A Guide to Thriving in the Holiday Season Single

During the holidays, single individuals have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships that they do have.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! This month is full of dinners, parties, events, service, and gatherings.  Because the holiday season is very couple- and family-oriented, it is incredibly easy for those who are single to feel down and lonely. I want to share some ideas for how you can make the holidays truly wonderful even if you do not have a significant other. 

Instead of focusing on your loneliness (which is easy to do), try viewing your singleness as a gift this holiday season. As a fellow single person, I believe that during the holidays, we have the unique opportunity to take up new traditions, cultivate a sense of home and celebrate the relationships we do have. I have compiled a list of several practical ways to get started!

  1. Holiday dates. Sure, dating is hard, but there are so many fun activities you can do around the holiday season. Instead of shying away from dating this time of year, take advantage of it! Ask a friend, or someone you have had your eye on, on a fun, low pressure date. Nutcracker and cocoa? Sign me up!
  2. Volunteer. There are a million opportunities to give around the holidays. I encourage you to serve at a soup kitchen, participate in a food drive, volunteer at an animal shelter, be a part of Sub-for-Santa, or do whatever you enjoy to make someone else’s season better. Giving heals the soul and will certainly invite the spirit of Christmas into your life.
  3. Organize your space. There is nothing better than starting the new year feeling organized and less cluttered. Make your living space somewhere you want to be by cleaning and making it homey. You can also do some good by donating things you do not need to a local charity (or selling them to make a few extra bucks).
  4. “TREAT YO’SELF.” Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec would tell you to buy yourself that gift you have been eyeballing. Schedule a spa day. Pamper yourself with a nice massage, manipedi, facial, whatever will loosen you up. Treat yo’self!
  5. Take a solo trip. If you can swing it financially, think about doing some traveling by yourself. No need to plan a huge, expensive excursion; consider exploring a new city — even if it is just for a night or two. 
  6. Hand make/bake presents. If you have several people you need a gift for, consider getting creative and making something. Creativity is a healthy outlet and also a form of self-care. Plus who would not want a tiny loaf of your homemade zucchini bread?!
  7. Create your own traditions. You do not have to wait until you have a significant other to start a tradition. You can start practices that bring joy to your life, no matter your relationship status. Buy a Christmas tree for your apartment, host an annual holiday movie night, volunteer at a local homeless shelter… the options are endless! One of my favorite things is to simply turn off all my lights,  turn on my Christmas tree lights, and curl up under my Sherpa blanket at the end of a long day and watch a holiday movie. 
  8. Embrace spending time alone. Learning to enjoy being alone is a journey. And although the holiday season can be a lonely one, it is also a great time to reflect on yourself. With extra time off during the winter, you have an excellent opportunity to spend time with yourself, pursue your passions, and make goals. Take time to be introspective; you may find it helpful to journal and reflect on the highs and the lows of the year, and what you want the next year to look like! 
  9. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with being single. Everyone spends time being single. It is a natural stage of life, and some are in this stage longer than others. If you are feeling discouraged and are tempted to stay home, I urge you to be brave enough to go into spaces where you might be the odd one out. Try to embrace your stage of life without feeling jealous or bitter. You can desire the kind of relationship that someone else has without letting that desire drive you to bitterness. 
  10. Focus outward. Ask yourself, how can I make this holiday better for others? It sounds really basic, but I have discovered that focusing on other people’s happiness makes me much less concerned with my own. It is nearly impossible to feel bad about myself when I am taking care of others. 

Regardless of whether you are single because you have broken off a long-term partnership or have been single your whole life, I hope that these tips encourage you to view your singleness not as an inconvenience, but as a blessing–full of beauty and opportunities for growth.  Make the most of what remains this holiday season by volunteering, taking care of yourself, creating your own traditions, and spending time with loved ones. You do not need a significant other to have the best holidays ever. Happiest holidays to you and yours!

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

References:

Teaching Your Little Ones The Art of Gratitude

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” ~ William Arthur Ward

Thanksgiving (and the month of November in general) is a great time to focus on gratitude. The added emphasis on being “blessed” certainly inspires all of us to consider our bounty and offer thanks. It is a time of gratitude lists, service, and gifts. I want to focus on how you can get your children involved and inspire gratitude in their hearts!

