How can you communicate better?
We talked with couples counselor Kathleen Horrigan, LCPC, to get some tips on how to communicate effectively with your partner during the pandemic and other stressful times in your life.
May 1, 2020: with couples counselor Kathleen Horrigan, LCPC
Janet Jefferson (00:02):
Welcome to Third Floor Views where we at Chesapeake Family Life talk about health, education, and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. Today I’m talking to Kathleen Horrigan, a couples counselor about what couples and families can do to better communicate feelings, common marital challenges in today’s trying times and tips and tricks for a happier home. Kathleen’s a trained certified Gottman couples therapist and she teaches professional counselors in the Gottman’s Couples Counseling Method. She works firsthand with renowned doctors, John and Julie Gottman in the Seattle, Washington area, doing couples weekends workshops as well as hosting couples workshops in the Baltimore Washington area. First off, thank you Kathleen for being here with us today. Let’s jump right in. What are some of the new challenges that you are seeing in marriages with the current quarantine?
Kathleen Horrigan (01:08):
Well, I’m seeing in my couples sessions, that number one, it’s difficult for them to schedule sessions, so it’s taking time to figure out when we can meet. We’re having to use Zoom, which is very different. Normally couples would get a sitter if they have small children or they figure something to do with the children while they come in and do a session. So those are just some logistical challenges that parents are facing right now in the home. What they’re facing: they’re having sleep deprivation. I’m hearing that a lot of folks are waking up and it’s an anxious time. We don’t know what the future is bringing, so they’re waking up throughout the night and children in the home are waking up throughout the night. There’s more anxiety going on in the home. They’re figuring out how to manage household chores. Even something as simple as the trash now has become difficult because there’s more trash since more people are home. There’s more or different kinds of schedules that they’re trying to manage. I’m trying to figure out where all the schoolwork and who has what computer at what time. Because many of the schools have gone to online learning and so then parents are trying to negotiate whose job is more important at the time to get online at Zoom and have good connections. Who’s going to sit with the kids and keep them quiet while you’re on a work meeting or how do we navigate who figures out what the kids’ schedules and their school work needs to be. So some real just everyday life challenges are going on.
Janet Jefferson (02:58):
Yeah. It’s funny how the little things suddenly now seem so big and so challenging. Like you said, as simple as taking out the trash or who’s watching kids and scheduling. What are some tips on how to best support your partner in this stressful and isolating time?
Kathleen Horrigan (03:18):
So in the theory that I use, and it’s the Gottman Method that you’ve mentioned, John and Julie’s Gottman Method, it’s really looking for what’s going right rather than pointing out what’s going wrong. It helps to develop a more positive outlook for you yourself when you’re scanning, looking for what’s going right as well as your partner then feels like, Oh, you’re pointing out what I’m doing well and that communicates from the top down. So if the parents are looking for what’s going right in each other and they’re looking for what’s going right in the home, then the children pick up on that. So instead of them complaining or griping or being upset or saying this is what’s wrong with everything, they’re looking for what’s going right as well. Also looking for ways in which you can build a sense of admiration for your partner and fondness, that will help reduce the stress and anxiety that everyone is already feeling when they feel as if they’re being supported or admired or have fondness from their partners.
Janet Jefferson (04:27):
Importance of positivity is just critical during this time. That’s sort of what I’m hearing from you is that right?
Kathleen Horrigan (04:34):
Yeah. Our brains are wired to look as protecting us. So they scan our environment and they’re looking for what could go wrong, what could be harmful. And so our instinct is to always scan and look what could happen to me. So we’re really asking you to now retrain your brain to look for what’s going right so that you are in a calmer state and not feeling on high alert during that time.
Janet Jefferson (05:05):
So being positive towards your partner will actually make yourself feel better.
Kathleen Horrigan (05:10):
That’s right. Yeah. And when you’re positive towards your partner, you’re making emotional positive deposits. So here’s the couple, if I’m saying something positive to my partner, it’s making a deposit into my partner’s emotional bank account. So it not only feels good for them, but it also feels good for the giver. So receiving and giving and feeling that emotional bank account being full of positive things rather than being very depleted and something go wrong and then it’s like, ah, a pain. But if I’m filled and someone makes a mistake or a misstep and they have to take a withdrawal, it’s not as painful.
Janet Jefferson (05:52):
Right, right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So on that sort of same vein of care, so instead of partner care, what about self care? How do you honor self care and partner care when there is little to no personal space and it’s so much harder to schedule time if you’re watching children or maybe before you would go and get your hair cut or maybe go and get your nails done and even go and see friends. And now that’s just something we can’t do anymore.
Kathleen Horrigan (06:26):
Yeah, that’s it. That’s such a good, good point Janet, because that is something that we as individuals and living in our society here, we’re so used to being able to pick up and doing what we want, when we want, how we want to do it. And now it is very isolating and we’re in the same home altogether. So really taking the opportunities to talk to your partner about your fears, your concerns, your worries, your frustrations so that you can share it and remind the couple being on the same team and the issue or the problem being out there. So if they as a same team can work together to deal with that problem out there, they say that they’re feeling overwhelmed or they’re feeling frustrated for each to take turns and figuring out instead of like taking a whole day. One of my couples talked to me recently, they both work from home. They both are taking classes and they have a little baby and it’s very difficult for them. They were doing well one day on, one day off, but it was too much. So they went to, okay, how about three hours here, three hours here, three hours here, three hours here. So that way they gave each other a break in the system when the baby was taking a nap or whatever they took turns. So being able to support each other, Hey, go take a shower, relax, shave your legs, moisturize a little longer. I’ll deal with the kids. I’ll take care of their schoolwork. Or perhaps it’s do a yoga class online or do a workout. You know many gyms right now running workout specials and so they can take a little time and everybody else kind of comes to the rest of the different part of the house. It’s just a way in which you can support each other in ways that would help support the other person. Like maybe it is you need to do your nails and maybe you can just paint your nails by yourself while your partner tends to the kids. So just looking for ways in which you can support each other and what fun things the other person likes to do.
Janet Jefferson (08:47):
Yeah, definitely. How do you manage, when you do start to have feelings of frustration, whether that’s with your or with your children, how do you start to manage those feelings and maybe what’s a healthy way to communicate those with both our partner and our children?
Kathleen Horrigan (09:04):
The important thing is we tend to look at whatever’s going on or wherever that frustration is as they are the problem. So really getting that problem out that they’re not the problem, but to be open and honest and talking to them. When it’s with your kids expressing just the honest view of, I’m worried about this too or I’m upset about that or that makes sense so that you normalize that we’re in this together. Sometimes we think as parents we have to have all the answers. But being able to be human and say to my kids, you know, I don’t know either what’s going to happen in the future, but being able to stay connected enough with our partner and with our kids to say we’re going to figure this out. And then planning in some fun things that you can do to manage that stress. One idea I like for a family is to have the fishbowl on the table and everyone gets to put in little pieces of paper. You write on there a wish for the week and that might be to go for a walk as a family, to get carry out from the special place that they like. Or maybe to get a special treat of ice cream. So then everyone puts their thing in the bowl and then each day or once a week you get to pick out of that fishbowl and then that’s the thing that you do to make it more fun and it kind of honors the person that their choice got picked.
Janet Jefferson (10:54):
That makes a lot of sense. That’s a great suggestion too. I also love what you said about separating the person from the problem, whether that be the situation that we’re in or that’s created or even if it’s with children as some sort of behavior that you’re seeing as a former teacher. That’s something that I always tried really hard to do and say is “I’m not frustrated with you. I am frustrated with the behavior that you’re displaying” or “I’m not angry or upset about you as a human but I am not very happy with the choice that you made.” So really honoring the I still love you no matter what but let’s work on this thing over here. And those separation person and situation I think is an important reminder, especially for parents.
Kathleen Horrigan (11:45):
And also saying the behavior that you want. If the kid is in kindergarten, you say it’s recess and they run out the door, they’re so excited about the recess. Well the teacher’s first instinct might be to say don’t run, but we really don’t want to say we, we want to say the thing that we do want which is please walk. So looking for in our kids trying to reduce the number of things that you don’t want and increase the things that are going to be helpful or that we do want behaviors that we do want.
Janet Jefferson (12:24):
Right. And that’s reframing it in a positive way. Again, so positive. On the flip side, we’re experiencing a lot of different stress right now as a human population. One of those things can definitely be financial right now since there’s a lot of uncertainty, both with if you have a job, are you going to be able to keep it? The stock market being up and down all the time. And then there’s so many people have lost their jobs. There’s a lot of financial stress on families. Is there anything specific that financial stress brings into a family and any sort of tricks or tips that you have to manage that?
Kathleen Horrigan (13:05):
Yeah, when you start to see one or the other of the couple feels like, gosh, my partner’s not sleeping, or they’re just not eating like they used to be or they’re not their sort of jovial self. There’s probably some kind of an underlying stress going on. And so you want to be open and honest and really talk about that. If one of the partners is on Amazon and they’re ordering and ordering, ordering and the other person’s, fretting and fretting and you might need to realize Oh gosh, there’s two very different views of money, what’s going on? And really being able to enter into those conversations about it, here’s my worry, here’s my concern, not again saying, don’t do this. And really setting up a tone of being able to listen to one another because maybe it is fear, anxiety, stress about suppose I don’t have my job. What is our retirement looking like? We had these hopes and these dreams, and so that you can really get to hearing and understanding those underlying dreams that one person or the other person had. So just really talking about that. Also looking at ways in which each of you can perhaps bring to the table some ideas. Again, if we look at the stress and the problems out here, the person who’s worried about the money and someone else spending the money, the person’s spending may not have any idea that the person’s worried. So if the worrier brings that and says, you need to stop spending, the other person’s going to be, don’t tell me what to do. But if you say, I’m worried about our bank accounts. Seems a little unsure right now. Can we take a look at that? That’s a much gentler way. The other person is more likely to say, wow, I had no idea. That’s a good point. Let me look at that with you. And so that you both can work on this together and come up with a sort of a solution and then it feels like it’s a partnership again working together to figure out how you can be on the same team.
Janet Jefferson (15:28):
Yeah, definitely. What are some common mistakes that couples are making right now? What are some things that we should be doing that we aren’t, or things that we shouldn’t be doing that maybe we should. Anything that you’re seeing with some commonalities right now with your clients?
Kathleen Horrigan (15:50):
Yes, it’s the old blame game and you just get frustrated and the person that’s in front of you, everything gets sort of heaped on and when your anxiety goes up and your blood pressure goes up, that’s what we call DPA or diffused physiological arousal is like your start to really get flooded. And when we flood, we don’t realize that we’re not able to bring in new information, it’s blocked because all that blood is just going to our muscles not to really thinking through things. What I’m seeing is people will sometimes say things in the heat of the moment. So really it’s important to get yourself in a calm place. Something maybe, the kids are sitting around, they’re having lunch and someone accidentally knocks over a glass. Instead of being upset just to take a minute, step back, be calm and realize that wasn’t intentional. They didn’t say, Oh thanks, I’m going to knock this over and make everyone upset. No, you know, but to have that way of thinking like, okay, calm down, they’re going to be embarrassed. They’re upset. So really reframing the way I’m looking at it. But it does take that calming yourself down. Some deep breaths, some self soothing. And if it’s in the heat of an argument of the couple is really upset about something, being able to say to the other person, Hey, you know, I need to give myself a time out and just take that and say, I’m going to give myself a time out to calm down, relax, and then do something fun. Go for a run, take a walk, watch something funny, do a crossword puzzle and then reengage back with each other once in 30 minutes or so. That’s what the statistics say. It takes that much time for your body to calm down. Once you’re in a calm state, then we engage and both people say to one person to the other, help me understand things from your perspective. Help me understand things from your perspective. That way you’re calm and you’re trying to be there for the other person.
Janet Jefferson (18:19):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It reminds me of things that I do with my three year old daughter. If she’s having a meltdown, it’s like, okay, time to take a break. So taking a pause, calming down, and then revisit the situation maybe from a little bit quieter, calmer place. I do think that does require a fair bit of self awareness. So like with my three-year-old, I as the adult, the parent can say, okay, I think it’s time for a break. How can we do that for our partners? Or how can we do that for ourselves?
Kathleen Horrigan (18:56):
Well, you’re not telling your partner that they need a time out. As soon as we come off and say you need a time out to our partner, you’re going to get, no, you need a time out. We want to be in that good place and it takes practice. It really does. This is not something that comes very easily and so you’ve got to really be in a space and a place of saying, you know, I want to learn some of these tools. I want to be able to implement this and I want to be able to get myself in a calm place. And so you say to your partner, you know, I’m just going to go and you’d say where you’re going, I’m just going to go for a walk around the block and then I want to come back. But you don’t want to just do what they call stonewalling and walk away and then the person has no idea. Like you stormed off and they don’t know when you’re coming back.
Janet Jefferson (20:06):
Right, right. Yeah. And I’m sure when you are in a calm state with your partner to talk about these things, these are the tools and techniques that I’m going to be using for when I am having a problem. It is funny too because both my husband and I, we use these techniques with our kids, but then we’ve started doing it for ourselves too. Like if we are in an argument saying I need a break so as we ask our daughter to go take a break, whether it’s go outside or go read a book quietly for a moment, we’ve started doing that ourselves and it really is helpful. But I think it’s also helpful to have the other partner aware, I know something that my partner’s working on, but also invested as well and like, okay, this is something that we’re working on together and that we’re supporting each other. So when you use this language or that, whatever terminology you choose, you can support each other with it. And are there suggestions that maybe you have or maybe clients that you’ve seen where you struggle to get to the part with both partners on the same page and how do they support each other or how do you help that other partner come in and join it so you’re working together on the same team?
Kathleen Horrigan (21:26):
Sometimes in my counseling practice, some someone will call and they’ll say, well I want to do marriage counseling but my partner won’t come in. Will you still see me? Generally I’ll say absolutely and I can do marriage counseling with one person. But what has been interesting is that when I do work with one person, sometimes the curiosity, when they go home and they start trying some of these new tools that they’re learning, then the other person feels more relaxed and they feel as if their partner is exercising and using some of these tools. And so sometimes they’ll get just enough curiosity to come in and then they start doing the work with them. It’s really nice when two people are on the same page and doing the work. Clients will come in and they’ll say, well, if you just fix them now and the other person, they’ve got the problems, you just need to fix them and everything’s going to be fine. It’s not, it’s a two way. And in this theory it’s what I bring to the equation. And I’m not waiting for what you’re going to do, but I’m going to do. , I describe it like this in my counseling sessions. I think about a water balloon. And if you think about it, if it’s full of water and you push on one side, everything else responds to that. So if you think about the amount of influence that you have as an individual, and this could be in the family system or in just a couple system, when you push on that one side, everything else is going to respond to it. So everything that I’m bringing is going to have influence. So what better way than to have a positive influence, right? And I see mistakes that couples make. Sometimes they wait too long. Generally couples have seven years of issues before they get into therapy. So when you’re in a good place, it’s good to do some workshops, sort of enrichment kind of things. But when you start to feel things like, Hey, we’re missing each other, or I don’t think you quite understand me, that’s the time to make an appointment so that you can get some tools to help you. Maybe you’re saying it and the other person isn’t listening or able to hear it. So we need to figure out what is that block, why is it that my partner is not able to hear what I’m having to say? And it could be a variety of reasons. So if we can get that couple in sooner and get some really good tools, I’m building their love maps, laying that foundation, having sharing that fondness and admiration, having a positive perspective, turning towards each other. Then when they get to managing conflict, they have this really good base built to being able to manage the conflict because there’s a sound relationship house. So you build the foundation and then you get to this big section of managing conflict. And then the very top is making life dreams come true and creating shared meaning. So that’s sort of what we’re looking forward to, you know? And then we have of course the trust and commitment and that’s really, people want to stay in their relationships. That’s the commitment there. And then being able to trust will you be there for me? And so that helps a couple when they know that they have a partner in this life and that I’ve got your back and I believe you’ve got my back. It’s just makes for a wonderful combination of going forward in their marriage.
Janet Jefferson (25:47):
Yeah. It makes it a lot more fun.
Kathleen Horrigan (25:49):
Janet Jefferson (25:51):
So as we’re all stuck at home right now, I’m sure your practice looks really different than it used to. So what does virtual therapy look like right now? Has it changed the experience as our viewers and listeners call up to make an appointment? What are some things that they can expect or what are some things maybe that they might need to prepare or have ready that maybe you wouldn’t if you were coming to an office setting?
Kathleen Horrigan (26:17):
Yeah, so being prepared in terms of using technology, that’s been a big stumbling block for some of my couples who’ve been married 30 and 35 years. They’re a little bit older and they’re not up on the technology. So it’s really walking them through those kinds of things to be able to get online and being able to do Zoom sessions. Also, it’s a little different, a little learning curve of just getting two people in the screen and what that looks like. There’s another layer of consent because you are now online. And so that’s figuring out and the forms, having forms emailed out, forms emailed back and then just taking payments is so different. And many therapists that was checks and cash only and now having to set up, you know, as therapists setting up other accounts being able to accept payment and other ways and then not working in your home. Also working in your office, in your home. So you know, people may see somebody walk through or when the couple’s meeting at home, excuse me, I’ve got to go get the baby or they just woke up from a nap. You know, they have the little monitor, somebody has got to run out or the baby’s in there and the baby is trying to play with the book, hitting her cat walks across the keyboard. It happens.
Janet Jefferson (27:48):
Yeah, definitely. Well any final takeaways or anything else that you want to add as a sort of last thoughts as we start to wrap up? At least listening to you talk, it makes me think that therapy does remind me a lot of professional development where you don’t wait until you have a problem, it’s something that we want to keep working on. I should sign up for some of these workshops. But is there anything sort of a final thought that you want to share with the viewers or listeners today?
Kathleen Horrigan (28:19):
Two principles. One is happily married couples treat each other like good friends. They have respect, affection and empathy. Second principle: happily married couples handle conflict in gentle and positive ways.
Janet Jefferson (28:44):
Sounds good. Good advice. Well thank you so much Kathleen Horrigan for being here with us today to address all of our questions about managing marriage, family, and communication in this uncertain time. And thank you to all of our viewers and listeners out there. Make sure you visit Chesapeakefamily.com for any up to date local information on home, health and living with today’s children and families. Kathleen is offering individual online couples counseling sessions right now and she has an upcoming online live at Zoom hybrid model weekend workshop June 5th through 7th and that’s on the Gottman art and science of love. More information can be found at kathleenmhorrigan.com and at https://couplesrelationshipsworkshops.com/. We love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at thirdfloorviews.com I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.