Aim to Please: How to Talk to Each Other About Sex and Satisfaction

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By Jill Baumgarner, MA

Discussing sex with your partner should be a great experience. At the beginning of a relationship, it usually is.

People are always changing, though. Which means your desires and needs will change, too.

The longer you’re in a relationship the more likely there is a need to talk to each other about sex. Though for many, this can be an awkward moment. Sort of like walking on egg-shells.

While you certainly want to communicate your sexual needs, you may also want to avoid insulting your partner on their sexual prowess. It’s a delicate balance.

Despite the sensitive topic, following a few guidelines will help you to have a healthy conversation.

Get Out of Bed

When you talk to each other about sex, be sure you do it in a neutral location—not while you’re in bed. The goal is to make your partner feel safe, secure, and open to being vulnerable.

Instead of surprising your partner with this discussion, tell them ahead of time what you want to talk about. Preface the invitation with your desire to talk about something that’s been on your mind regarding your sex life.

Handle One Thing at a Time

Because there’s often a risk that a sexual discussion could go poorly, you may be tempted to talk about everything all at once. Trying to discuss every little thing about your sex life is not the best  approach. It can be overwhelming for your partner. Plus, the chances are not great that you will come to any conclusions.

Therefore, follow the “short-and-sweet” rule, sticking to one topic per discussion. For example, if you’d like to talk about your partner taking the initiative more often, simply focus on that one aspect of your sexual relationship.

Remember the Basics

As you head into this discussion about sex, keep in mind the basics. It’s not exactly about tackling a sex topic. It’s more like laying the foundation of your sexual relationship.

Talk about things like what initiating sexual intimacy means to your partner or what time of day they enjoy sex the most. Your partner’s natural life rhythm can greatly influence their sexual desires, so keep these facts and their concerns at the forefront of any discussion.

Take the Positive Approach

As with any discussion attempting to motivate change, the temptation is to focus on what you don’t like. Basically, you end up complaining. Avoid this approach, by all means.

Rather, offer your partner reassurance by telling them what you do like about your sexual relationship. Go as far as to discuss a certain action like the way they kiss you or caress your skin.

Only after you encourage and uplift your partner can you talk about any suggestions or concerns you may have. Keep in mind, too, that you need to leave room for them to give their point of view and be open to their feedback.

Be Incredibly Tactful

While sex is undeniably a very physical act, its impact runs far below the surface of your body. It is emotional, mental, and intangible. Further still, each person has their own unique relationship with sex.

It’s important to acknowledge that your partner could have different ideas about sex than you do. Possibly even a complicated history that affects how they feel about it.

For this reason, dedicate yourself to being as tactful as you possibly can when you talk to each other about sex. If you have trouble finding the right words, pause the conversation.  Search your mind diligently for them. Protect your partner from misunderstanding you and inadvertently hurting their feelings.

Obviously, sex can be a wonderfully intimate expression of the connection between two people. If you struggle with discussing it, take some time to determine why. Otherwise, your relationship may struggle as well.

A therapist’s objective support and guidance could make it easier if you find that you have difficulty with this subject on your own. Consider seeking out a therapist who can facilitate a discussion about sex and help you to reconnect intimately with your partner.
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Jill Baumgarner, MA, LPC Intern, works with couples at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin, helping them restore intimacy, sexual spark, gain communication skills, and find peace in their committed relationships. To schedule an appointment with Jill, contact her at 5121-270-4883, ext. 108, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

When You Both Feel Misunderstood - 5 Tips For Clear Communication

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By Summer Hough, MA

A conversation with your partner begins innocently enough, but clear communication can get muddy in hurry.

Sound familiar?

You know how it goes: you are having a perfectly nice discussion, but a facial expression suddenly sours, open body language shifts to being closed off, or a phrase or tone of voice doesn’t sit right. Your sunny dispositions may cloud over as a simple discussion turns into a disagreement.

Poor communication can ruin a good conversation about anything—parenting styles, what to do for vacation, finances, household tasks – just to name a few. When clarity gives way to an offense, you both feel unheard or misunderstood.

It can be so frustrating!

You just want to explain yourself to your partner so they will get it and then agree with you. Right?

However, many times that doesn’t happen. Instead, the situation only goes from bad to worse.

To avoid such misunderstandings, consider five tips to help you to achieve clear communication.

1. Put Yourself in Your Partner’s Shoes

Often, one of the reasons why we feel misunderstood is because we believe our position or opinion is the right one. You may think, “If only I could convince my partner of the true facts, as I see it, they would get it!” Problem solved.

This approach doesn’t often work, as your partner most likely only digs in deeper with their own “true facts.”

