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.

Love in the Time of COVID-19: Coping With Separation From a Partner

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on all of our daily lives. While many can stay at home with their partners, other couples are separated indefinitely while restrictions on travel are in effect, or as a means to prevent transmitting the virus to a partner who is especially vulnerable to developing a critical illness. It can feel especially isolating to be apart from a partner at a time like this when we most need support from loved ones, especially when the duration of the separation is unknown. Here are some tips for managing this difficult situation:

1. Find ways to maintain your connection while you are apart

Some things to consider:

– Technology now offers a variety of ways to engage with someone remotely. In addition to phone calls and video chats, consider multiplayer online games as an option. These are not limited to traditional video games. Some of these games allow you to simulate playing a board game or completing a puzzle together!), or websites that will enable you to stream the same video together. 

– Rituals can feel grounding at a time like this; consider having a shared mealtime or coffee over video chat, or making a point to wish one another good morning and good night each day. 

– If possible, consider having some of your partner’s favourite snacks or other things they enjoy delivered to them.

– Discuss what each of you needs when it comes to communication. What works best for each of you in terms of scheduling and other commitments? Having a conversation together helps to mitigate the chances of misunderstandings and hurt feelings in this stressful time.

2. Take things one day at a time

It is natural to worry about how long it will be before you can see your partner again, or what the worst-case scenario could be. Still, these worries often contribute to high levels of stress while not helping us to adapt to the situation at hand, especially as it has been rapidly evolving. What can you and your partner do to keep yourselves safe while staying connected today and in the near future? What are the things you can be grateful for, even in these challenging times?

3. Take time to speak about your concerns about the pandemic and how it will impact you or others

Understand that your partner may have very different concerns from your own, as this pandemic is having a range of impacts on people. Some may be worried about their health or the health of loved ones, others may be struggling with lost work or other financial difficulties, and still, others may be distressed about missing important events. Be sure to take time to talk about these concerns so that you can support and validate one another.

4. Take time to speak about literally anything else

While it can be challenging to maintain a sense of normalcy and to maintain your connection as a couple, it’s also important to talk about things other than the pandemic: different aspects of your daily lives, your hobbies, and interests, your hopes and wishes, etc. Consider whether there may be opportunities to talk more deeply about some of these things than you might typically, given the extended time apart and disruptions to your routines and way of life. While you may not be able to avoid a painful time away from your partner, are there ways you can use this time to develop your relationship in a new way?

5. If you live alone, identify others around you who can provide help if you need it (for example, if you are ill or otherwise self-isolating and need someone to run essential errands for you)

Our partners often take on these tasks for us, and it can be anxiety-provoking to be without them at a time when we may need such help; neighbours, extended family, friends, or coworkers may be able to help if asked. If you do not have a robust social network in your area, look into community resources that may be able to help those in need. If you are healthy, also consider whether you might be able to volunteer to provide help for others in your community.

The pandemic has spun the world into a challenging time, and it’s okay not to feel okay being away from your partner right now. In addition to these tips, be sure to take care of yourself and reach out for (and provide, as you are able) support from others in your life, to help cope with this difficult time.

Clinicians at CFIR can work with you to collaboratively set treatment goals to ensure that you or you and your partner’s concerns and needs are adequately addressed. Secure and confidential video and phone treatment options are available. Contact us today.

Dr. Tracy Clouthier, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice) is currently practicing under the supervision of Drs. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. and Aleks Milosevic, C.Psych at CFIR (Ottawa) provide psychological treatment and assessment services in both English and French to adult clients facing a variety of difficulties, including depression, anxiety, relationship challenges, concerns related to self-esteem and identity, difficulties with emotion regulation, trauma, and challenges adjusting to life transitions and other stresses.

Attachment Injuries in Couples: Healing After Betrayals

by: Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych.

An attachment injury occurs when a partner is betrayed or abandoned, and trust is violated at a moment of critical need for support and care. The injury can be traumatic as the injured partner is left with a sense of helplessness, isolation, and intense fear about the other’s availability (Johnson et al. 2001; Zuccarini et al. 2013). These traumatic incidents occur when a partner’s belief and faith in the reliability and dependability of the partner is shattered. Examples of these types of injuries include marital affairs, emotional affairs, money mismanagement, violation of boundaries, abandonment at times of need during pregnancy, alignment with parents over partner, child-rearing conflicts, and lack of support during illness, among others. These traumatic incidences become a barometer of the offending partner’s trustworthiness, dependability, and reliability. The attachment bond between partners becomes frayed as a result of these injuries.

In these instances, clinicians at CFIR will address the lingering hurt and anger and heal the frayed bond. The emotional processing of these events is essential to the healing process.  Attachment bonds are emotional bonds.  The emotional accessibility and responsiveness to the injured partner’s experience facilitates recovery and healing.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation for Couples Post Affairs

Forgiveness and reconciliation after an extramarital affair is a complex process. Forgiveness occurs when there is an experiential shift in the injured partner toward the betraying partner— a movement toward softer feelings. This experiential shift requires an unpacking of different types of emotional reactions associated with these types of relationship traumas. The shattering of one’s sense of self, the other, and one’s sense of future identity in the aftermath of an affair can create instability and insecurity in one’s self and the relationship. These types of injuries result in complex emotional reactions that require resolution. Reconciliation, the next step in recovery, occurs when steps are taken to rebuild trust and restore the relationship after a forgiveness process. These steps are essential for the restoration of security.

The team of psychologists, psychotherapists, and counsellors at CFIR employ evidence-based interventions to support relationship partners beleaguered by emotional injuries in the aftermath of an affair. Steps to forgiveness and reconciliation and the interventions required for successful resolution of an extramarital affair have been delineated in research conducted by Dr. Zuccarini, C.Psych., co-founder of the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. (Zuccarini et al., 2013). Clinicians at CFIR are prepared to support you in promoting healing in your relationship.

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.

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