Divorcing in the New Year – or Not

‘these couples seem to hear nature saying “you can’t do what you’ve been doing for another year.” ‘

FayPsych Staff

It’s a strange fact, but divorce lawyers across the country can tell you that January is a very busy month for divorce filings.  Couples that have “held it together” through the holidays for the sake of the children, or to “keep up appearances” for extended family, or who weren’t quite yet ready to give up on their own visions of their relationships, flip over their calendars to January and start making real moves toward divorce.  They begin researching divorce on the internet.  They start asking around about lawyers.  They start writing checks to attorneys.  It’s as if someone, somewhere, flipped a switch – New Year, new life.  A life without their spouse.

On the flipside of this, those of us who specialize in couples therapy find our phones ringing off the hook when we return from our New Year’s holidays.  Couples who have not yet decided to take that ultimate step toward divorce and still want to work on their marriages seem to feel a sudden sense of urgency about marital therapy when the new year rolls around.  Just as some birds feel the strong pull to migrate, and some animals feel the annual drive to hibernate, these couples seem to hear nature saying “you can’t do what you’ve been doing for another year.”  The start of the new year gives them the extra push they need to finally pick up the phone and make an appointment with a couples therapist.

While it is an excellent thing that these couples seek help at the start of the year, it is a sad irony that they are unable or unwilling to recognize the need for that help the rest of the year (and perhaps in years past, as well).  Sometimes, by the time they make that first phone call to our offices, they are dealing with anger and resentments that have had time to grow from small sparks to four-alarm fires.

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions– to lose weight, quit smoking or maybe even take up a new hobby.   We often do better at keeping some of those resolutions than others.  As each new year turns over we feel an urge to make something better out of the new year that we are given, and to try and be our best selves.

For those of us in committed relationships, perhaps the best resolution–and the most important one to keep in order to become our best selves–is to be vigilant about our relationships throughout the coming year.  To have a truly great relationship, this means acknowledging that where there is smoke there is fire– any time of the year, and doing something about it in the here and now.

Copyright © 2012 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC


Why NOW is the Time for Your Relationship

FayPsych Staff

“We’ll start having sex more after I’ve lost weight.”

 “We’ll spend more time together after I’ve gotten the promotion at work.”

“We can focus more on each other when the kids are older.”

“Once I stop traveling so much there’ll be more time for us.”

“My mom really needs me right now.  I know you’ll understand honey.”

How many times have you heard a friend say something along these lines, or maybe even uttered something similar yourself?

Couples tend to put off for tomorrow what they should be doing in their relationships today.  It’s easy to become nonchalant about our partners and our relationships.  It’s easier still to avoid the anxiety-provoking facets of our relationships and face them ‘some other time.’  We just assume that our partners will always be there for us, no matter what.  We so often fall into the bad habit of putting them on the back burner while we prioritize everything and everyone else ahead of them—jobs, kids, extended family, you name it.  But we do so safe in the knowledge that one day, when we’re ready, we can refocus our attention on them and they will be waiting for us.  The problems we have in our relationship can be worked out when that someday comes along too.

Only it doesn’t always work that way in the real world.  Couples who put off tending to the current needs (and trouble spots) within their relationship may find that their partners are not waiting for them when they’re finally ready to fully invest in and work on their relationship.

Many of the couples who present to therapy as a last-ditch effort to save their relationships have discovered that this “wait for another day” approach has had devastating consequences when they have finally decided to focus on their marriages.  Some have learned that it has left their relationship filled with resentment and so devoid of intimate connection in the here and now that they have chosen to seek out other connections through extramarital or emotional affairs.  Others have found that their partners did not want to wait for them and felt it might just be easier to leave the marriage altogether.  For those who have not yet reached this “critical” stage, there can still be a lingering sense of disconnect, loneliness, and “how could this happen to us?”

It’s terrible to see people who once had strong emotional connections come apart, especially since most of these couples could likely have avoided their fate if they had applied greater vigilance earlier in their relationship.  The damaged relationships described above didn’t happen overnight, it took time for their battle scars to be inflicted.

So what can couples do for their relationships to strengthen them right now?

Recognize that your relationship requires an investment of your time and energy on a daily basis.  Given the stresses and strains that career, children, extended family and other external factors may place on you as an individual this may be easier to pull off some days more than others.  Remember that your effort each day is part of a long-term investment in you, your partner, and your relationship that will pay dividends far into the future.  Some days you will do a better job than others, as will your partner.  Learn to forgive yourself on the days that your performance isn’t quite up to par, and extend the same forgiveness to him/her.

Try to remember what dating your partner was like when prioritizing your day.  When you were dating, your energy and focus were on your partner and your relationship while other aspects of your life became background players in those heady hormonal days of your early courtship.  This prioritization has likely reversed over time. While your partner can’t be your number one thought every waking minute, moving him or her up the list more consistently will make a big difference in how you feel about the relationship and how he/she is likely to feel about it as well.

Imagine what you would do differently if you were vying for your partner’s affections against a rival suitor.  Most couples have given up pursuing one another since the “deal has been sealed.”  Once you’ve stopped the chase, he/she feels less desirable and you are likely to be less engaged in your interactions with your partner.  Resetting your mind to the notion that you are in competition for your partner’s affections can help you bring out your A game.  Maybe you’ll pay a little more attention to how you dress and groom yourself, perhaps you’ll open the car door for her or send him a sexy text message– whatever the things are you think would catch your partner’s attention and win him/her over again.  Have an affair with your spouse!

If you are putting off being close to your partner because of your own physical, psychological or spiritual issue(s) you will address it/them– now.  If you’ve been holding your partner at a distance sexually (or otherwise) because you’re embarrassed that you’ve put on a few pounds, now is the time to do something about it.  If you have problems in your relationship with your father, that are affecting your relationship with your partner, now is the time to talk to someone about them so that you can resolve them once and for all.  The bottom line is, don’t expect your partner to either fix your problems or wait forever for you to decide to take care of your problems while they damage your relationship.  Take responsibility for yourself, and take action – NOW.

If the two of you are really stuck, seek guidance from a qualified couples therapist – now.  One of the biggest mistakes couples make is waiting too long to seek help when they come up against a problem in their relationship that they can’t handle on their own.  Rather than letting a problem pattern become entrenched, or letting resentments build up for years and years, talk to a professional who can help you learn new skills for addressing the issues the two of you are facing in a healthier way.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

What Every Two-Year-Old Knows– The Power of “NO”

FayPsych Staff

"The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults..."

A friend of mine had been experiencing a particularly bumpy few weeks and I invited her to lunch to blow off some steam.  She was troubled by her role as treasurer with a fundraising organization she had belonged to for the past several years.  Squabbles within the group’s leadership over the past few months had come to a head, and she felt torn between wanting to contribute to the group, and her desire to remove herself from the stress and anxiety of being exposed to all the bickering, along with the burden of the job of treasurer itself.

As we talked over a light lunch at our favorite restaurant, she recounted to me the three emails she had already received that morning related to the group’s latest saga.  “I’m
at my wit’s end with this – I have a full-time job I can barely keep up with as
it is.  I just don’t need this drama in my life. ” She said in exasperation.  I think
I’ve finally had it.”  The group’s dysfunctional ways were often the topic of our lunches, so I was not surprised to hear about this latest turn of events.

She was absolutely right. She didn’t need drama in her life. She had a very demanding career, as well as young children and a husband at home who needed her time and attention. As we talked, I reminded her that she had practically been made treasurer at gunpoint two years ago, and that it had not been enjoyable for her at any point since she had begun the job.  She had taken on the position with great reluctance, and it had proven to be as time-consuming and politically charged as she had feared.  She had hoped initially, that the good the fundraising organization did for the community
would outweigh the heavy toll the position took on her.  Over time though, it became clear that was not the case.

“I’m seriously thinking of resigning.” She told me.  “It’s just not worth it.”  She shook her head in frustration.  “I knew I never should have taken on this position.”

She had reached a crossroads, but on a journey that could have been avoided altogether with just one powerful little word – NO.  Had she had the courage two years prior to say no to the nominating committee (and she clearly knew she shouldn’t take the position back then), the stress and anxiety she had experienced over these last
two years could have been completely avoided. She would not have spent hours away from her family and her work, thanklessly trying to please the fundraising committee’s board, had she uttered that one small word– NO.  She knew she should have done it at the time, but she just couldn’t bring herself to say it.

It’s amazing how difficult it is for most adults to utter a simple two letter word.  I think of how often I have witnessed a toddler in a fit of two-year-old zeal throwing around
the word no as effortlessly as they might a toy.  At this stage of development, when a child is discovering his own sense of self and separateness from other people, he
delights in telling other people no as loudly and as often as possible–  especially if things aren’t going his way. He is learning how to establish boundaries and use language to make those boundaries clear.  While adults are reluctant to use the word no, a two-year-old relishes the word.

As we grow older we learn to be much less self-centered than our two-year-old selves, like my friend, who is a very caring and compassionate woman in every way.  This turn toward a more selfless outlook is a natural and necessary part of our development, but it can have a downside.  Our concern for others may make us vulnerable to suffering at tasks or in situations that make us miserable, or do damage to our relationships and sometimes even our health.  As we grow up, shame and guilt also enter our lives and become powerful motivators for our behavior.  We may make decisions based upon our fear that we are “not enough” or are “not living up to expectations.”  We find ourselves saying yes to things we are absolutely clear are not healthy for us, but we feel powerless to conjour up that two-letter word that holds the key to releasing us.

When we become disconnected from the ability to say no, out of misplaced altruism, guilt, shame or fear, we allow others to hold us hostage and use us for their own purposes. We may also wrongly believe that we are acting out of love when we fail
to say no to a parent’s, child’s, spouse’s or other family member’s requests,
when in fact, that failure to say no may be the most un-loving thing we can do,
both for that individual, and ourselves.

It’s easy to slip into the failure to say no trap over and over again;  it happens when we
over-indulge our children by not saying no (teaching them that they can expect to have whatever they want, whenever they want in life),  when we let our own parents
run over us with unreasonable expectations or demands (leaving us to simmer with silent anger at them while we limit our own life choices or our own family suffers from our misplaced loyalties),  when we let a friend coerce us into spending time doing something we don’t want to do (when we know it will make us anxious and cause friction at home), when we let our spouse’s desires overwhelm our own needs time and again (until resentment builds to the point of damaging or destroying our marriage).

The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults with strong and enduring personal and professional relationships.  Without establishing appropriate boundaries with this powerful tool, we set ourselves up for lives filled with anxiety, depression and other psychological maladies. We also set ourselves up to fail as parents and as romantic partners; we doom ourselves to raise children with unrealistic expectations that the world will never be able to meet, and we assure that we will never give our partners the best of ourselves.   If we truly want to be loving, we must demand the best of ourselves, and for ourselves, and we cannot do so without the power of no in our lives.

My friend and I talked some more over dessert and she decided she would tender her resignation that afternoon.  I could see she was tense about having to talk to the board’s president about her decision. When we said our goodbyes I reassured her that her decision was sound.

I spoke to her the next afternoon and she told me she had officially resigned.  She also said the president had begged her to take another position on the board.  I asked her what she told him.  “No,” she said simply.  I could hear her smile and her relief over
the phone.

Over the next couple of weeks we caught up by phone several times, and the sheer delight she expressed at the free time she now had on her hands along with the stress she was not experiencing was almost contagious.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

How Many Therapy Sessions Will I Need?

William E. Spaine, Psy.D.Dr. Bill Spaine

Understandably, people who are considering initiating psychotherapy want to make plans for the amount of time and money that will be required to achieve their goal for the therapy.  Many potential clients for psychotherapy think of the process in much the same way as they do for visiting a medical doctor, say for a sinus infection or a rash.  In this medical model, the physician does an exam, renders a diagnosis, and prescribes a treatment–sometimes with a follow-up appointment. (Yet even in the medical model, the patient is often referred to a specialist for further testing before a diagnosis and treatment are given.  How disappointing if the referral is to a physical therapist who assigns a discipline of exercise, or how frightening should the referral be to a surgeon!)

Frequently, when I ask a client during an initial appointment what their goal is for therapy, they respond, “I just want to be happy,” as if the adverb “just” suggests that the goal of happiness should not be unreasonably difficult or exceptionally aspirational.   Even if the initially stated goal for therapy is to no longer feel anxious or depressed or to get along better in a committed relationship, honest exploration usually reveals that there are more than just a few factors contributing to the symptoms that have brought the patient to my office.

While psychotherapy does have things in common with medical treatment, it has other qualities that more closely parallel the process of hiring a personal trainer to help guide you in losing weight or accomplishing a physical feat.  For example, if your goal is to lose twenty-five pounds, a personal trainer may work with you in establishing a training schedule which involves regular exercise, a healthy diet, and moderate or no consumption of alcohol. (It would require much more knowledge and discipline to lose twenty-five pounds and keep it off for 10 years!).  If you want to run a 5K, a marathon, or complete a triathalon, your training will be tailored to that particular goal. Careful consideration is given to your current physical shape.  You are very unlikely to achieve your fitness goal if you do not stick to your daily training schedule.  This personal trainer-client model is much like the psychotherapist-patient model; it requires a daily discipline on the part of the patient under the guidance of the therapist, whereas, in the medical model (that most of us are accustomed to), an occasional “check in” with our primary care physician is generally all that is required of us.

A bi-weekly training schedule with a personal trainer and little or no exercise between sessions will result in disappointing progress.  The parallels between reaching a fitness goal with a personal trainer and reaching a psychological goal with a psychotherapist extend further.  In each, you must reach a higher level of competence or accomplishment to understand the true state you were in when you began. You also must work to appreciate what discipline is required of you for progress.
Finally, as you advance in fitness or in psychological growth,  you gain a vision of what potential your life holds as you move toward your goal.

For example: if you begin biking with the goal of improving your cardiovascular condition, you will likely discover that your legs get extremely tired before you achieve what feels like a challenging“aerobic effect.”  That is, your leg strength cannot endure long enough for you to maintain an increased heart rate (accompanied by deep breathing) and feel that you have accomplished a good workout.  However, as you faithfully persevere in your regular biking workouts, your legs become conditioned enough for you to pedal longer, you begin breathing harder, and your heart rate is sustained at an increased level.  You are aware that you are able to push yourself harder and for longer periods and that you are getting into better cardiovascular shape. This brings a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy, you are delighted with the physical results, and you may even adjust your sights for a higher goal.

A similar phenomenon occurs in psychotherapy: after the initial relief of telling someone what is troubling you and gaining hope that you can survive it, you may be surprised or even somewhat immobilized in subsequent sessions by the force of your emerging fears, shame, hurts, anger, or embarrassment.  You didn’t want all of this; you just wanted to be happy!

Many people terminate therapy at this early stage because the therapy is working!  The awakening to one’s own life, which includes awareness of our feelings, often arouses emotions that we learned “long ago” to avoid or suppress because we feared being overwhelmed and we had no one in our lives to teach us how to regulate those emotions.  As we better learn to regulate affect, we often discover that there was much more “beneath the surface” than we consciously knew, and we can develop the ability to recognize our projections, distortions, minimizations, blaming, and rationalizations.  That is, as you grow stronger, you become more competent in recognizing and addressing psychological dimensions that need attention and further development.  Put
simply, you have to get better to get better. The resulting sense of accomplishment, integrity, self-efficacy, and improvement in your relationships (even at work), may even inspire you to a higher goal than you originally identified.

So, the question “How Many Sessions Do I Need” is answered vastly
differently based on the needs and desires of the person seeking psychotherapy,
and quite frankly, on the expertise of the therapist.  Some patients who have come to me for psychotherapy got what they wanted in one session.  Others have come for many years.  Still others have come for a handful of sessions and returned at a later time for more. The number of sessions from which you would benefit will ultimately be determined by you.  Consultation with your therapist on this topic, of course, is usually the best way to decide, but learning to tune into yourself deeply and to make decisions is often a goal of therapy itself.

Copyright © 2011 William E. Spaine, Psy.D.