Blog by Miriam

Webinar Series: Couples Counseling

Join Kelly Matthews, LCSW and Miriam Bellamy, LMFT for the first in a series of 6 short webinars on marriage and marriage counseling. In this series we will be covering several topics regarding the marital relationship including infidelity, parenting, conflict, distance, and divorce. Today’s topic is marriage counseling and what the public needs to know about the options they have. There are two primary categories of marriage counseling available: there is attachment based marriage counseling and systems based. Kelly and I discuss some of the differences between the two fundamentally different approaches.

An attachment based approach is going to be primarily focused on the expression of feelings. Attachment theory teaches that problems in marriage occur because of problems with one’s original attachment to one’s parents. The idea in the therapy is that if couples can express their feelings to their spouses and be heard and validated, that the attachment issues with one’s parents will be resolved, more or less, with the spouse becoming the new safe relationship from which a person can blossom and grow. Common interventions include the teaching of various communication techniques, the encouragement towards dates nights, more sex, more vulnerability, compromise, and so forth.

A systems based approach is primarily focused on the balance between emotion and thinking. The focus is on what people think with coaching and guidance on the difference between one’s emotions and one’s thoughts. The goal is to develop a more solid sense of self through developing a broader perspective of one’s marriage and one’s place in it and in the larger emotional “system” in which one lives. The emphasis is on what happens between people, and less so what happens between one’s ears, a place that systems therapists understand people can get lost in for entire life spans. A systems therapist in couples counseling will look at patterns of interaction and helps people to see their part in the patterns and then to learn to interact in more mature ways.

Here are a few excerpts from different segments of the webinar:

Kelly: “We are feeling creatures that think.”

Miriam: “You get to a point where, and so many people are frustrated with this, where you’ve expressed all the feelings, and it hasn’t changed anything.”

Kelly: “I think it’s so important to understand the context of human partnership with BOTH of those things…both feelings AND cognition. That I think is the biggest draw to systems therapy and the biggest help to couples.”

Tune in below and let us know what you think! And if you’d like more information about couples counseling from a systems perspective, please feel free to contact Kelly or me. Our contact info is just below. Or you can check out The Center for Family Consultation or The Bowen Center to learn more about the approach.

Kelly Matthews, LCSW: matthewslcsw@comcast.net; 847-691-5347

Miriam Bellamy, LMFT: mrbellamy924@gmail.com; 404-932-9320; More on Marriage Counseling HERE

Rekindle the Flame?

Why Conventional Advice for Improving Your Sex Life Doesn’t Work and What Else You Might Consider

Has your sex life dwindled over the years? Was it a dramatic crash and burn or more of a slow, steady decline? Regardless of how it happened, it happened and, if you’re reading this post, it is likely still happening. It can be an incredibly painful issue and one that has many couples completely baffled at what to do. As I have suggested to my clients for many years now, how the problem is defined determines how it is treated. Conventional therapy defines a dwindling sex life as caused by not enough of a safe connection. It suggests a rekindle-the-flame kind of approach with suggestions to get vulnerable, to go out on more romantic dates, to be kinder, etc. Sometimes the suggestion is to do more of your fair share of the house work or child rearing. Sometimes the suggestion is to explore non-demand touch. The idea behind all of these is that the flame has gone out and it needs rekindling—a little more log on the fire, if you will. (Ya, I went there!) The problem is, and one reason that these don’t often work, is that the problem is generally not a lack of flame, but a lack of awareness of the flame that’s already there. It’s not, perhaps, the flame you are thinking of, but it’s a flame nonetheless, and a powerful one. In our efforts to rekindle the flame, we just end up pouring gasoline on a fire that’s already burning—but perhaps in an uncontrolled, chaotic way.

Rekindle the Flame?

rekindle the flame

What I refer to as “the flame” is an emotional process that can run hot. What I mean by “hot” is that there is generally a kind of emotional intensity that runs under and through and around every family and every marriage and across generations. Emotion is life’s energy. Life’s energy is emotion. And nowhere does it run more freely and hot than in families—whether those families are human or something of the furry or feathered kind. Emotion runs the show. Even though we can do a little more thinking than our fury friends, most of the time, we don’t.

