Couples: Why We Don’t Understand Each Other

“I told you so many times!” “No, you didn’t!” That is the kind of argument we regularly hear in couple’s therapy. If you are or have been in a romantic relationship, that situation probably happened to you as well. It can occur when one partner realizes the extent of the other’s feelings, like “I knew it bothered you, but I didn’t know it bothered you that much.” How is it that despite all our communication, we still sometimes don’t understand each other?

As we are unique human beings with our individual histories, there are different possible explanations for miscommunication experiences. A common reason is that people often think they express their feelings and needs when, in reality, they have not been as direct as they believe. For example, a partner often says what they think the other is doing incorrectly or what they want the other to do or stop doing. While it may seem that this is direct communication, it may fail to communicate important aspects of one partner’s experience, including why this is important to him/her and how the others’ actions make him/her feel. This can be perceived as blame and criticism rather than a direct expression of feelings and needs and often leaves the other partner defensive and unable to listen and empathize.

Another common miscommunication issue is that we often think our way is the “right” way and can dismiss a partner’s feelings or perspective and not give space for discussion and compromise. When one partner is not open to the other’s point of view, the chances are that the other person will not be inclined to try to listen and understand either.

These are a few things to be mindful of that can help strengthen your communication as a couple. Both members of the couple need to work together to improve communication, and it is not the responsibility of only one member of the couple to make things better. However, working together can be difficult, especially if communication is already a challenge. At the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships, we can help you develop a deeper understanding of your relationship dynamics as a couple and help you communicate in new, helpful ways to better understand each other.

Vann-Vateil Phlek, B.A., is a counsellor at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships working under the supervision of Dr. Karine Côté, C.Psych. She has completed her B.A. in psychology at the University of Ottawa, and provides counselling to adults and couples.

Surviving Your Relationship During the Pandemic

Many of us are still coming to grips with the surreal experience of living through a pandemic. Yet, here we all are grappling with many of the same questions and concerns, from basic ones, “Are we going to be able to find toilet paper?” to more existential ones, “What is life going to look like in three (or six or nine) months from now?”

Over the past week, a recurrent conversation I have had with friends, family, and colleagues is how we plan to use this time as an opportunity for growth. Whether it be chipping away at our ever-expanding reading list or reconnecting (or connecting more deeply) with loved ones, how will we expand? For couples whose relationships were strained before the implementation of social distancing measures, this may be a fork-in-the-road moment. One path takes the couple down further disconnection that will make salvaging the relationship more difficult; the other road offers opportunities for couples to build a stronger relationship in potentially profound ways.

This blog will focus on two broad opportunities associated with taking the latter path:

  1. The first is for couples to learn/re-learn how to work together effectively as a team. This moment in history has brought one thing into crystal clear focus: we all rely and depend on each other. Indeed, the effectiveness of my efforts in socially distancing depends on whether those around me do the same. Often, as couples become disconnected over time, their ability to work as a team is compromised. Differences in how to load the dishwasher, for example, become a place of further division and alienation. As social distancing measures continue to be in effect, and some of us are forced into close quarters with our partners, problem-solving and finding solutions that work for the couple is critical. Problems that will naturally arise include: Who is going to get groceries? How many hours of screen time for the children is acceptable? What are the meal plans going to look like? To effectively address all these questions and more, couples have no choice but to keep the lines of communication open. Relying on assumptions and hiding from your partner is no longer an option for the time being.

Here are some tips for couples trying to work together:

  • Be flexible, do not nitpick. It is okay to have standards, but you are sharing a smaller, more contained, world with someone, so your ability to compromise is essential. Your place may be messier than usual. Permit yourselves to relax those standards.
  • Pause heated conversations and make a plan to return to them at a later time. Set aside time consistently to review any issues or concerns that need to be addressed.
  • If you are upset, refrain from criticizing your partner or making “always” or “never” statements (e.g., “You never help out” or “You always do it wrong”). Focus on the challenge right in front of you. Avoid “kitchen sinking” each problem by referring to all your past conflicts.
  1. Another opportunity for couples during the pandemic is to reconnect through openness and curiosity about each other’s experiences. Couple partners presenting to treatment often struggle to be open and curious about their partner’s experience because they can assume that they’re going to hear something critical or something that implicates wrongdoing on their part. In this situation, partners will often become angry or withdraw from each other, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves all parties feeling frustrated and invalidated.

Questions you could ask your partner might include:

  • What is this like for you?
  • What are you scared/hopeful about?
  • How effective do you think the government response has been?

If you feel that your partner is open and curious about your experience, you will be more likely to feel validated and understood. This is important because the process of feeling heard by someone is a salve for our emotional distress and helps to build intimacy and connection. This might inject goodwill into the cycle mentioned above that strengthens the foundation of the relationship for other changes to take hold.

