Monday, September 8, 2014

The Holding Experiment

During a third couples session, and since the wife had been more of the maximizer when it came to talking, I invited the husband to share what he’s been going through.  He described having a mind that is constantly racing, hard to slow down, and, in relation to their interactions, coming to premature conclusions before he’d given himself the opportunity to let the communications with his wife play out and see what she was hoping to get from him. Lately, she has been sharing her thoughts, worries and fears about a new, deeply important but scary project she wants to start. To be helpful, he finds himself giving opinions and offering advice, but sees, from her reactions, that this is not what she’s looking for and actually makes her mad.  She wants his support, but not his advice, and neither knew what would work better.  As we sat mulling this over, I suggested that maybe it’s a different kind of support that he could provide, and asked him, just as an experiment, to hold out his arm and invite her to lean against him.  This was presented as ‘let’s see if this kind of support might work’. 

The results from this physical connection were quite astounding; there was an immediate emotional reaction in both of them.  They sat there getting teary, moving closer, him kissing her cheek and she nuzzling against him.  As we began to speak, they described intense comfort and relief:  she, the comfort that came from being in his arms; he, the deep relief that he could still provide what she needed to make her feel better.   They spoke about not realizing, these days, how important it was to take the time to hold each other.  They stayed this way until the end of session, about 10 more minutes.  During this time, I took the opportunity to describe Attachment Theory, how it plays out in a relationship, and that no matter how old we are, how successful, powerful, independent, etc., we still need the opportunity to rest and relax into re-experiencing those early feelings of being cared for, held, looked in the eye, touched and stroked, comforted and told appreciative things, just like we got (hopefully) as babies and young children.  I shared how I personally identified with this theory, and joked about how annoying it was, since sometimes, just like everyone else, I wish I wasn’t dependent on my partner for this feeling of inner peace and could refuel my own self before going back out in the world.  

Occasionally in working with couples, I will sense that it may be time to explore the effects of a physical connection right there in the room.  It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it is highly dramatic and rewarding.  When presented as an experiment, results of which the three of us will evaluate together, it seems to take the pressure off and allow them to relax into the resulting feelings, even though I’m sitting right there.  I am very much looking forward to the next appointment with this couple to see if this holding connection has had a lasting effect. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I'm Back!

I’ve decided to resume my writing after too long, and it just so happens that at this time, my husband and I are going through a hard time so I guess that’s what I have to write about.  He’s preoccupied with his issues and not able to be there emotionally for me, and has acknowledged that although we’re in a familiar place that our history shows will change, it s not in the process of changing back to ‘normal’ yet.  Funny thing is that yesterday, as I went for a walk to remove myself from thinking about and reacting to my loneliness, I ran into an old acquaintance, and we stopped to talk.  In the ‘how are you?’ beginnings of our conversation, I acknowledged that I was in the middle of dealing with some annoying relationship issues.  My friend, in a relieved way began to share some of the same feelings that he was also going through with his guy, and that he was out walking for the same reason.  So, since we were both were feeling lonely and had gripes that we really wanted to share with an empathetic ear, we decided to go have a ‘happy hour’ glass of wine so we could commiserate. 

Not surprisingly, his story was the same as mine, different version.  We both complained about temperamental traits and behaviors in our spouses that we’ve been dealing with for years, him for 41 (!), me for 15 (second marriage).  We reminded ourselves that we love our partners and they us, and that we’ll all get back on track as we always do, but that, although these disconnect patterns are familiar, they’re still infuriating and hard as hell.  As a result of the disconnect with the ones we love, here am I, a psychologist practicing couples therapy, and he, a writer whose books deal with consciously maximizing one’s potential, both experiencing a loss of control over our internal well-being.

Update:  It’s a week later and my husband’s slowly come back.  Boy was it hard to let go of my self-protective behaviors so I could also be there.  Now that I’m more at ease, but with the reminder that we’re all in some version of this relationship struggle together, I’ll get this blog going.  Hope to have you as a regular reader. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Break Ups

We all go through them so we know that breakups are part of the process of ultimately finding the right person and settling down, mostly happily. But sometimes, after investing a lot of time and effort in a relationship, its ending takes us by such surprise, that we're forced to realize we were somewhat living in a dreamworld without the two of us really knowing what was going on in each other's head. We were hanging in there and enjoying the good parts, but the ongoing areas of conflict, about which we tried for the most part to bite our tongue, were always silently standing between us. Ultimately, it was these unspoken, unresolved issues that ended things. There are definitely things to be learned, mostly about ourselves and how we communicate our needs, that need attending to as we move on. We don't want to repeat history in our next relationship and be taken by surprise again. That is the only good part about the loss of what we thought was a solid, predictable love committment. So, along with the pain and loss, figuring out how to grow from this experience and do things differently next time is the opportunity we now have. More about this soon.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Caveman Cometh

By Joan Emerson, PhD
Originally published in Brooklyn Family

Gender differences help explain why, in this age of couple’s equality and open communication, we are still plagued by primitive needs from each other. Gender theories look way back to when humans belonged to tribes and lived in caves. We can picture women sitting around the fire cooking, making clothing, caring for children and sharing joys, woes and vulnerabilities with each other as the men roamed the hills, often alone, guarding against danger, and bringing home the spoils from a successful hunt.

A family’s survival depended on the male’s ability to keep it safe and content and this is how the men were judged by the rest of the tribe and how they judged themselves. A woman’s comfort came from the community, yes, but mainly from feeling valued and protected by her man and from the tribe recognizing his loyalty and attachment to her. Gender theory says those ancient dynamics are still part of our DNA and affect our behaviors and needs, resulting in clashes between our primitive and more evolved needs.

These days, women are fiercely independent and competent. Yet, they still have needs from their men which don’t seem rational. What seems to be hard-wired into women’s brains from caveman days is a need to have a man clearly indicating ownership, pride in them, and taking a protective stance.

One of the ways this need can get filled today is for the man to simply take his woman’s hand when they’re out for a walk together. Although I first noticed this desire on my own and felt silly about it, I really took note when conducting couples sessions and “taking my hand when we’re out walking” was often on the woman’s list of easy things the guy could do to make her feel loved and cared for. When we’re inside, having our man sit with his arm around us actually releases hormones that relax and calm us. Men are often not aware of the power of these acts, so I encourage women to speak up.

When it comes to men, the gender-based theory says that for a man to feel happy with himself, he needs to feel competent and successful in regard to protecting, pleasing and satisfying his mate. If he feels he can’t get it right, the resulting feeling is deep shame. Not intellectually maybe, but emotionally, if a man senses his woman’s dissatisfaction with his efforts, he internalizes it as his failure and incompetence. The shame he experiences is so strong that he’d rather withdraw, attack, escape — anything but confront, or talk about this devastating feeling. The tendency in men to feel that they alone must know how to solve all problems in the family no longer makes sense in the age of equality and communication that modern marriage strives for, yet gender theory says their well-being depends on feeling success in this regard. This goes for satisfying his mate sexually, all the way to knowing how to dress the kids, and amusing the family with stories about local sports or the less-than-gripping details about his day.

If this theory is true, that the primitive part of us still wields this power (and that’s what I have observed), we can try to use this awareness to meet each other’s deepest needs. When it comes to a man’s happiness, his woman must build his confidence and make him feel able and competent. So, for example, his wife can allow time for him to relax when he comes home from work, even though women also work, do most of the childcare, and never relax. Women can step aside when the men are caring for the children and not interfere with advice. Women can freely show affection, so that the men know they are physically pleasing. This is a true gift: behaviors that help men feel good about themselves.

To please these deep female needs, the men can take their women out in the world and attend to them in a protective, yet affectionate, way, showing the world how they value them. At home, he can invite his woman to sit next to him and reach out and hold her for a while.

Talk to each other and see how these gender differences play out in your relationship.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Being an Effective, Affectionate Communicator

By Joan Emerson, PhD
Originally published in Brooklyn Family

Guidelines for successful couples’ communication
When talking to your partner about something in the relationship that’s bothering you, you have to use the kind of communication that helps make things better, instead of just adding to resentment and alienation. Complaining, yelling, and blaming are certainly ways to let off steam, but they can leave your partner angry or hurt.

To be a better communicator, you need to recognize — and be willing to change — hurtful patterns. Unfortunately, it is a set of skills most people don’t have when starting a committed relationship. So, for most of us, it must be learned.

In order for these techniques to work, conditions must be right so that your partner can really take in what you are saying, instead of becoming defensive, angry or withdrawn. This requires great self-control on your part. You cannot even think about talking to your partner when you’re in the throes of hurt or anger. Instead, the talk must take place at a time when you know that your partner can be willing and relaxed and that you, yourself, will be able to maintain a neutral and gentle tone without blame, contempt or resentment. Therefore, you both must find a mutually agreeable time to say, “OK, I’m ready, let’s talk.”

As you sit down to talk, instead of asking the loaded question that sets a negative tone (“Why can’t you just…”), turn the conversation to what you are feeling, what you notice yourself thinking about, what you’re wishing for, what pains, hopes and fears you have, and your desire to return to a state in which you can feel relaxed and loving.

Preface the talk with “I want to talk about some of the things I’ve been having trouble dealing with. I’m not saying I know the answer, maybe it’s even crazy to feel this way, but I’d like to let you know what’s been going through my head. All I want you to do is listen, OK?” Once your partner agrees, say “thank you” and start sharing. It shouldn’t take more than 15 to 20 minutes to describe what you’re having trouble with.

To keep your partner fully engaged, your talk must stay gentle and safe. For the best results, you can sit together, perhaps touch, and look into each other’s eyes. You might say something like, “I notice that one of the things that would help me feel more relaxed, comforted, loving (you choose your feeling), is if you would … (fill in the blank). When you don’t do this, I see myself start to worry, feel angry, withdrawn (again, you choose). Then, I start acting in a way that drives us apart, and I don’t want this. Do you think we could try to come up with something that would work better for us?”

The conversation must stay focused on the present and how you both can find solutions that would calm and comfort you and allow your loving feelings to return. Care must be taken to avoid talking about past hurts or getting into a blame mode. If your partner gets defensive, things have gone off track, and you’ll need to redirect the conversation by saying, “I know that things haven’t been going right, but I just want to talk today about what we can do to make it work better. I’m sure that there are things that I could do differently to help you give me what I need. I’d like to hear about that, too.”

Usually, partners are more than happy to present their side and talk about what each person could do to fix the problem. If your partner doesn’t, make sure you take the opportunity to ask, “What would you need from me in order to make these changes?” This is a time to listen thoughtfully since there is, no doubt, something to be learned about yourself and some of your less than perfect behaviors. Acknowledging your responsibility to your partner helps him acknowledge his to you. In a talk like this, you’re in charge of keeping the tenor calm and hopeful.

Once you’ve tried some of these techniques and can actually feel deep understanding, mutual concern and even, at times, humor and good feelings emerging between you both, make sure you show great appreciation for your partner’s efforts. Tell your partner how helpful the talk was for you and ask how it was for him. Ask if it’s OK to talk this way in the future when issues come up. If your partner agrees, it is key to show appreciation, appreciation, appreciation.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Guidelines for successful couples’ communication

By Joan Emerson, PhD
The Brooklyn Paper

Our Relationships: Being an effective, affectionate communicator

Unfortunately, marriage partners are not always on the same page, as we are different people who see things differently. In young families, conflicts over how we handle children, money, intimacy, housework, extended family or our visions for the future come with the turf. Sometimes we hold things in, but these issues need to be discussed in ways that lead to positive outcomes.

But how?
An exercise called “Couple’s Dialog,” part of a form of marriage therapy founded by Harville Hendrix, aims to help partners communicate calmly when talking about emotionally charged issues. It’s goal is to ensure partner’s treat each other’s feelings with the utmost sensitivity and respect. The dialog is not a conversation. One partner simply listens — and only listens — while the other speaks. It is an opportunity for the speaker to really feel heard about feelings that have been festering and creating resentments without having to worry about emotional reactions like defensiveness, criticality, and anger on their partner’s part.

So, find time for an uninterrupted half hour at a location where both partners are fully present and calm. Then, follow these four dialog rules:
• Let your partner speak without interruption. It’s rare to have the experience of being listened to with total interest and concentration — and it feels great. When you, the listener respond only with encouraging remarks like, “Tell me more,” or, “What else?” it’s easy for the speaker to get those pent-up feelings out.
• Show that you understand by reflecting back the essence of what was said. This step cannot be taken lightly, as it creates safety for the speaker. Listen and, at appropriate times, interject something like, “So you’re saying that…” or, “If I understand right, you said…” followed by a short summary of the emotions expressed. Once the speaker agrees that you do understand what’s being said, ask for more. If you got it wrong, ask for a repeat and try again to reflect back correctly until your partner feels that you do get it accurately and completely.
• Be empathetic and communicate that empathy. If the relationship is going to include ongoing, open communication, there must be a reward for exposing those private feelings. Your partner’s greatest reward is to see that you can understand and empathize without reacting.
• Validate your partner’s feelings by expressing that it’s not crazy to feel that way. It’s no doubt different from your own take on things, but reply with, “You know, it’s helpful to see it through your eyes; I never thought of it that way.”

When your partner has gotten it all out, a good response is simply “thank you” — a way of expressing appreciation for being so vulnerable. You can say things like: “That wasn’t so easy to hear, but I’m glad to know what you’re feeling” or “Let me sit with this information for a while and we’ll talk again soon.”

Being a successful listener is not always easy: the urge to present your own side, and to react defensively are hard to combat. Avoiding reactions like these on your part take containment and discipline, but the reward for following the dialog rules is that they bring great benefits. However, with all its challenges, being a good listener is actually much easier than being a successful speaker when it comes to sharing emotional issues.

Next time we’ll talk about skills for the speaker. Meanwhile, practice the listening skills and notice what it does for the relationship.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

And Baby Makes Stress

By Joan Emerson
The Brooklyn Paper

A new baby plus a new marriage equals major stress for both partners — and yet there’s no guide available for first-time parents to help deal with this joyous and difficult time.

Until now.
From watching and hearing about these situations with family, friends, and clients — while remembering my own experience — I have seen that, along with the love, joy and wonder of watching a new life begin, stresses on the relationships between new mom and new dad are typical.

Yet, I also get the sense that it takes everyone by surprise.

It will be the goal of this column to discuss the conflicts that typically emerge during this time, and provide some of the tools needed to keep couples’ connection intact and help new parents:
• Create a safe, loving place to reveal themselves and learn about their partner.
• Build a solid, reliable, loving relationship.
• Maturely work through the throes of the inevitable periods of disappointment and anger.

The July 12 edition of New York Magazine cover story “I Love My Children. I Hate My Life,” described study upon study showing the stress of raising kids and the effect those children have on the relationships of the married individuals. Indeed, studies show that children reduce marital satisfaction and adversely affect relationships, with the hardest period being the baby-toddler stage. A walk to a nearby Barnes and Noble helped explain why that is the case.

In the “Relationships” section, there are shelves of books by theorists whose names we all know about how to work on creating successful marriages. But there is nothing dedicated to the difficulties of new parenthood.

In the “Raising Your Children” section, there are the “What to Expect…” books along with topics like “how to talk to your child,” and “advice to dad to let mom sleep and learn how to change diapers.” But there is nothing directed at safeguarding a marriage after a child is born.

We all know that along with the warmth and pleasure associated with the new baby, there’s a ‘hold on for dear life’ experience for at least the first six months: a period plagued with worry, lack of sleep, total unpredictably of the baby’s behaviors and needs, insecurities, postpartum emotionality, differences in parenting approach, changes in roles, surprises and sometimes disappointments with the other parent’s coping style.

It isn’t until the child reaches the 6- to 12-year-old stage that marriages begin to bounce back to mom and dad remembering that they are also husband and wife.

So what can we do about the marriage in the meanwhile?

One of the upsides that can evolve during this young-family phase of marriage is that partners will, for better and worse, really get to know new each other, as that time of euphoria during which we saw each other through the rosiest of colored glasses has passed. Instead, we can use this time to create a safe environment in which to reveal our hopes, fears, difficulties, secrets, disappointments, and wishes.

Sharing these most private vulnerabilities with each other and receiving empathy and reassurance are the building blocks of a strong bond between partners and lead into a stage of mature, safe and dependable love.

Next time we’ll discuss one of the most basic rules for successful communication: being effective in expressing one’s feelings, while giving your partner the feeling that they’ve really been heard and understood.

Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. You can learn more about her by visiting her Web site at