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Stress in Relationships

My partner always comes home stressed out about work, but he/she won’t talk to me. What can I do to get my partner to talk about his/her stress? What can I do to keep my stress from affecting my relationship?

There are a variety of stress reducing activities in the popular media today. However, most of these are individually focused (i.e. what can I do to reduce my stress). Of course many of these techniques work, but sometimes we need the help, comfort, support or encouragement of our partner. For this reason, this handout will focus on how to cope with stress in our relationships!!

A word on stress in marriage:

In his research on the effectiveness of marital therapy, Neil Jacobson found that one of the key variables in relapse after his own approach to marital therapy is whether stress from other areas of the couple’s life spilled over into the relationship. Couples who are overrun by this stress see their marriages relapse, while those who can help each other cope with it keep their marriages strong.

So what can we do to make sure our non-couple stress doesn’t affect our relationship?

There are many ways to make sure you don’t take out your work frustrations or child rearing annoyances on your partner. First and foremost, you need to talk about it! If you are stressed, don’t labor under the illusion that it will “just go away” or “I will just deal with it myself, I don’t want to stress out my partner by unloading my stress on him/her.” Next, use whatever stress reduction techniques you have used in the past which you know work for you. If going for a drive works, DO IT! If exercising works, DO IT. If talking it out works, DO IT!

However, in many cases, your partner wants to know what is going on in your life and would like to be a part of helping you through your stressful time. However, it is important to remember that we all experience stress in different ways. Some people just like to be left alone for a while before talking, some people can’t wait to get in the door to start discussing their frustrations. Furthermore, some people “just want to talk” about what is bothering them whereas others want to jump into problem solving mode. So how are you supposed to know how your partner would prefer to deal with his/her stress? ASK!

Here are some guidelines to help with these conversations.  Remember all the important things to remember when communicating about difficult issues such as:

  • Validation
  • Acceptance
  • Gender differences
  • Expectations
  • Sometimes it is difficult to listen to your partner when he/she is really angry about something that is making him/her stressed. It often feels like you are the one being attacked. If you are feeling this way, check with your partner to make sure this is really about non-couple stress.
  • “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (Steven Covey)
  • Don’t trivialize your partner’s concerns.

Here are some additional tips (adapted from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman):

  • Take turns – Each person takes time to vent their frustrations!
  • Don’t give unsolicited advice – If your partner has not asked for it, don’t give it!
  • Show genuine interest – Stay focused. Make eye contact. Ask questions.
  • Communicate your understanding – “I’m sorry she made you feel that way.” “How outrageous, that’s so unfair.” “You weren’t stupid, that could happen to anybody.”
  • Take your spouse’s side – Be supportive, even if you think his or her perspective is unreasonable. The point isn’t to be dishonest, timing is everything. When your partner needs support, give it to them.
  • Express a “we against others” attitude – Help your partner feel that he/she is not alone, that you will go through this together.
  • Validate emotions – Let your partner know that his or her feelings make sense to you!!


Sharing Withholds Communication Activity

Although I believe it is in understanding our interactional patterns that is most critical to establishing healthy communication, there are some fun activities that we can use to get us talking and learning about each other.  Here is one of my favorites!  My wife and I attended the Becoming Soul Mates marriage retreat almost 15 years ago and this activity was in the Participants Guide.  Although we followed the directions closely the first several times, we found ourselves paying more attention to the positive behaviors we appreciated in each other and, most importantly, sharing those observations more freely/safely (even the concerns/complaints).  When we were able to share both the positive with the negative, it helped us greatly!  Thank you to Les and Leslie Parrott for this great activity!

My best,

Dr. Cross

Sharing Withholds

This exercise will help you and your partner keep a clean emotional slate and avoid needless conflicts.  Begin by writing two things your partner has done in the last forty-eight hours that you sincerely appreciated, but did not tell him or her.  For example, “I appreciated the compliment you gave me as I got out of the car yesterday,” or “I appreciate the help you gave me in writing my proposal last night.”

“I appreciate…”

“I appreciate…”

Next, write one thing your partner has done in the last forty-eight hours that irritated you but you did not say anything about.  For example, “I didn’t like it when you borrowed my umbrella without telling me,” or “I didn’t like it when you said nothing about the meal I prepared for us last night.”

“I didn’t like it when…”

Once you both have written your statements, take turns sharing them.  One person shares all three statements one after another.  Then the other person shares their three statements.  Here is an important part of the exercise:  The person on the receiving end can only say “thank you” after each statement.  That’s all.  Just “thank you.”  This rule allows couples to share something that bugs them without fear of a blow-up or a defensive reaction.  It also allows couples to receive critiques at the same time as positive affirmations.

This exercise can be done every day.  Once you get the hang of it, you don’t need to write your statements down.  All it takes is for one partner to say “Do you want to do withholds?”  Then each of you can take a moment to gather your thoughts and away you go.  Sharing withholds can save hundreds of hours of needless bickering.

