When the One You Love Most Hurts You

Partner Trauma - Cluff Counseling - Dallas TherapistWhat happens when the person you would normally turn to is the one who betrayed your trust? You understandably feel deeply hurt, a great level of sudden distrust, and the desire to increase distance between you and this significant other. Partner trauma is real and it requires help in order to heal–both individually and in your relationship. If you or someone you know is experiencing partner trauma, help is available.

What exactly is partner trauma? Let’s begin by defining trauma. Trauma is the unique and personal experience of an event, a series of events or a set of enduring conditions that has the effect of overwhelming the person’s ability to integrate and regulate his or her experience at the levels of sensorimotor (body), cognition (thoughts), and emotion (feelings). In order for me to adequately explain the specifics of partner trauma, we need to take a step back and evaluate connection and our need for healthy, stable relationships.

At our core, we are all wired to connect with others; we begin as babies where we are entirely reliant on our caregivers. As we grow and gain independence, we look to others for comfort, guidance, support, and love. The children in Romanian orphanages, who are not given the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with caregivers and are deemed “unable to thrive” by healthcare professionals, are examples of how the lack of connection with others affects us greatly–physically, mentally, and physiologically.

We never outgrow our need for connection; adults need connection as much as small children do. As stated in my previous blog about connection, humans are wired for attachment! Answer the following questions about a significant relationship in your life:

  1. Will you be there for me when I need you the most?
  2. Can I count on you?
  3. Do I matter to you?
  4. Am I a priority in your life?
  5. Will you value me and accept me even with my imperfections?
  6. Will you stay close to me?

Answering yes to any of the above questions signals healthy attachment; whereas responding “no” to one or several could be indicative of relational trauma. When the person you once relied on, cared for, confided in, trusted and/or loved, no longer fills that role in your life, due to their actions, you are experiencing partner trauma.

Partner trauma (commonly known as relational trauma) has many faces; your partner could be an addict, involved in an affair, or ignored your needs at a time you needed him or her the most, such as a miscarriage, or loss of a job, etc. The common denominator, though, is that the stressor causes a traumatic attachment injury for one of the partners. The person you have leaned on for connection, comfort and support is the one you feel abandoned by. These feelings disrupt your relationship and your entire life. The person you have been the most vulnerable with may suddenly feel dangerous and unsafe. Relational trauma overwhelms the coping strategies you have in place and if not attended to, can appear to define you and how you see the world.

It is important to note that in the majority of cases, the person bringing the hurt into your life is not doing so intentionally; he or she is not trying to cause you emotional harm, although their actions have directly negatively impacted you. The deeper your relationship is with the one who hurts you, the more traumatic the experience and lack of trust will be. How you find out about the betrayal, how long it has been taking place without your knowledge, and your trauma history also factor into the symptoms you may experience. The following are some of the most common symptoms of trauma: fear, anxiety, outbursts of anger or rage, hypervigilance (excessive alertness or watchfulness), irritability, worrying/ruminating, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, tendency to isolate, difficulty concentrating or remembering, feelings of panic or being out of control, increased need to control daily experiences, difficulty trusting, feelings of betrayal, feelings of self-blame or responsibility, numbness, feelings of helplessness, minimizing the experience, feeling detached, concern of over-burdening others, under- or overeating, shame, shock, diminished interest in everyday activities, withdrawal, and preoccupation with body image.

Although relational trauma is not as visible as physical trauma–like being a victim of rape, bullying, or domestic violence–it leaves scars that take a great deal of time to heal. Relational trauma causes a ripple effect in all aspects of your life and influences how you see and treat people, yourself included. It is important to resolve relational trauma and work through it (both with your partner and also on an individual-basis) alongside a trained, experienced therapist. I have counseled many couples through varying degrees of relational betrayal and, while it is never easy, I can attest that couples that come out on the other side have some of the strongest marriages that I have seen. Everyone makes mistakes and we all need second chances. Healing is possible. Please contact me today to schedule your first appointment.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


Bucket Lists: A Powerful Form of Self-Care

Bucket Lists - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family TherapistIn the wise words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” Life really does move fast; one of the best ways to make the most of it is to have a bucket list. Not only will this help you deal on difficult days, but it will give you something fun and tangible to work towards. Remember…Y.O.L.O.