By age two or three, children are able to talk about being thankful for specific objects, pets, and people. By age four, children are able to understand the concept of being thankful for immaterial things like acts of kindness, love, and caring. Regardless of how old your children are, you can always teach age-appropriate gratitude! The following are ideas you can implement around the holiday season and throughout the year to foster an attitude of gratitude:

  1. Say please and thank you. Our manners show that we do not believe we are entitled to anything and that we are grateful for the kindness of others.
  2. Help someone less fortunate. This could be your neighbor down the street, grandma, or someone you know who is in a tough spot. I have fond childhood memories of taking meals or gifts to members of my church who needed help. 
  3. Model the adage “Tis’ better to give than to receive.” Take young children holiday shopping at the dollar store and challenge them to pick out gifts for others without buying something for themselves. Or go the DIY route and make something; even toddlers can buy or make gifts for others!
  4. Volunteer service or donate to a nonprofit. Nonprofits serve people in need and at this time of the year they are always looking for volunteers, basic necessities, meals and gifts to give to those in need. Help out at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen or non-profit. 
  5. Send out thank you cards or a letter. Express your gratitude for those who have served your or added value to your life. Encourage your children to write a letter to someone who has touched his life in some way or who has given them something. I highly recommend keeping thank you notes on hand and using them frequently!
  6. Intentionally look for awe-inspiring moments in your day. If the sunset is particularly beautiful, comment on it. If the sound of the baby’s laughter warms your heart, tell your children. Encourage them to look for their awe-inspiring moments and share them with you.
  7. Share your gratitude. There are a million different ways to do this; you can take five minutes at bedtime by asking your children what they are thankful for that day. You can go around the dinner table and allow each family member a chance to vocalize their gratitude. You can keep shared or personal gratitude journals. You can create a family gratitude list and post it somewhere visible. You can create a gratitude jar and share each entry at the end of the month. I even saw one idea of gratitude trees–where little leaves are written on with things the family is grateful for, and then hung from the twigs of a branch found outside. (This doubles as decór so win-win!)
  8. Compliment others. I heard a wise woman once say that withholding a compliment is prideful, so model sincere compliments. If you think it, say it! Share the things you appreciate about another person. Encourage your children to do the same. 
  9. Look for the positive. It is human nature to see the glass half-empty from time to time, and children are no exception.  Try to look for the silver lining; find something positive in frustrating situations and discuss it. When kids complain or gripe, it can be helpful to try to find a response that looks on the bright(er) side. It’s called an “attitude of gratitude” for a reason — it’s about perspective more than circumstance. 
  10. Take gratitude walks. While you walk, look for the simple pleasures in the day, such as the warm sun or the birds singing and express appreciation for them. Use this time to ask your kids what they are grateful for.
  11. Work through envy. Help your child work through any feelings of jealousy she may have. Envy can come when we are not feeling thankful for what we have, and are focusing instead on what others have. Easy access to social media surely contributes to feelings of jealousy and comparison!
  12. Have them pitch in when they want something.  When children take the time to save up and take ownership in a purchase, they gain an understanding of the value of a dollar by working toward what they want. It also teaches restraint and encourages them to appreciate what they have.
  13. Make time for chores: Most children have about four hours between the time they get home from school and bedtime where they need to fit in homework, extracurricular activities, dinner, bath, and bedtime. Without chores, children do not understand what it takes to run a household–they will take clean laundry and dishes for granted. So find age-appropriate chores for your children. Consider leaving time-intensive chores for the weekend, but allow your children to be grateful for the blessing of clean dishes or warm meals enjoyed in your home. 
  14. Let big kids take care of little kids: Surely you did not understand all the work that came with children until you had your own. If older children have responsibilities for their younger siblings, it fosters an attitude of gratitude towards you, their parents. Pair up big kids with little kids to get chores done or get through homework. 
  15. Talk about your ancestors: What are your family stories of hardship and perseverance? My grandmother lived in the depression and to this day she reuses her plastic baggies and counts her pennies. I remember hearing stories of this amazing woman and feeling so grateful for the box of endless ziplocs. It really is the little things! (If you are not sure of your past, you can take a family trip to the history museum, a battlefield, or other historic site. You will return home grateful!)

