Julia Flood, LCSW
4 Ways To Become A Better Listener
Whether you’re on a first date, or you’ve been married for a decade, what people want first and foremost in a relationship is to feel understood, validated, and supported. This can be tricky, especially when you are used to giving advice, seeing things differently, or what you hear “pushes your buttons.” Becoming a better listener is easier said than done, and in my counseling practice I typically spend a lot of time teaching couples this very skill. But even a few good habits can make a big difference, as long as you look for opportunities to practice them regularly.

1. Show your partner that you care

It can be challenging to care about your partner’s experience when they haven’t asked you about yours in a while, but as you probably know, a stalemate gets you both nowhere. Ask your spouse how the meeting went. Ask things like: "What was the most important part?," "Did you expect that?," "How do you feel about that?," and "What does that mean to you?.”

2. Show your partner that you get it

It can be extremely difficult to have empathy for your partner’s position when you disagree. This is normal, you are two different people! The art is to be able to hold on to your own reality while listening to the other’s. In order to deal with that, you may have to quietly remind yourself that their perspective is their perspective, and you don’t need to take things too personally. Tell your partner that you can see how they feel the way they do. Tell them you would be stressed out, too. Acknowledge it when your spouse sounds relieved or worried, anxious or angry. When you don’t understand their position, ask to tell you more and pick your partner’s brain until you start to see their point.

3. Show your partner that you’re on their side

Showing your partner that you’re on their side when they are at odds with another party may seem obvious, but it is often not expressed directly. As an outside observer it may be easy for you to see your partner’s part in a conflict, or you may even find yourself identifying with the other party. While there may be a time to help your partner review his modes of interacting with others, when you are trying to practice your listening skills is not the time! Whenever you can with integrity, take your partner’s side as a true friend would, and don’t be "helpful" by providing "the other person’s perspective." You may say, "That guy is such a jerk!," or "You must be furious!," or tell your spouse you are proud of them.

4. Hold off on the advice

This approach can be challenging, especially when the “right” answer seems obvious to you, or you are being asked directly for it. Resist the temptation! Most people give feedback or look for a solution way too early in the process, and have difficulty leaving things “unresolved” for a little while. So even if you think you know a good solution, resist solving the other’s problem for them. People often just want to vent and see that you get it. Giving advice is rarely appreciated, and certainly not before you have understood the issue from their angle. Instead, show solidarity and encouragement: "We will figure this out together. You’re not alone in this!"

All of the techniques above are highly effective, but they require a lot of skill on your part. The goal is to stay calm, keep listening, and make your partner feel understood. It gets easier with practice!
Are You a Worrier? 3 Tricks to Help You Stop
Do you believe worry is preparation? Then welcome to the club! Worriers get a lot of unsolicited advice from non-worriers: just relax, it’s going to be fine, or my favorite: don’t worry. Some of the advice is more clever than others. Dean Hawkes of Columbia University once famously said, "Half the worry in the world is caused by people trying to make decisions before they have sufficient knowledge on which to base a decision." Or, as Charlie Brown put it more amusingly, "I've developed a new philosophy... I only dread one day at a time. "

But apart from cognitive tricks and internal pep talks, is there anything concrete you can try? What some people don’t realize is that worry and stress is more than a cognitive phenomenon. It’s a physiological one as well. One key to warding off unwanted anxiety symptoms is deep diaphragmatic breathing. What that means is, how you breathe has a direct impact on how you feel. There’s a lot you can do with diaphragmatic breathing, but here are 3 easy exercises to get you started.

1. "Huh-huh-huh"

Next time your mother asks you without warning, "So, when am I going to get those grandkids? " go straight to the bathroom before you explode. Run cold water over your hands and breathe in deeply to the count of 5. Then, blow out the air in 5 or 6 quick huffs (huh-huh-huh-huh-huh) as you shake the water off your wet hands. Repeat until you feel better!

2. Alternate Nostril Breathing

You can do this anywhere: in line at the cash register, in a traffic jam, on the phone... Push one nostril closed with your finger. Take one long breath in through the open nostril, for about 5 seconds, then pinch that one and let go of the other, breathing out slowly. Repeat alternately. Try to breathe out for as long as possible. Which nostril you pinch when is less important than remembering to do it next time you feel anxious!

