Relationship Satisfaction Happens One Moment At A Time

Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

You come home from a long day of work looking forward to relaxing with your partner. Before that can happen, first you have to do the parenting, playing, homework, dinner, dishes, bath and stories thing. The littles are finally fast asleep and you get a minute to sit down on the couch with your partner. What comes next? Over and over again I hear the same thing from the couples I work with, "We sit down, turn on Netflix and we each turn to our phones." Hearing this so many times from so many different couples got me thinking about what this inattention might be doing to our relationships. 

Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to sign off of social media or delete your favorite game apps. As a chronic multi-tasker myself, I don't fully buy into the notion that smart phones are the main culprit in our distracted lives. I fully admit that I am as distracted by piles of laundry and old fashioned magazines as I am by my phone. I have wondered, however, how my tendency towards distraction impacts my own most valued relationships and how it might be impacting the relationships of those I work with.

Turns out I'm not the first Marriage and Family Therapist to be wondering about this. I recently read a pilot study in the journal Family Process that examined how mindfulness might impact relationship satisfaction (Gordon, Khaddoum & Strand, 2017). The study looked at the impact Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) might have on relationship satisfaction for both the partner participating in MBSR and the non-participating partner. 

As expected, both the partner who was trained in MBSR and the other partner reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after the training. What is interesting about the findings is what specific act of mindfulness was correlated most highly with increased relationship satisfaction in both partners. 

This study looked at five facets of mindfulness; Observing Experience, Describing with Words, Acting with Awareness, Non-judging of Inner Experience, and Non-Reactivity to Experience. Interestingly, Acting with Awareness correlated with the highest increase in report relationship satisfaction in both the MBSR participant and partner. So, what is Acting with Awareness and why might it be so important?  

Acting with Awareness is the ability to attend to activities in the current moment with purposeful attention (i.e. playing cards with your partner without simultaneously folding clothes, doing the laundry and checking Facebook). It involves concentrating on one activity at a time and bringing yourself intentionally back to the activity at hand when distractions arise. 

This is not a skill that comes naturally to me. I find myself jumping from one thing to the next and I whole heartedly enjoy the sense of completion I have when I am able to check everything off my list. However, what I have found in my quest to become a more content human is this; those things that I give my full attention too I remember more fondly and experience more pride when reflecting on them. 

Acting with Awareness generally results in more satisfaction with the activities we choose to do. This current study tells us that it also results in greater satisfaction in our relationships. Why? My theory is that when we give our full attention to activities we do with our partner, we enjoy them more and create memories that illicit feelings of joy that are connected to our relationship. So, then, if only one partner is acting with awareness, why would both partners benefit?

My thought is that it's really quite simple. When our partners are not distracted by multiple thoughts or activities (and therefore enjoying those activities more fully), it allows us to experience them more fully and more positively. Active Awareness creates an atmosphere of intention in our lives that impacts the people who spend the most time with us. Our partners feel more engaged with us when we are fully engaged in the activities we share with them.

Now that you know how Active Awareness can increase the quality of your relationship, how can you implement it into your life? If your like me and you find true joy in completing everything on your list before bedtime, DO NOT flagrantly attempt to mindfully play a game of cards with your spouse while the children trash the living room, the dishes are piled by the sink and the dog needs to be fed. This might result in dangerously high blood pressure and possible loud slam cleaning (not that I would know from personal experience). I recommend you start slowly. Try turning off the TV while you and your partner fold laundry. Or setting a timer for your social media browsing before starting your favorite show together. 

Creating positive emotional experiences that you associate with your relationship doesn't have to be a big deal. Actions can be simple, yet mindful. As always, my hope for you after reading this blog is that you'll share your thoughts on it with your partner and spark a conversation about your hopes for your relationship


Gordon, K, Khaddouma, A. & Strand, E. (2017). Mindful mates: a pilot study of relational effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on participants and their partners. Family Process, 56(3),  636-651. 

Mindfullness Pic.png

Curiosity is an Essential Building Block of Intimacy

Remember when your relationship was new and you couldn't stop thinking about the other person? You wondered what they thought about the movie you just saw or that book you read. Maybe you worried about whether or not they were going to like the restaurant you chose and you wondered what they liked to eat. Conversations about how they grew up and political and social beliefs felt stimulating and exciting. Remember those feelings? Wouldn't it be nice to expereince that again?

