NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, June 29, 2024

Overcoming Codependency in a Relationship

Overcoming codependent behavior in your relationship can be challenging, but there are steps you can take to help with the process.

Overcoming Codependency in a Relationship

What is Codependency in a Relationship?
Let's start by defining codependency.

Codependency in a relationship means consistently prioritizing your partner's wants and needs over your own.

Someone who is in a codependent relationship often bases their moods on how their partner is feeling and behaving instead of being aware of how they feel as a separate person from their partner.

Overcoming Codependency in a Relationship

A pattern of codependent behavior can lead to:
  • Disconnecting from one's own thoughts and feelings (in favor of your partner)
  • Developing unhealthy relationship dynamics
  • Decreasing one's sense of self worth and well-being
What Does Codependency Look Like in a Relationship?
One or more of the following traits or behaviors can indicate codependency in a relationship:
  • Putting a partner's needs above one's own needs most of the time
  • Sacrificing one's own well-being and self care in favor of a partner most of the time
  • Lacking an individual identity outside the relationship
  • Taking responsibility for a partner's well-being most of the time (instead of a partner taking responsibility for their own well-being)
  • Choosing a partner to be "fixed" instead of focusing on oneself
  • Developing a need to be in control of the relationship
  • Recognizing and expressing emotions becomes more difficult over time because someone who is mostly focused on a partner can lose connection with their own thoughts and feelings
  • Needing the other partner's approval to feel good about oneself
  • Needing the other partner's validation to feel worthy and "good enough"
  • Taking on too many responsibilities in the household where the partner has few, if any, responsibilities
  • Avoiding conflict with a partner by "walking on eggshells" instead of trying to resolve conflict as problems arise
  • Habitually making decisions for a partner in order to control or manage them
  • Doing things one doesn't want to do to appease a partner 
  • Remaining in a relationship that isn't fulfilling
  • Exhibiting excessive concern for a partner's habits or behavior instead of focusing on one's own habits and behavior
  • Fearing rejection or abandonment from a partner
  • Tending to apologize or take the blame to avoid conflict
  • Relying on a partner's mood to determine one's own mood
  • Providing "solutions" and trying to "fix" a partner's problems when the partner just wants to vent (see my article: Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caregiver)
What Causes Codependency in a Relationship?
One or more of the following characteristics can cause codependency in a relationship:
  • A history of emotional or physical abuse or childhood emotional neglect
  • Growing up with one or both parents who have a personality disorder, like borderline personality or narcissistic personality disorder
  • Growing up with a parent who had alcohol or drug problems where the other parent over-functioned for the substance abusing parent
  • Growing up with overprotective or controlling parents where one never learned as a child to set healthy boundaries with others
  • Growing up with one or both emotionally inconsistent parents 
  • Growing up with one or both parents abandoning the family or being an inconsistent presence
  • Growing up with critical and/or bullying parents or siblings (see my article: The Role of the Family Scapegoat)
  • Growing up in a family where one had to suppress one's own identity and needs
  • Growing up in a family where one felt invisible and emotionally invalidated
What Does Healthy Dependency Look Like in a Relationship?
The following characteristics are indicative of healthy dependency in a relationship without sacrificing one's own needs, including: 
What Are Characteristics of Healthy Interdependency in a Relationship?
  • Mutual reliance on each other but not being overly-reliant on a partner
  • Having healthy boundaries
  • Having a healthy sense of self outside the relationship (e.g., friendships and hobbies)
  • Being able to self regulate emotions in a healthy way
  • Being able to manage disappointments during disagreements in the relationship
  • Being able to emotionally co-regulate in a healthy way without taking on a partner's emotions
Getting Help in Therapy
Codependency in a relationship can be difficult to overcome on your own, especially if you grew up in a codependent environment.

Getting Help in Couples Therapy

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help in couples therapy so you can have a healthier relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Relationships: Insecure Attachment Styles Are on a Continuum

Emotionally Focused Therapist Julie Menanno has written a wonderful book for couples called Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime (see my article:  What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?).

