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

April Is Dedicated To Relationships: Love Languages

This spring, Heart of the City therapists are championing the idea of  commitment to and focus on romantic relationships. We are encouraging folks to channel some of that springtime energy into their chosen, committed, adult relationships. We'd like to challenge the somewhat common notion that if you have to work too hard at a love relationship, it's probably just not right. Instead, we propose the possibility that it is the work that makes it right. You know the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, "Life is a journey not a destination."? That's where we're going with this. Just as individual growth is a dynamic, ever evolving process, so is the growth of a relationship. When each partner takes time to focus on where the relationship has been, how it's growing now, and where growth might lead to in the future, that is time well spent. To support our readers in their journey along the road of relationship growth, during the month of April our blog posts will be focused on specific activities that promote relationship growth. We hope you will take what speaks to you, leave what doesn't and be inspired to search for other ways to spur growth in your relationship. 

Love Languages

To start the month off, we are introducing Love Languages. This is an activity developed by Dr. Gary Chapman. He has identified five main "love languages". These languages are five main ways that individuals experience and express love. The identified 5 love languages are Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch. 

In Chapman's book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, he asserts that we each have a primary Love Language which is fairly stable over time and begins in early childhood. In his work with couples, he began to identify thematic expressions of love and how these expressions were missed in relationships when the other person did not identify them as expressions of love. He noticed that the couples he worked with were able to rekindle the emotional love in their relationships by learning and speaking their partner's primary love language. You can learn more about how he developed this theory and take the Love Language quiz to identify your own love language on his website: 5 Love Languages

Have fun taking the quiz with your partner and discussing the results. Some questions you might consider are: Do you agree with the primary love language identified in the quiz? Why or why not? Were you surprised to learn your partner's main love language? Can you identify times when your partner is speaking to you in their love language? Times when you are speaking each other's love languages well? What do those times look like? What do they feel like? Enjoy the conversation this quiz and these questions spark with your partner, and appreciate the focus you've given to your relationship. 

Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

Take the 5 Love Languages Quiz Here


Relationship Affirmations

Positive affirmations are a well known strategy for personal growth. They can be used to increase self-esteem, create healthy habits and increase feelings of gratitude. Just as personal affirmations can be used to create and sustain personal growth, relationship affirmations can create and sustain relationship growth. Let's start by examining the mechanics of how affirmations work. 

Affirmations are statements which confirm or validate a belief we want to be true. Affirmations are always statements rather than questions. We do not need to fully believe they are true when we say them. The idea behind them is that by affirming a belief out loud it will become true. For example, a person struggling with poor self-esteem might say out loud to themselves, "I am important and valuable exactly the way I am." This person may not believe this at first, but the more the affirmation is said, the less discomfort is experienced and eventually this statement is woven into the story this person has about themselves. It becomes truth. 

The process of creating affirmations involves identifying a negative message you have been telling yourself and then creating a positive message which stands against that negative message.  In my work with individuals who have experienced sexual violence one negative message that is often identified is, "I am responsible for my assault." There are many different ways to stand against this, but one counter statement is, "I deserve to be safe." I have heard from people I work with that they didn't realize how much they needed to verbally affirm a desired belief until they identified the negative message, took a stand against it and spoke the affirmation out loud. 

We absorb all kinds of messages about who we are as individuals as well as who we are in relationships. These messages come from the media, our families of origin, our school and workplaces, our circle of friends as well as ourselves and our partners. Through the process of creating affirmations, we can identify what messages we want to make stronger and which messages we want to counter. In our romantic attachment relationships we can use the process of creating relationship affirmations as a way to identify and discuss our shared life values and then as a support in intentionally living those values in our relationship. 

The first step is to sit down with your partner and identify some of the negative messages about your relationship that you've come to believe. Perhaps busy schedules, lack of shared interests and missed bids for connection have led to a belief that the relationship is a business relationship rather than a friendship. A couple in this situation might create an affirmation such as, "Our relationship is based on a strong friendship." The partners would say this statement out loud to each other affirming their new relationship goal. 

The examination of the negative belief is key to creating the positive affirmation. We need to know what it is we are fighting in order to take a sturdy position against it. Using the example above, the couple must first examine what messages and actions supported the belief that their business partnership is more important than their friendship. They must also evaluate that belief before they can move forward with creating the affirmation. What messages support the problem belief? What actions have they taken to support the problem? What values are they reinforcing when they choose to support the problem? Where did those values come from, and do they still hold those values? Taking the time to do this examination as a couple will strengthen the bond between you and create a relationship that will be strong enough to withstand the problem messages.

Creating the counter statement, or the affirmation, is a chance for partners to identify the shared values and relationship goals they have. What relationship values do they want to reinforce going forward? What messages and actions support their preferred relationship? Who in their lives supports these values and reinforces these messages?  I have been fortunate to be a witness to these conversations and the renewed commitment and pride in relationship that these conversations create. 

If the first two steps are thoroughly completed and processed, the act of stating the relationship affirmation becomes empowering. Partners can make these statements out loud to each other to affirm the direction their relationship is heading and each of their commitment to this new way of being together.

