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Cultivating Communication Skills in your Relationships

It is very likely that you and your partner have many similarities along with many differences. Your similarities are what brought you together in the first place.  As far as differences, you both grew up in different households with different rules, expectations, and experiences.  Along with these things, it is also likely that you grew up learning different communication skills.  It is important to get on the same page with your partner with communication, as it will make a world of difference in your relationship, for all stages of the relationship.

Here are some tips to help improve communication in your relationship.

Speak Your Truth – Talking through any problems you may be having is critical to long-term success in a partnership.  It is common for woman to silence their emotions and for men to lash out, however, it is also possible for these roles to be reversed.  If you are able to get into a pattern where you can both discuss your feelings – calmly and rationally, as they happen in the present moment verses letting them sit and fester, only to be dealt with later when a whole other issue may be boiling as well – you will likely avoid some of the upset and begin to live a more harmonious life.  Try to keep things light by using humor and smiling – which will release feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Tune In – Listening without thinking about how you are going to respond is a great practice to improve your communication skills, and not only with your partner, but with any relationship you have (family, friends, co-workers).  Repeating and paraphrasing what your partner has said before you respond is key to effective communication in your relationship.  Speak up on what you need and encourage your partner to do so as well.  You will likely be better equipped to meet each others’ needs if you are both able to really tune into one another and then apply what has been said and agreed upon to your relationship.

Focus On The Positive – One of the differences between the relationships that succeed and the relationships that fail is the ability to express positive feelings.  If you have a negative communication style that consists mostly of accusations and upset, begin to replace your negative words with more positive ones.

Touch – Things such as a playful touch, a knowing gaze, or a gentle smile, are all simple ways that can accomplish more communication than words can at times.  Very few people can come up to you and kiss you or place their hand in yours – a playful little touch like that can be very soothing.  It is a physical connection to one another.

How well you both are able to communicate to one another will factor in how smoothly other things in your relationship run.  Remember that clear and focused communication is a skill and it takes practice and time to cultivate it into your relationship.

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Positive Emotions in your Relationships

By now, most of us have heard about surrounding ourselves with as much positive as possible verses negative – but what does that mean when it comes to our relationships?  First we have to look at the quality of our thoughts in general.  Do you tend to think “I can’t do that” or “I can do that”?  Becoming knowledgable on which side you lean towards is the most important step as it creates the awareness of where you presently stand.

The next thing to look at is our emotions.  Are your emotions mostly happy, angry, or a combination of both?  If we look at a wide range of positive emotions—from awe to amusement to interest to inspiration to gratitude—what they all have in common is that they are responses to your current state or experience at that time.  They are usually not a permanent state, only feelings that fluctuate.  This is true for all emotions, however the positive emotions tend to be more temporary, as we do live in a very busy, sometimes overwhelming, world.  Often, we are not aware of the positive emotions due to our tendency to see the negative ones.

Positive emotions are also desired states.  Not only do they feel good, but we desire to feel them, as often as possible.  Some people might say it feels good to be angry, and at times anger can be useful or productive, but generally, people do not desire to feel angry.  Positive emotions can make us healthier and happier if we take time to cultivate them.

When people increase their daily doses of positive emotions, they find more meaning and purpose in life.  They also find that they receive more social support—or perhaps they just notice it more, because they are more attuned to themselves and others.  They begin to show mindful awareness of the present moment and increased positive relations with each other, especially true within your relationship.

SIMPLE STEPS TO CULTIVATING POSITIVE EMOTIONS 

A positive emotional relationship begins with believing in yourself and also in your relationship.  Know that you are both good people who are deserving of each other’s love and kindness.  If this is something you have doubts about, it would be helpful to think about what your needs and wants are along with your partner’s and reaffirm your connection with one another.  If the two of you believe in one another and both of you want a positive lifestyle, you may need to learn how to make the commitment to do your best to maintain a positive demeanor and start with small baby steps.  Being aware of what brings you gratitude, joy and happiness and to notice on a daily basis what actually makes you feel good is the first step of being mindful of positive emotions.

An example would be if you come home from work, exhausted, and take notice that your partner has neglected to do the dishes that have been sitting in the sink all day.  Your partner hands you a cup of tea and suggests you relax.  You have a choice in the moment to either react and get angry at the neglected dishes or take a breath and realize the positive verses the negative.

What is required is the willingness to make a change for the better, being aware of your patterns that are not working, adjusting your thoughts and attitudes toward life and each other.  This process is one that takes time and it will likely take more than a moment for you to see and feel the results.  Much like compassion, positivity is an ongoing process.  As part of that process, you will need to accept that sometimes we experience positive and negative emotions, which is part of life.  We want to be able to understand and accept our negative emotions while not getting caught up in them.  Being aware of the pattern in your relationship gives you the opportunity that your negative thoughts and emotions sometimes serve a purpose on what we can learn from them and what we would like to change to live a happier and healthier life.

