In a Family, Estrangement Means Crisis

two women on a beach, frowning as they look at the ocean

Family estrangements, in the best of times, bring isolation and hopelessness. But as the family experiences a crisis — a death in the family, a parent becoming ill or cognitively impaired, a divorce — it brings confusion and often longing for a way to connect, and a glimmer of hope that past hurts can be put aside so families can rally around the problem.

As a family therapist, I routinely hear stories about “cutoffs.” There is an event or a disagreement and family members stop talking. Sometimes the estrangement is unspoken, but the rift goes on for years. The shame involved in acknowledging family cutoffs hides the widespread nature of the phenomenon.

In fact, while researching this article, everyone I spoke to had a personal example. (I am using their first names only.) In my practice, I have also seen how a crisis can be an opportunity to reconnect with estranged family members or can be a trigger for past hurts.

Jackie’s Story

Jackie looked at her brother Scott’s name on her phone contact list. For the tenth time that morning, she thought about pressing the call button. Spending another day on the phone with her father’s oncologist, primary care doctor and surgeon, while comforting her mother, was more than she could handle.

For the first time in six years — since the family’s relationship with Scott became strained — she felt the acute loss of her brother’s once-close support. Even though the doctors reassured her they could watch and wait over the coming months, Jackie envisioned a hospitalization and “no visitation” scenario brought on by COVID-19 precautions and considered whether now was the time to reach out to her brother.

The family had been close, but their parents (74 and 72) never hid their disapproval of Scott’s girlfriend when she entered the picture. And over time, Jackie adopted her parents’ views.

After Scott married Sonya and the babies arrived, estrangement ensued: “If you can’t respect my wife, I can’t trust your influence on our kids,” he said. Perfunctory visits wiped away all traces of the once-close relationship.

Emma’s Story

Dorothy and Joe, both 70, took great pride in their daughters’ close relationship, routinely describing the three sisters as best friends. Emma’s sudden announcement that she had fallen in love and was leaving her husband came as a shock.

Instead of receiving unwavering support, the news blindsided the family. How could she do this to her children? Emma, in turn, felt betrayed. Why were they so worried about her husband? The family teetered on the brink of cutoff as a rift — accompanied by old grievances and past hurts — rose to the surface.

Healing a Family Rift

I met both families when they were struggling. In Scott’s family, the “now or never” moment presented an avenue to break the ice and reconnect. In Emma’s, the crisis triggered by her leaving her husband had everyone worried about irreparable damage to the family relationship.

The decision to heal a family rift is multifaceted: There is a surplus of fear and uncertainty when grappling with the emotions and practicalities of finding new ground.

The immediate need of the here-and-now offers relief from the circular conversations and allows an openness to softening.

This turned out to be the case with Scott’s family. The crisis provided an opportunity to begin a slow, intentional process of reconnecting. Emma’s family wasn’t able to mend right away; they needed time to process the differences and eventually accept the new normal.

Some wounds must be addressed in order for a relationship to move forward while others will never be resolved, and the only option is to agree to disagree. Without new tools for safe communication and the possibility of acceptance, a continuation of the cutoff is almost predictable.

A skilled family therapist can help everyone consider options for redesigning the relationships.

The Impact of Crisis on a Cutoff

When you have been deeply hurt or betrayed, cutting off the source of the hurt may feel like an act of empowerment. The break offers needed relief from acute pain while sending a message and establishing firm boundaries.

But over time, the absence of contact and the loss of family get-togethers highlights the collateral damage.

Any type of crisis may spark a desire to restore contact. Crisis itself tends to soften intractable feelings around the split. Even small shifts in one person’s approach can kindle the healing process.

Reaching out is scary. It’s normal to be nervous. Check in with yourself at every step; this requires vulnerability with the risk of opening old wounds without finding a new way forward.

When reaching out to an estranged family member, consider whether you want to do it alone or with professional support. If the estranged person expresses openness, say thank you and indicate why you are initiating contact.

5 Ideas for When You Are Ready to Try to Connect Again

  1. If there is a current crisis that is time-sensitive, put it out there: “I want you to know how much I appreciate your willingness to be in touch. Mom is not doing well, and I wanted to include you in what’s happening.”
  2. Affirm that you are not there to re-litigate the past: “I just want to say upfront that my goal in this conversation is not to go over what has already happened. Dealing with the crisis has made me re-evaluate, and my hope is that we can find a new way to move forward.”
  3. Reassure them that you do not assume an ongoing relationship: “I’m doing this without expectations, I want to share what’s going on, and my hope is we can find a way to reconnect, even a little bit.”
  4. Be willing to listen without being reactive: “I appreciate your willingness to have this conversation. I’m committed to listening to where you are coming from. I may not get it right every time, but I am open to what you have to say.”
  5. If it comes from the heart, apologize or take responsibility: “I’m sorry I judged you and didn’t listen to where you were coming from; I’ve had time to think about it and realize how hurtful my reaction must have been.”

If you have regrets and are willing to own your part in the cutoff, let the other person know. Empty apologies have a way of causing more damage to an already delicate situation. Only bring it up if the regret is authentic. And be specific.

If you are successful at initiating contact, realize that crossing into new territory may take numerous interactions over time. Building a lasting relationship is a process. Remember: communication that feels like the whole situation is backsliding may be the bottleneck that opens into a whole new relationship.

