How to Help Your Relationship Thrive During the Holiday Season

December 3, 2022

The holidays are here! But while that can be exciting for all kinds of reasons, for many of us this is also the busiest, most stressful time of year.

How can you keep the holidays from adding stress and tension to your relationship? Beating holiday stress may not be completely possible, but there are lots of things you and your partner can do to reduce it.

Beating Holiday Stress and Focusing on Your Partner

“Survival” may seem dramatic – but so are the holidays. Everything is heightened, and it can feel like each little thing you get right – or wrong – is incredibly important. So much to do! So many people depending on you!

So take a deep breath and read on to keep your relationship strong throughout the season:

Just Say No. This may be the most important advice you get this year for beating holiday stress. So much of that “overwhelm” feeling comes from trying to do too much and bending over backward to make other people happy. But you are not responsible for everyone’s happiness, and you do not have to do everything. Decide ahead of time what you’re comfortable taking on, then tell people “no” if they try to add things on top of that.

Does a Tradition “Spark Joy”? Yep, Marie Kondo works for traditions, too. Sometimes, things that worked to bring you together in the past can become divisive, frustrating, and stressful as people – and the world – grow and change. If something seems like more trouble than it’s worth, don’t do it anymore.

Forget about the “Joneses.” It’s all too easy to see what others are doing on social media – or just in your own neighborhood – and feel jealous or competitive. But you have to let it go and remember what the season’s really about: connecting with the people you love. Bonus: tuning out all that other noise will help you do that!

Have a Team Mentality. You and your partner are a unit. A lot of beating holiday stress is about talking to each other, making a plan, and refusing to let others set you against each other. Just as important: help each other out. When you work together, you can make things easier for both of you.

Talk It Out – and Keep Talking. Part of this is making a plan, getting on the same page, and sticking to it – including setting aside “relationship time” (as in actually scheduling it!) Part of it is continuing to talk and keep each other in the loop when these best laid plans inevitably hit speed bumps.

If you find that you both need a little extra support during the holidays, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a professional counselor. They can help you sort out those touchy family issues. And it’s at least one hour per week scheduled to pay attention to your relationship. 

Hopefully, after reading this, you’re feeling a bit more ready. Remember, holiday seasons come and go. The most important part is how you feel about each other afterward. Never lose sight of that, and you’ll have a happy home all year round. 

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What Is Co-Regulation – and How Do We Do It?

September 2, 2022

Co-regulation in relationships is the process of remaining calm in the presence of a partner who is, well, not, and passing that feeling on to them.

Why does this matter?

Well, imagine the opposite. We’ve probably all been there at one time or another with our partner. Perhaps we’re relaxing with a good book or having fun with the kids. 

Then our partner storms in, and it’s clear they’re spiraling for one reason or another. Their energy overpowers everything, and before you even realize what’s happening, you’re spiraling with them. 

Often, this means some kind of argument where you’re both getting more and more upset with little real understanding of why. This is the opposite of co-regulation.

Why Is Co-Regulation in Relationships Important?

A better question might be: What does co-regulation do?

Thankfully, this is one of those things where the answer is fairly simple: when someone who is calm is able to maintain that feeling and pass it on to their partner:

It relaxes them. Literally on a physical level, co-regulation can lower heart rate and blood pressure to bring the other person back to a calm state.

It makes them feel safe. There’s a reason mothers do this with babies and therapists with their patients. Passing on calm energy is reassuring. It’s a way of emotionally saying, “Everything’s okay. We’ve got this.” Co-regulation in relationships works in a similar way.

What Kinds of Things Can You Do to Co-Regulate with Your Partner?

Co-regulation in relationships always starts with communication. You need to be able to tell each other what you need – including when you are not feeling regulated and need to step away for a few minutes to calm down.

That being said, there are a variety of behaviors and techniques you can use to co-regulate with your partner. These include:

  • Taking their hand.
  • Giving them a hug.
  • Sitting next to them quietly.
  • Speaking in a soothing tone.
  • Just breathing together.
  • Finding calming music to listen to.
  • Maintaining eye contact.
  • Massaging them.

As you can see, this is a very physical list. That’s because co-regulation is, at its heart, incredibly physical. It’s about two nervous systems coming into contact. Being body to body.

The other important thing to remember is that it’s no use attempting to co-regulate with your partner if both of you are agitated and full of nervous energy. Because of this, the first step to achieving co-regulation is knowing how to self-regulate with techniques like meditation, breathwork, and other somatic (mind-body) practices.

A professional counselor can be a great source of education about practices to help you self-regulate and co-regulate – one of many ways that therapy can support the health and longevity of your relationship!

 

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Fundamentals for Couples: What Is My Relationship Attachment Style?

