Establishing and maintaining your boundaries

Dr. Karine Côté, C.Psych.

The importance of asserting boundaries to promote healthy and sustainable relationships with others is more and more talked about in the media. Whether it is with your significant other, parent, sibling, friend or co-worker, being able to identify and assert your boundaries can be a significant skill to build. 

Boundaries are defined as limits and rules we set for ourselves within our relationships. They can be psychological, emotional or physical in nature, and require being mindful of your needs and limits within various situations (, 2024). Boundaries can help you meet your interpersonal needs, promote closeness, limit over enmeshment, and increase your sense of self-efficacy. 

Here are a few key ingredients to keep in mind to help you establish and maintain your boundaries with others.

Identify: Your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations represent a guide to your internal needs and limits. Being attuned to them and building your ability to understand their underlying meaning and function can help you identify your needs and limits. 

Assert: Your boundaries will have a much better chance to be respected if they are clearly expressed to others. Speaking in I statements and communicating when you and the other are emotionally regulated will also give you the best chance to be heard.

Clarify: Sometimes, the intention or the meaning behind our boundaries can be misunderstood by others. Taking the space to clarify them as needed will also increase your chance of being heard and respected in your boundaries.

Reinforce: When the other has modified their behaviors or reactions to respect your boundaries, giving them acknowledgment and showing your appreciation can help confirm they are on the right track in meeting your needs – and therefore reinforce these positive changes.

Repeat: In some cases, asserting a boundary once may not be enough for it to be consistently respected by the other. After all, we are all creatures of habit! Repeating the boundary can also help sustain the needed changes in your interpersonal relationships.

Asserting boundaries and engaging in satisfying, respectful and sustainable relationships can present with challenges at times. Clinicians at CFIR-CPRI are here to support should you need help in navigating complex interpersonal dynamics.

Reference (2024). Interpersonal Boundaries.

Dr. Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Dr. Côté provides psychological services to individual adults and couples experiencing a wide range of psychological and relationship difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders, sleep disruptions, and interpersonal betrayal. She works from a humanistic approach and integrates therapeutic techniques from gestalt and object relations psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION:  The Cornerstone of More Secure Attachment Bonds (2)

Blog 2:  Emotional Signaling, Responding And Repairing Ruptures:  Key Interactions in Building Greater Connection

In this 2nd blog in my 3 part series on Emotional Communication, I will be describing 3 of 6 steps that you might want to consider to ensure that your emotions and needs are being clearly communicated and that you are prepared to respond to the other’s expressions.  Emotions signal that you need something.  Learning how to signal in an efficient and effective manner increases the likelihood that your partner can understand your distress and what you are needing from him/her.  Learning how to attend, and attune to your partner’s emotional experience ensures you are accessible to him/her and prepared to be available to respond to whatever need emerges. This allows for co-regulation of your distress to occur— a reduction of distress as a result of the attention and responsiveness to the other.

STEP 1: Expressing Partner—Expression of a Feeling/Emotion: Stay in a reflective place (e.g.., thinking about your feelings and emotions as opposed to reactively, intensely, and loudly expressing whatever thought and feeling you are having); otherwise, your partner will not be able to pay attention to you as loud and intense emotions can be disorganizing for the listener. When expressing your feelings and emotions, speak from the “I” position, and refrain from language that is judgemental, and blaming.  Starting with “You” may incite defensiveness.  Reflect on the emotions you are aware of, label the emotion and link it to the incident or context (e.g., “I feel angry/sad/scared/hurt/shame/guilt/excited/

joyful/proud about ….the situation in which…”).  Remember to only talk about one feeling/emotion at a time, and start your sentences with words like “From my perspective, or my experience”.  Here’s some examples:  “I feel angry about our discussion we had last night and would like to talk about my feelings”, or “I am sad about your working too much and I would like to talk to you about this”. 

Also, try not to speak in concrete ways about your partner or the circumstances and make sure you communicate that your emotions are coming from your experience and perspective. Using words like “it seemed to me” allows your partner to understand how you have experienced him/her (e.g., “you seemed/seem to be ignoring me” as opposed to “you were/are ignoring me”) and allows you to remain open and curious to the possibility that your partner had different intentions, beliefs, thoughts or feelings than you had originally considered.  Also, stating openly that you are sharing from “your perspective” or “from your own experience of the situation” allows for open dialogue and mutual understanding of each partner’s feelings and emotions about situations (e.g., “from my perspective, it seemed like you were ignoring me”).

