Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Managing Holiday Stress, or "The Twelve Coping Skills of Christmas"

The holidays are often set aside as a time of joy and peace, of reflection and gratitude. But many people report that the pressure that comes with the holidays makes this the most stressful time of the year. So here are some tips to help you have a happy, healthy holiday season.

1. Set realistic expectations.
In an effort to make the holidays “perfect,” we can run ourselves ragged and accumulate more debt than we would like. This time of year, the media is full of images of the “perfect holiday,” and it is so easy to turn those images into an expectation. Try and avoid the trap of perfectionism. Instead, try telling yourself that the holidays will be wonderful and imperfect all at once.

2. Reach out for help if you need it.
Many people seem to have a desire to be superhuman, and to do everything without any assistance from anyone. Not only is this destructive to your own mental health, it robs your loved ones of a chance to be more connected to you. Instead of “going it alone,” ask for assistance.
Sometimes the holidays can get you down...

3. Acknowledge feelings.
There is a lot of pressure for holidays to be joyful and happy time. But this is also the darkest time of the year here in the northern hemisphere, and many people react to the seasonal cycles with increased depression. Further, the experience of holiday emotions may vary. Some people may be sad; others may be grieving and may miss loved ones. It is OK to feel whatever is going on for you at any time. You are not “supposed to” feel any particular way. Just acknowledge what you are feeling, and remember that you are allowed to have whatever feelings you are actually having.

4. Set aside differences.
One of the major stressors this time of year can be gatherings with other people with whom we do not get along. To reduce stress for yourself, try and set aside your differences. For example, if you and your brother-in-law argue about politics every year, maybe this is the year to call a truce. If you know that you disagree with someone about politics or religion (or whatever) it is a good idea to just let that difference be. Instead, try and connect over things you have in common. If you really feel you need to address something, bring it up at another time of the year, when nerves are not so frazzled.

5. Practice gratitude.
Taking time each day to be aware of what you have that you are grateful for is clinically proven to help reduce depression and anxiety, and to improve overall happiness. Try listing five things you are grateful for each night before you go to sleep. For many people, the holiday season is the perfect time to begin a gratitude practice.

6. Make a plan for difficult situations, and stick to it.
Let's say you're hosting the big family dinner this year, and in the past it's been about as complicated as planning a trip to the moon. Or, let's say you have to spend time with family members who make you uncomfortable. Whatever the challenge, you will be less stressed if you have a plan before you go into the situation. So sit down and make a plan of what is going to happen, and then stick to the plan. Don't change the plan at the last minute to add “just one more thing.”

Further, remember the first item on this list: Resist the urge to strive for perfection in your plans. Acknowledge that you are going to plan a good event, but one that is realistic and achievable. And then do what you plan.

7. Say “No” more often.
This is a great season to practice setting limits. If it is just too much work to pick up some cookies on the way to the kid's holiday concert, then say so. You just can't make it to that one more party? Tell them that you won't be there. And remember, you don't need explanations: “No” is a complete sentence.

8. Take some deep breaths.
This advice has been around for a long time, and for good reason: It works. Stop whatever you are doing and take 10 slow, deep breaths. See what happens if you do this several times a day. Deep breathing slows down our heart-rate and sends a message to our mind and body that “Everything is OK.”

9. Take some time for yourself.
During the holiday season we can find ourselves in a whirlwind of activity, seemingly without any rest. Before you get caught up in that, plan out some time just for you. Maybe a couple of hours of reading, or a massage, or a trip to your favorite restaurant. Make some time for yourself so you can “recharge.” And bonus points: Refuse to feel guilty about it.

10. Get enough sleep.
'Tis the season for competing demands on our time. Holiday parties can run late, and we can stay up late at night baking or wrapping... All of this is a recipe for poor sleep. Our ability to cope with stress is compromised when we aren't sleeping enough. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep each and every night. (Oh, and parents? Make sure your kids get enough sleep, too.)

11. Watch what you eat and drink.
A friend of mine describes this time of year as “pastry season,” because there are more cookies, cakes, pies, candies and other assorted sweets on offer this year than any other time. You will also likely be offered heavy meals, full of rich food. All of this can be a wonderful gustatory experience. At the same time, when our bodies are not feeling well or are not well-fueled, our ability to cope with stress is decreased.

The holidays are also a time of year for celebratory beverages—alcoholic and otherwise. And while alcohol may seem like a good way to relieve stress, its effects are short-term, and the consequences that come with from the decisions we make when intoxicated are long-term.

While parties and feasts are a part of the holidays, it is a good idea to remember moderation.

12. Get some exercise.
Physical activity is one of the best ways we have to cope with stress. During the holiday season we are often so busy that our trips to the gym or walks around the neighborhood often get cut from our schedule. Remember that this time of year, taking care of yourself is even more important than ever. Schedule that gym time or that walk in your calendar, and treat it as an appointment you cannot break.

Hopefully these tips will improve your experience of the holiday season. Remember to take care of yourself. And personally, I wish you and yours all the best this year and every year!

For further reading:
An APA summary of research on holiday stress:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Five Thing that People Believe about Anxiety—that actually make it worse.

If you have been anxious for a period of time in your life then you have likely developed some thoughts about your anxiety. You have probably come up with explanations and descriptions of your anxiety. After all, humans naturally look around themselves and try to explain their world. Your internal world is no different.

When I treat anxiety I explore what thoughts the person has about anxiety itself. Some thoughts are helpful and some are neutral. But what I really want to identify here are some of the thoughts that cause anxiety to get worse, or the thoughts that make it more difficult to treat. Below I have listed five common thoughts that people with anxiety have about their anxiety. All five thoughts make anxiety worse or harder to address.

What is particularly interesting is the strength with which people believe these myths! I have noticed that when they are challenged, people rush to defend them. As you read through these five beliefs, ask yourselves which ones you believe—and which ones you want to defend.

1. I can't control my anxiety.

This is the number one myth that I hear from anxious patients. People come to me and say, “I've tried to control my anxiety, and I just can't!” Upon further assessment, the truth usually is “I have tried to control my anxiety and I have not yet succeeded.” Generally, this is a result of the ways that the person has attempted to control the anxiety: Either by ignoring it, numbing, or repressing it. These techniques are not effective, so it's not fair to say that the person can't control anxiety; it's fair to say that they haven't yet tried an effective technique.

Believing that anxiety cannot be controlled means that every intervention the person tries to cope with anxiety will be met with self-sabotage. We know that people put more effort into tasks they believe they can achieve, and less effort when they know they will not succeed. The same is true about mental health: Anxiety is controllable, but if you keep telling yourself that it isn't, you are not going to bring your best effort to the task.

So if you believe this myth, try this instead: It may seem like I cannot control my anxiety, but ultimately I know that I can.

2. My anxiety is genetic.

No, it is not. True, there does seem to be some general genetic component to anxiety, true. But there is a difference between “predisposition” and “reality.” A person's experience of anxiety is more a factor of internal thoughts and external environment than genetic factors. In other words, while your genes may set the stage for your anxiety, your actual anxiety is a factor of your life and your thoughts. Fortunately, you have control over your thoughts and your environment. Frequently, “my anxiety is genetic” is an excuse people use to avoid the difficult work of addressing their anxiety.

If you believe this myth, try this instead: My anxiety is unique to me, and I can do something about it.

3. Worrying about possible tragedies makes me more prepared for them.

No, it does not. Worrying about bad things that might happen just means you are directing your mind to picture all the possible terrible things that might happen. You are making yourself anxious, and you are actually decreasing your ability to problem-solve. If you are looking at a specific task, you are rehearsing all the ways you can fail.

The reality is that if you spend time worrying about a particular bad outcome, and then that outcome actually happens, you will have conditioned yourself to be less effective in handling that outcome, because you will have associated it with worry. In other words, worrying about possible tragedies makes you less prepared for them.

If you believe this myth, try this instead: I can find effective ways to address the things I worry about.

4. Medication is the only way to control anxiety.

No, it is not. While medication can be an effective tool, research has shown that talk therapy is just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than anti-anxiety medication. Additionally, the skills learned in talk therapy can be used at any time, in any circumstance. Further, talk therapy can address the root cause of the anxiety, while reliance on medication alone does not.

Taking anti-anxiety medication is nothing to be ashamed of. And if you need it, then take it.

But believing that medication is the only way to treat anxiety actually makes anxiety worse, because the person comes to believe that they require the medication. In other words, over-reliance on medication makes the experience of anxiety itself something that is beyond the individual's ability to control. Believing anxiety must be medicated away makes anxiety itself something to be frightened of.

If you believe this myth, try this: While my medication helps with symptom relief, I can do things to address my anxiety for myself.

5. If I'm anxious about something, that means that I have something to be frightened of.

No, that is not what anxiety means. Anxiety, as an emotion, is always real and almost always has a specific cause. But that is not the same thing as saying that there is always something that is actually threatening.You can experience anxiety (or fear, for that matter) when there is no actual threat. It happens all the time. You can probably think of several examples in your own life.

In fact, our problem anxiety often arises when our minds believe there is something threatening when there is not.

This myth can cause people to avoid the things that cause them anxiety. But if you avoid the things that make you anxious, you are reinforcing the belief that you have a legitimate reason to be anxious. This can make your anxiety worse, and make the things that trigger your anxiety even more frightening.

If you believe this myth, try this: Anxiety is my emotion, not my reality.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Seeing Greener Grass: The negative effects of comparing yourself to other people

Have you ever had thoughts like these:
  • "She is so much prettier than I am."
  • "I want a new car, like the one my neighbors have."
  • "I wish I lived in a bigger house like my cousin."
  • "My friend has a great job. He's always been so lucky in his career." 

If this sounds familiar, you may be falling into the trap of negative social comparison.

Basically, negative social comparison is exactly what it sounds like: Making ourselves feel bad by comparing ourselves to others who we perceive to be more successful than we are.  

Social comparison is one of the most common manifestations of self-judgment.  How common is it? Some psychologists suggest that social comparison is unavoidable, and theorize that comparing ourselves to others is how we measure ourselves objectively. But when we look at the lives of other people and see only their successes, we can start to feel bad about ourselves. We may begin to think that there is something wrong with us that we are not at "the same level " as our peers, or we simply may begin to feel bad that we "are not where we should be."

Negative social comparison decreases our own self-esteem, and a reduction in self-esteem is one of the contributors to depression and other mood disorders. It also damages our self-confidence, and makes it more difficult for us to achieve the kind of life we want.

So what does negative social comparison look like? Recent research suggests that using Facebook (and to be fair, other social networks, like Pintrest) can foster negative body image.  More than half people (men and women, in this study) report that they feel bad about their bodies after seeing pictures of themselves and others on Facebook. 

Further, when all your friends are posting about their great experiences and accomplishments, this can make you feel bad about yourself. Several studies have documented this. Some experts have even suggested limiting the number of friends, which seems to turn down the effect of negative social comparison. 

So how do you stop negative social comparison?

First recognize that you are doing it, and when you are doing it. Ask yourself: When do you feel bad when you think about the accomplishments of others? Do you notice that you feel worse about yourself when you see other people who have something you want? See if you can discover what kinds of situations and circumstances prompt your negative social comparison. For example: I know someone who feels bad when he sees a man who has a more muscular body than he does. For him, the first step is recognizing that this specific behavior (seeing someone who is more muscular and feeling bad) is the negative social comparison in action. 

Second, make a commitment to stop. When you catch yourself doing the comparing, tell yourself, “Stop.” Then, think of something else. It's useful to have something else already in mind that you will distract yourself with—for example, and upcoming trip, or something in the future you are looking forward to. Or, remind yourself that you do not know the whole picture of the other person's life. Maybe, all things considered, that person is unhappy in other ways, and would change places with you if given the chance. 

Third, get big picture. Ask yourself, “Would I really be happier if I had X, or do I just think I'd be happier?” Or, if that doesn't work, ask, “Will any of this matter in 10 years?” I had one client who used to “get big picture” on an astronomical scale: She would say, “How can I care what kind of car my coworkers drive when there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe?” In other words, think of a bigger perspective.

Fourth, make it a habit to avoid social comparison. Think of this as a positive step you can take towards your mental wellness. You may want to make it a habit to be grateful for what you have and who you are, which is a great way to avoid social comparison. Remind yourself that everyone in the world is different, and we all have struggles. You can also repeat certain phrases to yourself that reinforce your commitment. One that I like is “Don't compare your insides to other peoples' outsides.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Five Elements of Happiness

What is happiness?

Philosophers and artists have tried for centuries to answer that question. Maybe that is because the definition varies so widely from person to person and from place to place. But did you know that there are conditions that can be met, even given a wide variety of personal preferences, that are more likely to result in people reporting that they are happy?
"Happiness" by Eric Castro. Used under CC license.