If you are a list person, this post is for you! Do you know what a bucket list is? I am sure many of you have heard of it. But what exactly is a “bucket list”? Slightly morbid…but it is called a “bucket list” because it is a list of all the things you want to do before you kick the bucket so to speak (erm…die.). A bucket list is also known as a “life list”–an in-depth list of the things you want to try, goals you want to achieve, and life experiences you want to have during this life. Bucket lists make you stop and think what you actually want to experience in this lifetime, they remind you that life is short and we should live it to its fullest, and they increase your happiness.

I am posting this blog as a licensed, professional therapist because I fully believe that everyone should have a bucket list, and not just because they are fun and exciting. I am writing this post because writing/having a bucket list is a form of self-care and I hope this blog post gives you a gentle nudge toward getting out of autopilot mode, enjoying life, and living fully.

Making a bucket list is quite simple…and fun! Here are some steps to get you started:

  • DREAMSTORM**. This is what happens when brainstorming and dreaming meet. Grab some paper or a blank Word Doc and scribble away. Write down the things you really want to do before you have kids/get old/or die. Maybe you want to hang glide, cage-dive with sharks, visit every continent, learn to play a musical instrument or another language. DREAM BIG. Be audacious but realistic and intentional; for example, owning an NFL football team would cost eight or nine figures of capital. Unless you plan on pouring your life into that goal…do not put that down. You want a list you can actually work with!
  • TIME IT OUT. One of my favorite quotes is from Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” If you stop after step one, you are going to have a lovely, overwhelming list that will fade in your desk drawer. This step is critical–plan out when you will accomplish your bucket list items! You can do this several ways…
    1. By short term deadlines–like during summer or before the end of the school year.
    2. By year–things you will accomplish in the year of 2017. This goes well with New Year’s’ Resolutions…but do not wait to plan because some bucket list items will require saving, flights booked in advance, or scheduling!
    3. By place–like if you are living in a certain city or state that has appealing things for you to do or see. Make a list of all the things you will accomplish while you are visiting or living there.
    4. By decade–things you hope to accomplish before your next birthday or during your 20s/30s/40s, etc.
  • BE ACCOUNTABLE.  Share your list (or parts of your list) with your spouse, your best friend, your sibling, or someone that shares your mutual interest in accomplishing those bucket list items. This will be wise to help minimize costs on shared expenses and will also keep you accountable to make stuff happen.
  • NARROW IT DOWN. Now that you have no more than five specific bucket list items that you have chosen to focus on, get specific. When will you do this? Where do you need to go? How will you get there? Do you need to buy anything? What preparation is involved? Then get to it and make it happen!
  • SPECIFICS. Now that you have no more than five specific bucket list items that you have chosen to focus on, get specific. When will you do this? Where do you need to go? How will you get there? Do you need to buy anything? What preparation is involved? Then get to it and make it happen!li>
  • CHECK AND REPEAT. Checking or crossing things off of your bucket list is oh so satisfying. Once you have things to check off, select new bucket list items and get specific in your planning to make it happen. And I would also recommend to make your bucket list a living one. Add to it! You never want to run out of things to dream of and work for!

Why on earth would I, a licensed therapist, be posting about bucket lists? What does this have to do with therapy? Well, making a bucket list is quite lighthearted and exciting. Sometimes life is hard, stressful, intimidating, frustrating, unfair, and a host of other negative things. Making a bucket list is a form of self-care; this can set your mind on lighter, happier things, and give you something to dream about and work towards. One of my family friends is a specialized dentist, and the way he can handle the stresses of day-to-day life is to have a trip to look forward to. He always has something on the horizon, and that keeps him going on tough days.  Making a bucket list can do the same for you.

I fully believe in taking time out of the day-to-day rigors for yourself and your personal needs. I do not think it is selfish; I actually find it to be wise and completely necessary. You will perform your basic duties better if you take regular breaks and time for yourself. Planning and executing a bucket list is not only an incredible way to carpe diem (make the most of the present), but it is a sure-fire way to work towards a bright, happy future. If you need help planning your bucket list, or making self-care fun again, contact me to set up your first session today!

**If you are struggling to get started during the dreamstorm phase, jump onto Pinterest and peruse bucket list boards, or even google that phrase and look through the images that are generated!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville,Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
Cluff Counseling: “Self-care: Is it Selfish?”
Raptitude: “How to Make a Bucket List You’ll Actually Do: A Comprehensive Guide”
Science of People: “The Psychology of Happiness”
Science of People: “The Ultimate Guide to Creating Your Bucket List”

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder at a Glance

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Cluff Counseling - Denton TherapistWhat was once thought to be a rare mental disorder is now known to be quite common. Approximately 2.3% of the population or 3.3 million people between ages 18- 54 suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which outranks mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or panic disorder. Help is readily available for those facing this disorder to live a healthy, balanced life.

