This time of year can be a prime time for relationship conflict. Anxieties can be high over family relationships, planning and other things. The truth is, you and your partner both want the holidays to be happy. Here are some simple reminders to help you stay on track for a happy holiday season.
1. Remind yourself of your partner’s value
Take a little bit of time to remind yourself that your partner is your choice. You have selected this person out of all others to share your life. They have done the same to choose you. What is it that you value about them? What are things that you take for granted? Think about what brought you together and what you admire when you observe them with others. This will help put you in a state of appreciation. It keeps us positive. You want to be mindful to make their holiday as happy as you would like them to make yours. Maybe you think you don’t have this kind of power? You do. Your mood and the way you interact with them greatly influences their mood.
2. Be your best self
Remind yourself of who you are at your core. Holidays can be a time when we get away from our center. You may be engaging in unhealthy behaviors: drinking or eating too much, gambling, or being angry due to extra stressors. Think about the things you are doing and thinking that are unhealthy. After becoming mindful of them, commit to stopping or reducing that behavior. Spend some time thinking about your best qualities. When I am really at my best, what am I thinking and doing and being? Reconnect and recommit to these ideals.
3. Be prepared for conflict areas that are predictable
Couples often have the same arguments over and over. This can be especially true around the holidays. The irony of this is that both people continue to do the same thing each time, completely disregarding the fact that the things they do, don’t work. This year, take some time to think about situations and conflicts you are fearing this holiday season. Acknowledge to yourself that certain situations will come up and come up with a game plan for reducing that conflict when it arises.
For example, if you know your partner will be anxious before guests arrive and will start snapping at you, be ready for this. Ordinarily when they snap at you, you respond with anger. Your anger then triggers them to lash out or shut down making the situation worse for both of you. This time, try “I know it’s important to you that everything goes well tonight, it is to me also, it will be okay.” Then follow with “Can you please not speak so sharply to me?” Because they know from your first response that you 1) understand and 2) are on the same page, they will respond positively to your request.
4. Respond only to the current situation
Couples often go into what we call trauma mind when they are in conflict. This is when the current disagreement triggers a past similar (and often worse) conflict. The response then becomes more exaggerated than the situation seems to call for.
This can be scary and confusing to our partner. We may bring up the past thinking we are further supporting our argument. “You always do this!” or “This is just like the time” This leads to a defensive response from our partner, and makes the situation worse. If you are able to only address the situation at hand, it will be a more productive interaction.
Ask yourself before speaking:
1. What did my partner do or not do that caused me to be upset?
2. What is my unmet need?
3. How am I feeling?
Use only these 3 things in what you say. For example “When you forgot to get eggs on the way home, I was unable to make the Christmas cookies. This made me feel hurt and like you don't care.”
This way you are letting them know the issue and how it affected you. There is no assumption or judgment on why they didn’t get the eggs, nor is there a judgment that it is part of an ongoing negative pattern. By keeping it about the current situation, this allows your partner to view it as a resolvable issue. When it’s about the past, he/she may feel overwhelmed and like there’s nothing they can do.
5. It’s only an argument if you join in
Finally, remember that it takes two to argue. If he or she says something hurtful, take a pause.
You don’t have to respond. At least you don’t have to respond right away. Our brain often
feels like we have to respond right away to make the situation right, but this doesn’t usually work.
Your partner will be far more receptive to you bringing up the conversation later when emotions have calmed. This is not to say that you cannot say anything in the moment. Simply be mindful of when it goes past an exchange of information. Do not allow yourself to then engage in a nonsensical debate. Remember, you have nothing to prove, and the argument will only serve to make things feel worse to both of you.
Following these five steps will help you to minimize stressful conflicts and instead mindfully enjoy a great holiday season with your significant other.
This interview was conducted between Jennifer Corpus–a digital marketing strategist and freelance writer who works closely alongside RelationshipStore, and Heather Beth Duke–a black marriage therapist and couples counselor who is part of the RelationshipStore team in Burr Ridge, IL. Heather is particularly passionate about helping struggling couples reignite the spark in a stale relationship or marriage. She has been a full-time therapist for 5 years now and has counseled both individuals and couples from many diverse ethnic backgrounds. This is a conversation between the two of them about the relationship between the black community and their relationship with mental health.
Why do you think that there’s such a disparity in seeking mental health care when it comes to race, when it comes to black people vs. the white race?
The black community was always geared towards taking your problems to church. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we need church plus therapy. Growing up in a [black] household, it was always, don't air your dirty laundry. Whatever happens in this house, stays here. Be quiet or go talk to Big Mama–(that would be our grandmother or our big sister). But whatever you do, don't you tell the doctors what's going on with you. Black people have this fear of being judged or stigmatized.
So you’ve mentioned church and family being places where black people feel safe going with their problems. Could you expand some more on this or on other safe places in the community?
Usually black women feel safe going to their beautician and telling them their problems.
Black men tend to say “I'll go to my barber, I’ll go to the church, I'll talk to my brother about what's going on before I go to a therapist. Therapy isn't for us.” We have to stop looking at it that way.
If beauticians and barbers can get behind therapists and allow therapists to leave their cards in the salon or barber shop, that would truly be helpful because that's where all the clients go to vent and express themselves.
Some churches are now getting on the bandwagon and inviting therapists to come and speak. The churches are getting behind us. Pastors are saying “There's nothing wrong with therapy. I can pastor you, but you need a therapist for these issues and to get properly diagnosed. There's nothing wrong with talking about your problems in a safe space. Everybody has problems.”
We have to start looking at how we can make mental health a bigger part of the conversation within the community. When we can get the church, the salons, the barbershops behind us, that will be a movement.
What would you say is the most important distinction between seeing a trained professional therapist vs. telling a beautician about your problems?
A therapist has a master’s degree or PhD in counseling/psychology. To obtain a degree in this area of interest, during their last year of professional studies, therapists are typically required to obtain between 600-1000 hours of direct contact with individuals experiencing various mental health issues such as depression, alcoholism, and anxiety.
Therapists are trained to listen empathically, explore the client's thought process as it relates to the dominant problem that led them to seek therapy, as well as ask specific questions that prompt and trigger a client to heal from their symptoms attributed to depression, drug abuse, whatever the problem may be.
For example, I received my master's degree from Capella University in counseling with an emphasis on marital family therapy. As a student I had to select a therapeutic model and then develop my counseling skills based on that specific model to heal, assess, and properly diagnose clients.
On the other hand, a beautician is not trained on how to adapt their responses to each individual or on how to keep their own personal bias from affecting the conversation, the way a therapist is. Yes, they can provide beneficial communication, but they are there to provide a wonderful hair service, not to be your therapist.
I love that point. I’m going to switch gears a bit here. Do you think that some black people may feel uncomfortable with a mental health professional who doesn't look like them or can't relate to them? Maybe they think, “I don't want to bring up racial trauma or have to explain the black lens through which I experience the world to my white therapist.” What would you say to someone who feels like this?
So let's say you do feel like this. The black woman or black man says, well, I don't want to go to a white therapist because I don't want to explain my racial experience. That's true, but you have other issues going on that aren't really attributed to race. Because honestly, when I am working with a black client, they're not talking about race–and this would be the perfect space to talk about it because I'm black! They're talking about financial issues, relationship issues, relating to their children, stressors, they need to care better about themselves, esteem issues, what happened in their family.
So let’s pause right there. Now, if they do bring up a racial component, yes, I do bring in a racial component but I don’t spend all day on that.
I'm not saying that it’s not important. I understand the black race and struggle. What I’m saying is to use that [therapy] space to truly heal.
In 2015, 85% of psychologists were white and only 4% were black. Obviously this is a lot less diverse than the overall population. What do you think contributes to this lack of representation and how can we work to change it?
With the field of psychology and therapy, this is the first thing I always hear: “You a therapist. Oh, you all don't make money.” So that doesn't appeal to the black community, because they’re thinking “I'm already struggling, and if I get a degree and spend all this money in college, I want to come out and have a sustainable job to take care of my family.”
Therapists have never been promoted in the ways that other professions are– doctors, lawyers, teachers, and firemen. If schools aren’t pushing the advantages of becoming a therapist or don't start bringing in black therapists, and if the black youth don’t see their presence in middle school, high school, in college, then how would you know that this field is a good career option? If we had more healthy examples, in the news, on social media, as figures in our community, then that's where it starts.
Do you have any stories about how representation in the psychology field was important to you when you were pursuing this career field?
Well, when I was wrapping on my master's degree, I finally had a black woman professor. So after class I rushed over to her. And she opened herself up and we had a conversation, and I said, “Talk to me about this field and what I need to watch out for, etc.” But she didn’t say “Well, you're going to be a black woman therapist and these are the problems.” She said, “It’s a woman-dominated field and you know how women act. When you come in, it's going to be competitive, they’re gonna test you.”
She never used the racial lens, and I was thankful that she didn’t keep reminding me of my race and that I’d have trouble because of it. That helped me to grow a lot better. Having a black woman professor/therapist step in, it made me feel better and made me want to keep going. So having a mentor or seeing an image of someone who goes before you, means a whole lot, specifically in my community. The impact of what imaging can do is powerful.
I came across an article that says, “While services commonly acknowledge the impact of gender on mental health, since counseling is a profession dominated by women, we often find ourselves afraid to talk about race as if it's a step too far in the direction of politics in an environment intended to be placid and neutral.” Do you think race is something that should be talked about in regards to therapy?
I think race should be talked about, but in a healthy way. Let's talk about the mentality as well, because you can say, “Well, I don't want to go to a therapist. I'm black, and I don't want to go to a therapist that's not black.”
Okay, but now let me ask you this. When you go to a therapist that is black, how are you treating that therapist? Are you connecting with the black therapist? Are you judging the therapist? Are you mistreating your therapist because they're black and they're on the other side and can help you, and you're thinking, “Well, you're no better than me because you're black too.” So let's start there with how the black clients treat their black therapist.
I've had negative experiences with black clients, and I've been very hurt by it. It hurts when my own community comes into therapy and says “I know just as much as you.” I'm not saying every black client will do this to a black therapist, but there comes a point in the road when we have to explore the mentality within the black community. Is it crabs in a barrel? “I don't want you to get ahead of me. How did you get here?”
We have to start being a team and working as a village. We used to work as a village toward each other. I feel like with the black and white race–there’s such an opportunity to share, to help each other and to heal together.
It sounds like you’re saying that if you can find a therapist who looks like you, that’s great, but not to let it stop you from attending therapy if you can’t find that therapist. Is that right?
If you spend a lot of time saying, “I need to find somebody who's going to understand what I'm going through,” you can exhaust yourself. You might miss a very wonderful opportunity to connect with someone outside of your race based upon a racial component. Don't lose a wonderful opportunity because you think, okay, well, she's white. She wouldn't understand because I'm black.
Pain is pain, right? That's what I would say.
Thank you for your time today, Heather.
With 25 years of experience working with couples as a licensed clinical counselor, Tim O'Donohue lays out an effective plan to get 100% back in your relationship.
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