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What is my Heart Saying?

I awoke yesterday morning with an all-encompassing sense of overwhelm. My mind was racing over all of the things I had to accomplish. As a marriage and family therapist, I love what I do and, as a result, I was thinking about who and how I was going to help that day. Everything I had to get done before going into the office snuck up on me, like answering a phone call from my accountant, responding to emails, and taking my daughter’s dog for a walk. The stacking of all of these small things made for a largely hectic and stressful morning!

If you’ve had experiences like this then you know that the smallest daily tasks or larger scale challenges – like an argument with your partner, being yelled at by your boss for something going wrong at work, or even coping with the loss of a loved one – can become completely overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to feel isolated, forgetting that others are dealing with challenges in their own lives.

It’s during situations like these that it’s important to stop the mental clamoring, get out of your head, and ask, “What is my heart saying?”

All too often we rely upon our brains to rationalize and solve all of our problems when in fact our hearts offer a more effective solution! Decades of research have shown that our hearts are powerful communicators. Studies conducted by the HeartMath Institute reveal that the heart communicates to the brain in four major ways: neurologically through the transmission of nerve impulses, biochemically through hormones and neurotransmitters, biophysically through pressure waves, and energetically through electromagnetic field interactions. What’s more, science has also revealed that our hearts have their own “heart-brain,” equipped with 40,000 neurons that can sense and feel more effectively than your actual brain.

Dr. John Gottman references this power in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, explaining that the most important trait of highly effective, empathetic parents is that they “use their hearts to feel what their children are feeling.” If using your heart can help you more effectively connect with your children and others, why not try using it to express a little self-compassion?

Compassionate Heart Breathing

Here is a simple and powerful exercise that I like to share with clients to get them out of their heads and back into their hearts. It’s called compassionate heart breathing and it combines the practices of self-compassion and mindfulness while tapping into the power of your heart. It effectively opens and softens your heart, oxygenates your blood, and activates the calming and restorative powers of your parasympathetic nervous system – the one that is responsible for calming you down.

Start by placing one or both of your hands on your heart. Take two to three deep, satisfying breaths, slowly tapping into your “heart-brain.” Applying gentle pressure, make small circles with your hand over your heart, feeling the natural rising and falling as you breathe in and out. Stay with that feeling as long as you like. If this makes you feel uneasy, explore where on your body a gentle touch is soothing. This could be on your abdomen, cheek, or stroking your arms. You can even cup one hand in another while resting them both on your lap.

Now, as you continue to breathe and soothe yourself, acknowledge what is happening and how you are feeling. Follow up with a supportive statement such as, “What I am experiencing is tough and I am suffering. May I be kind and loving to myself as I gain clarity and strength.” Find a statement that works for you, like one that you would say to a dear friend. Feel the words roll gently through your heart, eventually making their way to your brain.

Practice compassionate heart breathing any time you feel angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, or are experiencing any kind of emotional or physical discomfort. Remaining open to your heart’s voice will help you wake up to your true self, while simultaneously influencing your brain and body in beneficial ways.

Resources:  Gottman Blog
Photo:  by Stuart Miles

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How to Foster a Great Relationship with your Partner

Maintaining a healthy relationship takes time, energy, and work.  With these guidelines to lead as an example, relationships can not only maintain, but also blossom.

Have A Solid Friendship – Ask yourself what kind of friend you are being to your partner.  Apply the same openness that you have in your other friendships to the partnership.  Think about the “get what you give” philosophy – if you want a good friend in your partner, then be a good friend to them.   Provide encouragement and support to your mate to make them feel special and show them that they make a difference in your world.

Know Your Partner – Your partner possesses qualities that make them special to you, as well as a unique person in their own right.  Your partner likely has areas of sensitivities and vulnerability, in addition to their preferences, interests, and values.  Being aware of what makes them “tick” and engaging in behaviors that nurture and support those special qualities can enhance the intimacy and vibrancy of the relationship.  Remember what you honor and respect about your partner.

Strive For Emotional Intimacy – Emotional intimacy has been described as “unbridled mutual self-disclosure” – which implies a willingness to share from the heart.  It means getting in touch with and letting the other person know our feelings.  It is also being authentic; it is through emotional intimacy that relationships grow.

