meg. Thank you for working on this with me and teaching me every day.

 

[i] It’s ok to laugh at this. Every time I go to one of their training and they use this word, I laugh. Part of maturity is accepting that we laugh at immature things. Or something like that.

 

If you’re looking for some summer reading that will improve your relationships, check out this book by John Gottman. It’s a great primer for some of the principles that make relationships last!

Emotionally Focused Therapy with Diverse Couples

Emotionally Focused Therapy with Diverse Couples

With an increasingly multicultural society, it is becoming more important than ever for therapists to consider the impacts of these different cultural aspects on their clients4. Today’s couples are becoming more diverse in terms of culture, socioeconomic status, ability, ethnicity, and religion, just to name a few. This means that we as therapists to adjust our practice appropriately. In this blog, we’ll look at how therapists can support diverse couples in relationships from different religious or faith backgrounds in a therapeutic setting.

 

The Challenge

 

Interaction among different religious, cultural, and ethnic groups has been shown to be beneficial in platonic relationships when the interactions are “amicable, positive, and voluntary”, but romantic relationships may present a greater challenge. Separately, marriage has been shown to positively correlate with physical and psychological health and religion has proven to be a protective factor for many; together, marriage and religion can spur additional external stressors. Differences in religion can often mean differences in culture, tradition, and ethnicity, which has the potential to create additional stress on the relationship. These external stressors often come in the form of extended family, or society as a whole, when traditions appear altered or compromised. Research has shown that these factors can have a detrimental impact on the psychological well-being of couples with different religious backgrounds.

There are particular factors within religiously diverse couples that can tip the scales in either a more positive, or more challenging direction. First, couples vary on how strongly they use religion to define a relationship. Religion may enforce particular “rules” to determine how interpersonal or family challenges are addressed, such as sexuality, parenting, or power. Second, religiosity exists on a spectrum, so factors such as religious practice, involvement, activity, and belief intensity all contribute to potential stress in a relationship; both individuals in a relationship can even be of the same religion and differ in the strength of religious faith or religious motivation. Third, underlying values may overlap in different religions allowing couples to find common ground; for example, many religions view extramarital sex as unacceptable. Couples from different religious or faith backgrounds can be successful if differences are addressed, understood, and respected; if left unaddressed these differences can become conflictual and threaten the relationship.

 

How Can We Help?

 

From a therapeutic perspective Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a form of couples counselling has shown to be effective for addressing distress in relationships. EFT believes that relationship distress stems from perpetuating negative interaction cycles, which often result from unmet needs. For example, this could be shown in how a couple manages conflict; is the conflict discussed and resolved or does an argument ensue that leaves both parties angry and resentful? The goal of EFT is to develop secure attachment through identification, experience, and expression of emotional and attachment needs. The basis of EFT in the attachment is a leading reason why it is thought to be so successful as a couple’s therapy. From a diversity perspective, the ability to adopt EFT to accommodate different religious or faith backgrounds is why this form of therapy can be successful for a multitude of different couples.

There are three main stages to the EFT model of couples therapy: de-escalation, restructuring attachment interactions, and consolidation and integration. De-escalation involves learning about and understanding negative interaction cycles that are perpetuating distress in the relationship. This can relate back to the previous example; when conflict occurs in the relationship is there one party who actively wants to resolve the situation and one party who chooses to remove him or herself? Restructuring attachment interactions are all about shaping new core emotional experiences and interactions to lead to a more secure attachment. Change in EFT is not achieved through insight, catharsis, or improved skills, but rather from formulation and expression of new emotional experiences as it pertains to attachment needs and emotions. What does each partner need to feel heard and understood? Consolidation and integration are the final of the three stages in EFT and can also be referred to as withdrawer re-engagement. During this stage, the partner whom previously avoided conflict and engagement with their partner openly expresses attachment needs and is more open and responsive to their partner.

The rooting of EFT in emotion and attachment makes it very flexible and therefore adaptable to couples of many diverse backgrounds. At Alongside You we love working with couples from diverse backgrounds and we have specific training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. If this article resonates with you and we can be of help, please let us know, contact us, and give us a shout

 

How Do I Love Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder?

How Do I Love Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder?

One of the most common questions I get from people when I give talks on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is the question of how to support someone with BPD? So many individuals, couples, and families are struggling with how to love, care for, and support someone in the midst of what often feels like total chaos and painful experiences.

Shari Y. Manning, former President and CEO of Behavioral Tech and Behavioral Tech Research, the research organizations founded by Marsha Linehan to provide training in BPD, wrote a book on just this, titled “Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder” and in it she focuses on how to keep the out of control emotions from destroying relationships between individuals with BPD and their families and other supports. She highlights the difficulty of balancing compassion for the person, while still wanting to help them find ways to change their behaviour and managing their emotions.

I’ll admit that it’s not easy to help someone struggling with BPD. It may seem that they are manipulative, egocentric, and focused on their own needs exclusively. The reality is that it’s not actually too far from the truth. The key to supporting someone with BPD without losing our own sanity, in my mind, is in our approach and how we frame what we’re observing. This is where Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) skills come in handy for us as well.

