Most couples who come to see me in my therapy practice have decided to seek help at the stage when their relationship is starting to fall apart. They are often at a breaking point: if things do not start to change for the better soon, one or both people are going to leave the relationship. Emotions are high, people are hurt, and there is often a piercing pressure to see some significant change.
Seeking help at such times is a commendable choice and one that I encourage wholeheartedly, and I want to suggest to modern couples a possibly unusual idea: attend couples therapy regularly when your relationship is going well. When couples attend counseling when things are going well, they are able to strengthen their bond, deepen intimacy and connection, prevent future periods of confusion or disconnection, and keep the relationship fresh, passionate, and alive.
You might be thinking, why rock the boat when things are going well? Why create problems where there are none? Why stir the pot? Many people discover that couples counseling entails a lot more than simply “fixing” problems between you and your mate. Many people also experience the life-changing benefits that can come from bringing intentional curiosity, attention, and care to the unfolding processes of your romantic partnership on an ongoing basis.
As you know, relationships are not static or motionless. When two people come together, they are each bringing their own unique view of the world, with their own past experiences and their own future hopes and aspirations. Each person is subtly in flux, is changing, is becoming more or less of who they want to be in the world each day. We often forget that our partner is always changing, and that we are always changing as well. Thus, it is very easy to relate to our significant other from an idea we have in our head about who they are, or from who they were yesterday or last week, instead of from who they actually are in this moment.
Within the safe, intentional space of counseling, couples are given the unique opportunity to shine a light directly on the subtle and complicated processes that occur weekly, daily, or even moment-to-moment between two changing and evolving beings. No distractions, no obligations of daily life; instead a third person to help guide the process in a way that is most beneficial for both people involved. The actual experience of shining a light on whatever is happening between two people – whether it is what is going well, not going well, or anything in between – can be an experience of deepening intimacy and connection that many couples are hungry for.
When couples attend therapy on an on-going basis when things are going well, they often report greater satisfaction in their relationship, as well as greater satisfaction in life as a whole. They may feel they are able to take risks in other areas of their lives and show up more fully in whatever they pursue. Family bonds are often strengthened, and people may feel supported in ways they never knew were possible.
I would like to leave my readers with a last thought: against popular belief, couples counseling can be a joyous and uplifting process. While painful and difficult feelings may arise, you can learn to experience these feelings with grace and ease, allowing each experience to bring you closer to your partner, and closer to yourself as well. It can be an enlivening, enriching experience to share yourself with your partner exactly as you are, and to receive your partner as he or she truly is. Whether you attend counseling when things are going well or when things are falling apart, my hope is that you gain more clarity, connection, and fulfillment in your relationship and in your life.
It seems we live in a culture in which we receive the message that we are not supposed to have needs. Sure, it is okay to need food, water and shelter, but beyond that we should be able to take care of ourselves. We should be independent – emotionally independent, financially independent, and even spiritually independent – and leaning on others, or being dependent on others in any way, is somehow a weakness we should work hard to overcome.
And while North American culture pushes us towards independence, we cannot deny the fact that we are first and foremost relational beings. At birth we are helpless and rely completely on our mother, father or caregivers to take care of our every need. Not only do babies die if their physical needs are not taken care of, but they may die if they do not receive enough loving touch, warmth and tenderness from another caring being. No one can tell a baby that it is too needy or dependent on others. I suggest you take a moment to remember that you were once a helpless baby who was 100% dependent on someone else. We all have that part deep within us, and for some of us this part remains more alive than for others.
So what about adults? Do they die if they do not receive support and care from others? It is safe to say adults probably will not die if they do not receive loving support, but I can confidently say they may experience deep sadness, loneliness and emptiness from lack of intimacy and connection with others. And sometimes, lack of human connection as an adult can be so intense that it may lead to painful isolation, mental illness, or even suicide.
While I am very biased toward perceiving adults as needing warm support, connection and intimacy in order to thrive, I am aware that some people worry about being overly dependent on others. Many people fear if they rely on others they will become “needy,” “clingy,” or “co-dependent.” Many people have received the message from their parents or loved ones that they want too much and need too much, and that their very wanting is draining on the relationship. People who received this message are often caught in a bind because they feel separate from others and yearn to reach out, but there is a constant fear that their very reaching out will push others away even further. Thus, they remain stuck, dissatisfied by themselves and dissatisfied with the relationships in their life.
The question remains: what is healthy dependence and how do we achieve it? While this is a huge topic and one I will address in many blog posts to come, I will start by explaining what healthy dependence is to me. To me, healthy dependence is when I have a deep trust that my loved one cares about me and will be there for me. If I am needing support, feeling lonely, or just wanting connection, I can reach out to someone I care about and ask for support in a way that feels good to me. When I reach out, I choose those who I feel really want to be there for me if they are able, meaning if they have the time and energy in that moment. If they are busy or overwhelmed with their own lives, I trust they will tell me clearly whether they are able to be there or not, and I trust they will not hold resentment towards me for asking for their time and attention. I trust that if they are not able to be of support in the moment, that this does not at all change the fact they care about me and I care about them.