Make Time To Be Together – Cultivate passion and intimacy.  Make time for dates and romance while treating that time together as special and sacred.  Find strategies to create time together that work best for you as a couple.  Some couples devote the first 15 minutes of their morning or last 15 minutes of their evening “their time”; others have a standing date night.  A daily ritual that you both can look forward to being together, while being uninterrupted, will help intimacy and attachment grow.

Let Your Partner Influence You – Many issues in relationships have nothing to do with the “facts” and everything to do with the feelings about the issue.  We are emotional beings, emotions are bound to rise up, especially in our relationships.  It is important that you both understand each others positions.  Some issues have no solutions and oftentimes understanding and mutual respect are all that you really need.  Couples learn to simply contain the issues and not let them escalate through positive communication and empathy.

Solve The Solvable Issue – All couples will likely have a few issues that will never be resolved fully, due to difference of opinion and background.  What is important is to develop a dialog with your partner about this set of irreconcilable differences.  Treat them as you would if you were coping with a chronic bad back or trick knee – you don’t like them, you wish they were not there, but you learn to work around them by talking and learning how to live with them.  Having patience will be helpful in these situations, as well.

Create Shared Meaning – As a couple, having some concept of what you both think a relationship and a partnership are supposed to be would be useful.  Perhaps write down your definitions of a successful relationship and do your best to live up to those definitions.  Focus on the fundamental things that are going to make a difference in the long run.  Create specific goals as a couple, and also individually, on how you want to improve your relationship, and then follow through with them.

Maintaining a healthy relationship requires, well, maintenance.  Using these tips and tools will help keep your relationship in balance and maintained.

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Behaviors that Increase or Decrease Conflict in Relationships

In maintaining a health relationship, we previously discussed the stages of relationships.  This time we will round out the topic by going over the behaviors that intensify conflict along with the behaviors that diminish conflict.  There are many areas in which differences may appear in our relationships.  We may find that we disagree about politics or religion, or we may have different styles of communication which could become problematic over time.  Healthy relationships expect and allow for differences – in a healthy relationship, you will find ways to work through them together.

Behaviors That Intensify Conflict

Criticism – Negating or blaming your partner in issuing a complaint.  “You are so inconsiderate when…” is a criticism that could provoke defensiveness in your partner.

Contempt – Scorn, disrespect, or disgracing your partner.  Some forms of contempt underlie verbal abuse.  “You are so dumb…”

Defensiveness – Denying a problem or denying your share of personal responsibility for problems in the relationship.

Stonewalling – When a partner is stonewalling in communication in a relationship, they are usually using delaying or stalling tactics, refusing to answer questions, doing what can be done to hinder or obstruct a discussion, or bluntly refusing to cooperate with their partner.  This behavior usually drives away and rejects their partner.

Flooding – Overwhelming the other person with a bombardment of words or emotional outbursts that do not allow a true dialogue between the two of you.

Behaviors That Diminish Conflict

Set Boundaries – Boundaries are the limits we set to protect ourselves.  Some examples of boundary-setting for conflict are:  No name calling; no use of obscenities; no yelling; no going to bed angry; and, keep past arguments in the past.

Clearly Communicate Your Needs – If you want or need something from your partner, it should be your responsibility to communicate those needs clearly and directly.

Identify And Own Your Feelings – Using “I” statements helps describe your feelings.  For example – “I feel upset when you forget to call and tell me that you will be late for dinner.”  Describe your emotional reactions to behaviors and events.  Try not to attack the person or personality of your partner.

Learn The Art Of Negotiation – Every relationship we have with each other has a give and a take.  When you have differences, find ways to come to an agreement together that you can both be satisfied with.

Drop Your Assumptions – Step back from judging or assuming that you know what the other is thinking or feeling.  When we assume we know why someone said or did something, and then proceed with that as “fact”, it causes us to react to our assumptions rather than understand the facts of the situation.