(from Becoming Soul Mates Seminar: Participants Guide by Les and Leslie Parrott – http://www.lesandleslie.com/)



Dr. Cross’ Important Communication Tips

Dr. Cross’ Important Communication Tips

Based on what we know from Part I and Part II of this series, here are some tips to help improve your communication and closeness.

  • If you are a withdrawer, do what you can to engage in discussion with you partner. When you feel like running away (either physically or emotionally), muster whatever strength you can to STAY WITH your partner and tell him or her how you are feeling.  Say, “I really feel like running away right now (or I’m scared, or I’m not sure how to do this but here goes,…), but I know this is important for both of us that we talk so I will try my best.”   Remember, the pursuer needs to know that you have a pulse!!  They feel like they’re pulling teeth to get you to talk and the less you talk the more they pursue.  So talk to them and you’ll see that they will feel less need to pursue!!
  • If you are a pursuer, don’t criticize or belittle your partner or his/her feelings. Remember how difficult it is for you to stop pursuing and think about that when you are in conflict!!!  When you belittle his or her feelings, you are belittling the person!  When you feel like criticizing or blaming, STOP!!!  This is EXACTLY the thing your partner expects and is EXACTLY the thing that will get them to clam up again!!  So if you want them to talk, YOU HAVE TO LISTEN,…REALLY LISTEN TO THEM!!  When you want to talk and you feel like criticizing, say, “I have something I would like to talk with you about and I would really like your feedback.  I know it’s not easy for you when I do this, but I’ll try not to blame or criticize you because I want to hear what you have to say and I know blaming you will turn you off.”
  • If your partner is talking to you and you don’t understand what he/she are trying to say, TELL HIM OR HER!! Ask for clarification, simply say, “Honey, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, it’s important to both of us that I understand what you are talking about, can you help me a little?”  Asking for help shows you care!!!!
  • Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, imagine what it would feel like for them and VALIDATE, VALIDATE, VALIDATE!!!! Use phrases like, “If I were in your shoes I would feel sad too,” or “I can see why you are angry, I would be angry if someone did that to me.”  Avoid phrases like, “It will be ok” or “Things will get better.”  Unfortunately this invalidates the person’s experience and feelings.  Also, DON’T try to solve the problem, often we just need a caring ear to talk with!!
  • If you don’t feel like your partner really truly heard (REALLY heard) what you were trying to say, it’s ok to say, “I’m not sure I conveyed my point, can I try again?,” or “This is really important that I convey my feelings accurately, can I clarify something?” Remember, if you say, “You don’t understand what I’m trying to say,” you might get a defensive reaction, so try to use “I” messages instead.
  • Other things you can do to help the conversation go well:
    • Look at your partner when he or she is talking. THIS TELLS YOUR PARTNER THAT YOU ARE REALLY LISTENING!!
    • Touch your partner. Put your hand on their shoulder, hold their hand, or just touch their knee.  THIS ALSO TELLS YOUR PARTNER THAT YOU REALLY CARE, EVEN IF YOU ARE ARGUING!!!!
  • Whatever you do, ACKNOWLEDGE when your partner takes a risk to do something different!!! Tell your partner, “I can see that this is REALLY difficult for you to do and I appreciate that you trust me enough to take that risk.”

Remember, you don’t always have to agree,…in fact you can agree to disagree too!!  Even couples who have been in happy marriages for years still have problems that may never get fixed!!



Why do we communicate the way we do (Part II)

In our last post, we discussed why we often approach communication in our marriage or romantic relationships the way we do.  Here, we will focus on what to do about it!

Think about these questions:

  • When you are in conflict with your spouse (or others in your life), do you feel like you’re pulling teeth to get them to talk (pursuer) or do you tend to avoid confrontation altogether (withdrawer)?
  • When you are angry, do you feel like crawling into a shell (withdrawer)?
  • Do you tend to be critical of others and maybe yourself as well (pursuer)?

Ultimately, pursuers “pursue” because it is the only way they know how to

engage others and fear being rejected!!

Ultimately, withdrawers “withdraw” because they don’t know how to engage

others and fear of appearing inadequate or incompetent!!

Here’s where it translates to your relationship: pursuers often attract withdrawers and vice versa.  Often times married, engaged and dating couples end up coping with stress or conflict in rigid ways, one will criticize/pursue in order to try to get the withdrawer to talk, and the other will hide/withdraw in order to stop the other from pursuing.  But the more one withdraws, the more the other pursues (and vice versa) and the cycle continues.

Now we know why we communicate the way we do,

but what can we actually DO to change it?

First and foremost, know how you tend to react to distress and DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!!!

If you tend to withdraw, share your feelings and TALK!

If you tend to pursue, be quiet and LISTEN!

