When Someone Else Alters Your Reality: Gaslighting

Gaslighting:  The attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.

In 1938, Patrick Hamilton wrote a mystery thriller play called Gas Light, where a husband manipulates his adoring, trusting wife into believing she can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality. He does this by dimming the gas-powered lights in their home, and then denying that the light changed when his wife points it out. From this the term “gaslighting” was born.

In the last few years, there has been attention around this term. Awareness has been heightened about gaslighting in the media, in politics, and in relationships. Also known as “crazy-making,” gaslighting leaves its victims questioning their very perception of reality.  I frequently see gaslighting in relationships where one of the partners battles an addiction; the supporting partner may suspect a relapse or regression, but the using partner may use gaslighting tactics to protect themselves by convincing the other that their instincts are wrong. My hope is to delve a little deeper into the specifics of gaslighting so my readers are better able to spot it and be armed against it. 

The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Gaslighting can occur in personal relationships, at the workplace, or over an entire society. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are. It is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the gaslighter a lot of power. Obtaining power and control is at the heart of gaslighting. 

In relationships, gaslighting typically happens very gradually; in fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first. Over time, however, these abusive patterns continue and a victim can become confused, anxious, isolated, and depressed, and they can lose all sense of what is truly happening. Then they start relying on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.

Gaslighting has several faces. The first is withholding–where the gaslighter pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. Second is countering–where the gaslighter questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. The third is blocking or diverting–where the gaslighter changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. The fourth is trivializing–when the gaslighter makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. And the final is forgetting or denial–when the gaslighter pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. 

People are not born gaslighters like some are born introverts or extroverts. A gaslighter is a student of social learning, or nurture. They witness it, feel the effects of it, or happen upon it and see that it is a potent, effective tool. Although some individuals gaslight intentionally–like my previous example of an individual trying to cover up a relapse or slip, in their addiction, from a partner–others may not even know they are being manipulative. I have seen some people unknowingly gaslight because they lack self-awareness and/or simply think they are expressing themselves directly and saying it “like it is.” Whether intentional or unintentional, gaslighting leaves its victims discouraged, resigned, pessimistic, fearful, debilitated, and self-doubting. They also question their own perception, identity, and reality; thus, the gaslighter gains control.

The following are common signs that you may be a victim of gaslighting:

  • You constantly second-guess yourself.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy.
  • You frequently apologize to your partner.
  • You cannot understand why–with so many apparently good things in your life–you aren’t happier.
  • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
  • You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
  • You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is–even to yourself.
  • You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person–more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  • You feel hopeless and joyless.
  • You feel as though you cannot do anything right.
  • You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.

At its extreme, the ultimate objective of a gaslighter is to control, dominate, and take advantage of another individual or a group. But, as I always say, this is not a life sentence. If you have been or are a victim of gaslighting or believe that you have used gaslighting in relationships, you do not have to continue that pattern. Get help. Learn how to break the cycle and create healthy relationships. I am a trained, licensed therapist, and I am here to help. My door is always open! 

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

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How Can I Help?: Supporting Those Facing Infertility

At a neighborhood function not too long ago, Rachael complimented Abigail on her cute children. Abigail quickly responded with, “It’s about time that you jump on the bandwagon and have some cute kids yourself!” What might have seemed like a harmless comment to Abigail cut Rachael right to the core. What Abigail did not know was that Rachael and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for years and were struggling with infertility.

It is estimated that 15 million Americans (one in six couples) have infertility issues. If it is not you going through it, it is your sibling, your friend, your coworker, or your neighbor.  Like many physical health conditions that have mental health implications, infertility often goes unnoticed by well-intentioned friends, family, and co-workers. If you are trusted to be let in on the tender topic of someone’s infertility, there are certain things you can do to help those struggling with this difficult trial.