Taking these steps to improve the relationship will no doubt present some challenges. Psychologists and therapists at CFIR that work with couples are here to help you and your partner implement these necessary changes and to process and work through any issues that might arise. During the pandemic, we offer telepsychotherapy services (e.g., video, telephone) to support you and your partner to overcome challenges and build intimacy and connection.

Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych. is a psychologist in supervised practice at CFIR’s Toronto office. He has provided clinical and assessment services in a variety of settings such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the McGill Psychoeducational and Counselling Clinic, and the Health and Wellness Centre within the University of Toronto. He has also completed his Ph.D. in clinical and counselling psychology at the University of Toronto. In individual therapy, he help adults struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, as well as those trying to cope with the effects of past and/or current verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

5 Ways to Connect Socially During COVID-19 Self-Isolation

Opportunities for ‘Distant Socializing’ in the Time of Social Distancing

With the state of emergency declared in Ontario because of COVID-19, many are self-isolating to protect themselves and others. While isolating or ‘socially distancing’ ourselves can limit the spread of the virus, it can also lead to feelings of loneliness. Humans are inherently social creatures. In a time where most of our basic needs are met with the click of a button or a trip to the store, we continue to strive for comfort, reassurance, self-esteem needs, and to feel worthwhile. Research shows that social support from valued others increases our life satisfaction, self-confidence, ability to cope with distress, and mitigates stress and negative mental health symptoms.

As many of us take shelter in our homes during this unexpected period in history, we can find solace in the fact that we are in an unprecedented age of social connection. Social media has allowed us the ability to connect in new and creative ways. At the same time, it can be a tiring and limiting way to socialize, especially when we find ourselves scrolling mindlessly on Instagram for hours. Here are some new, old, and forgotten methods of socializing from a distance.  

Seeking Innovative Interactions Online

Perhaps one of the consolations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is the knowledge that everybody is experiencing the same variations of loneliness, isolation, and boredom. A lot of your self-isolated friends are likely desperate for interaction! If you’re a gamer, multiplayer games that allow voice-chatting are a great way to amuse yourselves, work towards a shared goal and connect with others all at once. If you are less of a gamer and more of a Netflix fan, bond over your shared love of content-consumption using websites like Netflix Party. This site allows friends to chat while watching Netflix content together online, and is becoming a popular platform to socialize from a distance.

Normalize the Video Call

When people think of video calling, they often think of one of two scenarios: either they’re enrapt in an urgent conference call, or they’re talking to their parents, who are usually sitting much too close to the camera. We often forget that video calling can be useful for everyday check-ins. Your distant family members aren’t the only ones who enjoy seeing your face! Try replacing your 10 a.m. coffee chat with your coworker with an informal video call. If you have switched to at-home workouts, try video-chatting your gym buddy as you sweat through a cardio routine in your living room. Don’t be afraid to normalize video-calling by reaching out to those in your life you typically wouldn’t think to Facetime. 

Revive the Pen Pal

Letter-writing may seem like an outdated means of communication, but it can foster deep and meaningful connections with your loved ones. Unlike the average text message, writing a letter involves considerably more time and reflection, and the topics you discuss are usually more deliberate. It can thus be a profoundly introspective activity, much like writing in a journal. Sending mail is a thoughtful way of showing someone they’re on your mind while providing you with the opportunity to organize ideas and understand your experience. Older individuals who are more at risk of COVID19 and are likely also bored at home may appreciate your reaching out. 

Engage with Pets

Those of us self-isolating with a pet are in good company! The presence of an animal can be very therapeutic during times of fear and uncertainty. Cuddling your pet is a great way to release endorphins and oxytocin, which foster feelings of happiness and connection. 

In this period of social distancing, some pets can provide a great excuse to momentarily get outside from time to time. Walking your dog can become a healthy routine that allows you to check-in with yourself, get some fresh air, and catch up with neighbours (from a safe distance).

Connect with a Therapist Online

Self-isolating without family or roommates can be a lonely and emotionally-taxing experience. Self-isolating with panicked family and friends can be just as anxiety-inducing and draining. Virtual psychotherapy can allow individuals who are distressed, struggling, or who need someone to talk to, to connect with therapists from the comfort of their home. Reach out to CFIR online for secure video and teletherapy sessions. 

Nisha Mohan, B.A. is a counsellor at CFIR (Ottawa) and is currently in her final year of a Master of Arts program in Counselling Psychology at the University of Ottawa, pursuing research on the intersecting experiences of biculturalism and emerging adulthood. At the time of this publication, she is under the supervision of Dr. Aleks Milosevic, C.Psych. Nisha provides therapy and assessment to adults for difficulties related to anxiety and stress, depression and mood, anger and emotion regulation, grief and loss, learning challenges, life transitions, personal growth, existential meaning and purpose, and relationship struggles. 