But remember, it does NO good to talk if you are worried about getting criticized, ignored, or rejected!!  Change is not always easy and giving up our defenses is a big risk and leaves us vulnerable to hurt!!  Not only do we need to risk doing things differently ourselves, we need to have patience and support for our loved ones who are making an equally difficult effort!  SO WHEN YOU DECIDE TO TALK, DO WHATEVER YOU CAN IN YOUR POWER TO ACCEPT and VALIDATE, VALIDATE, VALIDATE THE OTHER PERSON AND APPRECIATE HIS/HER EFFORTS!!!!  Nothing is more powerful than to hear from your partner, “Wow, that must be frustrating,” or “If I were in your shoes, I would be SO angry,” or “How sad.”  Validation can also be conveyed without words by holding your partner’s hand, looking him or her in the eyes, and “being there” just to listen.

Stay tuned for specific tips on how to communicate with your spouse or partner!



Why do we communicate the way we do? (Part 1)

Why do we communicate the way we do?

There are MANY theories as to why we communicate the way we do.  The most recent and well researched theory asserts that our communication and interaction styles begin to develop very early in life and are shaped by our life experiences.  Let me provide a brief explanation of this theory.

This theory focuses on the connection between early experiences with caregivers on how we experience and express emotion throughout the lifespan.  Often it is in the expression of emotions that we have the most difficulty communicating.  As an infant, we continually monitor the accessibility of caregivers and tend to “flee” to this caregiver for safety in times of distress.  This is where the concepts of “attachment” and “secure base” come from.  It is through these attachment experiences that infants learn to cope or survive in their particular environment.  When caregivers can not or do not meet the infant’s needs, the infant’s ability to manage his or her emotions is affected.  Based somewhat on the temperament of the infant, they will tend to respond in one of two ways, by either “pursuing” or “withdrawing.”

For example, if an infant is ignored by her caregiver when she gets distressed, she may learn that by crying louder and longer (pursue), she gets the attention of a caregiver.  Unfortunately, after hearing this screaming baby, the caregiver may not respond in a very caring way.  This baby learns that, although they have to scream and holler to get attention (albeit negative), it’s better to get negative attention than no attention.  If the infant learns that, even by screaming she does not get her needs met, she may “give up” (withdraw) because she knows her efforts will be fruitless. This baby learns that it doesn’t matter what she does, her needs are not important, so why even try.  This makes it difficult for either infant to trust that others will take care of her.  This is where the terms “secure” and “insecure” attachment come from.  These tendencies/approaches to care then become a template which is then used to view others in relationships and get perpetuated through life.

Now, most of us were securely attached to our caregivers.  However, we all have the tendency to either pursue or withdraw when distressed as adults.  Sound familiar?  I bet you tend to fall into one of these categories yourself.  We all learn to interpret the interactions we had with our caregivers and apply those expectations for how we should be treated by others to relationships outside of the caregiver relationship.  You don’t have to remember these interactions for them to influence you into adulthood!! 

Stay tuned for Part II where we discuss how this influences our adult relationships and what we can do about it!



Which strategy do you use now?

Did your past relationships teach you that loved ones were unreliable and that you had to be vigilant and fight to be seen and responded to?  Or did you learn that depending on others is dangerous and it is best to distance yourself, to not need others and avoid closeness?  These basic strategies often switch on when we feel that our partner is distant or disconnected.  Which strategy did you use in past relationships, say, with your parents, when things started to go wrong?  Which strategy do you use now?

From Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson



What happens when we are alone and/or have unhealthy interactions with our partners?

Louis Hawkley at the University of Chicago found that loneliness raises blood pressure to the point where the risk of heart attack and stroke is doubled.  James House at the University of Michigan found that emotional isolation is a more dangerous health risk than smoking or high blood pressure.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that women who view their marriages as strained and have regular hostile interactions with their partners are more likely to have significantly elevated blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones compared with women in happy marriages.  Additionally, women who had a heart attack stood a threefold higher risk of having another if there was discord in their marriage.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of Ohio State University used a vacuum pump to produce small blisters on the hands of women volunteers, then had them fight with their husbands.  The nastier the fight, the longer it took for the women’s skin to heal.

Studies of marital distress have long indicated that marital distress raises our risk of depression tenfold.

From Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson



What happens when we are alone and/or have unhealthy interactions with our partners?

Louis Hawkley at the University of Chicago found that loneliness raises blood pressure to the point where the risk of heart attack and stroke is doubled. James House at the University of Michigan found that emotional isolation is a more dangerous health risk than smoking or high blood pressure.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that women who view their marriages as strained and have regular hostile interactions with their partners are more likely to have significantly elevated blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones compared with women in happy marriages. Additionally, women who had a heart attack stood a threefold higher risk of having another if there was discord in their marriage.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of Ohio State University used a vacuum pump to produce small blisters on the hands of women volunteers, then had them fight with their husbands. The nastier the fight, the longer it took for the women’s skin to heal.

Studies of marital distress have long indicated that marital distress raises our risk of depression tenfold.

(adapted from Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Susan Johnson)




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