 Those feeling of excitement, nervousness and curiosity serve a purpose in the development of relationships. It is that curiosity that propels us towards getting to know each other. Curiosity is an essential building block of intimacy. 

An interesting study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology looked at the way in which curiosity promotes intimacy. The research found that people perceive individuals who are curious as more attractive and feel closer to curious individuals after even just one conversation. Another 2011 study showed that people who ranked has highly curious were better at predicting levels of extraversion and openness in other people. These findings point to curiosity being an essential part of productive communication. Attraction, emotional closeness and the ability to engage in productive communication are all elements of strong emotional intimacy in a relationship.  

Curiosity is a primary building block in romantic relationships.  The unknown is exciting and interesting, and feeling known is also exciting and interesting. Relationships that cultivate curiosity are more intimate and satisfying. So why does curiosity so often become less present in relationships? 

In relationships where couples feel they can predict their partners reactions and emotions, curiosity naturally fades. On the one hand, there is a level of comfort in knowing each other. It's nice when your partner knows how you like your steak coked, what blanket you prefer when snuggling on the couch, words and actions that make you feel loved and what turns you on sexually. This type of knowledge is what the Gottman Institute identifies as Love Maps, and having a relationship where each partner feels known is important for the health of the relationship.  

On the flip side, when couples are too confident in their ability to predict their partner's thoughts, feelings and desires, we run the risk of that lovingly held knowledge morphing into unproductive assumptions. When we assume another person's intent, emotion or inner dialogue without curiosity, we are restricting growth. We place ourselves, our partner and our relationship in a box that limits our ability to experience the thrill of being open to learning something new. One of the wonderful things about the human condition is that it is constantly changing. Esther Perel has said that "desire needs space". To desire our partner we need to create space for parts of them to be unknown to us. Curiosity does just that. 

How can you bring a sense of curiosity back into our relationship? Start by asking open ended questions, listen for understanding rather than listening for your turn to speak, and make a commitment to be present in conversations with your spouse (no phones!). A relationship where curiosity thrives takes work and commitment, but the payoff is huge. Remember the study about how curious people are perceived as more attractive? Remember that the next time you find yourself making assumptions about your partner.

Photo curtsy of Canva

Photo curtsy of Canva

Where do we go from here?

Over the weekend I read about the white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. I saw the pictures of the hatred and the violence. I saw photos of Heather Heyer, who was killed for protesting white nationalism. What will it take for us to finally dismantle systemic racism in this country? What will it take for us to create a country that celebrates diversity in all its forms? What will it take for those of us who are white to stand up to white supremacy?

When I contemplate racism in America, I often become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the complexity of this issue. Today I decided that I'm not going to take this anymore. I'm going to DO SOMETHING about it. Marlon James rightly points out that "we too often mistake discussing diversity with doing anything constructive about it. This might be something we picked up from academia, the idea that discussing an issue is somehow on par with solving it, or at least beginning the process. A panel on diversity is like a panel on world peace. It should be seeking a time when we no longer need such panels. ... the false sense of accomplishment in simply having [a panel] is deceiving us into thinking that something was tried." I'm sick of talking and talking and talking about racism and injustice as if that's going to help. 

If you'd like to take action with me, start by reading Pollen's "Confronting White Supremacy in the Workplace". Choose to support businesses and organizations owned by, operated by, or working for people of color. Donate to nonprofits that are working to dismantle racism and heal those affected by it. Ask if your workplace will match your donation or set up a staff volunteer event. Join a protest or demonstration. Care for your loved ones who may be experiencing trauma as a result of these events. Volunteer your time, energy, resources, and assistance. Speak up when you hear a racist joke or comment. Advocate for diversity in your workplace and speak with those who make hiring decisions about the importance of a diverse workforce. Engage in local, state, and national politics to advocate for policies that remedy systemic injustice.

As a therapy practice, Kori and I are committed to providing a safe and nurturing space that recognizes the effects of systemic racism and social injustice. We will affirm and validate your experiences and assist you in deciding what action to take, if any, and how to heal. 