Studies have shown that kids who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and family. Being grateful benefits adults and children alike on a very basic level and can increase happiness levels by around 25 percent! It can help you live a happier, more satisfied life and with increased levels of self-esteem, hope, empathy and optimism. It also grants perspective to what really matters and improves relationships. There is no downside to gratitude!

Now it is my turn to be grateful: I am grateful for my health, my family, and a career I love. I am grateful for you, my faithful readers, and for such wonderful clients who trust me with the deepest, most vulnerable and beautiful parts of their lives. I am thankful I am allowed to live the life I love in helping people work through addiction, trauma, mental illness, and/or relationship issues. I am thankful for YOU. I am your biggest advocate! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions or to schedule a session. Let’s talk!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

Re-Spark the Flame: Affection

“Sometimes a partner withdraws affection because he or she is struggling with stress, mental health issues, illness, or trauma, and they are inwardly focused and stop paying attention to you.” ~ Brian Jory

In most romantic relationships, physical chemistry usually starts out hot and heavy. The relationship is novel and exciting, and affection and physical touch are likely constant. But as time passes, that consistent craving for intimacy may start to taper off. What can you do if you find your relationship having less heat that you would like? 

By the time you come to the realization that your partner is not affectionate anymore, it may seem like it happened all of a sudden. In reality, the affection has been slowly disappearing for quite a while.  Physical intimacy, like daily kisses, may turn into every few days, hugs happen only when forced, and even sex becomes less and less regular. Relationships naturally go through stages; moving out of the honeymoon stage when your partner and intimacy is all you think about is normal and okay. You and your partner can be completely in love while not having sex every night or touching constantly. 

Why does decrease of affection happen in relationships? There are several reasons; naturally, adding children to the equation can result in a lessening of affection as the demands of childcare become consuming. Another reason is work and financial stressors that emotionally drain you or your partner. Additionally, it is sometimes easy to take your relationship or your partner for granted as other things demand your attention. Many people deal with illness, mental health issues, and all sorts of self-esteem matters that simply require greater amounts of attention than before. Some may become obsessed with a hobby. Others can be abusing alcohol or drugs. Others still are depressed and do not know it. So if your partner’s affection for you has decreased, please do not immediately take it personally or think your partner is being unfaithful.

Whatever the case is for you and your partner, just know this: You can get the spark back! Below I have listed several suggestions that I use with my clients, as well as suggestions from other relationship professionals. These suggestions have been written as if the reader is the one whose partner has rescinded affection. Regardless of whether you are on the giving or receiving end of the loss of affection, here–in no particular order–are several suggestions I would make to turn up the heat a little bit:

  1. Talk. The first thing is to talk about how the lack of affection feels to you. “Do you feel abandoned because of the recent (or not so recent) loss of affection in your relationship? Do you miss their touch or kind words? Express your own feelings rather than blame your partner. This shows that you respect their reason for pulling away from you and are willing to consider their feelings. Blaming them for pulling away may only drive them farther away.
  2. Looks department. It is a special thing to not feel like you always have to look your best about your partner. Your relationship is safe; you feel loved no matter what you wear or look like. However, if you are trying to re-spark affection, upping your game in the looks department every so often might do just the trick. Curling your hair or putting on extra cologne may take you back to the glorious dating days when affection was second nature.  Attraction is easy in the beginning of a relationship because it is all new and exciting, but as a relationship matures, you need to work at it and keep adding fuel to the fire of attraction to keep it burning strong.
  3. Identify Love Languages. I have written at length about Love Languages (links included in the references section below) because I believe they are a powerful key to strengthen any relationship. Know how your partner receives love. Speak his/her love language. 
  4. Give genuine compliments. It is so easy to be critical when you have been in a relationship for awhile. Oftentimes the bad is easier to see than the good, and you have to make an added effort to recognize your partner’s strengths. Though you may assume your partner knows things you like about him/her, I invite you to verbalize these positives to them. Remind your partner why you love him/her by giving sincere compliments. This is a sure way to break down walls and foster closeness!
  5. Express gratitude. In a similar vein, do not assume your partner knows how grateful you are for him/her. Express your gratitude for all he/she does!
  6. Initiate affection. If you are feeling distant from your lover, I recommend getting close…physically. Sit close. Hold hands. Rub his back. Kiss her cheek. There are so many ways to be affectionate without having sex; intimacy can exist without sex, and sex can exist without intimacy. Go back to your dating days when that physical closeness and constant contact was something you sought out. 
  7. Keep promises. It is hard for me to want to be close or vulnerable with anyone if I am questioning their priorities or loyalty. If you are like me, you want to know that you can trust your partner with your affection. Be worthy of that affection by following through, keeping your word, and being honest. 