Positive psychology  is a movement in the study of mental health that sets out to explore what makes life worth living, what makes for good communities, and what it means to have a happy life. Positive psychology, as a movement in psychology, is only about 15 years old.

The best idea we have is that happiness occurs when five basic principles are met. They are: 1)Positive emotions, 2) Engagement, 3) Relationships, 4) Meaning, and 5) Accomplishment. This is often referred to by the acronym PERMA.

Here is a brief look at the individual parts of the PERMA model of happiness.

1. Positive emotions

The emotions we are experiencing at a given moment can color our perceptions of our life in general. Positive emotions include feelings like joy, enjoyment, pride, tranquility, excitement, anticipation and curiosity.

It may seem difficult to simply feel more positive emotions, but this depends on how you conceptualize the task. While we can't just flip the "positive emotions" switch inside of us, there are certain behaviors and actions which we know will give us positive feelings. Being able to do those behaviors and actions means that we can increase our authentic experience of positive emotions.

2. Engagement

Here, the idea of "being engaged" in something means having just enough challenge to be interesting, but not to much as to be frustrating. There is no limit to the number of activities that can produce that feeling of engagement. What is important is that the activity activate a sense of "flow."

Flow is the state of being absorbed in a project or task. It is often characterized as a state of full immersion in an activity.This is the mental state you are in when you are doing something you enjoy, and you look up at the clock and realize it's several hours later than you thought.


Humans are social animals. We crave intimacy with other humans on multiple levels: Friends, acquaintances, passing socialization and close partnerships. People who report feeling more connected to others report higher levels of happiness.

Just as it is important to build and maintain relationships, it is also important to be able to differentiate between healthy relationships and toxic ones. Relationships that are codependent, one-sided, or abusive are detrimental to our health. Learning how to be choosy in relationships is an important skill for happiness.

4. Meaning

Knowing that we are a part of something larger than ourselves, and being able to participate in the process of discovery of what that something might be, is an essential part of happiness. It may sound excessively academic, but the discovery of meaning in life is one of the most significant parts of our happiness. 

In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes: "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked." "In other words, part of the process of finding meaning in our lives is understanding that we are finding meaning at all.  

5. Accomplishments

Being able to look at something and think, "I did that" is the basic sense of accomplishment. Setting a goal and achieving it makes us feel good about ourselves, and feeling pride in the things we do can make us happy. Successes in the past make us feel more optimistic about the possibility of future success. Part of being present with our accomplishments means remembering the times in the past when we accomplished something.

But accomplishment is not just about success. Setting goals and not succeeding gives us an opportunity to develop resiliency. Some theorists have proposed that resiliency is one of the most significant predictors of success and happiness in life.


Flourish, Martin Seligman.
The Happiness Project, Grethen Rubin

Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Can Happiness be Taught?Daedalus journal, Spring 2004

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Perfectionism: What it is and what you can do about it.

What is Perfectionism?
  • Do you feel that what you do is never good enough?
  • Do you have a hard time accepting critique? 
  • Do you procrastinate because you believe that you need more time to get things right?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may be engaging in perfectionism. In our culture, we often see perfectionism as a good thing--it's a sign that someone has high standards. It turns out, however, that perfectionism is not good for you.

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is rooted in this thought: "If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame." In other words, perfection is not really about having high standards at all. It's about you, and your fear of being shamed, judged or blamed. 

Perfectionism is usually marked by a cognitive distortion called all-or-nothing thinking. Basically, this is seeing the world in stark black and white, and believing that the alternative to "perfect" is "failure."

In the movie Talledaga Nights, Will Ferrell's character gives us an example of perfectionist thinking. The interviewer says, "You either win, or crash the car trying to win." Ferrell replies with a great example of all-or-nothing thinking: "If you ain't first, you're last!" 

How does perfectionism cause problems?

There are many ways that perfectionism causes problems in our lives. Here are just a few. 
  • Fear of failure: Perfectionists may feel as though their self-worth depends on a single activity or outcome. If they do not succeed at this one thing, they are failures. 
  • Fear of mistakes: Perfectionists often avoid doing tasks for fear that they will make mistakes. This can be the cause of procrastination. 
  • Shoulding: Perfectionists believe that they "should" act a particular way. Further, they believe that others "should" do certain things, and may become frustrated when these expectations are not met. 
  • Believing others have it easy: Perfectionists often believe that other people have an easier time achieving success than they do. 
What can I do about perfectionism?

Perfectionism does not have to cause misery! It can be addressed by altering some basic thought patterns. Of course, changing thoughts takes time and dedication, but in this case it is worth the effort. Some ways to start challenging and transforming perfectionism are:
  • Set reasonable expectations. When you feel depressed or anxious about a situation, let that be a clue that your expectations are probably unrealistic. Ask yourself what a more realistic expectation would be, and make an effort to hold that expectation. 
  • Confront the fears of not being perfect by asking, "What would happen if I make a mistake?" If all the outcomes are survivable, then not being perfect is not so  bad. 
  • Practice being comfortable with being imperfect. Learning to be present with distressing emotions is a powerful skill. 
  • Recognize that "the best you can do" is not the same as "perfect." Your best effort might still be flawed. 
  • Recognize that perfectionism is a very common problem, and you are not alone. No one in the world is perfect, yet many people try to be. Recognizing that others are struggling in the same way can create connection. 
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity, not just the end result. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Eleven Errors in Thinking that are Making You Miserable

The way we think directly effects the way we feel. You probably already know that. But what you may not know is that the thoughts that make us unhappy tend to fall into predictable categories. Cognitive therapists have studied these categories of thinking, and call them "cognitive distortions." 

Like the name implies, a cognitive distortion is a way of thinking about situations in the world which does not match up with reality, and which produces negative emotions. Aaron Beck, the creator of cognitive therapy, developed the idea of cognitive distortions. David Burns refined some of the definitions of the more common cognitive distortions.

Want to change your mood? Change your thinking. 
It is important to recognize that cognitive distortions are both inaccurate ways of looking at reality, and that they make us unhappy. First, recognizing that the distortions are not actual representations of reality can really help us when we challenge them. When we discover that we are seeing things through a cognitive distortion, we can recognize that we are not seeing the truth about a situation.

Second, the fact that cognitive distortions are often at the root of negative emotions means that we can change the way we feel by changing what we think.

Below is a chart listing eleven common cognitive distortions. Read through the chart, and see if you recognize them in your own thoughts. If you do, you can ask yourself what a more accurate way of viewing the world might be. 