Cultivating positive emotions and allowing that feeling to flow through your relationship is a great way to go through life with the one you love.

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How Self-Aware Are You?

 

Self-awareness refers to both awareness of your body – meaning the heartbeat or respiration rate and the feeling of what is on your skin – as well as what you feel emotionally.   Have you ever had someone say to you “you seem angry?” and your response was “no, I’m not angry.”?  Or vice verse? It could very well be true that you or the other person was indeed angry and giving off the energy, yet not aware. Many of us at times have bouts of failure of self-awareness, which comes from the insula.  The insula has what is called a viscerotropic mass – viscero refers to the interior organs and tropic refers to the placement, the representation of those organs.

People with a very active insula seem to be extremely self-aware, both emotionally and physically. When  we discussed positive outlook and the ability to bounce back from a setback (being resilient), it sounds as if only one of the ends of this spectrum is the place to be as who would not want to be happy and ore resilient, right? However, this is not necessarily the case and with self-awareness you tend see where you may need to improve on yourself even more.

Self-awareness starts with just that – awareness.   When you begin to analyze and pay attention to your mind (thoughts) and body (heartbeat, touch, etc.) you become more self-aware. Once one becomes even slightly self-aware, especially when analyzing where they currently are in their lives, they will likely try to change if they feel that it would improve their life. This is a great step towards a better life and better relationships.

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Transforming Everyday Relationship Issues

Marriage is not pleasant all of the time, but certainly you will have more happier than sad times. It is natural to have those moments where you question if this is the right situation for you – your partner will do the same. There are, however, those situations that never make it work, like cheating or deal-breaking behaviors. But, believe it or not there are marriage problems that are considered “good” problems that will not mess up your relationship and should never be considered deal breakers.

Fantasizing about Others

A lot of couples who are looking for answers to what makes relationships work are concerned about their fantasies or their partner’s fantasies for someone other than their significant other. Believe it or not, these fantasies are nothing to worry about – in fact, they are healthy. Having an imagination allows you and your partner to open up more emotionally and physically with one another. Of course, you should not act on these fantasies.

Going Out with the Guys

Many women get defensive or feel their husband is leaving them out when they go out for guy time. Interests and maintaining friend relationships outside of the marriage are key in finding what makes relationships work. This break from the relationship allows each partner to miss one another, engage in activities and release any steam that could create tension down the road.

Arguing

You may have fights, but fights do not mean your relationship is over or even close to over. Fighting is a way for partners to share how they feel with one another – meaning you both trust one another enough to get it all out in the open. As long as you both do not attack one another, productive arguing can strengthen your marriage. Also, avoid recycling old arguments – meaning try not to bring up an argument that happened last week. Once it is over and resolved, it is done.

Being Too Tired for Sex

Intimacy is important in any relationship, but there are times one or the other may be too tired to engage in sex or other intimate activities. Today’s couple is often over-scheduled and it is not uncommon to have limited time for intimacy or anything else. Try scheduling a time for intimacy rather than waiting for that magical “spark” so that you have fun – it is something to look forward to and you get that testosterone and mojo moving again.

A healthy marriage can be full of “good” problems. Often couples assume these good problems are detrimental to the success of their relationship and they begin to pull away. As long as you are open, honest and willing to work through your issues, you and your partner will understand what makes relationships work faster than any other couple in the neighborhood.

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Changing Negative Beliefs or Patterns

The first emotional styles we have is resilience to adversity. The adversity can be a wide range of so-called setbacks – from the most trivial things such as someone cutting you off in traffic to the more significant setbacks such as the passing of a loved one. The second emotional styles is outlook – meaning whether you have a positive or negative view on life.  The emotional styles of I’m discussing here is how our patterns persist or change.

With brain patterns, these questions may come to mind: How long have they been there? It is a brain pattern that existed (or that was established) during childhood as the brain develops? Was it present at birth? Can it be changed?

When Dr. Davidson did research on day-old infants, in the experiments he found that even at birth, there were clear individual differences and left/right asymmetry in terms of activation. Everyone’s genetic makeup is different, but the big question is do these differences persist? Dr. Davidson helped discover that what you are born with is not necessarily what you are dealt with as the brain and behavior can change.

Neuroplasticity is the idea that the brain can change – either for better or worse. The brain has the ability to change in both structure and function. Consider learning and memory – these are constant examples of how our brains are able to change form. When you learn something new and also when a new experience enters your memory, this is the brain changing – expanding and retaining.