Chances are that you have heard about or know someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD manifests itself in so many different ways and varies from person to person. Here is the basic information of what obsessive-compulsive disorder is, how it manifests itself, who and when it affects, and how it can be treated.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable and recurring thoughts and/or behaviors that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over. This mental health disorder is manifested by a swinging pendulum between obsessions and compulsions. The International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation defines the two sides as the following:

  1. Obsessions: Unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings.
  2. Compulsions: Behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress. These are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that a person uses with the intention of neutralizing, counteracting, or making their obsessions go away. People with OCD realize this is only a temporary solution but without a better way to cope they rely on the compulsion as a temporary escape. (Compulsions can also include avoiding situations that trigger obsessions.)

Most people have obsessive or compulsive thoughts and/or behaviors at some point in their lives, but that does not mean OCD is present. There has been some confusion about the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). While there appears to be some overlap between these two disorders, the biggest difference between OCD and OCPD is the presence of true obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions and compulsions are not present in OCPD; rather, OCPD is the ongoing presence of an obsessive personality trait–which, summed up simply, is a long-enduring personality trait commonly manifested through perfectionism (ie. preoccupation in details, inflexibility to schedules, being rule-bound, or needing order and symmetry). The way to distinguish OCD from this personality trait is that, with OCD, the cycle of obsessions and compulsions will become so extreme that it will consume significant amounts of time and will get in the way of daily activities that the person values.

The following are a few examples of obsessive behaviors:

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, and harm
  • Aggressive thoughts towards others or self
  • Having things symmetrical or in a perfect order

Here are a few examples of compulsive behavior:

  • Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing
  • Ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way
  • Repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off
  • Compulsive counting

The compulsive behaviors of OCD often follow the obsessive thoughts. It is very important to note that not all rituals or habits are compulsions. Everyone double checks things sometimes–like making sure you turned the oven off or locked your car door. OCD is much more than that, though. A person with OCD generally cannot control his or her thoughts or behaviors, spends at least one hour a day on these thoughts/behaviors, does not get pleasure when performing the behaviors or rituals (but may feel brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause), and experiences significant problems in their daily life due to these thoughts or behaviors. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is disruptive to normal life patterns.

OCD does not discriminate; it is found in all ethnic groups and both men and women can be diagnosed with the disorder, although in children OCD is more prevalent in boys. Typically emergence or evidence of obsessive-compulsive behavior occurs around the age of six (the linguistic abilities of the child make it easier to find out the existence of OCD). The age of onset is typically reported around ages 6-15 for males, and ages 20-29 for females. Additionally, it has been found that many patients with OCD have other psychiatric comorbid (co-occurring or additional) disorders, such as: Mood and anxiety disorders, somatoform disorders (especially hypochondriasis and body dysmorphic disorder), eating disorders, impulse control disorders (especially kleptomania and trichotillomania), attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, tic disorder, suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is treatable. Symptoms may ebb and flow depending on life stressors, but, if left untreated, they can greatly worsen and impact all areas of life with time. As mentioned above, the compulsive behaviors of OCD often follow the obsessive thoughts. This is why the focus of therapy is to address and distinguish the power of the obsessive thoughts, thus eliminating the need for the behaviors. Treatment approaches also focus on recognizing what triggers the behavior or thought and then making a plan for how to avoid and/or confront said triggers. This will lead to increased self-awareness and control, and freedom from the enslavement of obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In some cases, medical attention may be necessary.

If you or a loved one is suffering from OCD, now is the time to seek help and treatment from a trained, qualified counselor. I have helped many patients make individualized plans to avoid and overcome their obsessive-compulsive behaviors and I can help you, too. Contact me today to schedule your first session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
Cluff Counseling: “Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Illness”
International OCD Foundation: “What is OCD?”
MedScape: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”
National Institute on Mental Health: “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”
Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: “Some OCD Facts and Figures”
Very Well: “OCD vs. Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder”
Wikipedia: “Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder”

Reclaiming the Bedroom, Part II: Hindrances to Sex

Hindrances to Sex - Cluff Counseling, Denton Marriage Family TherapistIn last month’s post on relationships, I wrote about the many personal and relational benefits of sex. Sexual intimacy is important and even necessary to a healthy romantic relationship. In the early days of most relationships, creating chemistry is easy and the sex drive is strong. But it does not always last and it requires a consistent effort to keep the flame alive. Why? What happens? What gets in the way? In this post I will focus on a few of the most common hindrances to sex that I hear from my clients.