We have a lot of work to do, and if each of us does one small thing it can add up to significant change. If you have ideas about how to dismantle systemic racism, please share them here or with your community. 

Alexa Tennyson, MA, LAMFT

Choosing Humanity

"Trump is not going to allow transgender people to serve in any branch of the military." This was the text I received from my husband while wrapping up a meeting with a colleague at a local sexual violence center. A quick google search landed me on breaking news articles that confirmed the US president's order that the US military is to openly discriminate against people who are willing to fight and die for our country.  

The tears came as I was driving down I-94 towards my office. They were unexpected, unwelcome. I wanted to feel angry and motivated. Instead, these warm tears were bringing my attention to a hurt somewhere inside of me. I often tell people I meet with that every emotion has a purpose, and if we can be curious about the purpose, we can often find hope.

This hurt was bringing my attention to my humanity. It was reminding me that we are all connected. When a fellow human being's humanity is threatened, our own hurt is there to remind us of this connection.

It's that feeling of connection to others that I choose to be my motivation. The transgender community has endured too much pain. Being told to live in secrecy, to have your economic security and physical safety openly threatened by the leader of our nation is not ok.  

This military order by the president is threatening the dignity and humanity of a group of people based on their identity.  As a human being, a mother and a marriage and family therapist, I am committed to standing against this act of discrimination and co-creating conversations that preference the experiences and humanity of those impacted by this. Policies such as this are responsible for the high suicide rate and the unacceptable numbers of transgender individuals who experience violent crime, unemployment and homelessness. We can do better. We must do better.

Written by Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

Insulating Your Relationship From The Effects of Stress

Stress from work, kids, finances, family and friendship obligations can all impact the relationship we have with our significant other. Do you ever find yourself snapping at your loved one and then feeling guilty about it later? I know I sure do. When we live with the person we love, it is only natural that they will get both the best and the worst of us. At our workplace or with our friends we often expect better behavior from ourselves, but when we come home to our family the tension we've been holding all day can sneak up on us and come out in ways we'd rather not admit to in public. 

If you're finding that outside stress is impacting your relationship on a regular basis, or that the effects are becoming a problem in your relationship, here are some tips to help manage the impact of stress on your relationship.

1. Do less. This is both the least favorite advice I have ever received and the most effective advice I have ever received. I'm a chronic doer. There is really nothing in the world that compares to checking off that final item on my to-do-list. I love that feeling of accomplishment. I have found myself sucked into thinking that the longer the to-do-list, the greater the sense of accomplishment will be. It took me a while to admit to myself that this isn't what happens in practice. The truth is that when my to-do-list gets too long, I have more difficulty identifying what is truly important to me. When my list is too long, my patience is shorter, I have less pride in the results of my projects and I'm generally less present in all that I do. I've discovered that doing less means that I have more of the parts of my life that I enjoy.

The idea of doing less to have more can be applicable to people who aren't chronic doers as well. People have different limits as to how long their lists can be. The tricky part is figuring out what your own limits are. When we're in a relationship, we also have to find ways to communicate to our partners what our limits are. To take it a step further, it can also be helpful to figure out what our family limits are. Conversations about how and what to limit on our family schedule can be empowering by helping to shape, define and clarify our family values and goals. 

2. Have a buisness meeting. One practical way to limit your to-do-list is to have a regularly scheduled business meeting with your partner. This is a regular scheduled time that is NOT part of a date night. It is a time when you and your partner sit down and talk about the business of running your family. The agenda can include finances, housework, calendar planning, meal prep, child care arrangements; the things that are often on one or both partners individual to-do-list. Sitting down to talk about these things as a couple can become an opportunity to share in responsibilities, feel supported in day to day life by your partner and feel a sense of team work. 

3. Share your feelings and ask for space when you need it. Sometimes outside stress can be overwhelming and what we need is time alone to process and decompress. Our partners can be left feeling inadequate if they want to support us and we want to be alone. A simple but effective communication tool can help prevent and manage hurt feelings during these times. First, share your feeling, "I feel overwhelmed and frustrated." Next, share what this feeling is about, "Work is incredibly difficult right now. My supervisor has been on me all week about getting this report done and I just don't seem to have enough hours in the day." Lastly, ask for what you need, "I really need some time alone to decompress before we get on with our night. Can I have an hour to myself?" This technique is helpful because by sharing your feelings and thoughts first, you're including your partner in your inner world. This can help your partner feel a sense of connection with you as well as the opportunity to give you what you need, even if that is time alone. In addition, you're honoring what your needs are and trusting that your partner will be able to help you meet those needs. 

