It's Not About the Dishes: How to End Repetitive Arguments With Your Partner

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Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will likely agree that it can be pretty discouraging to deal with repeated arguments or seemingly constant bickering. As a relationship therapist, I help couples find out what’s going on underneath the frustrations (and sometimes anguish-filled moments) that arise between them so that they can connect more and argue less.

As it turns out, the recurring challenges we experience with our partners are often related to stuff from the past (often as early as childhood) that shaped how we experience the world. Understanding this connection to your past is the key to defusing arguments and finding more understanding and love in your relationship.

"But," you may be wondering, "Is it always that deep? How can you tell when it really is just about the dishes?"

Here's how to tell if your frustration is connected to something deeper:

1. Have you and your partner had the same argument two or more times? If so, there’s likely a past hurt underneath the presenting issue.

Partner A: “How many times have I told you that I can’t stand waking up to a sink full of dirty dishes? You said you’d do them, and once again, there they are!” 
Partner B: “I feel like I’m constantly being judged and graded on my behavior. When are you going to stop telling me what to do all the time?”

Note: If you and your partner sometimes have interactions like this, never fear: many couples do. Keep reading to learn how to navigate these tricky repeat arguments.

2. Are you and your partner able to figure out how to remedy the issue in a few minutes’ time, without getting into an argument? If so, then neither of you are likely experiencing historical hurt.

Partner A: “Hey, can you do the dishes later tonight? They’re piling up.” 
Partner B: “I have a thing tonight - but I can do them in the morning. Would that work?"
Partner A: “Okay then I'll try to get to them tonight but if I don't, it would be great if you could take care of them in the morning. Thanks."

Note: If you and your partner can’t do this about a particular topic, that’s not necessarily an indication that there's anything "wrong" with you as a couple. It means that you have something deeper to explore together - and that’s actually a good opportunity to strengthen your relationship.

Simply put: it's (almost) never about the dishes.

Underneath anger is usually an unmet emotional need, and under that unmet need is often sadness or fear. Back to the good news: by connecting with those hidden emotions and expressing them to your partner with care, you're on your way to actually getting your needs met. You'll be creating a healthier relationship for your partner, too. Here's how:

The practice:

When you have some time and space, encourage yourself to explore the roots of your frustrations, and reflect on what's really underneath the discomfort. Here are some questions to help deepen your understanding of yourself:

What am I most frustrated about? 
Example: My partner forgetting to do the dishes.

What scares me about that thing?
Example: The idea that my partner doesn’t care about me or think I’m important.

When can I remember the above scary dynamic (in this example, the idea that I'm not cared about or important) coming up for me in my childhood?
Example: My dad used to slack on helping me get me ready in the mornings sometimes, and when I got to school without my lunch, I felt unimportant, lonely, and embarrassed.

What didn’t I get back then that I really needed?
Example: Consistency, attention, and care.

How am I acting with my partner when I feel those needs (in this example, the needs for consistency, attention, and care) aren’t being met in the present-day?
Example: I don't say anything about the dishes, and it builds up inside until one day I explode in anger at my partner.

The conversation:

Once you've explored these feelings on your own, give your partner an opportunity to understand you a little better by sharing your reflections with them. Often, partners are much more available to hear present hurts that are related to real wounds from the past. This is for two main reasons: 1) suddenly your partner is not the "bad guy," and 2) learning about your challenges as a kid gives them an opportunity to experience deeper kindness and empathy for you. It helps them to see your hurt in the context of an earlier formative experience.

Keep in mind that your partner likely has their own history around what it feels like to be criticized at home (like for not cleaning the dishes), and it may also be helpful for them to consider what comes up for them around this frustration. If they are open to exploring their own emotions with you, you can ask your partner some of the questions from the reflection practice above to learn a little more about what's going on for them. You'll probably find that they aren't skipping the dishes because they don't care about you.

Finding your stretch:

Once you've connected with your partner about the deeper emotional context behind your initial frustrations, it’s up to the two of you to find areas where you’re willing to stretch to meet one another’s needs. And when empathy is present, this is done out of love rather than obligation.

If your partner needs less micro-managing, maybe your stretch is to experiment with providing more positive support when your partner does things that you appreciate, and less criticism when they don't. This may help them heal old hurts of feeling stifled or incompetent. And if your partner needs more consistency, maybe your stretch is to experiment with developing routines together, even though that might not typically be your style. This may help your partner heal old hurts of feeling lonely or unimportant. 

In an ideal world, we'd all know exactly what is under the surface of a present-day frustration after just a few moments' reflection so that we can address it in real-time. While that may not always be possible, if you practice the above reflection exercise enough, you'll become more skillful at decoding your frustration in the moment. As often as you can remember, ask yourself, "If it's not about the dishes, what is it really about?"

One of the gifts of being in a relationship is that you get opportunities to heal and grow with someone who really cares about you. What often comes disguised as a problem with you or your partner is actually an invitation: to become curious about your pain, to be compassionate with your partner's pain, and to stretch into new behaviors together. In the process, you'll form a deeper and more meaningful connection.   

Would you like support with navigating repetitive arguments and transforming them into powerful growth experiences? I work with individuals and couples in San Francisco who want to explore how they can make their relationships more fun, supportive, and fulfilling.

This article is based on the wisdom of Imago Relationship Theory - a transformative approach to intimate partnership developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt.

The Exquisite Journey: A Chronic Illness Support Group for Women in SF

Are you a Bay Area woman living with the challenges and joys of chronic illness? Would you like to connect with other women who are going through similar experiences?

The Exquisite Journey is an 8-week therapeutic support group in San Francisco for women living with ongoing medical conditions. Because managing the ups and downs of chronic illness can be discouraging and isolating, this is an opportunity to gather with other women who understand. It can be empowering and liberating to discover new sources of strength and power within ourselves amidst the difficulty.

Through weekly check-ins, support, laughter, reflection, mindfulness, and skill-building, our journeys will intersect as we discover new ways to live exquisitely, mindfully, and with intention while managing the realities of chronic illness. You are not alone in this - and there are other awesome women waiting to connect with you.

Let's chat about the group and see if it would be a good fit for you:
Name *

I look forward to connecting with you!

Making Medical Appointments Work For You

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If you live with a chronic illness, you’re probably used to attending more doctors' appointments than a person could ever wish for. Navigating these visits can sometimes be stressful, overwhelming, or exhausting. You've got a lot to juggle, so here are a few tips to help consultations with your doctor feel smoother, more effective, and maybe even a little enjoyable.

Audio-record your appointment

It can be challenging to remember all the details of your doctor’s explanations and recommendations during your time together. If you find yourself taking more notes than a straight-A high school student, I have good news: you can audio record your medical appointments. Not only will the recording be a helpful reference for you later, but you can also share and discuss it with a partner, relative, or friend.

After you’ve asked your doctor for permission to record, use your phone’s Voice Memo app and place it (or another device) on the desk or consultation table. Then you can sit back, relax, and be more present for the conversation. You’ll get a lot more out of the appointment if you can be 100% focused on engaging with your doctor versus trying to memorize it all.

Note: you may find that placing your phone in airplane mode will be helpful in preventing incoming calls from inadvertently pausing the recording.

Bring a buddy

When you have a chronic illness, it’s not uncommon to become isolated in managing your day-to-day responsibilities. Medical appointments in particular can be boring, scary, or even lonely at times. But you don’t have to do this alone! Consider inviting a friend or loved one to join you for even the most routine visits.

Your “plus one” can pick you up or meet you at the office. They can sit with you in the waiting room and listen to your concerns, read magazines, or make ridiculous jokes. They can come into the appointment or wait for you outside the room. They can help ask your doctor questions or quietly support you just being by your side. Let your companion know ahead of time what you’d prefer their role to be.

Even if it seems unnecessary at first, make a habit of inviting your favorite people to join you for your medical adventures. You may find that you forward to appointments because each time, you’ll be hanging out with one of the awesome people in your life.

Make a list of questions ahead of time

Once you’re in the office, it’s easy to forget what topics you want to cover with your doctor. Make the most of your time by preparing a list of key points that you can refer to during the appointment. Have you had new symptoms since your last visit? Do you want to ask about a particular treatment you're considering? Are there any fears you’d like to discuss? Write them down and you’ll be glad you have them on hand when it’s time for your one-on-one.

Plan something fun afterwards

Let’s face it: most people don’t consider medical appointments to be the most thrilling of pastimes. Visiting your doctor takes mental, emotional, and physical energy, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. So save a little time after your appointment to do something special and rejuvenating for yourself.

You might head to a cafe with a friend to debrief or talk about anything but medical stuff. Maybe you’d enjoy a short walk that helps you clear your mind or a trip to your favorite ice cream shop. Perhaps an evening of movies at home is in order. The idea is to choose an activity that you can look forward to. You deserve a little time to unwind, de-stress, and reconnect with something you love.

While medical appointments may not be your idea of a delightful afternoon, they can be an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with yourself. Knowing that you’ve got your own back can go a long way when it comes to living well with a chronic illness. So plan ahead, surround yourself with support, and know that this medical journey belongs to you.

Would you like support with building a life you love while living with a chronic illness? Let's connect. I work with people in San Francisco who want a caring therapist that understands the ups and downs of living with a challenging medical condition.

Visiting Family for the Holidays With Your Partner

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‘Tis the season for hot cocoa, snowflakes, and potentially uncomfortable family conversations by the fire. If you and your partner are visiting your relatives for the holidays, you may be feeling excitement and concern in equal measure. This is a bittersweet time for many couples who love the warmth and joy of being with loved ones, yet may feel overwhelmed by the challenges of family dynamics.

Whether it’s your first or twelfth time visiting family as a couple, this guide will support you in fortifying your relationship during one of the trickiest times of year.

Come up with a game plan together

The days and weeks before your trip are a great time for you and your partner to begin planning a successful holiday visit. Start by taking some solo time to think about your hopes and concerns. Open a Google Doc or use a good old fashioned notebook to make a few brainstorm-style lists:

  • What are my goals for us as a couple on this trip?

  • What are my biggest fears about this trip?

  • What challenges do I anticipate?

  • What are some ways that my partner can support me during difficult moments?

Once you’ve had time to reflect, check in with your partner and take turns sharing what you came up with. Pay special attention to what you can do to support one another, and make a plan for worst-case scenarios.

Are there special signals you can use when you need time together away from the group? Would one of you appreciate a gentle squeeze of support when Uncle Dan makes comments about your same-sex multiracial relationship? Is it possible that staying somewhere other than your family’s home might make these holidays a little more “merry and bright?"

Expect that you (or your partner) will act and feel differently

Spending time with your family of origin can be challenging--even if you have a great relationship with them. Do you experience confidence and ease in certain areas of your life that seem to vanish when you’re around your relatives? Even the most practiced meditators and successful business executives can revert back to old behaviors when surrounded by family.

There’s a saying that goes, “The reason your family pushes your buttons is because they’re the ones who installed them.” Since you spent time with your relatives during your developmental years (when you establish many of your habits, patterns and insecurities), some of the same dynamics from back then can resurface today. Joy to the World!

If you’re visiting your partner’s family, you will likely notice aspects of their personality that you don’t normally see. Keep in mind that this is totally normal (even if it’s not normal to you!).

Spending time with relatives gives you a front row seat to some of your partner’s family dynamics. With love and curiosity, consider how bearing witness to these interactions can make you a more compassionate partner. When you notice your girlfriend's mom commenting on her daughter's weight during dessert, it might make more sense why she’s particularly sensitive to whether or not you call her “beautiful” on date night. If his dad tends toward humor rather than deep conversation, this may clarify why your husband sometimes has a tough time with heart-to-heart chats.

Spend one-on-one time together

It's okay to take a break from family festivities every now and then. You and your partner get to carve out some alone time to relax and nourish your connection in the midst of it all. Share a short gratitude list with each other at night, cuddle an extra ten minutes in the morning, or go for a quiet walk if things feel chaotic. 

Spend a little time checking in together each day about how the trip is going. Do you want to debrief a challenging moment? Are you needing some time to yourself to read a book or go for an adventure on your own tomorrow? Would you like your partner to include you more in group conversations? Let them know, and adjust the game plan if you need to.

Know that there is magic in this adventure

There’s something powerful and healing that can happen when you visit family with your special someone. Although you may feel caught in challenging dynamics from childhood, this time you’re not doing it alone; you’ve got a partner who is there to support you. And if you’re visiting your partner’s family, you get to be a loving ally and gain insight into some of their most important relationships.

So be patient with yourself and your partner. Enjoy the moments of connection with family, offer support whenever you can, and remember that when you’re done, you get to go home, watch your favorite shows, and eat pizza in your pajamas together.

Would you and your partner like support in building an even stronger relationship? Let's connect. I offer transformative therapy for couples in the Bay Area.

So, You’ve Been Diagnosed With a Chronic Illness

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If you’ve recently received a new chronic health diagnosis, you may be in the midst of a real swirl of emotions: shock, relief, numbness, anger, sadness, and more.

Hiding under the covers may seem like a pretty good option right about now, right? Please know that you’re not alone; I’ve been there and I know that it can be especially hard to navigate these first few days and weeks.

Here are a few thoughts to support you one step at a time:

You don’t have to have all the answers right now

When it comes to receiving a new diagnosis, you may feel intense pressure to begin taking action right away. There may be an urge to research treatment options and find out every last thing there is to know about this mysterious disease. That’s totally natural! Luckily, there are medical practitioners out there whose entire careers are dedicated to supporting people in your position.

Most people don’t have all the answers this early in the game. And while there isn’t a right or wrong way to act in the days and weeks after your diagnosis, know this: you’re allowed to take some time to just be.

Thoughts may be moving a mile a minute right now, so it’s important to create moments of rest and ease amidst what can feel like internal chaos. Whether it’s deciding to take a walk to slow down and soak up the natural world, staring at a wall for a while (seriously, you get to do this), or lounging on your couch watching Netflix for an hour or two, it’s okay--and even crucial--to give yourself breaks from the intensity.

You deserve support

We weren’t meant to do this life thing alone. Call, text, and meet up with the people who you care about. Talk to them about what you’re going through. Ask for their opinions (if you want them). Invite them to attend medical appointments with you. Even if you don’t feel the necessity of companionship right now, it helps to be proactive about reaching out for support early in the game. Make time to laugh, cry, commiserate, watch a movie, and even sit quietly with your favorite people. You may find that this huge challenge is a bit sweeter with them by your side.

You’re the CEO of your decision-making process

Just like the day before your diagnosis, you’re still in charge of your life decisions. Having a chronic illness doesn’t change that.

Family, friends, partners, and medical staff will likely have suggestions for what you should do next. While I recommend paying close attention to what your doctors prescribe, it’s important that you know each decision about your body is ultimately up to you.

Your emotions (and your loved ones' emotions) may be running high. This can add extra pressure to make a quick decision that may not be in alignment with what you actually want. Whether you choose to seek a second opinion, do more research on your own, or hold off on a painful procedure, you’re allowed to call the shots or ask for more time to decide.

Tough and beautiful experiences lie ahead

Yes, living with a chronic illness has its challenges; yet there are some good and even amazing things that will come from having them. Through it all, you may discover the power of your own resilience, build new friendships with people who really get what it’s like to have the same diagnosis, or develop an even more excellent sense of humor.

And if it’s hard to believe that there’s a silver lining in this moment, let me hold that hope for you.

A few days after I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I received these sage words in an email from Jerie Jacobs, a new "chronic illness buddy," that turned out to be very true in the years to come:

Your life will change in some ways, it's inevitable. But some of those changes will be glorious. It truly is an exquisite journey. You will find depths of strength and power and patience in yourself that you never knew you had. And joy and compassion. You're standing at the foot of a bright mountain. The climb will be hard, but the views will take your breath away.

Are you at the beginning of your chronic illness journey? If you'd like the support of a caring therapist on your side, let's connect; you deserve it.