How to Listen Better.

Why is it so hard to listen sometimes?

Has your partner ever looked at you and said, "All I want you to do is listen!" Did it seem to you like you were listening just fine, but they still weren't buying that you got it? We tend to think that listening should be a simple task, but it's undoubtedly the most common mistake that distressed couples make when communicating.

Listening is actually quite a complex thing we're asking our brains to do at any point, much less when we're in distress. Did you know, for example, that when your spouse asks you to listen to them, that you're actually multitasking? Even when you're not doing that thing we all do - listen to react instead of listening to understand - you still have to manage whatever emotion you're feeling while you attend to what your partner is saying.

In other words, if you feel emotionally triggered by what your partner is saying, it's very easy to slip out of the task of listening and into the task of reacting to your current emotional state: anger, jealousy, hurt or frustration.

It's easy to feel emotions like this when our partners tell us something we don't want to hear. When couples therapy works well, it helps couples manage whatever is going on inside them while they listen to their partners. If, for example, your partner has something difficult to tell you, like something they don't like about you or something they don't like about what you're doing, it's hard to remain attentive to them.

Instead, we want to fight back.

We want to defend ourselves. We want to listen to the flaws in their logic so we can pick it apart. And we do this feeling totally justified because what our partners say to us hurts.

But listening to your partner while they have something difficult to say, something that emotionally triggers you, is what listening is all about. It's real human interaction. Hard work. If it were easy, it'd be called Snapchat.

So I created this guide to help you understand what's actually happening when you're trying to listen to your partner, why it's difficult and what to do about it. Instead of beating yourself up when you don't hit the mark (or your partner for that matter), discover how to learn from the areas where you fall short and grow from there.

Listening is hard work. We don't give the difficulty of it enough respect. Click on the image above to download a free PDF that you can keep for yourself to remind you how to overcome common listening challenges.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How to Let Go When You Don't Want To.

Image by Josh James on Flickr

Image by Josh James on Flickr

Heartbreak sucks.

In my most challenging moments of losing something or someone I care about, I've felt torn between the knowledge that I must let go and my total unwillingness to actually do it, even though holding on costs me great pain. If you're reading this post, maybe you're in a hell you couldn't have prepared for. So let me begin by putting a spin on something all your friends have told you - something that you know is true but don't want to hear.

You're not GOING to get through it. You're GETTING through it.

This pain you feel, this aching, soul-deep brokenness that is your daily existence is the price of losing what you've given, and there's no avoiding it. You may wonder how you'll survive it. You may think that another moment in heartache so deep you feel it in your body is permanent, but it isn't. At least not in the way it is now, defining every breath you take.

It'll be with you for a time. How long? Who knows. That depends, at least in part, on what you do moving forward. We make choices that prolong our pain or that bring meaning to it, and eventually, gentle it. But no matter what, this is the price of getting through.

Depending on whom you're letting go of, you may never feel completely free, but you will practice letting go for the rest of your life, and there's even freedom in this. The letting go will get a little easier each day. So buckle in and prepare for a lot of deep breathing and a few tough nights. I wish there was a fast track, but I've yet to find one.

I don't want to let go.

I know what that feels like. I know that despite the crushing pain, you may not want to let go because the pain is attachment. At least there's still something there connecting you to her. Or him to you.

So if you're not quite there yet, think of these steps as self care. Don't try to push yourself into letting go of more than you can right now. It's a slow process. You'll be ready when you're ready. It's a practice. A little each day.

One of the things that helped me and has helped my clients is to think of letting go as becomign more of yourself. Start by gently easing into becoming your own person again with these steps.

1. Let go of reaching out.

I know, I know. Easier said than done. But hear me out. When I'm helping clients let go of a relationship that's ended, I encourage them let go of little pieces of contact at a time. First it starts with an agreement to no longer call. It takes some time to feel comfortable with that. Next, we move toward letting go of texting. After that, it's social media.

The digital landscape has changed the way we break up. It's much harder to do it now because you can see your former partner, all their new friends or adventures, and feel like shit in the process. Regardless, you can't stop yourself from looking. Like a train crash where you're on the tracks.

So let go of a little at a time. Start with direct contact, then move into phone conversations, text, and then social media as you feel stronger and stronger. Don't expect to do it all at once. And be careful about your inner caretaker. A lot of "reaching out" behaviors are just disguises and excuses to make contact with your former partner. One of the hardest thing about letting go is that sometimes you have to let go of friendship too, to preserve your own well-being and sanity.

2. Let go of the fear that it didn't mean anything.

If you've ever been worried that by not reaching out to your former partner, they'd think you don't care for them anymore, remind yourself that a lack of contact with that person does not mean they mean less to you. It also doesn't mean that it wasn't real. It was real.

It's just that it was also temporary.

Relationships end for many reasons. Sometimes they end when you don't want them to. Sometimes it's you doing the ending. And then sometimes it seems the world conspires against you and won't let you have the person you want despite that you share mutual affection and love.

Any one of these endings deserves to be as meaningful as possible. Remind yourself of what your former partner means to you. I know this seems counter-intuitive, to be thinking well of your former partner when you're in misery, but you're going to think of them regardless. Doing so positively promotes letting go by allowing you to be gracious and meaningful in pain.

3. Let go and get out(side).

Oh, no worries. Just the one thing you don't want to do. Don't want to go out to your old haunts. See your mutual friends. See all the happy couples who apparently didn't exist just a little while ago, but are everywhere now.

But you need to do it, regardless.

Find good friends who can stomach you being miserable for a while and still love you. Be in public with people you trust who will hold you, make you laugh, get angry with you or cry with you. Few of us can handle heartache on our own. We need others.

You'll feel like that little egg from the Zoloft commercial, but remember, this is you getting through it.

4. Let go of the old. Create something new.

One of the best ways you can let go is by creating some new energy in your life. One of the things about being in an intimate relationship is that you share most areas of your life with this person. They become entangled in all your rituals.

They know all the things.

So regardless of whether you feel angry or just sad about them, you need to create something new in your life that's only yours. New health habits. New hobbies. New rituals. New experiences.

The purpose of newness in your life is to differentiate yourself. You're creating something novel, which makes you feel discoverable again. After a hard ending, it feels like everything you have belongs to your former partner. It's not true. But it feels that way. So it can be useful to jar yourself out of that belief by doing something brand new for yourself.

5. Letting go is a practice.

There are some people in our lives who will be with us forever. Others are more easily let go, but sometimes, we encounter a person we'll carry around with us for the rest of our lives, like a song we'll never forget. And with time, there's something beautiful about that. There's space to appreciate the laughs you shared and the future you dreamed of.

But it takes work to get there. It's a practice. It's not an endpoint. And that's the secret. No one lets go.

We're always letting go.

So be gentle with yourself if it doesn't go as quickly as you think it should. You'll get better, stronger, more resilient. Return your heart to the present moment when it drifts too far for your own comfort. Remember where you are and with whom. Shed your tears and keep breathing. Keep moving.

You're getting through it.

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Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How To Stop An Argument that's Going Nowhere.

conflict-marriage-austin

Almost every couples therapist will tell you that at some point, escalated conflict is pointless.

There's nothing useful that comes from screaming at each other while forgetting what you were fighting about to begin with. We all know this. You don't need specialized training to understand that conflict can get out of control. All you need is a few years of a marriage to tell you that. Despite that knowledge, it's still harder than it should be to push the eject button on conflict before it gets nasty.

There's a good reason for this.

We all tend to work one way or another. Either we're wired to shut down or escalate when conflict gets rough. Some of us could argue forever. Some of us, though, have a very low tolerance for conflict.

You've heard of the phrase "conflict-avoidant," I'm sure. But did you know that "conflict-avoidant" has an evil twin brother named "conflict-dominant"? We don't talk too much about this twin, but he's important. Usually, these two come in pairs in distressed relationships. I don't know why, but most of the time, a conflict-dominant person will find a conflict-avoidant one. This pairing actually works quite well most of the time. The two usually hold each other accountable for getting through difficult conversations, but not at the risk of good communication.

When couple conflict goes too far.

But when things aren't working, a conflict-dominant person always feels like her partner is abandoning her. And a conflict-avoidant person will feel like his partner can't let anything go and will fight at any cost.