Take a breath to give yourself a short pause before responding to your partner. Take a moment to step back and see things from your partner’s perspective. Consider how they might view the situation from their side. Can you consider that perspective and find common ground?

Putting effort into seeing things from the other person’s viewpoint really helps when it comes to effective communication.

2. Know How to Interrupt

A general rule of thumb is that interrupting your partner is not helpful and only leads to conflict escalation.

However, if there is a time when you must pause the conversation to focus on a particular point, don’t default to rudeness or start talking over your partner. Rather, say, “Excuse me, you’re bringing up a really good point here. Could we explore that further?”

Frame the interruption as a question with the intent of furthering your understanding. This is productive and respectful, as opposed to interrupting with the goal of shutting your partner down by disagreeing or saying they’re wrong in their point of view.

3. “I” vs. “You” Statements

When it comes to misunderstandings with our partner, it’s easy to use language focused outward instead of inward. It can be easy to generalize, catastrophize, and minimize someone else’s behavior, too. Do you say things like:

  • You always do that!
  • You never listen to me!
  • Can’t you just stop for a moment?

Instead, use “I” statements to express what you are feeling. For example, “I feel disregarded when it seems what I have to say is not important. I need to feel that I’m heard, even if we disagree on this issue.”

Hear the difference?

Criticism of your partner is gone when “I” statements are present. You are speaking from your point of view and the emotions you are feeling. Be aware of the use of the word “you” during conflict, which can feel like criticism to your partner, and often results in the back-and-forth volley of defensiveness between the two of you.

This kind of approach helps your partner stay more open to what you have to say instead of feeling backed into a corner or accused by you.

4. Avoid the “Here We Go Again” Mentality

Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “Here we go again,” when talking with your partner? This refers to the repeated actions or speech your partner uses. Even just the fact that you are having another argument about the same old thing can bring this thought to mind.

“Here we go again” thinking causes you to mentally write your partner off before they have even had a chance to express themselves.

Think about it. If there is a theme that repeatedly comes up, perhaps it’s time you both really addressed it. To do this well, be willing to have an open mind when your partner brings up the perpetual issue. Ask questions. Be curious. Try to understand, even if you don’t agree.

5. Listen, Don’t Speak

The key to clear communication with your partner has less to do with speaking and more to do with listening. That means avoiding the temptation to jump in and “correct” your partner or talk over them.

Truly listening involves more than just opening your ears. It also means having an open heart.

When each of you opens up, real sharing and dialogue can occur. Otherwise, you are just fending each other off with your emotional walls and defenses. When that happens, emotional vulnerability is off the table, and little or no progress can be made

No one likes to feel misunderstood. However, there is a right and wrong way to go about creating clear communication and understanding. The wrong way means shutting yourself off, not listening to your partner, and being dismissive.
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Summer Hough, MA, LPC Intern works with couples and individuals, helping them to improve their relationships through improved communication skills. She sees clients at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin, a specialty practice helping couples, families, and individuals building and maintain positive and happy relationships. Contact Summer at 512-270-4883, ext. 110, or complete the form on the RCC Austin Scheduling page and request an appointment with her.

Healthy Relationships: When Is It Time to See a Couples Therapist?

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By Summer Hough, MA

Every couple can benefit from the nonjudgmental assistance of a couples therapist.

Transition periods in a relationship may be especially difficult for couples to manage on their own.

Changes are exciting. Moving in together, getting married, and starting a family are fun experiences. Changes like this are also very stressful.

Transitions trigger our fears. They show us our differences. Things that neither of you knew were an issue can arise and provoke problems.

A couples therapist can help you navigate the transitions with ease.

Counseling is beneficial before big changes occur. Continuing through transitions will help to navigate difficult times. Do you have any of the following big transitions coming up?

1. Moving in Together Has Unexpected Surprises

Living together offers many wonderful moments of domestic bliss. Cooking together, sharing a shower, and sleeping next to one another are cozy. A lot of intimacy opens up when you agree to share space with one another.

However, many issues also arise with moving in together. Couples may think they have a lot in common only to discover a big gap in the way each does everyday things. Things that can challenge your patience include:

  • Dividing chores
  • Balancing “together” and “alone” time
  • Adjusting to your partner’s sleep-wake cycle
  • Choosing when and how to communicate about issues

Counseling can help you set expectations before you move in together. Your couples therapist can point out common issues and help you discuss them. After the move, as new challenges arise, therapy can continue to support your growth as a couple.

2. Getting Married Creates New Challenges

Whether or not you live together first, marriage presents a new set of challenges for couples. Many people have underlying expectations of what a marriage is, and they mistakenly assume that their partners feel the same way.