I recommend that partners go through this affirmation process at various stages in their relationship. Human beings are wired for growth, therefore, our relationships are destine for growth and change as well. Creating relationship affirmations can be a time to reflect on the changes in your relationship, evaluate where the relationship is now and make intentional decisions about how the relationship will grow in the future. 

Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

Attachment Styles in Adulthood

When people come to see me for relationship therapy they often describe feeling "stuck" in the same fight over and over again. This pattern of being "stuck" in a perpetual fight might be due to one or all partners not having their attachment needs met and/or understood.  

When we think of attachment we often think of the parent-child bond.  Attachment Theory was developed by John Bowlby and supported by the research work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth. This theory suggests that secure attachments to our caregivers are promoted by having an emotionally responsive caregiver, and maladaptive attachment patterns are the result of inadequate responsiveness from our caregiver. Follow-up research has suggested that attachment styles are most likely the result of care giver responses as well as innate factors such as temperament. Jerome Kagan's research supports the interconnectedness of biology and environment in attachment style development; or nature and nurture rather than nature or nurture. 

Our committed, romantic relationships are our adult attachment relationships. Our attachment style has some impact on our relationship, and our adult relationships have an impact on our attachment style. Couples therapist, Sue Johnson, developed a theory of therapy centered around the concept of attachment. Her theory of therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy , walks couples through the steps it takes to recognize what she calls the relationship's attachment "dance" and then adjust the "dance" to foster a stronger bond and more secure attachment. She emphasizes that couples need to recognize the attachment needs of each person and work to meet each other's attachment needs through emotional responsiveness. 

People communicate their attachment needs in different ways. A person's temperament, communication style and attachment style are all factors in how we attempt to get our attachment needs met. Reflecting on your own attachment style can help you make choices about relationships and behavior. Attachment styles are not fixed, and can even change from relationship to relationship. 

Every person deserves a relationship where they feel safe and secure. We will all attempt to meet our attachment needs in some way, as well as protect ourselves from potential attachment injuries. Understanding how yourself and your partner(s) meet their attachment needs in your current relationship can help us empathize with each other and better understand behaviors that get in the way of building connections. 

-Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

Attachment Styles  Courtesty of: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201503/how-change-your-attachment-style

Attachment Styles

Courtesty of: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201503/how-change-your-attachment-style

New Year's Resolutions For Emotional Wellbeing

The new year is a time when many of us decide to focus on something we would like to change or improve upon in our lives. Often, physical health or career  goals take center stage this time of year. Our emotional and mental health need not take a back seat to these goals. In fact, focusing on our emotional wellbeing will help us to reach our other goals. 

Emotional wellbeing is achieved when we are able to experience a range of emotions as well as function well in our relationships, work, school and home lives. Emotional wellbeing doesn't mean the absence of negative emotions, rather, it is the ability to experience those emotions, know they are temporary and believe that you will bounce back. This ability is known as emotional resilience. There are skills we can develop to build emotional resilience and promote emotional wellbeing. I have highlighted three skill areas to strengthen your emotional wellbeing in 2017. 

1. Develop an emotional vocabulary. In my therapy office I will often ask, "What emotion is present when you think/talk about that?" This question gives people pause to think about what emotion they are experiencing during any given event. Emotions are something we don't talk a lot about during our everyday lives, yet we are constantly experiencing an emotion of one kind or another. When we are able to recognize an emotion and name it, that action alone can reduce the intensity of our reaction to it. The feeling wheel, developed by Gloria Willcox, can be a useful tool to build our vocabulary around emotion. 

2. Recognize your strengths and the strengths of those around you. Numerous studies have pointed to the link between optimism and overall health. If optimism doesn't come naturally to you, that's ok. One of the ways to cultivate a more optimistic view point is to simply notice the strengths you and the people around you have. We don't need to ignore the problems in the world to have an optimistic attitude. What helps our sense of hope develop is when we see the strength and resiliency all around us. 

3. Strengthen your social support network. You're not a social butterfly? The idea of a big New Year's party makes you cringe? No worries, social support doesn't mean the number of social engagements you attend or the number of friends you have. Social support is the feeling of connectedness you have to someone else . You can choose to strengthen a current relationship you have, or you might choose to reach out to make new connections. The important thing is that you're working to increase your feeling of connectedness. Like everything else, building strong relationships is a skill that takes time to develop. If making friends doesn't come easily, here are some tips on how to build that skill. 

Every new day is an opportunity to chose to live the life you deserve. The beginning of a new year is great time to refocus on the things that build you up. This new year,  I invite you to strengthen and build the skills that will give you the emotional wellbeing you deserve. 

-Kori Hennessy, MA



Sexual Assault : What is Consent?

Consent is a verb. Within the context of sexual behavior, consent is action taken by both partners to agree to a sexual activity.  Consent is unambiguous and everyone involved should be clearly able to give willing consent. An individual has the right to stop providing consent at any time and at that time sexual activity should stop. Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated, being coerced, threatened or intimidated. In short, consent is not the absence of "no", but the presence of "yes". The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault provides detailed definitions of consent, force and coercion. The University of Minnesota, along with other universities across the nation, has adopted a policy of affirmative consent, which details what consent looks like. 