The reality is that this is just two different ways of managing conflict that works together to create a destructive cycle. The more a conflict-dominant person pushes, the more the avoidant partner will shut down. The more that person shuts down, the more the dominant partner pursues because she's more scared that he'll bail on her or that he won't ever be willing to have the conversation.

So this graphic is intended to help both of these people get what they need. On the one hand, a conflict avoidant person needs space when she gets overwhelmed. She just does. There's no changing this. It's her chemistry. However, how she asks for space is what makes the difference. Because when an avoidant person exits an argument roughly, the dominant partner will always interpret this behavior as a lack of caring and interest.

Despite that avoidant partners are usually just trying to manage feeling overwhelmed and anxious, it looks a lot like abandonment to those of us who don't understand why you won't just talk.

I'm not shouting!

Avoidant partners have to do most of the work in the beginning, and this is only because dominant partners usually don't need to stop an argument. But you could make a case that dominant partners have the hardest job, because they just have to live with the fact that avoidant partners get to set their own boundaries.

So avoidant partners start by telling their partners that they need to stop because they're overwhelmed. It's important that avoidant partners do not try and blame the dominant partner, saying this like, "You're out of control." It's also important that avoidant partners don't try to take authority on the couple's process. Don't say things like, "We need to stop because this is going nowhere." Instead, own whatever feeling you're experiencing. If you need help, you're probably feeling overwhelmed. Speak only for yourself. Other strategies will only provoke defensiveness.

Next, the avoidant partner needs to give some kind of an affirmation. Something like, "I care about this issue," or whatever language seems right. This is important because you're reassuring your dominant partner that you're not bailing. You care. You're just overwhelmed and need to stop. Give a reasonable amount of time that you'll come back to pick up the discussion - or ask to sleep on it.

You taking the initiative to bring up the issue before your partner does is crucial. It's what relaxes them and makes it more likely that they'll create a safe environment for you.

Dominant partners, this is where your work begins. You have to let your avoidant partner go. She needs space, and you need to give it. One of the worst things you can do is pursue a partner who has reached her emotional/psychological limit. It feels like torture for them to continue. So let her go and give her an opportunity to come back.

She may surprise you.

I print this out for my clients and keep them at my office. I ask my clients to post them on their refrigerator. Or on their nightstand. I ask them to practice whenever they're not in conflict. It may seem ridiculous, but sleeping alone is worse.

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Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

The Secret to Keeping Desire Alive.

Image by Seattle Parks on Flickr

Image by Seattle Parks on Flickr

Do you remember what it was like to be a kid when playgrounds were still a thing?

Before iPhones and tablets? Remember the simple exhilaration of the monkey bars on your friend's neighborhood playground that you only played on every once in a while? Or better yet, the feeling of seeing a huge slide you'd never ridden?

As children, we relished in these moments of discovery. We didn't censor our excitement or enthusiasm. We felt the drive to explore, to bathe in the excitement of what was new and unknown.

As adults, we haven't lost this interest. It's just, perhaps more...subdued. We don't get excited as much at the simple things in life for fear of social judgment or maybe because we've been through some shit in our lives that has suffocated our enthusiasm.

The one exception is sex.

Sexual desire is the adult's playground.

It's the one place where we still want to enthusiastically explore and be explored. We want to visit unknown places and have unfamiliar experiences. We want to experience ourselves in different ways, to know that we are still a novel experience.

Sexual desire is life energy. It's one of the only naturally occurring human emotions that works to reaffirm the feeling of being alive.

So maybe this is why it sucks so much when it starts to drift away. We will do almost anything to keep it alive. We'll watch adult erotica. We'll pray. We'll go to therapy or talk to our barbers. Anything to come up with solutions to the slow death of a life without desire.

What causes sexual desire?

I remember a number of years ago I was watching Oprah interview Toby Macguire for a film in which he had to lose a bunch of weight. At the time, Oprah was running a special about weight loss and her recent health goals. She asked Toby how he lost the weight for the film and he slyly told her he had discovered the secret of weight loss. Oprah, in her perfect timing and anticipation, looked through Toby with eagerness to learn both for herself and her viewers what this secret was. After a brief pause, Toby exclaimed, "diet and exercise," and the audience let out a predictable groan.

I don't know why I remember this conversation, but I think it has something to do with how critical I am of what seem to me to be snake oil marketing strategies to sell weight loss that all come down to the same thing: we need to move our bodies more and eat only what the earth produces in moderation.

Sexual desire works this way too. Desire is the result of an emotional response to erotic cues. And erotic cues are about as plentiful as the cells that make up the human brain. Eroticism is sexual energy, and it's also sexual meaning making.

What one person finds erotic, another person finds disgusting. And each person's interest is uniquely hers or his, deserving of respect and curiosity. For this reason, the answer to the question, "What causes sexual desire?" is kind of like Toby Macguire's answer to Oprah's question of "what's the secret to losing weight?"

It's unbelievably complex and also the simplest thing.

Sexual desire is caused by a non-judgmental acceptance of erotic interest. It's the motivation to be sexual with one's own self or with others. It's the creative longing that occurs when a person feels turned on by sounds, images, sensations, touches, kisses, breaths, movements or feelings. In the sex therapy field, we've moved away from focusing on sexual function - like arousal (the body's physical response to desire) to focusing on desire itself.

We've done this because we know that desire is the engine of sexual function. 

For so long, we've thought that if a man has a problem with an erection or a woman has a problem with lubrication or orgasm, then this must be the result of a psychological or physical dysfunction. But we know through research and sex therapy that this isn't always the case. In fact, most sex therapy problems are related to desire, not function.

Researchers have different things to say about where desire comes from. Relationship experts like Sue Johnson and John Gottman say that desire is the result of a securely attached relationship where intimacy flourishes. Sexual health experts like Esther Perel say that desire and intimacy are different. Perel actually argues that desire and intimacy can sometimes work against each other. Skeptical about this?

Have you ever shared a bathroom with a lover?

True intimacy is cleaning up after each other and holding each other's heads over the toilets because no one else will. Because of this, intimacy and desire sometimes compete.

Remember that feeling of exploring an unknown playground? It was exciting partly because it was new. Something different. And this is at the heart of Perel's argument. Desire is sustained not by what we know, but by what we don't know. So because of this, she asks the fundamental question at the heart of long-term committed relationships:

How do we desire what we already have?

If you've ever felt your sexual desire for your partner start to fade, you may have asked yourself this question.

Conventional thinking says that the answer is to draw closer. And sometimes that's true. Some people can't turn themselves on until they feel close to their partner. This is a healthy part of being in a committed relationship, but that's not how everyone works. For some people, too much closeness can kill desire. In these cases, desire has to be rekindled by individuality, by otherness.

Remember when your partner was like that unexplored playground? Remember the first time you saw her lead the company-wide meeting and were so impressed by her command of her colleagues? Remember how much you wanted to be able to work a room like she did?

Now, perhaps, you've spent so many years with her you've forgotten just how different she is. Just how other. You've focused so closely on all her faults that you know them just as well as your own neighborhood playground. You've forgotten to explore the hidden areas of her that ring of novelty and excitement.

She's still that woman who can impress you. She's still that person who can captivate a room full of ambitious suits and can inspire creativity and growth.

This is the secret to keeping desire alive.

We don't get bored with our partners. We get bored with ourselves. When we fail to see our partners as people who are capable of constant growth and change, it's probably because we're relying on them too much to create a sense of novelty for us.

When we were kids, we didn't stop playing on the playground because it bored us. We just found new ways to play. We had to. It wasn't the playground that changed; it was us. We imagined ourselves as something different when we slid down the same slide. We put on a capes and costumes and flew across the same bridge that was there before and would remain there, but it was different this time, because we were different.

That's how we sustain desire. Not by accusing our partners of not caring or demanding that they change.

We sustain desire by committing to our own constant growth. I know it's not that simple for everyone, but it's a good starting point for most. Fading desire is usually not only caused by what we think. Sometimes we have our own role to play in why our partners seem unresponsive, cold or boring.

Sexual desire starts with you. Your own self-confidence. Your own interests. In some ways, sexual desire is at its peak when you invite your partner into the world that you've created for yourself and watch their awe. Then you realize the most powerful thing:

You were the playground all along.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Why She Feels Unloved.