Loss of affection in a relationship is not the end of the world or your relationship. The good thing about realizing your partner is not affectionate anymore is that it can be fixed. Talk about your feelings, consider getting “dolled up” every so often, speak your partner’s love language, give compliments, express gratitude, initiate affection and keep your word. The final suggestion I have for boosting affection and connection in a relationship would be to seek help from a therapist. I am trained in and passionate about healing relationships and will be your relationship’s number one advocate. Do not hesitate to contact me today to schedule a session!

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

References:

On Love and Affection: When PDA is Okay

“A healthy amount of PDA allows the couple to express their affection to each other, and also to the world. Best practices include using ‘on and off switches.’ Continual PDA loses its importance, and makes others uncomfortable.” ~ Susan Winter

How do you feel about public displays of affection? Are you the type of person that loves snuggling, holding hands or kissing your lover, no matter where you are and who might be watching? Or does the mere thought of holding hands in public give you actual anxiety? Odds are that you fall somewhere in the middle. It is completely natural and okay to want to be affectionate with someone you love. In fact, when you cuddle with someone you care about, oxytocin–the hormone that fosters feelings of love, bonding, and connection–is secreted, thus earning its nickname as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. But even though PDA is normal and feels good, just keep in mind that there is a time, a place, and a limit for what is appropriate!

Falling in love is wonderful. When it happens, you may want the world to know. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, you are likely to always hold hands and exchanging loving glances. Most onlookers will admire your newfound love fondly. I have written before about how all human beings have an innate need to be loved and have meaningful physical interactions with others.  But there is such a thing as too much of a public display of affection while anyone/everyone is watching. Here is a safe, and slightly humorous, rule of thumb: Ask yourself if your grandmother would approve. 

Let’s talk about the specific ways to display affection and whether or not they are appropriate in public:

  • Kissing. There are certain times it is completely okay to kiss the person you love–such as when you are greeting someone or saying goodbye. However, long, drawn-out kissing in front of others can make them feel like they are involuntarily watching a scene from a RomCom. 
  • Touching. The resources at the end of this post were unanimous in saying that it is always okay to hold hands with someone. An arm draped around someone is okay when you are sitting or casually strolling through the park. It is never okay to touch anyone in a private area in public.
  • Groping. Groping is never acceptable in public. Certain gestures are even illegal in public.
  • Tasting and nibbling. Reminder: Your face is not a lollipop, and you are not a vampire, so experts kindly ask you to refrain from licking or biting the person you love in front of others.
  • Electronic Affection. You should never text, post, or communicate anything intimately personal in a public forum or on any social media platform. Not only can this make others uncomfortable, but you may also embarrass the person you love.

PDA is commonplace in many places –like during your engagement or wedding day, at farewells and homecomings, at the airport when one is about to be deployed, at the movies (especially romantic ones), on the dance floor, and when the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. I would venture to say that if you stay within the boundaries for the above actions, PDA is welcomed pretty much anywhere. But remember to ask yourself if Grandma would approve of how you are expressing your affection!

