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.

Resources:

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.

Resources:

Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Threats to Marriage

Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Threats to Marriage - Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyIn Western culture, more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50, but then 40-50% of U.S. marriages end in divorce (with the divorce rate for subsequent marriages being even higher). Marriages are being attacked on every side, and I want to help you protect yours. This post covers the three greatest threats to marriage that can exist even before the marriage does.

I recently read an article from the Huffington Post about overlooked threats to marriage. This article resonated with me, and I found its contents to be refreshingly true. I cannot tell you how often I hear couples blame communication as the root cause of their problems in marriage. While there may surely be some truth to that, I have found that there were problems existing even before the couple got married or started communicating about bigger issues. Allow me to elaborate.

As a therapist, I can teach a couple a lot about how to communicate in an hour. It really is not complicated to follow simple patterns of listening, sharing, and responding. The real issue at hand is that we all enter into marriage with baggage–which is normal and to be expected. But then we take that baggage and expect it to either magically go away or to have our spouse wave a wand and fix it for us. When that does not happen, couples begin arguing, and they mistake their baggage as the inability to communicate as a couple. This is why communication in marriage is often seen as the common culprit for hurt or failed marriages. The following are the real threats to marriages today:

  1. We do not account for change.

    Yes, you fell in love with your partner back when he had a perfectly-chiseled six pack, or she had that flat tummy. Or appearance aside, maybe you fell in love with his/her personality 10 years ago, and things have since changed. Not accounting for changes that come with time will inevitably lead to resentment and frustration. We need to remember that time changes people. Think about it. You have almost certainly changed since you got married…and not all of those changes are bad! I would like to suggest that you appreciate your partner for who they are working to become, and not get attached to who he/she was when you got married.

  2. We do not have realistic expectations for marriage.

    I know too many girls who think they will never feel lonely or less-than or discouraged (or anything less than sublimely happy) once they get married. They think marriage is a cure-all. But the truth is that your spouse is bound to be an imperfect person and sure to do something that rubs you the wrong way–and you will certainly do the same to him/her. Life will get hard and you may feel disappointed and deflated with your marriage at times. That is normal! This is one of the biggest threats to marriage, and I will dedicate an entire post to unmet expectations in the future. The truth is that marriage, like any important relationship, takes work! It takes LOADS of work, time, and effort. We cannot expect this rich and deeply satisfying relationship to happen on its own. Expecting marriage to be easy is a sure-fire recipe to wind up disappointed. Plan on it being tough, but worth it, tiring but fulfilling.

  3. We lack problem solving or basic communication skills.

    Early on in life we learn to defend ourselves–it may be from other kids at school, from friends, or from our own family. We practice self-preservation and self-defense. We learn how good it feels to be right and we prove ourselves whenever we get the chance. When we get married, the arguments inevitably come. If we never learned how to practice openness instead of defensiveness, forgiveness instead of vengeance, apology instead of blame, and vulnerability instead of strength before marriage, we are bound to continue that pattern with our spouse. Learning basic problem solving and communication skills will benefit all relationships in your life, but most especially your marriage.

Regardless of our marital status, these are things we can all work on as we strive to be a better companion–whether that is now or in the future. Remember that people change (plan on changes happening in both your significant other, as well as, yourself); remember that no relationship is perfect (have realistic expectations for your relationship); and work on your ability to communicate and overcome disagreements. If you are already married or in a serious relationship, remember–it is never too late to adjust expectations and learn new skills, like communicating, apologizing, problem solving, etc. I can assure you that as you focus on adjusting these three areas, you will be prepared to have meaningful, long-lasting relationships.

These three threats to marriage are common. The good news is that there is hope. It is possible to account for change, to love who your spouse is now, as well as who he/she is becoming. It is possible to adjust expectations (in a healthy way) so that they align with your partner’s expectations. It is possible to learn new communication skills or problem solving strategies that will enable you to be more transparent with your spouse. As you seek to improve yourself and let go of some of that baggage you brought into your marriage, you will see that your marital communication will improve tenfold! You will be able to see eye to eye–or at least hear each other out!–and come to a conclusion that did not require raised voices, slammed doors, or hurt feelings. Your marriage does not have to be at risk. As always, feel free to contact me to overcome these three common threats to marriage today, and you will watch your most valued relationships flourish and exceed your greatest expectations!

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

Resources:

7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict

7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict-Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyWe have all had conversations where we started to talk calmly about something inconsequential with our partner, but find ourselves in a boxing match where the viability of our relationship seems threatened.  To aid you in staying out of the boxing ring, try these seven ideas to diffuse conflict.

In last month’s post on relationship health, I posted about how to stay connected during conflict. Conflict between two people is unavoidable. We are bound to disagree when we are in a relationship simply because we have opinions and preferences. The problem arises when disagreements define the communication in the relationship. The solution is not to avoid all topics that could cause an argument (because that is impossible), but rather to change how you react in the face of conflict.