Image by Willian Soares on Flickr

Image by Willian Soares on Flickr

As a couples counselor, I've heard a lot of reasons why relationships slowly come apart.

One of the most common problems I see is when a female partner starts to feel unloved. Across all kinds of relationships: gay, straight or queer, women seem to be stuck with doing the majority of the emotional labor when it comes to keeping intimacy strong. Heterosexual men tend to be caught off guard when they hear their partners talk about feeling unloved. Women's feeling of being unloved and neglected doesn't always resonate with their male partners, who may not place as much value on feeling loved as they might on stability, sex or achievement.

Men tend to neglect emotional work out of ignorance because that's how we're raised. We're taught to feel valued by our success, not necessarily our family lives. So it's a struggle for us to put work away and be present in our relationships. 

So this blog is for anyone who may be scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell they're doing wrong when their wives or partners tell them (possibly for the millionth time) that they're feeling unloved.

Keep in mind that I'm speaking in stereotypes right now. I don't usually like to do that, but in this case, it's a common theme. There are plenty of relationships where this concern isn't gendered at all - meaning both women and men alike can be attuned to feeling unloved. So really, if you find this useful, then forge ahead.

1. You're treating your relationship like a ledger.

If you've ever told your partner that you can't know how to please her unless she tells you what she wants, you may be in danger of treating your relationship like a ledger. This happens when we get so caught up in trying to do "enough" to keep ourselves out of the red that we forget that love is not measured by checks and balances.

While it's true that she needs to be clear about what she wants, she doesn't want to be in a relationship where she has to educate you on how to love her.

If you feel confused about how to make her happy, I'll give you a hint that may sound strange.

Stop thinking about what makes her happy.

Let's do a little thought exercise. Think about the earliest parts of your relationship. Do you remember the things you did, without any input from her, that brought her the most joy? If you're musically inclined - did you write her a song? If you're the techie/analytical type, did you create an exhaustive excel file of all the reasons you loved her ranked in order of their significance? Did you buy her gifts just because?

All of these actions have something in common: they happened because it brought you pleasure to do them. They came from you, not from what you thought she wanted. If you're strategic about trying to show love, your partner will always know you're TRYING. If, however, you think about what brings you the most pleasure when you show love, you'll most often hit the mark. If you miss, you'll miss on the side of "it's the thought that counts" and you'll adapt for the future.

The secret is that loving well comes from a deep knowledge of yourself, not your partner.

Do you love to cook? Cook her a meal. Make it elaborate. Put your heart into it. Even if it sucks, she's going to get the picture. Do you love to read, hike, talk politics or go to live music events? Start a lover's book club that's meant only for you two. Find three hiking trails and let her choose - touch her while you walk. Go listen to the live music she likes. Love her from the passionate place within you - stop trying to predict what she wants.

2. You're working too much.

I have my own business. I know what it's like to carry my professional world around with me everywhere I go. Funny though, that doesn't seem to work the other way around. I'm pretty good at not letting home distract me while I'm at work.

Why doesn't it work both ways?

One of the things men have been taught to believe is that our sole value comes from what we produce, conquer, achieve or build. And all of these verbs apply exclusively to our professional lives. We sometimes struggle to feel the same kind of reward that we experience when we achieve something at work.

Don't change this by punishing yourself every time you take a phone call or by fighting about how much time you need to spend working at home. That won't work. The answer is not to devalue work, but to recognize the value in your home life.

Try something.

Plan something amazing and totally unexpected for you and your partner. Make sure it's out of character for you. If you're an introvert and she's an extrovert, plan something social. Plan something you know you'll both enjoy and instead of focusing on her, focus on how you feel. Focus on the joy it brings you to know you made her happy. Focus on how it feels to let work go for a while. You'll feel anxious. Your thoughts will want to pull you back. That's okay. Don't judge; just be mindful. Then, in few days, tell your partner about what you were feeling and have a conversation about what it's like to intentionally put work away.

She'll feel valued because you're sharing. You'll feel productive because you're starting to work through a challenge that you've probably known about for a while.

3. You're not speaking/acting/feeling from the heart.

Oh, get over it. I know you want practical advice that makes rational sense, but sometimes it's a healthy exercise to reflect on something that may sound cheesy or pejorative. If there's one thing I've learned as a couples therapist, it's that I can deal with almost any clinical issue except unwillingness.

I can't teach or coach people to care more. If you're struggling to try and care more - if the only reason you're going to a counselor is because she's dragged you there or if the only reason you're reading this is because she surprised you with it in your inbox, then you might be in a place where you're not really being honest about how you feel.

If you're in that place, there's a good chance that you're working against the very thing you want. We all need to be heard, even if what we have to say could be hurtful.

Usually, when we feel pestered by our partners, they have the perception we're not listening. And I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but they're usually right. Apathy - the emotion of not caring - is not a passive state. Despite what you may think, it's not her fault you don't give a shit.

Apathy exists to protect us from feeling like a failure.

I learned this by working with teenage boys in a juvenile detention facility. It was easier for them not to care than it was to try and risk failure or embarrassment. If you try to show love and you're still met with ridicule or criticism, then that's not on you. That's on her. But don't use that as an excuse to stop trying. You're only going to make things worse. Go to therapy. Write love notes. Try differently. Talk to her about feeling powerless at a time when you aren't fighting.

Change things up, but don't stop caring; because that's the beginning of the end.

If she's told you that she's not happy or that she feels like you don't love her, try not to respond defensively. Chances are she feels that way for good reason. In our culture, we tend to devalue and diminish women's experiences as being too emotional or not rational enough.

Don't do that.

That's just sexism masquerading as frustration. Trust her emotional intellect. Maybe you'll learn something about yourself that'll surprise you.

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Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How Depression Impacts Marriage.

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen on Flickr

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen on Flickr

Has depression impacted your marriage?

Then maybe you know what it's like to look over at a spouse you don't recognize anymore. Or perhaps you're the spouse who feels unrecognizable.

In his memoir, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon writes that depression can be just as difficult on spouses of depressed partners as it is on depressed partners themselves. Spouses have to learn to cope with this stranger called depression who has stolen the life from their beloved who, during the excitement of courtship, expressed so much vitality.

This creates confusion for spouses who don't know what to do with this suffering person they love. There's already incredible strain on all intimate partners to communicate effectively.

So When you add in depression, things get even more challenging, especially because one of the worst symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation to explain or fix anything.

If a partner in a committed relationship is having her or his first depressive episode, this can be especially challenging because they don't know what the hell they're going through. They could feel their drive and ambition wither away for the first time with no explanation.

What does depression look like in a marriage?

Although we commonly associate depression with sadness, some depressed people feel little sadness, but an intense apathy and an even greater frustration about that apathy. They lose friends because their friends don't know what to do.

noonday demon

Depressed persons can lose jobs, social relationships, board positions, fellowships and their places in life's rhythms - all for immediately inexpiable reasons that turn out to be depression.

Spouses who watch this unfold may wonder why their partner is beginning to push away all the meaningful relationships in their life. Spouses may begin to interpret this as a kind of "F**k it I don't care," attitude, when it's exactly the opposite.

Depressed people push their relationships away because they care so much.

They begin to see themselves as a burden and don't want to burden others. But they also don't know what to do. Instead, they simply feel conflicted - and pushing others away is a solution to the problem of being a burden.

Then, as if depression didn't claim enough, it slithers it's way into the depressed person's final refuge: their marriage. At some point, not knowing what's happening to them, it turns out that both a depressed partner and her spouse must cope with depression. Depressed spouses are like travelers on a new road called depression their partners are sometimes their only companions.

This new travel companionship is unspeakably difficult for both spouses because a depressed traveler has no idea what to ask for - and even the most supportive companion has no idea what to do.

Powerlessness and depression go to war.

I know this seems like a bleak picture: two spouses locked together by this shared experience of mental illness and uncertainty, trying to figure out what to do. The hardest part can be the hope. Depression is relentless in the sense that it provides brief glimmers of life when the symptoms fade a little. Spouses begin to think that they're getting their best friend back, and just when things start to settle, the depression comes back and steals joy away again.

So what should you do if you or your spouse experiences depression?

First, get educated.