Attachment Styles Are on a Continuum

I recommend her book to my clients in my New York City private practice because it's written in an accessible and informative way for the general public.

Couples often read (or listen to) the book together and then discuss how the topics relate to their relationship.  The book supplements the work we do in therapy.

One of the topics in her book is attachment styles (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Can Affect Your Relationship).

Attachment Styles Aren't Fixed
One of the most common misconceptions about attachment styles is that you have the same attachment style in all your relationships throughout your life.

Attachment Styles Are on a Continuum

In other words, many people assume that if you have a particular attachment style in one relationship, you will have the same attachment style in all your relationships, but this isn't necessarily true.

Attachment styles develop at an early age, but you can have a particular attachment style with your mother and a different one with your father during the same time period (see my article: How Early Attachment Bonds Can Affect Your Adult Relationships).

Similarly, you might have, say, an anxious attachment style in one relationship and have an avoidant attachment style in a past or future relationship (see my article: Relationships With Anxious and Avoidant Attachment Styles).

Attachment Styles Are on a Continuum

Your attachment style is often based, in part, on the particular relationship you're in at the time. 

What I often tell clients is, "It's not like astrological signs where you were born under a particular sign and that's your sign for life."

So attachment styles can change over time and in different relationships.

You can also develop a secure attachment style either through being with someone who has a secure attachment style or by working on your attachment wounds in therapy (see my article: What is an Earned Secure Attachment Style?).

All Insecure Attachment Styles Are Not Alike
Another misconception is that within each insecure attachment style (anxious, avoidant and disorganized) everyone exhibits the same characteristics, but this isn't true.

The reality is that each attachment style is on a continuum.

Julie Menanno stresses this in her book and in her social media, including her Instagram account @thesecurerelationship.

Insecure Attachment Styles on a Continuum
Ms. Menanno provides a chart for the different insecure attachment styles in her work that illustrates the continuum with the following information:

Avoidant Attachment Style
Avoidant - Extreme:
  • Unlikely to seek a relationship
  • Sees partners as merely objects
  • Very little capacity for empathy
  • No emotional awareness
Avoidant - High:
  • Unable to name feelings
  • Little facial expression
  • No awareness of bodily sensations related to their emotions
  • Overly rational
  • Emotionally unavailable
  • Confused by partner's emotions
  • Places a higher value on "doing" rather than on "being"
Avoidant - Moderate:
  • Able to name feelings but experiences them as shameful
  • Over-idealizes childhood (sees childhood through "rose colored glasses")
  • Won't share negative feelings
  • Appeases their partner and/or shuts down 
  • Overwhelmed by their partner's feelings
  • Passive aggressive
  • Escapes through hobbies, social media, TV and so on
Avoidant - Mild:
  • In the process of learning to express wants and needs
  • In the process of developing skills to be emotionally supportive of their partner
  • In the process of recognizing impact of childhood attachment dynamics
  • In the process of developing an ability to see their own and their partner's part in their problems
  • In the process of developing an increased interest in self growth
Anxious Attachment Style