Brain structure and function can change in response to two forces:

  1. The life you lead
  2. Thinking yourself into a different brain.

The life you lead, meaning the experiences you have – physical as well as emotional or mental – are signals from the outside world. This is similar to your brain collecting memories and learning new information. The other way the brain can change structure and function is in response to purely mental activity. This is similar to the second brain emotional style of outlook. Higher left activity is associated with a more positive outlook; higher right activity is associated with more negative outlook.  To change the brain grooves, you can think yourself into a different brain by working on a more positive outlook (or negative, as the door does swing both ways).

 

Photo courtesy of sattva and www.freedigitalphotos.net

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Is Your Outlook on Life Positive or Negative?

Your outlook on situations and experiences can be broken down to be defined as either a positive outlook or a negative outlook. The left prefrontal cortex in a resilient person can be 30 times that of someone who is not as resilient – this means that there is a a pretty big difference in brain activity within people who are clinically depressed and those who are not clinically depressed. For people who suffer from depression, activity in the right prefrontal is much higher. For people who are healthier and have an overall positive outlook on life, activity is the left prefrontal is greater. In other words, left side activity equals positive and right side equals negative.

The thing to remember about these specific findings is that everyone has ups and downs in their lives, so the left and/or right asymmetry can change. This relates back to the first style – adversity – under certain difficult periods of people’s lives, they may behave and/or react differently during these times. This is simply just part of the ebb and flow of life as a human.

Dr. Richard Davidson has been doing research on the emotional styles of the brain for over twenty years. Dr. Davidson’s research has been on all kinds of walks of life, including everyday hard-working Americans, undergraduate volunteers, children and infants, and also a Tibetan monk community. These monks lent their time and brains to science by having Dr. Davidson run MRI’s and EEG’s on them. In his findings, Dr. Davidson has found that these monk’s left prefrontals were off the chart compared to his other findings making this evidence for the stark difference in the brain activity that underlie emotional and personality differences. The monks are constantly smiling, people of good will and constantly help one another. And their brains can prove it.

Photo courtesy of Ambro and www.freedigitalphotos.net

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What Make Us More Resilient?

It would be nearly impossible for any of us to get through our human lives without some sort of setback. What really distinguishes people in terms of their success is whether or not they are knocked back on their heels by these setbacks. Resilience is a product of two specific regions of the brain: one is the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and it sends signals to the amygdala, (the fear center of the brain).

The thinking part of the brain is front and center in our emotions. Prior to our technologically advanced society, say ten to twenty years ago, neuroscience thought that the emotional brain and the cognitive brain hardly ever met. However, research has found that not only do they meet, they are great friends and collaborators. With resilience, it turns out that the ability to send signals from the prefrontal cortex, which is the region just behind your forehead, to the amygdala, which is more in the center of your brain, means that the strength of those signals and the frequency of those connections determine how resilient you are.

The amygdala is the region that sends out signals that you may interpret as be afraid, be depressed, or be aware of potential danger. When these kinds of signals are going full blast, it is very hard to be resilient. The prefrontal cortex basically says to the amygdala “shhh!” When it is able to be quiet, people are able to be resilient. The prefrontal cortex is basically modulating the amygadala and vice versa.

The amygdala also sends signals to the prefrontal cortex (which has been known for many years). It perceives the information, sends the information to the prefrontal cortex – which again is the more thinking, planning, executive function part of the brain – and the prefrontal cortex then takes the right evasive action or figures out the situation to keep you out of danger. What is new here within the last ten to twenty years is the idea of the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) communicating with the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain).

 

Photo courtesy of Sira Anamwong and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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How is your Resilience to Adversity?

The brain is the source of all our emotions and behavior. Although humans have known for many years that all our behavior, feelings, and thoughts come from the brain, there has not been much progress in learning exactly how it works until recently. Researchers have been looking at many aspects of our emotional life and tracing them to specific patterns in particular regions of the brain. In this research, they have found that one size does not fit all. In other words, you have to take into account the individuality of the patient which can often be determined by DNA and also previous circumstances that may have happened during the patient’s lifetime.

The first emotional style is resilience to adversity. The adversity can be a wide range of so-called setbacks – from the most trivial things such as someone cutting you off in traffic (but if this happens at the beginning of your day, it could trigger negative emotions starting off your day) to the more significant setbacks such as the passing of a loved one. Under certain difficult periods of people’s lives, they may behave and/or react differently during these times.

