Hello and welcome back to the Therapy Spot! On today’s episode, I spoke with Elissa Stein, founder and director of The Riverwalk Group in Stamford, CT. Elissa is a professional, licensed psychotherapist who believes we all have the power to manufacture a fulfilling life. Working as part of a team allows her to offer clients collaborative and creative professional care. She works with individuals, couples and families and uses a lens of compassion with all clients. Through this work, she helps her clients develop an “emotional toolbox” to explore their challenges.
While she works with people of all ages, and on all sorts of relationships, our discussion focused on couples. What causes distance between us? How can we bridge that distance? Can we truly have a “do-over” if we need one? Listen along to our delightful, open and honest conversation.
Distance and Closeness
Human beings are social creatures — we all long for connection. Sometimes, however, when we try to get closer, we trip over ourselves and actually create distance instead. In her work with couples, Elissa helps them see that there are many different ways to have closeness. She also guides them to a place where they can recognize what creates distance.
Let’s say you’re in the early stages of a relationship, and everything is going great. Then, around date number 8, they show up late. You may feel irritated, but underneath the irritation, there’s hurt. In your mind, showing up late means this new person doesn’t value your time — that they don’t value you as much as you value them. At this point, a lot of us might shut down, decide we’re not interested anymore, and end this new relationship. This is a form of Self protection, because we’re afraid to be vulnerable.
In this situation, Elissa urges her clients to really pay attention to what’s happening inside of them.
When you feel small and unimportant, do you express it in some way? Do you take that leap of vulnerability?
Compassion and Bitterness
Over the years, neuropsych research has revealed the importance of close, connected relationships. Remember my discussion with Susan Reyland about attachment styles? Our need for connection begins as newborns, where we (hopefully) learn that we won’t be left to cry. Even as adults we want to know that someone has our back! That’s why it’s so important to show each other “You matter to me, you are special.” Unfortunately, some of us never learned to prioritize intimate connections in our families of origin.
No matter your history, compassion is the key ingredient to a connected, intimate relationship. Compassion towards the relationship, towards your partner, and towards yourself is the remedy to so many problems we have with our partners. When you show up with compassion, you’ll have more closeness.
Bitterness, on the other hand, creates distance and pushes people away. It can build and build over time. Working with a new couple, Elissa always tries to assess how much bitterness is there. What are some indications of bitterness in a relationship?
- Mutual hostility
- Black and white thinking
When we come from a place of bitterness, it’s easy for us to overlook the small efforts our partner is making. Instead of noting these incremental changes, we might say, “You don’t even try!” When, in fact, they are trying — we just don’t see it. Small, simple gestures might not seem like much, but they go a long, long way.
3 Steps to a “Do-Over”
So how can we repair a relationship damaged by bitterness?
Step one: Apologize. A true, open-hearted apology means recognizing that you hurt the other person’s feelings. It also involves self-reflection, because many of us self-sabotage out of a fear of intimacy. Ask yourself, “What’s happening inside of me that I said or did something so hurtful?”
Step two: Notice the patterns. Chances are, you and your partner developed your conflict pattern in an attempt to not be vulnerable with each other. Your pattern might be to blame each other, or even avoid each other. Take note of how you each behave when you’re in conflict.
Step three: Try another way. This won’t be easy! You’re going to have to do exactly what you’ve tried to avoid: be vulnerable. Change feels risky, but if both you and your partner show up with courage, it is possible.
All My Thanks
Elissa, thank you again for sharing all of your wit and wisdom on the Therapy Spot today. And thank you to all of you listening, sharing with your friends, and supporting me on Patreon. Until next time!
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Photo “closeness” by Flickr user Wrote, licensed under CC BY 2.0.