When In Doubt, Choose Connection

Last night I was glad Pamela was on a run when I got home from work. Being an introvert and seeing clients all day can be somewhat emotionally taxing. Then I remembered I had to cook dinner, which to you might sound laborious but is usually something I enjoy. Last night I wasn’t feeling it as much though. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays can be a little grueling for me, I work pretty late and come home with a decent amount of compassion fatigue. Home is a reprieve for me, Pamela is the one person I actually enjoy being around at the end of a long therapy day (most of the time). Truth be told, before Pamela moved in, before we were dating, I used to drive up to my house, pull my car in the garage, and say “closing bombay doors” then mutter under my breath that I didn’t want to deal with another human being all day. Just me and my Rhodesian Ridgeback, Bailey, who is content snoring like a freight train right next to me. But now I am married, with another human to consider, and subsequently another dog who doesn’t quite “get” me the same way Bailey does…

Back to last night, I get busy preparing the meal; tonight’s dish, chicken on a bed of roasted fingerling potatoes and carrots baked to perfection in my well-worn, well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Pamela got home, we hug, kiss, and chat for a few minutes. She expresses just  how grateful she is that I have cooked the last couple of nights (like I said, the only human I want to see after a long day of therapisting). Then she poses the question, THE question one of us asks the other every weekday night, the question she asks sarcastically because she knows my answer before she asks it; “What do you want your evening to look like?” Now my standard answer is “some down-time.” An answer that is embarrassingly predictable and, depending on the day, either annoys Pamela or she finds endearing, but never lets it go without giving me some shit. Last night was an endearing kinda night, thank God. I mentioned that my mental and physical level of tired was on the high side of normal. She asked where I wanted to eat; in the living room or the dining table. Now, eating in the living room is a rarity, something saved for special occasions and doesn’t happen on weekday nights often.

And here is the whole point of this blog, my answer, which may shock you, was “no”, I declined. I said “I want to sit in the living room, but I feel like we should sit at the table.” So we did, we sat at the table and talked about her training for the half marathon, we spent a lot of time praising the meal that I had made (which I really did kill, I mean knocked it out of the park). Nothing super special, all conversation that fit my mental capacity for conversation. The point is definitely not to toot my own horn. I suppose it has more to do with separating wants and needs. Life is about meaning and there is no greater place to cultivate meaning than with your significant other. What I wanted was a lot of ice cream and a few episodes of the Grand Tour, what I needed was to look across the table at this amazing woman and connect about our individual worlds and carrots that were so soft and caramelized they would knock your socks off. (I mean, I can’t overstate just how amazing those carrots were…)


The Positive Perspective

This post will be the first in a series where I will cover the Positive Perspective, a key component in Gottman’s Sound Relationship House. The positive perspective holds a lot of influence in how couples are able to dialogue about conflict. It is often an overlooked component in how conflict is processed in a relationship. In order to understand how to build a positive perspective in your relationship it is first important to understand a bit of neuroscience. 

I was sitting in a continuing education course a few years ago led by a pharmacist discussing addiction and pharmacology. With one simple statement he shifted my perspective of just how amazing the brain is; “the human brain is the most powerful and effective pharmacy imaginable.” Have you ever considered the reality that your brain has the ability and resources to change itself? In a time where psychotropic medications are relied on heavily, this might serve as a good reminder that we have the ability to impact our own neurochemistry. But how? Before I move on, I want to point out that for many people medications are both helpful and necessary. Taking medication consistently can be life-giving. So if you are one that has benefited from the use of meds, I am not saying to stop, I am also not saying you have the capacity to produce for yourself the same benefits of the medications you are on.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals released and received by neurons which transmit signals throughout the brain and body. Although the number of neurotransmitters is unknown, the total number is thought to be well over 100. Impacting the release of neurotransmitters impacts the feeling experience of the brain. It’s important to note that neurotransmitters are not categorized into “good” vs “bad”;  for instance, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases with exercise and meditation, but also increases with pornography use. The manipulation of neurotransmitters in the brain through these activities can either be helpful OR unhelpful. Exercise increases serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine which are all neurotransmitters that impact mood uniquely. Maybe you have heard of the “runner’s high”, a reality made possible by the increase of those neurotransmitters. If you have spent any amount of time in my office then you undoubtedly know I am a big proponent of meditation. Meditation has been found to decrease anxiety (by decreasing GABA and norepinephrine). Jonathan Haidt in his outstanding book The Happiness Hypothesis says meditation “decreases anxiety, increases contentment, self-esteem, empathy and trust.” These two examples show we can impact our emotional climate by changing both physical and mental disciplines. Paul in Philippians says, “whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, good, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Modern neuroscience and Paul are saying the same thing- be proactive with what you meditate on, choose the good, the gratitudes, the appreciations. Whether it be in our thought patterns or our behavioral disciplines, our neurochemistry is being impacted, so choose wisely. When we realize this, we can then take a more active role in what we set our minds on, and therefore how we feel and experience the world.

Taking Your Partner's Side

As a therapist I sit in the same chair, facing the same side of the office 5 days a week. I look at the same painting, the same clock, the same lamp and the same couch multiple hours each day. I’ll be honest, sometimes the view gets a little old. The only thing that changes is the faces looking back at me; faces that see a completely different side of my office. If you asked my clients what they see, they would inevitably point out a bookcase, a desk, a painting and a chair. The exact same room, but two totally different viewpoints.

This is one of the toughest, but most helpful topics covered in couples counseling; two different people viewing the same shared experience from two totally different perspectives. Taking your partner’s side requires each individual to postpone their own point of view and empathically look at their partner’s world from his or her perspective. A lot of the time we see our own viewpoint as Truth and our partner’s viewpoint as Wrong. It’s helpful to remember that two opposing views are neither right nor wrong, they can coexist just like two sides of one room. Here are a few tips that will help you improve at taking your spouse’s side. First, work at slowing down responses. Instead of jumping right into a response when your spouse says something disagreeable, try asking questions that will deepen your understanding of what your partner is feeling or experiencing. This eliminates potential misunderstandings or miscommunication. Try questions like “How is this situation affecting you?”, “I think I am beginning to understand you, could you say more?”, “Does this remind you of something else from your past?” Another key is to listen to emotion. If you have a hard time taking your partner’s side, try listening to their emotional experience. Emotional experience is subjective, therefore two people can both feel very differently about a situation and neither partner is right nor wrong. Once you identify what they are feeling, think about what it’s like when you feel a similar emotion. This helps slow down critical thinking and opens the mind to empathy. We are able to validate our spouses experience and offer compassion for what they are going through.

Taking your partner’s side doesn’t mean you have to agree or adhere to their perspective, but it does demand we get out of our own perceptions, walk around to the other side of the room and see it from their side. When we are able to take our spouse’s side we change the climate of the relationship; criticism is replaced with compassion, misunderstanding is replaced with intimacy, and the relationship becomes a safe place where the individuals are valued over perspective. 

-Steven Hardebeck