There's no single greater tool. Resources like NAMI Connection Groups provide an amazing way to connect with other people who've been through the same thing. They'll also connect you to educational resources that can help you understand what depression is and how it could impact you or your loved one.

Second, do yourselves a favor and invest in some counseling.

Call someone you trust. If you're not sure, ask a friend. If you're not quite ready to talk to friends about how you feel, then websites like Psychology Today or referral sources like your doctor can help. A good therapist can work with you to structure your lives around this new normal, refer you to nurse practitioners or psychiatrists who can provide medical intervention if necessary, and support you as you try to establish new communication patterns.

Finally, practice self-compassion.

I know this sounds like fluff, but there's another problem we haven't talked about yet that both depressed partners and their spouses encounter. When we come into contact with depression - we start asking ourselves why we can't just snap out of it already. We tel ourselves we should be over it or that we should be able to help more.

But these are nasty judgments and symptoms of self-ridicule and shame. It's almost as bad as the depression itself because it keeps us trapped in a pattern of experiencing something we can't control (depression) and then judging ourselves for it (shame). It's hard to just stop a thought pattern like self-judgment. We need a new practice to replace it. Self-compassion is one way to start.

Regardless of where you're at in your journey with depression, whether you are the traveler or the companion, reach out. Find help. You don't have to travel alone.

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Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Why Couples Therapy Doesn't Work.

Image by Nasrul Ekram on Flickr.

Image by Nasrul Ekram on Flickr.

Have you been to couples therapy before?

Did it completely suck? Or are you one of the lucky ones who walked away from the experience thinking it was positive, but also not totally sure why? There's usually a good reason for this, and after having worked with couples for nearly a decade, I think I've figured out why so many couples don't benefit from counseling like they hope.

When you go to the doctor, you go because you feel bad. And most of us hope to walk away from the office with a plan for what we need to do or maybe even an antibiotic or some medicine to help us go about our day. The point of going to the doctor is to get better so we can get on with our lives.

Medicine is transportable. You go to the office, get the diagnosis, take the prescription and leave. If only problems in intimate relationships were so easy. Wouldn't it be nice if you could stroll into my office with a sick relationship, spend a few hours more in the waiting room than you thought and leave with some medicine after just a 30 minute conversation?

This is why counseling doesn't work for a lot of people:

Couples therapy isn't transportable.

You can't take it home. My colleagues have spent years working on how to make the experience of couples therapy effective, but we haven't spent nearly that amount of time working on how to take couples therapy home.

The closest we've come to creating an experience for couples to sustain them when they leave is something we call..."homework."

If that's not the shittiest name for a transportable couples therapy intervention, then I don't know what is. Think back to the last time you did homework. Did you leave class thinking, "Oh, thank God! Homework! Now the learning can really begin!"

No.

No one likes homework. So why would you enjoy it at one of the most stressful points in your life? Some people enjoy couples therapy. I enjoy working with those folks. It's like the walking portion of a marathon (Yes, that's a thing. Don't argue.). It's refreshing. But the bread and butter of my work is with folks who have about as much interest in couples therapy as they do in homework. But, despite their interest, they still need the process to be effective.

Couples therapy has a long legacy of falling flat. Just look at the way we're portrayed in the media. Stuck up, boring, pretentious know-it-alls with half-hearted and useless insights. I discovered this early on in my career when I made the mistake of thinking that if I did everything right in therapy, change would follow. But what makes my work different from a physician's work is that I'm not dealing exclusively with biological systems that can be tested with foreign substances like antibiotics.

In my room, I create change with clients through the complex systems of language and experience. But I'm not interested in what creates change. Lots of things create change. I realized this when traditional methods failed me, and I started to experiment. I was surprised by the things that actually created change:

Things like being a real person with my clients. Or metaphors. Or humor. Or challenging my clients' most sacred ideas about each other. Being willing to take risks with my clients - risks I know they both need me to take and might hate me for. But it's the job.

But, like I said, I'm not ultimately concerned with what creates change. I'm concerned with what sustains it. And that's not about what happens in my office. That's about what happens at home.

Sustained change is the only thing that makes couples counseling transportable.

Marriages don't change because people are educated. Our brains don't work that way. Education is one tool for change, but not everything. And traditional couples therapy is mostly education. 

But your partner didn't sit you down across the years and give you a prepared lecture about why she or he is mad at you. You got here because you had experiences you didn't want. So now, we have to have corrective experiences. And when therapy doesn't work, it's not because the tools aren't effective or - god forbid - you didn't get good homework. It's because you're not having the experiences you need in therapy to sustain the change that you want when you leave.

Ideally, my office is a change laboratory.

We experiment together. But we have to experiment in ways that are different than how you experiment at home. This is why it's likely that at least one of the partners in a relationship I work with will be really mad at me at some point. Changing a relationship in distress is like trying to turn an oil tanker with a paddle boat. The amount of cognitive effort couples (or throuples or poly folks) have to make in order to change distress is like running an ultra-marathon. It's hard work.

So why would you want to work your ass off in therapy and then leave only to be given more "homework"?

I don't do homework. I do experiences. Sometimes I ask you to take those experiences home. But they're always optional, never required to produce change and they always teach something - even when couples choose not to complete them. That's a learning experience as well.

Couples therapy has not been historically effective because, in my field, we're measuring the wrong outcomes. We're measuring what happens in the office as opposed to what happens outside it. What happens in the change laboratory is only important to the extent that it directly relates to some positive change that happens for you at home.

So in my office, I'm a bit of a mad scientist. I have to be. I'm limited by time and space. I wish I was a therapist in the future, after we've created teleportation. So I could just show up at clients' house in the middle of the clusterf**k. That would probably expedite the process much more quickly - if I could see clients in their natural environment. But, unfortunately, I live in a time when we still burn fossil fuels and live behind gated communities.

So no teleportation therapy.

Until then, I'll keep experimenting. If you've been to couples therapy before, and it didn't work, you're in good company. I can't promise that working with me will feel good or even completely safe, but I can promise you won't be the same when you leave.

Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT

512-329-5540

How to be in Love at 90.

A bowl of sliced strawberries taught me everything I needed to know about love.

Last week, I published a post about what to do when you fall out of desire with your partner. It's a complex, yet common challenge in modern love. But recently, my grandparents - who have a way of weaving through life's most valuable lessons with an effortless grace - educated me once again on the art of staying in love, and since one of my best traits is that I can't keep my mouth shut, you get to hear about it.

I pick up hobbies. Too many at once. My latest hobby is fermentation. So I've been making my own beer, my own bread and I've got my eye on cheese. I'm pretty sure my interest in hobbies I don't need comes from my grandmother's lust for life. She's always involved in something, even at the age of 87. I've never known her not to have her eyes, her hands and her passions deep into something meaningful.

Every day, for example, Grandma wakes up, wrestles my grandfather from a jealous sleep and drives both of them to their local gym where they defy their own age with a vengeful fervor. When they return, she waddles outside to her flourishing garden, and gently mumbles to the herbs and tomatoes that grow each day with her encouragement, the secret ingredient of their abundance.

Next, she makes her way to a giant chicken coop monstrosity she had built in their backyard. It houses far fewer chickens than it could, giving them the impression that the world is much larger than it actually is. She steps into the chicken monstrosity and ticks each of them off with her fingers, one at a time, name by name. She checks their feeders, freshens their water, replaces their heads of lettuce, buys them new toys, feeds them the first-fruits of the garden that should be reserved for human mouths and shares their company for a time before she returns at sunset to tuck them in.

But last week, when I called to check in, I was surprised to hear my grandmother's predictably steady voice cracked with grief as she explained how a group of crafty raccoons Oceans Elevened their way into the chicken mansion and left only one of my grandmother's feathered children.

It was heartbreaking.

Whenever I call her, I expect to hear her vibrant and optimistic voice that serves as a grounding touchstone in my life. So her vulnerable voice caught me off guard. When she told me, through tears, what had happened, it was the first time in my life I felt murderous toward a group of raccoons.

I spent a few moments listening to my Grandma, feeling powerless to do anything and hating myself for it when, suddenly, an abrupt giggle broke through my grandmother's tears as she described watching my grandfather, who has a very hard time getting around, cut a bowl of strawberries into little slivers and gently pierce each wedge with a single toothpick before placing it in front of her.