STEP 2: Responding Partner—-Acknowledgment and Interest in Understanding What the Feelings/Emotions May be About: When responding, it’s important to acknowledge what your partner is feeling and demonstrate an interest in his/her experience.  Listen carefully, and fully to what your partner is expressing and make sure not to interrupt until they are finished.  Stay curious, calm, present and open to understanding what the emotional distress is about. Monitor your body language (i.e., do not lean away, but toward). Make eye contact, if possible. Try to empathize with your partner’s feelings (i.e., imagine what they are going through and how this is distressing for him/her).  Your partner’s emotional distress is a signal that they are in need of something—try to listen for what they might be needing from you to help them along with this distress.

Responding lowers your partner’s emotional arousal and intensity.  It reduces their emotional isolation as you join them in his/her experience. Acknowledgement and interest in your partner’s feelings and emotions can allow your partner to feel more at ease.  Being seen, and understood is very soothing and connecting. Before acknowledging your partner’s emotions or asking questions, ask whether he/she have completed sharing with you (i.e., “Is there anything more you want to share? Or “Is now the time that I might say something?”).  You can acknowledge feelings/emotions by simply reflecting back something like “I can see that you are (e.g., sad/angry/scared/)….I sense that you are (sad/angry/scared/upset etc…)”. You can demonstrate your interest by asking “What’s making you sad/angry/scared/nervous…help me understand what’s going on for you now…or tell me more so I understand how you are (sad/angry/hurt/frightened/stressed) right now”. Reflecting back the feeling and what is it about provides your partner with a sense of presence that further reduces distress.

Step 3:  Repair Ruptures in Emotional Communication—-Checking in with each other about whether your efforts to express your feeling and emotions and your responses to the other are being understood:  Trying to express and respond to someone’s emotions with your words can create misunderstandings.  Human communication can be filled with assumptions, and misinterpretations.  We might use inappropriate language in expressing ourselves or use words unintentionally that are not capturing what we are trying to express.  We may also in listening not have heard something or misinterpreted what our partners was trying to communicate.  

Repair requires lower emotional arousal and intensity. Do not react strongly to these miscommunications, and instead, you and your partner have to initiate a repair process. If you become too emotionally reactive due to miscommunications, your capacity to reflect and think about your experience and empathize with the other will be greatly diminished.  Take a breath, relax, and try once again to work clarify what you were trying to convey to the other.  An expressing partner may say to a responding partner, “You got part of it, the part about A, but I don’t feel as though you’ve gotten this part about B. I’ll try again to express me to you and find words that might help you better understand me if I can.”  This step requires patience to ensure clarifications and corrections are made so understanding is achieved. If you are struggling to express yourself or understand, you might both want to express your intentions and willingness to try to understand (e.g., “Maybe I’m saying too much here and it’s hard“, “I really want to make sure I see you here”, or “I’m willing to keep at this until you get the sense I’m getting you here”). 

In my next blog, Figuring Out Needs and Responsiveness to Needs:  What Ultimately Brings Our Distress to An End, I’ll be looking at the importance of identifying the needs that are at the root of your distress.  I’ll be providing the last 3 steps of 6 steps in emotional communication. Learning how to zero in on what you’re feeling and what you’re needing, and being able to clearly figure out what you need and then communicating this to the other person.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION:  The Cornerstone of More Secure Attachment Bonds (3)

Blog 3:  Figuring Out Needs, Responsiveness to Needs: What Ultimately Brings Our Distress to an End

In this 3rd blog in this 3-part series of blogs on emotional communication, I’ll be sharing with you information about the importance of delineating the needs that are at the root of your emotional distress and how responsiveness to these needs is core to bring about change to the feelings and emotions you are experiencing.  After you have expressed, or responded to your partner’s feelings and emotions, and you’ve repaired any ruptures, it’s very important to make that next leap to understand the needs that gave rise to the emotions.  The concerns, goals and needs underlying your emotions have to be stated clearly, directly and be realistic (e.g.., doable by the other).  

Step 4: Expressing Partner- Expression of Concerns, Goals and Needs: Upon completion of the acknowledgement and understanding phase and any repairs in communication, there has to be some type of dialogue related to the needs that underlie the emotions.  Figuring out our needs can be difficult and not within our awareness immediately.  Try to figure out what you need to reduce the distress and from your partner or for your self to shift your feelings (e.g…, “I really need to just go out for a walk and take a break”…or “I need to be alone momentarily”…or “I need for you to just listen to what’s been going on”, or “tell me everything is going to be okay”).  Do you need to just share your feelings? Have someone listen and validate you? Do you need reassurances? 