 

The Hardest Part of an Argument

by: Valery Vengerov, M.Psy. R.P.(Qualifying)

One of the most common experiences that couples report having after an unresolved argument is the daunting, heavy silence that follows. The lack of resolution of an argument leaves each partner feeling misunderstood and often in a state of resignation. Each partner might think: “I give up. He/she will never understand me. Why even bother? I’ll deal with this on my own.” This lingering silence can be a protest. The longer and more frequently couples remain in this space of estrangement from one another, the more stressed and dissatisfied they become with their relationship as a whole (Liu & Roloff, 2015). Resentment builds, and distance develops as the ‘couple’ unit starts to feel unsafe. 

In therapy, couples have the opportunity to safely share the accumulated hurt and resentment that underlies and results from these silences, and that threatens their relationship. They can experience the relief that comes with being heard and listened to. They also find out more about their partner, who becomes more accessible and available to them as a result of therapy. Couples can learn how to repair conflict faster and more effectively in therapy, and reduce the amount of time they spend feeling disconnected and resentful of one another (Gordon & Chen, 2016).

Whatever challenges you and your partner want to address in couples therapy, improving communication is vital.

Evidence- and science-based couples therapy will help both of you to define your thoughts, feelings, and desires to each other with openness and empathy.

A therapist in CFIR’s Relationship and Sex Therapy team can also help you to arrive at a better understanding of each other’s point of view. You can collaboratively set your treatment goals to ensure that you or you and your partner’s concerns and needs are adequately addressed.

References

Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I’m coming from?: Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 239-260.

Liu, E., & Roloff, M. E. (2015). Exhausting Silence: Emotional Costs of Withholding Complaints. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 8, 1, 25-4.

Valery Vengerov, M.Psy., R.P. (Qualifying), is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She works with individual and couples clients, to help them resolve a wide range of difficulties related to depression, stress and anxiety, trauma and loss, and relationship conflict and betrayals.

Emotional Dialogues in Couples: 9 Steps to Greater Emotional Communication and Connection!

Learning how to experience and express our emotions and needs to a partner can be very difficult, particularly if in our own family of origin, our inner feelings and needs were not addressed. Working through feelings and emotions requires adequate time and space to complete these types of interactions.  Couples often struggle and elevate distress when trying to engage in discussions of feelings and needs while multi-tasking (e.g., cooking, driving, shopping, taking care of the children). 

Discovering how to efficiently and effectively process your partner’s and your emotional experience is essential, so each of you feels understood and seen by the other. Picking the right time to have these dialogues is crucial, taking turns so that each partner feels sufficiently validated in their experience and their needs resolved is also important. Emotional accessibility and responsiveness to our partner’s emotional experiences and needs help our partners distress to lower and deepens the connection between partners. To be accessibility means to be able to be present and engaged sufficiently with your partner’s emotional experience. Responsiveness involves interest and engagement in identifying and resolving the underlying needs associated with emotions. These types of interactions are the essence of secure attachment.

The clinicians at CFIR support couple clients to develop emotional attunement through nine different steps. Learning how to complete these types of emotional interactions can lower distress and stress levels when partners have a guide to help them to process their emotions and needs. Come learn how to emotionally communicate and connect using steps developed by clinicians at CFIR’s offices.

7 Signs Your Relationship May Need Help

by: Joshua Peters, M.A., R.P.

Relationships have never been easy and now it seems we’re in a space and time where technology and the way we connect are continuously growing and changing. The intimacy we have with someone can mean so much, yet it seems we consistently struggle to maintain the bond. How can we know if we are “getting it right” in our partnerships?

In speaking about the complexity of our relationships, famed relationship expert, Esther Perel notes that “companionship, family, children, economic support, a best friend, a passionate lover, a trusted confidante, an intellectual equal […] we are asking from one person what an entire village once provided.” In this paradigm, it can be hard to understand when our partners and our relationships maybe failing us. 

Here are some signs that indicate your relationship may need some work:

1. Lack of Communication 

In a world bursting with ways to communicate, it may be surprising to learn that ineffective communication remains a common issue in relationships. It’s impossible for your partner to know all your needs, feelings, and thoughts without talking about them. Communication is essential in overcoming relationship wounds, and very few relationships can survive without it.

2. Arguing with No Repair

Though constant arguing can sometimes be indicative of relationship distress – unrepaired conflict may be the real culprit. Arguments, when done sympathetically, are an essential part of relationship satisfaction. Repairing from a dispute allows partners to accept each ones’ differences and re-establish their love for one another. 