Consider The Other Person’s Point Of View – Do not lose sight of the other person’s perspective – learn to value it.  Listen and acknowledge the other person’s concerns, then talk about why you perceive the situation differently.  Encourage your partner to explain their feelings and make assurances that you want to understand their perspective.  Then make an honest attempt to listen and honor their perspective.

Create Win-Win Solutions – Sometimes when dealing with differences or conflict in a relationship, we can get ourselves locked into position of needing to be “right” and make the other person “wrong”.  With your partner, forget “right” and “wrong”; the question should become whether or not what the two of you are doing is working in the relationship.  The disagreement then is transformed into a problem that the two of you can work on together to improve.  Be flexible; be open to new approaches in addressing conflict in the relationship.

Maintaining a healthy relationship takes time, energy, and work.  With these guidelines to lead as an example, relationships can not only maintain, but also grow.

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Relationship Stages

Creating and maintaining a healthy relationship is something that can be continually worked on.  These are the stages of relationships, as defined by Harville Hendrix.  Harville has crafted relationships into five significant stages.  As you read over them, begin to think about where you are currently in your relationship.

Romantic Love
Couples begin marriage in a state of romantic bliss.  During this euphoric phase, which usually lasts the first to third years or marriage, newlyweds wear the proverbial “rose-colored” glasses –  life and love are perfect.  Differences tend to be discounted and faults are few.  This is the time that spouses seek the intimacy they crave.

Disillusionment or The Power Struggle
This second stage is disappointment time, often with faultfinding.  Partners realize that the other’s behavior is irritating or even hurtful.  This stage can be frightening and it is when many couples see divorce as the only option.  Often, the lack of effective communication skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to compromise and negotiate leave many couples stuck indefinitely in this stage.  Also, the battle of wills occur, and to successfully leave this stage each individual must find a way to adjust to the ways of his/her partner.

Cooperation: Knowledge and Awareness
Stage three can leave the couple feeling stung and hurt by the damage rendered by the turbulent times.  If the couple perseveres and is willing to learn the communication and negotiation skills to navigate the power struggle, a new sense of acceptance and willingness to change enters the relationship.  Learning new relationship skills, and cultivating creativity within the relationship often accompany this shift in thought.  Partners take responsibility for their own problems and shed the illusion that their partner is the key to their happiness.

Acceptance
Stage four is often called acceptance, commitment or mutuality.  You and your partner realize that regardless of whom you are with, there will be problems, so you might as well stay in the relationship and work them out.  Togetherness just feels secure, and there exists a heightened sense of belonging.  The unhealthy patterns that dogged their relationship seem like ancient history.  This acceptance is the bridge to ultimate transformation and a love that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.

Transformation
Couples who put in the time and effort reap this final reward.  Intimacy is second nature.  The attitude is “we grow together.”  This is also called “co-creativity.”  Stage five couples develop a web of meaningful relationships that support the marriage and deepen the joy.  In this final stage, couples know what the fairy tales neglected to mention: Love is hard work.

Were you able to identify where you currently are?

 

Together But Separate – You in Relationship

Together But Separate – You in Relationship

Relationships can often be complex and yet remain wonderful at the same time. Having a connection with another person is a feeling that most people long for and search for. Finding it can often mean absorbing it like a sponge. A person loves the way it feels so much that they can often get consumed by it. What happens then?

The one mistake people often make when they get into a relationship is that they forget that there are two people within the relationship. One person can often forget that they have their own hopes and dreams as well. So they walk down a path doing what their partner loves, supporting their partner to the point that they forget about themselves, in the end forgetting who they are as an individual.

Taking some time for yourself to do the things that you love to do is not a bad thing. Each person needs their own time and their own space. You both need to do the things that you love and remember that even though you have separate goals it does not mean that you cannot achieve them together.

Having personal goals within a relationship does not mean failure. In fact, maintaining those goals and going for them can actually make you a better person, which means a better partner within the relationship. Your goals can be large or small ones. It could be something as simple as you want to walk seven miles a week. That doesn’t mean your partner has to be by your side for those seven miles, although that would be a bonus. It means you have a personal goal that you want to accomplish because it will make you feel good, but most importantly it’s something that “you” want to achieve for yourself. Having personal goals enriches you as a person. Again, remember that when you are a better person for yourself then you are a better person for the relationship over all.