Make the need concrete, doable and realistic.  If you say something like “I need for you to love me” or I need for you to care more”—this might be too vague without clear examples of behaviours, or actions or words that you might require.  Be specific (e.g. “I need more affection” or “I need more support from you around the home and with the children, such as making sure you are present at dinner to help me cook and feed our child”.  Your partner will not be able to meet all of your needs.  Partners can meet many needs, but sometimes maybe only partially, and so be prepared to negotiate and compromise.

Step 5: Responding Partner- Responsiveness to Needs: Be prepared to respond to the expressed need as described by your partner, after ensuring you understand what is needed in concrete, clear terms. Do not provide any responses until you are clear about what your partner needs from you (e.g., “what I am understanding is that you need me to be more present and helpful by ….”).  Needs for emotional connection, contact, support, affection and sexuality have to be taken seriously as an emotional connection, care, affection and sexuality are cornerstones for the relationship. 

Make sure you clearly let your partner know that you plan to take steps to address these needs.  If you are unable to meet the needs, it’s important that you be prepared to let them know what is possible, and try to compromise and negotiate what’s possible.  

Step 6:  Both Partners -Clarifications and the Understanding the Responding Partner’s Emotions and Needs: It’s important that the responding partner’s feelings and needs are also shared about any situation that has caused distress.   Turn-taking is important.  Your partner might have their own feelings and needs related to what you are expressing.  The responding partner can then take his or her turn in becoming the expressing partner related to any situation or incident that was difficult for him or her (e.g., “I would like to share my feelings about the affection in our relationship and what I am needing here”).  Clarifying the responding partners feelings and needs related to the topic will help in the process of trying to figure out what they are able to offer as a response and can be used in trying to negotiate and find a compromise between both partners. 

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION:  The Cornerstone of More Secure Attachment Bonds (1)

Blog 1:  Setting The Conditions for Emotional Communication

Welcome to my series of blogs about emotional communication.  In this 3 part series, I will be outlining basic emotional communication steps that you can use in your most intimate friendships and love relationships to help learn how to express your feelings, emotions and needs and respond to the others’ emotions. Attachment bonds are emotional bonds— your capacity to be able to both express your emotions in a modulated, non-threatening way, and to be responsive to these emotional signals in others plays an important role in creating emotional closeness and connection.  We are not designed to be left alone and isolated with difficult emotional experiences without reaching for a loving other. In these blogs, you’ll be provided with some simple steps to consider.  You’re on your way to greater emotional intimacy!  

In my first blog, I’ll be sharing with you various items to consider in setting up the conditions for emotional communication.  Emotional communication and intimacy takes time, patience, and your full attention and presence to your self.  Paying attention to these conditions might support you in your effort to provide your full attention and presence.

The conditions presented here are to help you set up the appropriate space to have emotionally laden dialogues.  We are most effective in being able to experience, reflect upon, and make sense of our own feelings and empathize and hold a compassionate space for others when our nervous systems are in a calmer and more restful state.  If we are overly stressed and distressed, and in a sympathetic nervous system response, also known as a ‘fight and flight response’, or in a dorsal polyvagal nervous system response, which involves a ‘shutting down’, we are unable to truly connect to our self and others and are  most likely to be defensive or self-protective.  We are more likely to block engagement, escalate conflicts, and only see our perspective, or disengage altogether.

To improve the possibility of not activating a ‘flight and fight’ or ‘shut down’ response during your dialogue, I suggest you consider establishing the following 4 conditions for your dialogues:   Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