3. Loss of Curiosity

We are continually growing and changing as individuals and it crucial we remember to remain curious about our partners as they grow. The experience of curiosity and surprise is one of the essential processes in maintaining long-term desire. Partners in healthy relationships are happy to explore their partner’s unique perspective of the world.

4. Mind Reading

This familiar refrain, “Look, I know you’re angry…” exposes a common misstep in many relationships. Often experienced in conjunction with a loss of curiosity, partners start assuming they are always in each other’s “bad books” even before a problem is revealed. Stay tentative about your perceived experience of your partner, especially in times of distress. You might be surprised by the difference between how they feel and how you thought the feel!

5. Loss of Priority

It can be hard to find a balance between work, children, friends, and family in today’s busy world. How you prioritize your relationship may look different to you, so it’s crucial that you discuss this with your partner. Failure to explore this in a discussion could leave your partner feeling unloved and unimportant. 

6. No Hurt – Only Anger

When we’re most distressed it may feel instinctive to get angry. Though anger is an important emotion in that it tells us something isn’t working, it isn’t usually helpful in resolving conflict. Instead, opting to express our more vulnerable and hurt emotions allows our partner to understand and ultimately care for us when necessary. 

7. Blaming your partner

It takes two to tango! Though one partner may sometimes be experiencing more distress, it’s beneficial to recognize that your relationship is co-created by both of you. Take note of how you may be contributing to the dynamic between you and your partner.

Couples experiencing any of these relationship difficulties at heightened levels may feel like they are insurmountable problems. However, exploring these issues can provide a needed check-in for your relationship. Moreover, what you discover can inspire you and your partner to reimage what your relationship could become. Couples therapy offers an excellent opportunity to explore these struggles and move towards growth. The skilled clinicians at CFIR can help you and your partner better understands your current distress and support you to build a more resilient and healthy relationship.

Can Social Media Impact Your Romantic Relationship? Here are Five Ways to Get Connected

A restaurant in the U.K. recently announced it will be banning the use of mobile devices in their establishment on February 14 in an effort “to refocus diners on the food and experience”. This move has generated a bit of online buzz and has turned attention to how preoccupied society is becoming with the world-wide-web and more specifically, social media. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we recently asked, Dr. Tracy Dalgliesh C. Psych. “Can social media outlets have an impact on our romantic relationships? What are some positive ways to use them (or not) on Valentine’s Day?“. 

Here’s her response: 

Social media becomes problematic when we use it to turn away from our partner, resulting in decreased connection and communication. Instead of working through an argument and engaging in a difficult conversation, you turn to scrolling through social media. This is an avoidance strategy, and we know from couples research that shutting down (i.e., stonewalling) is a type of communication that can result in long-term couple distress.2 (For more on the four communication styles that predict the dissolution of a relationship, see https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/. Recent research suggests that excessive use of devices leads to lower relationship satisfaction.1 This is even truer for partners with anxious attachment (i.e., they fear that they are unlovable or unworthy). Other examples may include messaging friends over talking to your partner, checking your phone in the middle of a conversation with your partner, or sharing fun and exciting information with others online and not your lover. 

Individuals fall into the trap of the comparing themselves and their relationships to what they see on social media. Profiles often portray the happiest moments – and these are often posed images. They do not display the challenges that couples all face. Frequently seeing these stylized and selected images can impact how you view your own relationship. Thoughts of “why aren’t we that happy?” or “we never do anything exciting” may arise and create negative feelings towards your relationship and partner. This negative filter may then lead to thoughts of “I could be happier with someone else,” further contributing to dissatisfaction. 

Social media can also impact one’s feelings of jealousy and insecurity. All of the platforms for social media offer easy ways to connect with others privately. This becomes a problem when it is done in secret, or when connecting with someone else feels good and you are putting more energy into that connection than with your partner. A negative feedback loop can also start, where jealousy leads to snooping, which further exacerbates feelings of jealousy. In some situations, social media can lead to infidelity. 

While social media can present with its challenges for couples, I do believe that it can be used in a healthy manner – where couples can build and enhance their connection. Here are some tips on how to use social media this Valentine’s Day to enhance your relationship:

  • Set limits on the time that you are on your devices. Agree to put the phones on silent in another room (e.g., from 7pm-9pm) on Valentine’s Day (and maybe every day!).
  • Send a message letting your partner know you are thinking of them or excited to see them at the end of the day. We long to know that we matter to the ones we love, so let your partner in on your feelings.
  • Send a good morning or good night love meme.
  • Share a memory or article with your partner that you found on your social media outlet and use it to get to know the other person’s opinions and desires.
  • If scrolling and connecting is part of your time together, take a break and talk about what you each found interesting. Ask open-ended questions, like “What did you find most surprising to read today?” or “What emotions did you feel while seeing X.”

1. James A. Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.07.058.

2. Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57, 47-52.

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