An emotional kind of life force is what gets us up in the morning. It gets us to the kitchen to make the coffee (cuz, lemme just say, sometimes we’re running low on that life force stuff). It gets us pouring the cereal or making the pancakes for the kiddos (if we have them…either kiddos or pancakes), and it gets us to work—whether that’s in or outside the home. Emotion and emotional process gets us through school, on to more school, married, and with child. It’s a flame that never goes out. No matter how hard we try. Until death do us part. Literally. We don’t need to rekindle the flame. We need to understand the underlying principles that govern how it is exchanged in important relationships. And perhaps, eventually, the part we play in that exchange not working so well.

Governing Principles

If you’ve been at this for any length of time, chances are you have tried just about everything you can think of to change this painful process. I invite you now to consider doing a little more thinking before you try to jump into action. To perhaps think in a new way about an old situation. The less you think, the more you are ruled by the automatic or instinctive side of the emotional life force I’ve described above, and the more difficult it will be to make a long-lasting shift away from the problems in your sex life.

Self vs. Other

rekindle the flame

 

Humans are constantly navigating and calibrating a kind of emotional energy exchange in their important relationships. A kind of lending and borrowing of self takes place. It is not a personality issue or a psychological issue. It is a human issue. It is often difficult to discern who is lending and who is borrowing. That’s probably, in part, because both individuals are both borrowing and lending at the same time. For example, at the same time the lender is lending, they are often doing a subtle kind of borrowing. The lender tends to appear as the more capable spouse, thus borrowing an inflated sense of self from the other. The borrower is both borrowing, and by acting and feeling like the less capable spouse, they are also lending an inflated sense of self to the other. Lenders often look and (either secretly or not-so-secretly) feel a bit self-righteous. Borrowers often look like the one with all of the problems. The process is depleting to both parties.

But make no mistake: depleted energy doesn’t point to a dwindled flame. The exact opposite is happening. It takes a powerful emotional process to keep this emotional gridlock going. No need to rekindle the flame. Rather, what’s needed is a working understanding of its forcefulness in our lives.

The key question to wrestle with is whether one can be for self without being selfish and whether one can be for other without being selfless. Can one move towards being 100% for themselves in the relationship and also 100% for spouse? I don’t think any of us can do this completely, but we can make the effort. That effort would start with attempts to observe how this goes now. Remember to make efforts to not over think it. Try for that 30,000-foot view. Do you tend to be the lender or the borrower? Do you tend to overfunction for others emotionally in the system or underfunction emotionally?  Being more of a self in marriage can move one towards a better sex life. But it can also lead towards a more difficult sex life temporarily. If you’d like to dig deeper, have a look at this video from The Bowen Center about this see-saw kind of dynamic.

The Parental Triangle

There seems to be no greater dynamic in a family than the emotional triangles that are formed with our children. The impact on one’s sex life is profound. If you don’t have children, then as you read, consider the relationships your parents had with you and the relationship your in-laws had with your spouse. Perhaps I can address this part of the equation in a future blog post.

I have been a marriage counselor for 21 years, and I ask almost every couple who comes in for help: When did the problems seem to arise or get worse? Almost without exception, people say that things changed when the first or second child was born. The couple may have some problems before the children are born, but often they are much less intense, and the couple is able to manage them more or less successfully. When children arrive, the emotional exchange that I described above shifts. Most often, the wife’s energy shifts towards the children, and the husband feels left out. Perhaps for a modern couple, mom is working, and dad is involved, but this powerful process still takes place.

Here’s how I often see it. Mom loves that dad is involved, but perhaps feels critical of how he is doing things. She starts by making comments that are meant to be helpful, but it doesn’t seem to work, so her frustration grows. It leads to conflict and more and more criticism on her part no matter how hard she tries to allow her husband to do it his way. Eventually, the husband begins to feel either inadequate, angry, or helpless (or all of the above) and he checks out of the parenting more or less. The more he checks out, the more she checks out, the more he checks out. Her emotional energy moving away from him and either towards the children or towards work…His moving away from the children and either towards her (often times in begging for sex) and/or towards work. Sex can become difficult for both parties as their emotional energies are being hijacked by this automatic emotional process. Kids and teens play their part in their levels of capableness or neediness.

It is challenging to deal with the marital relationship because the emotional reactivity each has toward the other has a lot to do with how each thinks parenting should go—and the constant demands of parenting keep this dynamic on the front burner. Advice to rekindle the flame seems totally ignorant of this powerful process. Resolution of these powerful feelings and automatic reactions is a more effective route to take.

Want more?

Are you interested in exploring this more personally? You can check out materials from The Bowen Center or you can invest in your own sex therapy or marriage counseling. I’m happy to speak with you to see if we are a good fit, and I’m happy to refer to others in town.