Sometimes we, as individuals, haven’t even unearthed those issues for ourselves, so we can’t communicate them adequately. Our partners don’t live up to what we expect, and we feel disappointed. Individual and couples counseling help you define and discuss those expectations.

Pre-marital counseling is also important for sifting through major marriage issues. Many couples feel stress about combining finances. Other common stressors include where you will live, how you will deal with job changes, and what role your in-laws will play in your lives.

You can anticipate and cope with many of your marriage problems in advance. When new challenges arise, you’ll have the foundation that you need to discuss issues and deal with them productively.

3. Starting a Family Triggers New Fears

Having child brings up concerns for many people. You may experience triggers from your own childhood that you thought had been resolved long ago. These unprocessed events from an earlier time can put a big strain on a relationship.

Problems can arise long before the children are even in the picture. People have different ideas about when to have children, how many to have, and even how to have them (through adoption, for example).

It’s never too early to get help from a couples therapist in this area. Bring your fears and doubts into the therapy room. Work together to find ways to create a family that feels right to everyone involved.

Once you have children, they will provide you with many learning opportunities that further challenge your relationship. However, having done the work ahead of time, you and your partner will be better prepared to work through those issues. You won’t always be on the same page, but you’ll know how to get there together.

Sometimes problems in a relationship make it is obvious that you need to see a couples therapist. It is less obvious that you should go when things are going well for you and your partner. Still, notice the transitions in your lives, and don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help early on. You can get through challenging times with love and the tools to grow together.
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Summer Hough, MA, LPC Intern is a counselor at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. She helps couples, married and premarital, successfully navigate transitions in their relationships. To schedule an appointment with her, call 512-270-4883, ext. 110, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Marriage and Friendship: 4 Keys to Knowing Each Other Intimately

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By Roy Faget, MA

The one person that you should know best in life is your spouse. In fact, research shows that knowing your partner well and maintaining a deep and trusting friendship, is foundational to your relationship happiness. Marriage and friendship are closely linked.

Your spouse is your life-partner and the friend whom you can turn to at the times you need them the most.

Marriage, of course, is a lifelong journey. That means that the process of learning about your partner never ends as you grow together through the years.

No matter where you are in your marriage—whether it’s year 1 or 51!—there is always the chance to more intimately know one another.

Consider these four key ways to accomplish just that.

1. Spend Time Together

There is absolutely no substitute for spending time with each other. When you are first married, you spend a lot of time together as a couple. As time goes on it’s easy to drift into separate lanes.

When that happens, you lose the intimacy you once had. This is more than physical intimacy; it’s the emotional and spiritual closeness that you share together.

To spend more time enhancing your marriage and friendship together, consider these ideas:

  • Set aside 30 minutes each day to be together and catch up on each other’s day.
  • Go for walks together. This is especially useful if you have a pet that needs a daily walk (or two!).
  • Cook meals together.
  • Play music or dance with each other.
  • Spend a getaway day together where you go out and explore your community.
  • Exercise as a couple.
  • Pick up a new sport or hobby that you are both interested in.

Whether it’s a daily practice that takes a few minutes or getting away on vacation now and then, it’s important to spend time with each other and doing things together.

2. Have Meaningful Conversations

You and your partner probably spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other when you first started dating. Most likely, these were the kind of conversations where you both lost track of the time. Everything else fell by the wayside as you were drawn into each other.

Don’t let that disappear once you’re married. Instead, continue to have meaningful and thoughtful discussions. Ask your partner what their hopes and dreams are. Show concern if they have a newfound fear.

Relationships evolve over time, and so do people. What was true for your partner when you were dating may have changed by now. Make sure that you are both still on the same page and know what is going on in each other’s worlds.

3. Truly Listen to Each Other

Listening has become something a lost art in our modern, busy, stressed-out world. Yet, it is such an important and key element for knowing each other intimately. How can you possibly know your partner if you don’t pay attention and listen?

Listening intently requires you to slow down and to focus your attention—not on yourself, but on your partner. Take in what they have to say and let it absorb into your mind and heart. Try to relate and connect with what they are feeling and experiencing.

Listen to understand your partner, not to give advice or fix a problem they are sharing with you. Validate the feelings and emotions they are sharing with you. Be curious about what is going on for them.

Listening also means paying attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication. If you can be attuned to both forms of communication, you will be much closer to knowing one another intimately.

4. Laugh Together

The fourth key to intimately knowing your partner is laughter and humor. When you laugh you are releasing endorphins, which affect your mood. You feel more relaxed, accepting, and present.

Imagine what happens when both of you are laughing together. You are both sharing a common experience that is positive, satisfying, and enjoyable. Let’s face it, laughing is just fun!

Knowing what makes your partner laugh can help when times get tough or you need to blow off steam. Sharing a laugh can truly help. Remember, it’s those little events that occur in your life that create a strong foundation for not just a friendship—but a marriage.

The key to a happy marriage and friendship is no big secret. Marriage and friendship are paired  qualities that have stood the test of time.

Don’t allow the busy-ness and stress of everyday life to get in the way of having a strong marriage and friendship.  It’s never too late to put these four key elements into action to create a stronger, more intimate, and consistently caring relationship.
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Roy Faget, MA, is a marriage and family therapist associate and licensed professional counselor intern at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. Contact Roy if you and your partner are looking for assistance to revive friendship and intimacy in your relationship. He can be reached at 512-270-4883, ext. 109, or request an appointment with him on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

5 Affirmations Happy Couples Give Each Other Often

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By Jill Baumgarner, MA

We are regularly bombarded with images and messages about “true love.” They all seem to add to something like this:

  • You have one true soul mate out there
  • When you meet, it’s love at first sight
  • From there, well… it’s happily ever after

Sure, this is an oversimplification but, by how much? Each of us, through no fault of our own, get some very unproductive messages about relationships. Movies, books, and social media often present us with the image of what a relationship should be. This can result in big problems when real life doesn’t follow the fairytale script.

There is a very basic, yet powerful way to counter the “true love hype” in this age of social media, memes, and smartphones. What is it?

Affirmations!

What is an Affirmation?

An affirmation is defined as a positive assertion.                   

An affirmation is a conscious act. It is a mindful statement of truth.

We each have anywhere from 150 to 300 thoughts per minute. Most of the tens of thousands of thoughts we have daily are subconscious. The majority of these are negative, and most of the time we are not even aware of our negative cognitions. When we begin to pay attention and choose to mindfully be aware of the ticker tape of thoughts going on in our mind, we can then counter the negative thoughts with positive affirmations that are more helpful.

While everything else ricochets around your brain, an affirmation has a calming effect. It provides much-needed certainty among the many conflicting thoughts. Affirmations are helpful in relationship terms, as well as in individual. A steady practice of giving your partner and your relationship positive affirmations feels like a strong foundation against the changing, unpredictable winds.

When we affirm ourselves, our partner, and our relationship, we absorb the positivity. We feel it. We mean it.  We live it.

5 Affirmations Happy Couples Give Each Other Often

1. Our lines of communications are always open and always open to change.

Healthy communication is a foundational part of a happy relationship. Remember that good communication is a process — not a destination.

2. I love you as you are.

Too often, we stack up our partner against other people. Even worse, perhaps, is when we stack our partner up against some future version of them. We can love our partner as they are — while also supporting them as they evolve and grow.

3. I take responsibility for my words and actions.

No more defensiveness and passive-aggressive deflection. We will think before we act and speak and after we act and speak. If we make a mistake, we will repair that mistake and take responsibility for it.

4. I forgive when necessary and I apologize when necessary.

Hard times will happen. The goal is never perfection. When navigating rough waters, we will handle the struggle with maturity, grace, and love.

5. My respect and trust are unwavering.

No matter how our connection evolves — even if that connection dramatically shifts — respect and trust is non-negotiable. These are guiding principles for all our actions.

There’s Something Else Happy Couples Do

Leave nothing to chance. Accepting that sometimes you may need a bit of help is another way to affirm yourself, your partner, and your relationship.

Individually and as a couple, we must accept that sometimes we do better if we get outside help and support. This may mean reading books on healthy relationships, attending a workshop or weekend retreat for couples, or seeing a couples counselor. Reaching out for help with your relationship doesn’t mean your relationship is failing, it affirms that your relationship is important to you and you want to make it better and happier for you both.

The patterns we develop over time often mask what we choose not to see. To stay a “happy couple” means we must sometimes face some “unhappy” truths. We identify them, address them, and do the work to make different choices. All in all, there’s no other affirmation that shows love more clearly.
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Jill Baumgarner is a licensed professional counselor intern with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. If you and your partner want to find new ways to affirm your relationship, contact Jill at 512-270-4883, ext. 108, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Don't Agree? Can't Relate? How You Can Gain More Empathy For Others

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Are you having trouble relating to others? Understanding your partner and other loved ones? Communicating with your coworkers? Have you started to wonder whether you might be the common denominator in your relationship misunderstandings?

Every relationship comes with its unique set of challenges but relating to others shouldn’t feel foreign. Cultivating more empathy will enhance your relationships and encourage you to forge strong connections with other people. Use the following tools to increase your empathy levels and build successful relationships.

Immerse yourself in fiction

Immersing yourself in fictional stories can be incredibly beneficial in cultivating more empathy. Reading books and watching television shows or movies allow us to explore the lives of others. When we embark on these fictional journeys, we form attachments to characters, begin to see the world through their eyes, and walk a while in their shoes. Engaging in the fictional lives of characters is almost like practicing for “the real thing” – the more you cultivate your imagination, the more you cultivate your ability to empathize.

Practice active listening

Do you find yourself listening just to solve an immediate problem? Does partner accuse you of constantly interrupting or cutting them off? Do you hear this from your friends and family, too? This might be because you don’t give them the opportunity to fully express themselves.

When we don’t truly listen to another person, it’s impossible to empathize with them. Next time you find yourself in an argument or discussion with a loved one, practice listening without interruption. To gain full comprehension, repeat back to them what you understand about their wants and needs. You can resolve conflict more efficiently and build stronger connections when you listen for understanding.

Don’t shy away from curiosity  

Don’t be scared to ask questions when you meet new people, or to obtain a deeper understanding of someone you already feel close to. The more you inquire about the people you meet, the more easily you’ll see things from a variety of perspectives. Being curious decreases judgment while increasing empathy.

Step outside of your comfort zone

The more places you visit, the more people you’ll meet. The more questions you ask, the more expansive your worldview will be. Try stepping outside of your comfort zone and helping people you wouldn’t normally find yourself interacting with.

Instead of living inside of your own bubble, step into a new environment and devote your energy to another person. Remember that, ultimately, we all carry biases, and that it’s important to question them. Challenge these biases to empathize more with one another.

Empathy takes practice, and while some of us carry this trait more naturally than others, we can all benefit from cultivating it.  
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Contact the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin for scheduling at 512-270-4883, or request an appointment online on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Relationship Recess: Why Playing Together Promotes Staying Together

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By Sarah Wilson, PhD

For most kids, playing together at recess is the best part of the school day.

They can let down their guard, give their brain a break, and allow their muscles to work out pent-up tension.

As an adult, you don’t have recess like you did when you were a kid. But you can still steal away from life to enjoy a little playtime. Especially with your partner.

In fact, making “recess” a part of your relationship routine can actually strengthen your bond.

Here’s how.

Keeps You from Getting Bored

Couples often report that they divorce or end their relationship because they have grown apart or have gone in different directions. Relationship boredom may play a big role in this distancing.

Boredom often leads to dissatisfaction and dissatisfaction can lead to breaking up.

To safeguard your relationship from the downfall of boredom, infuse some pep into your routine.

For example, consider trying a new restaurant, maybe an ethnic food that neither of you have tried before. Or, plan a miniature golf outing with your partner. You can even go all-in and learn a new hobby or skill by taking a class together. How about dance lessons, a new language, or an exercise class?

The goal of trying new things isn’t to win or be the best, even if you’re super competitive. It’s to laugh and have fun together. Plus, the actual activity isn’t nearly as important as the attitude in which you participate.

Helps to Bridge the Good Feeling Gap

Humans work in a unique way, associating feelings with things and activities. You might associate grocery shopping with the feeling of urgency. Or, connect contentment to watching your favorite movie.

Playing together with your partner will provide the same sort of connectivity.

When you enjoy the activity you’re doing together, you experience good feelings. Your amazing brain will connect those good feelings to your relationship in general.

Essentially, doing fun and novel things together gives you both a rush of positivity. In turn, this positive rush washes over your relationship and covers you both in optimism and good feelings and emotions.

All these good feelings can help you resolve conflict more effectively, too.

Promotes Happiness in General

Trucking through the same routine day after day can eventually wear on you. Routine is good, and you may thrive on it, but everyone needs a bit of variety in their lives. Especially in our relationships with our partners. We need arousal and stimulation.

Not only can a new activity stimulate brain cells that are stuck on autopilot, but it can make you feel genuinely happy.

You might not be absolutely enamored with the activity itself. More than anything, though, a new activity can spark a flame that is at risk of fizzling out.

Unsurprisingly, this overall feeling of happiness often spills over into your relationship. When you are a happier person, you tend to be more pleasant and more satisfied with your partner.

It’s a Win/Win for Both of You

Starting out, establishing a fun relationship recess might seem too activity-focused. Meaning, you are both more concerned with enjoying the activity than enjoying each other.

Here’s the thing about a relationship recess, it has little to do with the actual activity. As mentioned before, it’s not the activity that makes the difference. It’s the spirit behind it.

Ultimately, it’s a win/win for both of you. Even if one of you isn’t a huge fan of the activity. And although your partner may “win” in convincing you to try something new, and vice versa, both of you are champions.

By playing together, you’re creating emotional intimacy and cultivating an intense connection.