Anxious - Extreme:
  • Talks excessively and repeats self
  • Might alternate between anger and crying spells
  • Highly controlling
  • No awareness of their part in their relationship problems
  • Overly identifies with the "victim" role in the relationship
Anxious - High
  • A rigid interpretation of the relationship problems
  • Feels desperate to be heard and understood
  • Expects immediate results
  • Becomes emotionally dysregulated at times
  • Experiences trust inconsistently
  • Gives long narrative of events
  • Hyper-aware of any possible signs of abandonment by their partner
Anxious - Moderate
  • Emerging ability to see their part in the relationship problems (goes back and forth with this developing ability)
  • Confused about "what to do" about the relationship problems
  • Emerging capacity to disengage during a conflict
  • Emerging capacity to make meaning out of the partner's behavior
  • Emerging ability to say the couple is not fighting as much, but they still don't feel close to their partner
Anxious - Mild
  • Recognizes their part in the couple's problems
  • Able to receive comfort from their partner
  • Better able to self soothe
  • Less critical of their partner and self
  • Able to face and verbalize feelings of shame
  • Able to face and verbalize feelings of being "too much" for their partner
  • Can talk about their anger in a softened way
Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized - Extreme
  • Experiences frequent dysregulation and/or dissociation/zoning out
  • Difficulty functioning in life in general
  • Engages in self harming, risky behavior
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Chaotic narratives
  • Unpredictable
  • Extreme fear of rejection and abandonment
  • Highly traumatized
Disorganized - High
  • Able to function in life but with frequent dysregulation and dissociation
  • Very unstable relationships
  • Inconsistent thoughts and feelings that are constantly shifting
  • Explosions
  • Disappears for extended periods of time
Disorganized - Moderate
  • Able to participate in therapy with highly trained therapist
  • In the process of learning skills to self regulate 
  • In the process of learning skills to set boundaries
  • In the process of learning skills to process trauma in trauma therapy
  • Gets triggered easily but in the process of developing a capacity to feel and talk through these feelings
  • In the process of developing capacity to become more organized in the relationship
  • Starting to develop capacity to appear as a typical anxious partner (as opposed to disorganized)
Disorganized - Mild
  • Still struggles when stress is high
  • Less intense reactions
  • Higher capacity to develop in couples therapy
  • Building trust
  • Can see things more realistically and balanced when triggered
  • Higher self esteem
  • Practices self regulation skills
  • Learning to provide comfort and seek comfort
  • Still more work to do
As you can see, each attachment style is on a continuum and you can see your own and your partner's progress as you both work together to improve your individual and couple's issues.

Attachment Styles Are on a Continuum

Also, as I mentioned above, it's possible that if you have an anxious attachment style in one relationship, you might develop a more avoidant attachment style in another relationship where your partner has a more anxious attachment style than you do.

Getting Help in Therapy
Most of the time dysfunctional attachment dynamics don't change on their own, so if you recognize that you and your partner are having problems due to unresolved attachment wounds, seek help in therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy

Insecure attachment styles can be challenging to change, but a skilled therapist, who knows how to help clients to overcome attachment wounds that are getting triggered in a relationship, can help you to work through your issues. 

Rather than struggling on your own seek help so you can have a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Relationships: Dealing With an Ambivalent Partner

Dealing with an ambivalent partner can be frustrating and hurtful, especially if you're getting mixed messages and you don't know where you stand with your partner (see my article: The Connection Between Ambivalence and Mixed Messages).

