Archive for Marriage Pitfalls

Self-soothing by Robin Blair, LMFT

Self-soothing or auto regulating your emotions has long been seen as an important part of independence and maturity. It’s the idea that we should be able to deal with our emotions on our own and not require comfort from other people to feel better. Some therapist like to call it differentiation, and clients who are not fully differentiated are labeled co-dependent. So, is this strongly held American belief that we should be able to make it on our own, without any help from others really what our brains thrive on? Is this how the human brain is wired?

According to research on this very topic (Love Sense by Sue Johnson) the answer is no. Our brains were wired to function in tribes, not independent or isolated. According to Johnson, being emotionally isolated is as bad for our health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. She even has research that shows cuts on people’s hands will heal faster when they are a part of a healthy relationship. What she is trying to prove is that the human brain is wired to require the comfort of another individual. We already knew this about children, but what Johnson is proving is that we need it as adults also “from the cradle to the grave” she likes to say. She is going against the cultural norm that we need to be independent adults that do not rely on anyone, and instead saying people who can depend on a significant other are healthier, happier, and more successful.

So, the important question is “how do I know if I am in an emotionally healthy relationship”? And the problem with this question is that most people instinctually know the answer, but our society tells us we should be independent enough to not care. If our fear comes up about not getting our needs met in our relationship we instantly think “there must be something wrong with me, why am I so needy” It’s even worse for men, because they have the desire to be emotionally close with their partner, but the only skill they were ever taught to express their desire for emotional closeness was sex. So they ask for it often and wear their partner out, making her feel like a means to an end or get rejected by her and completely shut down emotionally. My personal opinion is that this is why porn addiction is so prevalent in our culture. And porn is just one example of self-soothing. If a man’s only way of emotionally bonding with his partner is going to get shot down, of course he is going to turn to an imitation of it. Unfortunately, like any drug that rapidly releases dopamine, the reward chemical in the brain, over time his brain will become desensitized and require more and more to get the same result. Eventually, making love to his partner will no longer be sufficient, causing all kinds of sexual dysfunction and feelings of shame. Not to mention the havoc this will create in his relationship and in his partner.

Porn may be one of the most devastating self-soothing techniques to a relationship, but it is far from the only. Really, addiction of any kind is going to devastate a relationship. A key indicator to an emotionally healthy relationship is the ability to turn to your partner in a vulnerable way in time of need. Using the man above as an example, when his partner turns him down when he asks for sex, he would be able to say “it is so hurtful when I want to be close to you and you reject me, I feel like you don’t desire me and don’t want to be close to me, and I just can’t think of anything worse than you not wanting to be with me.” Another example could be of a woman who is feeling hurt by her partner who seems to be spending most of his time on the computer or out in the garage. In an emotionally healthy relationship she could say to him “I really miss you, it feels like you are not that interested in just spending quality time with me and I am getting really lonely here.” In an emotionally healthy relationship the partners would be able to respond in a way that shows they are accessible, responsive and engaged. Sue Johnson calls this a “Hold Me Tight” conversation. The acronym ARE represents the most basic question couples ask “Are you there for me”? Are you accessible, are you responsive, and will you engage with me emotionally?

So you can see how addictions or any self-soothing behavior would get in the way of creating an emotionally healthy relationship. First, because instead of turning towards their partners when they have a need, they turn towards an addiction to calm their fears and satisfy their need. So this could block any possibility of creating emotional intimacy. Second, if an individual turns towards his or her partner, asking ARE you there for me, and the partner is drinking or disconnected because of other self-soothing behaviors the answer is going to be no. This will keep the individual from asking this question in a vulnerable way, and instead the next time they ask it, it is going to be in a defensive guarded way. The partner is not going to hear there is a need being asked to be met, but instead they are going to hear how they have disappointed and failed in some way and respond accordingly with their own defenses up. I’m sure you can see how quickly and devastatingly this is going to take a toll on the relationship.

So, because culture is telling us we should be able to handle our emotions without the comfort of another individual and that we should not depend on other people, we are fighting our natural wiring to be in emotionally intimate relationships. A man should be able to say to his partner “I want you to hold me tonight.” And a woman should be able to request that the rest of the world just melt away so she can have all of her partner’s attention on just her. I think addictions are being created because we need this at the deepest level but feel weak and ashamed about it, so we drown out our natural tendencies so we don’t have to face our true vulnerability.

If you are interested in learning more about this, sign up for my January Hold Me Tight weekend workshop at The Attach Place.


“I am not like this with anyone else except my partner.”

I have a lot of people tell me they act a lot different around their partner than they do anyone else. Some of my clients are ashamed of the way they act around and towards their partner, they can’t quite make sense of it. They see is as irrational, immature, dysfunctional, cruel, I could go on and on about the way this behavior has been described by both partners. These behaviors could be yelling, name calling, stone walling, staying away from, being cold, having an attitude, ignoring, etc. There is one common denominator here, the energy behind it. It isn’t loving, caring, “you are so important to me” energy. My couples’ know that much. What they don’t understand is what exactly is behind this behavior. It seems so cruel and unloving, but they love their partner so why are they acting this way?