  1. Learn more about infertility. Understand the causes, the language, the options, the process. This will not only help you understand the infertility journey, but it will mean so much to the people struggling that you took the time to understand their situation.
  2. Take comfort in knowing that it is not necessary for you to give advice. In fact, it is not your place to give advice. It is unlikely that you will suggest a route that has not already been thought of and some options might not be realistic, as you may not be aware of your friend’s personal, medical, or financial situation or history, nor their personal beliefs or values. Though it is natural to want to jump in and help problem-solve, infertility is an extremely personal issue; the decisions that need to be made and obstacles that need to be managed are deeply personal.
  3. Avoid trigger phrases. Though you mean well, there are certain responses that are rarely comforting and tend to minimize the very real fears and challenges your loved one is trying to share with you. A few of these include: “Where there’s a will there’s a way”; “Don’t worry; your time will come”; “It will happen when the timing is right”; “Just relax, it’ll happen when you’re less stressed”; “What’s meant to be will be”; “At least you can get pregnant.”
  4. LISTEN. While you may want to offer solutions or words of comfort, oftentimes, the best thing that those struggling with infertility need is a listening ear. They need someone to talk to and someone to be there for them. Instead of chiming in with possible solutions to their dilemma, let them guide the conversation and then be supportive of their plans, whatever they may be. Just listening will mean so much to the person trusting you with this deeply personal issue!
  5. Help where you can. Instead of working overtime to “fix” situations that are beyond anyone’s control, focus on making smaller decisions and stressors more manageable. Attend appointments. Watch kids (if there are older children involved). Be an exercise buddy (sometimes, those undergoing treatment need to lose weight in order for treatment to be more effective). Help around the house. Supply meals. Pick up groceries. Suggest a fun activity, like a comedic movie or a paint class or a number of other non-baby related things. These daily hassles tend to feel even bigger in the face of major life challenges like infertility.

Lastly, my advice would be to recognize and validate the uniqueness of their situation. Although many face infertility, no two struggles are alike. What one person finds most difficult can be very different from another’s perspective. For some, it may be the physical discomfort that comes from medications, daily injections, or invasive ultrasounds and procedures. For others, the financial commitment can generate significant stress and even become a barrier to treatment. Many mourn the loss of a “natural” conception. This is why one of the most helpful approaches is to remain open to a loved one’s experience. Sit with them in the lows, celebrate the highs, and just be present when things feel stagnant. Hear them out. Hear their story. Be there for them…whatever that might look like!

You may feel completely overwhelmed and unsure what to do or how to help. You may worry about saying the wrong thing or not saying enough. That is okay. Your loved one trusts you enough to confide in you and surely does not expect you to know exactly what to say or do. Remember that imperfect support is always better than nothing at all. Learn about infertility, avoid trigger phrases, listen, and help where you can. As you do these things, you will be able to support your loved one through the colossal trial that is infertility, and can bring a sense of peace, hope, and happiness back into their lives. If you are struggling with infertility, and believe the support of a therapist would be helpfuI, contact me. Let me be here for you!

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

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The Many Faces of Grief in Infertility

“There is a unique pain that comes from preparing a place in your heart for a child that never comes.” ~David Platt

Ever since she could remember, Jenny’s dream was to be a mother. She fantasized about cuddling infants, chasing toddlers at the park, kept a list of names she liked for future children, and subconsciously observed mothers she admired–taking note of things she wanted to integrate into her own parenting. Fast-forward 20 years: She was in another doctor’s office receiving yet another negative pregnancy test. She and her husband were delivered the news: They were up against infertility and would need specialized treatments in order to have children.

Infertility affects 15 million people in the U.S. annually. These individuals and couples ride the roller coaster of hope and disappointment each month in an emotional quest to start a family. They grieve the loss of a “normal” pregnancy” and have to face the mental, relational, and financial issues that accompany infertility. As April 21–27 is National Infertility Awareness Week, I want to dedicate a blog post to the education and awareness of this widespread struggle.

Simply stated, infertility is the inability to conceive children. You may be surprised to learn that infertility affects women and men equally. It can be caused by a number of things including advanced maternal age, ovulation disorders, blockage of the fallopian tubes, other women’s health issues like uterine fibroids and endometrial polyps, or male factors that affect the sperm (like low sperm count or mobility, or abnormal sperm). The American Society of Reproductive Medicine recommends that women under 35 begin infertility test only after trying to conceive unsuccessfully for 12 months, or six months if the woman is over 35. It is completely normal for that pregnancy test to not read positive after a month or two trying; remember it may take several months to conceive. Many couples find that they are more relaxed when trying to conceive if they believe that everything is normal.

Luckily, there are several options available nowadays for infertility treatment. These options include: 1) education to make the most informed choices; 2) medication to encourage egg development or ovulation; 3) intrauterine insemination (IUI), where sperm is placed into uterine cavity to promote easier penetration with eggs; 4) In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), where eggs are collected and then fertilized by sperm outside the body; 5) third party reproduction like sperm or egg donation, embryo donation, or gestational surrogacy; 6) surgery to correct an abnormality; and 7) adoption.

In addition to affecting the body, infertility takes a toll on the mind and mental health of those experiencing it. Parenthood is one of the most anticipated transitions in adult life for both men and women; anger, stress, depression, grief, and anxiety are common responses to infertility. Couples experience stigma, sense of loss, and diminished self-esteem in the wake of their infertility. In couples struggling with infertility, women show higher levels of distress than their male partners; however, men’s responses to infertility closely approximates the intensity of women’s responses when infertility is attributed to a male factor. Both men and women can experience grief, loss of identity and feel defective and incompetent.