You never want to look back on something and wonder what if. You also don’t ever want to let go of the things that you hoped to achieve before the relationship, because then you may look back and resent the relationship on some level. Plus if your partner is constantly achieving their goals and dreams while you put yours on the back burner for them, it can often build a wall between the two of you.

Take time to remember even the smallest things like your hobbies. If you love to garden then take some time to plant the things you love and tend to your garden. Perhaps you love working in the wood shop and building things. If so, then take some time to do that. Doing the things you love can be therapeutic and actually recharge you.

The bottom line is to always remember that there are two of you in a relationship, but it’s also important to remember that a relationship is made up of two “individuals.” Each person has their own goals, passions, dreams, and desires. Remembering that will make you a better person overall. In the end, the result is a stronger relationship.

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Knowing your True Self in a Relationship

Each person is completely unique, even if he or she has something in common with others, especially their significant other. Individuality is important, and knowing who you are plays a key role in your relationship, as well as the choices you make for yourself. If you are unsure about yourself or insecure in anyway, this can have a detrimental effect on the choices you make, as well as the strength and stability of your relationship.

Standards and Expectations  
Setting standards and expectations for yourself is a good way to ensure success. When it comes to relationships, this will help you to weed out those toads in order to find your true love hiding deep within the lily pads. If you do not know who you really are, there is no way you can definitely set forth your standards and expectations.

And if you enter into a relationship unsure of yourself, you cannot possibly know what you want and are almost guaranteed to encounter difficult relationships filled with incompatibility, struggle, and strife.   Being able to say,  I know who I am, I know who I want, and I will not settle for anything less,  will help you to be more discerning in your choice of mate, and will enable you to find someone you can build a strong partnership with; standing beside them for all the right reasons, as opposed to leaning on one another for the wrong reasons and wallowing in a miserable relationship that will inevitable come to a bitter end.

Conflict in Relationships
No relationship is without its fair share of conflict. However, there is a fine line between a healthy amount of conflict and navigating some seriously rocky terrain. If you do not know whom you really are and cannot set forth your standards and expectations, you run a high risk of allowing insecurities to creep into your relationship causing undue conflict. Insecure people tend to be vulnerable, choosing mates who are not always the best choice for them, and failing to stand their ground about what they believe and want, as well as being susceptible to tolerating things they should not tolerate simply because they are too insecure to believe they deserve any better. For those who do find a kind and loving mate, despite their insecurities, conflict can creep in because insecurities tend to make people paranoid, causing them to start fights and aim accusations at their partner, even when unfounded and often ludicrous. And while such petty conflict can be the insecure partners way of reassuring themselves of the others devotion and love, over time, this same type of conflict can drive the other partner away because of the constant arguing, clingy-ness, and need for unnecessary reassurances.

Commitment  
If you do not know who you really are, you cannot possibly make a commitment to yourself. This means you cannot set forth those important standards and expectations for yourself or a relationship. If you cannot commit to yourself, you certainly cannot commit to a long-term relationship, nor can you expect that relationship to be strong and healthy with only a reasonable amount of conflict. The bottom line, no matter what your age and experiences in life, find out whom you really are, committing to yourself first, and then find that special someone who will love and appreciate you for who you really are.

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Positive Psychology in Relationships

Relationships, no matter what level they are on, can have ups and downs. They can make you happy and at times sad. We are all looking for ways to enhance our relationships and make them better. When the relationships in our life are in unison, everything seems in sync.

One new view when it comes to enhancing a relationship is that of positive psychology. Many people think that psychology mainly focuses on the mental aspects of things. While it does, positive psychology has a different view. Positive psychology doesn’t focus on what’s wrong, but looks more at promoting a sense of well-being. It looks at how to get the life and relationships you want. It’s about your life experiences having a sense of happiness and pleasure – and ensuring that it all has meaning to you.