All-or-Nothing Thinking Seeing things in black-and-white, without shades of gray; believing that the only alternative to perfection is failure.

Example: I am trying to eat less sugar, but I eat a candy bar for a snack. I think, “I've blown my whole eating plan, so I might as well forget it completely.”

Overgeneralization Making grand generalizations from very limited evidence.

Example: I plan to go on a hike, and it rains. I start to think, “This always happens. I never get to do what I want.” I've made a generalization about my life from one experience.

Filtering Focusing on exclusively negative aspects of a situation, rather than seeing the whole picture.

Example: I give a presentation to a group, and one person tells me that they didn't understand what I was presenting. I think, “It was a terrible presentation.”

Disqualifying the Positive Dismissing positive events as not representative of reality.

Example: After I have a night out with friends, I think, “Well, that was nice. But it was only one night, and my life is usually lonely and no one spends time with me.”

Mind-Reading Assuming knowledge of another person's thoughts, beliefs, judgments, opinions.

Example: I spill something on myself while at a dinner party, and I think, “Everyone here thinks I'm a slob!”

Fortune-Telling Predicting a negative future.

Example: I am preparing for a test, and I think, “Why bother to study? I'm just going to fail anyway.”

Catastrophizing Seeing any negative event as a catastrophe.

Example: I get pulled over for speeding, and I think, “Now my insurance is going to go up, and that's going to be a financial disaster!”

Emotional Reasoning Believing that things that are strongly felt are also true.

Example: I feel frightened of flying, so flying I believe that flying is dangerous.

Should Statements Believing that people should always do what is expected of them, or what is “morally” or “ethically” correct.

Example: I feel that I am basically a caring person, so I believe that I should be in a healthy relationship.

Labeling Applying labels as a result of specific events. For example, thinking “I'm a loser.”

Example: I make a mistake at work, and then I think, “I am a failure.”

Personalization Believing that events that occur in the world are personally directed towards you.

Example: I am stuck in traffic due to construction, and I think, “This always happens to me!”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ten Great Love Songs with Terrible Messages

I'm a big fan of music. I once got a thank you card from a former student that said, “Thank you for teaching me how to do therapy, and for teaching me about 80s rock music.” I felt pretty proud of that. 

Sometimes the lyrics in a particular song make me cringe, and it is even worse when those lyrics come in an otherwise great song. So for fun I made a list of some of my most cringe-worthy songs. But what's important about this list is that these are all really good songs that just happen to have a terrible message. They have great tunes, fun beats, neat hooks... and a dysfunctional way of looking at love.

So here they are, my Top Ten Great Love Songs with Terrible Messages, in no particular order. 

10. All You Need is Love, The Beatles.

This is a perfect example of the kind of song I mean--great tune, fun to sing, kind of sloppy in that "I can belt this out and not feel self-conscious" way. Groovy. Except that it's a lie of the highest magnitude. You also need self-knowledge, emotional regulation, positive affect, positive regard, trust, shared meaning, appreciation, gratitude... and the list goes on. Enjoy the song, but don't take it to heart.

9. Baby It's Cold Outside, by Frank Loesser
(Honorable mention to other rape-y songs, like “Blurred Lines” and “Lightnin' Striking.”)

Its got a nice melody, and it's a duet, which is always fun, but the message just can't be ignored. This song is about sexual assault. It wraps the whole thing up in a cute little package and calls it "seduction," and that's exactly what is so damaging.

8. Every Breath You Take, The Police

Seriously, call the police. This is a stalker's manifesto. Sting himself said, "I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite."

7. He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones.

The singer describes the love this man has for his ex until he dies. While it might be a romantic notion to hold onto our past loves out of loyalty and devotion, it is a recipe for an unhappy life.

6. Jolene, Dolly Parton

Seriously, who doesn't love this song? It's so much fun, and it's been covered by practically everyone. But the lyrics... well, the song doesn't recognize that the man in question has agency and responsibility in his own choices and actions.  "Don't take him just because you can" kind of speaks for itself.

By the way... have you heard the slowed-down version of Jolene? It's amazing.

5. It all Depends on You, Henderson, DeSylva, and Brown.

This is an old classic. The lyrics go, "I can be happy/I can be sad; I can be good/or I can be bad; It all depends on you." This is a pretty good description of codependency.

4. As Long as He Needs Me, Lionel Bart.

This song comes from the musical Oliver!, and it's incredibly disturbing in its context. Nancy, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, sings this little gem after her boyfriend Bill physically assaults her to get his way. She then reprises the song later in the musical, right before Bill beats her to death with a stick. I swear I am not making any of this up.

3. I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, Lerner and Loewe

Another song from a musical, this time My Fair Lady. Henry Higgins sings this as he realizes that he loves Eliza Doolittle. Lovely tune, but it's possibly the least romantic thing ever said. Try it yourself--go home tonight and tell your significant other, "Sweetie, I've grown accustomed to your face." (Actually, don't try that. Bad idea.)

This is is actually one of the most common problems in relationships. As people stay together, they get used to each other. Growing accustomed to one another is actually a bad idea for your love.

2. My Man, Charles, Pollock, Willemetz, and Yvain.

This is so much fun to sing at karaoke. It is also one of the saddest victim songs on the planet. Today, this song is most frequently associated with Barbra Streisand, who sang it in the musical Funny Girl. In the past few decades, Streisand has taken to apologizing to the audience right before she sings it, referring to it as a "dependent victim song." (Also, Streisand's version takes out the reference to domestic violence that was in the original version.)

1. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Donaggio and Pallavinci.

Originally, the lyrics were in Italian. Dusty Springfield belted the English version of this song out in 1966, and it's been a classic for singers with powerful voices ever since. The same singer who gave us the sex-positive "Son of a Preacher Man" gives us this message of "my needs don't matter, as long as you're near me."

You don't have to say you love me? Yes, yes you do.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Three Things You Can do to Improve Your Relationship

Be a super couple! (I know... cheesy.)
After my post on Five Relationship Destroying Behaviors to Stop Right Now, I received two kinds of responses. The first was, “Easier said than done.” I agree with that, and I may address that later. The other kind of response was, “Great, now tell us what we can do to improve our relationships.” I think that's a great idea, so here you go. Below is a list of three things that I have seen make significant changes in the relationships that I have worked with in couple's therapy. (I was going to list five things to improve relationships for the sake of symmetry, but I decided to go with three instead because I wanted this list to be
shorter and more manageable.) Try them out, and see if you don't agree with me. 