When we do not feel connected, it is much easier to lose our patience and to assume our partner is trying to push our buttons and offend us on purpose. A lack of connection can cause escalation–where a simple misunderstanding explodes into a full-blown argument.  Escalation means a rapid increase in the intensity or seriousness of something. In relationships, this looks like a conversation beginning over something simple but instead of calmly conversing about our preferences, we make accusations and blanket statements, and suddenly the argument is about our unsatisfied sex life or unmet emotional needs. And it all began over which way we squeeze the tube of toothpaste!

How and why do we escalate conflict? The underlying reason is because our expectations are not being met. Maybe our partner does not know or realize that we are feeling a lack of emotional or physical connection; thus the deeper need manifests itself through something small and inconsequential.  Escalation is often a sign that there are unmet needs in your relationship. I will have a future blog post dedicated to voicing needs and expectations.

Aside from the true underlying reason  we escalate conflict (unmet needs) there exists a secondary reason for why we escalate: because we are not practicing self-awareness or effective communication in the fact of conflict. There are specific, practical, and actionable things we can try to do, say, and think today that help keep those massive arguments over toilet paper and toothpaste at bay. It will take time and effort to not overreact during arguments, but I can assure you it is possible to do if we make a few tweaks to our verbal and nonverbal communication. I would like to suggest the following 7 practical steps to cool down, become more self-aware, and communicate effectively in the face of conflict:

  1. First, Use the “Three A’s to Get Past Anger” Acknowledge your partner–this can even be with a nod if you are afraid of opening your mouth. Then ask for more information; this helps your partner feel heard and more understood. Finally, add your opinion.
  2. Relax. Take deep breaths. Shake the shoulders. Roll the neck. A calm mind will follow a calm body. Wait out the chemical reaction that may be taking place.
  3. Find a distraction. Choose to think about something else, snuggle a pet, inhale aromatherapy, take a walk, write your feelings, turn on soothing music.
  4. Use humor.There is nothing like some Jerry Seinfeld to diffuse an argument!
  5. See the good.Speak to each other’s positive intent; point out the good in your partner even though you disagree with him/her. For example, “I appreciate that you want to save toothpaste by squeezing from the end of the tube. I admire your economic attitude.” And then work from there to…
  6. Encourage solutions.It is so easy to point fingers during an argument, but this gets us nowhere. Ask your partner, “What would make this situation better?” or “How can we fix this situation in a way you believe will work for us both?” Be proactive instead of perpetuating the all-too-easy cycle of the blame game.
  7. START OVER.Catch yourself in the beginning of a disagreement. Research has shown that the first three to five minutes of a conversation lays the foundation for what is likely to follow. Say, “This is going in a bad direction. Let’s start over.”

Step one is a powerful and important place to start; if you only ever try step one, you are sure to make leaps and bounds of progress in conflict resolution! Those three A’s are absolutely fundamental to avoiding escalation. Even if your blood is boiling and your fists are clenched, acknowledge that you heard your partner so he or she does not think you are ignoring him or her. If you need a moment to gear up for options 2-7, try a shortened version of the “Time Out” that I wrote about in a previous post. To review, begin by clearly telling your partner you need a Time Out; take a few moments to soothe before identifying your primary emotions; and then rejoin the conversation. When you make your way back to your partner, acknowledge him/her, ask questions about his/her perspective, and then add your thoughts. Step one in and of itself is an incredible tool for practicing effective communication…2-7 are just bonus options!

It is always so much easier said than done. Conflict resolution is difficult, yet so necessary in literally every single relationship in our lives. Prepare yourself with the self-awareness and communication skills listed above. I can assure you that these positive habits will impact every relationship you have in your life. If you are in a relationship that is defined by arguing, contact me or set up a session today for more individualized, one-on-one guidance. Together we can redefine your relationship to include a little more effective communication and a great deal less arguing. I am always here and happy to help!

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

Resources:

Reclaiming the Bedroom, Part III: Communication in the Bedroom

Communication in the Bedroom - Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family Therapy

Part 1: Benefits of Sex” and “Part 2: Hindrances to Sex” have laid the foundation for this third and final blog post in our series on reclaiming the bedroom. We all know that sex is good for us–both individually and as a couple–and we also know that life sometimes gets in the way of healthy, consistent sexual activity. We hear chatter about sex everywhere…except where we need it most. Here are practical suggestions to get you and partner talking about sex.

As with most things in life and relationships, communication is key, but it is not easy. Talking about sex is hard. It makes us feel uncomfortable. Perhaps sexual communication is so difficult because we grow up with the myth that it is unnecessary. Maybe, as a society, we believe that great sex comes naturally…your partner should know intuitively what you want and like, and good sex must be spontaneous! When, in reality, more often than not, great sex is much like a great meal–it does not just magically happen. It needs to be planned for, and then carried out with skill and thoughtfulness. People’s tastes, preferences and values with regard to sex—much like food—differ greatly. You need to know what your mate likes and dislikes before you cook for him or her; the same holds true for intimacy.