Because what else can you do?

The chickens were gone. Those of us who become attached to animals know what it's like to lose them. It's heartbreaking. Like losing a member of your own family. And although the grief softens more quickly, it's sharp and deep for a time. And I caught my grandmother right at the start of it. So there was literally no way for me to help her.

But she didn't need my help, because fortunately, my grandfather has mastered her heart after more than 60 years of loving her.

I use that language not to reflect possession. No one possesses Betty Vance. I describe it that way to reflect how each of our hearts is like a story. Every story is unique, but they also follow a steady rhythm. If you read a story long enough, you get a good idea for how a story's characters will react to an event. In this case, though I know my grandmother better than most, I'm not my grandfather.

My powerlessness in that moment reflected that I didn't have a clue what to do. I wanted to murder the raccoons. I wanted to turn back the clock. I wanted to reach through the phone and somehow make the pain go away. But my grandfather knows better. He knows that his wife doesn't want this grief to go away because it reflects the depth of her love for life and it's creatures. She's also too independent to have someone solve her problems for her, so I'm pretty sure the only thing that could have reached her was to see this man offer a bowl of berries to dance across her tastebuds and remind her that life is still sweet.

Simple gestures are sometimes the only thing that can cut through the blanket of life's unexpected pains. And my grandfather was not intimidated by the futility of making the problem go away. Instead of trying to change her circumstances, he relied on his steady love for her to step in and introduce pleasure into the pain.

And this is the secret of loving someone forever.

If you want to feel passion. If you want to feel alive. If you want a vibrant with a person or persons, then master their heart by doing two things:

1. Pay Attention

Listen to how your partner describes needing help when they're in pain. Our first tendency is to fix the cause of pain, but most of the time, that's impossible. When we can't solve the problem, we either reach for solutions that don't make sense - like rushing too quickly to replace the chickens my grandmother lost. That wouldn't have worked.

Our second tendency could be to take a nastier approach to deal with our own powerlessness by trying to convince our partners that what's causing them pain is not actually a problem. Can you imagine what would have happened if my grandfather tried to tell Grandma that she shouldn't be so hurt over animals?

Loving someone across a lifetime, and being loved by them, depends how much well we listen to what they need rather than trying to hack a problem that has no immediate solution.

2. Take Initiative

Don't wait to take action to be there for your partner in moments of distress. Even if you don't know what to do, or your partner doesn't know what she or he needs, don't make the mistake of waiting to take action because you have no answer to the problem. Take a risk. It may be that you fail. It may be that thing you do wasn't what your partner wanted or needed.

Maybe my grandmother didn't want strawberries that day. That's possible.

But I can almost guarantee you that more mistakes are made in love when a partner takes no action because she or he doesn't know what to do. In moments of distress, inaction communicates apathy - whether you feel apathetic or whether you don't. Take a risk, and when you notice your partner in pain. Reach out somehow. Even asking how you can help when you don't know communicates love. And if she or he doesn't know what they need, then just respond by telling her that you're just going to sit with her, and be.

This kind of love is persistent. And the more adept we become at soothing each other when life threatens to crumble around us, the small and sweet pleasures of love cut through our grief like a bowl of bright red strawberries, cultivating passion for a moment.

And moment by moment, you pass through the years together, in love.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

When You're No Longer Attracted to Your Partner.

Image by Cathy Labudak on Flickr

Image by Cathy Labudak on Flickr

If I could do away with any relationship myth, it would be that good relationships are those in which partners always feel "in love," with each other. Octavio Paz, a philosopher and writer who has written extensively about love and romance, argues that eroticism - which is the cornerstone of desire - and love - which is the cornerstone of intimacy - creates the double flame of life.

Relationship expert Esther Perel expands on this idea by suggesting that sometimes, love and desire work against each other. The familiarity we need to create a family requires love, which sometimes acts like a wet blanket to desire.

When this happens, it can feel like we're falling out of love with our partners, when what's actually happening is that we're falling out of desire.

Most of the time, when we lose attraction to our partners, it's not because we're no longer in love with them, it's because we no longer desire them. This is both normal and also could be a sign of distress that needs to be dealt with.

Here's how you know.

Are you under a lot of life stress? Are you having a baby? Do you have toddlers? Are there crises in your family that require you and your partner(s) to spend a lot of time together solving problems like business colleagues or roommates?

All of these situations can create a stressful environment that requires a LOT of love and intimacy so that the problems can be dealt with. But the cost of that closeness and familiarity is predictability. We lose novelty and distance, the fuel for desire's flame.

We're not taught from a young age to expect desire to normally diminish over time with a partner. So we're certainly not ready for this to happen when stress increases. Usually, we expect the opposite. We expect that when stress increases, our partners will know exactly what we need, even if we don't expect it. That's rarely the case.

When our expectations for caretaking aren't met, we feel hurt and resentful. This is the point at which our desire starts to diminish. But here's the thing. It's normal. It's normal for desire to come and go. For the feeling of being "in love" to come and go. It's a problem, but it's the kind of problem you want. We have these emotions because they're like data that helps us ask the questions we need to ask. Questions like:

Why do we feel distant from each other?

What should we do about it?

How can I help you feel closer to me?

The problem we don't want is when we just keep our feelings to ourselves, plug our heads in the sand like an ostrich and just forge ahead. It's these ineffective solutions that lead people in my office five years later considering separation or divorce.

So what should you do when you're aware that you no longer feel attracted to your partner? First, do a personal inventory. Consider what's going on in your life that's preventing you from experiencing desire. Are you overwhelmed at work? Have you created enough space in your life for levity, play, adventure and risk? Are you stuck in a routine with no flexibility for change because you don't believe your partner can change?

Second, consider how you feel about yourself. One of the best kept secrets about attraction is that very often when we don't feel attracted to our partners, it's because we're remembering how we felt about ourselves when we knew our partners were attracted to us. For example, in the beginning of every relationship, people tend to report that their confidence and feelings of sexiness are at their highest. Do you feel attractive? Do you feel vital? Do you feel confident?

If not, is it possible that your lost feelings of attraction are really because you don't feel attracted to yourself?

Once you've done a thorough personal inventory, it's time to start talking to your partner. Many people are afraid to disclose that they no longer feel in love with their partner because of the value our society places on this phrase. The moment we hear our partners say they no longer feel in love with us, it triggers a deep anxiety response that can push us into anxious pursuits that can become suffocating and overwhelming.

Finally, what is the state of your relationship? Are you fighting a lot? Do you ever fight? We tend to assume that a lack of conflict means a relationship is in a good place, but that's not necessarily true. A lack of conflict can be the result of boredom and fusion. On the other hand, too much conflict can be chaotic. Conflict is nothing more than a symptom. It's not the heart of the problem. But even symptoms can get out of controll

Falling out of love - or really, falling out of desire - is common. It's not unusual. It happens to most of us. The issue is, what do we do about it when it happens? Couple and sex therapy can be a good option, but only about half of all distressed couples seek help. And many of those distressed couples who don't seek help get better on their own.

If you're not in love with your partner, don't panic. Instead, consider what's going on within you that is preventing you from feeling desire. If you feel desire for other people, don't be threatened by that. You're attracted to other people and not your partner precisely because those people aren't your partner. You don't have history with them. Those other people are novelties. You've never shared a bathroom with them. It's okay.

Turn inward toward yourself for discovery and then turn outward toward your partner for change. If your partner resists the conversation or refuses to participate with you in a conversation to help you get better, then consider couples therapy or some other medium to create change.

Just don't wait.

Elephant-Rider-Icon.png

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

The Love Language(s) You Didn't Know About.

Image by Rui Ornelas on Flickr.

Image by Rui Ornelas on Flickr.

My wife and I occupy different spaces in our marriage. I tend to be a little spacey, a little head-in-the-clouds-y, while my wife tends to have her feet planted firmly on the ground. Restless thoughts keep me up at night while she wraps the blankets tightly around her because she likes the feeling of warmth and safety while she sleeps. This has...occasionally...been a challenge for us both. Her mind's desire for security is deeply challenged by my tendency to do very stupid things.

Our minds operate at their best in two different ways.

