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Sunday, March 15, 2020

Oh Crud, It's COVID-19: Considerations for High Conflict Relationships

If you’re in a high-conflict relationship and think things can’t get worse, well…they might. They might also get better, though, so let’s take a look at some things to consider during this COVID-19 emergency.

For some, fear and anxiety over both the known and unknown are making daily lives highly stressful. Are we catching something when we’re out buying what we hope is enough toilet paper? Are we spreading something if we attend our grandparents’ anniversary party? What about kissing on a date? What’s up with that guy sneezing in the elevator?

Even the most non-germaphobic among us are starting to bump elbows in greeting and grab bathroom door handles with a paper towel. This weekend I entered a Costco feeling pretty proud of myself for not panicking and left with the obligatory 30-pack of toilet paper, an emotionally necessary tub of sea salt caramels, and a slew of best wishes to and from my new checkout line friends.

So let’s add this new fear and anxiety to the constants of being in a high-conflict relationship…dread, despair, anger, frustration and so much more.

What’s at play under the surface.

You know by now that there are a lot of things going on at all times in your relationship with a high-conflict person. There’s a chess game that you may or may not know the rules to. There are long-standing patterns of interacting that aren’t healthy. There are actions and reactions that cycle you right back into those patterns with regularity.

Right now, ask yourself this: How do I typically handle stress and how am I handling the COVID-19 stress? Am I calmer and more level-headed? Am I freaking out? Am I worried for my health, my family’s health, my children, my parents? How’s my sleep? How am I eating?

Now ask yourself this: How does my high-conflict person handle their stress? Do they lash out? Do they retreat? Do they need to control more things? Do they ignore guidelines and professional advice and do whatever they want? How might this kind of new stress be affecting them?

Your answers to all of those questions will help you understand better how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact each of your reactions to each other.

If you know you are freaking out, try to remember to take a deep breath when your high-conflict person says something like, “It’s not like kids are getting it”, or “My parents have had long lives, they’ll be okay,” or “We’re all going to die.” If you know they manage their stress by micro-managing and controlling everything, try not to be surprised when they present you with an elaborate COVID-19 plan that seems way over the top. If they feel entitled to do the opposite of what people in authority tell them, be prepared for them to poo-poo your concerns.

See if you can get to a place of empathy, at least for a little while. First, have empathy for yourself: “I’m already stressed out and, despite my efforts not to, I might react badly when I don’t mean to.” And try to have empathy for them: “As awful as I think they are, there’s no way they want our kids to be harmed by this and they are probably just as concerned on the inside as I am.”

How the conflict can get better.

The first thing you can do, if you haven’t already, is assess what most of your conflict (with the high-conflict person in your life) is about. Some conflicts may disappear for a while:

Where and when to see each other

Kids’ after-school activities

Getting homework done and turned in

What church to attend

Any conflict about something that is currently cancelled, like school (for some people), work, social activity, events, travel, etc.

Now, we all know that high-conflict people might find a way to fight even if there is really nothing to fight about, but you have the COVID Card in your pocket. “We don’t have to fight about that right now because it’s not an issue.” Don’t be afraid to use it. And, if at any time you don’t feel healthy and need to isolate from that person, do it. You don’t need permission right now.

How the conflict might get worse.

Yeah, I realize that list above is kind of short. But I’m almost an optimist, ok? Here’s how the conflict might get worse and how you can start now to try to mitigate it.

Parenting time issues can be a nightmare. Sometimes with high-conflict exes with whom you share parenting time, that concept is the button that causes most of your issues. How is parenting time affected when there is self-quarantine, real quarantine, changes in work schedules, etc.? It might be good to start that conversation now.

“If one of our households needs to self-quarantine, how are we going to handle parenting time?” seems like a reasonable question to ask. Similarly, you may say, “If my household gets COVID-19 and child isn’t with me, are you able to keep child for 14 days? How can we make sure I have contact with child during that time?” “How can we work together if our kids can’t be in school for some time?”

If your anxiety went up just thinking about having that conversation, you’re not alone. But, the alternative is this…you hear that ex’s house is quarantined and your child is with you. You refuse to let child go over, ex thinks you’re withholding, files a motion for denied parenting time…and POOF you’re racking up attorney’s fees and adding to the conflict. Or vice-versa.

How about money? What if one of you has a reduction in pay and either can’t meet your monthly budget obligation or can’t pay spousal maintenance or child support? A way to broach that conversation is this, “I do/don’t anticipate that my work will be affected. How can we work together to make sure child’s needs are getting met if one or both of our incomes is affected?” Or, “How can we handle if one of us can’t meet our obligations?”

Generally, it will be good to at least ask the important questions. You may not get the answers you need or want but asking the questions will (at worst) get you each on the record with your thoughts and (at best) may encourage productive conflict resolution.

Special considerations.

You may be in a situation where your high-conflict person may try to use the COVID-19 issue to wreak more havoc on your life, not less. If you are currently in a high-conflict relationship that includes isolating you from friends and family and using verbal, physical, or emotional abuse to control you, setting a firm boundary related to COVID-19 guidelines could be difficult. Know that you have both science and government backing your decisions. If necessary, reach out to a friend or family member that can take you in.

If you have children and are in a situation in which the kids are estranged from you, this can be a particularly scary time because the other parent has the perfect excuse to continue to keep the kids away. More than ever, try to keep lines of communication open with the kids through phone calls, emails, texts, video chats, etc. so that the disconnection doesn’t get any bigger. Continue communicating with the other parent about the ongoing situation. You may find there are ways to support the kids even if they aren’t with you: offer to bring supplies, food, meals, games, etc.

If you are someone who wants to protect your kids from the other parent by keeping them with you no matter what, please don’t use this time to do that unless there are symptoms in either the child or the other parent. During times of stress, children need as many supports as possible and that includes the other parent. You may even find that the kids are more concerned than usual about the other parent if the other parent isn’t practicing good self-care or is otherwise unhealthy. Encouraging communication and electronic connection with the other parent allows for continuity of parenting without potential virus transmission.

Final thoughts.

Being in a relationship with a high-conflict person is sometimes being in a nearly-constant state of anxiety and fear. Right now we are in a time when there are additional, very real, stressors that are causing new, bigger anxieties and fears. Chances are, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to affect your daily experiences and the life of the high-conflict person in your life.

You can manage this change by reflecting on how you and the high-conflict person handle stress and observing how you are both handling this new stress. You can be proactive by asking questions and suggesting courses of action that protect you, your high-conflict person, and your kids, if applicable. You can also be aware that some high-conflict people may use this time of uncertainty to increase their antics, not reduce them.

Lastly, if you already have a mental health professional, check in with them. You may find that you need some additional services right now that you have added stress on top of your already stressful situation. Some offer teletherapy to accommodate social distancing recommendations and may be willing to work with you on creative solutions to continue supporting you.

If you are in Minnesota and need resources or a consultation about your situation and how it’s being affected by COVID-19, please feel free to call our office at 651-414-9423 or email

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Now You're Going to Tell Me that I Can't Afford to NOT get a Relationship Consultant

You're still reading and that's AWESOME! Hopefully, you've had a chance to check out the first two posts: Relationship Consulting: When it makes sense to get another opinion, and  Fine, I'm Listening: What Does a Relationship Consultant Do?
If so, you've gotten the basics about why having a Relationship Consultant is a fabulous idea and what a Relationship Consultant is actually going to do for you.

So, obviously, this is the point in this pitch where I talk you into thinking that there is nothing better for you to spend your money on. Right?

I'm not going to lie to you. You're partially right.

Let me start with this, though. Each family's financial situation is unique. It's not for me to decide how you prioritize your spending. In fact, as a Relationship Consultant, my role is simply to identify issues that are impacting your relationship, not add to them.

When considering Relationship Consulting, you should consider this cost-benefit analysis:

1) How much are our relationship issues impacting my functioning in the following areas: social life, intimacy, parenting, self-esteem, financial, legal, work productivity, etc.?

2) How much energy, time, and money do I want to invest in resolving those issues?

3) What are the potential positive outcomes from investing in resolving those issues?

4) What are the potential negative outcomes?

Before you consider calling for a consultation, I'd recommend you spend a few minutes thinking about all of these questions. You may find that the issues have definitely been impacting you in ways you don't like and you're ready to figure stuff out and get support. You may even be able to re-allocate some funds from other sources in order to do that. If so, then you're in a position to participate in and benefit from a consultation.

If the issues aren't impacting your functioning, you don't want to invest time and money into resolving them, or you are worried about potential negative outcomes, this isn't the right process or the right time for you.

THIS is where I show you what an amazing value Relationship Consulting is...

I did a little consulting market research. I looked at other types of professionals or specialists and what they charge for their services.

Consider these costs we might incur:

An automobile service visit can cost $150/hour for labor.
A massage therapist/spa can charge $100-200/hour for services.
A personal trainer may cost $50-75/hour for multiple hours a week.
An educational consultant (helping kids get into college) can charge up to $3000.
A doula charges $500-2000 for prenatal appointments and delivery.
A financial/investment specialist will charge a percentage of your investment.
An attorney charges $200-$400 for services.
A therapist can bill between $100-$250/hour for sessions.
A website/social media manager can charge $400-$1500/month for services.

You, of course, see where I'm going. 

As your Relationship Consultant, I'm committing to the following number of hours:

1-2 hours: Reading and analyzing two online assessments
2 hours: Meeting with you in person or over video to ask questions and get additional information
1-2 hours: Creating your personalized report
1-2 hours: Following up with you for a year to see if you need additional support

At an hourly rate of $150, that's a minimum of $750. (Good news, that's not what I'm currently charging!)

What's great about having a consultation, though, is that you will get information that can save you money in other areas:

1) By being aware of issues and having recommendations for services, you can get the right type of support sooner. Many couples who enter therapy spend 2-4 sessions providing background information. Having a consultation report can save time when you start with a new counselor.

2) Some couples skip counseling altogether and separate or divorce. As family law attorneys will tell you, having unresolved emotional issues will often make the divorce process very difficult and prolonged because emotional issues manifest into custody and financial disputes. By identifying, understanding, and managing emotional issues before contacting an attorney, couples who are splitting up can save so much in attorney's fees (and emotional energy!).

3) You may find that you have a single issue that can be resolved by a specific intervention, like seeing a sex therapist, a medical doctor, or getting a babysitter. Knowing that the "big" issue isn't as big as it seems when you're thinking about it in the middle of the night can keep it from getting out of control.

Okay, okay, here's the real deal:

Because Relationship Consulting is so new, I'm going to offer it for lower than $750 for some amount of time. If you decide this is for you and you contact me, we'll figure out a price that works for you. And, hey, if $750 works for you, that's great with me too!

Fine, I’m Listening: What does a Relationship Consultant do?

In my last post, Relationship Consulting: When it makes sense to get another opinion, I laid out some solid reasons why having a relationship consultation makes sense. What I didn't do, though, is tell you exactly who a Relationship Consultant IS and what a Relationship Consultant DOES!

So, here you go.

A Relationship Consultant IS someone with professional training in relationships (a therapist) and with extensive additional training in relationship facilitation (Prepare/Enrich), "crisis" issues (discernment counseling, decoupling counseling), and mediation. In addition, a Relationship Consultant should have a deep field of referral options in different types of therapies, family law, and financial analysis.

A Relationship Consultant DOES four basic things. 

1) Administers an online assessment. In our case, I give you access to an online set of questions that you and your partner answer, separately.

2) Looks over your answers and then interviews you about them. Once I've seen what both you and your partner have answered, I look for places I want additional information. I'll then meet with you and your partner separately to see what other data I need in order to get a well-rounded picture of your relationship.

3) Writes a report and gives it to you. After we've had a chance to talk--up to an hour for each of you--I'll take everything I've learned about your relationship and write you a fancy report. This report is going to do two big things. First, it's going to list/highlight/bring to your attention issues that came up during the assessments and interviews. Some of these issues may be known to you; some may have been in your blind spot. Secondly, this report is going to include recommendations for next steps for you. These next steps will be tailored to what you need.

4) Follows up with you for a year. After I've handed off your report, I'll follow up with you at scheduled intervals in order to see how your next steps are going and if you need any additional recommendations.

Some questions I've gotten:

* What if you're my Relationship Consultant and I want to stay on with you in a therapy role?
Depending on your needs, we can transition into a different professional relationship where I provide the counseling and therapy services you need and want. If I change my role with you, I'll have you complete an informed consent to that change in services.

*What if you're my Relationship Consultant and I DON'T want to stay with you in a therapy role?
That's completely fine! My job as your consultant isn't to drum up therapy business for myself. It's to help you get the support you need. I will offer you referrals to therapists I think may be a good fit for you and hope they work out.

Next up: Now You're Going to Tell Me that I Can't Afford to NOT get a Relationship Consultant

Relationship Consulting: When it makes sense to get another opinion

What would you say if I told you that, much of the time, the only part of someone’s life that they DON’T get help from a consultant on is their relationship?

Think about it. We get help from specialists for almost everything. From our cars, to our plumbing, to our retirement accounts, to our fitness, to our spirituality, to our parenting, to our healthcare…we rely on and value the input of specific, learned, trusted others.

But our relationships? Rarely. Sometimes people will get some pre-marital counseling before getting married. But people who aren’t married don’t often reach out for that. Sometimes people will seek some religious mentoring if they want to feel closer to each other. Generally, though, the first time most people start to "consult" about their relationships is when things are starting to fall apart..and then they consult with friends and family before thinking about therapy.

Why do we do that to ourselves? (I can give you an answer, but maybe I’ll save that for another day!)

Our primary intimate relationship, whether married or not, is a foundation of our stability and success. This is the person we share time and resources with, rely on, support, get supported by, laugh with, cry around, raise children with, attend cousin’s birthday parties with, fart near, retire with…this is the big one. This is THE relationship that we put a big chunk of our lives into.

We are taught, though, that once we’re partnered or married, we should know how to do it all by ourselves. We should know how to fight fairly, apologize, express our needs, share our time equitably, and achieve life balance. And if we can’t…then we’ve failed ourselves and our relationship, and sometimes even our family and our religion.

It’s only then, IF THEN, that we reach out for help. When the problems have gotten too big or the silences have gotten too long—that’s when we think, “Crap! We need to get some help!” So many times, though, the rift is such that a few half-hearted sessions of couples counseling just isn’t enough to salvage anything of the original relationship and it, unfortunately, ends.

I believe it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe receiving a relationship consultation early can do one of a number of things:

1) Keep you out of therapy. Catch those communication or conflict issues early and you may not even need counseling.

2) Get you the specific help you do need. Yes, couples need help sometimes. But maybe you need a sex therapist and not an attachment therapist. Maybe you need a financial planner and not a sex therapist. Maybe you need an attorney, but maybe you just need some enrichment exercises! A relationship consultant helps you identify your relationship’s unique needs and get you the relevant support.

3) Keep a bad situation from getting worse. Maybe the relationship is too far gone to salvage. But, a relationship consultant can tell you the hot button items AND how to address them in order to reduce the emotional and financial cost of a breakup.

A relationship consultation should be the first step for any relationship that is experiencing any issues, however big or small. It’s the quickest, most cost-effective way to get a handle on what you need and to get the personalized, specialized support to meet those needs.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Foot Surgery: A Weird Metaphor for Working on Your Relationship

If you read my blog, well… know I love to compare things and find the shared meaning. Dang if this one doesn't work perfectly.

Starting about ten years ago, I'd limp into a podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon's office every couple of years to have someone, anyone, look at my foot and get me some relief from the pain in the ball of it. For nine of those years, they said they weren't quite sure what was wrong with it--probably a little overuse, probably a little arthritis, but try wearing sensible shoes, wearing orthotic shoe inserts, taking ibuprofen, blah, blah, blah.

If that isn't a metaphor for living with some undefined, and occasionally painful, issue in your relationship, I'm not sure what is.

Last year, I started walking and hiking a lot more than usual. Over time, that same aggravated area got even more painful, even more swollen, even more red, and took even more time to return to normal after using it. 

It was like having a relationship crisis. The turning away in bed at night, the silent scowls, and the terse text responses. The complaining about the relationship to close friends, the searching online for something...answers, the right questions to ask, a connection from high school, or a new hairstyle or workout routine. The affair.

I found some possible answers for my foot issue online and sought out a specialist. Within a short time after looking at my X-rays and manipulating my toe joints, he had an answer. This foot needed surgery. It wasn't like I needed the procedure yesterday, but I needed it soon or the joint would be irreparable, stiff, and unmoving. It would cause daily, low-level irritation.

Seriously, I'm not even going to spell out how that translates to relationship stuff because it's SO OBVIOUS.

Enter the surgery. I got a synthetic cartilage implant (e.g. therapeutic intervention) and a bone realignment (e.g. emotional insight!).

I went into it perfectly ambulatory and functioning well enough. I came out of it with a blue cast on my foot, instructions to take five different medications on some schedule that my post-anesthesia brain couldn't track, a pair of crutches, a scooter, a temporary disabled parking pass, and a lot of unknowns. Like, how was I going to navigate midnight bathroom breaks? How quickly could I go back to work? How much was it going to hurt after the meds wore off? Would I gain weight or muscle? 

So many unknowns. A drastic change.

Then the pain and the gravity of what I'd done set in and, much like the arc of perceived therapeutic benefit dips after the first few sessions, my certainty about the decision to have surgery waned after day five. I hated the crutches. I hated the scooter almost more. I hated the rubber leg condom I had to carefully pull over my heavy and sore foot. I hated standing on my good leg for almost everything. I hated working up a tremendous sweat just trying to get dressed or undressed. I hated trying to remember where to put my crutches so they were handy while I transitioned from the scooter. I HATED trying to get into the garage and pack things in my car. Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop, hop, hop. 

Regarding couples therapy, one of a handful of things happens when the couple hits that point in their work. They outright quit ("That therapist didn't know anything. What a waste."). They take a break ("I have a work conference come up and we're going to need to skip the next few weeks."). 

And, sometimes, they stick it out, cry, get angry, and push through the tough questions they have to ask themselves and each other. They start to trust the process and do their at-home work. 

Okay, with foot surgery, you don't have a lot of options to quit or fade away. But they trust is hard to come by...

Day 15: There's no way my incision will ever be anything but a crumpled, scabby eyesore. I'll never bend my toe again--OMG SOMETHING MUST HAVE GONE TERRIBLY WRONG!

Day 32: I think I'll go dancing, post-surgical boot and all. I can't wait until day 42 when I can wear a real shoe again! Life is great! What hiking trips can we take this summer?

ALL of this is to say that the process of getting a foot surgery that is needed, but not critically so, during a time that is somewhat less inconvenient than other times (that's to say, no time was convenient to be off my foot for four weeks), depicts crazy-well the process of seeking help for a relationship: 

Something's off, but no one's having an affair yet; it's really hard to fit counseling sessions into work/school/extracurriculars/travel/self-care time/gym workouts, etc. 

But in the end...what if getting help was worth it? What if things get much better?

I'll let know about the foot surgery in two more weeks or so. As for working on your relationship? That's up to you to decide. :-)

P.s. Don’t forget—feet work independently, but they work best in relationship with the other foot, right?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Taking Stock at a Stranger's Funeral

"He died. I am SO sad and angry. I know you two will get it, to some extent, so thank you for letting me vent." That was a text another woman and I received from a friend whose therapist had died just days before.

I guess I have a little handle on what it means to grieve, but I'd never experienced something like this. Most of us haven't. Our therapists are many things to us: guides, listeners, challengers, comforters... They are our secret-keepers and the knowers of the deepest things we'll share with anyone, sometimes including our partners. They aren't the people who say goodbye after a session and disappear from our lives. That's not how it's supposed to work. We are the ones who are supposed to make that call.

But as my friend can attest, unfortunately we don't always get to.

The three of us decided to attend the memorial together. One of us was there to grieve the therapist who had earned her trust and made her feel like she was the most important person in the world. Two of us were there to support her in any way we could. Also, since there is generally no HIPAA-approved section for grieving clients at a funeral for a therapist, we decided to attend as a herd to obscure her relationship to him.

As it turned out, our anonymity was insured by the hundreds and hundreds of people there to remember him.

So...that's how I ended up at the funeral of someone I didn't know. What's next, though, is what I learned from it.
Just like wedding crashing and sitting in a court when you have no case in front of a judge (both of which, oddly, I've done), attending the funeral of a stranger is a window into a life that you rarely get to see. It's an opportunity to observe without seeing it all through a lens of personal loss.

I learned about a man whose family was as devoted to him as he was to it. I learned about a man who took care of others and who had mastered the art of taking care of himself in the process. I learned that he was, by all accounts of those who spoke of him, someone whose presence in others' lives won't be extinguished as long as there is someone to ask the question, "What would he think of that?" when there's an important life decision to be made.

To be honest, I marveled at how many lives he had touched so deeply that they would come to honor him in death. To be even more honest, I wondered if what I have done so far has been "enough"; if what I have given has had any lasting impact; and, if how I've loved has created more love.

Maybe that's what it all boils down to: Is how we live and love creating better life and more love? It's not a perfect measuring tool, but it might be a good way to take stock of how we are in the world.

I didn't know this man, but by the end of his memorial, I felt like I'd gotten a taste of how the ways he lived and loved had created more of each. I better understood my friend when she said that she felt like the most important person when she talked with him. And I decided to be more conscious and conscientious in my connections to others.

I wouldn't presume to know the answer to the question, "What would he think of that?" related to any of this, but my hope is that out in there in the universe somewhere is a sigh that might respond, "I think that's good."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"It's That Time of the Year Again": Recognizing Emotionally Important Seasons

Every fall, I'm like "Oh, I LOVE FALL!!" I love the leaf mess, the last bonfire wisps, and the hint of chill that allows me to sleep with the window open. But, every spring, I'm like "I love Spring SO MUCH!" I can never quite wait to get into the garden or to will the perennials to poke their heads through some dirty snow. Summer and winter...sorry, I'm not so in love with you, although I definitely like you a lot.

I've noticed another time of year that gives me feelings, though. It's mid-August to mid-September. In Minnesota, it's that no-person's time between summer and fall, so I don't necessarily have a socially coherent smell or sight to associate with it. Instead, I have the memories of leaving, moving, starting new, changing, comforting, struggling, coping, failing, hoping, and wishing things were different at the same time I was wishing them to be better.

Those memories are tied to a few other things besides time of year, too. There are Daughtry songs that still, eight years later, cause me to tear up or get pissed. There are Evanescence songs that still pour strength into me and remind me of how much emotional landscape I've crossed. There are certain events, like the first day of school, that I had to learn to share differently. Then there's my daughter's birthday, the first one I ever had to navigate as a separated person.

I'm assuming that other people have these times, too. I assume there are times that remind us of when someone was born, when someone else died, or when something amazing or tragic happened in our lives. So I'm wondering, how do you head into those times of the year? Do you dread them? Do you take time to acknowledge what you're experiencing so many years later? Has it even been years or is it still fresh and palpable?

For a few years, I was definitely in the dread camp. I wanted to enjoy that summer-fall conjunction, but just couldn't quite get there. It was fraught with re-experiences of anger and sadness and fear. Inevitably, I'd hear the song September and all the old stuff would wash over me.

Over time, though, I've learned to sit with the feelings when they come. I tell them I see them, that I can honor where they've been. I also try to make new memories that hopefully, over time, can provide a new resonance and perspective.

How do you experience residual feelings that are tied to events in your life? Definitely share the good ones, but also know that it's okay to share the not-as-good-to-downright-awful-ones, too.