There is really no way around it: you must communicate with your partner about sex. It is nearly impossible for your sexual relationship to improve without some dialogue. Because many couples struggle in this area, a couple’s sexual relationship is a common topic in my office. Here are some suggestions that my client’s have found to be helpful to help them communicate in the bedroom:

Write
Possibly the least intimidating option is to write a letter. The goal is to communicate what you like, need, or want, while not shutting your partner down. Refrain from saying things like, “I don’t like when you…”  or “I wish you wouldn’t…” or “you always/never…” and instead use positive feedback. With this exercise, it is beneficial for both partners to write and exchange letters. Keep it simple and short but 100% clear. Follow up with verbal or written clarifying questions (“Did you mean this?” or “Tell more about that…”). If you are not sure what to say or how to say it in a way that your partner will hear it, a therapist can be a helpful resource.

Read
Now this combines sex communication with a potentially fun date idea. Head off to Barnes and Noble–or some place with a discrete adult book section–and read away. Once you find something that strikes your fancy, give it to your partner to read. And vice versa. There is so much sex education literature out there and some will be more helpful than others, so be careful. You may want to establish some guidelines, as a couple, about the type of literature you are seeking (an example could be books with nude drawings are okay, but not nude photographs).  If you are new to communicating about sex, this can be overwhelming. Instead, you could look on Amazon and together pick a book to buy and read together. You could also ask close family members or trusted friends for some recommendations. As a therapist, I get this question a lot. Click here to visit my website and see my list of book suggestions to help you get started.

Show
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Simply take turns showing each other what feels good for you. Demonstrate what you enjoy and what helps to arouse you. You may take your partner’s hand and guide them over your body. Then switch and listen and watch your partner, and follow their lead. Sensate focus exercises are a safe way to start! This is one of the best techniques I have found. Stay tuned for a future post solely dedicated to this technique!

Talk
My next suggestion is to simply just talk it through. Use your words. Although talking may seem the most obvious method of communicating sexual needs, it can be the hardest. Take courage, you can do it! Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Next time you have sex, with your partner, have a post-coital pillow-talk share. Discuss what you enjoyed, hope to repeat next time and want to try in the future.
  • Don’t save all the talking for post-coital, talk about your preferences throughout your sexual interaction.
  • Be careful to not criticize your partner’s performance.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions to common barriers to sex in your relationship (e.g. having kids barge in on you or being exhausted at the end of a work-day).
  • Practice breathing exercises and meditation to help calm your jittery nerves. Remember, your partner is unable to read your mind. Tell him or her what turns you on, what turns you off, what “gets” you, etc. Since you know your preferences, be prepared with dialogue!
  • State both what you like and do not like ( “Here are 3 things that really turn me on…”).
  • Be specific: “I like it when you touch me here…”
  • Ask clarifying questions (“not sure what you meant by ‘be more gentle’”), while not making defensive statements (“I didn’t do that”, “You didn’t…”).
  • Take turns sharing.
  • Spend a few moments, before talking to your partner, thinking about what you want to share so that you are able to say everything you want to when the time comes.

I have counseled couples who have been together for years, yet have never had an in-depth conversation about sex. It can be hard to know how or where to start. Most people are more likely to have fought about sex than to have had a thoughtful, constructive conversation about it. Here are a few ideas from Psychology Today to get you started:

  • My favorite thing about our sex life is…
  • If I were to write wedding vows for our sex life, this is what I would want to promise you…
  • I think you look best when you’re wearing…
  • The thing that I love about our sex life most is…
  • My favorite memories of being intimate with you include…
  • My favorite way to pleasure you is…
  • One time you surprised me (in a good way), by…
  • I feel the most turned on when…
  • I feel the most desired by you when…
  • I would describe my sexual style as…
  • I love when you initiate sex in this way…
  • My favorite sexual position is…
  • One thing I would like to explore with you is…
  • The part of your body that turns me on the most is…

Get help
Not only can your sex life be difficult to discuss with your partner, but it can also be hard to know where to turn for help in this area. A therapist can help you communicate your sexual concerns with your partner in a safe and structured setting. They can be your advocate, your cheerleader, your confidant. As your therapist, I will keep the intimate details of your life within the four walls of my office, and only between you, your partner, and me. At the end of the day, relationships are all about being honest, sensitive, and brave enough to say what needs to be said. Being sexually involved with someone is to be vulnerable and open. So take those attitudes with you outside of the bedroom, and talk about what you really need inside the bedroom. Set up your first session with me today and together we can overcome the barriers and help you reclaim the bedroom.

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

Resources:
Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
Cluff Counseling: “Reclaiming the Bedroom, Part 1: Benefits of Sex”
Cluff Counseling: “Reclaiming the Bedroom, Part II: Hindrances to Sex”
Psychology Today: “5 Ways to Communicate about Sex”
Psychology Today: “14 Prompts to Help You Start Communicating About Sex”
Psychology Today: “Why Aren’t We Talking to Our Partners About Sex?”
USA Today: “How often should you have sex with your partner?”