Working It Through and What Happens Next

Once a family decides to reconnect over a crisis, there is a honeymoon phase often followed by an intense pull to rehash “what happened” as if fact-checking will settle the issue. People often resist hearing each other’s experience, feeling somehow threatened. The avoidance mechanism is automatic, but it is never successful.

An emotional experience that is not validated does not heal; there must be an openness to reconnect, bond, and express empathy. A crisis requires attention in the present, which may be just enough to allow past wounds to be put to rest and new ways of relating to emerge.

Crises present rare opportunities for family healing, but only if they are navigated with empathy, openness, and an absence of pride.

This blog was first published on Next Avenue.

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How to Keep the Peace this Holiday Season When Politics Comes Up

friends at a big dinner

The holidays are rapidly approaching, and at the same time, the country is still reeling from a highly charged presidential election. As we prepare to gather to celebrate (virtually or in-person), the potential for navigating landmines is high. How should you approach this – by letting go and getting out all your frustrations or being on your best behavior and avoiding the topic? Given the strong passions evoked by politics of late, option two may be more fantasy than reality, making the need for forethought especially important. 

Giving it some thought, preparing in advance, and having a plan, may make it possible to handle political conversations and preserve relationships despite political differences. Remind yourself to separate the person from the point of view just because you disagree; resist the urge to make it a character assessment.  People who love and care for one another can disagree and have opposing political views. With the great chasm between political parties, it’s been tempting to let relationships go when confronted with opposing viewpoints you find disagreeable or even offensive. Keep in mind that it’s usually less of choice with family members about whether or not the person will be in your life. It’s more of a question of how you can talk about it or not talk about it, how you can find other ways to connect, and how you can separate who the person is and how you feel about them from a given political point of view, even one you don’t understand.

If you have the capacity, you may want to take the position of being curious and open to hearing how your family member feels.  It’s compelling to listen to someone without pushing back or refuting their point of view – this can be counter-intuitive because it’s often accompanied by the thought, ‘if I don’t say anything, does that mean? I’m agreeing and condoning their beliefs?’ Often the opposite is true – when you genuinely hear someone out while suspending judgment, they will be more willing to do the same for you and more open to listening to what you have to say.  Ask yourself and even others: Do you have to agree to be close? How much and what types of differences are okay? A relationship can actually be strengthened by respectfully disagreeing.

Decide in advance how much you are willing to engage in political conversation and what you will do when you want to disengage from the topic.  There is often a fine line between stimulating and engaging conversation and feelings of alienation and anger, leading to tension and heated arguing. Is this the way you want to spend the holiday or weekend? Let your family members know in advance where you stand on these discussions, i.e.,  I don’t want to talk politics at all, or I’m willing to discuss it. Still, I will respectfully let you know when I’ve reached my limit and don’t want to continue the conversation.

Remember the goal of the family gathering. The pandemic has made it impossible for families to gather and celebrate milestones and holidays for many months. For many, the upcoming holiday season feels especially important and meaningful.  Keep that front of mind as opposed to getting sidetracked by political differences. Check-in with other family members to see if they want to talk politics or rather skip it.

Here are some technique that can aid in keeping the peace around political discussions:

  • Have a code word. When someone calls it, the conversation has to end when you hear that word from anyone; it’s conversation over. This can create lightness and levity.
  • Preserve the relationship and let everyone know in advance what you are and aren’t willing to discuss and that you will let them know when you’ve reached your limit – as long as you don’t use it to shut someone down from expressing themselves after you have. Setting boundaries is okay and should give relief to all.
  • Be intentional about not letting these situations drain you.  Politics matter a lot, and it can feel especially personal if you or a close friend or family member is directly affected by the political agenda.  It’s fine to point that out and ask for consideration of your point of view but protect yourself from taking on the job of convincing unyielding family members to change their views. 
  • Take a time out, go for a walk, take a bath, or do whatever you can to regroup.
  • Ensure there is built-in time for activities or conversations that don’t involve politics, be it with the larger group, just you and your significant other, or you alone.
  • If it’s a weekend plan, make sure you have time physically away from the group. Togetherness can feel great, but too much can lead to tension and feel draining.

Remember, it’s possible to feel very close to someone even when you disagree. Still, it takes a high level of mutual respect, the ability not to personalize, and a feeling that your point of view is being heard with an attempt at understanding.

Is the Presidential Election Wreaking Havoc On Your Relationships?

woman filling out voting ballot

Over six months into the pandemic, the prolonged strain of living a restricted lifestyle along with greatly reduced in-person contact with the outside world has challenged even the best of relationships. Adapting to the limitations, many of us have made adjustments and settled into a new equilibrium. Enter the final stretch of the presidential election and the current political climate feels more polarizing and emotional than any in recent history. Where politics may have once felt distant and theoretical, the issues in front of us now feel personal and potentially life altering. Formerly passive observers have become passionate activists.

Wherever you land on the political spectrum you are more likely than ever to have strong reactions to the daily news cycle. For many, the outcome of the upcoming election raises anxiety and fear… it feels personal. However, not only is it affecting us as individuals it is also affecting all kinds of relationships: romantic partnerships, close and extended family, and even friendships. Combine the opportunity to reach friends and family through social media and more time at home and we are exposed to views, opinions, requests for involvement, money and even rants from anyone and everyone. There are two major factors posing challenges to these relationships: whether or not your views are aligned, and how those views are expressed.

Let’s start with the first one.

When you find out someone in your life falls on a different part of the political spectrum, you may begin to question the viability of the relationship. If this is how they view the issues, is there room for this person in my life? If it’s a partner or close family member it probably feels like less of a choice and you most likely need to try everything in your power to preserve the relationship. But what if it’s a friendship? How close can you be if you don’t agree about important social and political issues? How strong does a friendship need to be to survive such profound differences?

My answer is – it depends. If this is a friendship you value, one that has been meaningful and fulfilling in your life, I would pause before discarding it. Just because you don’t agree on politics doesn’t mean you don’t share certain values and don’t have anything to offer one another. Unlike romantic partnerships where we rely on one person to meet many of our needs, friendships offer something else – you don’t turn to the same friend for all your friendship needs. There are the friends you confide in, the ones you have fun with, the ones you have history with, the ones you shared a pivotal experience with, etc. Ask yourself where this person fits in your life, what you would miss if you cut off contact, and how much your differences cut to the core of your values. The answers to those questions should tell you whether or not there is room for the friendship despite differences. It could be as simple as agreeing to disagree and not following each other on social media. However, if the person’s views are extremely disturbing and offensive they may cross a line from which there is no turning back. There are some issues that are insurmountable and you will need to give yourself permission to let go of the relationship.

Secondly, how do your friends choose to express their views? Bear in mind that there is a high level of passion which can easily veer into anxiety surrounding the election. We all have our ways of managing anxiety. For some, it involves getting it out and finding support and comfort in shared beliefs. For others there is a strong pull to action; fund raising, marches and rallies, phone banks, and recruiting friends and family to do the same. For others, too much talk triggers anxiety and flooding. And lastly, there may be people in your life who just don’t feel that strongly and aren’t that interested in talking politics. If it’s a close friend who manages anxiety by talking and venting you may want to cut them some slack and listen. But know your limits, when it begins to feel draining and causes resentment you should cut it off and let them know you can only listen to so much.

A universal truth of all relationships is that there will be common bonds and there will be differences. Often it is those differences that make friendships interesting and enriching. And yet, all relationships need good boundaries—that delicate dance of where you are intimate and close and where you are separate. The election is tugging on boundaries in every which way. As with any relationship, sometimes an adjustment is needed. If you are not feeling good about your friend’s calls to action or attempts to engage you, tell them you respect what they feel and what they are doing but you need to handle this last leg of the presidential election your own way. If it’s not an important relationship it may be time to let it go. There are friendships that come into our lives for a reason and a season. Views regarding racism and social justice may rise to the surface in such a way that they become deal breakers. It is deeply disturbing to learn someone you previously connected with is on the other side of a non-negotiable core belief. It may mean the end of the relationship in the case of friends, or drastically reduced contact in the case of family members.

Here are some tips for preserving your relationships or letting them go in the home stretch of the election:

• Separate the person from the opinion…good people can have beliefs you strongly disagree with – there are however exceptions to this when views feel too extreme or offensive.

• Remember – our views are formed by our unique life circumstances; background, experience, influences, and even trauma. Until you walk in another person’s shoes, be careful of how you interpret their beliefs.

• If you value the relationship or if it’s a family member, do what you can to preserve it. It’s easy for relationships to thrive when you are aligned and tempting to cut off or distance when you are not – strong relationships require time and attention and can withstand some tension.

• Set boundaries, if you don’t want to talk politics or you don’t want to discuss the election with a particular person let them know and if need be, un-follow them on social media.

• If you have the band-with, take a different approach – be curious about the other person’s beliefs, ask them questions and really listen to the answers. Nothing strengthens a relationship (be it friend, family, or romantic partner) like feeling listened to, heard and even understood without judgement. If you can do this your bond will be stronger even if your election experience is vastly different.

• In more extreme situations letting go of a relationship may feel like the only option; bear in mind the rules for family and friends are not the same – every effort should be made to avoid a family cut off while in the case of a friendship if you are certain there is no turning back, let the person know.

This blog was first published on Yours, Mine, & Ours.

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Bruce Willis Quarantining with Demi Moore and Adult Daughters: How to Prioritize First and Second Families During Pandemic

Bruce Willis and Demi Moore in quarantine with their families

The tabloids and the public can’t get enough of the photos of Bruce Willis quarantining with Demi Moore and their adult daughters. Clad in matching striped pajamas we see them smiling and having dance parties. What could be better? These images send a strong message. This family has healed from the divorce, so much so that they can spend time together and be a new kind of family. The parents may have new relationships…Bruce Willis even has two young daughters…but he is still an integrated part of his first family, not just father to the kids.  This conjures up fantasies of repair, healing, and an overall positive outcome; it will all be okay.

 But is that actually the case? And what about his current wife and young daughters? How do they feel about his leaving them during the crisis? This pretty picture doesn’t show us the long road that came before, the pain and disappointment that accompanies any break up, the jealousy and confusion that happen when a parent has a new family, and the loyalty binds with which children of divorce and adults with two sets of kids find themselves struggling. The pictures don’t show us Bruce Willis’ current wife smiling while she is quarantined without the father of her very young daughters because it’s hard to imagine that she feels good about this arrangement. 