4. Ask for a hug. Sometimes what we need is a hug. Physical connection with our attachment partner can do wonders to alleviate stress. Research has shown that hugging actually reduces the stress hormones cortisol and  norepinephrine. You can read more about the amazing benefits of hugging here

5. Practice your own self-care, and become knowledgable about your partners self-care. The times when stress is most present in our lives are usually the times that are the most inconvenient to practice self-care. This is when having a partner who knows what your self-care is and can recognize when you're not practicing it can come in handy. Having conversations about what our own self-care is can give your relationship that opportunity to support your individual well-being. Your partner will benefit from gentle reminders to practice self-care, and you will benefit from the same.


If you've tried any of these tips and they've worked for you, I'd love to hear about it. If you have other tips you would add to the list, I would love to hear those as well. I look forward to reading your comments below.  


Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Choosing Willful Non-Conformity: An Interview With Author, Storyteller and Gender Identity Activist Christie Marie Kent

My fourteen-year-old son says to me, “I can’t fit in at school. Have you ever felt that way?”

“First of all,” I say, “I was a boy who thought I should have been born a girl. I didn’t have a clue how to act normal. Second, and more importantly, I don’t want to hear you say, ‘I can’t fit in.’ Instead, say, ‘I choose willful nonconformity.’ Like your brother, here, with his purple mohawk.”

The purple-haired son ignores me. -Excerpt from Miss Sophrosyne, award winning story by Christie Marie Kent. 

This week's blog post was born out of my desire to keep our outreach true to our values of strength based conversations that honor the strength, humanity and dignity of all those we serve. As a therapist, I  have the opportunity and a responsibility to create space for people to tell their stories, explore stories more deeply, develop new story lines, make connections with important people in their lives, and above all, recognize their own strength and power. It is never my job to tell someone else's story. As Alexa and I began to explore ways to get the word out about our gender identity support group, it became obvious to me that the best use of this week's blog space would be to showcase a person who has used the sharing of their gender identity story to help themselves and others. Someone whose compassion, talent and tenacity has been of therapeutic benefit not only to themselves, but to others as well. I immediately thought of Christy.

I first met Christy at writing workshop in Minneapolis. She read an excerpt from a novel she was working on. It was a murder mystery with a masturbating nun. Christy read it in her naturally smooth and colorful southern accent. I was disappointed when the reading ended, the best sign of a good story; I wanted more.  She delivered. Week after week she came to read more of the novel. Then one evening, her reading was different. It was the story of a woman who transitioned from living as a male person, to living as a female person. This story contained the same dynamic characters, skillful structure, humor and humanism as the stories I'd heard from her before. It wasn't until a few weeks later that Christy shared why this story was different; it was true. The character in it was her, and the story was Changing With Grace

I am thinking of how we first met when we sit down for a chat. 


Kori: How has your art, writing and storytelling been a strength for you?

Christy: When I started writing and story telling I kept saying that I wouldn't tell the true stories because those are ones nobody wants to hear, and the ones people do want to hear I'm not going to tell. It wasn't until my family said some really, really mean and hurtful things to me that pushed me over the edge...I was getting ready to jump off the Smith Avenue Bridge because of what they said to me. I didn't jump, you probably figured that out (laughter).

It was probably a month or two after that when I said, people need to hear these stories. They need to know what they're doing to us. At the next Story Slam I told what had happen down at my uncle's farm in Mississippi. It wasn't a well structured story, it was not well prepared, I was having trouble just getting the words out. The audience was totally into it and completely supportive. It was after that when I said "I'm a Minnesotan now, y'all. You better get used to me." 

The reception I got that night both gave me the external support I needed, (in addition to therapy and my immediate family who were wonderful), and at the same time I realized that they want to know these stories. They want to know how other people think and feel....There was a connection that night...It was after that when I started telling all my trans stories at Story Slams. By the way, that's when I went from competing well in Story Slams, to winning Story Slams. Because people want to hear these stories. 

Kori: There are two parts to your work. The writing, which speaks to the introvert in you, and then there's the performing. Thinking of art as a therapeutic tool, do writing and performing each serve a different therapeutic purpose for you, or are they similar?

Christy: They're very similar. The one thing you get with performing that you don't get with writing is that immediate feedback. When the crowd is supporting and cheering for you, that makes it easier to deal with the more difficult things in life. 

Kori: You used the word connection.

Christy: Yes. Storytelling doesn't work unless you make a connection with the audience. 

Kori: How does the writing serve you in a therapeutic way? 

Christy: Partly because you have to write your story, but separately because of the writing that's not intended for performance...I've done some memoir writing, but I'm more interested in fiction where I can create characters that exhibit these traits, or go through these experiences. In many cases those are different experiences than what I went through...but I can give the book color by experiences that I have been through...but at the same time I can create characters that have gone through far worse things than I've gone through and say, well at least I don't have to go through that.

Kori: So what does the give you? 

Christy: Besides the generic act of creation, which is something in itself, how it relates to my experience is that I can create characters that other people have the chance to see from the inside out. They're in her head, and they can't do that in real life. So I'm able to share this with other people in a more effective way, because people want to know how other people experience the world. 

Kori: Is that something you've always known? That people want to know how other people experience the world? 

Christy: No! No. I did not believe it was true at all. I grew up in a very conservative Southern Baptist family. If you don't know how conservative Southern Baptists are, let me just say this, my parents freaked out when I joined the much more liberal, left wing Roman Catholic church (laughter). We were not encouraged to be different. We were not encouraged to act in anyway non-conforming to the roles we were assigned. We were told that gay people were going to hell. In high school I didn't know anybody who was openly wasn't until college that I got to know gay people. One of whom was in the dorm right next to mine. And I shunned him. Didn't even talk to him. It wasn't until we were seniors that I got to know him and I realized he was a really cool guy and I regretted not having gotten to know him sooner. But we just didn't talk about these things. They weren't acceptable.

So as far as who I was? I learned from an early age I better keep that buried. Nobody wants to hear about it, and if they do hear about it they're going to shun me. 

Kori: So the Story Slam, was that a big epiphany.

Christy: Oh yeah!

Kori: Were you living as a woman at that point?

Christy: Oh yeah. I had been for about eight or ten years, but in stealth mode. 


Christy goes into more detail about "stealth mode." She shares that she writes and performs under a pen name to avoid anyone at work or at her kids' schools finding out for fear of being fired or shunned. Or worse.  This reminds me, that although Minnesota may have been a more accepting place for Christy than the South, we still have a marathon in front of us. 


Kori: Did your art work support you earlier?

Christy: No, because I wasn't doing anything then.

Kori: So you didn't have a creative outlet when you transitioned?

Christy: Not really.

Kori: What did support you?

Christy: The support group. That was crucial. I would not have survived without them. There were only two times in my life when I've truly been suicidal. I told you about one, the other was before I came out. When I was hopeless because I couldn't go on. I saw no way, being married with two kids, I saw no way to transition and be who I wanted to be, but I had also discovered by that time I would never be happy if I didn't transition...

Kori: What did the support group give you?

Christy: Hope. The reason I was suicidal was because I lost hope. They gave it back to me. They showed me that there are ways to do this. I was also very fortunate that my wife was perfect. She was an angel. And she wanted me to be happy, even though it was going to hurt her...but she decide from the beginning that she would rather have me as a happy female friend and co-parent than as a late husband. 


At this point in the interview I pause to thank Hope. Hope is my favorite. 


Kori: Do you ever use writing as a therapeutic tool that you won't share with other people, like journaling.

Christy: No, I've never been a journaler. When I'm writing, I'm writing something that I want to share with other people. 

Kori: So that connection is a big piece of it for you?

Christy: Yes. And part of it is knowing that I'm doing the right thing after all. And that's what story telling gives me. You know how much rejection you have to deal with in writing, you don't go into that for a pat on the back. But storytelling, when you make that connection with the audience and they're rooting for you, then that is very affirming. 

