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Marriage Advice

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I do a lot of work with parents, that’s true, but I also see a lot of couples looking for marriage advice.  Sometimes people come to see me specifically because their marriage isn’t where they would want it to be; sometimes, they’re struggling with a parenting issue, and as our work goes on, it becomes clear to all of us that there are some gaps in their marriage too.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so if you’ve got a high-needs kid or a challenge at work or school, that can block out everything else.  It can be easy to overlook that there are things we can do to improve our marriages to make them happier – and that we should.  Everyone in the house benefits when Mom and Dad are happy.  Could you be happier in your marriage?  Then let me give you my top three pieces of marriage advice, with some ideas you can try today.

  1. Spend time together.  I know, I know, between work and the kids, it can be next to impossible to carve out that time, much less have the energy to enjoy it.  But if you don’t invest in your relationship now, it’s too easy to drift further and further away from one another, until you feel like you’re living with a stranger.  Don’t let that happen to your marriage.  Think of some things that you used to enjoy doing together, or some things that you’d like to try, and make a point of putting them on the calendar.  While now might not be the time to take up a new hobby (then again, maybe it is…), at the very least you can commit to sitting down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine a couple of times a week, just to chat, maybe laugh, and reconnect.  It’s well worth it.
  2. Don’t take each other for granted.  Really notice the little things that your partner does that makes your life easier or happier, and acknowledge them.  It’s easy to get resentful when you feel that your hard work isn’t even being noticed, or when it’s being taken for granted.  Nothing in this life is a given, and it’s a small but powerful action to say “thanks” or “it was really great that you did that”.  Becoming aware of all the small ways that you work well as a team and the little things that are good between you, helps you to shift the focus in your marriage from what’s not working, to what is.  It might all be small stuff, yes, but even enormous trees started out as saplings at one point, so don’t be put off by the fact that these actions are small.  We tend to find what we’re looking for, so if we look for the ways that things are working, we’ll build on that positive point of view and see more and more of what’s going well.
  3. Really listen.  If your partner comes to you and says that s/he is unhappy, don’t gloss over it.  While you might have a big discussion tonight and then it seems as though it’s back to business as usual in the morning, don’t fool yourself into believing that just because your partner isn’t constantly discussing it (or nagging you) that it means that the problem has magically gone away.  Really hear what he or she is saying, then take that information to heart.  Put yourself out there and make some changes, do something different.  If your marriage is that important to you, then show that through action.  Don’t wait until you’re so distanced from one another that reconnection seems impossible; do it now.  You’ll be glad you did.

Dealing With Strong Emotions

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Kids say a lot of stuff over the course of a day. Some of it we listen to, some of it we hear and dismiss, some of it we ignore. But what we listen to and how we respond can have a big ripple effect on our relationship – and on our children’s behaviour. One of the quickest ways to improve the behaviour of your children is to really listen to them when they talk. Listening without fixing, or moralizing, or judging, or rationalizing is what we all want, it’s just that adults don’t usually throw a temper tantrum when they feel misunderstood. (Then again, sometimes we do…)

Begin by making sure that you’re really present and listening when your child starts to talk. She may not tell you specifically she wants to talk (“Hey, Mom, do you have a minute?”), it may be more that she is speaking and showing a great deal of emotion at the same time. She might be talking about a friendship, something that happened at school, a rule at home that she doesn’t like, or reacting to something you’ve said – you can use this approach any time that she has a strong reaction to something, or when you feel yourself getting heated in response to what she’s saying.

Nobody likes to feel as though they’re less important than the task at hand, so make sure you pause what you’re doing to really listen and hear what she’s saying. Encourage her to keep talking by nodding and saying, “Hmm” and “Uh-huh”, or by reflecting back what she’s just said to you (“You felt rushed into making a decision”, for example, or “Wow, the teacher yelled at you in front of the whole class.”) Resist the urge to challenge what she’s saying to you! If she says, “I’m the dumbest kids in the class,” as a parent, we want to reassure her: “Of course you’re not, honey. You got an A on your last test!” Fight that knee-jerk reaction. The conversation will be more valuable to her if you instead reply, “Sounds like you had a hard day” or “You’re not feeling very good about yourself right now.” These kinds of responses are much more likely to keep her talking, rather than making her more upset and convincing her that you just don’t understand.

Next, give the feelings a name. “That sounds frustrating!” “You’re really angry.” “You seem really hurt.” These are all statements that give kids in the midst of an emotional meltdown a way to make sense of their feelings, as well as being reassured that you really do understand them.

Sometimes, this in itself is enough. Just by listening without judgment, reflecting back what you hear them say, and getting them to talk through their own problems, the problem resolves itself. At other times, it can lighten the mood enough that your children are then able to hear your thoughts on the situation, and you can work together to resolve the problem.

Here’s a little cheat-sheet of the steps to try:

Listen – Acknowledge – Name the Emotion – Offer Your Thoughts and Discuss Solutions

You’ll be amazed at the arguments and power struggles that dissolve when you go approach your child’s emotional outbursts this way!

(The book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish is an excellent book with a similar philosophy – definitely worth checking out if your family could benefit from improved communication.)

Assertive Communication: 20 Tips

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Monday, March 03, 2014

Most of us know that assertiveness will get you further in life than being passive or aggressive. But few of us were actually taught how to be assertive. Here are some helpful tips, for use at home and at work.

1.Choose the right time. Imagine you’re dashing down the hall on your way to a meeting. Lisa passes by. You call out, “Can you have the Microsoft project out by Tuesday?” Because you haven’t scheduled a special time to bring up the issue, Lisa has no reason to think your request deserves high priority.
2.Choose the right place. Discuss important issues in a private, neutral location.
3.Be direct. For example, “Lisa, I would like you to work overtime on the Microsoft project.” Whether or not Lisa likes your request, she will appreciate your directness.
4.Say “I,” not “we.” Instead of saying, “We need the project by Tuesday,” say, “I would like you to finish the project by Tuesday.”  (BUT...also know when "we" will get your further because the alternative is "you": "I'm going to leave the room until we can speak politely to one another," or "We need to find a better solution to this problem.")
5.Be specific. Instead of, “Put a rush on the Microsoft project,” say, “I would like the Microsoft project finished and on Joe’s desk by 9:00 Tuesday morning.”
6.Use body language to emphasize your words. “Lisa, I need that report Tuesday morning,” is an assertive statement. But if you mumble this statement while staring at the floor, you undermine your message.
7.Confirm your request. Take notes at family meetings.  (At work, ask your staff to take notes at meetings.) At the end of each meeting, ask your family members to repeat back the specifics that were agreed upon. This minimizes miscommunication.
8.Stand up for yourself. Don’t allow others to take advantage of you; insist on being treated fairly. Here are a few examples: “I was here first,” “I’d like more coffee, please,” “Excuse me, but I have another appointment,” “Please turn down the radio,” or “This steak is well done, but I asked for medium rare.”
9.Learn to be friendly with people you would like to know better. Do not avoid people because you don’t know what to say. Smile at people. Convey that you are happy to see them.
10.Express your opinions honestly. When you disagree with someone, do not pretend to agree. When you are asked to do something unreasonable, ask for an explanation.
11.Share your experiences and opinions. When you have done something worthwhile, let others know about it.
12.Learn to accept kind words. When someone compliments you, say, “Thank you.”
13.Maintain eye contact when you are in a conversation.
14.Don’t get personal. When expressing annoyance or criticism, comment on the person’s behavior rather than attacking the person. For example: “Please don’t talk to me that way,” rather than, “What kind of jerk are you?”
15.Use “I” statements when commenting on another’s behavior. For example: “When you cancel social arrangements at the last minute, it’s extremely inconvenient and I feel really annoyed.”
16.State what you want. If appropriate, ask for another behavior. (“I think we’d better sit down and try to figure out how we can make plans together and cut down on this kind of problem.”)
17.Look for good examples. Pay attention to assertive people and model your behavior after theirs.
18.Start slowly. Express your assertiveness in low-anxiety situations at first; don’t leap into a highly emotional situation until you have more confidence. Most people don’t learn new skills overnight.
19.Reward yourself each time you push yourself to formulate an assertive response. Do this regardless of the response from the other person.
20.Don’t put yourself down when you behave passively or aggressively. Instead, identify where you went off course and learn how to improve.

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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