ERP 108: What Most Couples Do That Creates Problems [Transcript]

ERP 108: What Most Couples Do That Creates Problems

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 108 – What Most Couples Do That Creates Problems.

Before we get started, I just wanna take a moment and say I have missed you! I have been thinking about you a ton. I know that I have not published an episode in the last couple weeks. Some of you know that my husband and I recently moved… Still in Santa Barbara, just a different home, and that has taken a lot of time and energy. We also had family visiting, and really wanted to just be available to them.

Also, I’ve been calibrating… Calibrating my offerings to you and how I’m serving you. If you’re on my e-mail list, you may have received an e-mail from me. I did e-mail everyone, but a lot of the times e-mails don’t actually reach your inbox unless you white-label them or let your e-mail server know “I want this e-mail.”

I’m sure many of you get a lot of e-mails from a lot of people, so I totally get it if that’s not of interest to you. But if you are on my e-mail list, I have recently reached out to you to hear about your biggest relationship complaints. I’m calibrating my podcast episodes, as well as curriculum that I’m providing to you to go deeper with these principles.

Essentially, that curriculum is gonna be offered to you in the way of programs that address your particular pain points, that give you the container, the support and the guidance to take steps with some of these insights. I know that when we read a book or we listen to a talk, we might get certain aha’s or insights, and what I know is that if we don’t create a space for practice, or an opportunity to implement, then it becomes something that is sometimes entertainment, to be frank.

I have a mentor that says “Inspiration without action is merely entertainment”, and that’s by Mary Morrissey… The notion of entertaining the intellect with these different concepts that might give us great insight and understanding and awareness, and she’s talking about if we don’t actually do something with it, that it can be just more entertainment, or fantasy, or just musings. But for us to create change and really live from a different place does take practice.

So if you’re new to this show, I just want to kind of round out the intention for what I’m really trying to hold a space for on these podcasts, in my e-mail articles and curriculum/programs that I offer – it’s for you to feel supported and guided to practice the relationship principles that help grow you, help grow your relationship, and that is both in the expansive, creating more intimacy and joy and connection and love, to expand the possibility for that, as well as to build the tolerance to confront some of the more painful, scary, insecure, tender places… So that we can have courage, authenticity and humility and vulnerability to look at those places in ourselves as well as support that space in the relationship.

While basically I’m articulating the high and the low of long-term intimacy, I also wanna note that in my experience those two ends of the spectrum – the highs and the lows – are not that disconnected. When we go into more of a static state, we might actually feel sorrow or grief; or when we’re in deep states of loss or pain or grief, we can actually have moments of grace. It’s the human experience that I’m inviting us to be more honest about and open about. We’re all in this together.

If you’ve listened to my show, you hear me talk about myself, and I’ve been practicing these principles for a long time, and it doesn’t alleviate me from doing the work; I’m on this path, like you are… I just have a little more belief and a little more confidence that it works.

So that’s the intention of this show – to give you the support, give you the guidance for navigating intimacy with these highs and these lows, and the real opportunity in my mind – it’s all about the evolution and the growing of ourselves and our relationship, and one of the most beautiful ways that I know to grow is in intimacy. It provides a mirror to us like no other. Our partner will show us and activate those tender spots that we might not look at otherwise. Okay, so I’m getting really wrapped up in the intention of this show… But again, I just wanna appreciate you guys for staying with me and just giving me some space to calibrate around my next moves.

I’ve actually had several podcasts that I’ve been working on that are in process, and I also have several experts that I’m scheduling for interviews, and I have some really great curriculum that I’m creating for particular pain points, and that’s from some of you who have responded to my e-mail about what your biggest complaints are. If you would like to e-mail me, you can still do that.

My e-mail is jessica@drjessicahiggins.com, and I would love to hear from you. I would love to hear what pains you the most, what you would like support in and where you get hooked, where you get stuck, where you get maybe even paralyzed in fear or closed and collapsed around not knowing how to move forward, again, in the landscape of intimacy, that grows us and our relationship. I look forward to hearing from you if you are inspired to reach out to me.