My mind needs a world without boundaries, disordered and filled with risk. Her mind thrives in an ordered world, where safety and consistency abound. This is a generalization, of course. She surprises me sometimes - like the time she hitchhiked to the women's march with a group of girlfriends because the buses were taking too long. And I'll surprise her (although far less frequently) with my attention to detail and consistency. 

This tension between safety and risk has created moments where each of us felt that the other was either suffocating or abandoning us. It is one of most common and normal challenges that intimate partners face. 

We tend to find the things that complement us in our other(s). Her focused and attentive mind is deeply soothing to my chaotic and, at times, frenzied one. My jump-first-get-a-cast-later attitude keeps her world bright and lively.

Mostly.

But it turns out that when these strengths aren't balanced, they can render any attempt to show love a disaster. No amount of time spent or gifts given can soothe a worried mind or calm a restless spirit. But these moments when I have failed to see what motivated her to take a risk with me taught me something vital.

My wife's craving for security is not a liability, but a love language.

In Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, he challenges partners to think through ways that are not natural to them in order to reach their intimate others. While Chapman's book can be a little reductive (There's only five love languages?!), it's a useful exercise to get out of your own head and see what your partner needs.

My wife's need for security - which often shows up as she grills me on the details of my plan - is not an attempt to control or even influence my ideas, but rather, to feel secure in my risk-taking.

 She wants to join me, not restrict me. It's a big difference. 

It turns out that my willingness to invest in her safety and security was the love language I never knew existed. 

I was working with a couple that was negotiating a difference like this. Tom wanted to move into the city while Stefan wanted to stay put in his comfortable suburban neighborhood.

Stefan's logic was rock solid. They're house was earning a lot of value. They couldn't carry two notes, so they'd have to sell the house and lose that investment to move to the city. Still, the argument didn't sway Tom. They ran around in circles for a year in this argument before I saw them.

It almost brought them to the end of a 20-year relationship. 

Stefan couldn't understand why Tom cared so much about moving when they had everything they could possibly want.

So he was surprised to learn that it was precisely because they had everything they needed that made Tom feel so stuck. He had a hard time explaining it, but in one desperate moment, Tom shared that living in a suburban neighborhood for the rest of his life felt like he was slowly dying. 

He needed access to a dream. Something more.

I'll fast forward through the details - except to say that it was only when Stefan began to understand - when he decided to suspend his fear-driven agenda - that Tom needed opportunities to grow, to move, to stretch and to risk in order to feel alive. While Stefan was comfortable in his contentment, Tom felt restless, frantic and even depressed without the ability to wander. 

The couple ended up staying in their home, but only after hours of conversation and Stefan's commitment to Tom's adventurous spirit. They started to travel more, spend more time away from home - a few more weekends in the city without a schedule.

This satisfied Tom's desire to feel alive in his own way without sacrificing the secure foundation Stefan needed. 

This struggle could have devolved into a never-ending habit of the couple missing each other's core needs. In order to take a risk with Tom, Stefan needed to feel secure that Tom was going to invest in his need for stability.

Stefan didn't want to reject Tom's dream, but his brain would not allow him to entertain the idea without feeling like he had a plan he needed to feel secure enough to dream.

Tom needed to feel confident that Stefan would be willing to dream with him. They moved from saying things like this:

You'll always be the same. You never want to go anywhere or do anything. 

To this:

I get it. You need me to build confidence with you. You need to hear me think this through so you can feel safe enough to dream with me.

Like Stefan, my wife's willingness to take deep breaths when she hears about my latest idea, or entertains my latest request and just hear me out is her willingness to engage my love language: risk

Risk and safety are the two love languages we never knew existed.

They're not actually two love languages, but one. They work together. Because all of us need security in order to take risks and feel alive, and as John A. Shedd puts it best, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."

If you find yourselves having this argument again and again, try to make a conversational shift. Take a moment and have a few deep breaths. Suspend your agenda in the conversation. Don't be an engineer - trying to hack your partner's logic so she/he no longer says things that upset you. Don't be a lawyer, litigating your case or defending yourself against accusations. 

Instead, be a journalist, whose only agenda is to get the story.

Ask open-ended non-judgmental questions. Stuff like:

What's that like for you?

What about this makes you feel so alive?

What would make you feel safe as we have this conversation? 

Just because you occupy different spaces in your relationship, doesn't mean you can't share those spaces together.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540 

Honk! if You Love Sexual Health.

The other day I was driving down Manchaca heading downtown and on the east side of the street was a group of people holding signs - which my trained mind immediately registered as protesters. My partisan mind immediately read the signs to determine whether these people were friend or foe. 

That's when one of the brightly colored signs caught my eye. Sprawled across neon paper were big bold words, "Honk! if You Love Hugs!"

Wasn't expecting that. In fact, all these protesters signs had positive messages that had no political affiliation. There was one person wearing a pro-Trump shirt and another person wearing a Bernie Sanders shirt. Bold. 

The experience made me think how easily we put people into monolithic baskets and start searching for what side we're on. It's no different when it comes to mental health issues.

If the public knew how their therapists fought on message boards and at conferences, we'd all probably be out of a job. 

There's a big debate right now in the field about the nature of sexual health problems. Can sex be addictive? or not? I'm not getting into that discussion here. But this is why I love the work of Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito. They've presented an open access resource that doesn't rely on certification (The fast track to making money in this business), but is instead, intended to be an integration model that helps therapists incorporate important sexual health principles into the work they're already doing.

These two powerhouses of sexual health have recently published their book on how to treat consensual sexual problems that feel out of control. So this would be things like pornography and other sexual behaviors people are either uncomfortable with or feel like they can't get control of. 

The thing I love about this work is that it doesn't rely on pathologizing (making something bad or sick) in order to provide the treatment. We're not going to tell you that the specific behavior is a problem. Instead, we're going to work toward aligning your behavior with your ethics and some previously established principles of sexual health. Principles like consent. Honesty. Pleasure. 

In just a few weeks, Dr. Braun-Harvey will present his work on treating out of control sexual behavior. That presentation will be hosted by the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance, a first-of-its-kind sexual health resource in the Austin community. If you're a clinician, student or sexual health nerd, you don't want to miss this presentation. 

I hope to see you all there! 

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How to Be Your Own Advocate

If you've ever wondered what makes a therapist/psychologist/counselor/social worker (hereafter just, therapist) different from your hair stylist, then this is a good post for you to read. I'm going to pull the curtain back on what actually sets these people apart in our society as the gatekeepers of problem solving. 

Keep in mind that this list is supposed to be an ideal one. Hence, if it goes the way it's supposed to, then this list is what you SHOULD find in your clinician. 

1. They are evidence-based problem solvers. 

You can get problems solved anywhere. Go talk to your girlfriends or listen to your buddies rant over a football game. Meditate. Pray. 

All potential options. Usually though, someone seeks me out when they feel they've exhausted all the options. What makes a therapist different is that she or he has been trained in problem solving methods that have been demonstrated to be scientifically effective. 

We're not just throwing random thoughts out there. We have a method to the madness. Or at least, we should. 

2. They are excellent relationship builders.

Of all the things that make therapy work, relationship building is the most important. That, and what you, the client, bring to the table work together to produce the change you're looking for. Plenty of therapists will use different evidence-based approaches to help you solve problems. 

But none of those are effective if your relationship with your therapist is poor. 

3. They are aware of their own judgments and values. 

This is probably the more important of the three, and coincidentally, it's the one I want to spend some time on today. All of these are important. We could spend time talking about how you could spot a therapist using evidence-based treatment, but this last one has me steaming right now and I think you should know why. 

At least once or twice a week in my office, I hear someone tell me that they've finally got their spouse figured out because of something they read on....

Fill in the blank. 

Huffington Post. Elephant Journal. The New York Times. The comics section of the daily newspaper. 

The most recent article I discovered tried to convince it's readers that the reason people have affairs was because of this nefarious little personality trait called "machiavellianism." Machiavellianism is a pop-psychology nonsense word that has absolutely zero meaning and value in clinical language. 

You won't find it in the DSM-V (The bible of mental health). You won't find it in almost any credible manual that instructs clinicians how to help people recovering from infidelity. 

And that's because it's not a useful term to describe this problem. But the article is written in such a way that makes you think it's a perfectly legitimate explanation for why people have affairs. 