So how can you use positive psychology to enhance your life and your relationships? By utilizing these positive psychology techniques, you will become a better person and thus be better when it comes to the relationships in your life. These techniques include:

  •  Enjoy the moments in life by being aware of the things that give you pleasure. It’s OK to feel a sense of pleasure when something good happens. Enhance that pleasure by sharing it with others. Let them know about your experience and how great it was. Sharing a positive experience allows you to share the experience with others and assists in enhancing your communication skills with one another.
  • Try to avoid repetitive behaviors and experiences. It’s common knowledge that anytime you share an experience with someone, the first time you experience it is typically the best time. If you try to keep repeating that experience, it will never be as good as the first time. Try new experiences as often as you can. By introducing new experiences, you’re giving your relationship a chance to experience something new and thus creating a new bond with each experience.
  • Invest time in your friends and family. Building strong personal relationships has proven to enhance a person’s well-being.
  • Let go of any anger and resentment in your relationships. While it may feel like you’re doing something good, you’re actually hindering your happiness and adversely affecting the relationship when you hold onto these feelings. Try ridding yourself of the anger and resentment by writing it all down.

Developing a strong bond in your relationships needs to happen on all levels. A relationship that has a strong bond and sense of well-being in the good times has the foundation already built to get through the bad times as well.

Positive psychology is becoming more popular as time goes by. While the techniques look simple – and in a sense they are – there needs to be focus on the techniques to make them work. If you don’t give them your full attention, then they won’t be beneficial in the relationship or in your life. Relationships are a large portion of our lives. So making them the best that they can be is important. Use these techniques, and you are on your way to achieving a greater sense of well-being in your life.

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Relationship Connection

Connected relationships lead to a greater stability in all of your relationships – including family, friends and coworkers. To create shared meanings and values in your relationships, identify the shared meanings you already have and decide what new meanings you may want to add. Shared meanings help people, whether family or friend, settle conflicts and collectively pursue the goals that really matter to them and the relationship.

Some examples of shared meaning goals are raising a healthy child, building a successful business, or helping an elderly relative pass peacefully – all depending on what is being presented by each specific relationship. When two people find a shared meaning, they are willing to support each others dreams, even when there is little to gain personally from doing so, which is important for satisfying relationships.

Attaining A Shared Meaning In Your Relationships

Recognize The Conflict – Conflict often stems from inner dreams and ideals. If you uncover the ideals hidden behind another person’s position during a conflict, you can often find some common meaning. However, this strategy does not come easily for most people. Practice self-compassion and mindfulness to really take notice of what conflicts you may need to resolve within yourself. Looking inward is a great first step to solving anything. Once you are able to broaden your discussion to include dreams and hopes, you can see where your visions merge and find room for compromise.

Talk About Your Dreams – Encourage one another’s support for these aspirations. Keep in mind that talking about life dreams and what they mean to you requires some degree of trust between you and your partner (or friend/coworker). Such discussions can bring up issues so important and deeply felt that you may feel vulnerable. Just as with many high-risk propositions, there is also potential for high gain. Talking about your dreams and aspirations can lead to stronger emotional connections with the people in your life who matter most.

Meaningful Activities – Regularly engage in planned meaningful activities that draw people together emotionally. Most of us were raised in families in which some rituals were considered important (religions holidays for example). Create your own rituals – whatever you wish for them to be – it could be as simple as the ritual of a shared family dinner once a week. Rituals with family and friends will give those relationships more shared meanings.

Shared meanings are a big reason why we connect in our relationships in the first place. Harvesting these meanings will only create better connection.

Five Creative Ways to Increase the Intimacy

Five Creative Ways to Increase the Intimacy

Many couples hit a snag in their relationship where they feel as though there is nothing more to increase when it comes to intimacy. Believe it or not, there are plenty of ways to boost your relationship – whether you’ve been together one year or 20 years. If you feel as though your relationship is stagnant, consider these tips for boosting your love.

Cure Exhaustion

The biggest mood killer among couples is exhaustion. Whether it’s from children or career, there comes a time where you are too tired or too busy for your partner. Sometimes putting that exhaustion aside is too difficult, but often you can put aside what is causing the exhaustion. Today’s couple tends to act like a power couple, which means days that are longer than eight hours at work. By the time you get home, you’re too exhausted for your partner. If, however, you cut back by even four hours per week you may notice a great difference in your energy level and you and your partner will have four spare hours per week to spend with one another.