Kori: What is it about the performance piece that means so much?

Christy: There is so much to it. Part of it is knowing that I'm sharing something very intimate, something that I could't share before. Years ago I could have never shared it. Now I get up on stage in front of 600 people! My general formula is in the beginning I get them laughing, and part of it is that I give them permission to laugh...and then towards the middle is when I hit them with what it really means, and then I bring it back up at the end. And when I'm up on stage getting to that middle part, where there's no reaction from the audience...I start worrying that I'm bombing, and then you get to the end and they scream for you...they give you high scores! I go, yes, yes, they like me! It's ok to be who I am!

Kori: That's a skill you have. Bringing in that humor, in your writing, your work gives us a range of human experience.

Christy: Yes, yes. You have to have a range of it. Or it falls flat. 

Kori: How has it been for you to tell other people's stories? People you love. Because your story involves other people. 

Christy: Yeah. I try to be careful about that because I don't want to tell their story wrong. If I'm going to mess up anybody's story, I want it to be mine...When we did the play Transfamily, they were not my we had three different actresses telling three different stories, none of them were telling their own story. The people who gave me these stories were not performers. They weren't writers either. And one of those stories was my ex-wife, and that was a get her story right, to make it true and not make her feel bad. That was a challenge....but none of us do this transition perfectly. We all make mistakes. And if we don't admit to those mistakes then we're not telling the whole story and it's not true. With myself, that's easier, over the last year or so I'm trying to find more stories where I'm not the hero. Where I'm screwing up and learning a lesson from someone else who is the hero...

Kori: What is the importance of telling about the mistakes? 

Christy: For the non-trans people, so they can see we're being realistic. We're not just making stuff up to make ourselves look better. For the trans people, for them to be able to learn from that experience because the people who are reading it or hearing it are going to make mistakes, and that's ok, because non-trans people make mistakes too....

We have to learn how to recognize that we make these mistakes and move on. Not let them destroy us. 

Kori: I find memoir very difficult to write. You have to look very deep into yourself and make yourself a dimensional character.

Christy: But if it's just the five minutes at a time, you just need to look at that one aspect...

Kori: Is that how you started telling your story?

Christy: Yes. Five minutes at a time. 

Kori: That's good advice. If you had advice to give to therapists, to folks who are working on gender identity issues with other people, what would you most like us to know? Especially cis-gendered therapists?

Christy: The biggest thing is what you're doing now. Talk to people who've been through it. And you're doing it now. 

Kori: What's important to do in those conversations. For me, what's important for me to do?

Christy: To understand what they did well, and what they didn't. Obviously, everyone's situation is going to be different, but you can draw on those experiences to warn people about what could go wrong, because you have to do a lot of planning to get through this well...Everybody's path is different, everybody's successes are different, so just having that huge variety to draw on.

Kori: What about when you speak with people who are either younger, or people who are just staring to consider transitioning or publicly questioning their gender identity. What do you do to support them?

Christy: The most important thing is to let them know that it's ok to be who they need to be. That I am behind them no matter what they decide to do. If they want me to talk about what I've been through I'd be happy to tell them, you don't have to ask me twice to tell a story (laughter),...but if they want my stories they'll ask for them. Otherwise they just need to know that I support what they're going through, not what I went through. That we support them no matter what. 


The simplest and most difficult words. No matter what. We support you no matter what.

Thank you Christie, for all the times and all the ways you've told your story. For all the stories belonging to other people that you lovingly hold and share, for all the characters you create for us to get to know from the inside out, and for sitting down with me for this conversation. 

If you'd like to hear Christie tell her stories in her own voice, and I highly recommend that you do, you can see her new work Pope Joan: The First Transgender Pontiff which opens at the Minnesota Fringe Festival on August 3rd. Click here for a complete listing of Christie's upcoming performances and samples of her writing. 

May is Dedicated to Gender Identity: The Personal is Political and the Political is Personal

Recently, a friend in the legal profession shared with me the opinion of one of the judges in the Gavin Grimm case and I'd like to share it with you as well. Gavin Grimm is a high school student in Virginia who has been in a legal fight to use the bathroom that aligns with his gender identity while he is at school. Gavin was originally awarded the right to use the boys bathrooms at school, but with President Trump overturning federal guidelines about transgender bathroom use in schools, this decision has been vacated. Two judges in this case wrote an opinion supporting Gavin's struggle for justice and placing it within the current and historical social-political context.

