Sunday, September 21, 2014

Four Steps for Crushing Relationship Conflict

As a mental health practitioner, I often help others sort out conflicts and crises. Over the years I have learned that there are specific skills that help people navigate their relationships in a more loving and productive manner.

The next time you have a disagreement, try these tools before you re-engage:


We are victims of age-old wiring. When we feel threatened, we have a primitive instinct to fight, flee, or freeze; or a combination platter of the three reactions. Take whatever time you need to restore your normal heart rate and breathing patterns. Deep breathing, stretching, time with a pet, a walk around the block, and time outside in a garden or the woods can all be helpful.

Ask yourself what your role was in the argument. Did you stoop to name-calling, blaming, or shaming? Did you yell? These common tactics used in arguments are not productive. Did you bring up hurts or incidents from the past? Fair fighting requires a focus on the present and using "I" statements ("I worry when you come home an hour after you told me you would",  not "You are always late"). Were you looking to blow off steam after a bad day? We often save our worst for those we love. Be mindful of this tendency- it erodes the warmth in a relationship. Are you currently under major stress? When chronically stressed, we have a lower threshold for upset and may argue more frequently.

Next, try to identify what the biggest issue is that you hope to change or bring awareness to.  Did the disagreement start over differences in emotional styles? Did it start over a difference of opinion in parenting or money? Is this an old, recurring fight? Identifying what the argument is really about may help you sort if out.

Calmer heads will prevail if you wait to talk again only when all parties are ready (although perpetually refusing to talk after a day or so has passed is unhealthy).  Be aware of the volume of your voice. I have noticed that when someone is consistently loud, a pattern can be set up whereby the quieter person shuts down regardless of the content. Also, listen intently and try paraphrasing what your loved one says. This technique gives you time to absorb and clarify the message before you respond.

 If you continue to feel frustrated, unheard, or hurt, you may want to seek out a counselor or therapist.
Sometimes an objective professional can spot unhelpful dynamics and share insights and tools to help you get the warmth back in your relationships.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


One of the many reasons I love my work is that I have the honor and pleasure of seeing most of my clients get better. Do I have special skills that other mental health clinicians do not? No, my work simply mirrors the statistics on the efficacy of mental health treatment. Research shows that therapy is effective at least 80 percent of the time.

Since therapy usually helps, and no one wants to suffer, why are we our own worst enemies when it comes to getting help? Our tough inner critic tells us "you should be able to snap yourself out of this", or "you don't have it so bad, think about what Mary next door has been through", or "you need to help the kids, you're not as important." My wish for folks suffering from mental health challenges or family struggles is that they view mental health treatment as a tool that can help them move towards their future, not as a failure and a last resort.

Recently I have noticed an increase in the length of time clients are waiting to get themselves or their kids to treatment. My colleagues have shared the same observation with me. There are good reasons: financial challenges, increasingly spartan or absent insurance coverage, busy family schedules, and the still present stigma in our culture towards mental health treatment. The problem with delayed treatment is that it increases the likelihood of the development of a second mental health challenge, a substance abuse problem, and physical illness.

Not only does the client get worse if not getting help, but family members and co-workers are also sorely tested by caring for or working with a depressed, highly anxious, bi-polar or substance-involved individual. Many times the people that end up in my office have anxiety or depression that has been triggered by living or working with someone who has not sought help for their own challenges. Delays in getting help often leads to multiple family members in crisis. Jobs are lost, marriages fail, and academic careers stall.

The decision to see a therapist does not bind you to a never-ending series of weekly appointments. One of the important roles a trained therapist plays for you or your child is "assessment".  We evaluate a client's functioning in their environment: home, school, work, relationships, and community. We work with clients to collect data by interview, observation, surveys and test (psychologists) instruments. Thanks to the assessment process, clients can decide whether to enter the "therapy or treatment" phase of mental health treatment after gaining an understanding of their diagnosis and treatment options. After the assessment, I may recommend that a client meet with a psychiatrist, nutritionist, career counselor or life coach. Sometimes I work with parents to help them sort through parenting challenges without ever seeing the child.

The bottom line is that there may be much to gain by investing in a few visits. Unfortunately, waiting until you or your child are too sad to get out of bed in the morning, or your daily glass of wine has turned into a daily bottle, will likely cost more time and more money, and more importantly, needless suffering.