These are especially complex times for blended families with no easy answers.

One the one hand, Bruce and Demi seemed to have accomplished what many divorced couples can only dream of – instead of their shared history dissolving into animosity and resentment they appear to be friends, comfortable together, still enjoying a closeness and of course a shared love of their children. However, what message is this sending to Bruce’s current wife and young daughters and what does it say about dual loyalty and priorities? Who is the priority and who gets to weigh in on the decisions?

In my own practice, one couple who have an infant and toddler as well as a 7-year-old from the father’s first marriage, spoke to me about how the pandemic has made the prior parenting arrangement untenable. The 7-year-old is normally with them fifty percent of the time, an arrangement that overall, has worked well for all.  This couple decided to temporarily relocate for safety reasons and the 7- year-old can no longer go back and forth the way he always has. There are now long drives for drop offs and pick-ups, extended separations from one parent or the other, and a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19. Returning to school in the fall is uncertain, causing all of the adults to consider relocating indefinitely until life returns to normal. Juggling the needs of the 7-year-old and this man’s ex-wife (who they report does not consider their needs), and his present wife and their two young children has over the years been tricky and complex but now feels almost insurmountable. Whichever way he turns this father feels he is sacrificing someone’s best interest and neglecting someone’s needs. His own preferences have become so muddled he is sinking into a depression.

The need to socially isolate has rendered thoughtfully structured parenting arrangements no longer viable. Many people have relocated indefinitely, leaving some children behind or shuttling them back and forth for extended periods. Couples are feeling the strain and the divorced partner is second guessing right and wrong, wanting to meet everyone’s needs when it just isn’t possible. For this father some difficult compromises will have to be made.  He may have to rock the boat and be more assertive with his ex-wife in order to meet the needs of his wife and other children. There is a saving grace, his strong bond with his 7-year-old and that child’s strong connection to his blended family. Those relationships can’t be created overnight but will sustain them through this crisis even if they don’t have as much time together.

 Communication is always critical for blended families.  Add a global pandemic and it takes on new meaning. In order to navigate the demands of two sets of kids, masterful levels of cooperation and communication are needed. If ever there was a time to put aside the pettiness, competition, and score keeping, it is now.

Of-course it’s impossible to know what the real story is with Bruce and Demi but from the outside it does appear that Bruce Willis is prioritizing his first family, especially given the age difference between his two sets of kids. It’s hard to imagine a justification for Bruce Willis spending time with Demi Moore and their adult children instead of his wife and toddlers. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

If you are facing difficult choices concerning the issues of blended families during the pandemic, you might consider the following:

  • Some choices are made out of fear of alienating an ex-spouse who has power to interfere with parenting time and bad mouth the ex to the children, however it’s not advisable to make decisions this way especially if one set of kids are already adults. 
  • Consider your relationship with all of your kids — how strong and consistent it has been until this point.  Also consider their ages, developmental stages, and any special circumstances and challenges in their lives – one size does not fit all when it comes to parenting. If your kids know you are really paying attention to who they are and are taking that into consideration when making choices, they are less likely to view things from a lens of favoritism or feel neglected.  
  • The critical factor in any of these situations is the ongoing, established parent-child relationship. Parents who have been consistent and reliable about spending time with their kids, who haven’t put them in the middle of adult conflicts, who have not made them responsible for their happiness or asked them to put their own needs aside to accommodate their complicated adult life, are in a much better position to make scheduling adjustments without doing emotional damage to their kids. 
  • Parents who have been physically and emotionally present despite having a second family stand on much firmer ground.

 We don’t really know why Bruce is quarantining with Demi but this news does highlight issues and dilemmas being faced by many families. Having two sets of kids is never simple. At times the needs of the parents and those of the kids may be in direct conflict. Perhaps Bruce feels like this is a rare opportunity to spend concentrated time with his older daughters, perhaps it’s just more fun being with the grown-up kids than being stuck at home with toddlers. That said, the needs of the kids should outweigh the needs of the parents. Developmentally speaking, younger children need their parents’ physical presence on a more consistent basis than teens or 20 somethings.

In order for children from blended families to have self-esteem and be emotionally secure, they need to have strong parent/child relationships regardless of whether or not there are half- siblings or step-parents. Parents have to put their own preferences aside. This is often challenging and complicated and that is especially true now. Choices made during the pandemic have the potential to influence relationships for years to come and should be considered carefully.

This blog was first published on Divorceify.

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Maternity Leave During The Pandemic: Nightmare Or Blessing?

photo of a baby's feet surrounded by a blanket

Over a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, sheltering in place has resulted in some universal strains, but there are others that are unique to each individual circumstance.   Perhaps one of the most challenging is finding yourself at home on maternity leave, just the two of you and your newborn. After months of anticipating the transition to parenthood and trying to plan for it to be as smooth as possible, it’s just you and your spouse, new parents at home with your infant. 

