Emotionally Focused Therapy

The Subtle Communication in Relationships and Why it Matters so Much

We got this, right?

I'm on Orlando grounds writing this. Having written about a happily ever after wedding, it seems timely that my husband and I have been here for this past week, hanging out at Disney World and its rival, Universal Studios. Having traveled together, we've gotten into a groove. But every time we go somewhere new, there's a subtle shift in our routine.

This time, it involves a water bottle.

It's hot and humid in Orlando and we try to stay hydrated. This translates to me having to pee often. Usually, there's a water fountain by the bathroom and that's also the time when I'd have my husband do re-fills so we can save time.

I thought we have this routine down, until three days in, I again handed him the bottle before I slipped into the bathroom in a hurry. I came out to the same water level. “Husband?!” I joked, as I looked down at my water bottle. He was puzzled. He thought I had wanted him to hold onto it and that was it.

What was going on in my head

Now, I could've interpreted this many different ways:

“Husband doesn't care about me”

“Husband was distracted by the attractions at the Animal Kingdom”

“I didn't say so; hence, he didn't know”

“Why do I need to spell it out? Shouldn't he know by now?”

And depending on how close, connected and accepting I feel towards him, my interpretation, and hence my response, would differ.

Imagine if we've been fighting at the “happiest place on earth”, I'll be more prone to see this as further evidence of his insensitivity. And given we're on good terms, and I know he cares and loves me, I can joke about it.

We cannot NOT communicate

We're constantly communicating to and with our partner. Whether it's a handing over of a water bottle, a shrug, a turning away, or a leaning in. We cannot NOT communicate. And depending on the state of our relationship, a simple withdrawing of the hand can have huge implications.

“You don't care about me.”

“I don't matter to you.”

“You don't want to hold my hand.”

“Here we go again!”

“What's the matter with you?”

“I can't make you happy!”

It's tiring when we're stuck at seeing ourselves and our partners in this way. There is a reason why this happens. It's because our attachment to our partner is not too different than an infant's attachment to his/her caregiver.

Longing for connection with our partner

Psychologist Sue Johnson, co-founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, speaks about a dance that we get into with our partners. To summarize, here are the rough steps:

  • we invite connection with our partner by reaching for them. We're basically asking, “Are you there for me? Are we still connected?”
  • if we don't see a response, we protest and push for one. “It's too frightening to see that we're disconnected and so out comes Anger from Inside Out.
  • If there continues to be a lack of response, or the protesting becomes too much, we turn away or shut down as a way of coping. “It hurts too much to feel rejected, or I feel too threatened when I'm attacked. I need to hide out to protect myself.”
  • as a step up from protest and push, we melt down and frantically demand from our partner as a last resort. “Hello, anybody home?! Don't withdraw from me; this hurts too much!!!”
  • in a secure relationship, we find a way to turn back to each other and reconnect. “You're really important to me and to be reassured and comforted by you is all that I really need.”

Along with developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, Johnson made a short clip demonstrating how we've been doing this dance since infancy:

Here's an earlier blog that explains this experiment further (How to Talk to your Partner about your Problems and Why this Works). 

Back to the water bottle

To the extent that I know my husband and I were still connected and he didn't perceive my teasing as criticism, we averted the full dance. That is not to say that we won't ever go back to moments of painful disconnection; rather, we'll find a way to each other again.

I love how Johnson quoted Walt Whitman at the end, “We were together, I forget the rest.”

Need help?

Navigating this dance is hard work. Need some coaching help? Give me a call!

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping distressed couples learn to connect in a safe and secure way. When she's not working hard, she's playing hard. Her favorite Orlando theme park was Epcot and her favorite rides were Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Expedition Everest, Soarin' and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. Nemo the Musical was also quite amazing!

Have you Forgotten your Happily Ever After?

Conscious coupling

I recently came back from my cousin's wedding. It was a gorgeous day, cloudy and 70's outside. Inside a beautiful gazebo, we witnessed the story of two people who met at work, started dating, and will continue to work together and go home together. Their vows spoke perfection: a promise to care and hold each other. The bride couldn't keep a dry eye. Outside, they topped it off with a popsicle vendor. I had a raspberry coconut. Amazing!

At the reception, it was Disney themed. Happily ever after. We sat at the Beauty and the Beast table and wrote in a card that they will read at their 10th year anniversary. I don't remember what I wrote but I meant every word of it.

Are you sure about this?

Cousin, I believe in a strong, happy marriage so keep working at it. Otherwise, I do tend to be skeptical at weddings as I question whether people really know what they're getting themselves into. Cuz picture this: at a certain time in your life, sometimes before your brain fully develops, you make a lifelong decision to commit to ONE other person. Does that sound crazy or what? And yet, people all around the world are sharing vows as I type this.

Why is it so hard?

When the adrenaline is gone, the toilet seat is up, and you realized you married your mom/dad, things are rough. Throw in the stress of raising kids, an uneven distribution of household chores, and conflict with in-laws and you have it made. What about disagreement in how you manage finances and the use of substances, food or gambling to cope with stress?

When have you ever seen Disney couples fight? All you see is the kiss that ends the tale. Is happily ever after even possible?

Be prepared to work hard

I want to say yes, but be prepared to work your butt off. Relationships are hard work. You're either building up your partner or you're tearing them down; drawing them close or pushing them away. As psychiatrist Robert Waldinger might add, “Relationships are messy, complicated, and the hard work of attending to family and friends are not sexy, but lifelong.” Happily ever after is in the daily grind of doing the small things that would create safety and security for your partner to come close and for them to do the same for you.

Are you ready?

Often times by the time couples come into my office, they've forgotten the vows said years ago. How I so want the DeLorean time machine from BTTF so I can witness their wedding, their longing for each other til death do them apart. And sometimes, I have the privilege of catching glimpses of that hope, the love once shared, but we have to dig through the mud to get there.

Patterns of relating take years to form but possibly only months to unravel and rebuild. Would it be worth it to devote an hour a week to deepen a connection that will last a lifetime? Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) has shown such results! Compared to a 35% success rate with other forms of couple therapy, 86% of couples "report feeling happier in their relationships" with EFT. 

If happily ever after is what you're striving for, give me a call!

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping distressed couples learn to connect in a safe and secure way. She enjoys the Seattle summers and last week, went SUPing with her husband on Lake WA. At one point he tied his ankle bracelet to her paddle board. Let's just say it was a bad idea. 

Want to Live Happier, Longer, Healthier? Here's how

Andy Dean/stock.adobe.com

Andy Dean/stock.adobe.com

The Grant Study

Robert Waldinger, the 4th and current director of the Harvard study of adult development tracked the lives of a group of men for 75 years. The goal of the study was to identify the factors that predict healthy aging. The study compared Harvard graduates with a group of disadvantaged youths in Boston. They studied their medical records, which included blood work and brain scans. They also interviewed their children and captured on camera interactions with their spouses. What they learned was profound. Contrary to the belief that wealth, success, or fame will bring us happiness, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period”.

Here are some lessons learned from Waldinger's study:

  1. Social connections are vital to our health and well-being. Conversely, loneliness kills us. Men in the study who reported feeling lonely faced earlier declines in health and brain functioning.
  2. It matters NOT the number of friends on FB or followers on Instagram and Pinterest; what's more important is the quality of our close relationships. High conflict relationships is a good predictor of poor health, whereas safe, secure relationships is a protective factor for our physical, and I would argue, mental and emotional health.
  3. Good relationships keep the brain sharper and for longer. Being in a securely attached relationship at old age is a buffer against memory loss. While our relationships will not be smooth all the time, the ability to be able to count on the other can help us weather through the storms of life.

Here's Waldinger's study on Ted Talk: 

Old news

The thing is, there is nothing new under the sun. In 1988, sociologist James House studied a group of residents in MI and found that people who were social connected lived longer. With subsequent studies, House concluded that social isolation is as dangerous to our health as obesity and smoking.

In 2002, professor James Coyne noted that for men and women with congestive heart failure, a good marriage gives a person the will, “to fight their way back to health”. In fact, the quality of these patients' relationship was a good predictor for which patients will be alive four years later.

In 2006, Louise Hawkley and her colleagues published an article confirming that aging Americans who are lonely are at greater risk for increased blood pressure. And the list goes on.

Then and now

The sad thing is, Waldinger noted that at any given moment, 20% of Americans will report feeling lonely. That's no small number.

And my mind wanders to how we used to live in caves and were a part of a tribe. The men hunted and gathered and the women cleaned, cooked and cared for the kids. Imagine if one of the men woke up one day and said, “Hey buddies, not feelin' it. I think I'm just gonna stay in my cave...” It's either that he has to get up anyway because his buddies won't let him have it, or he and his family go hungry and their genes never made it.

The last I checked, the vast majority of Americans no longer live in communities. We're more mobile, moving half way across the country or across the world, away from our natural supports. We work more hours, sleep less and we are careful with the time that we do have. Who is worthy of our time? Often, that's reduced to our immediate family. And of the (fewer) relationships that we do have, we put more eggs in those baskets. Those relationships matter more to us because they are it.

In comes Emotionally Focused Therapy

Sue Johnson, the co-founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), argues that we often look to our partners to satisfy the emotional connection that people from generations ago got from a whole village. When we have such high expectations of our adult love relationships, so much is at stake.

In fact, Waldinger's findings would not surprise Johnson. She was the one who pointed to the wealth of research noted above. I have heard her argue for why James Bond would be a hot mess if he were to come into my therapy office because we are NOT meant to be unattached and self-sufficient. We are made for close, secure attachment with our significant other.

Waldinger acknowledged the "What": accounting for the presence of physical pain in men in their 80's, those in a satisfied relationship stayed happy. One of Johnson's friends, neuroscientist Jim Coan, explained the "Why": the perception of pain is curved by being in a supportive, happy relationship.

Going forward

My pledge to you is similar to that of Waldinger's: go seek out a friend and connect offline. Go mend a broken relationship. Be open to new friendships. Make small steps toward expanding your social connections.

If you long to be close and securely attached to your partner, I'm here!

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She's a Licensed and Marriage Therapist and she loves helping distressed couples learn to connect in a safe and secure way. When she's not meeting with clients, she loves working on her business and expanding her reach to help more hurting people. And when she's not working, she has been frequenting various farmers' market and feasting on summer fruits.

How to Talk to your Partner about your Problems and Why this Works

Scott Webb/unsplash.com

Scott Webb/unsplash.com

How I talked to my partner

A few years ago, there was an incident that made me feel disconnected in my marriage to my husband. It bothered me enough that I brought it up the same day. At first, my husband's response made me feel like it was a joke. When I pressed further about how much it impacted me, he took it seriously and said that it wouldn't happen again. My husband is a good guy and I believed him. I still believe him, but there was something unsettling about how that conversation ended. 

How are you talking to your partner?

I bet you I'm not the only person to dread difficult conversations with my partner. Ever brought up a heavy topic and realized how hard it is to drudge through it? Or, it doesn't go well and you end up on a tangent about unresolved issues? Things get shoved under the rug, but never really resolved and the next time you argue, it's the same old, same old?

That's because these conversations are hard. It's easier to put a bandaid on it; only it's a temporary fix. You might have read about using “I statements,” balancing every 1 negative statement with 5 positive statements, or not attacking your partner. While these may be good communication skills to have, when you're emotionally charged, all those tools go out the window.

What to do instead

I remember as a kid carrying this card around that reads, “If you want to know how to keep an idiot busy for hours, turn this card over” and of course it says the same on the back. The thing is, when something doesn't work, you should really try doing differently.

Borrowing from the tradition of Emotionally Focused Therapy, here is what to do instead:

  • speak to your emotions - “I'm angry that you made me look like a fool in front of our friends.”
  • speak to how you perceived yourself - “That made me feel like I wasn't important in your eyes.”
  • speak to how you perceived your partner - “I thought you did it on purpose.”
  • speak to your deeper emotions about your relationship longing - “When that happened, I felt hurt and unloved.”
  • speak to your relationship need - “What I really want is to know that I still mattered to you and that I can trust you to have my back like I have yours.”
  • speak to what you need as a repair - “I can really use a hug right now.”

Now granted, this is meant to be a 2-way conversation and I've only given you one-side of the dialog. Considering that your partner is loving and supportive, hearing about your deeper needs would usually move them closer to you. And, if this sounds foreign, it is. But, this gets at the root of the matter, rather than staying focused on the content of what happened. Content changes, like hats, but at the core is whether two individuals feel like they're available, engaged and responsive to each others' needs.

Why this works

Emotionally Focused Therapy views adult love relationships from an attachment lens. Consider this Still Face Experiment video and how a baby reacts to a present, then distant mother:

(Please note there is a similar, longer video about babies' attachment to their fathers.)

Sue Johnson, the co-developer of EFT argues that intimate relationships mirror that of an infant-mother relationship. With almost three decades of research behind her, Sue notes that as adults:

  • we desire to maintain closeness with our partner
  • we need assurance from our partner when we're upset
  • we feel distressed when we experience distance from or a loss of connection with our partner
  • when we feel like our partner has our back, we feel more confident exploring the world
  • when we feel secure in our relationship, we could reach out and connect easily
  • if that secure bond with our partner is threatened, we get anxious, angry and controlling or we avoid contact altogether

All of these responses and patterns are mirrored in the above video. 

Can you see how unless you speak to the threatened bond between you and your partner, the argument will just play itself out in similar ways the next time?

What it looked like for me

So I went back to my husband a couple of years ago and told him how that particular issue continued to bother me. He was a little agitated at first and then surprised that it remained an unresolved issue. “I thought we've talked about this?!” He again reassured me that it wouldn't happen again and that I could trust him and him me. For reasons I couldn't pinpoint at first, his response was still dissatisfying.

Two months ago, I went back to him, yet again after an intensive EFT training. That conversation was heart-palpitating, armpit-sweating, and tears-flowing and I wanted to talk about everything else but that. But trust me, it was well worth it. I told my husband that this incident three years ago continued to bother me because I felt disconnected and hurt and that it threatened our relationship. I told him that I do trust him but I also needed to know that he loved me.

Husband was agitated, but softened up when he heard that I felt hurt. He's in disbelief that I wouldn't bring this up again a 4th time, but reassured me that he loved me and apologized that his actions hurt me.

I can understand why my husband would be in disbelief, but what he didn't see was a healing that happened with that repair. I felt lighter and closer to him. No further conversation is needed because that sense of safety and security is restored and deepened. What's more, when we feel safe and secure in our relationship, we can be vulnerable to share our deepest fears and longings. That same evening, my husband turned around and shared situations where he felt left out and I've since been mindful of how to better include him. Vulnerability begets vulnerability and it brings us closer together.

Need help?

That sense of connection, safety and closeness is not built overnight. It takes two people who want it and are willing to work on it. See me as a coach. I'm here when you're ready.

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping committed couples who have grown apart find each other again. She's recognizing that during difficult conversations with her husband, she'd rather talk about the pretty skies or the crawling spider than the issue at hand. Yet, she's learning to stick with it. Seeing the fruits of that, she'd want to help you do the same. 

Is Pokémon Go Ruining your Relationship? Here's what You can Do about it



What's happening?

You don't need me to tell you that Pokémon Go came out this weekend and our country went mad. There was an epic number of people on city streets, all staring down at phones. In the overlapping worlds of virtual and real realities, people are capturing wild Pokémons and training them to fight in “gyms”.

Pros to Pokémon Go

There have certainly been some benefits to this social phenomena, with pockets of strangers turning into allies, crossing age divides, and strategizing around game secrets. It's likely boosting our economy, with businesses more frequented and phone chargers in greater demand. I also see it as an opportunity for people to leave the house and get fresh air. And, it encourages exercise: the greater the distance you go, the more items you can lock in.

Thrillest even joked about Pokémon Go being the new dating app:

And one person did get a date, while families talked about Pokémon Go giving them something to do together and connecting them.  

Cons to Pokémon Go

On the flip side, it didn't take long for there to be multiple concerns for public safety. There were numerous trespasses in parks and yards, and armed robberies of players preoccupied on their phones in broad daylight or lured to secluded places at night.

Playing Pokémon Go has caused both major car accidents and minor cuts and bruises. Road signs are encouraging people, “Don't Pokemon and Drive. ”The City of Miami Police posted a video educating parents on the potential dangers.

I can only imagine the list growing as we speak.

What about relationships?

The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed captured tweets of distressed individuals in relationships where Pokémon Go has taken precedence. The words “divorce” and “Pokémon Go” were lumped together, and had some asking for marriage counselors.

New York Mag showed similar tweets of men neglecting their relationships, and a dad catching a Pokémon while his wife is in labor.

Sure, some of these posts might be exaggerated, but Pokémon Go is causing rifts in relationships, regardless of whether lovers are competing or only one partner is hooked on the game.

What can you do about it?

First of all, if you're an individual playing and looking for tips on how to play responsibly, the LA County Sheriff's Department can speak more eloquently to that. 

However, if your relationship is impacted, here's my advice to you, in rough steps:

  • without jumping to end the relationship, have a sit down talk with your partner, phones on silent.
  • validate that this is an epic game that has America (and other parts of the world) going cuckoo and Nintendo stockholders really happy.
  • talk about how his tardiness or her lack of concern for your relationship is impacting you. “When you're an hour late coming home because you stopped by the park to catch Pokémons, that left me feeling really hurt.” 
  • speak to your needs of wanting to feel like you're important, loved, or that he's available to you. “It feels like Pokémon Go matters more than me and I want to count on you to be there for me.”
  • if both of you are playing, or both of you are in agreement for one to keep playing, talk about boundaries around that. “No trespassing to neighbor's yard at 2am,” or “set a timer on your phone to get off because it's time to pick me up.”
  • lastly, if the conversation above is too difficult and you truly need a marriage counselor, I'm here!

Note: There will be no Pokémon Go in my office.

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She's a Licensed and Marriage Therapist and she loves helping committed couples who have grown apart find each other again. Should her husband decide to download the Pokémon Go app, she might have something to say about that. Her favorite Pokémon creature from way back when is Psyduck.


Why James Bond would Make a Terrible Lover and why Moneypenny should Really Rest her Case

Jochen Seelhammer/stock.adobe.com

Jochen Seelhammer/stock.adobe.com

Ah, James Bond. Who doesn't love James? Since marrying my husband and his DVD collection, I've watched all the 007's. Suave, charming, sexy, smart, dressed to the tee, always on these James-will-never-die conquests to save the world. Unattached and emotionally constipated, he always manages to capture the hearts of gorgeous women and take them to bed.

According to the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, there's a reason why these beautiful women would only want to make love to him once, at most twice, and that's it. Sue Johnson describes what determines success in couple relationships is this sense of love, connection and closeness. Two people are available, responsive to each other and have each other's back. James, on the other hand, “will always be James,” leaving his love interests waiting, longing, and lonely as hell.

It is for these reasons Moneypenny should really take her infatuation elsewhere. Her yearning will be tickled at most, but never satisfied. It's a temporary illusion that James would ever want her, as he's always one mission away from desiring someone else.

Need help staying close and connected in your intimate relationship? Shoot me an email!