Ask the Expert Answers: Week 2

Answers for Traci Freeman from The Couples Center.

How do you decide whether you need couple’s counseling or individual counseling?


Wonderful question!  Couple’s counseling looks at the “system” of the relationship and takes into account how you interact together, impact one another, talk about issues, how you handle conflict and how you manage yourself in the relationship.  Because it is therapy with two people, often there are limited opportunities to go deeper into the personal work of one person.


Individual therapy is dedicated time to you!  It is all about how you feel, how you are impacted by things, how and why things happen from your perspective and it can dive more deeply into very personal issues.


If you feel that you want personal space to process some things, then individual therapy is a great place to start.  Often once a person begins their journey of looking within and understanding themselves more, then couples therapy can be more effective.  Many of my couples also have individual therapy simultaneously, this is not uncommon. The extra support of having that personal time to open up more fully, without feeling on edge because another person is there, can bring more healing to the situation.  If you feel there is something “YOU” want to explore or work on that is impacting the relationship, then feel into if you want the one-on-one time or you feel better going with your partner. Ultimately, it’s more about which type of therapy makes you feel safe, trusting and open so you can grow.


What’s the #1 piece of advice that you can give new parents to maintain harmony and connection?


Understand that you are both in this together!  Be empathetic to what the other person is going through.  Try to listen to their experience, then validate it. You are both new in this experience so give yourself, and each other, some compassion to grow into the newness of it.  So, this is the #2 piece of advice because it’s hard to sum it up in one. Despite probably being super busy and distracted, don’t forget to appreciate each other – EXPLICITLY!  Say the nice things you are thinking, share how the other person makes you feel, be encouraging through the process and make sure you validate one another.


How do you recommend keeping the spice in the marriage when you have young kids, and please don’t say date night.


Define what spice means to you, then share it with your partner.  One of the biggest issues between couples is they don’t communicate what they want or what feels good around intimacy and sex.  Leaving out the ambuiguity saves you both a lot of time and mind reading.


Create moments through the day, night and week to fulfill your partner’s desires.  It could be writing them a sweet, but naughty message, waking up with a massage, offering more hugs, whispering in each other’s ear, undressing in front of one another and allowing yourself to be seen and touched, snuggling naked under the blankets instead of watching TV, putting down the phone and picking up a toy.  There is a real misconception that “spicy” only means sex and sex is that one act that takes place every now and then. That is not always sustaining, and may even put pressure on performance.


Instead, flirt!  Flirt some more and then some more.  The interactions that bring you closer will create desire, elicit some passion and will hopefully lead to arousal.  The element of surprise is real when it comes to keeping things spicy! It’s not just one date night, it’s an everyday awareness of wanting to make your partner feel wanted and desired, and feeling that in return.  I say it again – letting each other know that you desire and want them is spicy!


The holidays are approaching and we will be spending it with my in-laws. It seems that no matter how hard we try, there are always arguments and stress. One of the main issues in my family is that my in-laws never think we are grateful enough for the gifts they give and their hospitality. (which they are very generous- so generous that it actually makes me uncomfortable with how much they spoil our kids) Do you have any tips of how to just get along in general with your in-laws during the holidays and how I can express my gratitude better.


I hear that you are putting a lot of pressure on yourself to change the situation that involves a many people.  You are only capable of managing yourself and they will react whatever way they will. It’s a hard balance, but let go of trying to change them or expect something different may offer you some peace.  When you know what to expect you can take pressure off yourself to manage the situation. Most likely this is a family dynamic that has deep roots so trying to resolve the underlying issues now can feel overwhelming. There is a reason they think you are not grateful enough and this has nothing to do with you.  It has everything to do with how they view themselves, money, relationships and their own family history.


When the holidays are over, I suggest you and your partner discuss how they make you feel, and the stress this causes.  Create some open dialog so you both can understand where this comes from, create boundaries with them and maybe even talk to your in-laws.  Bringing this to light may seem difficult, but the courage will pay off if you all can honestly speak about how you are feeling.


I also notice that they are making you feel uncomfortable with their generosity, so I imagine it’s hard to be authentically grateful when you feel this way.  Look inside yourself to understand your relationship with the gifts, the hospitality and their actions. What feelings arise for you? What boundaries do you feel are being crossed or ignored?  How do you wish they handled things? Your reaction is about your relationship to these things. Show yourself some compassion around this, and ask your partner for support. I always tell my clients that understanding the feelings, the connections and reasons for behavior can diminish the intensity of the behavior.  This is deeper personal work that may take time. There is no “fix” that you can do to make the family different, but you can be kind to yourself and others when it’s uncomfortable.


By the way, there is usually more stress and tension during the holidays because families don’t talk about the real issues the rest of the year.  You definitely are not alone!


I have been thinking about going back to work after the holidays (I have stayed home full time for several years raising our young children) My husband and I aren’t on the same page when it comes to how many hours I should work, child care, etc. How can I talk with him about this and how do I make the decision that is best for our family?


If you feel comfortable in the relationship, you talk honestly with him about it.  Start with what going back to work means to you. What does it fulfill? How does it make you feel?  How/what does it add to your sense of self? Letting him into the feelings and meaning will pave the way for empathetic listening and not defensive listening.  


Next ask him the same questions.  What does all of it mean to him, how does he feel, what does he think will happen if you do or do not.  Exploring the true impact on each of you is a great starting place. Allowing your defenses to soften so you can take in each other’s feelings is important.  


Keeping your connection as the priority, over the decision about work, will allow you both to feel validated, heard and hopefully come to a mutual agreement.  If you are feeling cut-off or shut down by his point of view, then the communication and relationship may need some healing. Seeing a therapist may be helpful as you explore new roles / shift in the family.  This will be a change for everyone, so reminding yourself of that can lead to compassion for all of you. When the family structure changes, partner’s sometimes need more time to adjust.


We all need a sense of self!  If this is your path, going back to work, then hopefully he will understand.


My husband and I disagree over things like bedtime, screen time and sometimes discipline. How do we work through these issues?


Parents enter this role with different frameworks based on how they were raised, what worked or didn’t work in the past, the expectations you have for your kids and your own feelings around what is acceptable and not.  Rarely are these thoughts and beliefs explicitly talked about before parenthood. Instead it’s often learn as we go and then realize you are so different. There is no simple answer for this!


Start by understanding the true, deeper meaning of your beliefs. Why do you believe in this or that bedtime?  Where did this come from? Are you willing to negotiate on it, why or why not? What’s your emotional connection to your preferred type of discipline?  How do you each see this as valuable or not? I find it better for couples to write these down and then talk, so the ideas and beliefs stay clear and the conversation stays on point.


Other questions:  what does screen time mean to you?  EX: distraction for kids, free time for you, learning opportunities, wasted time, time that should be used playing outside.  The meaning you make of this will take you down the path of how important it is to you, and is your viewpoint worthy of holding on to.  It also allows you to see how your partner makes meaning of it. This opens you both up to vulnerability about what parenting means to each of you.  It’s from this place, having a deeper understanding of yourself, that you can make these decisions.  


When you can articulate how you feel about it, opposed to what you “think” about it, then you can find some common ground.  You both have to get to an open place for negotiating without losing a sense of yourself. When you can come to an agreement, say for bedtime, then stick with it.  You need to support one another in the mutual decision and be respectful of the agreement. This also brings consistency to the family structure and the kids.

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