1. Go on a date with your partner once a week.

This is probably the single best piece of advice I can give. sounds pretty simple, but many people who have been in relationships for a long time stop dating. It is really amazing how much of a change just going on a date once a week can make in a couple's life. If you want to improve your relationship, establish a weekly “Date Night.”

The reason that date night works is simple: It strengthens what we call the "marital friendship.” Basically, if you don't like the person you partnered with, you are unlikely to have a happy relationship. Remembering how to like them is an important part of improving your relationship.

Because couples often forget how to date, I've come up with “Rules for Date Night.” Here they are:

  1. Date night is a special occasion, planned in advance. It isn't “Hey honey, let's go out tonight.” It's something you set in your calendar. It doesn't have to be a long date. If your schedule doesn't allow, it doesn't even have to be at night. It does have to be planned in advance. (Reason for this rule: The anticipation that date night is going to happen is just as useful in improving your relationship as the actual date itself.)
  2. Date night is an occasion to do something different. It does not have to be something fancy or elaborate, but it has to be something somewhat different. Try a new restaurant. Cook a new recipe together. Watch a movie that isn't something you would “typically” watch. Take a class. Play miniature golf or drive a go-cart. Do something that is out of the ordinary. (Reason for this rule: You want to generate dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is produced in response to novelty.)
  3. Date night conversations are limited to topics that are not serious. This is not the time to iron out the details of your mortgage refinance, or to talk about your disappointments in life. Do that on another occasion. (Reason: Couples fall into patterns of dialogue, and this rule will make sure that you spend the time feeling positive emotions, and not arguing or stressing.)

Perhaps the most common objection I hear to date night is, “But my partner I already do that! We go on dates all the time.” Great! Move on to suggestion #2. But before you do, ask yourself if you follow those three rules. Do you plan it in advance, set aside the time to do something relatively novel, and limit conversations to topics that are enjoyable? If you do not, then you are not dating: You are hanging out with your partner. Hanging out is great, but it's not dating


2. Share the best part of your day.

Research shows that couples who share the best parts of their day experience positive affect in their relationship. It sound simple, but it has a double benefit. One, it helps you stay connected to your partner's life. And two, it associates your partner with positive memories.

So here's what I recommend: Once a day, in the evening, take your partners hand. Look at them and say, “What was the best part of your day?” Then you do the same. That's it--pretty simple. So do it for a week and see what happens. 

3. Tell your partner something you appreciate about them—and tell them regularly.

As we get more comfortable in relationships, we start to take things for granted. We get accustomed to the things that once made us happy. The fancy term for this is “hedonic adaptation.”

As a result, we stop telling our partners how important they are to us, or how they make us feel, or what we appreciate about them. The problem is that the little moments of reflection and appreciation are not incidental to relationships: They are essential for the continuation of our love for our partners.

So make it a point to tell you partner what you appreciate about them. I call this “cultivating an environment of appreciation.” (That's not a term I invented, but I cannot remember where I learned it. Let me know if you know the source.) When I ask my clients to do this, they sometimes tell me that they already do this. But when I ask for details, it turns out that they do not. They may say “thank you” if their partner does the dishes, or something like that, but they do not make a routine practice of telling their partner their appreciation.

Try to make it a habit to tell your partner something you appreciate about them several times a week, or even every single day. And, I encourage you to prepare for this. Here is a list of positive traits. Go through the list and check off all the ones that apply to your partner. Then, make it a point over the next few weeks to tell your partner each one, over time. You can even make this a game, in which you try and suit the exact trait to a specific event that occurs. For example, you might notice your partner driving your kids to a sporting event, and say, “I appreciate all the work you do to parent.” Or, you might notice your partner in a new shirt, and say, “I am grateful to have such a handsome husband.”



A note on usage: In this post, and from this point on, I will be using “they/them” as third-person singular pronouns. I am aware that traditional English grammar requires “he or she” and “him or her” instead. I am choosing to break this rule of grammar in respect for individuals whose gender may not be described by those pronouns. I'm including this note for my trans* and trans* friendly friends and clients, but mostly for my mother, who is a retired professor of English. Yes, Mom, I listened to you, and you raised me to know the rules. You also raised me to advocate for tolerance, so this is what I'm doing. Messrs. Strunk and White will just have to forgive me.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Attachment Theory Part Two: The post in which I cite research

After my last post on attachment theory, I received a thought-provoking response from a friend. He said:
I don't understand why someone would want to change their attachment style. In your article, you just assume that everyone will want to have secure attachment. But why? Why not just accept that people have differences?
I think this is a great point. I remember being told by a professor once, "If you can't cite text, you're just pissing and moaning." So here is my answer to that question, with some references. (Please notice I'm going to talk about “secure attachment” contrasted with “insecure attachment.” As you might assume, all the other three attachment styles besides “secure” are considered “insecure.” )

First, is insecure attachment a mental illness?

No. Insecure attachment is not pathology. It is a style of personal relationships, and is more like a personality trait. There is some research that insecure attachment underlies some pathology (in other words, people with insecure attachment are more likely to be depressed), but in an of itself, insecure attachment styles are not a mental illness.

But that does not meant that you won't hear clinicians talk about insecure attachment styles as if they were pathology.

For example, I once attended a lecture at which a speaker was making a case that “sexual addiction” should be identified as an “attachment disorder.” (As you may know, there is much disagreement in the field about whether or not sexual addiction is a real disorder.) This man made a case that people in insecure attachments often turned to sex to feel secure in the relationships, and to improve their sense of themselves. He used the evidence that sexual acting out behavior is often based on insecure attachment to make a case that “sexual addiction” is a real diagnosis and a real disorder.

I must admit that I was not brave enough to raise my hand and ask him why he felt that two fictitious disorders added up to one real disorder. But I was sitting in a room full of therapists, and no one else challenged him, either. This speaker had made the assumption that insecure attachment is a disorder, and no one in the audience challenged that.

The truth is that “attachment disorder” is not a diagnosis in adults. (Please note: There is a diagnosis called “Reactive Attachment Disorder,” but it can only be diagnosed in children under the age of 5. It is not the same thingthat I'm talking about here.) The take-away message is this: Adults are not considered mentally ill merely because they have difficulty with attachment. 

So what is the problem with insecure attachment? Why would anyone want to change?