Dealing with an Ambivalent Partner

Why Causes Relational Ambivalence?
There can be many reasons why a partner might be ambivalent about the relationship:
  • A History of Trauma: Whether the trauma occurred early in their childhood or as a result of bad experiences in prior relationships, a history of trauma can make people fearful of getting emotionally involved again. Many people with a significant trauma history engage in push-pull dynamics where, at times, their behavior indicates they want to be in a relationship with you and, at other times, their behavior indicates they don't want to be in a relationship with you. They might pull you in when they fear you're losing interest or push you away when you're present and available due to their fear and emotional avoidance. People with early trauma often have insecure attachment styles (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).
  • An Emotional Attachment to Their Ex: Being broken up with an ex doesn't mean that there might not still be a lingering emotional attachment between them. Feelings don't always go away after a breakup, so even though they might be free to see other people, some people still have strong feelings for their ex and they might not be emotionally available for someone new--even though they might want to be. If your partner is trying to maintain a friendship with an ex, you need to understand what that means. Sometimes people try to maintain a friendship with their ex because one or both of them are hoping they will get back together eventually. If this is the case, you might unknowingly be in the middle of a messy situation where you could be the odd one out. In other cases, people who maintain a friendship with their ex might have a codependent relationship with their ex where either they or their ex has expectations that they will be primary. This is not to say that many people aren't able to maintain a healthy friendship with an ex with no ulterior motives because many people do. You just need to understand the dynamics between your partner and their ex and if they have healthy boundaries with each other that will allow you to be primary with your partner (see my article: Is Your Partner Stuck in a Codependent Relationship With an Ex?).
  • A Different Perspective on Relationships: There are so many choices these days about what kind of relationship you can have. Most people prefer to have a monogamous relationship, but about 4-5% of the population either have, want to have or have had a consensual nonmonogamous relationship. This is a topic to discuss early on when you're dating someone, but not everyone is clear on what they want. If they're considering consensual nonmonogamy as a possibility, but they're not sure, you might get mixed messages because they haven't decided yet. It's better to know this early on, especially if you and your partner aren't on the same wavelength. Even if both of you want a monogamous relationship, you might have different definitions about what monogamy means to each of you, so it's better to talk about this while dating (see my article: The Advantages of Having a Relationship Agreement in Monogamous or Nonmonogamous Relationship).
  • A Different Perspective on Respect and Boundaries: You can't assume that everyone will have the same perspective as you when it comes to respect and maintaining healthy boundaries, especially if you experience certain behaviors from your partner, including:
    • Inconsistent Behavior: Inconsistency can show up in many ways. For instance, although most people are busy, they will make an effort to respond in a timely manner to calls and texts (assuming you're not texting or calling too many times). Another example is someone who is inconsistent as to when they want to see you or who shows up late (or not at all). Maybe they want to see you a couple of times one week, but then you don't hear from them for a couple of weeks, so you don't know where you stand with them.  This is disrespectful behavior.
Dealing With Your Partner's Inconsistent Behavior
    • Not Introducing You to Friends and Family as Their Partner: This is often a red flag. If you and your partner have established that you're in an exclusive relationship with each other and they don't make an effort to introduce you to people they are close to after a reasonable time or they introduce you but they don't mention that you're their significant other, they're not respecting you. This could be deliberate because there might be other people in a social situation they're interested in. It might also be because, even though they made a commitment to you, they haven't fully committed on an emotional level. If you have both agreed to be exclusive, you deserve to be introduced to close people in your partner's life as their significant other. If not, this is disrespectful behavior.
    • A Need to Maintain Control: Some people, especially people with insecure attachment, need to feel they have the upper hand in a relationship. They want to have power and control in the relationship. One way people, who have an insecure attachment style combined with a manipulative personality, do this is by keeping you off kilter and guessing how they feel about you and what you mean to them.  Even if your partner isn't narcissistic or manipulative, they might have a fear of abandonment so they might try to mitigate their fear by maintaining control over the relationship (see my article: How Therapy Can Help With Fear of Abandonment).
How to Set Healthy Boundaries With an Ambivalent Partner

The Early Stage of Dating
The early stage of dating can involve a fair amount of anxiety and ambiguity, especially because people often date multiple people at the same time.

Discussing what you want out of a potential relationship is something you want to address early on. For instance, if you know you want to be in a nonmonogamous relationship or you want a monogamish relationship but the person you're dating doesn't want this, it's better to know this early on so you can wish each other well and meet other people.

Talk About What You Want While Dating

Even if you're both on the same page about what you each want, the early stage of dating can be confusing if you really like someone and you're unsure where you stand with them. 

After a few months (or whatever timeframe you consider reasonable), you can ask them how they're feeling about things between you and be prepared to talk about your feelings, needs and wants. Even though having this talk can make you feel emotionally vulnerable, you can save yourself a lot of heartache in the long run.

If You Both Agree to Be in a Relationship
If you're already in a relationship with your partner and you feel they're behaving in an ambivalent or inconsistent way with you, you need to address this early on or this could become an ongoing pattern (see my article: Setting Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship).

Setting Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship

If you're in a relationship and your partner behaves in an ambivalent or inconsistent way and you don't address it, you're signaling to your partner that you're okay with their behavior.

Even if you know their behavior isn't narcissistic and manipulative, you deserve to be treated well regardless of your partner's history or circumstances. 

What You Can Do If You're in a Relationship With an Ambivalent Partner
Every circumstance is different and only you can decide what's best for you.

The following suggestions might be helpful to you:
  • Get Clear With Yourself That You Deserve to Be Treated Well By Your Partner: You can't set healthy boundaries with your partner if you feel you don't deserve it. Journaling can help you to clarify your thoughts and emotional needs. Often people who have been emotionally abused or emotionally neglected early in life grow up to feel they don't deserve to be treated well. If this is you, get help from a licensed mental health professional to deal with your traumatic history.
  • Be Clear and Specific With Your Partner About Your Emotional Needs: Some things might be negotiable with your partner, but when it comes to respect and healthy boundaries, you want to be clear on what you need. Be specific about what you will and won't tolerate and, if they're not willing to change or get help to change, you need to make a decision about how much of an emotional investment you want to make in this relationship, especially since this kind of relational ambivalence often doesn't change without help.
Be Clear and Specific About Your Emotional Needs
  • Be Compassionate If Your Partner is Struggling and Still Set Boundaries: If their ambivalence is due to unresolved trauma or hurtful experiences in prior relationships, you can be compassionate but still set and maintain healthy boundaries. Don't sacrifice your emotional needs.
  • Be Ready to Walk Away If Your Partner Doesn't Make a Significant Effort to Change: If you and your partner agree to certain boundaries and your partner doesn't make a significant effort to change, don't get stuck in a relationship where you're not being treated well. Too many people set boundaries with their partner and then continue to accept poor behavior for years because they hope their partner will eventually change.  This might sound harsh, but life is short and if your partner is only giving lip service to making changes without actually making any changes, you need to make a hard choice on what you want in your life. Don't let your denial keep you stuck if they're not making a significant effort. 
Get Help in Therapy
Setting and maintaining boundaries with a partner can be challenging especially when you love them or you fear being alone or making an effort to date again.

Get Help in Therapy

Working with a individual therapist for yourself or a couples therapist for you and your partner can help to resolve problems with relational ambivalence.

A skilled therapist can help you to take steps to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Improving Communication in Your Relationship: How to Stop Stonewalling

I've discussed stonewalling in prior articles as part of a series on how couples can improve communication in their relationship.

See My Prior Articles: 

What is Stonewalling?
As a quick review: Stonewalling involves shutting down and withdrawing from a conflict or conversation.

Stonewalling in a Relationship

Stonewalling can be intentional or unintentional. A lot of times it's unintentional (see the section below: Why Do People Engage in Stonewalling?).

It doesn't only involve physically removing yourself from the discussion.  You can remain with your partner and still engage in stonewalling by shutting down emotionally, mentally and physically.

Why Do People Engage in Stonewalling?
As mentioned above, stonewalling can be intentional or unintentional.

Although it might seem that you are engaging in stonewalling as a way to annoy each other, unintentional stonewalling often occurs because one or both partners are overwhelmed.

Stonewalling in a Relationship

When someone is flooded with emotion, they might withdraw emotionally, mentally and energetically because the experience is too much.  

On the surface, they might appear calm, but the internal experience is usually one of emotional overwhelm.

So, if either of you are overwhelmed, there's no sense in continuing with the conversation by insisting that the overwhelmed partner continue to talk. 

It's better to take a break and return to the conversation once both of you are emotionally regulated.

What is the Difference Between Verbal and Nonverbal Stonewalling?

Verbal stonewalling can involve:
  • Giving your partner the "silent treatment"
  • Responding to your partner with one word or two word answers
  • Changing the subject
  • Being dismissive
  • Being accusatory
  • Responding with an aggressive tone to end the conversation
Nonverbal stonewalling can involve:
  • Walking away
  • Eye rolling, which is a form of contempt towards your partner
  • Distracting yourself with your phone as a conscious or unconscious attempt to distract yourself or end the conversation
Why is a Pattern of Stonewalling Damaging to a Relationship?
It's not unusual for couples to engage in occasional stonewalling, especially if one or both of them are overwhelmed by the conversation. But a pattern of stonewalling in a relationship is another matter.

A pattern of stonewalling is damaging because: 
  • Problems don't get resolved.
  • The partner who is trying to discuss the problem can feel disrespected.
  • A pattern of stonewalling can create distance between partners over time which usually has a negative effect on emotional and sexual intimacy.
How to Stop Stonewalling
If you're the one who tends to stonewall, you can learn to stop this destructive pattern by:
  • Becoming Aware of Your Emotional, Physical or Mental State in the Moment: Ideally, become aware that you're about to physically, emotionally and/or mentally withdraw before you stonewall. Initially, it might be hard to recognize the physical, emotional or mental cues, so you might start by recognizing you're doing it while you're doing it or your partner points it out to you. Then, as the next step in developing your awareness, you can work on recognizing it before you stonewall. 
  • Communicating With Your Partner: Instead of stonewalling, tell your partner what's happening for you in the moment.  You can say something as simple as, "I feel myself shutting down and I need a break. We can resume talking about this in an hour" or "I'm getting overwhelmed. Can we take a break and resume this in half an hour?" (or however much time you might need).  Make sure you don't leave your partner hanging without letting them know that you need a break.
Practice Emotional Self Regulation

  • Taking Steps to Practice Emotional Self Regulation: You might be angry or sad about what your partner is communicating to you. It's okay to have your own feelings about what's happening, but you need to practice self regulation to manage your emotions in terms of how you respond to your partner. Aside from taking a break, this could also mean doing a breathing exercise, going for a walk (letting your partner know first) or doing what you need to do to practice healthy self regulation.
What to Do If You're the Partner Who is Being Stonewalled
Being stonewalled by your partner is an unpleasant experience (to say the least), especially if your partner does this frequently.

There are some things you can do to help yourself and your partner including:
  • Allowing Yourself and Your Partner to Take a Break: If your partner says they need a break, respect that. Don't keep trying to engage your partner if it's clear they're overwhelmed. The situation will only get worse if you insist on your partner continuing to engage after they are overwhelmed. Also recognize your own signs of being overwhelmed because you might be so focused on making a point or getting your partner to listen to you that you don't recognize your own signs of being overwhelmed.  Don't keep talking to your partner as if you're both in a competition with each other.  
  • Practicing Empathy and Compassion For Yourself and Your Partner: Sometimes when people are engaged in a conflict, they forget that they're arguing with the same person that they love. So, practice empathy and compassion for yourself and your partner. 
Get Help in Therapy
As mentioned above, a pattern of stonewalling can destroy a relationship.  

Even if a couple stays together, resentment can build up over time as problems remain unresolved and this can affect the couple emotionally and sexually.

Get Help in Therapy

Seek help in individual or couples therapy to work on issues involving stonewalling.  

A pattern of stonewalling can be rooted in your early history where you observed one or both of your parents engaging in stonewalling or you saw that their conflicts were not resolved.

In addition, you might not have learned how to regulate your emotions, which can make it challenging when you're in a heated discussion with your partner, but this is a skill you can learn.

A skilled individual or couples therapist can help you to overcome the problem of stonewalling so that you can have a more fulfilling relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I provide both in person therapy in my Greenwich Village office or online therapy (as of this writing, due to licensing laws, if you want to do online therapy, you must be a resident of New York State, which is the state where I am licensed).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Improving Communication in Your Relationship: How to Change a Pattern of Defensive Behavior

My recent articles have focused on improving communication in relationships.

See my articles:

In the current article, I'm focusing on defensive behavior.

Why is a Pattern of Defensive Behavior Destructive to a Relationship?
Everyone responds defensively at some point, but that's different from an ongoing pattern of defensive behavior.

A pattern of defensive behavior is a serious issue in relationships, and it has been known to lead to the demise of many relationships.

A Pattern of Defensive Behavior Can Ruin Your Relationship

Defensive behavior can occur automatically for some people because it's a behavior that often develops early in life as a response to a perceived threat.

See my articles: 

When Arguments With Your Spouse Trigger Old Emotional Wounds From Childhood

When you're defensive, instead of listening to what your partner has to say, you deflect their comments by pointing the finger at your partner.

As an example, if your significant other tells you that you're not doing your share of the household chores, instead of listening and considering his or her point, you immediately lash out by saying, "I'm not dodging the household chores.  You're the one dodging the household chores."

In this example, we can see that there's no self reflection on what your partner told you. There's only a knee jerk reaction (see my article: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress).

It's not a matter of whether you're right or wrong, it's a matter of reflecting on what your partner said and considering his or her feelings about the matter.

In addition, nothing gets resolved if you have a tendency to react defensively and, over time,  you can have a pile up of unresolved problems.

How to Change Defensive Behavior Before It Ruins Your Relationship
  • Become Aware of Your Defensive Behavior:  In order to change defensive behavior, you need to become aware of when you're doing it.  In the heat of the moment, you might not realize that you're reacting defensively.  But if you take time to think about it the next time that it's pointed out to you, you could develop increased awareness of your defensiveness.  By become more aware of your reactive patterns of defensiveness, you can discover whether you're reacting this way every time your significant other asks you for something or if there are certain issues that trigger your defensiveness.  Are old memories getting triggered, which are unrelated to the here-and-now situation?
  • Write Down Each Time You're Defensive:  Once you start becoming aware of your defensive behavior, write down each instance after it occurs.  Keep a log of these incidents, and you will begin to see patterns.  Along with writing down each incident, write about what was going on for you emotionally at the time.  Were you fearful? Angry? Resentful?  Did the incident take you back to an old memory so that you reacted in a childlike manner?
  • Think Before You React:  There's a difference between responding and reacting.  When you respond, you take the time to reflect on what's going on.  What is your significant other really saying to you?  If you're so upset that you're not sure, ask for clarification.  If you're still upset after you get clarification, tell your significant other that you need a little time (let him or her know how much time, so you don't leave your significant other hanging, and then get back to him or her within that time frame).  Once you're calm, you can think more clearly.  If you don't agree with your significant other, rather than saying, "You're wrong," look beyond your significant other's words and find out what's going on.  Does s/he feel overwhelmed?  Is there some misunderstanding?  
  • Work as a Team to Resolve the Problem: Rather than working against your significant other by being defensive as if s/he is the enemy, work as a team to resolve the underlying issues.  What do you each need to resolve the problem?  Are there common areas where you agree?  Can you each come up with compromises?

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your partner are unable to work out this issue, you could benefit from couples therapy where you can both learn how to improve your communication skills.

A skilled psychotherapist can also help you to work through unresolved issues from the past that might be getting triggered in your current relationship so that you're no longer triggered now (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has an expertise in helping couples to improve communication.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome communication problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Improving Communication in Your Relationship: How to Stop "Kitchen Sinking" Your Partner

In my prior article about improving communication in a relationship, What's the Difference Between Complaining and Criticizing? , I focused on a common problem that many couples have when they argue, which is criticizing their partner's personality or character instead of complaining about a particular action or behavior (see my article: Improve Communication in Your Relationship By Eliminating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse).

In the current article, I'm focusing on another common problem: "kitchen sinking."

What is "Kitchen Sinking" in a Relationship?
"Kitchen sinking" involves bringing up unrelated issues or past grievances when a couple is arguing about a particular issue.

Stop "Kitchen Sinking" Your Partner

Metaphorically, "kitchen sinking" refers to when one or both partners throw everything at each other except the kitchen sink. 

An Example of "Kitchen Sinking"
Betty (sounding frustrated): "I felt disappointed when I woke up this morning and found the same dirty dishes in the sink you said you would wash.  We talked about the ant problem and how important it is not to leave dirty dishes in the sink because we just got over an infestation."

Ray (defensively): "Yeah, well, you're not perfect either. Last week you forgot to make a payment on our credit card and we were charged interest."

Betty (annoyed): "What does that have to do with the dishes in the sink? Can we stick to that topic?"

