ERP 341: The Stories We Tell About Our Relationship Either Encourage Or Discourage Us — An Interview With Dr. Karen Skerrett

By Posted in - Podcast October 11th, 2022 0 Comments

​​You become what you consistently tell yourself, whether it is positive or negative, according to the adage “You are who you say you are.” This tells us that the thoughts that you feed your mind matter because, unwittingly, they serve as the road map for both your interpersonal relationships and your individual self.

You can’t really rewrite the past, but having the awareness of how it can impact your life, you give yourself the power to write a new story, a new beginning. 

In this episode, Dr. Skerrett explains the concept of couples’ resilience and the advantages it has for relationships and elaborates on how couples can develop and nurture their resilience.

Karen Skerrett, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and registered nurse with over 40 years of experience as a clinician, academic, and author who specializes in strength-based approaches to healing and change across the lifecycle. She is the author of Growing Married, co-author of Positive Couple Therapy, co-editor of Couple Resilience, and author of the memoir Tell Me Again How I Know You?

In this Episode

6:06 Karen’s transition from nursing to psychology: Targeting towards and focusing on couple’s resilience.

11:14 What is couples’ resilience and what makes it a source of positive energy for couple life?

13:24 The importance of the stories we tell our narrative.

18:59 The distinction between a story and a “we-story”.

25:31 The seven elements of we-ness.

34:50 Transforming individualistic cultures and behavior into an empowering story.

41:39 Karen’s advice and resources to help people build a couple’s resiliency.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Pay attention to the stories you are hearing and the stories you are telling.
  • Make your relationship with your partner the focus of your plot.
  • Think big picture and acknowledge the effort you’re both putting in to solve the problem rather than whining about how difficult the situation is.
  • Identify your individual strengths because partners always bring different kinds of resources and skills to manage a challenge at any given time.
  • Stay open to change and growth.
  • Find ways to intentionally raise your level of optimism while maintaining realistic expectations.
  • Be very intentional about putting in time for gratitude.
  • Build a network of like-minded individuals who value relationships and positivity and can support your relationships, especially during challenging times.

Mentioned

Growing Married: Creating Stories for a Lifetime of Love (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Couple Resilience: Emerging Perspectives (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Positive Couple Therapy: Using We-Stories to Enhance Resilience (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Strengths-based Resilience (SBR)

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with Dr. Karen Skerrett

Websites: karenskerrettphd.com

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/karen-skerrett-7a185024

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Karen Skerrett, thank you so much for joining us today.

I’m delighted to be here. It’s one of my favorite topics.

I think it’s such a gift to be able to talk to a professional clinician, a psychologist that has done so much to promote strength-based principles, as well as just the topic of resilience, which we’re going to be talking about today. It’s just an important contribution to the field of psychology and couples’ work. So often, it’s easy to look at what’s wrong, how to fix problems, and there’s so much value and resourcing the strengths and the resources. So, I love that you’re going to be helping us with that here today. And for people that are getting to know you, are you open to sharing what got you interested in targeting and focusing on couples’ resilience?

For sure. My first career was in nursing. I would say that probably my biggest takeaway from that was being able to listen to the stories of healthcare workers, of patients. I noticed sooner rather than later in my time that what was so important and so overlooked was the role of families in the healing process. 

That started me off with the idea that we get sick in relationships, and we need relationships in order to heal. I eventually pivoted into psychology, partly because I was one of those renegade nurses that was spending more time at the bedside, getting people’s stories and talking to them and getting your family involved, and maybe too late with some of the technical aspects. I kind of realized that was just not what really made my heart sing. So, I pivoted into psychology. 

My postdoc gave me an opportunity to sort of go back to the beginning and take a look at this whole issue of how exactly relationships promote health. Is there something unique about relationships? At that time, this was the late 90s, very few people were looking at that. The notion of healing or resilience was very individually situated. Since I was trained in family systems, couple and family systems, thinking about the system of a couple was like a second skin to me. 

I thought, “Wow, I really want to do something with this.” So, I set up a series of studies of couples with breast cancer. They all had the same kind of diagnosis. They were getting similar kinds of treatments. But I interviewed both partners in every case at that point. The woman was the one that had the breast cancer diagnosis. It was absolutely fascinating to find that I could pretty easily identify some of the key factors in the couples that were able to make a better adjustment than those who were not thriving and not adjusting in such a positive way. 