Showing appropriate levels of PDA can be healthy for a relationship. Being affectionate in public strengthens your love, shows a level of comfort with your partner, and allows others to identify you as a unit. Additionally, if things are not perfect in your relationship, PDA might be a way to spark connection again. PDA is really an unconscious form of staying connected; a brief kiss on the cheek, a hand placed gently at the small of the back, and an exchanged glance can get the heart pounding. This might even be the healing touch that can lead to amends or forgiveness in a relationship.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that not everyone wants to receive PDA. I have written at length about love languages (see sources below) because I believe in them. The fact is that, for some people, physical touch is the last way they communicate or receive love. For these people, touching in public may be very unwelcomed! Certain factors like personality, general comfort in public, safety, and regard for others’ feelings play a role in how someone interacts with their significant other in social situations.  I highly encourage you and your partner to openly discuss to what degree you wish to give and receive touch in public, and then to respect those wishes. That might sound counterintuitive, or even scarier than simply reaching out to hold his/her hand, but figuring out someone’s PDA comfort level is an important step toward understanding their love languages. Unwelcome touching can potentially damage a relationship and push your partner away–especially where abuse or addiction is associated with PDA. 

Even after the beginning stages of a relationship, PDA can help couples reaffirm their love and commitment to each other whether life is breezy or if it is a time of disconnect. All humans need reinforcement. If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship, please contact me to schedule a session. I am here to help. Remember that, when PDA is consensual, well-timed public displays of affection can provide a spark of hope and connection in relationships. 

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 Toll Lying Takes on Lovers

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ~ Mark Twain

Lying begins early in life. Children as young as two begin lying when they discover how powerful their words are. Lying can come naturally; you say your friend’s favorite shirt looks great, knowing how much she loves the ugly thing. You lie in job interviews to increase the chances of being hired. You lie to your children, promising ice cream later if they eat their meal first (although you have zero intention of following through). While this type of lying is relatively benign, prolonged lying can undermine the glue that holds relationships together…trust. Trust is the expectation that another person will not hurt you when you are vulnerable, and humans thrive on having meaningful relationships founded on mutual trust. Take that trust away and you have an unsteady relationship. 

Let’s classify what a lie is. I see it as intentionally deceiving someone, omitting important information or only telling half of the truth. A wife may lie about how much money she spent. A husband may lie about what really happened on his boys night out. The husband I referred to in my previous blog post on gaslighting lied to his wife about turning the lights down (thus creating an alternate reality). A lie can be about anything–from what a person said, to what someone did (or did not do); from whereabouts to motives to goals to grades. The bottom line about a lie is that the truth is purposely left out. 

If you have been lied to by your partner, you likely feel anger, shock, resentment, disappointment, sadness. The whole thing leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. You might have a hard time saying it, but you also feel disrespected, humiliated…even violated. You have been because lying is a violation of your trust! Obviously, some lies are bigger and more devastating than others, but even small, little white lies that accumulate over time can make you feel like a punching bag.

Why do people lie?

According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a psychology instructor and clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health, misrepresentation and fibbing in relationships happens more often than you would think. Studies have shown that people lie frequently to those they care about most. Couples are telling each other little white lies all the time. But why? For starters, they have learned that telling the truth can sometimes start a fight. Although a little lie can avoid a fight temporarily, it is not worth the trust that is broken. Some people lie to save themselves from punishment or conflict, or to gain acceptance from a group or get something else they want. Others lie as a form of self-protection; they want to maintain their image or avoid blame or criticism. Sometimes it might just be easier and require less explanation to not give the full story.

You’ve been lied to. Now what? 

Let’s say you just found out that your significant other has been lying to you. You may wonder how to bring it up. Or if saying anything will even make a difference. Figuring out what the “right” thing to do in the moment is hard because you have been betrayed–which puts you on the defensive. Your instinct may be to lash out, or to humiliate them by calling them out on their lies. Although responding in these ways may give you temporary pleasure, they will not help in building the long-term trust you desire and deserve. Instead, try the following when responding to a partner who has been lying:

  1. Calmly point out the incongruity. Let them speak without becoming reactive and refrain from commentary until they have fully expressed themselves.
  2. Consider the why. Although you are understandably angry, instead try empathizing. See where your partner is coming from. People lie for a reason: insecurity, fear, shame, or because historically this was their way to survive and manage other past relationships. While none of this justifies the lie, trying to understand their perspective can help calm your own emotions and help you decide how best to proceed. 
  3. Establish boundaries. If you do choose to continue in the relationship, you have now established that lying is not acceptable.  Make it clear to your partner that you will only accept honesty. Encourage your partner to always tell the full truth, even if the truth may result in some hurt feelings (and then)…
  4. …Practice what you preach. Make honesty with your partner a conscious decision and a habit. Model the behavior you want your partner to exhibit. If you are ever tempted to fib or give an impartial truth (because many individuals tell small lies at time), don’t! Then give reason: “I am afraid you will be upset with me, but here is what I really think…” or, “It feels like it would be easier to lie to you, but the truth is…”; “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but since you asked, here is what I really think…” Talk it out. This will honor the boundaries you have established and create an open, safe environment. Hopefully this will inspire your partner to be truthful, too.
  5. Be consistent and patient. If your partner has been lying to you, remember that change is possible, but with time. Be patient with him/her and remember that consistent efforts to be truthful, even with the small things, will help telling the truth come more naturally. Continuing in this pattern will form a habit. When appropriate, remind your partner that the consequences of lying will never be worth the risk of being entirely truthful. For many people, finding a good, trusting relationship is a monumental life task. So if you have it, honor it, stick with it, be true to it, and be patient with it. 

Lies often start as self-preservation but generally turn to self-destruction. It is a fallacy to think that the consequences of telling the truth outweighs the risk of telling a lie; lies damage relationships. Research shows that small lies make it easier to tell bigger lies, which lead to more trouble. No matter the motive behind a lie, deceit is damaging to any relationship. Where lying creates distance and inauthenticity, telling the truth fosters trust and bonding, which strengthens relationships. So where trust has been lost, the most effective way for it to be regained is for the offender to understand the error of his ways, the vital need to be honest, and then to speak honestly, knowing you would rather have the ugly truth than a pretty lie. If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is struggling to tell the truth , please do not hesitate to contact me personally. 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.

Resources:

Sticks and Stones Do Hurt…and So Can Words

Feeling insulted and damaged. Never measuring up. Walking on eggshells. These are just a few of many indicators of an emotionally abusive relationship. Emotional abuse is the consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health. I want to help you recognize this often seemingly invisible, yet very real type of abuse.

The definition of abuse is regularly or repeatedly treating a person with cruelty or violence. In discussing abuse, physical abuse (like shoving, cornering, breaking and throwing things) is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Emotional abuse is often devoid of physical violence; it is speech and/or behavior that’s controlling, punishing, or manipulative. This can include withholding love, communication, support, or money as indirect methods of exerting control and maintaining power. Emotional abuse might also look like someone controlling where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think. Spying, stalking, and invading your personal space or belongings is also abusive because it disregards personal boundaries.

You may be experiencing emotional abuse if someone wants to know what you are doing all the time or requires you to be in constant contact; demands passwords to your phone, email, and social media (digital abuse); acts jealous; frequently accuses you of cheating; prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family; tries to stop you from going to work or school; gets angry in a way that frightens you; controls your finances or how you spend your money; stops you from seeing a doctor; humiliates you in front of others; calls you insulting names; threatens to hurt you, people or pets you care about; threatens to call the authorities to report you for wrongdoing; threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you; says things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can”; decides things for you that you should decide (like what to wear or eat); etc.

The most common form of emotional abuse is verbal, though it often goes unrecognized because it can be subtle. A client recently told me that she remembered a session from years ago when I stopped her now ex-husband from telling her to shut-up as she tried to speak. She did not even hear him say that, but she remembered feeling her body tense up. Research has shown that there is so much more to verbal abuse than people realize; in fact, some people are verbally abused on a regular basis without even recognizing it! Some forms of emotional/verbal use will undermine your self-esteem or make you feel inadequate as a way to establish hierarchy. 

Emotional and verbal abuse may be manifested outright or more insidiously in any of the following manners:

  • Using threats
  • Judging
  • Yelling
  • Patronizing
  • Criticizing
  • Lying
  • Blaming
  • Publicly embarrassing you
  • Ordering
  • Raging (showing violent, uncontrollable anger)
  • Belittling your accomplishments
  • Insulting your appearance
  • Digital spying
  • Tracking your whereabouts
  • Lecturing
  • Denying something you know is true (gaslighting)
  • Trivializing
  • Demanding respect (but not giving it)
  • Keeping you from socializing (isolating you)
  • Interrupting
  • Treating you like a child
  • Name-calling, even using derogatory pet- or nicknames
  • Disguising something hurtful or controlling by saying it in a loving, quiet voice, indirectly, or even concealed as a joke

Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is emotional and verbal abuse. There are innumerable signs of emotional abuse–unique to each couple and individual. If you fear you may be being emotionally or verbally abused, please seek help today. 