Be in the Moment

How often do you and your partner try to be intimate only to find yourself thinking about all you have to get done? If you’re not concentrating on the moment, you’re not going to enjoy it. Be in the moment by only focusing on what is going on – right then and there. Forget about what you need to do after or what else there is to do for the day.

Timing

You may have noticed that intimacy isn’t something you both time simultaneously. When you’re ready to be intimate, your partner may not be and vice-versa. You can overcome this lack of scheduling by talking with your partner. Find out when they’re feeling most intimate and desire you the most. By knowing when it works you can avoid any frustrations of either person being shot down when they’re in the moment.

Be the Best of Friends

If your partner is your best friend, you’re off to the right start. Many people have the misconception that if your partner is your best friend, it means you won’t be romantic with one another – but this isn’t true. In fact, having a partner in the bedroom who is your best friend creates more intimacy than a couple that isn’t comfortable and close with one another on a physical and emotional level.

Laugh

A sense of humor can actually improve intimacy in a relationship. Humor is, in fact, one of the keys to making a relationship thrive long-term. Since life is full of unexpected events, stressors and times of feeling down, having the ability to simply laugh, appreciate the irony in a situation, etc. can help any couple. Letting go and enjoying life together – regardless of what curveballs come your way, can help improve the relationship a lot more than you would expect.

In any relationship there will be times where you’re on the same page and times where you can’t seem to get along. Staying focused and working hard to improve intimacy between the two of you can help improve those “down times” and make the time between them much further.

 


 

Photo Source: courtesy of Stuart Miles / Free Digital Photos

The Brain Science Behind Love

The Brain Science Behind Love

Psychologists have demonstrated that it takes most people between 90 seconds and 4 minutes to decide whether or not they are attracted to another person. It is an almost instant feeling that is caused by a chemical reaction in your brain.

What makes us fall in love with a particular person?

Our brains are actually what entice us to fall in love. Love is one of the most exhilarating of all human emotions, and it is driven by brain chemicals and sexual hormones. Our bodies can become suddenly attracted to someone else based on how our brain responses to the person’s body language and tone of voice. Researchers have demonstrated that it has little to do with the actual content of the conversation.

Love Starts with Lust

Unfortunately, love at first sight is actually lust at first sight. The initial chemical reaction is considered to be more of lusting for each other that is driven by oestrogen and testosterone. It is the first stage our brain goes through when we are interested in someone, and it can lead to love if it is nurtured.

Lust Turns into Attraction

The next stage in love is attraction, which is also caused by a chemical reaction in your brain. Attraction can be broken down into three main neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. In most cases, the feeling of falling in love triggers your stress response, which increases your blood level of norepinephrine (adrenaline). These chemicals can cause your palms to feel sweaty, your mouth to feel dry, and your heart to race.

The release of dopamine during attraction gives you an intense rush or pleasurable feeling that makes you want to spend more time together and the lack of serotonin found in love-struck couples is what makes your brain block out potential issues or problems in the relationship. The entire attraction stage in the relationship changes your natural thought process and is the reason why it takes so many people so long to realize they are in a bad relationship.

Attraction Becomes Attachment

Once you have spent so much time together and the chemical reaction caused by your initial nerves wears off, you will have already become attached to the other person. Researchers believe that there are two critical hormones that inspire this feeling of attachment: vasopressin and oxytocin.

Vasopressin and oxytocin are both powerful hormones that women and men produce when they have an orgasm. They are sometimes referred to as the cuddle hormones and they are released to strengthen the couple’s bond after having sexual intercourse. A couple’s bond will become stronger the more often they have sex. The same theory also explains why so many couples seem to fall out of love once they stop making love.

Lust, attraction, and attachment can all cloud our better judgement because we are not directly in control of how our brain will react to another human being. This brain science doesn’t mean that love isn’t real or valid. The chemical reactions shouldn’t be strong enough to keep two people together if the relationship is lacking trust, compassion, and commitment. In most cases, your brain is a good judge of character and will connect you with someone that can transform the chemical reaction into a true love for each other.