There were a number of factors, but the real tell was the couples that I went on to label resilient developed a team approach to the challenge. They’ve really shown in some of these different outcome measures that I gave them that they had more satisfaction with their relationship. They showed better physical and mental health. And the fascinating thing is I went back and was able to get to almost 60% of that original group. And after five years, whether people had had a recurrence or not, their resilience held. 

So the groups that I was calling problematic versus resilient were the same folks from Time 1 to Time 2. And so, that really hooked me. And then I thought, I want to know a lot more about what this mindset is, what this team notion is, and that was really sort of at the beginning. It’s now pretty common. Everybody talks about “us” and “we,” but I really wanted to study it more systematically so that I could kind of unpack what went into it.

Well, I appreciate just your natural inclination towards looking at the bigger picture and the constellation and more of that comprehensive approach. And as you’re describing the system’s perspective and how it all fits in that there are real key aspects here that might be ignored when we just look at the individual and be able to see and do a study to be able to identify the power of that couple resilience, that team philosophy. It’s so powerful what you’re seeing and just what one study is able to show about the difference that it made in health and being able to maintain health, rather than having cancer come back or being able to adjust to the circumstances and to be able to have some ability and equanimity to not let the hardship tear them apart if you will.

Exactly. Exactly. I’m asked a lot, well, what is couple resilience, because people are familiar with individual resilience. I think a lot of people are also familiar with the definition of resilience as the ability to bounce back after a hardship or some kind of challenge. 

I really prefer, and I cannot tell you where I heard this, who said it, but I liked the definition of the ability to bounce forward after adversity because that’s what I found with couples with breast cancer and then the studies that I went on to do later with other kinds of illness and couples who were not facing illness as a challenge but other kinds of things. 

I really found that they created something different. The outcome was really growth-producing and very different than where they had started from. So, I started designing a lot of different studies to get couples’ stories and see how I could unpack this notion of the “we” and find out what makes it really this source of positive energy for couple life if it’s, in fact, the case that this we-ness, this team we’re in it together, is a phenomenon that’s unique to a couple coping, then let’s see how we can really maximize that, and how we can apply it in a whole variety of different circumstances.

No kidding. I love that there’s a lot of more recent science to support the things that you’re describing whether or not it comes out of the polyvagal work. I know Steven Porges talks about the research of how important it is to have family and connection for people that are in the hospital and the impact that has on people’s recovery or the attachment research and adult romantic relationships and how that sense of safe haven and the health. I mean, it’s so vast and wide around the benefits that it’s hard to do it justice.

Yes, that’s true. Given the huge advances in technology, there are fascinating studies, you know, like the ones I’m sure you’re familiar with, the ones where they’ve been able to identify the couples who touch and hold hands have a shortened healing time. I mean, it really is just very, very fascinating. 

And their perception of pain, right? Like how they actually experienced the pain is quite different as well.

Yep. And now we know so much about how our mindsets are created. They’re created by the stories we’re telling. That has been a fascinating aspect to me, no matter what the challenge is that’s facing the couple that sits in front of me. It’s so amazing to hear somebody say, let’s say, whose daughter is struggling with drugs to follow somebody whose first story about that is, “Well, that’s it. I mean, there’s no hope now. She’s a druggie. Once a druggie, always a druggie. There’s nothing much we can do for her.” versus somebody who says, “Well, this is a blip on the screen. I think that together, we’re going to find a way to help her. We’re going to give her the best resources, and we’re just going to try to be hopeful.” Very different storylines around that challenge. And that has lots of effects on how the couple is able to mobilize resources to deal with the challenge.

Can you help us and break that down a little bit? So, you’re speaking about the importance of the stories we tell our narrative. I’m also imagining that our mindset, our outlook, our focus, is being informed or excuse me, or both perhaps is informing the story we tell, and also perhaps, directing us and also supporting our actions, if you will. Does that make sense?

That’s absolutely right. Yes, for sure. I often find that people and couples are very unaware of the relativity of their stories. And the fact that they have the power to change their story, and therefore set up this kind of cascade, neurologically, but also, in a narrative, they can set up a cascade of positivity. 

And so, the first thing I always try to educate folks about is to pay attention. Pay attention to the stories that you’re telling and the stories that you’re hearing. One of the things that grew out of this fascination with stories and trying to unpack we-ness was I started a project called A Couple Story Project about 15 years ago. I collected myself, and one of my colleague’s collected stories of clinical couples, but also, you know, what we call normative couples, people that either wrote in or came to my retreats or workshops that I did and were willing to share their stories. 

What we found was that couples could create a storyline that prioritizes their connection and that that really helps them craft this attitude or this consciousness of we-ness. So, my colleagues and I said, “Wow, this seems to be to help people develop a “we” story seems to be a very powerful way to promote a “we” consciousness to have both people feel like we’re stronger together than apart. If we can mobilize the resources that we have individually and as a team, we’re stronger together.

Can I ask you a quick question before you proceed? I so am interested in what you’re saying. And I also just want to say, “Are there couples that do this naturally?” You’re also saying there are couples that can recognize the story we’re telling is perhaps not serving us or is not uplifting us, and we want to be intentional about the story that we’re telling. Can we recraft that? Or can we be mindful and intentional about that story? Is that right? Some people do this naturally, and some people can be in an intention to create the story.

That’s a really great question. It is possible that some couples who have a lot of EQ are pretty socially and emotionally tuned in. And so, they can craft “we” stories kind of organically. But of course, that’s one of the main things that psychotherapy or relationship coaching can do is help build this awareness in a couple of what kind of stories they are telling and how it’s impacting the kinds of experiences they’re having in a relationship. 

Okay. What I’m hearing, too, possibly, is that most of us would be benefited from having some intention and mindfulness around the stories that we’re telling or perhaps tweaking or crafting them in a way that is supportive and supports resilience.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Okay. Thank you. Can you give us an example as we are going with you just so we can anchor with you as you’re going to break this down? 

You bet. 

Okay.

I’ll make a distinction between story and we story because, you know, everybody’s got stories. Every friend you talk to, every couple you meet, they’ve got a story of how they got together. That’s a popular one, right? We call them origin stories. You know, the day they committed, the birth of their first child, when they bought a house. So, those are all couple of stories. The longer couples are together. Most couples have more and more stories, and they change over time, and they shift, and they get nuanced in many, many ways. But a “we” story is a particular kind of couple story that reflects a mutual identity, the couples described as the lived experience of their relationship. We started to notice that couples just naturally, some couples, naturally use the word “we” a lot more than other couples instead of “I did this” and “I did that.” It’s more a reference point of the “we.” 

The identity affirms the caring and commitment of the couple. So, like you said, that can develop organically, or the way we’ve gotten it in our research is to ask couples to write an account of an event in their relationship that serves as a reminder of their love and commitment to each other in their relationship. 

Here’s one that is one of my favorites. This is a couple in their late 30s who really were in a very bad rough patch. They had had a pile-up of stressors, starting with the death of his father, the loss of her job, and some infertility. And all this was going on in the space of about 18 months. They were pretty much coming unraveled. 

One of the things that they described in their “we” story is they began to notice that they were spending less and less time together and that when they were spending time together, they were irritable. They answered in short sentences. They started to see that they were focused on function like it was a business. 

The tasks. 

Yeah, right. Exactly. Of course, in any relationship, it only takes one person to make a difference, right? So, they concluded their “we” story by saying one day, she came home after just a grueling day out, pounding the pavement looking for work, and doing interviews, but it didn’t go well. She walked into the house, and the lighting was dimmed. He had ordered dinner. In the middle of the table was a coke can with a daisy sticking out of it. 

She said she burst into tears because the coke can was a symbol of their very first meal together that they’d gone on a picnic. And he pulled some coke can out of the trash and picked flowers and stuck them in there. She said that it meant so much to her. It sort of turned the tide for them in their process of remembering what they value, what really mattered to them. That was what was important, and all the rest of the stuff they were focusing on was not at all helping them. So that’s one of my favorite ones. 

Another one is a couple who had had a very rocky road coming out as gay men and finally got married, had a wonderful experience together, both parents got on board, and they decided that they wanted to adopt a baby. It was very challenging. There were a lot of barriers that they had to overcome. Their “we” story involved sharing some of the details of the obstacles that they faced. 

And then, when their little boy finally came to them. They told this story of him sitting in his highchair. They had been frustrated with each other because they were tired, they weren’t having any sex anymore, and they weren’t sleeping, and it was just they had no idea what being parents was going to be like. But this one moment, they looked at their little boy, and he was making, you know, an art project with the applesauce and the various jars of baby food that they had. 

Their response was to just crack up to start laughing and laughing, and they said that was a kind of turning point for them. That helped them refocus on the good and on how much they loved each other. They said that going forward, they were always going to keep a jar of baby food on the counter so they could look at it and remind themselves of their caring.

I’m so touched by this that there’s real positioning of the relationship front and center. That is ultimately what we long for and benefit from. And yet it’s so easy to get lost in the hardships, the circumstances, the stress, the daily demands to lose sight and almost take for granted that that will sustain and you’re saying how we interact with one another, the focus and what we attend to is so important to the couple resilience.

Yes, that is so true. So back to my attempt to try to unpack we-ness. We actually did a series of studies in which we looked for components to the stories. We did an analysis of a lot of the different stories that we had collected, and we found elements of the we-ness and “we” stories. I’ll go through them, but it stands for SERAPHSV, which we thought was a perfect way to capture the notion of we because they are really like the higher angels of our relationship. 

So, the elements are security, empathy, respect, acceptance, pleasure, humor, shared meaning, and vision. Obviously, not everybody has all of those elements in every single story. But the couple with the baby that I was describing last, their story was full of humor. So they scored very high on the joking, the kind of lively back and forth that they engaged in with each other and their son.

In other couples, there’s a lot of emphasis on pleasure. I’m trying to now continue with these studies to see how they look at different points in the lifecycle and how we can help therapists or relationship coaches’ kind of identify what elements in these “we” stories can be bolstered to make the story richer. 

I mean, I’m thinking about another couple that they’re both pretty serious. They were in their early 50s. Both are somewhat introverted, very much in their heads. They really needed some help with how to find more pleasure in their relationship and how to inject some humor and acceptance of their differences. I think that’s been a really fascinating aspect of looking more in a more detailed way at these “we” stories.

If I can chime in quickly. The experience that I’m getting as you’re describing and these stories, it was a transitional point or a moment that really transformed the dynamic, if you will, and that they could reference that pivotal moment that went from perhaps the more individual mindset or individual focus to this power of the couple and a couple of resilience in that team and that bonding and that the stories help sustain that and reflect that connection. And that as listeners to what you’re describing, and even as you encourage other support practitioners to bolster that, we can use this acronym to perhaps see what elements exist. Are there other elements that we can include to amplify this or continue to bolster this? Is that what I’m hearing?

Absolutely. Because I think of many couples in their 40s, mid to late 40s, who are in the crunch of adult development, where they might be caring for older parents, they’re raising kids, they’re in the thick of work responsibilities, and life is a drudge. And so, how can they bolster pleasure? Meaning, how can they find purpose and maybe shift their vision, their sights to a little bit farther out? And to be able to say, Okay, well, this isn’t going to last forever. We’re working hard now. For what? Right? So those might be some things that they could work on at that particular phase of life. 

Okay. This is so helpful. I’m so glad you gave that example because part of me was hearing you, and it’s almost as if we could use this acronym to even evaluate our actions and how we’re choosing to invest in our time and what we’re focused on in our lives. You also gave language to which is the story likely that instead of just saying,” Oh, this is so hard.” and you know, whatever the complaint is or criticism, but to be able to name how we are really working hard, and we are in service of perhaps the vision or what we’re creating. Is that what I’m hearing?

Oh, absolutely. Yep, it brings you right back to what we are about. Who are we? What are we about right now at this point? And yeah, it brings it back again and again to the relationship and the importance of looking at the consequences of individual actions on the relationship.

It’s also holding a bigger perspective, perhaps that just because it’s hard right now doesn’t mean that this is the end of the story.

Absolutely. That is absolutely true. And that, I think, is something that’s kind of generally been not emphasized in psychology. We’re great at going back in history, right? We’re telling people to focus on the present. But there’s also great value. And there is some science now around this. Some great value in crafting a future vision. And being, again, very intentional about, all right, what are we about? What are we doing this for now? Where would we like this to go? What can each of us contribute? Right? 

What are our strengths? The thing about resilience is, fortunately, that it isn’t a one-and-done. It’s something that we cultivate that we build over time. And that the more we practice, the better we’re going to get. And so, I find often people get very down on themselves for the way they’re coping at the moment and are able to take this big picture and realize that nobody is perfectly resilient out of the gate. It is a lifelong process. 

Free Man in Gray Suit Jacket Kissing Woman in White Shirt Stock Photo

“The thing about resilience is, fortunately, that it isn’t a one-and-done. It’s something that we cultivate that we build over time. And that the more we practice, the better we’re going to get. It is a lifelong process.”

Well, this is super beautiful, I think, because as I’m thinking about the couple that adopted the child, that they might be able to say perhaps a version of a story would be like, “Wow, these demands. I never expect the demands to be so high, and yet we find humor in day to day, and that inspires us and motivates us, and brings joy, and even though this is a demanding time, we will continue to build that humor in our family.” Is that a good example? 

Yes. For sure. 

Okay. It not only perhaps acknowledges the importance of what’s valuable, but it also, as you’re saying, gives some scaffolding to what we’re creating together. And the other beautiful thing you’re saying “we” is that these couples’ stories are in service of both people, right? It has to represent an agreement that both people are bought into that, is that right? 

Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s one of my biggest soapboxes. People that know me are tired of hearing me go on and on about it. But we, of course, are in such an individualistic independent culture, and to try to put the notion out there that we win when I try to focus on what it is I can bring to the relationship and focus on the consequences of my behavior on the relationship. 

A huge shift. It turns everything around. I mean, it’s as simple as saying to a couple where she’s complaining, you know, he never thinks about calling me if he’s going to be late. He waltzes in the door at seven o’clock or six o’clock. I have no idea what’s going on. Is he in an accident? It feels to me like he doesn’t care. And to begin to say to her partner, what do you think that is going to be like if that continues? If you continue to operate with your own needs primarily and don’t think about what that’s going to do for the relationship, the corrosive effect that that has, you’re going to miss a real opportunity to improve and to get to have a greater connection with your partner.

And how would you shift that into more of an empowering story?

Well, one of the things that I am big on is focusing folks on identifying their strengths, some of their key strengths. Again, we’re in this kind of deficit culture, a very critical culture, competitive. I love the idea of promoting the opposite, which is, let’s look at what we have going for us. Let’s look at our assets and our strengths. 

That is such a strange foreign way for a lot of couples to think, you know, is to ask them. I oftentimes will suggest that couples go online to Marty Seligman, who’s one of the founders of positive psychology, and do the Strengths Assessment, and just do it individually. Get your score. Find out what arenas you are the strongest in, and then have a conversation with your partner. Trade your answers and see. That can be very eye-opening for couples, and then I’ll have them start to get used to the idea of leveraging those strengths. In the service, again, of the relationship. 

A couple I saw a couple of days ago who had come into a workshop, and they were somewhat bickering because she was healthy at the moment, but she had had a life-threatening illness. I believe it was MS a while ago. Her coping mechanism was to find out everything she could about it, read everything, and go online constantly. Her partner was just in an opposite place. He felt like, “I’m sick of hearing that. I don’t want to have all that information. I don’t think it’s good for her. I wish she’d stop.” 

And what we were able to talk about was how do you bring each of those strengths instead of being critical about she’s not doing this, or he’s not doing that? Let’s bring your strength of a desire for information and to have the best information you can about your health, and you’re talking to him about your interest in “Let’s keep the illness in its place. Let’s kind of think about other things in our relationship.” How do we put those two together in service of the “we.”

So important. I was already kind of thinking and trying to apply some of this to my own marriage. That was one of the examples that I’m resonating so strongly with that I tend to be more like the thorough research, do diligent person. And my husband sometimes gets overwhelmed with that. He also is so brilliant at being more attuned to what’s reasonable or realistic. And so, he can also bring so much wisdom around not being stressed or doing less, and the power of simplifying and less is more. 

I sometimes can invite him to look at, “Oh, it can be worth it to put in that extra effort.” So, while there’s a conflict at face value and we can be very critical of each other. If we and when we and we’re doing this more and more and more that we’re looking at the strength that we both bring, and can we learn from each other and find a middle ground that suits both of us? It’s not easy to get to, but this can be a really beautiful practice.

Absolutely. Yes, it really has a lot of carryovers because couples will say, “The more I think about the “us” or the notion of the “we,” I find my tolerance is expanding. I find it easier to see what’s going right instead of continuing to focus on what isn’t happening and what should happen. And to acknowledge that partners change at different rates. 

Individual partners are always bringing different kinds of resources and skills to manage a challenge at any given time. I think one of the things that I see most often around in this resilience arena is the expectation that both partners in a couple want to be at exactly the same place. I think we see that a lot in grief reactions. You know, he should be over this by now. Why is she still so upset, right? And to be able to nurture a big enough container that they can say, you are two different people. There’s no way you are going to be responding to this challenge in exactly the same way and exactly the same timeframe.

So beautifully stated that there’s enough room where both of us can exist and have our experience, and we can still be attending to one another and our connection. So often, we feel threatened when someone else has a vastly different experience. And it feels like it might jeopardize what we’re needing or take away from something we’re needing. It’s such a different paradigm that I agree with you. Culturally, I don’t think we have as much support around, so it’s really a different orientation.

Right. Right. And for couples to get the notion that repair and resilience, because resilience is really a kind of repair, you know, stressing repair, like a muscle, it gets stronger through recurring processes with stress and repair, that it requires an ability to be vulnerable. We have to be able to say, “Wow, I’m really hurting now.” or “I’m really scared.” And being able to have the partner say, “How can I help? What is it that I can do? What can we do to make it better?” is such an important question.

And so much more easily accessed when the person communicating can reference their own experience rather than pointing to the complaint, and that just leads to defensiveness, typically. 

Absolutely.

I’m so interested in what you’re saying, Karen, and how people typically work with this. If people are listening and they can hear the importance of this, and they want to dive a little deeper with this acronym, what are you offering to help people work with this more specifically?

Well, I have a lot of tips, both in my new book and an earlier book, on building resilience on how they can do that. Also, a lot of resources on my website. Certainly, they can learn how to write “we” stories. I have step by step process of how they can create a vision for their relationship and tweak it as time goes on. And various ways that they can continue to be open and stay open to change and growth. 

One of the things that we work against, I think, is foreclosed stories. By that, I mean, that’s the story where people say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that.” or “Well, she’s 65. What do you expect? Nobody’s going to change.” And to be able to keep options open and encourage openness to growth, and have a growth mindset is really, really enormously helpful. I have lots of ways that they can do that at various points in the lifecycle.

Are these being able to help learn how to craft the instruction or the teaching you have around how to build a story and a vision and also the flexibility and openness? Is that in your book? Are those in your book?

Yes. It’s both in the book and it’s online on my website. Yeah.

Okay, great. Well, this is fabulous. I know there was so much more we wanted to get to. Is there anything else you are wanting to share today before we close out here?

Well, let’s see. I’m thinking about what questions I’m asked often. When your resilience is most tested, when stress is very, very high, I like to suggest to couples to look for ways to increase optimism very intentionally and hope. I would often call it realistic hope. Not the pie in the sky, but realistic hope. And to cut themselves some slack and each other. Practice some generosity in interpretation. And as much as you can, be flexible. That is a time when the more flexibility, the better. Don’t expect to have an outcome that you can count on.

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“When your resilience is most tested when stress is very, very high, look for ways to increase optimism very intentionally and hope. Cut yourselves some slack. Practice some generosity in interpretation. And as much as you can, be flexible. Don’t expect to have an outcome that you can count on.”

Yes, when we are really tight and perhaps perfectionistic or have certain expectations, right, we can get really constricted and in fear, so to be able to be realistic, but also not be so pessimistic that we don’t give any room for growth and development. How do you support people in being able to develop more of that positive, realistic optimism?