An emotionally abusive relationship can change you forever. You may feel powerless, controlled, worthless; you may question your memory, live in fear, change how you act to avoid upsetting your partner. Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health, including leading to chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. This is no way to live. Help is available and you DESERVE it. If you suspect your partner, family member or friend may be emotionally abusing you, contact a counselor, an advocate or a pastor for assistance. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or visit their website (thehotline.org) and chat online with someone right away. I will be posting a follow-up blog discussing what to do if you are in an emotionally abusive relationships in the future. Please, do not suffer through emotional abuse. You and your happiness matter. My door is wide open; allow me to help you! Contact me 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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The Magic of Saying No

“Whenever you say yes to something, it means you’re saying no to something else.” ~Susan Biali

We all feel badly when we have to say no to something or someone.  It is so much easier to say yes when people need help–even if it comes at personal expense. Though selfless service is necessary and admirable at times, there are other times where it is more applaudable to say no. Saying yes to everything means you will be spread too thin and will not able to get things done well or at all; it is physically impossible to take on something new without slacking on something else!  This post will focus on the magic of saying no in hopes of giving you the courage to say so when appropriate.

(Disclaimer, I am not specifically referring to saying no in relationships regarding boundaries and physical intimacy–though that topic is incredibly important. I will write about this specific subject in the future. Instead, I am referring to saying no instead of yes when asked to take on additional responsibilities that you simply cannot accommodate.)

Whether you have been asked to help watch a pet or child, pick something up, drop something off, or take on additional responsibilities at work, you have certainly been asked to help. Oftentimes it feels like yes is the only acceptable answer, even if it comes at great personal expense. Saying no means you could potentially hurt, anger or disappoint the person you are saying no to. You may fear appearing selfish, lazy, or uncaring. You want people to love (or at least like) you. So you inconvenience yourself and say yes.

However, saying no is actually a sign of strength because it shows that you know yourself and your limits. It allows you to give of yourself fully, within your limits, and not overextend or exhaust yourself. Having and maintaining personal boundaries can build important relationships by fostering honesty, openness and trust. (I am not suggesting you immediately decline an opportunity to help someone when asked. I believe in the power of service and have written several times about its power.) Saying yes when the answer should have been no only leads to frustration and resentment. Learning to say no can be a magical skill when used appropriately!

Now, let’s discuss the steps involved in the art of saying no:

Step one: Honor your time and priorities.

Time is an extremely precious commodity for everyone. There are only 24 hours in a day, so you must choose to spend your time wisely. Even if you do happen to have some extra time (which for most of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want or need to spend that time? Does it honor what is most important to you? Are your priorities in line? If you are asked to take on a new commitment that will cut into your valued family time, it may make saying no easier.

Step two: Take a moment + Raincheck

When someone asks for help, instead of giving an immediate (most likely affirmative) response on the spot, say that you need to check your calendar and will get back to him/her. If you end up needing to say no, maybe volunteer yourself to help in the future when you are more available. This can assure them that you are willing and want to help, but are unable to at the moment!

Step three: Do not apologize.

A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. Your time is your time. How you choose to spend your time is your choice. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about safeguarding your precious, finite time!

Step four: SAY NO.

You may cringe at the very thought of saying the abrasive, n-o word to someone. That’s okay! There are many ways around this that will still get your point across. Let’s say your friend asks to borrow your car, and you are less than excited about the idea. Here are seven ways to assertively, yet diplomatically, decline:

I prefer to be the only one driving my car.“

I prefer not to lend out my car.”

It doesn’t work for me to lend out my car.”

It’s important to me that I keep my car for my own use.”

“Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to lend you my car.”

I’m uncomfortable with letting others drive my car.“

I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to let other people drive my car.”  

Notice that all of these suggestions are “I” statements. This puts ownership on you and therefore makes it more difficult for the listener to dispute. If someone is persistent in wanting you to do what he or she wants, keep repeating “no” using any combination of the statements above. Hold your ground until the person realizes you mean what you say.