When the discussion of consent comes up, I often hear people wonder about how practical it is to obtain "affirmative consent" during real life romantic encounters. I love this wondering because it opens up space to talk about what a healthy and fulfilling sexual encounter might look like. Every person and relationship is different, so consent can look different for everyone. The important part is that there is no confusion on either partners part as to the willingness of each person to engage in the activity. Consent can become a part of a sexual relationship that enhances the experience for both people. Asking your partner what they like or want and asking permission to touch them can make sex MORE enjoyable for everyone involved. This article in Teen Vogue articulates ways to obtain and give consent that don't "kill the mood", as some might fear. 

I would like to end this blog post with a message to individuals who have experienced sexual assault. Maybe you were left wondering if what you experienced was assault, or confused about consent.  I want to send you a very clear message: It was not your fault. It is always the responsibility of the initiating party to make sure there is unambiguous, active consent. Honor the feelings and reaction that you've had to a sexual experience; whatever you're feeling is valid. If a sexual encounter left you feeling uncomfortable or confused, there are safe places for you to talk about it, places where you will be believed and never judged. Heart of the City therapists are committed to being one of those safe spaces. We are also committed to promoting other resources that offer safe spaces for victim/survivors in our community. 

-Kori Hennessy, MA

Sexual Violence Center  24 hour crisis line 612-871-5111

RAINN 24 hour National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE

The Aurora Center (University of Minnesota)  24 hour help line 612-626-9111

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

One of the questions that I am often asked is, "What is a marriage and family therapy?" That is a very good question, and one that I enjoy exploring. 

To answer the first question, let's look to Minnesota Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. On their website, part of the definition of what a Marriage and Family Therapist is states that, "Marriage and Family Therapists are skilled to address a wide array of relationship issues within the context of couples, family systems and communities. MFTs take a holistic perspective to health care; they are concerned with the overall, long-term well being of individuals, their families and their communities." This holistic perspective to health care and emphasis on overall long-term wellbeing is what drew me to the field of marriage and family therapy.
When meeting with a family, couple or individual, I am curious to learn about the problem they've come to therapy for within the context of each person's individual perspective, a couple or family's shared perspective as well as within the context of the greater community. In practice, I've come to appreciate that people often come to couple or family therapy with a strong relational (or systemic) view of the problem already. Therapy can often become a space to explore and put words to the relational complexities unique to our human experience. 
 Family therapy is an opportunity to strengthen a family's communication skills, coping skills and to enhance connection with one another. Family therapy involves exploration of problem areas, as well as identifying and promoting positive coping and care giving strategies. Family therapy works to solve the problem, but it also involves a lot of fun and laughter as part of the process. 
Marriage and Family Therapists treat a wide range of problems including depression, substance abuse, parenting issues, anxiety, infidelity, communication problems, and anxiety. You can explore more about the field of Marriage and Family Therapy by visiting The American Association of Family Therapy's website. If you have questions about Kori Hennessy or Alexa Tennyson's theories and practices of therapy, you can learn more here, or connect with one of them personally here. We are always happy to talk more about our individual practice of Family Therapy. 

Holiday Co-Parenting After Divorce or Separation

Parenting is a tough job no matter what time of year it is, but the holidays can be particularly stressful for families who are co-parenting after divorce or separation. The excitement of holiday celebrations, anticipation of gifts and the change in schedules can turn any child's world upside down. For children who are celebrating the holidays with parents who are newly living apart, the schedule changes and division of holiday celebrations may become a source of anxiety, especially if it is a source of stress for their parents.

If this is relatively new living arrangement, children will benefit from knowing well in advance what the holiday celebrations and parenting time will look like. They will want to know which traditions are changing and what they will look like now. If last year the whole family went to grandma Betty's for a big holiday dinner, they will want to know if they will still go and who will come with.

This can also be a great opportunity to start new family traditions. Coming up with ideas with your child about how you'll spend your holiday parenting time can strengthen your relationship, ease the anxieties of you child and make the time special for yourself as well. If you are looking for ideas, Family Fun Twin Cities Christmas and Holiday Guide has some great local events and resources. 

If the parenting schedule over the holidays is not what you hoped for, experiencing sadness and disappointment about not being with your children is normal. Children often feel responsible for helping their parents feel better and might try to "cheer up" a parent in distress or feel the need to take sides in an argument over holiday time. In healthy parent/child relationships, the parent clearly demonstrates that their happiness is not their child's responsibility. It can be helpful for your child to know that you won't be alone on a holiday when they can't be with you. Make plans to do something fun and share that with your child. It will make them feel better, and likely help you get through the pains of missing them as well. 

Co-parenting after separation or divorce has it's challenges, and it also has benefits when parents work together as a parenting team. If you need help navigating your new parenting arrangement, there are services available to help. I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop at Resolution Divorce Services and thought that parents might be interested in learning more about the parenting consulting and mediation services they provide. 

As with any new situation, there will be areas of growth that will be painful, but there will also be areas of growth that will be joyful and fulfilling. 

-Kori Hennessy, MA