You might even find yourself saying, “I never thought I’d be doing this!” And in the next breath, discovering you’re really having a great time.

Plus, the beaming smile on your partner’s face will be worth it.
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Do you and your partner need some help putting the "fun" back into your relationship? Dr. Sarah Wilson, LMFT Associate, can help you develop strategies and goals to bring the spark back to your relationship. Contact her at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin at 512-270-4883, ext. 104, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

Fight Fairly: Do You Know How to Do It? Take These Steps

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Some couples seem to have continual conflict while others want to avoid it at all costs. Other couples fall somewhere in the middle of the conflict spectrum. While intimidating and uncomfortable, conflict is an inevitable part of any healthy relationship. The key is to fight fairly when you and your partner have conflict. Take these steps to fight fairly and have more productive arguments:

Stay relevant

Try to avoid “kitchen sink” arguments where you throw in “everything and the kitchen sink.” This tactic is a defense mechanism and only serves to escalate conflict. It is not productive and won’t lead to a successful conclusion. If your fight is about finances, stick to finances. Don’t include in-law issues, parenting problems, or anything else if that’s not what your argument is about. Leave the past out of it as well, and don’t rely on generalizations about your partner’s character. Resolve the issue at hand and if something else crops up, agree to set it aside, and address it separately at another time.

Don’t interrupt

When a fight gets heated, it can quickly escalate into a screaming match where you both want the last word. Instead of viewing your conflict as something negative, try seeing it as a conversation where both of you have the same goal – to understand one another. Let your partner speak without interruption and ensure they allow you to do the same. Take turns and listen to understand your partner, not to formulate your rebuttal or response. Instead of interrupting and interjecting comments to get your point across while your partner is speaking, wait your turn and converse with them as you would outside of a conflict situation.

Attack the problem, not your partner

View the fight as a conversation with the same end goal. To fight fairly means, rather than attacking your partner, you work together to tackle the problem. Remember your partner is not the problem. Accept that it takes two people to have a conflict. Your partner may contribute to the problem at hand, but they are not the sole cause of the situation. Realize that you may be at fault, as well. Be willing to own your part. When you begin to play the blame game, your partner will shut down or play it right back. Blaming, criticizing, and returning a defensive response, will not get to the root of resolution or compromise.

Be open, be honest

When stating your wants and needs in a relationship conflict, be completely open and honest, and speak with kindness. Don’t expect your partner to assume what you want or need from them. Yes, sometimes you must clearly communicate your needs. Your partner is not a mind-reader. Remember, to communicate what you DO want and need. DO NOT list the things you are not getting from your partner and expect them to figure out what you do want. If you’re a people pleaser, try challenging yourself to be vulnerable and truthful to get your needs met. Alternatively, ensure you allow your partner to do the same. Ask and genuinely listen to your partner’s wants and needs without being presumptuous. Ask questions and be curious to be sure you are understanding your partner. Just as they may not realize what you need from them, you may not realize what they need from you.

Watch your body language

Actions speak louder than words. Regardless of what you’re saying, it won’t matter unless your body language matches. Kind words uttered through clenched teeth don’t add up. Your body language will carry more weight in that situation. Don’t roll your eyes, act exasperated, make huge sighs, and scoff or laugh-off what your partner has to say. Eye-rolling, scoffing, sarcasm, and laughing-off something are all signs of contempt toward your partner, a dangerous road to go down during conflict or at any time. Focus on your tone of voice, even try to talk in a lower level than you normally would. Arguments that involve sarcasm or passive aggression are almost always counterproductive.

Compromise

Relationships require compromise, and even during times of conflict. Compromise is about listening and engaging in respectful dialogue. Compromise is not about giving in or giving up to avoid or end a disagreement. You and your partner certainly don’t have to agree all the time, but you each need to, at least, seek to understand the other’s point of view. Research shows that two-thirds of a couple’s conflict is about unresolvable problems. This is the reason learning to compromise and continuing dialogue is so important to a successful relationship. You will likely compromise over and again on the same topics of disagreement in your relationship. Similarly, if you realize that you were wrong, put your pride aside, and own your part of what is going on between you and your partner; stay humble and apologize when you know you’re at fault.

You don’t have to agree with everything your partner says or does, and disagreeing does not mean you love them any less. So often we view conflict as something scary or negative when it’s a healthy part of any relationships. The key is to learn to have conflict and disagreement in a way that is productive and doesn’t harm your relationship. Continue to maintain a healthy and balanced relationship by learning to fight fairly and reframing your view of conflict.
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Linda Ramsey, MA, a counselor at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin, helps couples learn to communicate effectively and productively even during times of conflict. Do you and your partner need some help with this? Contact Linda at 512-270-4883, ext. 106, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

How Healthy Boundaries Provide Just the Right Amount of Distance to Connect You

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Navigating close relationships can be tricky.