It's not. 

I'm not going to get too far into the details, but suffice it to say that the author cites a journal article from a journal that doesn't do clinical research, that doesn't have a strong peer review process and that was relying on data nearly half a century old. 

The point is this. 

When you're out there looking for answers to your questions, which we all do in the age of Google, you're going to be tempted to believe the advice of experts whose writing suits the suspicions you already have. 

Be careful. 

I expect that part of the problem with the author of the infidelity post I listed above was that she wasn't as aware of her own unconscious judgments as she should be. She used value-driven critical language to describe people's motives. She relied on poorly executed research to explain her theory. 

You'll find a lot of this swimming around the internet. Therapists aren't immune from value judgments. Despite what your shrink may tell you, she or he is not objective. There's no such thing. We shouldn't strive for it either. It's bad therapy. 

Rather, we're trained to be aware of our judgments and decide intelligently whether we should act on them, or reveal them to our clients. 

You, however, have a responsibility as well. You're responsibility is to be an empowered client. Don't fall prey to intelligent sounding words just because they link to a study. Go to the study. Research the journal. Examine the author's claims. If you're not familiar with research, just ask someone who is to help you understand. 

You are always your most powerful resource. Just because a therapist says something or writes something, doesn't make it right. You have the power to determine that truth for yourself.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Why Men Shut Down.

Image by Rolf Enger on Flickr

Image by Rolf Enger on Flickr

Warning: some adult language follows.

First, you need to know that this is not exclusively a man problem. Your gender probably doesn't predict that you'll be more or less likely to shut down during conflict or intimacy. There's probably research on this, but I'm too lazy to find it this morning. 

In my experience, men tend to do this more often, but it's because we're raised that way rather than born that way.

I'm writing about men in this post because I want to talk about some specific reasons men tend to disengage from intimate conflict. When men shut down, stonewall or walk away - to their partners it feels like abandonment, a lack of caring or apathy. 

But for the most part, nothing could be farther from the truth. 

By the end of this post, I hope to convince you that the reason men are first to shut down is precisely because they care. I know it seems backwards, but hang in there with me. 

First, there's something you should know about how society impacts male psychology. Middle class white men are told from their first breath that they can conquer the world. Messages about our potential vary across ethnicities. African American men, for example, are prepared by their mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles and aunts for hostility in the world. And for good reason.

Nonetheless, all men receive the message that they can and should possess the world. 

We internalize subtle messages across the course of lives that we must be successful, strong and impenetrable. We are stoic, powerful, sexual and emotionless. More than anything, we are competent. 

We have the solutions. We have the answers. Or at least, we better. If we don't, it's a big problem for us. Author Brene Brown tells a story about what motivated her to study how men experience shame: 

I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. It wasn’t until a man looked at me after a book signing, and said, ‘I love what you say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.’ And I said, ‘I don’t study men.’ And he said, ‘That’s convenient.’
I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads. Because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.’
— Brene Brown

Our entire lives, we're told to be hard. We're told to sit on our white horses. We're told that to be a man means that we must be unaffected by the world. This, unfortunately, not only has a terrible impact on our emotional development, but on the emotional well-being of our future partners. 

We aren't taught - as many women are - how to be competent in intimate relationships. Boys don't cry, after all. We don't know that empathy is a solution to many problems. We only know that we must win to survive.

We live by the three "F's": fight, fuck or fail. 

Forgive my crude language, but it's the only way I know how to get the point across. 

Fight.

We solve problems through violence or aggression. Always have. Why do you think UFC is so popular? It's an exercise in male competence and ego. 

For most of us, the modern day battlefield takes place in corporate America. Thank God women entered the public workforce because men have been forced to increase emotional intelligence rather than solve every problem like Don Draper. 

Fuck.

Our value comes from sex (as much of it as we can). If we're not having sex, we're not men. Sometimes our libido drops because we're afraid we won't be able to have sex how we want, so we shut down. And for the most part, male sexuality has been maligned and cast aside as a perversion. 

Since we're not well equipped to talk about our feelings, we have no idea what do about this. Most of us struggle to ask (rather than demand) for the kind of sex we want - or we hear our partners' requests for a different kind of sex as a judgment on our performance. 

Which brings me to the third "F".

Fail.

If we're not fighting or fucking successfully, we're failing. And when we fail, we try harder to fight (we get aggressive) or we try to soothe ourselves through sex.

When those don't work, we are at serious risk of an identity crisis. 

At some point, we become adults when these strange creatures called our lovers enter our lives.  The demands for closeness, intimacy and connection are difficult. We are mystified and perplexed by the new "F" that we're suddenly expected to know how to deal with.

Feel.

No. No, no, no. Feel = weak.

Feel is just another word for fail.

We've never been taught how to deal with this "F." We've always channeled our emotion through sex, ambition or action. So when, as adults, our partners demand that we know how to feel, we resort to what we always do when we don't know what to do.

We fail. 

And to you, this will look like abandonment.

Because the generations before us haven't equipped us to be empathetic. When you're telling us something that bothers you about us and we disagree, we don't know how to listen to you and validate your emotion. We simply try to solve the problem and if that doesn't work adequately, then we get defensive. Angry. Careless. Maybe even abusive. 

That's on us. Not you. Aggression is not excused by incompetence.

We go through this cycle until it spins out of control. We tell ourselves that nothing will work and we might as well give up. We give up because the last thing we want to do is expose our incompetence.

We don't want to make things worse. 

Unfortunately, to our emotionally competent partners this looks a hell of a lot like we'd just rather not bother. But be careful not to confuse a lack of competence with a lack of desire.

I know when he turns around and walks away or throws up his hands and tells you "this conversation is over," it looks very much like he doesn't care. 

But what's actually going on is a complex conflict common in male psychology. We're so scared of failing you that we can no longer face the fear of enduring the conversation, so we end it instead. And if it's been going on long enough, we find ways to end it before it begins.

Powerlessness masquerades as apathy.

I was talking with my colleague Simon this morning about a conversation we both have frequently with couples. 

I told a story about a couple I worked with a few years back. She came to realize in a powerfully emotional moment that her husband's shutting down behavior was intricately tied to her own critical accusations. When she discovered what was going on, she asked him if he felt powerless - genuinely curious.

Struck by the power of his wife's sudden empathy, he began to weep. 

Not used to this, she was scared out of her mind. She didn't know what to do with his sudden vulnerability.

Being from New Zealand, Simon is a bit of a cheeky fellow. He smiled knowingly and said, "Uh oh. Looks like he fell off his horse." 

Women and men alike expect men to know how to deal with everything. So when we don't, it takes everyone by surprise. When we fall off our white horses, the world around us either leaves us there to be trampled or tries to get us back up on the horse. They ask us to be vulnerable, but when we are, we're punished for it.

We need help.  

Sometimes, that can be achieved with a little reading, open communication or through resources like TED videos or corporate trainings on communication.

Sometimes, it can only be addressed through therapy or life changing experiences like the birth of a child.

Whatever the solution, it matters that our partners understand what's going on with us. We may not even know how to describe it until someone points it out to us...gently. 

I've worked with many men who are uniquely emotionally and relationally competent. So this blog won't fit everyone. But unfortunately, these men are generally the exception rather than the rule. which is a cultural problem, not an individual one. 

Be careful with the men in your life. They are more delicate than they appear.

Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT

512-329-5540

The Case for Sexual Health.

Image by Vitruvian on Flickr.

Image by Vitruvian on Flickr.

There's no evidence to suggest that you can treat sex like a drug.
 

There's no scientific evidence that can prove that there's an amount of sex that will be unhealthy for a person. There's also no evidence to show that consensual sexual behavior between adults is universally sick. Despite our efforts to pathologize normal behavior, we can't seem to find a way to make illness stick.

Many have tried.

Some researchers recently tried to connect what they called "sex addiction" or "hypersexuality" to a scientific theory called Incentive Sensitization Theory (IST). IST researchers argue that repeated exposure to a drug makes it impossible for addicts to regulate their need for the drug. So they keep coming back to it. This theory, if true, explains why people crave alcohol and drugs at rates they can't control.