Not knowing partner’s sexual needs.
My advice to this one may seem silly… but the simple answer is to ask. In most relationships one partner has a higher sex drive than the other. If this is true in your relationship, know that you are not alone. Take some time to process your needs, before communicating them to your partner. Then patiently listen to their needs, without becoming defensive. Once you each have shared and listened, work together to come up with possible solutions.

Too busy for sex.
It is easy to get busy and let other things get in the way of our relationships.  If you are a planner or a to-do list person, try scheduling time for sex. Literally put it on your to-do list or schedule so you can plan on it and prepare for it. If having a healthy sexual relationship is important to you and your partner, prioritize it. If you are the type of person that feels overwhelmed by to-do lists and sex seems like one more thing you have to do, focus on the benefits of sex (refer to Part I of this series). Think of being with your spouse as a stress-reliever, a fun activity that you can share with your partner, a hobby, something important that you make time for because it helps you face the demands of life better.

Too tired for sex.
I hear ya! Your days are long and all you want to do as it nears bedtime is hop in bed…to sleep. My advice here is simple: mix it up. Be spontaneous right after dinner, first thing in the morning, or during your lunch break. Do not wait until you are too tired to be intimate. You need energy for sex, too, so plan accordingly. (An interesting fact here is that during ejaculation men release a cocktail of brain chemicals, including the hormone prolactin…which is tied to feeling sleepy. After women orgasm, they want to be close, connect, and cuddle. In short, both men and women will likely sleep better after sex!)

Too plugged in for sex.
It is possible that you have never used this as an up-front excuse for not having sex before, but many of us are guilty of it. So often I hear clients spending their time gaming, cruising Instagram, or tweeting, while their partner sits mere feet away on their electric device. Put your phone down, set aside technology and connect with your partner. Leave your phones outside your bedroom, schedule times to turn them off, or simply put them away. Do not be so focused on your screens that you miss prime time together!

Physiological issue.
The literal physical inability to have sex can quickly snowball into an emotional roadblock. If your husband experiences impotency, it is very likely he feels inadequate–and that thought can invoke fear and anxiety during sexual intimacy. (And just in case you are thinking this issue is uncommon…according to the Cleveland Clinic, as many as 52 percent of men experience erectile dysfunction!)

Unrealistic expectations.
Society and the media overemphasizes physical appearance. You cannot expect your husband to have a chiseled six pack, or your wife to have a perfectly flat tummy in order to be attracted to him or her. Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, live a healthy lifestyle, and find the natural attractiveness in your spouse. Your sexual relationship with your partner will NOT always look like what you see in Hollywood–and that is okay!

Disconnected from your spouse.
When you feel emotionally disconnected from your partner, it is often difficult to connect sexually with him or her. Couples, I work with, often observe that connected sex is better than just physical sex. Once couples are in a place that they are experiencing connected sex more regularly, they often tell me that they only want to have sex when they feel connected with each other. Although we can not fully cover emotional connection in this post,  (please stay tuned for a future blog post on this important topic), communicating clearly and assertively that you feel disconnected and desire to be more connected is a powerful start to reconnecting. This is a common reason couples come see me, so please feel free to contact me!

A couple’s sex life is commonly seen as a private matter and not only can it be difficult to discuss with your partner,  it can also be hard to know where to turn for help. Therapists are trained, licensed individuals who can help you communicate your concerns about your sex life with your partner, in a safe and structured setting. Set up your first session with me today and together we can overcome the barriers and help you reclaim the bedroom.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Bustle: “What Happens To The Body After Orgasm? How Women & Men Experience Post-Coital Bliss Differently, According To Science”
Cluff Counseling: “Are You Addicted to Your Phone?”
Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
Cluff Counseling: “Outdoor Therapy: Nature’s Cure”
Cluff Counseling: “Reclaiming the Bedroom, Part 1: Benefits of Sex”
Focus on the Family: “Emotional and Relational Barriers to Sex”
Huffington Post: “Erectile Dysfunction May Affect 1 In 4 Men Under 40 Seeking Treatment, Study Suggests”
Live Science: “Why Do Guys Get Sleepy After Sex?”
Marriage Today: “Physical Barriers to Healthy Sex”
USA Today: “How often should you have sex with your partner?”