Intimacy Problems: Getting Connected

ONLINE MARRIAGE COUNSELING IN GEORGIA

Are you struggling with a lonely marriage? Have your marriage problems and life stresses begun to create intimacy problems? Have your communication problems taken their toll on your marriage? Have you tried couples counseling or sex therapy and still find yourself stuck without direction? Maybe you’re afraid things aren’t going to improve. Perhaps you are deeply sad and full of longing for a meaningful connection.

The times when we are not feeling close are extremely painful. Many people experience grief during these times and may feel a sense of guilt, fear, anger, or a sense of a loss of self. It’s pretty important to feel these feelings and never invalidate them, but it’s also important to gain perspective on these feelings. Intimacy problems have a particular way of making us doubt ourselves, making us feel small and powerless. Gaining perspective on these emotions is challenging but important.

intimacy problems

When Emotions Run High Couples Go Distant

How does a couple get connected when the intimacy problems seem insurmountable—when emotions are running too high to go deep? Within the question lies an answer of sorts. It is one of the most important truths about how intimate relationships really work. When emotions run high, people can’t get close and stay there. Perhaps this seems counterintuitive. I mean, isn’t love, by its very nature, intense? And don’t most therapists advise that sharing intense feelings is the secret to love and happiness? Didn’t we feel completely connected in the beginning of our relationship when things were over the moon intense and beautiful? Isn’t that what we crave—an intense emotional connection?

We may crave it, but when does craving something ever turn out good in the long run? I mean come on…ice cream…chocolate…beer… You get the idea.

But craving in intimate relationships quickly turns into begging, and that’s no way to get close…whether you’re begging for emotional intimacy or for sexual intimacy. Close couples that have resolved their intimacy problems have somehow learned to calm these emotions down, so that they can connect peacefully. One colleague put it this way: Intimacy, whether sexual or emotional, requires smooth/calm/peaceful waters.

Developing a More Neutral or Balanced View

But how do couples learn to calm these emotions down? I think it starts first and foremost with developing a more neutral view of relationship problems…one where there is no “bad guy,” where we stop thinking of things as “wrong” or “broken” or “dysfunctional,” painful as things may be.

It’s not helpful to think of our marital or intimacy problems as occurring because we or our spouses are doing something wrong or bad. It’s just the nature of emotional intensity and the nature of what happens when you put two or more emotional beings together. I’m not saying that what you or your spouse is doing is OK. I’m talking about stepping back out of the melee just a little so you can be less controlled by it. The number one way to be controlled by it is to react to it, whether your reaction is to go cold or to go hot. What kind of perspective can you ultimately develop about your intimacy problems? Can your perspective be a little more informed on the human as an animal that is tied to its evolutionary history?

intimacy problems

Changing the Context of Your Intimacy Problems

The second shift in thinking has to do with context. Neuroscience is demonstrating in multiple studies that emotional and relationship intimacy problems are not as much about the individual, but about the context in which individuals live and develop and make moment-by-moment decisions. Will power isn’t a thing. Context is everything.

For example, couples might understand the impact of context in a phenomenon that frequently occurs on vacation. Many couples with intimacy problems experience dull or infrequent sex at home, but on vacation it spices up or occurs more frequently. The context has changed.

But how do couples change the context of their relationship at home where the status quo is in charge? It’s not as simple as getting a babysitter, lighting some candles, or buying flowers as many can attest. This can work at times, but it’s not a long-term solution. It takes more of a fundamental context change than a cosmetic one. It takes a bit of a reordering of relationship systems that already exist in and have influence over your life. For example, do your lives revolve around your children? Do they have a little too much “presence” in your marriage? What small moves could you make to change this context? Would it have an impact on your sex life? There are many other relationships that have an impact on your sex life as well.

To many people, thinking about the other relationships in their lives sounds unrelated to their emotional or sexual relationship with their spouses, but it’s an idea worth considering. I mean, think about how much time and energy you’ve perhaps spent on improving your marital and sexual relationship. When there’s heavy focus, most people don’t get very far. What could it hurt to shift focus? That’s a context change in and of itself!

If you’d like to learn more about changing the context of your life, consider doing a little research here.  If Bowen Family Systems Theory resonates, you may find some answers in places you never thought to look.

 

By Miriam Bellamy, LMFT

20 Years Experience

Online therapy in Georgia for couples and individuals. Convenient. Confidential. Effective.