Just because something is not an illness does not mean that you want it. For example, hunger and thirst are not illnesses, but you probably don't want to be hungry or thirsty all the time. In a similar way, illiteracy is not an illness, but being able to read might make your life easier.

Insecure attachments can cause difficulties for the individual and for their relationships. I've seen it in my practice more times that I could count, and so has any other therapist you care to ask. But you don't have to take my word for it: Mountains of research have been done on attachment styles. (Make a quick Google search of “attachment theory research inadults” to see what I mean.) Here is just a sample of what the research shows:

People with secure attachment are more likely to reach out for social support.  
People with secure attachment are slower to anger, and cope more effectively once they do get angry. 
People with secure attachment cope better in times of transition.

People with secure attachments are more successful at regulating emotional distress.

People with secure attachments are generally happier in relationships.

Insecure attachment is correlated to worse health overall.

People with insecure attachment are more likely to develop depression. There are two studies on this. 

And on it goes. Basically, insecure attachment style can make life's stressors more challenging.

The common mistake therapists make about attachment theory

Most therapists will likely take this view: Since your adult attachment style is related to the relationship you had with your childhood caregivers, healing your childhood wounds will help you change your attachment style. Sounds good, right?

The problem is there is no research to support this.

As it turns out, childhood attachment styles do not always predict adult attachment style. Yes, attachment style is stable across long periods of the life course, but it also fluctuates in response to negative events during the life course. But more importantly, the process by which adult attachment styles change is not really understood. (Also, this article.)

And it seems that attachment changes occur in the context of the individual's current relationship, rather than in the process of “healing childhood wounds.” 

Many therapists will talk about “the unfinished business of childhood.” Well, if you are an adult, then your childhood is over, and you cannot change any part of it. Changing attachment style, if you should choose to do so, happens in the here-and-now. So while understanding your childhood experiences of attachment is important to self-knowledge, mere understanding will not help you change your attachment style.

Attachment Theory Bonus Easter Egg: Baby Talk

Attachment theory provides a model for both parent-child attachment and romantic partner attachment because these two kinds of relationships have a lot in common. Hazen and Shaver, two researchers mentioned in the previous piece on attachment theory, noted some of the commonalities between adult romantic relationships and parent-child relationships in their 1987 article. Here are a few:

- Feeling safe when the other is physically near and responsive
- Engaging in close, intimate body contact
- Feeling insecure when the other is inaccessible
- Sharing discoveries with one another
- Playing with facial features
- Engaging in “baby talk”
So your Bonus Easter Egg: Attachment theory explains why you engage in “baby talk” with your partners, or with your cat, or your car, or anything else you love. 

(PS: One of the people I asked to proofread this piece said the Easter Egg is “not satisfying.” So, if you did not find that Easter Egg as enjoyable as I did, then I am a bigger nerd than you are, and I apologize. I'll try and do better next time.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

“Why is my partner so needy?” or “Why can't I meet Mr. Right?” or “Why do I need so many reassurances?” Attachment Theory 101

Here are some things I hear frequently in my practice:

“Why does my partner need to call me three times a day to ask me if I love him? It drives me crazy!”
“If I don't respond to every text message my wife sends me, she gets angry. Doesn't she realize that I'm busy?”
“My husband won't let me in. I ask him what he is feeling, and he just shrugs. Is something wrong with him?”
“I can't seem to find anyone that I am compatible with. I've met lots of people, but none of them make it past the third date. What's wrong with the world?”

If any of these sound familiar, or if they sound similar to things you've said or heard in your relationships, you might want to learn about attachment theory.

Basically, people attach (or bond) to each other in predictable ways, and attachment theory is a model for understanding how people form those attachments. Originally it was developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby and described how children bonded with their mothers. In the 1980s research done by Hazen and Shaver showed that attachment theory applies to adult romantic relationships. Now we think that attachment theory applies to most kinds of human relationships.

(Bonus fun fact! Research from theUniversity of Haifa shows that people's emotional responses to television characters matches their attachment styles, particularly when those television characters were taken off the air. In other words, that Big Sad you had when Firefly was canceled might have had a lot to do with your attachment style, not just your love of quality narrative and innovative Sci-Fi.)

According to attachment theory, there are four broad styles of attachment. Here they are, and to make it easier to remember, I provided a familiar example of each.

Secure (Clair Huxtable)

People with secure attachments are comfortable being in relationships and also comfortable being independent. They can set boundaries and maintain them. People with secure attachment can recover from rejection, even if they do not like it. Generally, people with secure attachments are confident that their partner loves them, and do not seek many reassurances.

Anxious-Preoccupied (Rachel Berry)

As the name suggests, the anxious attachment type is characterized by anxiety around intimacy. Often, people with this style have trouble being alone or single, and sometimes they would prefer to be in any relationship—no matter how bad—rather than be single. They need frequent reassurance and affection from their partners. The theory holds that people with anxious attachment are looking for reassurances from their partners to counter their negative opinions of themselves. This is the attachment style of the person who asks, “do you love me?” dozens of times a day. This is also the attachment style of the person who goes through your text messages or your email looking for evidence that you're cheating—behaviors like this are driven by anxiety around the security of the relationship.

Dismissive-Avoidant (Liz Lemon)

The avoidant type is uncomfortable with intimacy, and is often characterized by high levels of independence. Sometimes people with avoidant attachment will feel “suffocated” or “smothered” when in relationships with others, regardless of the level of intimacy. The person with dismissive attachment style usually has the ability to talk themselves out of any relationship. When confronted with their avoidant behavior, this person will likely rationalize it away. (For example: I have been told that “there aren't any good dating prospects in metro Detroit.” Really? We're supposed to believe that there are 3 million people in metro Detroit, and all of them are either taken or terrible? Somehow, this is hard to believe. You may have heard something similar.)

Fearful-Avoidant (Ebeneezer Scrouge)

Basically, it's a combination of both the anxious type and the avoidant type. This person is is frightened of intimacy, and but actively seeks it out. In order to balance these conflicting desires, the fearful-avoidant type often lashes out at anyone who gets close to them, even though this person very much wants to be close to others. This is the least common attachment style.

So how do I know which type I am?

First, let's recognize that these are technically points on a complex continuum of our lives. In other words, you may find that your attachment style alternates between two, or that you are mostly one style, with some features of another. Our lives are complex tapestries, and any psychological model is just that—a model designed to give us a way to understand and talk about complex people.

So once we have that understood, if you want to know what your type profile looks like, you can take a test here.