People image created by Nensuria – Freepik.com

The New Drug

Cluff Counseling - Sexual AddictionDavid, a recovering sex addict, said the following: “If there was a sexual thing that you could pay for, I bought it. Normal people don’t get triggered to do immoral things 20 different times on a 5-mile trip to work. That’s not normal, but that was my life. Some people think that sex addiction isn’t real, but I ran my life into the ground because I couldn’t stop.” David’s story does not need to be your story. Help is available for you today.

We typically correlate addiction to harmful substances, alcohol, or drugs. The truth is that we can be addicted to a plethora of things–ranging from certain behaviors, to food, our phones, and even sex. As I stated in my first blog on addiction, addiction is defined as having a dependence on, obsession with, or enslavement to something.  Most activities, especially those that are innate–like eating, having sex, and exercising–are healthy and rewarding in moderation. But when participating in them becomes the sole way you cope, your relationship with those activities turns addictive.

What is sex addiction?
Although the “drug” in sex addiction is sex, sex addiction is not about sex. It is about emotional mismanagement. It occurs when an individual uses sex to minimize pain and painful emotions or to augment pleasure. Sex addiction, like any other type of addiction, hijacks the reward pathways in the brain and damages brain circuits. Like other addicts, sex addicts’ lives become out of control and unmanageable.  Sex addiction harms the addict’s ability to make choices and the addict’s ability to maintain loving relationships. The prefrontal cortex can shrink over time with sex addiction.

How does it start?
Sexual addiction begins the same way as any other addiction–it serves as an escape mechanism that feels good, and feeds on underlying issues of the addict. Untreated addiction is considered to be a progressive disease that only gets worse with time. Studies have shown that about 80% of sex addicts suffered some kind of sexual abuse or emotional trauma in their past. Trauma is a major cause of addiction. Sex addiction can happen at any age, but often begins in early adolescence. Although sex addiction was once thought to be mainly a male struggle, it is now being recognized societally as something that females struggle with it too.

The sex addiction cycle
Just as with any form of addiction, there is a cycle that the addict rotates through.

  • Pain. Whether it was caused by a past trauma, stress, anxiety, etc, pain is often at the root of sexual addiction. This leads to the desire to escape.
  • Fantasy. This is where the individual will fantasize about acting out sexually. This leads to a disconnect in reality.
  • Ritual. This is the beginning of acting out physically. Some will drive around aimlessly, read adult magazines, or view pornographic movies or content online.
  • Acting out. This is where the individual actually participates in the sexual act in order to fulfill sexual desires. These sexual acts will vary from person to person and can be anything, ranging from picking up prostitutes, to chronic masturbation, exhibition, and anonymous sex.
  • Shame and guilt. Actually fulfilling their sexual desires leaves addicts satisfied for only a brief moment before shame and guilt set in. They feel remorse for their actions and recognize the possibility of severely negative consequences, which takes them back to step one: pain. The cycle will repeat itself over and over again until it can be broken.

Paula Hall said the concept of sexual addiction is contentious. For years, there has been a debate about whether sexual addiction is a real problem or just an excuse for irresponsible sexual behavior. I am here to tell you that I have seen many patients battling this addiction. It is real. I empathize with those battling sex addiction; its consequences can be far-reaching and long-lasting. But help is available. As a trained and experienced therapist, I can help you or your loved one break the cycle of sexual addiction. It will not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Just as an alcoholic can fight for years of life alcohol-free, you, too, can regain control in your life and create healthy boundaries around your sexual behaviors. Contact me today to schedule your first appointment.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

A Forever Recovery: “Sexual Addiction”
Cluff Counseling: “Addiction 101:Analogy of the Driver’s Seat”
Cluff Counseling: “Are You Addicted to Your Phone?”
Counselor: “Sex and the Cycle of Addiction”
LDS.org: Addiction Recovery Program
Mormon Channel: “Step 1: Honesty – David’s Story on Sex Addiction Recovery”
Paula Hall: “Sex addiction – an extraordinarily contentious problem”
PsychCentral: “What is Sexual Addiction?”
PsychGuides: “Sex Addiction Symptoms, Causes and Effects”
Psychology Today: “How does it all start? My thoughts on addiction causes, sex addiction, and substance abuse”
Wikipedia: “Sexual Addiction”
Wikipedia: “Sexual Desire”