The infertility journey can wreak havoc on even the strongest relationships. Many couples experiencing infertility report marital problems including disconnection, frustration and even sexual dysfunction. Because infertility brings feelings of grief and mourning, it may take time for either individual (or both) to even consider other options in the quest to start a family. Furthermore, infertility can cause social isolation from peers who are blessed with normal, healthy pregnancies. They likely will not understanding that their friends are literally grieving the loss of a healthy pregnancy and unborn children. Even the closest friends may struggle to relate to the infertility experience and offer unwelcomed platitudes like, “It will just happen.”

Infertility can lead to financial strain. Insurance coverage varies by state and by plan, but often requires hefty out-of-pocket payments. Many couples spend thousands of dollars on specialist consults, medications, and assisted reproductive technology like IUI and IVF. These multiple appointments can put strain on employment as well. This understandably causes great stress on individuals and couples.

The reality is that infertility takes a severe toll on the mental health, relationship quality, and financial situation of those experiencing it. Thankfully, awareness is increasing and help is more readily available. There are support groups and cognitive behavioral group psychotherapy groups–both of which have been found to decrease stress and mood symptoms and increase fertility rates. There is also medication for those struggling with mental health issues amidst the infertility journey.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, mental health treatment is available. For those facing infertility, therapy is not just an option; I consider it to be a necessity. Infertility is a life-altering journey that requires strength and resilience to address the mental health, relational and grief issues that may arise along the way. Outfitted with the right tools and a strong mental health foundation, you will be well-prepared to weather the emotional turmoil that can accompany infertility and its treatment. Please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or schedule a session with me at your earliest convenience. I am here for you!

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

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The Direct Path to Happy Relationships

“Be direct. Be clear. Don’t worry about being correct. Worry about being real.” ~Jill Telford

Who can relate to the episode of That 70’s Show when Jackie is trying to get Kelso to do something, so she goes radio silent and expects him to figure it out? Of course he has no idea what she wants, and he actually goes the other direction–instead of getting closer to her to see what is wrong, he backs off, thinking things between them are great! She is left feeling frustrated because he did not magically figure out what she wanted, and this little tiff requires words in order to be sorted out.

In seeing this acted out, it is obvious that Jackie’s methods are comical and ineffective at best. However, it is not uncommon for this type of behavior to be employed in relationships outside of the 1970s. When you want or need something from your partner, what do you do? Do you sulk, whine, or pull back from the relationship as your way of indicating you need to be heard? Or do you speak up and directly voice your needs? Jackie’s type-of-response is referred to as “indirect support seeking” behavior and has a strong correlation to low self esteem. Ironically, such behavior elicits rejection–the exact thing Jackie’s type is trying to avoid! If this is something you do in your relationships, I imagine you are wondering…is there a better way to get what I need?

The answer is yes!

What I am about to say might sound too simple to be possible, but there is a way, and that way is by simply being direct. By saying what you need or think.

I have a close friend who I never have to worry if she is mad or if I offended her because she will tell me. She has taken the lead with being authentic, and has shown me how advantageous it is to have real, honest relationships. She says what she feels, thinks, and needs. It has created an incredible level of trust and openness in our relationship. Being direct removes so much anxiety and promotes closeness and trust. This can be done in any type of relationship!

Being direct and assertive involves being honest and genuine while remaining appropriate, diplomatic and respectful of yourself and others. It is not passive (being a doormat or a wimp), passive-aggressive (indirect communication, like not returning calls or emails hoping somebody gets the hint), or aggressive (being hostile and rude.) Being direct requires courage–the courage to be vulnerable and real.  It might be difficult to be direct when you tell someone you love them (or do not love them), when you need to confront someone about a problem, when you need to give difficult feedback, fire someone, say “no” to anything at all, or a host of other scenarios. In short, it is safe to say that you are likely to come under fire of potentially uncomfortable situations each day. Will you respond directly?