3. Sing or Yawn

Worriers often have access energy. Try to capitalize on that energy for breathing. Singing is an excellent way of breathing as well as effective for distracting yourself. Pick a song that is fun to sing and has an upbeat message. Too tired to sing? Make yourself yawn by opening your mouth as wide as you can. Do 10 yawns in a row. A great one-minute relaxer!

These simple exercises are only meant to give you a taste of the benefits of deep breathing. They are a step in the right direction of taking better care of yourself, and of course can’t replace mental health treatment for a serious anxiety disorder. The more you practice them, the more natural these exercises will feel, and the more mindful you will become of your stress level. Try them out and let me know what you think!
Who's Afraid of Couples Therapy?
Couples counseling has been shown to have great benefits. It leads to better relationships, solutions to problems, or reductions of feelings of distress. But if therapy is so helpful, why are people often reluctant to begin?

For one, there's a certain stigma attached to therapy, and you may worry about becoming “the talk of the town”. It can be difficult to admit—even to yourself—that your marriage has a problem and that you might need help. Even if you have a positive attitude towards therapy in general, you might be wary of letting down your guard with your partner, and giving him or her a platform to say uncharitable things about you. Perhaps you don't want to face the confrontation that comes with hearing that your partner dislikes some of the things you do or say, as that may evoke sadness, guilt, frustration, loneliness, or fear of giving up something important to you. Or maybe you would be the one raising these difficult topics to your partner, and you don't want to hurt him or her by the way you feel.

You're not on your own

Fortunately there are great benefits to the counseling process, which you'd miss out on if your anxiety about it stops you from taking the leap. For one thing, you're not doing this alone. A couples therapist is a neutral party who does not have a stake in the outcome the way friends and family do. Additionally, therapy will provide tools that empower you as a couple to share your thoughts and feelings effectively. Couples therapy teaches you how to listen and talk about difficult topics with your spouse. You will learn how to stay grounded when hearing something that floods your body with strong emotions. Effective marriage counseling coaches you to speak up for yourself and negotiate for your needs and desires, while empowering your partner to do the same. It gives you a forum to practice making the stretch of putting yourself into your partner's shoes, which is especially difficult when you disagree. There will be many skills to be learned and practiced under the supervision of a skilled couples therapist, and the end result will likely be both personal growth and an increase in your intimacy.

Your best bet

Whether you're dealing with infidelity, daily duels, or the threat of your partner walking out, your marriage may already be deeply troubled, and going on as you have been is not a sustainable strategy. Ignoring your problems and hoping they get better on their own can be a risky decision. So while the process of counseling sometimes hurts, it is worth the effort. While it is important to stress that even with a very skilled therapist there can be no guarantee for a cure or a specific outcome, it may be either facing your fears or losing what you have altogether.
How Can We Stop Fighting?
It doesn’t seem to make sense: You used to be best friends, but now you can’t go a day without fighting. Your partner says something that triggers you - you feel attacked or devalued - and you react: Maybe you yell, slam the door and walk out, or you shut down and refuse to continue the conversation. Looking back, it may be hard to tell how you even got into the argument in the first place. It might have been something very subtle that made you see red: a smirk, rolled eyes, a certain body posture, or tone of voice. In a split-second you picked up on a message, and you simply reacted. Unfortunately, your own signature response to the threat you perceive coming from your partner is likely to be the exact thing that drives him or her crazy, whether you say something hurtful, or flee the battlefield and leave your partner feeling abandoned. It’s a vicious cycle.

What’s going on? While we are social beings and want close relationships, we are also hard-wired for survival. Biologically speaking, when we feel threatened, we usually resort to one of 3 reflex-like reactions in order to protect ourselves from more hurt: fight, flight, and freeze. Depending on the situation, our brains try to determine the most likely outcome of a conflict and assess if there is enough time to escape, sufficient strength to fight/win, or if “playing dead” is the best strategy in order to survive.

These responses are not rationally chosen. Rather, they are triggered by external stimuli which cause your brain to fire almost instantly. Many of us have had experiences in the past where such a response was necessary for physical or emotional survival, and the brain has been shaped in ways to optimize these self-defense responses. The trouble is, while our reactions were probably shaped by a legitimate threat in the past, it may now be exaggerated in terms of the threat we now perceive from our partner when discussing an uncomfortable subject.