Especially close relationships with family members.  Often, you come together for winter holidays, graduations, baby showers or other milestones. And all you want is to gather for some low-conflict, person-to-person bonding. One big happy family. But before long, you may find that your family experiences what many others do.

Your father inevitably crosses a line at the Labor Day barbecue, your sister betrays a confidence at Christmas dinner, or your mother-in-law becomes a critic at your daughter’s June wedding. And eventually, your family’s gatherings become an experiment in all the ways you can get on each other’s nerves.

Why?

What’s blocking the path to family harmony?

Honestly, lots of personalities exist in families. Everyone has a shared history but there are also many individual hang-ups, opinions, issues, and backstories at play.

Sometimes the lack of boundaries creates enmeshed family units that have a hard time dealing with each other, unless they are all thinking the same way and deeply connected to the status quo. Other families guilt and blame each other (or certain members) for the trials of the entire group. Still, others maintain a hostile or disrespectful environment despite attempts to come together.

You don’t really need to manage all of that. However, a strong grasp on healthy boundaries could help you manage your own expectations and enjoy your family as much as possible.

Healthy Boundaries: what they are and how they can make your relationships better

Healthy boundaries? No doubt you’ve heard of them. They sound really good to most people.

Limits and parameters seem just the thing to help keep the peace and to promote the harmony you long for, especially in some of your more trying relationships.

“So, great,” you think, let’s “set some boundaries.” Easy, right?

Maybe. But if you’re like so many people who’ve grown up in families that made do without them, then setting firm boundaries may be a foreign concept.

That’s okay. With some loving persistence and knowledgeable guidance, boundaries can help you and yours relate confidently with ongoing connection rather than conflict as the primary goal.

  • What do healthy boundaries do exactly?

The beauty of setting boundaries is that they help you maintain personal values, respect, and emotional safety.

Sometimes families think the blood connection means anything goes. No punches are pulled. Too much is said. But that perspective can lead to families that become more and more toxic, damaged, or distant as time goes on.

Healthy boundaries can be relationship life preservers, keeping you safe in a flood of family upset, drama, or undue influence. Holding to your heathy boundaries will still allow you to reach out and maintain those relationships that are important to you.

  • What healthy boundaries are not

Keep in mind, too, healthy boundaries are not about making demands, power struggles, punishment, or shaming each other into compliance or silence. Limits in relationships aren’t concrete walls meant to stop you from connecting. They are more like hedges or picket fences that invite conversation and interaction, with just enough separation between you to make you think about whether it’s wise to enter another person’s space and prevent trampling each other’s values.

If the boundaries are respected, the hedges can stay low. If not, boundaries afford you a safe point of negotiation. You can clearly decide the nature of your relationship and interaction going forward.

Many couples, siblings, blended families, and groups of in-laws discover that scheduling some time with an objective, experienced family therapist or counselor is advantageous as you work to become more aware of the parameters you want to set in your relationships. Learning to recognize and honor the limits of relationships makes the entire family feel safe with their histories honored and their needs respected.

Healthy boundaries work if you remain curious, compassionate, and cooperative

In addition to tuning into what respectful, comfortable boundaries look like, you’ll become more capable of recognizing boundary breeches addressing them, and handling relationship repair without creating a lot of drama in your family. This holds true in your other relationships, as well. 

How? Healthy boundaries require promotion, protection, and encouragement of the individual, as well as the collective. Why have a family reunion if uniting feels emotionally exhausting or unsafe?

  • Stay curious. Ask questions and listen to each other. Does everyone feel valued and accepted? Is there manipulation, aggression, or resentment among you? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?
  • Setting healthy boundaries takes some courage and awareness. You’ll need to be brave enough to change the status quo and vulnerable enough to ask for cooperation.
  • Setting boundaries is tough work sometimes. You may have to bite your tongue at times to honor each other’s choices. Boundaries may need to allow for less family tradition and more individuality. Negotiated guidelines may need to address how to best deal with unacceptable behavior in the most loving way possible.

Most of all, boundaries allow everyone to take care of themselves and to be themselves, without pressure to accept behaviors or situations that are personally intolerable or becoming part of a mind-meld that doesn’t meet your needs. 
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Are you ready to put healthy boundaries in place in your relationships? Are there other changes you would like to make in your relationships? Linda Ramsey, MA, is a licensed professional counselor intern and licensed marriage and family therapist associate with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. She works with couples and families to help them building and maintain healthy connections. If you are seeking support and guidance as you establish healthy boundaries for yourself, contact Linda at 512-270-4883, ext. 106, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.