 

Interpersonal Effectiveness and Manipulation

Let’s talk for a minute about the idea that people with BPD are manipulative. It’s common to hear, both amongst clients with BPD, support systems, and yes, even professionals. I remember years ago that I used to get very angry when I heard this because I felt very compassionate toward clients with the borderline personality disorder and their need for help. Then it dawned on me – that is, they are being manipulative. And so are we.

See, manipulation is nothing new in relationships. We do it all the time – in fact, as I said to my intern John this week in supervision, we’re all in relationships to get what we need from the other person. None of us would be in relationships if this weren’t true. The difference is, we do it in a mutually beneficial way that serves everyone involved. The fact remains, however, that we’re all trying to get what we need from others, we just have more ability to do so effectively. This is what interpersonal effectiveness skills in DBT do for clients and for members of support systems; they teach us how to get what we need from others in an effective way.

 

Why Individuals with BPD Behave the Way That They Do

I remember back many years ago when I began working with individuals with developmental disabilities, we often repeated the phrase with staff and caregivers, “All behaviour is communication.”  This is a very important concept and applies just as much to kids and adults alike, as well as individuals with BPD. When we can’t use words to communicate, we use actions. Further, when we see the often extreme behaviours of individuals with BPD, it’s important we remember what is happening to them at that moment, and how it got that way.

 

Personal history

We’ve learned from research that individuals with BPD have reasons for interacting with the world in the way they do, just as we all do! Linehan’s theory from 1993 is the most substantiated, and it suggests that BPD can be the result of the interaction between biological and psychosocial factors, including adverse childhood experiences. One of the predominant factors is invalidating developmental contexts where emotional expression is invalidated in childhood. Further research suggests that between 30%-90% of individuals have experienced abuse and neglect in their lifetime. This has a significant impact on the developing brain.

 

Brain Function

What we also know from brain science, and certainly I’ve observed this in my clinical work, is that individuals who have histories of abuse, neglect, invalidating emotional environments, and other traumas, have brains that are more sensitive to danger. The limbic system is designed to keep us safe and also regulate our emotions. At its’ best, it keeps us safe when we’re in danger, and regulates our emotions to keep us at an even keel. At its’ worst, it’s being triggered in situations that aren’t dangerous and causing us to react in ways that would make sense if we’re in danger but make no sense when we’re not. It’s also important to remember that when this system is acutely active, it shuts down our frontal cortex, which is where our rational thought mechanisms are housed. So, when we’re in danger, as I often say to clients, we can’t think to save our lives. This is the brain state that individuals with BPD are in when they react in extreme ways. Their brains are in full-blown fight or flight mode and simply reacting, trying to do anything they can to be safe. Most often, they turn to their closest relationships.

 

Relationships as Safety

Ever heard the idea that we hurt the ones we love the most? This is often the case with individuals with BPD when they react in extreme ways. But why is this? Many people with BPD have a very externalized locus of control, meaning, they don’t believe they can contain their own emotions, especially when they’re overwhelmed. You know what? They’re right. When they’re in fight or flight the mechanisms in their brain responsible for regulating emotions and behaviour are not rational, and are just reacting and they can’t contain it. This is simply a more extreme version of what happens to all of us. So then, what’s the difference?

I believe the difference is the level of fear experienced in these moments. The idea of not being able to contain extreme emotions would be, I imagine, quite terrifying. Coupled with the fear of being left by the people they are closest to, the proverbial pot boils over and they have to do something extreme to get attention. I often hear, “Oh they’re just attention-seeking,” to which I reply with an emphatic, “Yes, of course, they are!”

Remember the idea that all behaviour is communication? When people with BPD are at this heightened state they are unable to communicate effectively and are doing their darndest to communicate their pain and fear to us, asking us to help them contain it. What may look to us like someone simply showing out of control behaviour, I believe, is a desperate attempt at seeking safety and containment.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be in this position? Having BPD, feeling so unsafe and so in pain that you have to go to such extreme lengths to try to get help? I can’t. The idea of being there is far too terrifying to me. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know what it feels like to be in that place, but it gives me a great deal of compassion for those who are.

 

What Do We Do To Help?

One of the best ways to be supportive is to help those struggling with BPD to get the help they need. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), on an individual basis as well as in skills groups, is very effective in helping those with BPD manage their symptoms. With the right help, individuals with BPD can learn the skills they need to manage their emotions and relationships and ultimately, have a life worth living! This was Marsha Linehan’s goal in developing DBT, to help those struggling with suicidal thoughts have a life worth living. We’re proud to say that our DBT programs have been effective at doing just that for our clients, and we’d love to help even more people this way.

We have often been asked if we run groups for family members and other supports who are trying to help someone with BPD. Unfortunately, we don’t at the moment but it’s on our radar. We are looking into doing exactly this in the future. What we can do, however, is teach DBT skills on an individual or family basis for those supporting someone with BPD. We have a number of counsellors available for this, and you can talk to Doug, Share, or Kelly about this if it would be helpful.

Education is also very important as once we understand what is happening, it gets less scary. There are many books that can be very helpful. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason

Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder by Shari Y. Manning

DBT Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide to Dialectical Behavior Therapy by Sheri Van Dijk

Finally, self-care is absolutely paramount to your survival for yourself and the person struggling with BPD. As the airlines often remind us, we need to put our mask on before we can help anyone else! If we don’t take care of ourselves, we will flip our lids and react in much the same way as those we’re trying to help.

 

I hope this has been helpful – if our team can be of any help to you as you support someone with BPD please feel free to give us a shout. Our Dialectical Behaviour Therapy program is comprehensive, and we would love to teach you the skills needed to be a solid support, for yourself and your loved ones with BPD!

3 Reasons Why Valentine’s Day Doesn’t Suck

3 Reasons Why Valentine’s Day Doesn’t Suck

I’ll admit it right off of the bat – I’m a hopeless romantic; always have been, always will be. Little known fact about me is that while Meg and I were dating, I was voted Most Romantic Man in Vancouver by my friend who owned the local flower shop. But that’s a story for another day. Needless to say, I am indeed a fan of love. I suppose that’s why I became a marriage and family therapist – if we’re destined for love, I wanted to have a positive impact on the type of love we have.

Here’s the problem – Valentine’s Day kind of sucks. Or at least, that’s often the impression we’re left with. You’ve probably heard it all by now, “It’s too commercialized…it’s a scam by the retail industry…they just wants our money…I hate pink…,” and so on and so forth. Well, here’s the thing, the people saying these things aren’t totally wrong. Valentine’s Day is very commercialized, retail outlets do scheme to make money on the holiday, and they do want your money, and some people really do hate pink. I’ll even admit that as a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, I sometimes get tired of the hoopla around a single day, and the fact that I’m often behind the 8-ball and running around last minute trying to figure out what to do.

So, I reflected on Valentine’s Day this year while I was making some of the preparations, asking myself what it is that I find important about Valentine’s Day, and why I make the effort. Here are the three reasons I came up with this year:

 

  • Relationships are important, and it’s okay that we celebrate this. Furthermore, it’s so easy to overlook relationships when we get busy and the advantage of having Valentine’s Day is that it forces us to remember the importance of our relationships, and particularly our romantic ones.

 

  • Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be about romantic love. Every year, we give our kids Valentine’s Day cards and gifts, but I wanted to do something slightly different this year. I am fortunate to have an incredible wife and two amazing daughters. This year, I gave them each a journal and inside, I wrote a message to each of them about something specific that I believed about, hoped for, and appreciated in them and that my hope was that the journal would be a place where they could reflect on these things in the coming year. I wanted to make sure that each of them knew how special they were, and uniquely so. This is something we can do for anyone special in our lives – a repurposing of the original intent perhaps?

 

  • Being reminded of love reminds us of the importance of connection. Attachment and connection are two of the most important things in life, and a reminder to us that we are indeed relational beings who thrive on relationships with others. Also, by loving others, we remind ourselves that we, too, are worthy of love. If we are enamoured with someone we think is incredible and know that they choose to be with us, then either we must also be special, or they must be delusional for spending time with us. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure the former is more likely and true. Sometimes we need this reminder in life, especially if we are struggling.

 

Now, for some of you, Valentine’s Day is a painful reminder of the romantic relationship you don’t have that you long for. I can only imagine what that’s like. What I do know, is that you are worthy of love, romantic or otherwise. My hope is that while your Valentine’s Day may not have been about romance this year, perhaps there was a reminder of how someone in your life values you.

To take a slightly different spin, some self-compassion can go a long way. I’m going to suggest an exercise here, both for those in romantic relationships and those who aren’t, and it may sound a little weird. I’m going to suggest writing yourself a love letter. Yes, I said write a love letter to yourself. Why? Because self-compassion is simply taking the compassionate stance we find so easy to give to others, and turning around and giving it to ourselves. Most of us are our own worst critics – it’s so easy to see, and pounce on our own faults. We’d never say half the things to someone else that we say to ourselves.

To flip it around, I find it so easy to write a letter to my wife or my kids. I can immediately think of so many things I think are incredible and unique about them, and my hopes and dreams for them. I find it much harder to do this for myself, but it’s an important exercise because it affirms our own worth, our uniqueness, and our status as worthy and deserving of love and compassion.

I know it may sound weird, but I’m going to challenge you to try it. It may sound like a strange counselling exercise that only a Registered Clinical Counsellor or therapist would suggest, and you may be right – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful. If you do try it, I’d love to hear your experience and how it impacted you. Please feel free to contact me through the website with your feedback, even if you just want to reiterate how much Valentine’s Day sucks. That’s ok, at least we’re connecting. But I would be very surprised if you could do this exercise and not find something helpful in it.

If you’re struggling with your relationship with your significant other, or your relationship with yourself, we’d love to be of help. Please contact us or give us a call, that’s what we’re here for.