The following are suggestions for being more direct in your important relationships:

  • Consider the feelings you are holding inside and make your words match those feelings.
  • Before speaking, take Shirdi Sai Baba’s advice and ask yourself first, “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?” This will help you keep your ego in check and stop you from saying destructive things out of anger.
  • Keep it simple. Concise, clear, and brief is always better.
  • Speak in terms of “I” rather than “you” (“I need more physical affection” rather than, “You don’t show me enough affection”).
  • Focus on the behavior, rather than the person (“I need you to let me know when you are running late” rather than, “You are inconsiderate for making we wait”).
  • Avoid “always” and “never.” These superlatives are often unfair and untrue.
  • Avoid triangulation by speaking directly to the source.
  • Choose to love yourself by saying, “no” as needed. Know your limits!
  • Say it face to face. Do not express important sentiments or needs over text or email. Phone is okay, but in person is best. This will help prevent miscommunications.

Being direct is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed, but it can be done! Once understood, it will improve all of your important relationships. Indirect support seeking behaviors will nearly always leave you feeling rejected, alone, and misunderstood. Avoid this altogether by learning to say what you mean and meaning what you say. Be direct! I can speak from personal experience and say that communicating directly is liberating. It is the best way to get what you want or need out of all of your relationships. Communication is key in relationship satisfaction; if you need help communicating to the important people in your life, please do not hesitate to schedule a session. My door is always open!

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

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: “Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect Support Seeking and Its Relationship Consequences in Intimate Relationships”

Avoiding the Silent Killer in Relationships

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” ~ William Shakespeare

We all have experienced disappointment in a relationship before. There are a million reasons we may be let down by our friends, family members, or romantic partners. In our most important relationships we often feel our most painful feelings. When we have been hurt by those that love us, we may start to believe that getting disappointed is inevitable and unavoidable. What if I were to say that there is something we could do to lessen the disappointment we feel in our relationships? Such a thing exists, and it may seem almost too simple! Almost.

Allow me to paint a picture to demonstrate this point. Kathy had an idea of how things would go for Valentine’s Day last month. She dreamt of breakfast in bed, maybe a voucher for a massage, some roses delivered, a bit of extra help with the kids, a fancy dinner, and chocolate with a lovey card from her husband to top off the day. Unfortunately, her reality involved nothing from the above scenario; instead, a brisk hug as her husband rushed out the door for work, a long day at home with fussy children, no card, no flowers, no chocolate. She was left disappointed and discouraged.

What happened? Her expectations went unmet. While this was somewhat of an extreme example, the point is clear. Kathy’s expectations did not match reality, and it led to dissatisfaction in this important relationship.

Having unmet expectations is not just a marriage problem. It is a LIFE problem. All of us have important relationships. It does not matter whether we are single, married, working, unemployed, old, or young. Having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone in any kind of a relationship. No one is immune.

So what can be done? This may seem like a very obvious solution, but what if we tried communicating our expectations? I have a very wise client who asks his wife what she expects for her birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, any holiday, and even ordinary week nights. He will say, “What do you want tonight to look like? What can I do to help you?” That way, they are on the same figurative page and team, and no one is left feeling frustrated because the night did not go as planned. And for those important holidays, his wife has had to learn to really use her words and communicate that she wants a mushy card and some one-on-one time. This type of direct communication has satisfied both of their needs and helped them to avoid unmet expectations.

We can do the same! Communicating our expectations is a sure-fire way to avoid the grief and frustrations that come from unmet expectations. It really can be that easy.

There are some who say to not have any expectations at all — that if we do not have any expectation for our spouse or partner on any given day, we will not be disappointed. While I can kinda see the logic there, I would not apply this advice to important relationships. We get what we expect, so if we expect nothing, we will settle for less than what we ultimately want or deserve. I advise having firm, yet realistic expectations in any given relationship — whether that is with a brother, friend, neighbor, parent, or lover. I encourage expectations of respect, honesty, trust, support, and communication. It is realistic for each of us to hope for and expect these core elements in our relationships!

Healthy, realistic expectations, that are communicated, are essential in a relationship. You deserve it! When we come into a situation where our expectations are not met (as we assuredly will) let’s take a breath, discard our expectations for how that moment should have gone,and deal with the reality at hand.  Later, have a conversation with the other party involved, about what was expected and why, come to an agreement about each other’s expectations, and discuss how any misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

It is noteworthy to mention the need to not expect perfection. We need to remember that our siblings, friends, and partners are imperfect beings doing the best they can. When Kathy (from the story above) berated her husband for the unremarkable Valentine’s Day, he was not only surprised by her expectations of him for the day, but also discouraged about her uncommunicated idea of what the “perfect husband” does. We all need to set goals in our relationships, and it is equally important that those goals be realistic and clearly communicated.

Having unrealistic expectations or not voicing our hopes for a given circumstance/situation can lead to frustration, resentment, and disappointment. But if we have realistic expectations that we verbalize to one another, we will watch our relationships flourish due to this honest and open type of communication. Should you have questions or concerns, click here to contact me. My door is always open. Click here to schedule a session today.

