We all have that special something that makes us feel loved. For some, it is a warm embrace; others may prefer a delicious home-cooked meal or spending time with their mates.

Everybody is different, and we all feel and show love uniquely. This is the basis of the concept of ‘Love Languages ‘, a term originally coined by Dr. Gary Chapman. Love languages are the different ways in which individuals understand and express love. Often, we choose to show love in the same manner as we wish to receive it. However, a couple does not always speak the same love language. What is perceived as a loving action by one partner is interpreted differently by the other and can lead to distance and feelings of neglect within the relationship.

Let’s take Tim and Andrea as an example.

Tim and Andrea have been married for 15 years but can never seem to make the other feel loved. The more they try, the more emotionally distant they become.

Tim tried all manner of different things to show his love for Andrea. He kept the lawn mown, changed the oil in her car, was a faithful husband, and even tolerated her brother, who drove him up the wall with his terrible jokes and strange sense of humor.

Andrea also did all she could to show Tim she loved him. She loved to cook and always had a home-made meal on the table every night, even on the days she was exhausted from her job. She verbally expressed her love for him and would go out of her way to hug Tim when he looked stressed or upset. She even put up with the chaos of football nights when Tim and his buddies would gather to watch the game and down a few brews. 

Over time, they began drifting further apart. They would try new things to show their love, but nothing worked. Tim believed Andrea was pulling away from him; Andrea resigned herself to thinking that her husband took her for granted and felt resentful.

They came to marriage counseling at the end of their rope, and I asked them, “What makes you feel loved? What is your love language?” Both looked at me, confused, and I explained what action the other person could take to help you feel loved.

Andrea replied, “I would love nothing more than to be hugged. I would also love for Tim to tell me he loves me. I always tell him, and he never says it back.” This shocked Tim; he never knew his wife felt this way.

I then asked Tim what he needed to feel loved. Tim replied, “I would like a little more intimacy between us than an occasional hug. It doesn’t always have to end in the bedroom, but I want to feel like I am an important part of her life, and she still desires me as a husband.”

Tim and Andrea believed they were expressing their love openly, but the ‘love language’ they were speaking did not translate. To help rebuild their bond, Tim and Andrea began openly talking about their love language and what makes them feel loved, and then focused on showing love that way. Their relationship improved beyond measure and both felt loved and appreciated in the marriage.

Showing your partner that you love them using their love language is a very effective way to re-establish the bond you once shared. It is a powerful yet surprisingly simple technique to learn. All you need to do is be honest with each other and then commit to changing how you express your love so that you can make each other’s heart sing.

Relationships can be challenging, but showing your affection does not need to be. If you can both discover each other’s love language, then you can start speaking it fluently. Take the time to identify your own love language and have a chat about it with your partner. This simple step can make a world of difference in your relationship. 

An Exciting Announcement…

I am excited to share with you the launch of a new and improved version of my book, ‘Eight Keys to a Happy Marriage.’ This book, which I am truly proud of, is a unique resource that can help you transform your relationship.

‘Eight Keys to a Happy Marriage,’ is a practical guide written in everyday language. It’s designed to empower you to start improving your relationship immediately, regardless of your partner’s involvement. Our straightforward content ensures you can easily apply the techniques and advice to your unique situation, giving you the power to make changes.

 I teach techniques and provide tips and advice that have helped many patients repair their relationships and rekindle the love they share with their partners. Many chapters include worksheets I use within my clinic so you can track your progress and follow the instructions to strengthen your relationship step by step.

So join us and let us help you fall in love with your partner all over again.

Click here to download!

Life would be blissful and easy in a perfect world, and blame would never point in our direction. We could skate through life doing what we pleased, never being held accountable for our actions. Unfortunately, such a world does not exist, and we all must take responsibility. 

While conflicts and disagreements are a normal part of any relationship, how a couple handles these challenges can significantly impact the dynamics of any relationship. 

A common issue in my practice is when one partner blames the other and refuses to accept responsibility for their actions. This is a recipe for disaster and, if left unchecked, can and will cause a breakdown in even the strongest relationships.

Understanding the Blame Game

Blaming and avoiding responsibility can be a defense mechanism. Here, one person is unwilling to acknowledge their mistakes, shortcomings, or contributions to conflicts and instead blames their partner, holding them solely responsible for the problem. This pattern of behavior, if left unchecked, can create resentment and lead to a serious and sometimes irreparable breakdown in the relationship. 

Lets look at one example:

After a hectic day playing chauffeur to her three children, cooking dinner, and getting the kids bathed and in their pyjamas, Sarah noticed the dirty dishes still piled in the sink. She turned to her husband, “You agreed to do the dishes while I put the kids to bed; why are they still here?” she asked, tired and now quite frustrated.

Tom, defensively, responded, “Stop being so demanding and critical! I need a break, I’m the one who has been at work all day, not you.”

Sarah, though exhausted, sighed and started loading the dishwasher. “I should have managed my time better; I’m sorry.” She replied, now feeling both shame and guilt.

This scenario wasn’t new; Sarah often took the blame to avoid arguments. Tom, accustomed to deflecting responsibility, continued, “You always say sorry but never change. You just make excuses.”

Their conversation spiraled into a familiar pattern. Sarah habitually takes the blame to diffuse tension, and Tom habitually shifts responsibility and commitments, leaving both feeling dissatisfied but trapped in a cycle difficult to break.

How Does the Blame Game Affect Communication?

When one partner consistently plays the blame game, they undermine open and honest dialogue as they continue to evade responsibility. Instead of discussing issues together, they engage in a cycle of accusations and defensiveness, making it nearly impossible to communicate openly and honestly, leaving no way to resolve the issue.

Moreover, blaming and avoiding responsibility often leads to miscommunication. Partners may misunderstand each other’s perspectives, intentions, and emotions, further fuelling the conflict. The inability to take responsibility for your actions can result in a lack of empathy for your partner’s feelings and experiences, causing emotional distance and eroding trust within the marriage.

It is essential to communicate effectively with your partner; without communication, the relationship dissolves, leaving both parties feeling isolated and distanced from each other.

Self-Esteem and Emotional Well-being

The blame game within a marriage significantly affects self-esteem and emotional well-being. When one person consistently shifts blame onto their partner, they neglect their ability for personal growth and self-improvement. This can lead to feelings of stagnation and a sense of powerlessness to effect positive change in the relationship.

Furthermore, being on the receiving end of constant blame can damage a person’s self-esteem. Over time, this can create feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and a diminished sense of self-worth. Such emotional distress can lead to anxiety, depression, and a reduced overall quality of life for both partners.

Detrimental Impact on Trust

Trust is the bedrock of any successful marriage. Blaming your partner and avoiding responsibility can severely compromise trust within the relationship. When someone evades responsibility, they say, “I cannot be trusted to take ownership of my actions or their consequences.” This breach of trust can lead to a growing sense of betrayal and decreased emotional intimacy between partners.

Breaking the Cycle

To cultivate a healthier and more resilient marriage, it is important to recognize the destructive pattern of blaming and avoiding responsibility and take proactive steps to break the cycle. This can be a challenging habit to break but here are some strategies to achieve this:

  1. Self-awareness: Acknowledge the tendency to shift blame and avoid responsibility. Understand that taking ownership of your actions signifies emotional maturity and a step toward personal growth.
  1. Active listening: Practice active listening  when conflicts arise. Try to understand your partner’s perspective, feelings, and needs. This will help foster empathy; they will feel heard and validated, opening the door to healthier communication.
  1. Self-reflection: Take some time to assess your behavior and contributions to conflicts. You accept responsibility for your actions and acknowledge that working on self-improvement is vital to maintaining a healthy marriage.
  1. Seek professional help: If the blame game is deeply ingrained in your marriage, consider contacting a Psychologist specializing in couples therapy. They can provide valuable guidance and strategies for breaking the cycle. I am available for Telehealth consultations; my information is at the bottom of this article.

A successful marriage requires self-awareness, open and empathetic communication, and the willingness to take responsibility for your own actions. These may be difficult steps to take at first, it can be hard to look at ourselves and admit our mistakes, but each time we do, we improve the connection we share with our partner. The less we blame, the more open we are to accepting our own faults and it becomes easier to make the changes needed to create a loving, harmonious life with the person you love the most.

To learn more about recognizing destructive patterns of blaming and avoiding responsibility, download our mini-course, “Why Couples Fight: A Psychologist’s Guide to Understanding Relationship Conflict.”

In this mini-course, we emphasize the importance of centering your mind and body, creating a state of mental and physical calm. We teach you the value of being mindful of your emotions and the importance of acting objectively rather than subjectively. Additionally, we explore concepts such as “dropping the bone,” mastering the art of taking the high road in an argument, and how to deflect sarcasm. While these skills are crucial to every relationship, they are often overlooked. Here, we guide you and help you develop these essential skills so that you can rely on them when stress and conflict inevitably arise.

Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes. www.angercoach.com, follow the link and start your journey to a harmonious relationship. 

To schedule an appointment, please click here.

The holiday season is a time when we pile in the car, drive around our neighborhood, look at the fairy land that is Christmas, and marvel at the creativity of our neighbors. The shops are filled with endless gift opportunities, and the scent of pine trees and gingerbread cookies wafts through our home. 

It is also when many of us try to live up to quite unrealistic expectations. We want to make Christmas time memorable for our little ones, enjoy a home filled with family and friends, and make it a wonderful time for all who enter through the wreath-strung door. 

I honestly believe the only perfect Christmas is in a Hallmark movie. The reality is, the holiday season can be downright stressful at best, grey hair producing for many! 

There have been times when my wife and I would much rather skip the day entirely, get into our comfy clothes, kick back at home, and enjoy a fine wine together, and there are others who may agree with me. This plan never quite pans out for me, and I want to offer you some tips on how to avoid the stomach-churning, headache-inducing stress that can be the holiday season.

Each year, around the middle of November, I begin to notice a change in some of my patients. Their stress levels rise as they grapple with the high expectations they set for themselves for the upcoming holiday season, and this takes a toll, both mentally and physically. 

There is so much that plays on your mind this time of year: food, gifts, the added expense, and, of course, dealing with the challenges of hosting family and friends in the home. 

In this article, we’ll delve into the problems associated with excessively high self-expectations and provide strategies to reduce holiday-related tension, making the season more manageable and enjoyable.

The Perils of High Self-Expectations

Setting excessively high self-expectations, both mentally and physically, can take a toll on your overall well-being. It’s essential to recognize the problems this can cause and to learn how to manage these expectations.

  • Mental Expectations: Many of people undue pressure on themselves to create the “perfect” holiday experience, from meticulously decorated homes to flawlessly prepared meals. The constant pursuit of perfection can lead to feelings of inadequacy and stress.
  • Physical Expectations: Physically, the holiday season can be exhausting. Preparing large dinners, hosting guests, cleaning, playing referee when the kids argue, and participating in the numerous activities we may be invited to can be tiring. Overcommitting and neglecting self-care can result in burnout and feelings of resentment.

Coping with Hosting Family

Having family come to stay during the holidays can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you may love your family; on the other, you can’t wait for them to leave! Here are tips to help you manage tension in your own home and make the experience more enjoyable for everyone:

  • Effective Communication: Clear communication is essential. Set boundaries and expectations for the visit, such as how long each family member stays, discuss routines and child care duties, help out in the kitchen, how family can help out by contributing to the food cost and address any potential conflicts before they escalate.
  • We all Need Personal Space: Ensure you and your guests have personal space and downtime. Setting boundaries is essential, such as explaining to your guests that your bedroom is off-limits so you can retreat to that space when needed. Or explain in advance that you need to crash for half an hour during the day to recharge. If people understand this, they are more likely to respect your boundaries than wonder where you are and come looking. 
  • Respect Differences: Inevitably, family members will not always see eye to eye. People have diverse beliefs, traditions, and preferences. Use empathy by looking at their viewpoint to understand their opinion and avoid imposing your values on others. Embrace the diversity that makes the holiday season rich and meaningful.
  • Adjust your Expectations: How many of us have that one family member who had a little too much egg nog, got wobbly legs, and began reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ before falling asleep mid-sentence and filling the room with a cacophony of snores. Or, the one Uncle who loves to brag about his many successes while following you from room to room as you try to get Christmas lunch prepared. As much as we value family, they can drive us to our limits. Try to accept their flaws or limitations. Understand that they will irritate you, and when this happens, acknowledge your feelings and take some time away for yourself. You can’t change who they are but can change how you react. 
  • Delegate Tasks: Share responsibilities. Assign specific tasks, such as meal preparation or decorating, to involve everyone and reduce the burden on yourself.

Reducing Tension, is it Time to Dial Things Back?

We all want to make our Christmas something to remember; however, sometimes it feels like expectation exceeds reality. Do we need to run ourselves ragged, making so many different kinds of desserts? Will anyone care if the front yard isn’t decorated? Most of the time, family members just want to spend time with you and enjoy your company. It is important to remember that not everything needs to be perfect. It is far better to let some things go than to run yourself ragged.

  • Set Realistic Expectations: Instead of striving for perfection, aim for a realistic and enjoyable holiday experience. Understand that not everything has to go flawlessly.
  • Prioritize Self-Care: I know I covered this, but I will repeat it: Take time to look after yourself. Rest, relax, and engage in activities that rejuvenate you. This will save you from collapsing into a heap after your guests leave, you can enjoy the holidays and look forward to next year.
  • Learn to Say No: It’s okay to decline some invitations or trim down your holiday commitments. Setting boundaries and prioritizing your well-being is essential.
  • Focus on Meaning: Rediscover the true meaning of the holiday season. Spend quality time with loved ones and create cherished memories. In 10 years, no one will remember how perfect the tree was. They will however remember how lovely it was to sit by the fireplace, exchanging stories and enjoying the bond you share.

The holiday season should be a time of joy, not exhaustion. By managing your self-expectations, effectively coping with hosting family, and dialing back your holiday celebrations, you can create a more balanced and enjoyable experience. Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity, and the most precious moments often come from genuine connections with loved ones, free from the burden of excessive expectations.

If you would like to learn more about managing your expectations and how to cope with conflict, especially in your relationship, download our mini-course: Rise Above the Chaos and Embrace your Inner Smile.

In this course, we emphasize the importance of centering your mind and body, creating a state of mental and physical calm. We teach you the value of being mindful of your emotions and the importance of acting objectively rather than subjectively. Additionally, we explore concepts such as “dropping the bone”, mastering the art of taking the high road in an argument, and how to deflect sarcasm. While these skills are a crucial part of every relationship they are often overlooked. Here we guide you and help you develop these essential skills so that you can rely on them when stress and conflict inevitably arise.

Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes. www.angercoach.com, follow the link, and start your journey to a harmonious relationship.

Thanksgiving is a time of joy, celebration, and eating massive amounts of food while the buttons on our pants strain for dear life. It’s when families come together to create lasting memories and reminisce about past feasts, succulent turkey, and football games won and lost. However, this time of year can also be challenging for many, as it brings the dynamics and tensions within family units to the forefront. 

As the big day approaches, stress levels increase, which can have a domino effect. Someone may have a bad day and snap at you in the store. This makes you mad, and you arrive home feeling vexed and annoyed and, in turn, take it out on your partner. Anger and stress are unwanted gifts that keep giving, which tends to be exacerbated this time of year.

As a family therapist, I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggles that people face when dealing with problematic family members during the holidays. I want to offer some guidance and advice to help you through the holiday season.

The Reality Behind Holiday and Family Conflicts:

The holiday season creates the perfect environment to re-ignite deep-seated family dynamics, stirring up emotions we thought were long forgotten. For instance, adult children returning home may revert to their old roles, leading to power struggles and disagreements. Past grievances can resurface, rekindling old conflicts while spending extended periods in close quarters with family. This can lead to cabin fever, sibling rivalries, or other interpersonal issues that magnify underlying tensions.

Awkward Conversations:

The holiday season brings out both the best and worst in people. Someone will inevitably bring up a topic of conversation that rubs another the wrong way; it wouldn’t be the holiday season without it. 

I know a couple who are asked every Thanksgiving, ‘So, when will you start a family?” They have no intention of having children, and they explain this every year, but people continue to ask and always feel uncomfortable.

So, how do you react to questions or topics such as this, especially when sensitive matters such as politics, religion, or personal life choices arise? Here are some strategies to help you navigate these conversations:

  • Redirect the Conversation: When a touchy subject arises, gently shift the conversation towards a safer, neutral topic. For example, if politics come up, you might say, “Speaking of politics, did you catch the latest ball game or binge-watch anything recently?” Try to lighten the atmosphere without being dismissive.
  • Active Listening: When someone expresses their opinion, actively listen without immediately responding or placing judgment. This can help defuse tension and encourage open dialogue. 
  • Practice Empathy: When engaged in a conversation you may disagree with, try using empathy to understand the topic from the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and look at how and why they may have their opinion. We sometimes argue before the other person can finish their thought and miss a crucial point that changes everything. Remember, it is OK not to agree with everyone; we all have the right to our opinions.
  • Set Boundaries: Communicate your boundaries politely but firmly. If someone persists in discussing a topic that makes you uncomfortable, say something like, “I’d prefer not to discuss this right now. Let’s focus on enjoying our time together.”

Toxic Family Members:

Dealing with a toxic family member adds yet another layer of complexity to our holiday season. I know several patients who dread this time of year; their stress levels rise because they know they have to deal with that one person in the family who seems to go out of their way to make their day miserable. Here are some strategies to manage such situations:

  • Choose Your Battles: Not every issue needs to be confronted during the holidays. Assess the importance of the problem and decide whether it’s worth addressing. Conversations can be shelved and picked up at a more appropriate time. There may be topics that you will always have differing views on. It is OK to agree to disagree and say as such in a kind yet firm manner, for example: “I don’t think we are going to see eye to eye on this topic; let’s drop this and chat about something else.”
  • Limit Interaction: Spend time with toxic family members in small doses, and make sure you have a support system in place to help you cope with any negativity. Chat with your support people ahead of time; you can even have a code word or subtle gesture you can give them so they can step in and help distract from the conversation. Be sure to ask them if they feel comfortable doing this so they don’t have to choose sides.
  • Be Kind to You: Prioritize self-care during the holiday season. Engage in activities that help you relax and recharge, such as walking, exercising, or just taking time away from the family to read a chapter of your book, walk your dog, unwind, and lower your stress levels. 
  • Keep a positive outlook and embrace your inner smile: When things begin to go south and tensions rise, keeping a smile on our faces and our thoughts in a positive place can be challenging. However, remember that this time of year is fleeting; things will return to normal, and there is the opportunity to create some fantastic memories. When your stress levels build, think of something you are looking forward to or focus on the positives of the holiday. You may be thrilled to see your Dad after many months of separation, or your sister may have done something ridiculous that you can both laugh about for years to come. It is the small things that keep us going.

Remember that every family has its quirks, and while conflicts may arise, they don’t define the entire holiday experience. Focus on the love and shared moments that make the holiday season special, and remember, if things get stressful, there is always pumpkin pie!

To learn more about effective communication and keeping a positive outlook during stressful times, download our mini-course, “Rise above the chaos and embrace your inner smile.”

In this mini-course, we emphasize the importance of centering your mind and body, creating a state of mental and physical calm. We teach you the value of being mindful of your emotions and the importance of acting objectively rather than subjectively. Additionally, we explore concepts such as “dropping the bone,” mastering the art of taking the high road in an argument, and how to deflect sarcasm. While these skills are crucial to every relationship, they are often overlooked. Here, we guide you and help you develop these essential skills so that you can rely on them when stress and conflict inevitably arise.

Our entire course is also available on our website, as well as books, our blog, and other classes. www.angercoach.com, follow the link and start your journey to a harmonious relationship. 

Case #1: Jeanette and Tom had been married 15 years. Wanting to surprise him for his birthday, Jeanette bought (with her own money) Tom a big-screen LCD television.

Tom’s reaction? He instantly blew up and berated Jeanette for spending so much money, buying more television than they needed, and buying a bigger one than they had previously looked at together. Jeanette was dumbfounded at his reaction, as she truly thought this would be a gift that would greatly please her husband.

Case#2: Jim was having a friendly beer with his brother-in-law Jack when the discussion turned to Jack’s extreme success in life.

Wanting to complement him, Jim commented on how far he had come, how proud of himself he must be and how much he is an inspiration to others, given his background with alcoholic and dysfunctional parents. Rather than seeing this as a complement, however, Jack became offended and angry and began to berate Jim for having said such a thing that he was interpreting as a “put down.”

Anger is caused by our view of things

As these examples clearly show, people are not disturbed by things or events, but by the view they take of them—an observation made in the early 2nd Century by Greek philosopher Epictetus.

When an upsetting family event occurs, you have a choice of how you are going to explain it to yourself —what you are going to tell yourself about it—which will greatly influence how angry, stressed, or upset you will become over it.

Learning to change what you tell yourself – your self-talk – is a powerful tool to break a cycle of negativity that can often poison our minds when we get angry. We all have a voice in our mind that tells us messages and stories about family members and how they behave.

Tom, who exploded when his loving wife bought him a new television was telling himself things like: she has such poor judgment buying a bigger TV than we need; there she goes again, spending money excessively; why can’t she ever do what I want her to do? Why did I marry such a woman?

Of course, none of these things made any sense to Tom once he cooled down and became his rational self again. But, at the moment of anger explosion, all those self- statements seemed 100% real and true to him.

Jack who became offended at being congratulated for overcoming his past, was actually having the following conversation in his head: he is putting me down because I had alcoholic parents; he is saying I am not capable of being successful on my own instead of “overcoming” something in my past; he is mocking me because of how I grew up.

No wonder he became so upset at Jim’s innocent attempt at a compliment. Like many of us, he was responding to his perspective of what was being communicated —not Jim’s.

Three Steps to Change Self-Talk

Step 1 – Retreat and Think Things Over. Do not respond immediately to a family anger or stress trigger. Give your body and your mind a chance to calm down so you can think rationally. Research shows this may take at least 20 minutes.

Step 2 – Look at the evidence. The most convincing way of disputing negative self-talk toward a family member is to show yourself it is factually incorrect. Do not lie to yourself, but like a detective simply and honestly look at all the evidence around the issue at hand.

For instance, when calm Tom remembered that his wife was excellent with money and rarely overspent. Jack remembered that Jim never disparaged him and, in fact, had always supported him throughout the years of their friendship.

Step 3 – Find alternative ways of interpreting the behavior of family members that is more positive—and more useful.
Tom was finally able to see his wife’s buying behavior as a sign of love and caring for him, rather than trying to hurt him or cause stress.
Jack was eventually capable of seeing that Jim was truly trying to complement him and that he truly saw Jack as someone to be admired because of how far he had come in life.

Case #1- Elizabeth, a 40 year old homemaker was always feeling angry and “used” by her family, constantly saying that everybody took advantage of her. She felt that she worked like a slave but her family showed no appreciation or acknowledgment of her many efforts.

Case #2- Bill, a 34 year old husband complained that his critical wife was always angry at him. He spent his life trying to cope with her outrages which often escalated him into defensive anger which didn’t happen anywhere but in this relationship.

Case#3- Betty, a 42 year separated mother struggled with her soon to be ex-husband’s contempt and disrespect every time she angrily called him to discuss details of their divorce.

These three cases bring up the question often asked by participants in our anger management classes: Is it possible to control how family members treat us? The short answer is “no” — but often we can teach them to treat us better!

Believe it or not, we are constantly teaching our family how to treat us— both by our responses to their behavior, and by the behavior we display to them which they react to. In our case examples:

By automatically doing whatever her husband and children requested, Elizabeth was “teaching” them that there are almost no limits to what she would do for them. With his behavior, Bill was actually teaching his wife that the way to get attention from him (even if it was negative attention) was for her to create drama.

Betty was so intimidated by her husband, that her defensive “attitude” was “teaching” him that to deal with her, he had to push back with the contempt and disrespect that he constantly showed her.

The dance of anger

Our interchange with family members is often like a carefully choreographed dance. They make a move. You make a move in response to their move. They then respond to what you said or did and ….well, you get the idea!

How do you change the dance? Start by seeing yourself as a teacher—of how you would like your family to treat you.

Four ways to change what you teach others

  1. Try a softer-start-up. Marital research shows that the first few seconds of an interaction can predict the final outcome of the encounter. Try being softer, more polite, more respectful, less hostile, or more empathetic—and see how this change in your approach actually teaches others to respond better to you.
  2. Take a time-out before dealing with the conflict or situation. Conflicting or arguing family members often work themselves up to a point at which problem solving is impossible. The solution is to retreat and give yourself time to calm down and think things over. This takes at least 20 minutes, often much longer. Before taking your time out, it is important to tell the other person that you will commit to returning soon to deal with the conflict, after you are calmer—then be sure to do it!
  3. Acknowledge that you see how they must be seeing the situation. Called “empathy,” this response on your part teaches others that you care about their feelings and viewpoints, and opinions. Acknowledgment doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with their viewpoint—only that you see it. Sometimes, your family needs to know that you care about them and respect their opinions before they listen to what you say.
  4. Set limits and boundaries for your family members. Limits and boundaries are basically rules regarding acceptable behaviors toward you as well as what you are willing or not willing to do. If you feel others are taking advantage of you, ask yourself what you may be doing (or not doing) to give the message it is “ok” for them to do whatever they are doing. Often you can change their behavior toward you by teaching them different rules of being with you. The easiest way to do this is simply to respond differently yourself. For instance, they make you the core of a nasty joke. Being a nice person, you pretend it doesn’t bother you( even though it does), so you laugh with everybody else. As an alternative, try not laughing with them, which is a way of teaching them that they have crossed a boundary with you.

Joe and Emily live in Southern California with their three young children. Both work and must commute 2 hours daily on busy freeways, often not getting home until 7:30 PM, exhausted and depleted. Stressed, they have little patience for the antics of their young children resulting in constant shouting matches, defiance on the part of the children, continual yelling back and forth, and escalating family tension.

As this case example illustrates, stress is often an underlying cause of anger in family members. Sometimes the stress is caused by events outside of the family which family members then bring into the home; other times the behavior of family members causes stress and tension in the home. In either case, it becomes a problem when parents find themselves constantly yelling at their children or disagreeing with each other on parenting strategies. In the meantime their children continue to do what they please—or continue bickering and fighting with each other. Between the adults, stress can be a major factor in marital unhappiness and ultimately divorce.

How Stress can affect individual family members

Joe and Emily both suffered individual stress symptoms including fatigue, irritability, angry outbursts, headaches and a discontent with their lives. They began feeling increasing distant from each other. Their children were also stressed-out- being tired, irritable, cranky, and demanding of attention. They often fought with each other and actively did things to get each other in trouble with their parents.

Signs of the stressed family system

Just as individuals can become overloaded and stressed-out, so can families.
To understand how this can happen, we must remember that families such as Joe and Emily’s are the basic building block of our society – and of most societies. Families consist of two or more people who share goals and values and have a long term commitment to each other. It is through the family that children are supposed to learn how to become responsible, successful, happy, and well-adjusted adults. When this no longer happens due to stress, we can say that the family unit becomes dysfunctional in that it no longer serves its purpose fully, easily or consistently.

We can recognize the dysfunctional family by noting that parents and children no longer turn to each other for support, encouragement, guidance, or even love.

Such family members may continue to live in the same house – but often don’t feel emotionally attached to each other, perhaps start living independent lives, and unfortunately don’t view their family as a warm place to retreat from the stresses and demands of the outside world.

Five Tips to Stress-Guard your family

  • Tip #1 – Teach your children “resiliency” — the ability to handle stress and respond more positively to difficult events. Specific ways children can practice “bouncing back” include having a friend and being a friend, setting new goals and making plans to reach them, looking on the bright side, and believing in themselves.
  • Tip #2 – Institute family rituals to provide stability. Have a way to leave each other in the morning, and to re-connect in the evening; have a Sunday morning ritual or a Friday night family pizza ritual. Rituals create a sense of security and predictability – both of which are excellent stress buffers.
  • Tip #3 – Model and teach your children conflict resolution skills. Your children learn how to handle conflict partly by watching their parents. All couples have conflicts; better parents model good conflict resolution skills for their children. These skill include compromise, calm discussion, and focus on problem-solving. If there is much sibling conflict in your home, encourage your children to find a way to resolve their own conflicts rather than jumping in and punishing one or another child whom you think (maybe wrongly) is the troublemaker.
  • Tip #4 – Practice stress inoculation basics. This includes proper nutrition for family members, exercise, and adequate sleep each night. The family may also want to look at time management—and how better time management might reduce both personal and family stress.
  • Tip #5 – Minimize criticism and take time each day to be supportive to each other. Excessive criticism is extremely harmful to both children and marital partners, while emotional support by family members is an extremely important buffer to family stress.

“Dr. Fiore,” my 42 year old married patient (Mary) began, “my family expects me again this year to host Christmas dinner and I am just too exhausted; what should I do?”
“Why not tell them how you feel,” I suggested.
“Because I don’t want to hurt their feelings and I feel guilty if I don’t do what is expected of me.”

Lack of communication such as this among family members is the root of much conflict, hurt, and misunderstandings any time of the year – but especially during the holiday season which, unfortunately, if often a time of great stress.

Mary’s dilemma is all too common – she wants to be a nice person and avoid conflict with family members, but then feels resentment and other negative emotions when she is overwhelmed or feels taken advantage of.

Unfortunately, not being direct and emotionally honest with people we love or care about can have long-reaching consequences because it gives other people the wrong message about you, what you need, and how they should respond to you.

The elephant in the room

When you have unexpressed feelings toward another person, it is like you are both sitting on a couch with an elephant between you. Neither wants to acknowledge the elephant, but its existence is there between you. The elephant acts as a barrier to real communication. It also prevents positive feelings from flowing between you and the other person.

Assertive Communication

Assertive communication is the art of speaking in a reasonable tone with good eye contact using “I” messages (as opposed to “you” or blaming messages) while clearly stating your needs, feelings, and requests. If you are an effective assertive communicator, you will also invite the listener to work toward a mutually satisfactory resolution of the problem or conflict, without offending them.

Speaking of offending, an important point to remember is that you won’t offend people if you stick to communicating your feelings, as opposed to telling others what they should or should not do!

The assertive communication formula:

There are four parts to effective assertive communication: Here is the formula:

I feel____________
When you____________
Because______________
I need___________

  • Part 1: “I feel”— start be expressing how you feel about the behavior. Stick to one of the five or six basic emotions: “I feel overwhelmed;” : I feel angry,” “I feel hurt.”
  • Part 2: “When”—What specifically bothers you about the behavior or situation? Examples: “when the family expects me to do this every year;” when it is assumed I will do it,” when no one else volunteers.”
  • Part 3:“Because”— How does the behavior affect you? Examples: “I feel pressured to do something I really can’t do this year,” and “it makes me feel taken advantage of.”
  • Part 4: “I need.” This is the tough part for people like Mary who feel guilty simply letting others (especially family members) know what their needs are. What this really means is giving the other persona clear signal of what you would like them to do differently so they have an opportunity to change.
  • Examples: “I need for the dinner to be rotated among the family; I need for everyone to bring a dish and I’ll cook the ham; I need for my sisters to come early and help with the setup”

Does the formula work all the time?

Of course not, but it works a high percentage of the time and it gives you a much better tool to deal with the situation than using anger – which rarely gets you the results you want.

If it doesn’t work at first, try different variations by using your own words – keep at it because sometimes people don’t immediately respond differently to what you are saying because of your previous established communication patterns with each other.

Also make sure that your tone clearly conveys sincerity, clarity, genuineness, and respect toward the other and his or her opinions.

How high should you set the bar for yourself or others in term of what you expect?

This was a recent discussion topic brought up by Robert in a recent fast-track anger management seminar that we held in Newport Beach, California. Set the bar too high and the gap between what you expect and what you get can cause disappointment, anger, and other undesirable emotions.

Yet, hope springs eternal, especially in regard to family members.

We can spend our whole lives hoping against hope that others will finally change, see the light, treat us better, or acknowledge us in the way we need to be acknowledged.

Yet, as Robert discovered, sometimes this is not to be, despite our best efforts and our noble intent. Robert is 65 years old, yet has almost daily angst over his relationship with his 90 year old father who lives in the Midwest. They talk to each other perhaps 3 times a year, with Robert always having to initiate the calls. His dad says “children should call parents; parents do not have to call children.”

In his dad’s mind that is just a fact, the way the world is. This rule of family interaction is written in a book somewhere, known only to parents.

Despite a lifetime of not being able to emotionally connect with each other, Robert decided enough was enough and made arrangements for him and his wife to visit his father this summer. He emailed the old man, asking if the visit dates were satisfactory. Robert had expectations that his Dad would be thrilled to get a visit (at 90 years old, one doesn’t want to wait too long). He also asked for hotel recommendations nearby.

The father’s response was two lines: “Those dates are OK. Will send you a list of hotels to your home address.” The coldness of it all made Robert’s head reel. Robert experienced immediate sadness, and frustration. These feelings “pulled up” a lifetime of memories of other similar encounters with his father that generated the same negative feelings.

(more…)

This holiday season, you may find yourself in groups or gatherings that make you feel uncomfortable. Sometime you can change it without offending anyone, yet standing up for our rights or opinions. We call this “assertive communication.”

When the tone of a social gathering becomes too confrontational, negative, lewd, insensitive, prejudiced, or otherwise distasteful, you needn’t remain at the mercy of it. You can usually find a way to but speak up,so that
things back move back into positive territory.

Speak your mind (in a nice way) by letting others know how you are feelings in response to what is going on. Offenders may be taken aback, but those who share your discomfort will welcome the intervention.

Too often we let situations deteriorate beyond what we find acceptable and may be hesitant to address it. But silence often only helps to condone the behavior and may create resentment and stress in you.