couples therapy dc

I Need You, So Please Go Away

How much time do you spend every day doing these things?

  • Wondering whether someone likes you (or doesn’t).
  • Anticipating negative reactions from others.
  • Worrying about an email or text you sent (or haven’t sent).
  • Thinking about what you “should” be doing.
  • Scolding yourself for not doing enough.
  • Imagining worst case scenarios.

Thank God I don’t get a report on this, like my daily screen time usage. It would be pretty embarrassing.

The more you require positive reactions to regulate yourself, the more time you will spend focusing on others’ reactions.

I think pandemic life has increased this anxious focus on others. It’s easier to assume that people don’t like you over a Zoom call, or that a friend resents you for not keeping in touch. The less you connect with your partner, the more you will personalize their bad moods.

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Feeling rejected? Look for the triangles.

This week I’ve been thinking about how our position in relationships can affect our ability to think clearly.

triangle is a three-person relationship system. At any given moment in a triangle, two people are on the inside, and one person is on the outside. When things are tense between two people, you want to be on the outside position, away from the drama. But when things are calm and content between two people, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in.

You might be in the outside position of a triangle if:

  • Your partner is hanging out with a friend.
  • Your boss is praising a coworker.
  • Your kid wants the other parent to help them.
  • Your friends are hanging out without you.  
  • Your in-laws are visiting.
  • Your siblings disagree with you.
  • One of your parents has started dating again.  
  • Your adult children want to get together without you.
  • Your friends are laughing about an inside joke.
  • One parent seems closer to another sibling.

When you are in the outside position of a triangle, it is easier to feel abandoned, unheard, or not supported enough. It’s easy to lash out, accuse others of being unfair, or try to pull one person to your corner.

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Are You Directing or Reflecting?

When you’re close with someone, it’s easy to treat them like they’re an extension of yourself. You might act as if your family, friend group, or workplace is one giant blob of humanity. Because if the blob is anxious, you feel anxious. If the blob thinks that Bob from accounting is a mess, then yeah, maybe you do too.

The fancy word for this stuck-togetherness is emotional fusion. When fusion is strong in relationships, more of our decisions are influenced by how other people might react (or have reacted). It becomes difficult to know your own mind, what you believe and value. Your choices quickly become about stabilizing the blob instead of following your best thinking.   

The more fusion there is in relationships, the more we tend to treat people like they are ambassadors representing us. You might worry more about your boyfriend’s fashion choices, how your parents act in public, or how well your kid performs in school, because these variables have become a direct measure of your own worth.  

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Let People Be in Charge of Themselves

Energy is a precious resource in pandemic life. Most people are worn down, worried, and struggling to do the bare minimum. Yet somehow I still find myself using this scant energy to try and manage the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. This is not surprising, considering it’s what humans do when we get stirred up.    

Recently I was having a conversation with a therapy client who poked fun at his very human desire to have everyone like him. “If I pick a restaurant,” he admitted (referring to pre-pandemic times), “Then I will ask people five times whether they like the food.”

“What a wonderful life goal that would be,” I said. “To be able to enjoy a meal even if other people weren’t completely happy with it. And to let people be in charge of telling you if they didn’t like something.”

We both laughed at this idea, but I think it reflects the challenge of being in relationship with others. We want people to like what we like, think what we think, and do what we do, so we can avoid any discomfort or rejection.

I’ve decided that how much I let people be in charge of themselves is going to be one of the ways I evaluate my functioning this year. Because the more connected you are to someone, the easier it is to treat them like an extension of yourself. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to back away, or to overstep and overfunction. But to be in contact, and to treat that person like a capable individual. . .well that’s a true test of maturity.

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Telling a Story Without Villains

When I first meet with therapy clients, I ask them lots of questions about their families. I try to ask fact-based questions, like when someone was born, or where they live now. But a funny thing will happen as people talk about their family. A narrative emerges, as villains, heroes, and victims take the stage.

Humans are natural storytellers, so it’s not surprising that our stories about our families lean toward the question “Why?” We want to assign motive and meaning to people’s behavior. My mother called because she’s controlling. My spouse doesn’t help because they’re lazy. My child won’t cooperate because she’s impossible.

There are a few problems that emerge when we assign motive in our stories. First, it keeps us focused on others’ behavior. Second, it makes it hard to think flexibly about our own behavior. About how “leveling up” on our own maturity could make a difference in the relationship equation. (more…)