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

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Share the Love this Valentine’s Day

“You don’t love someone because they’re perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they’re not.” ~ Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Whenever you think of Valentine’s Day, you likely think about a fancy dinner and a bouquet of red roses. While that is one way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, there are so many others. A simple Google search for, “Unique ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day” will bring up a myriad of articles with fun (and even free!) ideas for you. I looked through several of these articles and saw suggestions like, “Have a bonfire!” or, “Go ice skating!” There are infinite ways to celebrate your relationship this Valentine’s Day, you really cannot go wrong! Because many may be single or may have recently lost a loved one this year, I encourage you to think about the holiday differently this year.

Make a paradigm shift away from roses and overpriced Italian food. If Valentine’s Day really is about spreading love, that applies to anyone you may feel love towards or appreciation for–a significant other, a parent, a child, a friend, a neighbor, etc. Instead of celebrating love or a romantic relationship, focus on celebrating someone important in your life. Treat it almost like his/her birthday. Consider–and then tell him/her!–what you admire, appreciate, and love about him/her. Think about his/her strengths, admirable qualities, and how he/she inspires you. Here are some prompts to get you going:

  1. Qualities you admire in him/her:
  2. Important lessons he/she has taught you:
  3. Favorite memory with him/her:
  4. Why or how you were initially drawn to him/her:
  5. A time he/she made you laugh memorably hard:
  6. His/her celebrity doppelganger:
  7. How he/she has helped you in your life:
  8. Where you would be without him/her:
  9. Something fun/exciting you will do in the future together (bucket list item?):

Those ten prompts are sure to give you ideas for how to celebrate that important person in your life. Doing this is step one.

Step two is then to tell him or her! This can be done in so many different ways; I recommend you try to deliver your compliments in a way that your partner is most likely to accept and appreciate. You can simply tell him/her face to face over dinner. You can write an epistle that can be read and reread. You can record a movie, write a poem, arrange a message in your letterboard, write it in chalk on their driveway, include it in a note with a simple gift…there is no right or wrong way. The key is to be direct and sincere in telling him/her what specifically you appreciate in him/her. Regardless of whether you are communicating your love and appreciation towards another adult or a child, everyone receives commendation well. This simple act can go such a long way! Children, especially, thrive on receiving positive affirmations and sincere praise.

Admiring strengths is one way that we can bring out the best in each other and grow together. When you are aware of someone else’s strengths, and communicate your appreciation, you help that person reach his/her full potential. Not only does research prove this, but I have seen it in countless clients! Seeing the good in others not only fosters feelings of love and appreciation, but it also begins a perpetuating cycle of looking for (and seeing!) the good in each other. And that is a wonderful place to be.

If you are feeling stressed by the thought of the impending Valentines Day, take heart. This is a free and easy but meaningful idea that you can implement this V-Day, 2019. Instead of celebrating love or a relationship in a cliché or expensive way, celebrate admirable qualities in someone important to you. This idea may be especially useful for anyone who has an important relationship that has undergone trauma, and who may be feeling unsure whether that bond is even worth celebrating. Regardless of your relationship status, we could all use a little more appreciation. This simple suggestion might be just what the (love) doctor ordered! Should you have questions or would like to schedule a session, please do not hesitate to contact me. My door is always open!

Wishing you and yours a lovely Valentine’s Day!

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

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Abuse: When Love Hurts

“If you walked away from a toxic, negative, abusive, one-sided, dead-end low vibrational relationship or friendship—you won.”  ~Lalah Delia

Healthy relationships involve respect, trust, and consideration for each other. Relationships where abuse is present, on the other hand, involve mistreatment, disrespect, intense jealousy, controlling behavior, and/or physical violence. I tend to focus more on building healthy relationships in my blog posts, but after attending a recent training, I realized I cannot ignore a topic that so many readers can relate to. While Hollywood is depicting the vast majority of relationships as happy and fulfilling, more than 12 million American women and men experience some type of abuse in their relationship over the course of a year. Relationships where abuse is present, unfortunately, are NOT uncommon. I hope this post is not only informative for my readers that may find themselves in a relationship where any kind of abuse is present, but also motivational for them to speak up.

What types of relationship abuse are there?

Abuse is the misusing or regularly/repeatedly treating someone with cruelty or violence. While that definition is straightforward enough, there are many types of abuse that need to be discussed when defining abuse.

There is physical abuse (any form of violence, such as hitting, punching, pulling hair, and kicking).

There is emotional or psychological abuse (threatening the physical health of the victim or the victim’s loved ones, purposely controlling the victim’s freedom, and/or acting to undermine or isolate the victim, intimidation, gaslighting, putdowns, controlling behavior, and betrayal).

There is sexual abuse (being forced into any sort of sexual activity).

There is verbal abuse (yelling, put-downs, name-calling, making threats, constantly correcting or interrupting a person, and even employing the silent treatment).

There is spiritual abuse (also known as religious abuse; a form of controlling a person under the guise of religion or the misuse of religion for selfish or secular ends).

Basically, abuse is about domination and submission; it is about giving and withholding in the extreme. In a relationship where abuse is present, a form (or multiple forms!) of abuse is (are) employed by one partner to maintain power and control over the other partner in an intimate relationship. The feelings of love, loyalty, and devotion in the relationship make it difficult to recognize reality, break the cycle, and get help.

Who can be in an relationship with abuse?

Anyone can be a victim to a relationship where abuse is present. No matter the race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender, anyone can be a victim (or perpetrator!). It can happen to people who are married, living together or who are dating. It affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

What causes abuse in relationships?

In relationships where abuse is present, often the offender has low self-worth, or has a history of abuse in their family-of-origin and thus feels powerless. Because of this, they use behaviors, such as threats, violence, and mind games to gain a sense of power and control over their partner. The following infographic from the National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines and gives specific examples of abuse in relationships. Regardless of where you start reading on the wheel, everything comes back to the center, the true motive for any kind of abuse: power and control.

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What are the signs of relationships with abuse?

As previously mentioned, relationships with abuse are not limited to physical violence. Here are some warning signs to be aware of for any type of relationship where abuse is present:

  1. Trying to control where you go/who you see/what you say.
  2. Demanding to know where you are every minute.
  3. Accusing you of being unfaithful or of flirting.
  4. Isolating you from family and friends, often by behaving rudely to them.
  5. Constantly comparing you unfavourably to others.
  6. Deliberately breaking things you value.
  7. Threatening to use violence against you, your family, friends or pets.
  8. Harming you physically.
  9. Forcing you into unwanted sexual encounters.
  10. Punishing you by withholding affection.
  11. Insulting, demeaning, criticizing, or shaming you with put-downs.
  12. Controlling every penny spent.
  13. Preventing you from making your own decisions.
  14. Refusing to trust you and acting jealous or possessive.
  15. Telling you that you are a bad parent; threatening to harm or take away your children.
  16. Intimidating you with guns, knives or other weapons.
  17. Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol.
  18. Making everything your fault (gaslighting)
  19. Controlling your appearance: your clothes, how much/little makeup you wear, etc.
  20. Using sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
  21. Saying things like “I love you but…” or, “If you don’t _____, I will_____.”

It is common for someone who is being abused to believe that the abuse he/she is experiencing is his/her own fault and that the abuse is somehow deserved. This is a form of abuse itself and could not be farther from the truth! If you walk away with nothing else from this article, I hope that you know that you are never to blame for the abuse!

Being a victim of any type of abuse in a relationship is traumatizing. It can cause anxiety, lowered levels of self-esteem, diminished self-worth, distrust or difficulty connecting with others, and–in severe cases–post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting out of and moving on from a relationship where abuse is present will require a steady support system of family, friends, and often a support group. In many cases, the victim needs drugs an advocate–someone to give them a voice in order to break free from the toxic relationship.  That is where I come in; I am an experienced, licensed therapist who has seen multiple couples and individuals work through relationships with abuse. I can help. If you are concerned that you may be a victim of a relationship where abuse is present, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions or to schedule a session. My door is always open and I am here to help.

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

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Strengthen Your Relationship With This Simple Checklist

“The gifts of caring, attention, affection, appreciation, and love are some of the most precious gifts you can give, and they don’t cost you anything.” ~ Deepak Chopra

We often think we need to go to great lengths in order to please our significant other. It is not, however, necessary to bring home a bouquet of roses every night, or spend hours perfecting our physical appearance. The truth is that both women and men respond well to small, consistent acts of love that we can literally do every day, and for zero dollars. I give you…the “Triple A Checklist.”

The Triple A Checklist consists of three actions to focus on in a relationship: attention, affection, appreciation. We all need attention, affection, and the feeling of being appreciated. As human beings, we crave meaningful connection with others; it is hard-wired into our DNA. So if we can fulfill those needs for our partners, the end result will inevitably be increased relationship satisfaction for both parties…and who doesn’t want that?!  Let’s look at each “A” in greater detail:

Attention

We all have millions of distractions vying for our time and attention. Giving attention means deep listening, being totally present, having empathy, and trying to see from our partner’s perspective. It means we are not in a hurry to give advice and react; not in a hurry to interrupt; not in a hurry to get back to the Bachelor or our text messages. This means putting the phone down, making eye contact with our partner, and really, really interacting with him/her. Our body language shows we are deeply listening. For those whose love language is quality time, having their partner’s full attention is incredibly meaningful and fulfilling. Giving attention in this manner can do wonders for any and all relationships!

Affection

The literal definition of affection is a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. Affection is deep caring and commitment. There are a myriad of ways to express affection–from a sincere compliment, to quality time spent together, to physical touch, and everything in between. Studies have found that the amount of affection we express to our partners best predicts our commitment; and, conversely, the amount of affection we receive from our partners best predicts our satisfaction. Just give a few more kisses throughout the day, offer a back rub or head scratch, hold hands, cuddle during a movie, or hold on to that embrace a moment longer than normal. Affection is powerful. And it can be so easy to give!

Appreciation

In the beginning of a relationship we appreciate everything about the other person. They seem perfect in our eyes and even those crazy things they do are somehow endearing. But after a few years of leaving the cap off the toothpaste (even after repeated requests to change this behavior), this “cute” behavior suddenly becomes deliberate disrespect. Appreciation means focusing on what they do well or what wonderful attributes they have, instead of the little things we dislike about them. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.” Appreciating the good in our partners will overshadow whatever quirks they have that we dislike. This type of appreciation is necessary to ensure relationship longevity.

Giving attention, affection, and our appreciation to our partners can do wonders to a relationship. I have seen it firsthand; these small steps can be repeated daily to communicate love and commitment to our partners. I encourage you to resolve today to do the “Triple A Checklist each day. If we give our significant other the attention he/she needs, the affection he/she longs for and the appreciation he/she deserves, the end result will undoubtedly be happiness!

(As always, should you find your relationship needs a little more work or attention, my door is wide open. Start by scheduling a session today!)

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

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Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season

Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” -Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation

The holiday season is truly magical. The snow, the lights, the presents, the carolers, the sightings of Santa Claus himself, and the amount of stress that accompanies such a wonderful time of year!  With the holidays come family meals and gatherings, and–for some–this is not all fun and games. Many families have one (or more) individual(s) who consistently manages to say something rude, spark controversy, offend others, arrive late, act inappropriately, etc. While most people are looking forward to decorating gingerbread houses, others are dreading getting around the difficult family member. If you can relate to this struggle with family, read on.

Regardless of how much you love your family, you are bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying, or tense situation with a family member at some point during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. Here are four suggestions to keep the peace this holiday season:

Have realistic expectations. While it is good to hope for the best in people, you need to be realistic. If certain individuals have behaved a certain way for years, do not expect them to be any different this Christmas Eve dinner. When your Aunt Bethany makes her usual comment about your outfit or beard, be prepared to brush it off…because you expected it. Having realistic expectations of others will enable you to maintain your cool when they say something unnecessary or offensive. Because you expected it, you can choose to not let it ruin your evening.

Set boundaries.  This one has several parts:

  1. Conversations: Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. Politics and religion are go-to topics for immediate controversy, but each family has specific triggers that can (and should) be avoided at happy holiday gatherings. Get everyone to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in everyone. Setting boundaries like this will hopefully keep the conversation from veering into a minefield of divisive issues. I also highly recommend having a pre-rehearsed line or two that you are confident saying if someone is going against set boundaries. Something like, “This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it is too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!” or, “I totally understand you feel that way; even though I have a different opinion, I still respect yours.”
  2. Timing: Be firm with what time you are starting and start at that time. Let everyone know if they are late, dinner and/or the activity will still start on time. There are some people who may consistently late in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Do not give them that opportunity!
  3. Activities: If a certain game or activity sparks contention, rule it out. I have friends who have decided they simply cannot play basketball on opposing teams because it inevitably gets too competitive and contention ensues. Or maybe for your family it is UNO. Just be sure to avoid activities that do not unite or uplift your family. Also, be sure to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during the festivities; it does not bring out the best in anyone!

Use humor. Everyone has a button that can be pushed to the point of irritation. Whether it is political views, a rough patch at work, a nonexistent dating life, or a slew of other possibilities, no one knows said buttons better than family members. The best way to deflect intentional jabs is with a witty comment. If you take everything seriously or personally, you likely will not even be able to make it through the appetizers and drinks before the holiday dinner is ruined!

Control yourself. At the end of the day, you cannot control your sister, your mother, or your Cousin Eddie. The only thing you can control is yourself. Accept that. You are in control of your reaction, your mood, and your responses. If you have tried all of the above suggestion AND people show up late, engage in controversial topics, or be outright rude, remember that you are in control of YOU. Monitor yourself; if you find you are getting worked up or irritated, physically remove yourself from a conversation, room, or group of people. Take deep breaths. Get active and play a game; it is difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter. Be grateful; think about what you are grateful for to minimize frustrations. Practice tolerance; remember that even you have offended someone in the past. Lastly, forgive your family for not being perfect and for detracting from the festivities and move on.

The holidays come but once a year. Soak these last weeks of 2018 in and do not let any social toxicity get in the way of the holiday cheer. I can assure you that, as you go into your family gatherings having prepared yourself with realistic expectations and set boundaries, you will be able to to control yourself by using humor and monitoring yourself. These are simple, yet powerful suggestions that will equip you with the tools you need to enjoy any family gathering this holiday season. Should you have questions or find you need additional guidance or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session.

Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!

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

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Adding Affection To Your Agenda

Adding Affection To Your Agenda - Cluff Counseling - Denton Couples Therapist“Great marriages don’t happen by luck or by accident. They are the result of a consistent investment of time, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, affection, prayer, mutual respect, and a rock-solid commitment between a husband and wife.” ~Dave Willis

Last month I posted about scheduling time to be with your partner sexually. In this post, I want to add onto this idea of scheduling time for your partner. Think back to when you and your partner were dating. How did you display affection? What did you do to let your partner know you were interested in him/her? Did you hold hands often? Give back rubs? Bear hug? Link arms when walking? Now let me ask, how are you displaying affection TODAY in your relationship? If you are like most people in a long-term relationship or marriage, there is noticeable decline in your level of PDA or even private displays of affection. So this post is all about amping that up to increase the connection in your relationship.

Here is the truth. The best relationships and marriages engage in a lot of touching…sex being only one form of touching. Yes, it is the one our minds typically go to first as the healing or unifying display of affection, but there is a great deal of power in non-sexual affection as well. Researchers and love experts, Gary Smalley and John Trent, have written that, “8 to 10 meaningful touches a day is really a minimum requirement for a woman to stay emotionally and physically healthy.” And the same is true about men; I have found through years of counseling that both men and women crave affection and want to feel valued!

Are you and your partner sharing 8-10 meaningful touches a day? Most of us are so busy with life that the answer to this question is an unfortunate no! If this includes you, start by asking your partner how they like to receive affection and share with them specific ways you like to be touched. Use the list below to help you and your partner brainstorm ways you each like to be touched. It is important to note that if one partner has experienced trauma, there may be some types of touch that are triggering for them.

  1. Rub his arm
  2. Kiss his cheek
  3. Put your arm around her
  4. Hold his hand
  5. Play footsies
  6. Rub his leg
  7. Touch her elbow
  8. Run your fingers through his hair
  9. Touch her back
  10. Give him a bear hug and hold on
  11. Run your fingers over her cheek
  12. Kiss his neck
  13. Put your arm around her waist
  14. Hug him from behind and put your cheek next to his
  15. Kiss her gently on the lips
  16. Squeeze his bum
  17. Touch your forehead to hers
  18. Rest your head on his shoulder
  19. Dance with her
  20. Whisper in his ear
  21. Sit close together
  22. Spoon in bed
  23. Give him a scalp massage
  24. Hold her face in your hands and stare into her eyes
  25. Squeeze his hand

I would recommend choosing one a day, and committing yourself to implement it into your relationship. Aiming to do one a day allows flexibility–you have complete freedom in deciding what you will do and when you will do it. As you increase your levels of affection, you will notice that it will become reciprocal–your partner will begin to do the same. It is as if you will light a match that will turn into a rolling fire.

By definition, affection means a gentle feeling of fondness or liking, which can certainly include verbal expression. Here are three ideas: First idea, challenge or schedule yourself to say, “I love you,” three times a day. Second idea, express love and adoration in public. Many couples, who have been together for a long time, eventually act like they are simply sharing groceries when in public. No! Go back to the dating days! Shower your partner with affection, both verbal physical, in private and in public. And the third idea would be to tell your partner he/she is handsome/beautiful at least once a day. Pretty doable, right?

Scheduling sex can provide needed closeness, but only if regular, loving touch is a normal part of the everyday marriage or relationship. Expressing affection to your partner is powerful and can set you on a path to both heal and strengthen your relationship. I urge you to take the time to schedule closeness today–whether that is sexually or affectionately. And if you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about how to implement this counsel, please feel free to contact or come see me. My door is always open!

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

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