Today’s episode is 108 – What Most Couples Do That Create Problems. Most of us – myself included – will have the tendency to solve our concern through our partner. I just said a moment ago that our partner will often be a mirror to us, where they’re reflecting back ourselves – the pain points or the tender spots or insecurities, but we don’t often know that what we’re really taking issue with is our reflection. We attempt to address our concern by reaching to our partner, by trying to change them. “If you would just be on time, we wouldn’t have any issues!” or “If you would use a kinder tone of voice, we would be fine.”

Some of our complaints – on a side note – are absolutely legitimate, but what I wanna turn your attention to is the charge and the juice that’s getting activated in you, and I’m gonna use some examples here. But again, I wanna just say, bigger picture, a lot of us, when we feel triggered by something that our partner does, we tend to spend a tremendous amount of time looking at the error of their ways, so much so that that’s often what propels us when we seek support, right? “Here’s a third person that can see clearly how my partner needs work in this area. This is not their area of strength and they definitely need support to grow in this area, and if they did grow, we would be better, I wouldn’t have the issues that I have.”

I see this when I am working with couples… That’s almost as if they’re pleading their case to me. They are demonstrating and illustrating their complaint about their partner, and most often what I tend to do is turn the attention inward, and we’re gonna talk about that a little bit today… Because I’m more interested in what’s going on underneath, what that complaint brings up for the person that I’m working with. I’m gonna talk a little bit more about this, and there’s a couple of reasons why I do this… I’ll just give you some short version here.

Most of the time we’re not paying attention to our inner process, so we might even be oblivious to the pain that we’re experiencing. If we’re making it about our partner, and really preoccupied with trying to help them along, or wanting them to see the error, and we’re all wrapped up in them, we might have no idea what’s really going on and what’s really vulnerable that needs attention… Actually, that’s the real juice, that’s what’s asking for attention, that’s the need there, that’s the flag that’s getting raised. It’s like “I’m scared” or “I’m hurting.”

If we’re preoccupied with our partner, we are not giving any space or credence to that, what’s going on inside. Then the second reason is our partner is usually not gonna be very receptive to our critique. They most likely will take issue or feel offended or feel on the defense, because we’re looking at it from a particular lens. We’re basically trying to point out something that’s wrong, and we’re doing it from a lens of like “If you would be different, we would be fine” and they’re feeling that pressure often times.

So usually, they’re gonna disagree with you because they have other ways of seeing it, and they’re gonna probably feel misunderstood because it doesn’t fully encapsulate their experience, it’s not resonating with them, because it’s from your lens… And they most likely will think it’s unfair, and they just won’t lean into that. They’ll wanna push back against that.

I’m not gonna go so much into the interaction today. I wanna stay with the tendency to point the finger, whether or not that’s through criticism, blame or just being upset with your partner.

Recently, I actually had an experience of this myself. I mentioned that we had family visiting – this was a few weeks ago. It was actually my brother and his girlfriend, and I was very excited to spend time with them. This was the first time my brother had been to Santa Barbara, so I was really just wanting to give him the Santa Barbara experience.

Those of you that are not familiar with this area – it’s interesting… They call Santa Barbara “the American Riviera.” It’s similar to the French Riviera – the climate, the terrain… They say the feel of the climate is very similar.

So it’s a pretty Mediterranean climate most of the year; it’s pretty mild and warm, and it’s usually very beautiful here. Well, during May and June, they call it “May gray” and “June gloom” because it’s typically overcast and kind of gray and gloomy, really often in the morning, and then sometimes it burns off, but sometimes it’s still kind of got the hazy, gray, gloomy feel to it.

They came during this time, and it’s unfortunate, because a lot of the places that we wanted to take them have really beautiful views of the ocean, and I kept saying “Oh gosh, just imagine a bright, blue ocean” and my brother was like “Enough already with the ocean!” He was just enjoying being with us and the things and activities we were doing, and yet I was still very much wrapped up in — I wanted him to have the idyllic visit. That’s the context and the backdrop for this interaction that I had.