  1. Pick an appropriate time and place for both of you to discuss your feelings, emotions and needs about any topic or incident. Make sure you and your partner are not distracted when having emotionally-laden discussions.  Do not have these types of discussions while doing any other tasks, such as driving, the laundry, cooking or watching TV–. You will need sufficient time to process. If you are in the midst of a discussion and cannot complete it, make sure to both commit to another time to complete the discussion.  Also, try to have these dialogues at a time and  place in your home that you both agree too—setting a regular time or processing space will ensure that these discussions are contained by a regular time and space in your home. 
  2. Ensure that you are not overly emotionally aroused, tense or stressed or shutting down before, during and after the dialogue. Over arousal increases defensive responding, and blocks your ability to figure out and attend to your own and partner’s feelings and needs. If either of you are feeling too emotionally aroused or stressed, or shutting down, it is important that you engage in breathing, relaxation exercises, and possibly taking a break from your dialogue until you are both able to be more present to your self and the other. Monitor your body prior to and during the conversation to ensure that you are breathing rhythmically and are sufficiently relaxed (e.g, body scan to ensure that you are not holding tension throughout your body). Intimate emotional communication requires that you are both present and attentive, and calm and relaxed.  This contributes to the experience of connectedness and safety.
  3. Deal with only one or two feelings, emotions or needs at any one time. Do not bring up other feelings, emotions from past incidents during your dialogue. Discuss one situation and/or event as processing multiple events and feelings intensifies emotional arousal and disrupts processing as a result of overarousal. Partners can quite quickly become flooded by negative emotions if too many past incidents are raised during one discussion. 
  4. Recognize that at any one time you and the other may have different experiences of events and situations. You are a separate psychological being in body and mind from the other. Remembering that you might experience situations or understand them differently is important in helping you maintain an openness and curiosity to the other’s self.   Be prepared to be patient to give your partner the necessary time to FULLY describe his/her experience. Start as many statements as you can with words such as “In my experience” or “From my perspective”. These statements will help each of you to recognize that your experience of an incident is uniquely your own, and acknowledges the reality of how you may have different thoughts, feelings, emotions, preferences, desires and needs at any time and in any situation. Feeling seen and heard in regards to your unique experience by the other will lessen distressing emotional arousal.  

In this blog, I provided you with some ideas about creating conditions for your emotionally-laden dialogue to ensure that overarousal doesn’t result in escalations of conflict or shut downs and withdrawals.  In my 2nd and 3rd blogs, I will set out steps to help you in your emotional communication with others through 6 steps. I will be providing practical advice on how to emotionally cue and respond to your partner as they are expressing their emotions and needs.  These steps will allow for more efficient and effective emotional communication

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Attachment Styles – Why Are They Important?

By: Dr. Sara Antunes-Alves, C.Psych.

Human beings are hardwired for connection. Unlike other mammals, we rely absolutely on our attachment figures for survival, for an extended period of time, from birth. Without secure connection, our health is at risk. 

When we experience trauma, the wiring for connection is disrupted and we develop adaptations in order to feel safe. It is important to note here that trauma needn’t necessarily be a “Big T” trauma, which include disturbing experiences that happened to you, such as sexual abuse, loss of a loved one, and violent crimes, but also “little t” traumas, especially ones that repeat throughout our development. “Little t” traumas are ones that cause us distress and uncertainty and can also include experiences that didn’t happen to you but should have. A lack of emotional availability from an attachment figure – even if they had the best of intentions – can be traumatic. 

Our attachment style refers to the behaviours we engage in to feel safe with others. Attachment exists on a spectrum, and we may be a mix of different attachment styles, and with different people. Disruptions in attachment tend to originate from our early developmental years, within our families, but can also be affected by harmful experiences later on, such as with a painful romantic relationship or being bullied in school.

There are four attachment styles, and they are briefly described below:

Secure Attachment:This is the “ideal” attachment leaning, manifesting as a healthy level of interdependence with another and comfort expressing emotions openly; relationships are a place of thriving, but being alone is also not necessarily a distressing place. You feel comfortable relying on another for support and having them rely on you.Avoidance and anxiety are low.

There are three forms of insecure attachment:

Dismissive-Avoidant:This attachment leaning manifests as (emotional) distance from others, valuing a high level of self-sufficiency and independence; closeness feels threatening and efforts to push another away can be prevalent; emotions are generally suppressed and denied. You feel triggered by closeness and intimacy. Avoidance is high and anxiety is low. 

Anxious/Preoccupied:This attachment leaning is characterized by high needs for intimacy and a fear of abandonment and rejection. These are managed by high attunement to another’s emotions and pronounced efforts to meet the other’s needs, often at the expense of their own. Eventually, protest behaviours to feel reassured may occur. You feel triggered by distance and uncertainty. Avoidance is low and anxiety is high. 

Fearful-Avoidant/Disorganized:This attachment leaning manifests in a push-pull dynamic. The individual desires connection with another and simultaneously fears it, leading to inconsistent and ambiguous behaviours in social bonds. Emotions are not regulated well and a sense of shame is prevalent; both closeness and distance can feel triggering. Here, anxiety and avoidance are both high.