Always Ranting and Reacting? How to Ensure More Effective Communication in Your Relationships

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By Carlene Lehmann, MA

While effective communication may come easily for some, it is far more difficult for others.

What about you?

Does it seem that communicating with others is increasingly difficult and disrespectful? Do your disagreements feel less like interacting and more like overreacting? Are your rants making their way into your everyday conversations more and more?

You’re not alone. Communication can be tough for many of us, especially when our emotions take over.

What gets in the way?

Communication is often complex because the way information is shared varies from person to person, depending on a variety of factors. The unique nature of our relationships, our family of origin, our pasts, our circumstances, our communication styles, as well as our emotional needs, impact how we communicate. Moreover, a lot of this happens under the surface, in split seconds, without our awareness. And maybe, too often, adversely affects what we say and how we say it.

Learning to be a more effective, compassionate, and respectful communicator might be one of the best investments you make in yourself.

Finding ways to tune into your own issues and needs while employing proven, effective communication tools is vital. You can fulfill your need to be heard and understood while capably influencing and engaging the people in your life.

So, instead of unproductively ranting or overreacting, consider using these communication tools:

Be an active listener

Effective communication is a two-way street; you can’t be a good communicator by insisting on being the only one speaking. You need to find a happy medium of give and take in a conversation.

Finding a way to really tune in is crucial because listening demonstrates respect and self-control. It honors the other person’s point of view and their right to speak without being dismissed, interrupted, or shut down.

However, be aware, active listening is not quietly waiting to speak. Active listening is not simply hearing the other person’s words. Active listening is not formulating your response while the other person talks. It means ensuring you understand the message the other person is trying to relay.

Active listening involves hearing the import of what is being communicated to you, asking questions for clarity (not debate), summarizing what you think they mean, and asking if you have the correct understanding before responding with your own thoughts.

Focus on your nonverbal communication

What you don’t say is just as important as what you do, so it’s important that your actions and behaviors match your words. Try to establish rapport and connection with your body. Lean in, look at the person speaking in an interested and open manner, relax your body, nod in understanding.

Avoid rolling your eyes, shrugging, and folding your arms. These communicate disrespect, disinterest, or even disdain. Communication is meant to connect not create distance. Be careful to show that you want to do more than make your own point. Signal that you are willing to be fully present and engaged physically and mentally.

Take responsibility for your reactions

Effective communicators are responsive rather than reactive. Take charge of the way you behave and reply to others. Don’t allow someone else’s differing, offensive, defensive, or divisive position to determine your ability to communicate well.

You own your responses and you are responsible for your reactions. When you practice self-control and mindful awareness you can slow down the temptation to react without thinking.  If you’re feeling attacked or overwhelmed, it’s okay to take a step back from the conversation and temper your response with introspection. Then, reconvene when you feel emotionally grounded and able to hear and share effectively.

Be clear and concise

When you state your needs, it’s crucial to be as straightforward as possible. Do your best to leave little room for interpretation so that the other person thoroughly understands your intentions. If you’re having a difficult conversation, it can be intimidating to state your needs with this much vulnerability. However, misunderstanding can keep you and your conversation partner from ensuring your needs are met and impede vulnerability in future interactions.

Just as you would want the whole truth when you’re listening, do all you can to present the full picture when you’re speaking.

Agree with the feelings, if not the perceived facts

It’s not your responsibility to agree with everything that’s presented to you in a conversation. Conflict happens. You and your friend, sibling, parent, spouse, co-worker, etc. won’t always see eye-to-eye. That is totally okay. Instead of agreeing with the facts, try relating to the feelings.

For instance, you don’t have to sanction their conclusions, but you should try to understand the feelings and emotions. You don’t have to agree with the position of your partner, family, friends, or co-workers, but simply try to understand and voice compassion. You may share similar feelings of concern with the topic being discussed. Start there.

The factors contributing to your opinions don’t have to be agreed upon, but normal, human feelings can provide common ground.

Effective communication is vital for a happier, more connected life.

If you don’t feel confident in the way you communicate with others, you can take steps that can lead to more effective communication skills. Read books or watch videos on effective communication and improving listening skills. Join a group that works to improve speaking and leadership skills. Or, seek guidance from a professional who can help you uncover your communication weaknesses and support you as you learn new tools and skills for effective communication in all your relationships.
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Carlene Lehmann, MA, is a marriage and family therapist associate at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. She helps couples and individuals learn effective communication skills, emotion regulation skills, and how to improve relationships with partners, family, friends, and co-workers. Contact her at 512-270-4883, ext. 105, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.