So it’s my brother, his girlfriend, my husband and I, and we are up at the Santa Barbara Mission, which is a beautiful historic Spanish-style church that also has a lawn, a big garden across the street with roses, a rose garden, and typically overlooks the ocean from a distance and usually it’s really beautiful, but this particular day you couldn’t actually see the ocean.

The week before there had been a chalk art festival, so there were all these artists’ chalk art on the pavement. We were walking around, looking at all the art, and I was feeling somewhat like the hostess or the responsible — like, I wanna provide this experience for my brother and his girlfriend during her visit; I was thinking ahead around “Okay, should we think about making dinner plans?” I think it was about 5:30… A little early, sure, but I wanted to kind of decide, did we wanna go to a brewery, or a winery, because I know my brother and his girlfriend would have enjoyed that.

So I was kind of mentioning the idea of “Should we start thinking about dinner?” and my husband giggled and made a joke, and my brother very much chimed in on it around that I tend to think about food quite a lot. I do have a strong appetite and I think my metabolism is pretty high, and so I’m usually ready to eat… [laughs] Which I totally get.

At this particular moment I felt like it was really appropriate… And I think I was a little more sensitive; I think I was PMS-ing, so hormonally there could have been a factor there… But also, as I said, I was a little attached to wanting to do the best I could to make this visit really nice for them. And my feelings got hurt, and I just felt like my husband was making fun of me a little bit, and I felt slightly embarrassed, and I don’t know why it struck a chord in me. I just was like, “You know, my intentions were really good” and I just felt like they were all kind of teasing me, and I just felt sensitive at the moment.

Usually, I have a pretty thick skin, or I tend to be able to laugh at myself too, but for some reason it just hit me weird. So we kind of stayed with the conversation a little bit, and it seemed as though my brother and his girlfriend were really interested in getting a dip in and swim, and maybe wash up before having dinner.

My husband and I now live about three blocks from an access to the beach, so they were interested in going back and maybe taking a swim. It was 5:30 and my brother was thinking “Oh, how nice it would be to have a sunset closer to the beach, or take a dip and have it be sunset…” He’s also with his newish girlfriend and wanting to enjoy the scenery and have romance with her, which I really get and totally was supportive of.

So I really kind of put my hands up and was like, “Okay, not [unintelligible 00:18:04.12] We don’t need to make any specific plans for dinner” and we kind of moseyed back and strolled back to the car, and it took us about 15 minutes to get home… So all in all it was like 30 minutes from when I initiated the conversation about having dinner to when we got home, and my brother, as we drive up to the drive way, he’s like “I hate to admit it, but I’m actually hungry” and I was like, “Oh, gosh…”

I knew my husband was gonna be hungry too, so we all started snacking and it ended up being fine. They ended up going down and swam, and then they came back and we talked, and we had a great evening together.

What I wanna just underscore here is that I was churning inside a little bit. It impacted me, I felt hurt, I felt a little distant from my husband… He had stepped on my toes a little and I was bristling about it, and I was thinking about it even more. I told you guys periodically my husband and I have a consistent standing appointment to get our own support. It’s really preventative, there’s nothing that we’re really feeling concerned about; it’s more to give space for us to be in practice together and look at is there anything that we wanna clear with one another or have attention around? So in my mind I was like, “Oh, I’m glad we have a session planned, because I’ve got a bone to pick with him.” I was kind of huffy in my mind about “This isn’t fair!” He enjoys and actually wants to eat – usually when I do – and if I’m putting energy into something, he usually appreciates it… And stylistically we’re a little different. I tend to put a little more energy into something, I tend to try too hard or I just wanna do my very best, where he might prioritize low stress, simplicity, efficiency and ease. There’s a benefit to both styles, but this is sometimes where we might feel some tension.

So I was kind of feeling like “This isn’t fair, and my timing wasn’t that far off!” Everybody was hungry when I thought maybe people would be, and I was feeling somewhat responsible in the sense of providing the experience as being a hostess, and my husband was kind of pushing back, and like I said, I felt like he kind of stepped on my toes. I was thinking “This doesn’t feel good”, and I think partly my ego was bruised because it was my brother and his girlfriend… Silly, but wanting to feel held in a positive light; I was feeling protective about the positive space.