Vanishing in the wake of the crisis are the family members who were excited to offer their time helping out with the baby, the doula and the baby nurse you carefully screened and hired, and the new moms’ support group.  The ability to spend time with other new moms, the meals your mother in law promised to cook and deliver so that you wouldn’t have to worry about food, the night nurse who would make it possible to actually get some sleep, and your plans to use your support system to make time to get back in shape, are all gone. Furthermore, your spouse may be working full time from home, and not only do they have little or no time to devote to baby care, there’s the additional pressure of maintaining a productive work environment. And you have been advised not to leave your home unless it’s absolutely necessary. All of a sudden, being a new mom has gone from an incredibly stressful life transition to feeling almost unbearable.

It’s hard to know the difference between how hard new parenthood would be anyway and how things are compounded by the circumstances. Part of what makes having a newborn so intense is being on-call 24/7…never knowing when you will have a moment to yourself. The exhaustion can be overwhelming. Taking a shower is a challenge and finding time to have a conversation with a friend is often out of reach. All of this is to be expected, but under normal circumstances you can organize an escape for a little while, or just have a change of scenery to break it up. But now you may feel trapped in endless days with no respite.

I have heard from couples that the intensity of new parenthood, combined with the restrictions of being home without a support system, is putting a strain on their marriages and causing personal self-doubt. They are grieving the loss of how they envisioned maternity leave and are trying to cope with the reality. The fact that their parents, siblings, and close friends can’t meet their baby and share in the moment feels like a painful loss. 

But new parents should not despair.  There are some significant advantages and opportunities for both the parents and the child if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Research shows that time spent with a baby is what produces confidence and connection.  The feeling that you know what you’re doing and can take care of and soothe your child creates a bond. Usually the mom bonds with the baby early on and the father takes more time to establish that connection.  Sheltering in place is creating that experience for both new moms and new dads simultaneously.  
  • Couples who only have each other to rely on in the day to day reality of parenting a newborn are forced to bond and work together. Even a parent who is working from home will be forced to take some of the burden from the other parent if there are no other options. The resentments that often occur in the first months of a baby’s life because of role inequality are much less prevalent.  
  • Without the distractions of the outside world including grandparents, friends and family visits, and with no feeling that you are missing out on social activities (because they simply don’t exist at the moment), new moms and dads are forced to work together to learn how to parent, and turn towards each other for their emotional needs. I’m anticipating that if managed correctly there will be a ripple effect that leads to better co-parenting and stronger marital relationships as the baby grows and develops.

While it’s a universal truth that being new parents requires relinquishing pre-baby life and leaning in to a new reality, it’s especially true now. There is no escaping the loss of freedom and spontaneity while being restricted to your home with your partner and your baby. The best way to cope is to rely on each other, be present for each other, and tap into your own internal resources. Accept that it’s a temporary situation that comes with a gift, an opportunity to bond with one another and your new family member. 

This blog was first published on Yours, Mine & Ours.

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How Social Distancing Can Make or Break A Marriage

glass globe in water

Now that we are a month into the coronavirus crisis, many couples have spent more time together than they have for years. The daily relationship distractions are dwindling, you are forced to look at each other, interact, and co-exist every day.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about this being an opportunity to strengthen your bond, to use the time to reconnect and reignite your connection. For some it’s a chance for renewal.  When you are finally able to pay attention to your relationship, you may be surprised at how much more you have to give and how much you get from your partner in return. Sheltering at home could be an opportunity to feel happier as a couple than you’ve been for a long time.

However, for many couples this time at home together will produce a different outcome. This much togetherness may make it clear that the marriage is beyond repair.  While many people know the truth about their marriage, they push it away. Our normal life is busy and filled with distractions so it’s easy to avoid what you know in your heart.  This can go on for years allowing many couples to linger in unhappy marriages until they reach a breaking point. For better or worse, social isolation has become that point for countless couples. 

The realization that the will to work on this marriage isn’t there is staring many people right in the face. It may be accompanied by sadness, anger, even shame but the quarantine has broken through denial and avoidance. As a couples’ therapist, I often hear that the difficulties bringing couples to my office have been going on for years but they have avoided dealing with them.  The question I always ask is, if you’ve been ignoring or minimizing this for years, why have you decided to deal with it now?

For many couples the pandemic and all that comes with it will be the “why now.”

The reality is, they have turned away from the marriage to such an extent that there’s no turning back.  The time at home has made them admit to themselves and perhaps to each other that they are heading for a split. 

Prolonged social isolation, the lack of distractions and ways to keep busy outside of the home, and a general opportunity to go inward and take stock, is revealing the truth about many relationships that may have been just out of reach before the covid-19 crisis. If you are experiencing the following realizations while socially isolating with your spouse, you may be reaching clarity that divorce could be in your post pandemic future:

  1. Being with your spouse is not soothing or comforting. For many couples, having each other is a refuge, a way to alleviate loneliness, a source of strength, but  if you find yourself feeling you’d rather be alone, that your spouse brings about more anger, annoyance and sadness than any connection or comfort, you may be beyond the point of being able to work on your marriage.
  2. You realize you share little in common, don’t make each other laugh, and don’t have much to talk about.  All this time together has made it hard to deny the sad truth of the state of your connection.  There isn’t much common ground, you’ve grown in different directions and have lost interest in each other.
  3. Lack of motivation.  You’ve thought about using this time to work on your marriage and reconnect but you simply can’t do it.  The desire to reconnect is just not there– perhaps you have even tried and ran out of gas before you got anywhere.
  4. There is no sexual connection or chemistry and you can’t deny it any longer.   Being home together has forced you to admit this to yourself and to acknowledge that you’re not willing to forgo sex and intimacy for the rest of your life.   There may have been a time when you thought if you just made the effort you could reignite your sex life but all the time in close quarters has made that feel impossible.  Perhaps you never had a great sexual connection and the quarantine has made the lack more pronounced.
  5. Deal breakers.  These are the things about another person you just can’t live with.  Maybe they were there from the start and you thought they would change, or maybe they are something that have developed over the time you’ve been together, something you didn’t sign up for. In either case, being home together has made it hard to deny that deal breakers exist.

We are all vulnerable and things can change quickly. This crisis has made that abundantly clear. Instead of feeling like a cliché, the idea that we need to make the most of each day because we don’t know what lies ahead now resonates and feels real. This new reality has made it hard to ignore the state of your marriage, but while you may have known that for a long time, there hasn’t been any urgency to act. The current crisis may be just the thing that moves the dial from uncertainty to readiness to move forward. While it may not be feasible to take much concrete action while socially isolating with your spouse, the time can be used to gather information, find resources, and have conversations with professionals who can help you navigate the process, and develop a plan.

This blog was first published on Divorceify.

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How Couples Can Survive These Trying Times and Even Benefit

couple on couch kids running

We are all in this together… life as we know it has come to a halt. This means a complete shift in the amount of time spent at home, in the same space with your partner. Because of the incredibly wide spread impact of this virus we are all being affected in many ways; financial, emotional, professional, separation from friends and family, loss of hobbies and stress relievers like working-out.

This new reality has already put a strain on many relationships, while others are wondering how it will unfold and what their relationship will look like after weeks and possibly months at home together. Spending all your time working in the same space as you eat, exercise, and have your leisure time is a challenge for even the strongest relationships. Ordinary activities now pose a risk and couples have to weigh each situation often with different perspectives.  One wants to heed all the warnings and restrict activities as completely as possible, while the other is maintaining it’s not that bad and trying to proceed with as much “normal life” as possible.

As restrictions have grown day by day, I’ve been doing my sessions remotely instead of in my office. I’ve seen into people’s homes and heard about the challenges of being in a small space together all day every day. The home is now an office, gym, dining room, date night locale, entertainment space, you name it.  The first thing that stands out is that each individual has his/her own reaction to the impact of the pandemic and how we are best to respond.  Typically, one person is more fearful and cautious and the other is downplaying the risks.   It’s the classic minimizer, maximizer syndrome.

While it’s always important to honor and understand each other’s differences, this is a time it’s really critical to do so.  Hear each other and try to understand where your partner is coming from – we are all getting new information daily, even hourly, and we process and integrate that information at different rates. A minimizer may be much slower to translate the news into behavior in their own life, while a maximizer may over anticipate and make changes immediately.

Instead of arguing, use this opportunity to let each other know you are listening and understanding where the other is coming from even if you disagree. There may not be a compromise, the more severe interpretation may prevail but if you hear what your partner is saying you will build emotional currency and connection.

The new reality of Covid-19 is a major challenge to relationships but it’s also an opportunity.  It’s a time to strengthen your connection, explore the benefits of an intense amount of couple time, and lean in to your relationship.

What are the potential benefits?

First, there is gratitude — the realization that you have each other, are not alone and are in this together. Human beings are not wired to go it alone so having someone is a reason to be thankful.

Couples can use this as an opportunity to re-connect and remind themselves why they chose each other. I often hear from couples that they just don’t have enough time together. Now you do and how you use this time to nurture your relationship is a real and perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity.

Following are some tips on how couples can flourish rather than fail during these trying circumstances:

  • Honor each other’s differences, if you are having different reactions to this crisis do not pass judgment or be impatient with one another, pause and try to hear & understand what your partner is feeling.
  • Preserve as much structure as you can in your day.   Designate some time for each other and during that time disengage from all distractions.
  •  Have a creative date night – go back to basics, make a meal together, play a game, do a creative project just for fun.
  • Pay attention to each other’s needs and desires for intimacy and affection-it’s more important now than ever.
  • Allow each other time to vent or complain – but not indefinitely, there’s a fine line between getting it out and relieving stress and getting stuck in the negative which will raise anxiety.
  • Remember how much you enjoyed spending time together at the beginning of your relationship and wherever possible try to recreate some of those activities, it may be tough at home but be creative.
  • Give each other personal space even if you live in a small apartment, honor the need to not interact at times and be in your own world.
  • Disengage from work when the work day is over, living at work is not good for any relationship.
  • Work out together, and try workouts that are outside your normal routine.
  • Allow yourselves to be creative or corny – do the things you never have time for.

Redesigning Relationships

mature couple looking at psychiatrist in office

A couple recently came to their first session of the New Year and proudly declared that they didn’t have any fights in 2019. This was quite a victory. They had initially started couples therapy because of extremely damaging and volatile arguments. When I asked what they thought they were doing differently, they quickly answered that they no longer felt the need to be “right.” Once that need was taken out of the equation they had many more options for resolving differences.

This shift of perspective makes a tremendous difference in a couples’ interaction. In my work, the focus is on helping couples redesign their relationship, not redesign each other. It’s hard to resist pointing out what your partner is doing wrong rather than focusing on how you personally may be contributing to the problems. But if you join together to change the dynamic not each other, new possibilities become available.

Once a couple decides to come to therapy, they have already begun to redesign their relationship. Wanting to make the relationship better and taking concrete action is the first step. Together, we move through four phases of a relationship reboot.

Phase 1—Peeling back the layers

First, we peel back the layers and look at the patterns that repeat. How do you approach differences and how do you ask for what you need? Where do these habits come from: poor communication, past trauma, a repetition of something familiar from your family of origin?

Phase 2—Taking a look at interactions that only lead couples down a rabbit hole.

We look at the triggers and we try to understand what is going on beneath the surface. What are you really asking of each other and what makes it so hard to let each other know what that is? Are you making each other a priority, listening, and considering your impact on one another? These can be hard questions to answer but also open the door to new ways of relating.

Phase 3—Providing tools for successful communication and healing from these negative interactions.

If we could all just treat our significant others as if they were the most cherished important people in our lives and take their needs into consideration with every move we make, then relationships would operate at a different frequency. If we could prioritize expressing our love over being right, there would be so much less conflict. But alas, that’s not how human beings interact the vast majority of the time. And yet…if you can learn to do this some of the time, you can actually redesign your relationship. New habits can be created that will yield different results. A big part of achieving a relationship redesign is trying out and incorporating new ways of relating; listening differently, being curious about each other, ensuring you have enough positive interactions, to name a few.

Phase 4—New ways of relating to each other

The last phase occurs when new behaviors, understanding, and habits have created a shift in how you relate to each other and how you experience your relationship. Here are some of the ways couples describe what it’s like after they have redesigned their relationship –

  • We have learned to honor our differences.
  • We can be vulnerable with each other without it being used as a weapon.
  • We understand that an emotion that is felt in the moment is not a referendum on the whole relationship.
  • We can disagree without denigrating one another.
  • We don’t have to counter or correct every misstatement made by our partner.
  • We don’t need to fight in order to get each other’s attentionwe can actually ask for what we need whether it’s more time, more affection, or better listening.

What you can do to begin redesigning your relationship:

  • Practice active listeningwhen you really listen and the other person feels heard, negative patterns are interrupted.
  • Be genuinely curious about what your partner has to say or what they are feeling without assuming you knowgiving them space to express themselves will create a new dynamic.
  • Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements.
  • Avoid “Always” and “Never” statements.
  • Don’t try to solve each other’s problems, just listen and try to empathize.
  • Care about how you interact as opposed to the outcome.
  • Prioritize your relationship in your busy life; make sure you find time to connect, emotionally, physically, and just relaxing or having fun together.

Many couples resist the idea of redesigning their relationships out of fear that it will be an insurmountable amount of work. The reality is, small shifts and changes can go a very long way in creating positive momentum and emotional currency. And it’s contagious, once you begin new ways of relating your partner will do the same, the positive cycle gets energy and feeds on itself!

Are you interested in taking action to redesign your relationship? Contact Tracy Ross today to request an appointment.

Surviving Home For The Holidays: Tips for Avoiding Conflict While Visiting Family During the Holiday Season

happy family at christmas

It’s a classic — the flurry of calls to my office in January from couples who feel their relationship is really strained – or even on the brink. The trigger? The visit home for the holidays – it led to a major blow out fight that felt all too familiar. If they can’t celebrate the holidays together with their families are they really meant to be together? Isn’t this a sign?

Not necessarily!  Going back to your childhood home is often a set up for conflict, distance, and strain in your adult relationship. Old ways of relating and managing conflict reemerge. Historical family dynamics are re-enacted without warning. A bit of anticipation and thoughtful planning can go a long way in preventing damage to your adult relationship.

The Holiday Challenges Faced by Two Couples

Sarah and Kate are the classic example.  Both of their families live in other states and when holiday time rolls around the pressure is on, especially for Kate who is an only child. She is everything to her parents, they look forward to her visits all year. And when she is home their attention is all-consuming. They want as much of her as they can get and don’t particularly relish sharing this precious time with her partner.

For Sarah it’s a different issue.  Until recently her parents weren’t embracing of her same sex relationship.  The last time she took Kate home for Christmas the reception was ice-y and strained. All of this adds up to a holiday season with the families that is ripe with potential for stress and conflict.  Both Kate and Sarah put so much energy into managing their own feelings about going home they lose sight of each other.

For Kevin and Jenna, traveling across the country with their young toddler and infant to spend Christmas with Kevin’s family pretty much guarantees tension, turmoil, and a nasty fight. Kevin and his mother (who has been a widow for many years) have a close, yet volatile relationship. His mother relies on her adult children for emotional and practical support. Kevin’s mom doesn’t hold back on expressing emotions. What this means, according to Jenna, is that every time they visit, Kevin and his mom have a screaming argument that includes threats, insults and curses. They don’t resolve anything, they just cool off and move on.

Jenna comes from a different kind of family. Her parents are happily married and were extraordinary care-takers and nurturers to their children. They never relied on their kids for emotional stability.