The above insecure attachment styles represent clever adjustments as a result of important developmental needs not being met. They reflect humanity’s impressive propensity for survival through adaptation. However, at some point, you may find that these adaptations are no longer useful to you and may in fact be causing you or your relationships harm. 

The good news is, attachment styles are not fixed; they can change. 

If you find yourself identifying with an insecure attachment style, there is hope. It is not a life sentence. With greater awareness of your attachment style with another, what makes you feel threatened and how you find safety, you can learn to pause and choose to respond in more adaptive and secure ways. It is an effortful and sometimes lengthy process of re-learning, but it is never too late to choose. 

Dr. Sara Antunes-Alves, C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Sara provides therapy to individuals experiencing a range of psychological difficulties, and especially enjoys helping others understand their relationship to self and others, and how attachment (trauma), especially in formative years of development, affects adults in their current functioning. Her approach to therapy begins with building self-awareness, which she believes is necessary for meaningful change. Sara makes efforts to highlight the importance of having a more integrated perspective of one’s functioning, including one’s intellectual, emotional, and physiological states of being. She incorporates interpersonal and psychodynamic psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to help clients achieve their therapeutic goals.

Long-distance relationships: Four pillars to boost the possibility of success

By: Anya Rameshwar, B.A., R.P. (Qualifying)

Please note that the worry and sadness associated with a long-distance relationship can vary significantly from person to person — and no two experiences are exactly alike. For more, we recommend consulting with a mental health professional. You can find resources at the bottom of this post. 

A long-distance relationship is a romantic relationship between people who live far apart and cannot meet frequently. Most couples have been confronted with this dilemma at some point, whether it be ongoing, temporary, unexpected, or anticipated. The experience brings heartache, sadness, and even anxiety in any scenario, with doubts, fears and “what will become of us” questions. 

But don’t let those lingering worries and late-night ruminations overwhelm you. Having to separate from your romantic partner(s) means learning to navigate long-distance relationships. 

Focus determines direction. Focus on maintaining your relationship(s) while apart, and you’ll be successful. 

To help you navigate these changing dynamics, here are relationship cornerstones you can focus on when building up and strengthening your partnership(s).

The 4 pillars of a long-distance relationship. 

  1. Passion – Nourish the passion in your relationship(s). This contributes to greater fulfilment – both in and out of the bedroom – as well as happiness and well-being. 
  2. Romance – Enhance the romance in your relationship(s). Preserve some of the elements that were present from the early stages of your attraction. 
  3. Communication – Share what you need, what you want, and what you don’t want with your partner(s)— actively discussing the relationship(s) and assuring ongoing commitment. 
  4. Trust – Be honest and forthcoming. Be transparent and allow space to explore topics that might trigger your mistrust. Keep and follow through on commitments you make. 

How Not To Communicate In Relationships

By: Dr. Ashwin Mehra, C.Psych

It is a well-known adage that good communication is a central component of healthy relationships. Whether we communicate as a partner, parent, family member, or employee, the quality of the communication drives the outcome of that interpersonal interaction. We know this to be true through scientific research, as well as from our personal experiences. However,  it should be emphasized that negative communication can be just as detrimental to interpersonal outcomes as positive communication can be beneficial to them. We can understand negative communication using the framework of Polyvagal Theory, which is based on the activation status of the autonomic nervous system mediated by the action of the vagus nerve. This theory posits that our mind and body can be in a positive  (social engagement) state or in a distressed negative (fight/flight/freeze) state. The resultant communication from each state invariably influences the quality of the communication made from the respective positive or negative state. An interesting observation is that the neural pathways linking to empathy, mentalization and long-term thinking are disengaged during the fight/flight/freeze mind-body states. Engaging in communication with a partner, child or co-worker from this state is obviously counter-productive. Most people, in hindsight, usually wish to take back the things that they have communicated from this negative mind-body state.

In therapy, we can learn to better manage these negative mind-body states so that we can effectively navigate towards the positive mind-body states before communicating, rather than after. This helps us to be in the best possible position to communicate our emotional and other needs and to stay open to other viewpoints during the discussion. This allows us to stay engaged with empathy, mentalization and long-term thinking and the quality of our communication reflects this increased mental capacity. We can use our communication to emotionally self-regulate and strive to co-regulate with others, leading to desired interpersonal outcomes. Therapy becomes an exploratory process to help understand the pathways towards negative communication as well as a structured process to help remove blocks and build capacities towards positive communication. In summary, good communication is built on the foundation of also learning how not to communicate, and therapy can help with achieving that capability.

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.