But there is hope: It takes a lot of time, practice, and more often than not professional guidance to teach your brain new ways of responding, but your brain can be rewired. Brain scientists call this process neuro-plasticity. Therapy can teach you to share things that bother you with your partner effectively, as well as how to listen to your partner while staying close, curious, and connected. The goal is getting to know him or her better in light of their history so you can change the vicious cycle of your interactions together. Your natural reactions, such as immediately wanting to fix a problem, withdrawing, or becoming emotionally reactive, can be un-learned.

While it is challenging, a couples therapist can provide you with the tools and practice to learn to speak your minds without escalating the situation. When listening to your partner’s reality, you can learn to tolerate your own anxiety, calm yourself, and not lose sight of what is true from your perspective. If you and your partner practice that kind of sharing and listening, not only will your conflicts likely decrease, your intimacy will increase, too, leading to you both feeling more satisfied in your relationship.
6 Great Tips to Make Marriage Counseling Work
What can you do to improve the chances that couples therapy is worth the time and money you put into it? In other words, what makes marriage counseling work? Of course you need the help of a skilled marriage therapist, but there are several things you can do to help make your marriage counseling a success.

1. Have more goals for yourself than for your partner

Of course you want your partner to change things, or you wouldn’t be looking into marriage therapy, but working on yourself in the presence of your partner is probably the most effective way to have a positive impact on your relationship. Focusing on what your partner needs to change simply doesn’t work. Ultimately you don’t get what you want. And what is it that you want? Recalling your early expectations in the beginning of your relationship will help you visualize what it is you want – your ideal picture of the relationship. How do you behave as a partner in that perfect world? What are your characteristics? Looking now at the present, your real-life situation, what are your actual attitudes and behaviors? What hinders you from being that “better person”? Where are your weak points? When you’re stressed, do you try to control, nag, or whine? Do you avoid and withdraw? The answers to these questions will make up your goals in therapy. Don’t worry, a good marriage counselor will make sure that each of you is doing work, not just you!

2. Put yourself out there

This tip actually might save you months and months of therapy time: Try to get to the “feelings behind the feelings.” Often what we feel on an obvious level in a relationship is anger, annoyance, resentment, and judgment for the other. Try to dig deeper and get in touch with what triggered those thoughts and feelings. Did you have an open heart and became disappointed? Do you feel helpless, embarrassed, or hopeless? Are you worried about being controlled? Are you afraid to trust because of past hurt? If you notice that you feel resistant to having a cooperative attitude, this might be a hint that you’ve been avoiding certain thoughts and feelings. Maybe there is some grudge or resentment you’ve never been able to admit to yourself, let alone express openly. Once you get the courage to be more vulnerable about “what’s beneath” in front of your partner, it will likely create empathy and compassion in them. Your therapist will help make sure that the session is a safe space to do this.

Can Our Relationship Survive and Affair?
When an affair takes place in a marriage or committed relationship, it is almost always a devastating experience for everyone. The first thing to realize is, no matter how much pain, anger, guilt, or confusion you may be feeling right now, you are not alone: What you are feeling is probably very normal.

Here are some of the feelings people often have when they find out their partner had an affair:

-You wonder who you are and what you mean to your partner. You no longer feel special. You wonder if he or she ever really loved you.

-You wonder if you did anything to cause this. You doubt your self-worth and attractiveness.

-Your sense of justice in this world is shattered.

-You seem to have no control over your thoughts, feelings, or actions.

-You have trouble working, sleeping, or eating – or all you do is work, eat, or sleep, so you don't have to think about what happened.

-You feel alone, because you can't decide who you can tell about this. You don't want friends and family to hate your partner.

-You are embarrassed.

-You don't want to see your partner ever again, or you feel like anxiously clinging to him or her.

-You may have the urge to go out and have an affair yourself.

If you are the one who cheated, you are likely also going through a variety of strong and confusing feelings:

-Whether you decided to tell your partner or they found out accidentally, you are likely to feel a certain amount of relief as well as exhaustion, especially if you put a lot of energy into keeping the secret.

-While a part of you may feel better now that things are in the open, another part of you may feel terribly guilty. You genuinely care about your partner and hate the fact that you hurt them.

-You wonder if you should lie to your partner to protect them from the full extent of the truth.

-You feel nervous or terrified about the future, anger at yourself or at no one in particular. There is often an overwhelming feeling of shame and disgust.

-You wonder who you have become. If you cared about the person you had the affair with, there is some guilt and concern about them, too.

-You may experience an overwhelming feeling of isolation, as few people will express empathy for your situation.