I think I might have been a little too attached, but I definitely was in this vein of “My husband’s got an issue here. He’s giving me mixed messages, he takes issue, he fights me, but then he actually does like it. I don’t enjoy that. What’s up with that?!” In my mind, I was already looking for examples that I could articulate and demonstrate how this — I don’t think I’m doing the best job articulating it now, because I don’t feel as emotional about it; I worked through it and I’m about to tell you how… But at the time I actually had some real legitimate and I felt very justified for my complaint, and I was very focused on him and how this didn’t make sense. I think I even had probed at him a couple of times, like “How is this [unintelligible 00:21:56.09]?” I was kind of challenging him a little bit, but I was not really paying attention to the fact that I was having some trigger, I was having some emotion.

Okay, so let me pause there. This day was Saturday… The night before, my husband and I and a couple of friends had gone to an event where Gay and Katie Hendricks – or Kathleen Hendricks; that’s usually her published name, but most people call her Katie… Katie has actually been an expert interview, I have had her as a guest on this show, and I love their work. They have been in the field for I think 30-40 years and they’ve been leading workshops, and I love their work. I’ll post their website, which is the Hendricks Institute.

One of their most popular books is Conscious Loving, and they have a new recent book out… So I’ll put their information on the show notes. Again, just a little direction – the show notes can be found on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, and you can find all the episodes listed there; just click on whatever episode you’re interested in, and that will open up the show notes. Down at the bottom you’ll see a section that says Mentioned and you’ll see the links there.

Okay, so Gay and Katie Hendricks were doing a keynote talk. I love them, I love their energy, I love the principles that they talk about, and one of the things they’re really big in and I love – it’s not something that is specific to them… I talk a lot about curiosity and wonder, but their particular style around it is really cute and playful and fun.

They’re basically pointing out that in relationship we could have the tendency to point the finger or to take issue, similar to what I’m talking about right now, and they talk about the real important step of looking at ourselves, which I’m also talking about. I’ll share with you one of the fun ways that they do this…

They really invite the voice, and if you’ve listened to Katie’s interview on this show, you heard her talk about this. It’s a “Hmmmm…” It’s the humming, with the vibration of real wonder. If I’m struggling with this instance, with this interaction my husband where he teased me and it felt like it was a little bit at my expense, in front of my brother and his girlfriend, and I felt hurt by that… So I could wanna point the finger at him, and if I am doing their particular style of this, I would look at myself here. So the invitation is to look at the situation, turn the attention to the self – or to myself in this situation – and wonder “What’s going on in me? What’s wanting attention?” or “What’s wanting to be expressed?”, with the “Hmmm…?” I know it seems silly, but they really talk a lot about just getting into that “Hmmmm…?” creates a sensation in the body.

Sunday morning I was laying in bed and just kind of thinking and reflecting about the evening before, and kind of a little more softened to what was going on… And since I had just attended this talk on Friday night, I was like, “Okay, let me try that out.”

In my own mind I don’t know that I actually was like “Hmmmm…?” because I was laying in bed and my husband was still sleeping next to me. And so I kind of just in my mind imagined making that sound and just was curious about what was going on in me.

As I really stayed with what was going on in me, I began to soften and I began to look a little more openly and honestly and recognized “Okay, I think that I might have been a little too attached.” I have the tendency to work a little too hard sometimes. The intention is good, of course, but I tend to get a little tight, or I tend to try too hard and it ends up not working, because I’m not as present, I’m not as relaxed, I’m not as open.

So it’s possible that my husband and my brother were trying to be playful with me to invite me back into connection and playfulness, rather than the planning ahead, the thinking ahead and the trying to create a perfect experience. So I recognized, “Okay, maybe there’s something in me that I was feeling tight around or trying to hard around or was too attached around.”

Then, as I began to wonder, more things came to mind. I was like, “Okay, this is interesting.” I think there were two occasions earlier that day, one of which I was giving my husband a hard time about something volleyball related and how we play together and his communication, in front of my brother and his girlfriend. And the tone that I was addressing my husband with was one that was not gonna be super flattering. If I would have gone into whatever my story was, it was taking issue with my husband and sometimes how he can be this or that on the volleyball court with me.

And my husband sweetly chimed in and he put his hands on me and he was like, “You know what? The good thing about the past is that it’s in the past.” [laugh] And it totally shifted the conversation. It was really sweet and it was really loving and it kind of shifted the attention away from whatever my complaint was about him. It was just a really sweet, socially graceful thing, and I just felt immediately like “Oh my goodness, I was gonna get  mad at my husband for not holding me in the highest [unintelligible 00:28:57.16] yet I had just kind of been critical of him earlier that day and he had responded so lovingly.

And as I felt my heart warm and I felt forgiveness for him, but I also felt some understanding and compassion for myself, but also wanted to apologize that I had been hard on him… I kind of snuggled next to him in the morning as I was kind of feeling into this, and he was stirring, so I knew he was waking, and I just shared softly… I was like, “Oh my goodness, I think this is what was going on for me. I was so attached to wanting it to be the best visit ever or a really great visit… I think I was trying too hard, I might have been too attached and was feeling sensitive and let my ego get bruised” and was just kind of commenting around some of the things I was aware of, and also giving him appreciation for how beautiful he handled when I was hard on him earlier in the day, during lunch.

He listened and he held me and just kind of stroked my head, and we just talked a little bit and I think it really helped him hear me, and we created a connection and there was some sharing, and I just felt like it shifted everything. It was a moment of really turning from focusing on him to being really curious and wondering about me, and I got more information and it allowed me to soften, it allowed me to hold space for a way to talk with him more openly.

I see this a lot with my clients… If you remember as I first started talking, when clients come to me and they’re pleading almost their case and wanting me to be the judge ultimately and help their partner see the error of their ways and help me point out to their partner – and that’s their hope, that I’ll change their partner… But typically what I’ll do, as I said, is I’ll focus on unpacking – “Can you tell me more about what happens for you when your partner does that?” or “What would your partner doing that do for you?”

I’m trying to turn the attention inward and help unpack that and get to the more vulnerability there, right? “Am I feeling really attached, or this means the world to me and I’m super sensitive about it, or I didn’t realize how much I cared, and this or that…?” What happens when somebody can connect with what’s more truthfully going on for them? They tend to get to a more vulnerable place and can soften in themselves, and then the beautiful thing is not only are we connecting with what’s most important, what wants to get seen, the attention to what’s most important… Then, when our partner gets to hear that, they get to connect with what’s most real, what’s most vulnerable, and they lean in. They care, they show emotion, they empathize, they try to understand and they wanna help.

If we show our belly and we reveal, even as vulnerable as that feels sometimes, that’s where our partner gets to feel us. Not only do we get to feel ourselves, but our partner gets to feel us… Because in the reverse, when we’re wrapped up – or I’ll use myself, like I have been in this example… If I’m so wrapped up in what my husband’s doing wrong, and as I said, the night before I was actually kind of asking him some questions about himself, trying to point to “Here’s what I don’t understand… How come you do that?” I wasn’t being super forceful about it, but I was definitely poking.

He was not working with me, he was not giving me a lot, and he responded but he wasn’t really open to where I was going with it, and he was feeling probably a little hurt, like I was being hard on him and didn’t understand; I’m sure he had his own thing going there. But when I softened and I shared what was going on for me, and looking at the bigger picture and looking at what was really going on for me — and I think ultimately, the biggest thing is just how much I love my brother and how much I was really wanting to do my best to make it a great visit, and I think I was maybe more attached than I realized, and I was feeling sensitive about it. That’s probably the biggest thing. And maybe a little vulnerable.

When my husband got to feel that in me, he connected with me, he leaned in. He didn’t blame me, he didn’t shame me; he wanted to support me and be there, and there was a moment of connection. He was able to have my back, so it was a real shift from disconnect and problem to vulnerability, softening and connection.

Here’s a couple steps for you to make this a little more specific. One is to recognize the cue. That cue will look different for everyone. Sometimes that cue will be taking issue with your partner. You might feel critical, you might wanna blame, or perhaps you feel hurt or unhappy, or dissatisfied, but the languaging and the narrative around it, the story around it still might be “issue with your partner.”

Recognizing there is a cue – it’s like a flag that brings your attention to “There’s something up!” to what you do with that. As soon as you’re able — you may need to go into the story of building your case and all the reasons why and stories around it, and that’s okay, but as soon as you can recognize “Okay, I’m putting a lot of energy and focus on my partner.” And maybe use Gay and Katie’s “Hmmm…” or just a simple turning inward, “What’s going on in me? What am I feeling? What am I wanting? What am I needing?”

Number three – just stay with it. Sometimes we might turn inward – “Is there something going on in me?” and then we might be like, “Nope. I don’t know” and then move on. Staying with it, staying in the wondering, really staying interested and curios… “What’s going on for me? Is there something in me that’s wanting something, wanting to be expressed?” and really holding space for that.

In the talk, on the Friday night of the weekend that I’m talking about, Gay told a funny joke/story. He said when Gay and Katie were first starting to do interviews, and I think they were going to be on a television show, and they were prepping for the interview – I think they were gonna be a guest… I don’t know if it was on Oprah or somewhere, but where they were both gonna be interviewed… And the producer/director was basically talking about “Okay, which one should we mic? Which one of you is going to be doing the talking?” and they said “Well, we both like to talk. We like to show and model and put into examples some of what we’re talking about.”

The producer/director was like “Well, we typically only put one person in the screenshot, we focus on one person”, so it was a new thing to try to put both people in at the time; this was many, many years ago. Nonetheless, they worked it out, and after the show the director guy was asking Gay, “Wow! I was noticing your interaction together, and Gay, when Katie talks, you really look at her, you really nod and you really seem very interested and you’re listening.” And Gay was like, “Yeah, I am.” And the director guy was like, “How do you do that?” and Gay was saying, “Well, I’m actually really interested in what she’s saying. I actually do wanna know what she’s saying. I am really interested.” The director guy was like, “Oh…” Because the guy was like, “How do I do that? My wife is constantly telling me  I don’t listen to her” and Gay was basically saying “I genuinely am interested.”

I don’t think I did that story justice, but you get the point… It’s not a recipe of just going through the motions or the mechanics of giving good eye contact, nodding your head and appearing to be really listening, or even listening to some degree, but not genuinely interested. Being curious does bring that focus and that attention and holding space for “What are they gonna say? I wanna know.” If we can turn that inwards, almost put the spotlight inward and look and hold, even if we don’t hear anything or nothing pops for us immediately, to stay in the wondering…

I’m emphasizing this because it’s so important to stay in the wondering. So the number four here would be “Allow new insight and awareness to emerge.” That might happen immediately or it might happen over a few hours or a few days if you just stay with the possibility “Something’s going on for me. I wanna get to know that. Can I just stay in wonder and stay in curiosity?”

Just to recap here: one is to recognize the cue. Two – as soon as you’re able, turn the attention inward; “What’s going on with me?” Three – stay with it, and four, allow for the new awareness or insight to emerge. Then you can take steps beyond that, which is to either talk to the person or take action if you need to take care of yourself…

It’s difficult, like I say, in a podcast to give you the whole shebang, so if you’re feeling like you would like support with this, by all means you can reach out to me, we can explore the option of coaching, or engaging in one of the programs that I have to offer, to just again, give yourself that support, that container to practice. Because it’s one thing to have the insight — because again, I went to the talk, I listened to the talk, but it was up to me to implement it, to practice it. Sometimes we need a little support and reminder and engagement to be in the practice.

Thank you so much for listening. Again, if you wanna reach out to me and let me know your biggest complaints around relationship concerns or issues, feel free to e-mail me. My e-mail is jessica@drjessicahiggins.com. You can also find the show notes for today’s episode, 108 – What Most Couples Do That Create Problems… You can find that on my website, DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you can find the most recent episode there at the top.

Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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