I am here to clarify what is actually behind this behavior that can seem very loving. It is fear! And a lot of it. Humans are tribal beings, we exists in groups and depend on these groups for survival. Americans have shrunk these groups down to just two people, you and your partner. This means your survival, as far as your brain is wired, is dependent on this one other person. So you can imagine, if this relationship feels threatened in any way what that is going to do to your brain, and what your brain is going to tell you to do about it. Animals, including humans, have three basic fear responses: fight, flight, and freeze.

Now, let’s put these basic fear responses back into those behaviors we talked about. If you are afraid you cannot depend on your partner to be there for you when it really matters, what might you do to fight against this? Maybe yell, protest, get angry, aggressive, debate, negotiate, slam doors, be pissy, name call, get critical, anything to fight against the belief that you can’t count on your partner. Well, as far as your brain is concerned, this makes perfect sense to act this way, you are fighting for the relationship because it is so important to you. Now we know your partner will notice these behaviors. What he or she will not know, is that you are doing these behaviors because he or she is so important to you.

So, let’s move to the flip side of this, say you are more likely to flee or freeze when you are afraid your partner is not going to be there for you. Let’s just say you hear your wife call you undependable, irresponsible, uncaring, or a failure. What else is your brain supposed to think other than, “I am not good enough for her”, “she is going to leave me because I keep letting her down”, “she has impossible standards that I cannot reach.” And let’s say when you feel this deep fear, your reaction is to freeze or go away from it (flee). The rational for this is, if you go away from her, you will stop making her so angry. Or, if you freeze, at least you won’t continue to make it worse. So, either way, you are trying to stop the message that you are going to lose her because you are inadequate.

The problem here is that all your partner sees is you ignoring her, abandoning her, leaving her, not caring about her fear, not caring about the relationship. Which unfortunately increases her fear that you are not going to be there for her when it really counts. The chances of her seeing your fear about losing this relationship are slim. Especially if she is stuck in her own fear of losing you. I know I am using a male partner example here, but it could go either way.

So, what are couples supposed to do if this is such a common patterns? The answer is so simple. Know what is really going on with you and talk about it. Can you imagine saying “you are so important to me and when I get the message you think I am not good enough for you, it freaks me out and I just want to get away from that feeling” Or, “when you go away from me when I am trying to talk about something that is important to me, it gives me the message that you are not going to be there for me in a way that really matters. I need to know I can count on you to be there for me.” This takes a lot of vulnerability and safety in the relationship. It is something you should sit down and talk about when you are not in a heated argument. So when the argument comes up, you already have some practice of talking in this way. The reason you are not like this with anyone else is because your partner is the most important person in the world to you, and no one else even comes close.

Couples Blog

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Robin Blair, LMFT

Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist

Holiday Stress

Americans already live in a state of chronic stress, between the job, the bills, the kids, the house, the spouse, and everything else we pile on top of ourselves. Stress is not a bad thing, in small bursts that results in the expulsion of that energy, and then long periods of rest to follow. We were actually built for this type of stress. What we weren’t built for is this chronic stress, no expulsion of the energy, and no rest or relief from the stress. And then we add holidays on top of our already stressful lives. The shopping, the cleaning, the family, the traveling, the lines, the crowds, the money, the time. This time of year has a tendency to take a lot of us down.

So, what can we do to manage this intense time of year, without running away and hiding until it is over? First, we need to know the types of things we are doing to manage our stress that is actually adding more stress to our life. Things like drinking too much caffeine, working out too much, drinking alcohol, eating fast convenient food to give us more time, or trying to get more work done before bed, these may feel like time managers but they are actually increasing your stress levels and then requiring you to handle more stress in your life. Cutting back on the caffeine, only working out 3-4 days a week, clean eating, giving up the alcohol, and cutting yourself off from work and screen time at a certain time each night will drastically reduce the stress hormones from being released. These are things we need to be aware of all of the time.

But, this is a special time of year that requires a lot of extra stress management. So I am going to introduce some of my favorite stress management tools that I use in addition to the daily ones I listed above. First, meditation, this useful practice has been shown to decrease anxiety, depression, and increase your ability to handle stress. An easy beginner practice is called the 16 second meditation. It is a breathing practice that actually slows your heart rate down instantly. All you need to do is inhale for 4 seconds, then hold that breathe in and count 3 seconds, then exhale for 6 seconds, then hold that exhale for 3 seconds. Having a longer exhale than inhale slows your heart rate down, and having to count your breath requires mindful attention which increases your ability to handle stress. Another great practice that achieves these same goals is yoga. It opens up your lungs and your ability to get a deeper breath while forcing you to focus on your pose. Tara Stiles has great yoga videos that I love doing at my house.

But I have to say, I get the most stress relief from spending quality time with my husband. When the kids are in bed, and the house is quiet, and we can just hang out and let the rest of the world melt away, nothing relieves the pressures of the day than feeling like I am loved and treasured, and deserving of someone’s undivided attention. The phones, the TV, the kids, the housework, all of it gets put aside so we can just be the center of each other’s universe. Now, I know not everyone is in a place in their relationship where they can actually get stress relief from their partner, it’s actually quite the opposite. If this is the case, then do yourself, your stress hormones, and your family a favor and come in to The Attach Place and see me for a couple of sessions of couple’s therapy. Or, you can even do some Skype sessions with me if you are not in Northern California. And if you are single, this can still apply with a loving attachment figure in your life; a good friend, a sibling or parent, even spending time with your beloved animal can be a stress reliever. There are many other ways to reduce stress this holiday season, these are just some of my favorite. Find what works for you and then make a point to actually do it. Your body, mind, and spirit will thank you; not to mention all of the people around you. I hope this helps you get through the next month.

Couples Blog

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Love Strong,

Robin Blair, MFT Registered Intern

EFT Therapist

Supervised by Jennifer Olden, LMFT for one month, as she has just passed her MFT licensure exams. Congratulations Robin!

Hold Me Tight Couples Weekend Workshop for Parents of Attachment Challenged and Special Needs Children

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April 25, 2014   6pm to 9pm
April 26, 2014  10am to 4pm
April 27, 2014  10am to 1pm
Hold Me Tight
Weekend Workshop for Couples with Adopted and Special Needs Children

The Hold Me Tight Workshop is designed to give you a weekend away to connect with your spouse. This workshop will not teach you useless things; it will give you an opportunity to fully engage the deep, loving connection you desire in your relationship with your partner.

• Address stuck patterns and negative cycles

• Make sense of your own emotions

• Overcome loneliness

• Repair and forgive emotional and physical disconnection

• Communicate to develop deeper understanding and closeness

You will strengthen your bond through private exercises with your partner, didactic experiences, and video demonstrations of couples that have moved from distress to that longed for deep, intimate connection.   This workshop takes place in the safe environment of experienced attachment specialists and other parents experiencing similar attachment pushes and pulls in their lives because of the demands of healing the broken hearts and emotional difficulties of children from difficult biological beginnings, maltreatment, abuse and attachment breaches.  YOU will be “seen” here and your struggles will be understood.

Hello Ce,
This attachment focused couples workshop is brought to you at a 50% reduced rate by The Attach Place Center for Strengthening Relationships. We believe that you, your relationship, and your love matter.  The stronger your relationship, the better able YOU will be to whether the slings and arrows of raising children from difficult beginnings. The Attach Place Logo  2

This workshop is especially designed with YOU in mind. To that end, we are dedicated to providing creative financing to make this opportunity possible for you and child care options.

Who:                YOU and Your Partner
When:                6pm to 9pm April 25, 2014
10am to 4pm April 26, 2014
10am to 1pm – April 27, 2014
Cost:                $300.00
Child Care:       $5 per hour per child

Snacks Provided and Local Restaurant List for Lunch Options.

Reserve your place by RSVPing to:

If you can carve out time for yourselves on a weekend, we promise that you will have valuable experiences to help you strengthening the safety, connection, and bond in your relationship.

Love Matters,
Ce Eshelman, LMFT, Jennifer Olden, LMFT, Robin Blair, MFTI,
The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Chill Out Fire Storm by Jennifer Olden, LMFT

Disclaimer: My point of reference is that of a wife in a heterosexual marriage that generally fits the stereotypes. However, as a therapist, I have seen the roles switch. I’ve worked with gay and lesbian couples where gender isn’t the defining label. So, take this article with a grain of salt and look for the parts that fit.

My husband has the annoying habit of saying to me right after I bump my head, “Be careful.” It’s reflexive on his end and harmless but also NOT HELPFUL. Advice, even with a positive intention, can end up escalating the disconnection.
Take the directive, “Chill out.” Never in the history of humankind has a person relaxed in response to the phrase, “Chill out.” It has the opposite effect nearly every time. If I’m upset and someone, namely my husband, says, “Chill out” I will probably want to claw off his face. This is not chilling out. Here is a short list of similar phrases that when uttered will make your wife freak out.

Yeah, right!

Yeah, right!

1) Chillax.
2) You are being irrational.
3) Stop stressing out. It’s no big deal.
4) Have you taken your medication?
5) Is it that time of the month?
6) You are overreacting.
7) You are always upset about something.

When a woman hears these phrases, she will NOT suddenly get access to her prefrontal lobes and become a beacon of logic and reason. She will more likely get more irrational, more reactive, and more upset. These phrases are gasoline, my friends. Avoid them at all costs.

So what do you say instead when your partner is freaking out over something seemingly small that doesn’t make sense to you and really appears to be some sort of chemical imbalance? How do you address it in a way that re-connects the two of you? Try these phrases:

1) I want to get close to you, but right now you seem so mad at me it’s hard to connect, though I really want to. What can I do?
2) I want to be the antidote to your problem, but it seems like I’m the cause. That makes me go away. I need you to talk to me about what is bothering you without blaming me for everything.
3) Look, I’m imperfect and I make mistakes, but I love you and I am here.
4) I’m on your team, and we are in this together. You are the most important person to me.

The point is that if you couch your response in caring and validation you will get a lot more traction in your ultimate desire to connect than using the phrase, “Chill out.”

The Attachment Dance of Couples Blog

The Attachment Dance of Couples Blog

Love Strong,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Partner