Most importantly, support, care and attention are received. I take it in. I let someone care about me and I feel the goodness that this provides for both people involved in the exchange. And in most relationships (the therapist-client relationship excluded), I provide this same level of support in return. I want to disclose that this has not always been the case for me. This kind of relating was not one I was born with or learned in my family; I had to learn healthy dependence as an adult, as I assume many of you do as well.
While some of you may not experience these kinds of supportive relationships in the way that you want, I know from personal and professional experience that it is possible to develop these at any point in life. The first step towards creating healthy dependence in your life is to try it out. Try reaching out to someone you care about. Remember that not everyone will want to be there for you, and the people that do will be the ones to practice with until it becomes natural.
It can be easier to start building this kind of relationship with a trained therapist, someone who can help you practice healthy dependence while allowing for bumps, bruises and falls along the way. A therapist can help you see the ways that you hold yourself back from receiving support in a way that feels good for you. A good therapist can help you work through unconscious habits that keep you stuck, frustrated and dissatisfied in relationships. I hope that you will take the first step to practice such reaching out by contacting a therapist to help you meet your relationships needs. Even the act of going to see a counselor is a bold step in the process of learning to have a healthy dependence on others. And remember, while aloneness has its own beauty and purpose, as humans we all deserve loving, caring connections as well.
If you struggle with anxiety, you know it can sometimes be unbearable. Your heart races, you have trouble breathing, your mind starts spinning, and you feel utterly uncomfortable in your own skin. No matter what triggered these distressing thoughts, feelings or sensations, let’s assume you are not happy about them. Let’s even assume you desperately want them to change.
While there are many natural techniques out that you can practice on your own or with a therapist to reduce symptoms of anxiety – such as mindful breathing, meditation, relaxation exercises, and yoga – today I am not going to focus on how to calm your nervous system when anxiety is triggered. Instead, I am going to focus on taking a closer look at your reactions to your experience of anxiety and how these reactions impact your well-being as a whole.
When I say reactions to your anxiety, I am talking about how you relate to this uncomfortable experience. There is the initial experience of anxiety itself. Then, what happens next? Can you notice certain thoughts or feelings that arise when you feel yourself becoming anxious? Maybe your initial thought is, “Oh no! Not this again!” or “What can I do to make this feeling go away?” or “Something is wrong with me because I’m feeling this way again.” As with all uncomfortable or painful feelings and experiences, it is quite natural to want to change the experience and find something that makes you feel better. Maybe you are not aware of the thoughts that you say to yourself right as you start to feel anxious. That’s also perfectly natural. The next time you notice the feeling of anxiety in your body, take a moment to notice the thoughts you experience right in the moment as they are happening. The goal right now is not to change the thoughts, but rather to be curious about them.
Another part of your reaction to be curious about is your feelings. What feelings do you notice right after your become anxious? Of course you probably notice the feeling of anxiety. But there may be other feelings connected to this experience. Maybe you feel frustrated or angry that this is happening again. Maybe you feel sad that that you can’t do the activities you want to do because you feel paralyzed by your anxiety. Maybe you feel lonely because you stay away from people when you feel anxious. Usually people experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings about their anxiety, and quite often these thoughts and feelings make the experience of anxiety even more painful and feed the endless cycle of fear, worry, and confusion. Hence, you may be experiencing anxiety about your anxiety!
Luckily, feeling anxiety about your anxiety is quite common and more importantly, it is not hopeless! Bringing mindfulness to your anxiety as well as to your reactions to your anxiety is the first step in thwarting this painful cycle. Mindfulness is bringing curious, non-judgmental attention to exactly what you are experiencing in the moment. You are turning on the part of you that knows how to pay attention to whatever is happening inside of you – your thoughts, feelings and body sensations – without trying to fix or change them. The very act of trying to change your experience often makes the experience even more uncomfortable; yet by paying kind, gentle attention to your direct experience, very often the pain diminishes on its own and there is a sense of freedom. You may still feel uncomfortable sensations or notice disturbing thoughts, but when seen through the lens of mindfulness, these experiences usually seem more manageable and not as overwhelming or stressful as they initially were.
The important thing to note here is that mindfulness brings power and choice. We cannot change our initial experience of anxiety once it has been triggered, but with care and practice we can develop the ability to choose how we want to react to this experience.
Bringing mindfulness to your experience is something you can practice on your own, although it can be quicker and easier to learn when practiced with a therapist. Mindfulness is like a muscle that needs to be exercised often to get stronger – both in the context of therapy and also through meditation practice – until it becomes natural and part of your moment-to-moment life. Even experienced meditators benefit from practicing with a therapist, as the act of having two mindful people present both supports the muscle of mindfulness to grow and helps anchor the attitude of warmth and curiosity needed to change the deep-seated patterns of our habitual reactions.
After learning about your reactions to anxiety and ways to be mindfully aware of these reactions, at first you may feel even more anxious and overwhelmed. I will close by saying that while anxiety is often painful, frustrating, and confusing, it is possible over time to bring clarity, ease and lightness to this experience. Since such relief may not happen right away, don’t give up! With patience and practice, you eventually can become the master of your experience, instead of feeling like your anxiety is the master of you.