Yeah, there are all kinds of tips that I have, again, online and in my book about gratitude, taking gratitude breaks, being able to every couple of days, take 10 minutes and share with your partner the kind of thing that you’re grateful for. It may be something that they did 20 minutes ago. It may be something that occurs to you that they did a year ago. But be very intentional about putting in time for gratitude. That has all kinds of positive results individually. And, of course, collectively.

Yes, and it gets us into a different mindset that then helps us feel more creative, that then can help with that flexibility that even if we have a clear experience, there might be even just the smallest part of us that is also open to an alternative way of thinking or a possibility that hasn’t yet been discovered that sometimes, that can both be true.

And I think the really good news is, you can learn to be more positive. Despite what our individual backgrounds are and what we learned in our families, you can learn by again being aware and focusing. I like to tell couples that there’s a famous quote that says, “Love is the quality of attention we pay to our partner.” And I think being able to take that attention and focus it on what’s going well, what’s positive, what are you grateful for, is really, really powerful. 

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“Love is the quality of attention we pay to our partner.”

It’s the experience of love. I think I’m learning more and more that at the moment, if I can express that warmth and facial expressions and what I’m attending to and focusing on that, that’s the experience of loving, and that’s the action and the verb of loving often.

Right, exactly. I mean, our story is the stories we make up that set the level of love in our lives. They really do. If the story I tell about myself is that I’m not worthy, why should I even try for this promotion at work because I’m not going to get picked, or how did I end up with this jerk? That’s where we’re going to stay, right? That’s one of those foreclosed stories. On the other hand, if we look for the positive, it sets us on a very different course.

I feel like these are coordinates that we want to use our mapping compass to orient towards that really result in a dramatically different experience. And you’re really helping us here and giving us some sense of this and the components as well as your research. But it truly feels like if we can be cognizant of these coordinates and how we’re plugging this in and attending to it that this is just going to result in dramatic differences.

Good. I hope so. That would be just wonderful. That’s what I like to think about when I wake up in the morning.

Yes. Well, Karen, is there anything you want to direct people towards? You said your books and your website. I’ll make sure to put those on today’s show notes, those links. Is there any call to action or anything you want to invite people to do that you haven’t already spoken to?

I don’t think so. Spread the word. I mean, it would be wonderful. Read the books. Share them. Because I think another source of positivity and power is creating a network of like-minded folks, who prioritize relationships and prioritize positivity, and can give you your relationship support, especially in the tough times. So yes, spread the word. 

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“Another source of positivity and power is creating a network of like-minded folks who prioritize relationships and prioritize positivity, and can give you your relationship support, especially in the tough times.

We need each other, right? As I’m thinking about what you’re saying when we’re in these really tough times that we’re not entirely sure how to overcome and to have our loved ones or community be able to shine the light or perhaps even offer support, but also even encouragement. Is there perhaps a different story you can talk about that might support you more? 

Exactly. Yes, for sure. Especially under times of stress and challenge, we often don’t think about sharing it. So often, couples tend to pull back, and they retreat into themselves and don’t share and certainly don’t reach out. So yeah, I think that’s a powerful message,

All right, Karen. I’ll make sure to have the link to both of your books. And remind me of the titles of both of those books.

Sure. It’s Positive Couple Therapy. I also co-edited, and it’s more of an academic book, but Couple Resilience. And then my new one is called Growing Married. And that speaks to this notion. That was really what I wanted to get at was it speaks to the notion that if we keep our sights set on the day of the wedding or the day the commitment ceremony and then done is done, that is not going to serve us very well. 

Oftentimes, people spend lots of money, and they spend lots of time and effort in planning a wedding, and then they’ll plan their retirement. And there’s a whole middle that nobody knows what in the world to do with. So think big picture. And the notion of growing married is to speak to the idea that it is a process that is not a one-and-done.

Not at all. And it’s again such a different paradigm, and to be engaged in it in the way of co-creating rather than just, “Oh, we got married, and we are now married.” And somehow this consumer like it just happened to us, and we’re not participating.

Exactly. Right. Done. 

Yes. 

Next.

Yeah. What’s my other goal? 

Right. Right. 

Oh, I will again make sure to have the books and the links and your website on today’s show notes. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us here today.

You are so welcome. I really enjoyed it.

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching