'The holidays stress people out so much. I suggest you keep it simple and try to have as much fun as you can.' — Giada De Laurentiis

The holidays are notoriously stressful times, even though they are touted as being joyous occasions. Indeed, the expectations are that they should be full of happiness and meaning. But the holidays can be a time of loss (if someone is no longer with us to celebrate), conflict (with family members we may otherwise avoid), and dashed expectations. In some cases, someone may struggle with substance use, which can tilt events into chaos when folks have had a bit too much. So, what to do? Here are some things to consider:

    Dinner party
  • Have a conversation about the holidays in this way: Choose a holiday or tradition and have a conversation about how it should be celebrated. Discuss these questions: 1) What is meaningful about this for you? 2) When will this be done? 3) How often will it be done? 4) How long should it last each time? 5) Who will initiate it? 6) What will happen next? 7) How will it end? 8) How can we integrate this into our lives so we can count on it? These questions are useful for discussing any ritual of connection—these are events (daily, weekly, or annual) that connect you as a couple or family. Rituals of connection span things like how we say goodbye, bedtime, what happens when someone is sick, or dinner parties. Bill Doherty’s book, The Intentional Family, is an excellent resource on this topic. Once you have such a conversation as a couple, then the next tip may already be on its way.
  • Dinner party

  • Set limits and expectations. Around the holidays, this is a must, both for ourselves and with others. If you are hosting an event in your home, consider setting clear expectations around allowable topics of conversation (leave politics at the door, for example). Choose a menu that limits problem areas and/or choose seating arrangements that may limit conflictual interactions. If you are someone else’s guest, have an exit plan in place. Agree ahead of time with your partner when, or under what circumstances, it would be best to say goodbye and leave; this could be very important. Also, have a conversation about the kind of support you want to provide one another. For example, “When your mother says      , please say/do       [be as specific as possible] to show you support me.” Or, “I need you to call me to another room when you see       getting on my nerves.” You can also agree to take a break (the bathroom is a great option) of at least 20 minutes if needed (see 3 Ways to Keep Calm When Your Partner is Driving You Nuts!).
  • Have ways of managing stress as a couple. One study found that couples who can buffer each other from the stresses of life do better over time. So, having conversations with your partner that allow you to vent (about things outside the relationship), or release stress, is essential. Be aware: problem-solving, in this case, is counterproductive; you need to slow things down and taking a break from problem-solving. It is hard to shift out of this mindset, particularly for men, who are generally socialized to be more comfortable solving problems (versus talking about feelings). Instead of problem-solving, focus on active listening (see A Simple Listening Exercise to Help You Become a Great Listener). Make sure to avoid the Four Horsemen (see Contempt, the Battery Acid and How to Get Rid of Criticism and Defensiveness). Listen intensely and offer support; more than anything else, show your partner that you are there for them. And only provide problem-solving tips (aka advice) to your partner if they ask you to. Take turns listening to one another for 10 minutes each. I recommend doing this as often as you experience stress outside your relationship—sounds like the holidays, right? Better yet, make this kind of conversation a daily ritual and take turns listening to one another year-round!

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Have you ever heard anyone say, “I should take my own advice, shouldn’t I!” It turns out that giving advice to others actually can benefit you. A recent study in the journal PNAS showed that giving motivational advice raised academic achievement for the advisor. Here is the thinking about how this works:

    Ideas.
  1. People who advocate for specific opinions or beliefs come to believe what they say to mitigate cognitive dissonance. In other words, if I give someone advice, but I don’t follow it myself, this causes psychological discomfort. This makes it less likely I will not heed my advice.
  2. The reflection entailed in generating advice may prompt advisors to formulate concrete plans for enacting the recommended behaviors in their own lives. For instance, if my goal is to buy a house, I can think about what advice I would give to someone else in this situation. I will ignore things that are out of their control (and mine). So I might suggest opening a savings account to save for the downpayment and automatically deposit into it, with every paycheck, before spending on anything else. What just happened is that I created a practical plan for reaching my goal!
  3. Giving advice, unlike taking advice, can increase confidence. It feels good to be able to show expertise and help others. And feeling confident in this way can improve motivation.

Ideas.

So how can this work in your relationship? If you want to improve your relationship in a particular area, say, improving your love life, you could write your own advice column on the subject. You might do some research, see what is out there, and choose some things that make sense to you to include in your column. (By the way, for ideas on this subject check out: “How Healthy is Your Sex Life,” “Sex and Relationships,” and the guide “Things Your Mama Never Told You About Talking Dirty…”).

Once you have your article completed, consider sharing it with your partner and having a conversation about it. Though I would caution against giving your partner advice—if they haven’t asked for advice, it may come across as criticism or worse. Or maybe you have a friend who would be interested in reading it. Or simply write it down in your journal. Whatever you choose to do, check back in a few months and see if you have followed any of your own advice!

'When we teach, we learn.' — Seneca

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Couple underwater.Dating can be exciting and fun, and being in love can be magical. But is there something you should be doing to see if this is the right person for you? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Dating is about getting to know one another and, in this way, seeing if there is a good match between you, finding out how compatible you are with one another. Don’t get me wrong, no matter who you partner with, there will be differences that will need to be negotiated. Knowing about these ahead of time, before making a long term commitment, can help you decide if you are a good enough match for one another. This will improve the chance of your relationship being successful in the long term.

Couple underwater.

Image of card deck.I love the card deck 52 Questions Before Marriage or Moving In designed by Ursula Burton. The card deck has four categories: romance, social life, work, and money. Each card has questions to help you have meaningful conversations around these topics. For instance, a card under romance asks: “What are your views about having children? Pets? How strong are your positions about this? What, if anything, would change your mind?” Under social life, one card asks: “In what ways do your religious and/or political beliefs and practices, if any, differ from your partner’s? If you have children, with what beliefs and practices will you raise them?” Under work: “What reasons might there be for one or both of you to cut back on work hours or not work for money?” Under money: “How do you feel about any existing debt? About taking on more debt as a couple?”

Image of card deck.

As you can see, the card deck has great questions and conversation starters to help you explore life together. This will help you understand how good a match you are for one another, and what areas might be challenging to negotiate as a couple. It is crucial to know if there are any “deal breakers” in any of the differences you explore. Deal breakers are differences such that one of you will not be able to meet a core need; for example, one person wants to have kids, the other one does not. But keep in mind, outside of deal-breakers, differences do not mean your relationship won’t work. Differences are unavoidable. It is how you manage these differences—how you talk about them—that makes all the difference in the world. Knowing about these sooner rather than later can help you evaluate the next steps, such as further exploration, getting help from a trusted other to talk about difficult topics, or taking time to do some soul searching about your relationship.

'quote'We recognize a soulmate by the supreme level of comfort and security we feel with that person. That doesn't mean that there aren't issues that remain to be ironed out. Rather, it means we know intuitively that we can resolve issues with our soul mate without losing his or her love and respect.' — Linda Brady

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'The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.' — Joseph Joubert

Perpetual issuesDoes your partner drive you a bit batty by doing the same thing over and over that they must know by now that it is a pet peeve of yours? Here is a little secret about disagreements with your partner: if the same argument keeps coming up, over and over again, you may be dealing with a “perpetual issue.” Dr. Gottman’s research has shown that perpetual issues make up about 69% of conflict couples have. These are issues that relate to fundamental differences between partners, such as differences in personality or lifestyle preferences.

Perpetual issues

When you are discussing a perpetual issue, the most valuable skill is establishing an ongoing dialogue about the issue. An essential part of this dialogue is to slow down the conversation. The aim is to understand what is going on underneath the surface. Then, with this understanding, explore options to make things better for both of you.

Perpetual issues

For example, take Joe and Mary. Mary wants to be on time, but Joe has a relaxed stance on timeliness. Is Mary’s need for timeliness about a value like respect? Is there a backstory that can help flesh out what is going on? Is Joe’s underlying value about relaxing and escaping the tyranny of time? Is there a disaster scenario for them around some aspect of this? The possibilities of what could be going on for each person are endless.

When we understand what is going on, for ourselves and our partner, and we both feel heard and understood, avenues for honoring each other’s needs become possible. A deeper understanding will allow you to experiment with possible solutions. But know that you will likely need to return to dialogue when it comes up again. As always, remember to avoid the Four Horsemen (contempt, stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness).

Perpetual issues

Let us go back to Joe and Mary. For Mary, timeliness is about keeping her word and being responsible. For her, it is about how disappointed and let down she feels when others fail to show up for her. For Joe, his relaxed stance on time is about not worrying about responsibilities all the time. His story is about how stifling it was to grow up in a house where there was no space made for hanging out and being creative. With this understanding, Joe and Mary discussed ways to manage this difference. One option they came up with is deciding which events will be prioritized for being “on time” and which events both will be “more relaxed” about. They also decided to set up activities that are not bound by a set time frame.

Perpetual issues

Once you have set up a plan, give yourselves some opportunities to try it out. Come back and talk about it again after a while to see what may need to be adjusted. Remember that this is an ongoing conversation; keep experimenting, building on what you learn along the way.

While some arguments will change over time, others will stay with you as you find ways to deal with them. Keep in mind that differences are inevitable when two people love one another. The important thing is that the positive things about your partner and your relationship can far outweigh these differences.

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Highly unlikely… for starters, “sex addiction” is not mentioned in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used to make diagnoses in the United States. The World Health Organization also does not use the term sex addiction in its diagnostic guide (it has “compulsive sexual behavior disorder”).

Broken heart.How can we know if something (whether heroin, porn, sex, gambling, or alcohol use) is an addiction? According to Prof. Mark Griffiths, there are six criteria to consider: 1) Salience: does it dominate thoughts, feelings, and behavior? 2) Mood modification: is it used to shift mood? 3) Tolerance: are increasing amounts needed to achieve the same effect? 4) Withdrawal: do unpleasant feelings, or physical effects, occur when discontinued or suddenly reduced? 5) Conflict: does it create interpersonal conflict or intrapsychic (internal) conflict? 6) Relapse: is there a tendency for the activity to recur after years of abstinence or control? Another hallmark of addiction, according to Dr. Allen Frances, is that something that may have given pleasure at the beginning now no longer does so, but can’t be stopped. For most people, even though sex may create problems, the act itself remains pleasurable.

Broken heart.

I think it is clear that very few people would qualify, given the above criteria, for having a sex addiction. Yes, this behavior can create plenty of problems, but calling it a “sex addiction” may be more about avoiding taking responsibility than about dealing with an addiction. Yet the fallout from an affair is real, regardless of what it might be attributed to. But, if it is not due to “sex addiction,” what is it due to? Most likely, it is about trust, commitment, intimacy—either that these are lacking or are broken—and a host of other related issues.

To save a relationship after an affair takes a lot of work—from both partners. Even then, there is no guarantee of success. It is possible to create a healthy relationship after an affair if both partners are willing to put in the hard work. And for many couples, this is worth doing. It goes without saying that getting help can make a big difference; the-sooner-the-better. If you want to explore this option, contact me for a free phone consultation.

quote: 'My addiction made me do it' is the modern equivalent and substitute for 'the devil made me do it.' Personal responsibility is easily dissolved when behavioral choices become fake psychiatric illnesses. — Allen Frances, MD

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LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT About LeMel...
SFBayCounseling.com
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist MFC 42162
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor LPC 1534
Certified Gottman Therapist