June 24, 2022

Are you familiar with attachment styles? This psychological concept describes how people relate in their closest relationships. Sometimes folks of certain attachment styles are drawn to each other – which can make for an easier or more challenging time.

Understanding your attachment style and your partner’s attachment style can help break negative cycles in your relationship. And, in time, it can help you move toward a more compassionate connection in which you both can flourish.

Attachment Theory and Your Relationship

What does “attachment” mean? This is usually based on how you formed your earliest bonds in life – usually with your parents or other significant caregivers. Attachment refers to how you react when a person who is important to you is present – and when they’re absent.

The theory emerged from a study conducted with toddlers and their parents. Researchers noticed that, from a young age, children showed different reactions when their mother left the room.

Some cried for a bit, eventually calmed down, then got excited when their mother showed up again. Some cried and remained upset, even after she returned. Others seemed indifferent to their mother’s presence and absence. And some exhibited a confused mixture of reactions.

These observations formed the basic attachment styles. We’ll go through them below, although most people don’t fit neatly into just one.

Secure

In this attachment style, said to be exhibited by about 50% of the population, people are able to easily form bonds with others. They miss loved ones when apart but don’t feel extreme anxiety or fear about the relationship.

The next three attachment styles are typically categorized as “insecure.”

Anxious

People with an anxious attachment style worry when their partner is away – but they also find it difficult to be present and receive love when they’re around. This style parallels the inconsolable child in the study.

Avoidant

Those with an avoidant attachment style may have trouble feeling their emotions and even, sometimes, their bodies. They learned to disavow their needs, because they learned that they couldn’t depend on loved ones.

I once heard another therapist describe avoidant attachment style as “covert anxious.” They crave connection just as much as their anxious counterparts, but they don’t make it known and, thus, find themselves reliving their original disappointment.

In fact, anxious and avoidant partners are often attracted to each other, since they confirm each other’s negative biases about relationships. The anxious partner doesn’t get affirmation from the avoidant partner, and the avoidant partner sees their pulling away as the abandonment and rejection they expected. This is commonly known as the anxious-avoidant “negative cycle.”

Disorganized

Very chaotic and/or abusive upbringings often breed a disorganized attachment style, although any sort of inconsistent parenting mixed with a particular child’s temperament could result in it.

A disorganized attachment style is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a mixture of confusing reactions. People with this style both want and fear connection. Partners will get numerous mixed messages, ranging from angry pushing away to desperate clinging. This style especially needs professional help to reach security.

Which brings up the question: can you develop a secure attachment if you’re not already there?

Help! Can I Change My Attachment Style?

The short answer: yes. You can move from an insecure attachment style to a more secure attachment style.

The longer answer: this is generally quite difficult to do alone. Since the original wounds happened in a relationship, they must heal in a relationship, too. Many people with insecure attachment will struggle on their own for years, as being overly self-reliant is a common defense.

However, for most people, once they decide to seek help, they can experience change by working with a trusted therapist. It takes patience and persistence to gradually open your heart again – but the reward of healthy, fulfilling connections is worth it.

At Delaware Relationship Center, you can get the help you need to overcome insecure attachment.

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Breaking the Ice When You Feel “Alone Together” in Your Relationship

April 8, 2022

It can happen to even the strongest of couples. After being together awhile, it’s normal to sometimes feel “alone” or lonely in your relationship. And like the once-endless conversations are drying up. Or worse, tense and forced.

You love your partner and want to rekindle your connection and spark. But how do you break the ice and get yourselves out of the rut?  

The trick is to examine your current styles of communication, watch for potential roadblocks and red flags, and be open to new topics of conversation. Here’s a roadmap to reconnecting with your partner and strengthening your bond.

Rekindle Connection in Your Relationship 

It’s common to get stuck in a communication “loop,” where we recycle the same stories or conversations with our partners out of habit. Or perhaps the stressors of day-to-day life have been weighing on you. And you and your partner are starting to feel like ships in the night. Passing each other with just a few words here and there. 

The passionate chats you used to have seem long gone. So, what do you do?

Connection Through Communication

The truth is that connection is at the heart of a healthy and successful relationship. And one of the most effective ways to connect is through talking. Your conversations can be deep and meaningful – or playful and flirty! 

But if they aren’t happening at all, it’s time to evaluate your and your partner’s communication styles. Some things that can truly make a difference include:

  • Active listening to your partner. Hint: a lot of times we think we’re listening, but we’re really just waiting for our turn in the conversation! Try repeating your partner’s words in your mind as they speak to help you process them. Take time to think about what they’ve said… and then add onto their statements. It can make a big difference!
  • Find ways to show you’ve heard them. Acknowledging something they mentioned in a later conversation, leaving a sweet note for them, or doing them a favor.
  • Check-in throughout the day – with a quick text, email, or call to let them know you’re thinking of them.
  • Plan a unique activity together that you’ve never done before. It can get you both out of your comfort zone and talking!
  • Try using conversation starters to break the ice (more on this below!) They may feel awkward at first, but once you start using them you will feel more confident and comfortable over time. And more importantly, you’ll learn new things about your partner.

Communication is Key

It’s perfectly normal to have a disagreement with your partner every once in a while. In fact, it would probably be unusual if you never found yourself clashing with your partner. And awkward conversations can happen to anyone.

But it’s important to acknowledge if constant conflict is the root of your disconnect with your partner. Especially if you find yourself feeling increasingly angry with them. Then it’s time to examine your relationship closely. And to seek the trusted guidance of a therapist who specializes in couples counseling.

However, if you’re just feeling like your conversations with your partner are lackluster – or lacking completely – the trick is to open the channels of communication back up.

Common Communication Roadblocks 

Common pitfalls in relationship communication can include:

  • Passive-aggressive behavior in the form of little slights or digs at your partner. This type of communication avoids directly telling your partner how you’re feeling and can chip away at a relationship.
  • Shutting down or ignoring your partner’s attempts to connect and communicate. We know that our partners need our validation and support when they are having a hard time. But studies have shown that responding to our partner’s positive “bids” for connection is even more important for strengthening the relationship. And couples who do this stay together longer!
  • Not prioritizing time to connect. It’s easy to fall into a routine with your partner and put things like date nights on the back burner. But without emotional intimacy, you and your partner can start to feel distant or grow apart. 

‘Break the Ice’ with Conversation Starters

So, you’ve acknowledged any roadblocks you and your partner might be experiencing. Now you can set aside a chunk of time to reconnect. But what do you talk about? 

Conversation starters can feel forced or silly at first, and they require some bravery.  But they are also fun – and a great way to learn new and exciting things about your long-term partner! Also, they can be about anything – serious or silly topics, or even the relationship itself.

Consider the following starters or use them as inspiration and create your own:

  • What’s your favorite memory of the two of us? Why does it stand out to you, and how do you feel when you remember it?
  • What’s your proudest accomplishment?
  • You just won the lottery and bought us vacation tickets without telling me… Where are we going and why?
  • What are some ways you would like me to show you appreciation in our relationship?
  • Tell me something you are interested in (hobby, pursuit, topic) that is outside of your comfort zone. And how can I support you in trying it?

Talk to Your Counselor for More Tips

If you know reconnecting with your partner is your priority, it’s never too early to seek outside support to strengthen your bond. The Delaware Relationship Center is ready to help you at any point in your relationship, using unique therapy approaches and techniques. 

A rewarding relationship doesn’t always come easily. But, like all good things, it can thrive with work and support. Let us help you reach your goals today.

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How to Bring the Therapy Safe Space Into Your Normal Life

March 4, 2022

One of the most helpful and sacred things about going to your counselor’s office is the therapy safe space they have created. Ideally, it is a warm and inviting place where you feel comfortable and free to open up.

Teletherapy takes you out of that space, and that’s one of the reasons that some people are a bit nervous about it. But in actuality, it gives you a unique opportunity to integrate the practice of therapy into your everyday life.

If you have been doing online therapy for a while, you may have already adjusted your physical surroundings to create a therapy safe space at home: rearranging your room, making a comfortable place to sit for sessions – perhaps even using special lighting, colors, aromatherapy, or music.

Are there other effective ways to bring the therapy safe space in to your life? And what does this safe emotional territory entail?

What Is a Therapy “Safe Space”?

Generally speaking, this is a designated place/time in which you feel able to freely express yourself. Safe spaces lack judgment, “fixing,” or wanton interruption. A skilled therapist strives to create a space in which you feel:

  • Acceptance
  • Privacy
  • Understanding
  • Listening
  • Unconditional positive regard

These can sound pretty abstract, but there are concrete things you can do. Let’s take a look at how to cultivate each one.

Acceptance

You can’t force every person in your life to accept you for who you are. But you can work on self-acceptance. When you think about it, that’s where many problems originate, isn’t it?

Some folks use personal affirmations. If you often find yourself thinking “I can’t do anything right,” try gently introducing a different train of thought. “But what if I can do some things right?” Or even, “Maybe I’m great at some stuff!”

Additionally, you can choose friends who tend to view you with non-judgment. If you constantly feel like you’re striving for a friend’s approval, ask yourself: Can I tone down this need from within? Or are they encouraging it? If so, do I need to put a little more distance between us? 

Privacy

Therapy offers a unique space of personal confidentiality, mirrored in few other areas of our life. But the safety of a kept secret can help you examine your own attitudes toward privacy. Because people have diverse takes on privacy!

For example, you might feel on edge about disclosing relationship news to your mother — because you know she’ll blab it to the rest of the family before you’re ready! Ask your therapist to help you formulate a tactful request. If you hold firm, you may find that the secret-spillers in your life start to contain themselves a bit more – freeing you to open up and build a little confidence between you.

Understanding & Listening

I’ll group these together, because they really go hand in hand. You can foster more understanding within yourself and with loved ones by becoming a skilled listener. 

The next time someone in your life talks about how their day went, pause before offering your opinion or alternate story. Instead, imagine how they must feel. And voice that.

“Wow, a three-hour commute sounds hard. You must feel exhausted…”

Give them a platform to tell their narrative from their perspective. You’ll notice that folks often soften when met with understanding rather than resistance. Once they feel heard, they might be restored enough to turn around and ask, “How are you?”

Unconditional Positive Regard

This is the real gold of therapy. And it can feel quite rare in “real life.” Therapists are in a unique position to step away after each session – they don’t have to deal with your unwashed dishes or slow errand-running like friends or family might!

That also shows you the key. Stepping back may be just what you need to reframe the people in your life (and their quirks). It will also help you be less frustrated and more loving toward yourself.

A friend once told me to view the world through “200-year-old glasses.” What will matter to you after such a long time? And what can you let go – and embrace more?

Talk to Your Counselor for More Tips

Of course, if you already attend teletherapy sessions, your counselor is a great resource, too. The Delaware Relationship Center is ready to help you learn more ways to build safe space into your life.

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How to Navigate Family Holiday Traditions with a New Partner

December 16, 2021

Your first holiday season together! A time to reflect on the past year, eat delicious food, surprise loved ones with gifts… And spend four hours driving back and forth across town?

Logistics are the least fun part of the holidays, and yours just snowballed (pun intended) with the combination of two – or more – family celebrations. The first year especially is a testing ground for how this “new way” looks. The subjects: you, your spouse, and your family. The end goal? Happiness. Hopefully.

Like in a laboratory, not all tests will work. You’ll have to try one plan this year and likely make changes the next. Despite that, you can still approach your first holiday season together with a little wisdom gleaned from couples and marriage counselors who have been here before. 

Accept Change

For the last 20 years, you’ve gone to your aunt’s house during Hanukkah and eaten her homemade latkes. But this year, your partner’s sister just had a baby, and that week is the first opportunity you’ll get to meet the little niblet. You might have to miss the latkes this year. Or have your brother take some to-go for you.

Can you accept it? Can you go with the flow? Once you’re open to the idea, it’s time to hone your priorities.

Figure Out Your Priorities

Not all holidays are created equal to different families. Which can actually be a real saving grace.

Make some time to sit down and talk this out with your partner. You might discover that your wife’s family pulls out all the stops at Thanksgiving in exchange for a chill Christmas – whereas your family doesn’t care as much about Thanksgiving, but your mom would cry if you didn’t help her make eggnog on Christmas Eve.

Once you’ve come up with a game plan together, it’s time to let everyone else know.

Be Honest With Your Families About What You Need

You may want to start the “holiday sharing” conversation months ahead of time in order to minimize stress. If there’s going to be family drama, holiday pressures will only make it worse.

For relatives who love last-minute plans, you might need to “train” them. Remind them that now you’re splitting holidays with your partner’s family. 

If they spring a spontaneous invitation, don’t bend over backwards to accommodate. “We already planned to spend New Year’s with Mara’s family. We’ll miss you! We love you!”

Speaking of bending over backwards – some newly married folks will spend 80% of their first Thanksgiving or Christmas on the road, trying to see all the families in one day. 

Perhaps if you only want a short amount of time with certain parts of the family, it’s a winning strategy. However, if driving across town several times in a day leaves you feeling ragged, you don’t have to do it.

Instead, you can lead with requests that will make your life easier. Are families willing to carry out the same traditions on different dates? If it makes no difference, and both your folks get to see you, you just struck a win-win situation! Don’t be shy. It’s worth checking.

Create New Traditions

Save some time and energy for what you want to do, too. Forming new traditions is part of the beauty, privilege, and fun of a new marriage or long-term partnership.

Talk to your partner about what’s meaningful to each of you. Cooking together? An ornament to commemorate a big moment of each family member’s year? You can use the holidays each year to remind yourselves.

This becomes even more relevant if you have children. What do you want your new family’s Christmas morning tradition to be? Employ and enjoy your clean slate!

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Walt Ciecko, Ph. D., BCB
605 Wynyard Rd
Wilmington, DE 19803
302-429-0195