April is Dedicated to Relationships: Rediscovering Joy

Most often when I meet new couples the relationship is facing a crisis. The effects of infidelity or addictions, financial or parenting stressors, sexual concerns or years of unproductive conflict generally take center stage during our first meeting. It makes sense, people come to a relationship therapist for help fixing a problem in their relationship, so we talk about the problem. Don't get me wrong, dissecting the problem can be very productive. However, I've found the most productive conversation starter in a first meeting with a couple is this: "Tell me about the first time you met."   

When couples start to tell me about when they first met, the room becomes lighter. At some point in the telling of their story there is laughter in the remembering and surprise at the details each individual recalls. Our serious discussion turns, if only for a few minutes, to playful banter. This is one of my favorite conversations to be a witness to.

Connecting with positive emotions and memories during times of turmoil is not avoiding the problem, it is strengthening the positive storyline that is also part of the narrative of the relationship. Often times, there are solutions to the problem within the times when the problem is not present. So often, I am amazed by the ability of couples to strengthen their relationship by rediscovering how they find joy together. 

After a meeting, couples sometimes ask me what they should do during the time before our next meeting. My response is often, "enjoy each other." Easier said than done when you've been in deep conflict for an extended period of time. People sometimes think that by enjoying each other they are ignoring the problem. Enjoyment doesn't have to mean avoidance, and doesn't have to mean acceptance of bad behavior either. We can enjoy our relationships in the midst of serious problems. Joy, sadness, anger and love can all exist simultaneously. 

If you're reading this and your relationship is in crisis, I encourage you to give yourself permission to experience joy. Focus, for at least a few minutes, on those times when the problem is or was not present. You might find that the solution is closer than you thought.

-Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

April is Dedicated to Relationships: Gratitude

Gratitude is often cited as one of the keys to happiness. In the last decade, researchers have been studying the psychological and health benefits of practicing gratitude. If you're the research-reading type, you can read a summary of 26 studies on gratitude here.  The basic claim is that practicing gratitude increases feelings of satisfaction and happiness. From a positive psychology standpoint, it makes sense that the more we focus on the good, the better we feel.

This logic follows into our romantic relationships. If we make a point to practice gratitude for our partner and our relationship, we will increase the positive feelings we have about our relationship. When we experience conflict in our relationship, we often shift our focus toward what we want to change. This is a natural and important shift; recognizing what we want to change motivates us toward growth. However, we sometimes forget that we can both change the things we want to change, and simultaneously appreciate aspects of our partner and relationship that we hold dear. 

It is especially important during times of stress to intentionally focus on what we appreciate about our partner and our relationship. If we can locate our ability to feel gratitude, we will be better able to protect ourselves and our relationship from one of the biggest threats to growth: hopelessness. One of the best pieces of advice I received in graduate school regarding couples came from a seasoned marriage and family therapist. He shared that in his work with couples, he found one thing to be true amongst all the couples he worked with. He found that what couples are most looking for when they come to therapy is hope. Cultivating gratitude inspires hope. You don't need a relationship therapist to give you that hope, you can create it yourself. 

One way to cultivate gratitude for your partner and relationship is by keeping a gratitude journal. Choose a journal that fits for you, whether it's plain, pretty, or you embellish it yourself. Commit to writing one thing about your partner that you are grateful for every day. It doesn't need to be a big thing that you're grateful for, in fact, finding gratitude for the little things might be more useful in rekindling fondness and admiration for your partner. If you find yourself stuck, you might want to use some journal prompts. The Gottman Institute has a Fondness and Admiration workbook which is a more structured type of exercise that many people I've worked with have found useful. You can purchase it here, or, if you're seeing a relationship therapist, they might have it on hand.

A gratitude journal is an exercise that can strengthen your relationship. When you are truly feeling grateful, share that with your partner. Everyone needs to feel appreciated. Feeling appreciated often leads to experiencing more gratitude. Now you've created a vicious cycle of positive feelings towards one another, and a basic foundation for hope in your relationship. 

-Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT