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Couples Counseling

by Gabriel McCoy, LMFT

Have you ever known a couple to divorce that you thought was happy and solid? Appearances don’t always tell the story. A cynical observer might conclude that these “happy” couples are simply putting on a façade. But this isn’t necessarily the case. As it turns out, many of the assumptions we have about what makes marriages last don’t match up to reality. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I was trained to teach people to communicate more effectively and learn to validate one another’s feelings. This worked out pretty well in counseling sessions but often failed to manifest outside my office. Couples would jokingly tell me that I needed to come home with them so I could referee all their arguments! Sadly, the tools we therapists have had at our disposal haven’t been all that useful.


So what makes marriage succeed? As it turns out, it comes down to simple math: healthy couples are able to resolve conflict positively 5 out of 6 times they argue. When this 5:1 ratio breaks down, so does the marriage. This may seem simplistic, but the research is absolutely solid. John Gottman, Ph.D., began observing couples in a laboratory setting at his research facility in Seattle, WA, a number of years ago. It was the first research of its kind. He connected couples to machines that measure physiological response such as galvanic skin response, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. and began to observe what was happening underneath the surface when couples tried to resolve problems. What he discovered was truly revolutionary. He noticed that many couples became immensely distressed when they began arguing. They would sweat, their blood pressure would rise and their heart rates would soar well above 100 beats/minute. Often times, these reactions were not detectable on their faces or even in their outward demeanor. Gottman called these physiological events “flooding." These individuals were experiencing a “fight or flight” response that makes it nearly impossible to remain rational and respectful during a heated discussion. Gottman called these destructive communication patterns “The 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse.” They consist of (1) Criticism, (2) Defensiveness (3) Contempt and (4) Stonewalling. Gottman became so skilled at identifying these destructive patterns that he could eventually predict which couples were headed for divorce within a few minutes of observing them with 94% accuracy!


Marriage and Family Therapist researchers have also long assumed that there is only one kind of successful couple: the “validating couple.” Dr. Gottman’s research proved this wrong as well. He identified “volatile” couples and “avoidant couples” whose marriages remained strong and healthy as long as they maintained the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative resolutions during conflict. Volatile couples might argue 10 to 20 times per day; avoidant couples once/month. But in the end, the ability to resolve differences positively at a 5:1 ratio led to successful marriages.


So, where are we today? Many Marriage and Family Therapists are now adopting Gottman’s new approach to helping couples build healthier and more successful marriages. Much of the focus is on helping couples learn to identify when they are flooding and preventing these events from sabotaging their communication. Couples are learning to take more tender approaches to resolving conflict, incorporate humor, focus on “solvable” problems (as opposed to “unsolvable”) and forgive one another while moving toward building deeper trust. Building and maintaining healthy relationships isn’t always easy, but Gottman’s research has helped shed some hopeful light on what has sometimes been a difficult path for many couples.


Parenting Teens

by Kathleen Compton, MA,


by Corliss Mock, LPC

Healthy Boundaries in relationships can be difficult to establish and maintain, but when we do, they preserve trust and commitment, two important pillars for sound relationships. Boundaries in relationships, like fences, remind us of our responsibilities, and help us manage our relationships well. Poor boundaries in relationships, on the other hand, can create misunderstandings, hurt, disappointment, and resentment.

However, what these boundaries should be is not always clear. Here are some guidelines to help:

  • Know what you own--and own what’s yours. Know your beliefs, values, and preferences. Know your goals, strengths and weaknesses. Learn to know your negotiables and non-negotiables.

  • Know and manage your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health. Be a good steward of these, as they are gifts. They are your “property.” Take care of them.

  • Own up to your mistakes. Accept consequences and take responsibility for your own choices.

  • Know what is not yours.  Allow and expect others to know and own themselves and their responsibilities. Don’t rescue other adults from the consequences of irresponsible behavior and decisions.

  • Clearly assert your boundaries. It’s only fair to let people know what your boundaries are. When a boundary has been violated, confidently tell the other individual what has happened and how you hope to be treated next time. You can say, “When you yell, I feel attacked.” Sometimes saying it once is not enough.

  • Remove yourself from frequent violators. Sometimes the only way to respect yourself is to limit contact with the other person.

  • Don’t be so rigid with your boundaries that you isolate yourself.  You can be flexible, yet consistent.


Healthy boundaries provide the freedom to pursue appropriate and mutually responsible relationships for a lifetime. Sometimes, however, no matter how hard we work at it, there are issues such as addictions and abuse that require us to seek professional counseling to learn skills and find support.


Self Care isn't Selfish

by Gretchen Ferreira, LMFT

Do you ever find yourself needing some “self care,” yet, you have feelings of guilt? Your internal dialogue might be something like this: “I know I need this, but am I being selfish?” Self care and the need (not want) for it is crucial to maintain balance in our emotional, physical and spiritual lives. Self care makes us more productive and better able to care for others.


There are many kinds of self care which can include: reading, meditation, prayer, Bible study, exercise, planning and eating healthy, going on a drive or walk, time with friends, quiet time/solitude, movie nights, date nights, shopping for yourself and therapy. In addition, therapeutic self care may be needed when you feel excessive guilt about your needs being met and feel that your current or past issues are getting in the way of your day to day function. Many people aren’t in the habit of self care and need a jump start with some direction and permission from an objective person who will guide and counsel them to self care and not selfishness by learning healthy habits and boundaries. It takes strength to admit our weaknesses and areas we need to address.  This admission is the first step in self care. Trinity counselors are trained to help you on this journey to health.

The teen years can be a trying time for parents and adolescents who find themselves on a collision course of opposing needs. “As parents, our need is to be needed,” explained the late Dr. Haim Ginott, esteemed pioneer in the field of child psychology. “As teenagers, their (need) is not to need us.” This inevitable conflict plays out daily, Dr. Ginott observed, in parents’ efforts to help their kids achieve healthy, happy, adult independence.

Perhaps you’re in the middle of this conflict, caught off balance by new challenges to your authority, fearful you are losing influence with your daughter, licking wounds when your son makes it clear he’d rather spend time with friends than you.  A once-chatty grade-schooler has suddenly clammed up, and even your simple questions or requests are met with dismissal, protest or an all-out argument.


Keeping the lines of communication open is important if you hope to impart wisdom, instill good values and generally enjoy a satisfying relationship with your teen.  For many, however, the communication skills that work best to engage teens in conversation or cooperation do not come naturally. They must be learned and practiced.  I’d like to share just a few simple skills described in one of my favorite parenting resources, How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk by best-selling authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.


But first let’s consider some typical ways parents talk to teens which may (or may not) get short-term results, but which also tend to create resentment, defensiveness and disconnection. These methods include:

· Orders and threats: “You are NOT wearing that stained shirt to the restaurant. Go change this instant!”

· Blaming or accusing: “You never listen. You left the milk out again. How many times do I have to tell you to put it back in the fridge?”

· Lecturing and moralizing: “When we agreed to get a dog, we agreed you’d take care of it. Here it is 5 p.m. and you haven’t walked Fido. How do you think it is for him being cooped up in the yard all day? Dogs need exercise and it’s your responsibility to…”

· Denying feelings: “What do you mean you stink at soccer? You’re too hard on yourself, that’s all. If you just practice more, you’ll see.”


If you’re like me, you can hear yourself in some of these admonitions. Similarly, you know you’d flip a switch if a friend talked to you in this manner. For instance, imagine you are leaving the potluck party of a friend and you forget your casserole dish. Your friend, Mary, stops you at the door and laments, “Jane, you always forget your dishes. How many times do I have to remind you before you start remembering? Maybe your dish is not important to you and I should keep it. You know, forgetfulness is a shortcoming that’s going to get you into trouble…”

 You leave vowing never to return to Mary’s for a potluck. Surely, you would rather have heard something like this: “Jane, your dish.”

The same principle applies to teens. They are more apt to hear and receive simple messages delivered with respect. Here, from Faber and Mazlish, are some “How to Talk…” alternatives to orders, lectures, blaming and dismissal of feelings -- and the authors’ explanations as to why these alternatives work.

· Describe the problem: “When you leave the milk out, it spoils more quickly.” Describing the problem invites a teen to be part of the solution.

· Say it in a word: “John, the milk.” Teens usually tune out long lectures. A short reminder helps focus their attention.

· Put it in a note:  “Dear John, I so enjoy our walks. Can we go soon before I go stir-crazy? Love, Fido.” Written words can sometimes accomplish more than our speech.

· Offer a choice: “Would you like to change your shirt, or wear a sweater over it?” The chances of your teen cooperating improve if you offer a choice that meets both your needs.

· Identify and reflect feelings: “Wow, you sound discouraged about soccer.” Accepting and reflecting unhappy feelings invites sharing and helps a teen move through distress instead of getting stuck in it.


Pick a favorite and test it out, with an earnest heart for creating dialogue based on mutual respect. While no communication technique works 100 percent of the time, my guess is you’ll be better off with these tools in your parenting toolbox – and so will your teen.


Anxious Thoughts

by Leslie Lee, LPC

“My mind never stops.” 

“I just want it to slow down.”

“I can’t relax.”


So many of us have struggled with anxiety.  Sometimes we know what is happening that is making it worse, and sometimes we have no idea - we just want some relief.  When you finally get those moments to yourself where you had hoped to relax, do you find your mind seems to just race on with the to-do lists or create new worries? 


Here are some techniques to help interrupt, replace, and/or change anxious thoughts:


Change locations.  If you have a task that requires you to move around to get it done, go do it.  Focus completely on the task at hand and go a little slower noticing the details of shapes and colors of your surroundings in the places that you move around to complete the only task of the moment. 


Move your body.  Moving around can help distract you from the anxious thought and allow your mind move on to a different thought.  For some, turning up your favorite tunes and dancing around, even if it is just 3 minutes, can help your mind do a quick reset.  Or, go for a walk, a Zumba class, stretch - enjoy an outside view and breathe in the fresh air.


Musician?  Go to your instrument and play a new song you are learning or play an old favorite.  Your musicality can elevate you out of your worry, thereby giving you a new starting place.


Replace negative with positive.  If your negative thought seems be obsessive, it is best to find something simple and repeat it many times.  This could be a verse of scripture, a favorite line from a song, a line of poetry… just have it be something that encourages you.  Say it out loud if you can.  The point is to change your negative thought rut into a positive one!


Refocus - start again.  This might help best when you are at work and cannot get up to go for a walk.  Tell yourself that you are going to start again where you left off.  Maybe you can do this particular job in a different order trying to locate the way that seems to flow best for you.  Also, setting a timer for 10 minutes could help, telling yourself you are going to see how much you can get done in that timeframe.  Then, the focus is on the challenge of time instead of your mind wandering into worry-land.



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