Remember, saying no does not mean you are an uncaring, selfish person. It simply means you know and honor your time, priorities, and limits. Saying no protects you, earns the respect of others, and frees you to spend your time doing what is most important to you. It is actually quite magical! Setting skillful boundaries is an act of self-compassion. It is liberating and it is your right.

Next time you are asked to help someone, consider your priorities and how you wish to honor your time, pause before answering, offer a raincheck, do not apologize if you are busy and cannot feasibly rearrange things, and if necessary, say no. Remember that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to spend it wisely, sometimes it will be necessary to say no! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, and click here if you would like to schedule a session.

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

Resources:

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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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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Making Room for Grief During the Holidays

This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life“Grief is two parts: The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” -Anne Roiphe

Last month I wrote about what I referred to as the “trauma of surviving”–or learning to live life after losing someone dear to you. Such loss may be due to divorce, a move, death, or any other change that results in a separation from loved ones. This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life.

A friend of mine recently told me about a movie on Netflix called the Babadook. A widowed mother is plagued by the death of her husband and simultaneously battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Although this is supposed to be a scary movie, the ending is applicable and relatable to the topic at hand. As the mother in the film avoids facing the reality of her husband’s death, the presence of the monster grows, and the complications in her life amount. In the end we see the mother well put-together and clearly in a different, more positive state as she takes food down to the “monster” that has been banished to live in the basement.  She is feeding or acknowledging the monster–or her grief–and by so doing, it is appeased. It stops tormenting her. Its malevolent presence diminishes and she is able to figure out how to live a balanced, happy life even after the loss of her husband. She lets grief have a place in her life.

While I have not personally seen this movie, I love the parallels that can be made between the monster and grief. Avoiding grief and acting like it is not there can wreak havoc on our life. It can and will weaken us and our important relationships. We must first, acknowledge it and second, work through it.

Acknowledge it.

The “monster” in the Babadook terrorizes the mother right up until the end of the film. She struggles sleeping, maintaining friendships, holding a job, and even keeping the basic elements of her life together. In the same way, grief can eat away at you if it is given the chance. A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the following emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, numbness, bitterness, detachment, preoccupation with loss, and inability to show or experience joy. While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Grief is unavoidable after loss; the only way to overcome it is to give it place in your life–face it. Popular blogger Emily Meyers, a young mother of five, lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote a beautiful post about grief, and I have found great truth in these words:

“There is no ‘other side’ of grief. It’s never going to pass. You don’t ever ‘move on’ from it. You just learn to live with it. You absorb it. It becomes part of you. You simply adjust and change. You slowly but surely find how to navigate through your new normal with it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. I’ll say that again: It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. You stop waiting for the storm to pass, and instead, learn to dance in the rain.”

I have some clients who, like the mother in Babadook, try to simply ignore their grief and “move on” without facing it. But again, just as the mother in Babadook, this does not and cannot work. As Emily Meyers said, you cannot simply move on. You must learn to live with your grief.  You must acknowledge it. Do not expect to move on from a life-altering loss without allowing yourself to bereave or grieve. Yes, I am telling you to be sad–it is okay!

Work through it.

The loss of anything important to you–a relationship, a job, an opportunity, a loved one– can cause feelings of profound grief. Sadness around the holidays–or any time of year–is okay. It is perfectly understandable and 100% normal to feel like you are not “over” your loss. What is important is what you do with your sadness. Acknowledging it is the first step, and once you have done this, you will need to work through your grief and process your emotions. For some, this may mean crying, writing in a journal, participating in a therapeutic hobby or activity (like exercise), talking with a friend, or counseling with an experienced, licensed therapist. The most important thing is that you take the time to work through your difficult emotions because they do not go away on their own. In my experience, I have seen that simply burying or ignoring grief only exacerbates the problem when it actually does surface. And it is sure to!

If the holidays highlight your loneliness or the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. My heart aches for those who are grieving this year. I advise you to take my counsel to heart and acknowledge, then work through your grief. I know that by so doing you will find a place for your grief and will then be able to find a healthy balance of grieving and living life to the fullest. And, as always, if you need help facing or working through your grief, please do not hesitate to contact me today or schedule a session.

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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