Too much work to take that test? Hazan and Shaver, the researchers mentioned earlier, used these three paragraphs to determine attachment style very quickly. Read them all, and notice which one you identify with.

A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.

If you identify as paragraph A, you are likely dismissive-avoidant in your attachments. If you identify with paragraph B, you are likely secure in your attachment. And if you identify with paragraph C, you are likely anxious-preoccupied. If you identify with both A and C, you are likely fearful-avoidant.

So now what? Can my attachment style be changed?

Yes, it can. But it will take time and hard work. The kind of attachment style you have will dictate what you can do to begin the process of working on developing a secure attachment.

If you have anxious-preoccupied attachment, you will probably benefit from working on your sense of your self. If you can come to place where you can say, “I'm OK and you're OK,” then you're doing a good job of working towards secure attachment. Work towards being able to look at your own life and say, “I'm a human, and I have flaws, but overall, I like who I am. Other people will like me, too.” How do you do this? Well, think about ways of developing self-esteem and self-acceptance. There is not room here to talk about how to improve these things, but there are lots of resources out there. Get some psychotherapy if you need it.

If you have dismissive-avoidant attachment, you will probably benefit from improving your opinion of others, and your openness towards them. See what your particular pattern is—do you work until you don't have time for relationship? Do you find fault with everyone in your life? Do you refuse to let other people see “the real you?” Figure out what it is that keeps you from opening up, then stop doing that. Be prepared for some anxiety to accompany this process. Get some psychotherapy if you need it.

If you have fearful-avoidant attachment, you want to do what is suggested in both paragraphs above. You want to develop a sense of yourself as being capable and likable. And you want to learn that you can protect yourself and still stay in a relationship, not run from it. This requires both an improvement in your own self-assessments, and an increased ability to tolerate others. While this is a challenging path, it is certainly possible. Get some psychotherapy if you need it.

You may have noticed that I wrote “get some psychotherapy if you need it” for all of these. Why did I do that? Because individual talk therapy is a very effective way of coping with challenging attachment styles. The reason is the therapeutic relationship itself. Developing and maintaining a relationship with a therapist is a major factor in changing attachment styles.

My partner is driving me nuts! S/he has anxious/avoidant/fearful attachment. What can I do?

Well, one of my cardinal rules in relationship therapy is “if you have a need, say it out loud.” So consider sending your partner the link to this article (or one like it—use Google) and have an honest conversation. Your partner deserves the opportunity to have emotional healing, just like you do. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone who is struggling is to point them in the direction of help.

And—I cannot stress enough how this is an “in addition to” suggestion, and not an “instead of” suggestion—get really honest about your attachment style. Be fearless in your assessment of your own style, so you know if you are feeding into the relationship dysfunction. Then take the steps necessary to get the healing you need.

Helping yourself develop a secure attachment will also go a long way towards your partner's healing as well. Studies have shown that people who have insecure attachment styles will actually start to be more secure when they are in relationships with people who are secure in their own attachment style.


Bartholomew K, Horowitz LM, (1991). "Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model". J Pers Soc Psychol 61 (2): 226–44

Fraley, Chris R. 2010. “A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research.” Retrieved online at http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

Hazan C., Shaver P.R. (1987)."Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process". J Pers Soc Psychol 52 (3): 511–24.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

5 Relationship Destroying Behaviors To Stop Right Now

"Rome Visit," used under CC license.
Hover for attribution.
In my practice, I tend to see couples engaging in the same destructive behaviors over and over again.
Some of these behaviors are not even identified as being destructive by the people doing them. I made a list of what I believe are five common destructive relationship behaviors that people are not aware they are doing. If you could remove these from your interactions, you will likely go a long way towards developing a satisfying relationship.

1. Stop bringing up the past.

Two people will start trying to work out a conflict, and one of them will bring up something that happened two weeks ago. Then, the other will bring up something that happened a year ago. Then, the first person brings up something that happened 3 years ago, and so on and so on forever.

Some therapists call this “kitchen sinking,” because you're bringing up “everything and the kitchen sink.” Some therapists call this “keeping score,” for a obvious reasons. Whatever you call it, stop it.

Why it hurts the relationship:

First, it never solves anything. Bringing up past behaviors does not actually create behavior change in the present. But as bad as that is, there is actually a much more damaging effect to this kind of behavior.

Love is built on time together and memory. When people review the bad memories, the times when they felt that their partner was hurting them or taking advantage of them, then they are reliving the bad memories and the bad times. They are reminding themselves of all the hurts in the past. They are constantly repeating a litany of all the reasons the relationship is not working. They are making negative associations with their relationship.

So in essence, when you review all the hurts your partner has inflicted on you again and again, you are, quite literally, killing your love for you partner.

What would be better:

Forgive and move on. It's classic advice, going back thousands of years and found in cultures all around the world. And it's classic advice because it's good advice. Forgiveness is good for mental health of the individual, the couple, and the community.

If you cannot forgive, then pretend you have forgiven. I really mean that: Act as though you have forgiven your partner, and remind yourself that you are choosing to forgive. While you're at it, remind yourself that you are not forgiving them because they deserve it, you are forgiving them because you deserve it. You deserve to have a life in which you do not revisit the hurts of the past again and again. (Also, please remember that we never forgive anyone because they deserve it—that's kind of what forgiveness is, right? Choosing to overlook another person's bad actions as an extension of our own benevolence?)

When something comes up in the present, address it in the present. If your partner starts to reflect on the past, gently remind her/him/zer to stay focused on the present moment. Focus on what can change, what can be addressed, and avoid revisiting all the bad things that have ever happened.

2. Stop expecting your partner to read your mind.

Have you ever said anything like this: “I thought my husband would just know how I wanted to spend my birthday.” Or, “We've been together for so long, doesn't she just understand what I want?”

If that sounds familiar, you're expecting your partner to read your mind. Your partner is not psychic. (Or, with respect to the psychics out there, your partner is not that psychic.) Your partner needs you to tell him/her/zer what is going on with you.

Sometimes this expectation of mind-reading looks like “dropping hints” for your partner to pick up. Instead of just expecting the other person to know what you are thinking or want, now you want them to play along and read your clues. But your partner may not understand your code, or even know that you are trying to communicate something.

Why it hurts the relationship:

Simply put, your partner cannot read your mind, and cannot predict what you want.