For Jenna, bearing witness to these arguments is traumatic. Now that they have children she finds the thought of this dynamic even more unbearable. She would prefer to spend Christmas elsewhere. Both Jenna and Kevin agree that they want their children to have a relationship with their grandmother. However, they acknowledge the even greater need to set firm boundaries so that their children will be spared this volatility and tension. They want Christmas to be magical and filled with positive memories. Even though they are on the same page about this, they are unsure and even disagree as to how to accomplish it.  This tension has been the cause of Jenna and Kevin’s worst arguments. Recovery from the visits and the subsequent fall-out is painful and slow, and the damage is lasting.  Needless to say, the thought of the holidays fills them with dread.

What these couples have in common is a feeling of despair as the holiday season approaches. The description sounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Just anticipating the holidays brings back memories of past visits that didn’t go well. They start to re-live past events, together with the stress, anger, and hurt that occurred. Some couples replay the fights, the mere mention of what didn’t go well last time recreates the same tension and before they know it they are having the same argument.

What to do? 

Planning, Preparing and Communicating Can Help You to Get Through the Holiday Visit with Your Relationship Intact.


  • Don’t leave the time open ended and spontaneous.
  • Plan your days, including time together away from the family, things you want to do with your children, and time for your parents to spend with their grandchildren.
  • If possible do not stay with your parents and definitely don’t sleep in your childhood room.


  • Go over the agenda and identify what triggers the fights so that you can prevent the triggers from taking you down a familiar rabbit hole.
  • Commit to time together and periodic check ins, these can be 5 minutes but should be done at least twice a day
  • Keep in mind the type of holiday traditions you are creating for your children, and be intentional – don’t leave it to chance.
  • Spend some time identifying traditions from your past you want your children to have and also those you would like to change. Even if you grew up with the narrative, “there is always a family fight at holiday time,” it doesn’t have to be that way for your children.


  • Let each other know if there is something about visiting your families that you just can’t do or prefer not to participate in, and be open and flexible about this.
  • Ask your partner for support where you need it.
  • Make sure you hold your partner in mind during the visit.
  • Set limits and manage expectations with your family.
  • Communicate directly to all involved as much as possible.
  • All families have their idiosyncrasies and unwritten rules which must be taken into consideration. Within that, establishing adult boundaries and letting your family know your relationship and your children are your priority will send a strong message.

For Sarah and Kate there was this sinking feeling that they were lost to each other during family visits – they felt completely disconnected by the end of their stay

The solution was to plan ‘check ins’ so they could re-connect and re-group

A walk, a hug, even five minutes a day to just take a break, close the door, look at each other and ask “how are you doing?” made a huge difference.

They planned their time with the family so it wasn’t open ended – and included a few times to escape. They talked in advance about specifically what was hardest for them during these visits, they identified the triggers and then were able to ask for what they needed from each other.  They let each other know “I’m still your person and I’m here with you,” which created a completely different tone.

For Kevin and Jenna it was a bit more complicated. They had to do the planning, preparing, and communicating, but Kevin also had to accept that for the sake of Jenna and his children, the fighting with his mom had to stop. Even though it was his “normal” he had to find a way to disengage. Ultimately, they ended up staying elsewhere when home for the holidays and explaining it to his mom in the most loving yet firm way possible.

Families and holidays are often less-than-perfect, but you can make the most of your holiday times together.  By planning ahead, prioritizing each other and your children and making a concrete plan to do so – going home for the holidays can be a different experience for all.

Would couples therapy help improve your relationship when you’re home for the holidays? Contact Tracy Ross today to request an appointment.

When Happy Couples are Very Unhappy 10% of the Time

discernment counseling

I often hear from couples that they are reluctant to begin couples therapy because really, their relationship is good or even great 90% of the time. It’s just that other 10% – are they being greedy by focusing on that?

Shouldn’t they be able to fix it themselves?

As we get deeper into the conversation it becomes clear that the 10% can be extremely distressing. They become volatile, distant, stop talking, are hurt and frustrated and don’t understand how they got there. The trigger seems so silly it’s embarrassing.

The anchor in any good relationship is connection. This can be spending time together or simply a check in, letting each other know you’re there with each other emotionally. When this doesn’t happen small resentments build and a simple misunderstanding can trigger an all out war.

Sex and intimacy is a primary way couples stay connected. Each may have somewhat different sexual needs or they are out of sync sexually and distance creeps in, this can be subtle and happen without either person realizing it, or it can be extremely obvious. In many cases both partners avoid talking about it, resentment and confusion builds.

Another volatility trigger is “the in-laws”. At times the needs of your parents and the needs of your partner may be in conflict. The pull to satisfy both often results in your partner feeling neglected, not a priority, or misunderstood.

It all comes back to connection, the anchor of every relationship. What that connection looks like varies from couple to couple and for each person in the couple. One may require more alone time and the other may need more together time. This has to be communicated so it doesn’t turn into a trigger.

These are some of the ways couples end up in the volatility cycle going down a rabbit hole of arguing that only leads to more hurt and distance.

Identifying these triggers can help prevent fights or repair and reconnect after some volatility has already occurred.

As your relationship partner, I help create a safe space for these conversations so that you can identify triggers and communicate in a way that brings more understanding and closeness.