Stop "Kitchen Sinking" Your Partner

Ray (defensively): If you're going to complain to me about something I didn't do, I'm going to complain about something you didn't do. Not only that--we agreed that you would take care of making travel arrangements for our trip that's coming up in two months and you haven't done that either. You also didn't get an estimate from the electrician yet. And don't think I forgot about how you kept me waiting at the restaurant for 20 minutes last month."

Betty (even more frustrated): "I don't know why you're bringing up all these other things that we've already discussed? And you know I already apologized for keeping you waiting last month and you accepted my apology. Why do you keep bringing up all these unrelated things?"

Ray (as he's walking out the door): "Oh forget it! I can't talk to you. I'm going to see my friend, Mike. Don't wait up for me."

Betty (exasperated as she watches Ray walk out the door): "I'm so overwhelmed and tired of these arguments" (referring to ongoing arguments where Ray has a tendency to "kitchen sink" her).

Why is "Kitchen Sinking" a Problem?
The problems with "kitchen sinking" includes:
  • Diverting attention away from the current problem
  • Cluttering the current topic with a list of unrelated problems
  • Muddling the current topic
  • Escalating the discussion from a complaint to criticism
  • Making it difficult to get back to the original problem
  • Making it difficult to resolve the original problem
  • Creating resentment and frustration
  • Creating stress and emotional overwhelm
In the example above, Betty starts the conversation with a complaint about Ray's behavior when she expresses her disappointment that he didn't follow through on their agreement that he would wash the dishes.

Note that she's using an "I message" about how she feels and she's not criticizing his personality or character. Her complaint is specific regarding his behavior (or in this case about something he agreed to do and didn't).  

She also referred to why it was important to wash the dishes because it's connected to a problem they're trying to avoid, which is a reoccurrence of an infestation of ants.

Ray, who felt defensive about not doing what he said he would do, chose to respond by criticizing Betty when he told her she's "not perfect." 

Consciously or unconsciously, he's hoping to divert the discussion away from his behavior to Betty's character ("not perfect") and a list of unrelated grievances he has against her, including her lateness from last month after he already accepted her apology and, supposedly, forgiven her for being late.

How to Stop "Kitchen Sinking" Your Partner
The following suggestions could help you and your partner if one or both of you have a tendency to engage in "kitchen sinking":
  • Regulate Your Emotions: If you know you have a tend to fly off the handle, get defensive and divert discussions from the topic at hand to unrelated topics, learn to regulate your emotions by:
    • Slowing down
    • Recognizing and learning to cope with your triggers
    • Using effective strategies to cope with heated discussions with your partner
    • Focusing on the present moment and the current problem
    • Taking a break if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, but do so by having an agreement with your partner beforehand about when you'll resume the discussion at a mutually agreed upon time. Then, follow through with that agreement by getting back to the discussion after you have calmed down.
  • Be Intentional: Before you and your partner engage in a discussion, agree to what you'll both be discussing and then stick to that topic.  Avoid criticizing or bringing up unrelated topics. Communicate with "I" messages ("I feel guilty that I didn't do what I said I would do").
  • Take Responsibility: Instead of trying to divert the discussion into unrelated areas, take responsibility if you know you made a mistake. This can help to avoid long drawn out arguments. And, if you're the partner who is complaining, practice compassion and forgiveness, when appropriate, especially if the problem is relatively minor.
Focus on Problems as a Team
  • Focus on the Problem as a Team: Instead of criticizing and blaming each other, focus on resolving the problem together as a team.

Get Help in Therapy
When "kitchen sinking" has become an ingrained pattern for a couple, it often becomes part of a negative cycle in a relationship (see my article: Breaking the Negative Cycle in Your Relationship With Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples).

If you and your partner have been unable to improve your communication on your own, you could benefit from working with a couples therapist who knows how to help couples to overcome communication problems.

A skilled couples therapist can help you to develop the skills and strategies you need to improve your communication so you can have a more fulfilling relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed New York psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples and I have helped many clients to communicate more effectively in their relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW.- NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.