Sometimes clients will tell me that they believe it is a sign of a healthy relationship to be able to anticipate the other person's needs. That sounds good, but that kind of sentiment is better suited to romantic movies than to real life. Yes, in a healthy relationship the partners take time to get to know one another, express interest in the other person, learn about their hopes and fears and dreams and so on. But to expect them to be 100% accurate (or even 50% accurate, really) with your moods and needs is to set them up for failure. There is a difference between being able to pick out a birthday gift because you know you partner's hobbies and taste, and being able to understand how to interpret their silence when they come home from work.

What would be better:

Honesty and communication would be better, for a start. One of my friends and colleagues says, “If you have a need, say it out loud.” If you say what it is you want or need, you at least have a chance of having that want or need met. And, you have a chance to try and come to terms with why your needs might not be met, which could be just as important. But if you keep it to yourself and expect something, you will be disappointed.

3. Stop expecting your partner to make you happy. (Or make you fulfilled, or heal your childhood wounds, or anything like that.)

I had a couple in my office years ago, and I asked them what brought them in to see me. The wife said, “I'm not happy with my life.” I got some details about what she meant, and then I asked her what made her seek couples' therapy, rather than individual therapy. She said, “I think it's my wife's job to make me happy.” I was taken aback a bit by that, I admit. I may have even lost my poker face for a second or two. So I challenged her by asking, “What if I said that it's not your wife's job to make you happy? What if I said that it's your job to make yourself happy?” She replied, “Well, you don't understand marriage.”

That's a pretty stark example, but it's not an uncommon thought. I hear many clients say things like, “My partner makes me happy,” or “My partner keeps me anchored.” This is a clue that you are relying on someone else for your emotional fulfillment and stability.

Why it hurts the relationship:

It's too much stress to put on a relationship. Your partner has his/her/zer own personal needs, wants, dreams, values, traumas, challenges, triumphs and so on. Adding personal responsibility for your difficulties in life is going to be too much.

Further, if you rely on your partner for your basic emotional needs and you're not likely to get your needs met. That's not good for you or the relationship.

One very popular model of couples' therapy is premised on the idea that each person in a relationship is responsible to “heal the emotional wounds of childhood” for the other person. This is a lovely idea, and some couples may agree to do this for each other. If that is what you and your partner mutually agree to do for each other, that's great. But please recognize that you are entering into that as a conscious choice, and that this sort of an agreement is by no means a necessary part of a healthy relationship. And, even if you and your partner agree to help each other out, you are still responsible for your own individual emotional wellness at the end of the day.

What would be better:

You are responsible for your own emotional health. Period.

Yes, you want to be supportive of your partner. But there is a big difference between being supportive of your partner and being responsible for your partner, and it is essential to learn the difference.

The best thing you can do for your relationship is to be your own best self. If you're not happy, or if you're afraid of getting older, or if you feel chronically unloved, or whatever your difficulty may be, take care of yourself. Get some individual therapy. Get a self-help book and actually work through it. (I have no data here, but I'm sure the bookshelves of the world are full of self-help books purchased with great intentions, but never completed.) Talk to someone you trust. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself together. Taking care of your own emotional needs is the greatest gift you can give to yourself, and to the people in your life.

4. Stop being a martyr.

Suppose your partner does something that hurts you, and that it's something BIG. It may be hard to forgive. So, you choose to hold onto the grudge, and to continue to bring it up. You choose to view the relationship in the light of the thing that was done. You may reject your partner's attempts at connecting with you by reminding him/her/zer of the painful thing that was done.

This is a common pattern of behavior in relationships. It's a way of manipulating the relationship, and it often occurs when one partner feels a loss of trust or control in the relationship. In essence, it can be a way to try and take back control through emotional manipulation.

Why it hurts the relationship:

Your partner may have done something to hurt you. He/she/ze might have done something truly awful and painful. And now you have a choice between three paths. One, you can move on and repair your relationship. Two, you can decide the relationship is beyond repair, and you can leave. Three, you can continue in the relationship and be a martyr—you can make every little slight a reminder of thing your partner did; you can bring it up repeatedly; you can use it as leverage and as a way of trying to hurt your partner as payback.

Of those three options, common sense tells us that being a martyr going to lead to misery for everyone involved. And yet it happens all the time: People perpetuate a narrative in which they are the victim of their partner's bad actions.

What would be better:

If something really bad has happened, ask for your needs to be met. And if you need, take some time to recover. Sometimes “time to recover” is measured in months or years, not hours or days. Don't rush your process—and don't make it your partner's responsibility to heal your wound, either. Get some professional help if you need it.

Then, when you feel that you have moved through some of the feelings, you have a decision to make about the future of the relationship. You are not obligated to stay in any relationship. If you really feel that you are being victimized, then you may need to figure out if you want to stay or go. Make the decision, go through the emotional consequences of your decision, and move on.

5. Stop defending your bad actions.

When your partner confronts you on something that you did, do you immediately rush to your own defense? Do you start to think of reasons why your behavior was justified? It may seem really important to explain your bad actions to your partner. After all, isn't mutual understanding a big part of relationship harmony?

Well, in some ways, yes. But not in this case. We want to be understood by our partners—but we also want to know that our partner is listening to us, and taking the things we say seriously.

Further, justifying your actions is not productive in any way. Let's take an example:

Person A: I was hurt that you came home last last night and didn't call first; I was worried about you.
Person B: Well, I wasn't that late.
Person A: But I was still worried.
Person B: I don't know what to say about that. I got held up at work, and I couldn't call you. I guess I shouldn't go to work?

And so on, and so on. One person makes a confrontation, and the other person explains it. I've heard this variations on this script hundreds of times, and it's never helpful.

Why it hurts the relationship:

If you have done something that hurt your partner in some way, and you defend that action or justify that action, you are sending the message that your partner's feelings are wrong. Even if you have a very good reason for doing what you did, you still hurt your partner's feelings. And that's the point—the hurt is more important than the explanation.

What would be better:

Acknowledge that you made a mistake. Say you're sorry. And move on. Let's revisit the example from above:

Person A: I was hurt that you came home last last night and didn't call first; I was worried about you.
Person B: I am sorry that you were worried. I'll try and call next time I'm going to be late.

In this example, the couple can now move on.

Of course, they can choose to continue the argument, and many couples would still work their way into an argument. What do you do then? Well, in my experience, couples that continue to argue over the issue probably have already established a culture in which arguing is accepted as a norm. If you want to stop the arguing (and almost every couple says they do), then you have to change the culture of your relationship so that arguments are not the default way that conflicts are resolved. Acknowledging the reality of what was done, rather than adopting a defensive posture, is a great first step in this culture change.