When you have a setback, and we all do at some point, how do you bounce back from it? Is it pretty quickly or do you wallow in anger, unhappiness or jealousy, or any other negative emotion? Everyone will vary in how well and how quickly they are able to recover from such adversity, and also depending on how significant the setback may be. On one hand, people are resilient – look at how we as humans have survived on this planet for thousands of years. Yet with the more significant setbacks, your resilience could be thwarted (which is completely acceptable), so the resilience relies on the circumstance. Researchers are now seeing particular patterns of brain activity in particular regions that actually show the ability to quickly and easily bounce back or the difficulty to bounce back.

The second emotional style is outlook – meaning whether you have a positive or negative view on life. Do you tend to think that things will work out for the better regardless of the situation? Or are you more of an Eeyore with a gloomy cloud over your head with no hope for better days? There are also particular brain patterns and brain activity at play here that underline whether you have a positive or negative outlook in life.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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What Makes Relationships Work? When the Simple Things Matter Most

No one enters into a new relationship thinking about how it might end. Most new relationships are filled with excitement, anticipation, and hope. Even years down the road, unless love and compatibility is lost, or serious issues creep into the relationship, few people actually want to see things end. In fact, many couples who believe the end is near have allowed certain vital aspects of a strong relationship to fall to the wayside, and they are desperate to figure out where they have gone wrong and to rekindle that fire that will save them from the end.

Relationships take some effort to maintain. This is not to say that love itself is “work,” but neglecting any aspect of your partnership can result in miscommunication, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and resentment. And often, even the most communicative of couples will suffer in silence, avoiding talking about their concerns simply because they blame themselves or do not want to start a fight or hurt their spouses feelings. It’s only when those held back feelings are compounded that the bomb explodes and simple issues become major problems. Many factors go into making a relationship work; however, in this article, we are discussing the subtle and simple things that can make a significant difference to you and your partner.

Mind Your Manners
Few of us made it out of childhood without knowing the value of saying please and thank you.

We also learned early on that duties are better shared than left to one person. These values do not fly out the window when we reach adulthood. Never take your partner for granted or let them even think this is the case. If you have a request, say please and talk it over. Don’t just make the decision on your own, leaving your partner out in the cold without any input or choice. If your spouse does something for you, around the house, etc., thank them. Gratitude shows your appreciation, making each task or special effort much more worthwhile. To further show your undying appreciation, share the duties of your life together. Don’t embrace gender roles and leave certain tasks up to one or the other. If something needs doing, get in there and do it, offer to help, or join forces and complete tasks as a team.

Ask and Listen
If you work outside the home, you know that your days can become hectic, stressful, and nerve wracking. The same goes for your spouse. And if one of you happens to be a stay-at-home parent, a homemaker (even without children), or self-employed/working from home, your days are no different from a partner working a conventional job. Each partner should be genuinely interested in the others thoughts, feelings, and activities. Take the time each day to ask your partner about his or her day, and spend some time listening and even talking about concerns, stress, etc. Communication is key to any relationship, and this type of open communication conveys genuine care, concern, compassion, love, and appreciation. By sharing your daily but often separate lives with one another, you build a strong bond of friendship and can rely on one another as confidantes. Even if you have the type of job that requires confidentiality, you can still discuss your concerns and activities in a general way that allows your partner to be a part of this aspect of your life.

These two simple acts make a huge difference in your relationship. Communication and relationships go hand in hand. You must communicate your sincere appreciation, love, and concern on a regular basis. Neglecting to do so can leave your spouse feeling unloved and uncared for. Don’t let such misunderstandings lead to destructive resentment when it is so easy to just take the time to think about your partner and to show them the simple things that matter most.

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6 Steps to Mindfully Deal With Difficult Emotions

Let’s get real here. For most of us – myself included – life is fast-paced and chock full of family, relationship, and work stressors. This reality, along with the ever-increasing pressures of technology and society at large, can really take a toll on your marriage. As a result, difficult emotions like anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, and sadness, just to name a few, can arise. Emotions like these are often the most present and powerful forces in your life.

The key to overcoming these difficult emotions is mindfulness! Practicing mindfulness enables you to calm down and soothe yourself. In this state, you have space to reflect and thoughtfully respond, rather than react.

Following these six steps will help you to understand and deal with your difficult emotions in a mindful way:

1. Turn toward your emotions with acceptance
Once you become aware of the emotion you are feeling, notice where it is in your body. You may feel it as a stomachache, a tightening of your throat, the pounding of your heart, or tension somewhere. Sit with this anger, anxiety, depression, grief, guilt, sadness, shame, or whatever emotion you are experiencing. Become aware of it and don’t ignore it. If this is difficult, get up and walk around or get a cup of tea.

The key here is to not push the emotion away. Bottling it up inside will only cause it to bubble up and explode later, resulting in more difficult emotions or even a complete emotional shutdown. Listen to your difficult emotions. They are trying to help you wake up to what is going on before a major crisis occurs.

2. Identify and label the emotion
Instead of saying, “I am angry”, say, “This is anger” or, “This is anxiety.” In this way, you’re acknowledging its presence, while simultaneously empowering you to remain detached from it.

When my husband was in the hospital before he passed, I felt a deep sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. I needed to acknowledge and identify the emotions and say to myself, “I know that I am experiencing anxiety and fear right now and I don’t know what will happen, but I am going to just ‘be’ with it.” Although it remained an extremely painful experience to the end, identifying and labeling my emotions in this way allowed me to take some of the pain out of what I was feeling. This, in turn, allowed me to stay in the present, versus catapulting me into the future, or trapping me in the past. Being thrust in either direction would have only caused me to blame myself. I can just imagine how that critical voice would have rung out, “If only you would have done something different, maybe there would have been a different outcome.”

3. Accept your emotions
When you are feeling a certain emotion, don’t deny it. Acknowledge and accept that the emotion is present, whether it is anxiety, grief, sadness, or whatever you are experiencing in that moment. Through mindful acceptance you can embrace difficult feelings with compassion, awareness, and understanding towards yourself and your partner.

Think of a friend or a loved one who might be having a hard time. What would you say to them? Bring the scenario of what you would say to them into your mind’s eye. Now, say the same thing to yourself: “I am ok. I am not to blame. I did the best I could.” Hold these images and phrases within yourself with loving kindness and compassion. Extend this act of kindness toward yourself and become aware of what is going on within you. In this way you will gain the power to not only calm and soothe yourself, but also your partner.

You will soon come to realize that you are not your anger, fear, grief, or any other difficult emotion you are feeling. Instead you will begin to experience these emotions in a more fleeting manner, like clouds that pass by in the sky. Opening yourself up to your emotions allows you to create a space of awareness, curiosity, and expansiveness that you can then apply to your relationship, as well as any other aspect of your life.

4. Realize the impermanence of your emotions
Every one of your emotions is impermanent. They arise and reside within you for a time, and then disappear. It’s easy to forget this when you’re in the midst of dealing with difficult emotions.

Allow yourself to witness and observe your emotions with kind attention and patience, giving them the latitude to morph, and in many cases, completely evaporate. To embrace this process, ask yourself: “What and where is this feeling? What do I need now? How can I nurture it? What can I do for my partner? What can my partner do for me? How can we, as a couple, turn toward one another with acts of loving-kindness?” Asking these focused questions and responding in turn will go a long way to promote empathy, compassion, and connection within your relationship.

5. Inquire and investigate
After you have calmed and soothed yourself from the impact of your emotions, take a moment to delve deeply and explore what happened.

Ask yourself: “What triggered me? What is causing me to feel this way? What is the discomfort I’m experiencing and where is it arising? Was it as result of my critical mind, or was it in reaction to something my partner said or did?”

Perhaps you had a hard day at work or difficulty dealing with your family. Maybe you feel unappreciated, lonely, or disconnected as a result of your interactions with someone. Whatever the cause or trigger, look at it closely and ask yourself, “What is happening here?”

Consider what was said or done and compare it to your values. What were your expectations surrounding the situation? What reactions or judgments caused you to become angry or anxious? Is this a pattern that keeps arising?

Asking yourself these critical questions and investigating the root of your difficult emotions will help you gain empathy and insight into what you are experiencing.

Taking yourself off autopilot and trusting your deepest, authentic self to answer these questions about your situation will create a space to see things with a different perspective. This will ultimately allow both you and your partner to be more present and connected with each other.

6. Let go of the need to control your emotions
The key to mindfully dealing with your difficult emotions is to let go of your need to control them. Instead, be open to the outcome and what unfolds. Step outside of yourself and really listen to what your partner is feeling and what he or she has to say. Only then will you truly gain an in-depth understanding of your emotions and the interactions surrounding them within your relationship.

Mindfully dealing with emotions is hard and it takes time. Be kind, compassionate, and patient with yourself and your partner. You’re in this together! As Dr. John Gottman has said, “In a good relationship people get angry, but in a very different way. The Marriage Masters see a problem a bit like a soccer ball. They kick it around. It’s ‘our’ problem.”

We are fortunate that we live in a world where you and your partner can take the time to explore, discuss, and learn about mindfulness and your emotions. Take nothing for granted, for life is fragile and fleeting!

Resource: Gottman Blog
Photo: Courtesy of  David Castillo Dominici on Freedigitalphotos.net