Imagine that I placed two glasses of water in front of you and asked you to drink both. It's crazy hot in central Texas this time of year, so you gladly accept. The first glass goes down smooth. The second glass tastes disgusting and hurts your stomach the moment of your first gulp. 

It's then that I tell you that the first glass of water was clear spring water from a local well. The other glass, however, came from a bottle of ocean water I brought back from my recent trip to the Bahamas. 

What's the point? 

Just because one thing looks like the other, doesn't mean they're the same.

Just because my brain's pleasure centers are activated when I have sex doesn't mean that sex = cocaine.

IST is based on consumption of a foreign substance entering the body. Our bodies don't naturally produce cocaine. They don't naturally produce alcohol or heroin.

Proponents of sex addiction argue that, like drug addiction, sex addicts crave more and more compulsive "dangerous" sex (whatever that means) because - they too - have become desensitized to sexual behaviors, making their brains unable to regulate their need for the pleasure they receive from sex. There's just one problem:

Sex isn't a drug.

Don't get me wrong, sex is intoxicating. Even motivating. But is it reasonable to argue that the brain can't regulate sex cravings when there's no foreign substance to impair how it works? 

There's no doubt that many many people have trouble making healthy sexual choices.

That's not the debate.

The debate is what causes people to make choices they believe are unhealthy. Why do people make poor health choices when it comes to sex? Are they actually behaving in unhealthy ways? 

Should they be shamed for sexual behavior because it makes someone else uncomfortable? If there is a problem, is it evidence of a sex addiction epidemic? Or is it something more complex? 

Addiction and illness only exist as a counterpoint.

In other words, to define something as a illness, we have to know what health looks like. We know cells cancer (that's a verb) because we know how healthy cells function.

We can measure diabetes and generalize it to large groups of people because we know how much insulin the pancreas should produce. We see bones break and know they shouldn't look like that. 

 Most proponents of sex addiction define sexual health by it's absence.

You can't have too much sex.

You can't view sexually explicit materials for too long or too often.

You can't feel conflicted or confused about your sexual behavior. 

You can't have sex to manage stress or anxiety.

The closest universally accepted definition of sexual health comes from the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO - arguably the world's leading authority on human health - cites none of the sex addiction pathologies in their definition of sexual health. Instead, they base health on principles of consent, mutual pleasure, education and autonomy among others. 

Sexual health changes according to context in which we live.

Our institutions, countries, faith communities and our families define sexual health in abstract and diverse ways. For obvious reasons: It's difficult to know what sex is healthy given the overwhelming fear we have about sexual conversations - not just with our partners and spouses, but with our children, friends and families. 

Is pleasure good? If so, how much? 

These are the conversations we must have to define sexual health. What if you and your partner disagree about what is sexually healthy?

Most of the time, this conflict is the beginning of our fears about sex addiction. Our culture makes people who like to have a lot of sex feel like there's something wrong with them because they might be different than their partners or because their fantasies are different from ours. 

So, we tell them to keep it quiet. Or we pathologize those behaviors. It was an illness to be gay until 1973. Anal sex can land you in prison in twelve states. So no wonder people hide their sexual behaviors. What stays hidden remains feared. And what is feared is unhealthy, evil or dirty.

Our society relies on counterpoints to define problematic behavior:

Night and day. Hot and cold. Health and disease. But without a clear sexual health definition, sexual addiction is a counterpoint to nothing, which makes it very hard to disprove. 

How are we supposed to have a realistic conversation about illness when we can't even agree on health? 

What do we know about sexual health problems?

We know there's no scientific agreement on whether sexual compulsivity, sex addiction and hypersexuality exist as illnesses.

The most recent attempt to define them as such was when a group of sex addiction proponents tried to classify hypersexuality in the DSM (the bible of mental illness). It failed because there wasn't enough evidence to suggest that there is such a thing. 

There's a ton of evidence to suggest that what is sexually acceptable is greatly influenced by society. Our morals, beliefs and disgusts tend to predict what is sexually healthy.

There's also evidence that sexuality is too diverse to create a single classification. It's too wide a concept to fit within a single prescription of illness. Unlike diabetes, it's hard to generalize. Maybe impossible. 

So in other words, sexual health in the United States may be different than sexual health in Kenya. Sexual health in Texas might different than sexual health in New York. And sexual health in your family might be different than sexual health in mine.

That sounds fine, right? Live and let live. 

Not so fast. 

Sexuality educator and psychologist Dr. David Ley makes a strong argument that we don't treat sex like other pleasure-seeking activities.

If I told you that in my family, we work out 12 times a week, you might be surprised, but you probably wouldn't feel morally compelled to stop us from our love of elliptical machines.

If, however, I told you that my wife and I regularly attend BDSM parties, you might rush me to a local rehab or synagogue. And the fact that I feel compelled to clarify that my wife and I don't attend BDSM parties reflects the fear of moral judgment that is so prevalent in our society when it comes to sex.

Consider this my "coming out" as a clinician who refuses to support the existence of a disorder that is built on unclear moral arguments and pseudoscience.

Morality is important and there's a place for it in sexual health discussions. We all have morals. Because of that, we must critically examine how those morals influence our ideas about health and illness.

And if you're reading this blog as a clinician, then you must be willing to let those morals be influenced by evidence that exists as a counterpoint to what you believe about sexual health.

I strongly support helping women, men, and gender non-conforming persons ground their sexuality within a framework of sexual health that fits their worldviews.

I believe in eradicating shame and promoting congruence in both personal and relationship values.

It's time to remove pathological judgment and give people something that can actually help them align their values with their behaviors.

Running around in shame circles trying to control a high sexual libido with surgical abstinence will only make matters worse. 

Some sexual health resources:

Southwest Sexual Health Alliance

The Harvey Institute

Dr. David Ley Books 

LGBTQ Sexual Health 

Center for Disease Control Sexual Health Information

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

The Benefits of A Mystery.

Image by Dino Ahmad Ali on Flickr.

Image by Dino Ahmad Ali on Flickr.

When I was a kid, I would go wandering through my backyard in search of the mysteries hiding under rocks or in the ditch behind my house. I would bloody my fingers and dirty my toes looking for crystals, hidden treasures or maps that ancient explorers had left behind. 

My favorite place to look was my own backyard, or my grandparents', who lived just a few blocks away. I didn't know it then, but I was compelled to discover something new in familiar territory. 

My mother could tell you innumerable stories of a dust-covered little boy carrying newly discovered dank and dirty ditch stones he was sure were diamonds. 

There are few things more intoxicating than finding a mystery where you expected PREDICTABILITY. 

If I could harness this passion, if I could put the curiosity of little boys and girls in a bottle and sell it, that magic might make marriage a little easier. 

Curiosity is the start of something you didn't believe was possible.

A classic human psychology argument is that belief precedes reality. The philosopher Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Philosophy classes across the world debate the phrase's meaning, but one argument suggests that it means that we know we exist because we are aware of ourselves

To me, it means that the stories we tell ourselves produce our behavior.

This is never clearer to me than when I witness the intricate and sophisticated conflict music to which distressed partners dance.

Those who have had the misfortune of living in a relationship in distress know that ongoing and unceasing conflict feels chaotic, like a house after a flood. It's miserable and seemingly disordered. 

But actually, it's quite ordered. It's like a blindfolded dance. We don't realize our part in the steps, but we move to the music just like our partner does. 

We predict the steps our partner will make. We know, for example, that her foot is about step to the right, and so we step to the left. If a choreographer asked you why you stepped to the left, you would say because your partner is leading this dance and she stepped to the right. 

Of course, your partner's reason is the same. She stepped to the right because she knew you would step to the left. 

She's danced this dance before. Just like you.

The dance is so intricate. It's so predictable. It's familiar, like the stones you laid in your own backyard. You know exactly what to expect.

So, you dance.  

You move, not realizing that your movement is what creates the chaos in the dance. You know, for example, that if you say what you're about to say, in that tone, with that face and in that timing, your partner will step left to counter your tone with defensiveness.

You know it won't be effective. You know it won't make him listen. You know it'll probably just anger him, but you say it anyway. 

Why? 

Because we know this song. We've stepped these steps. We know what to expect. And it is that certainty, that predictability, that keeps the dance alive. 

Forget why it started. Every dance has it's own beginning. Most of us spend way too much time arguing about how the dance started without giving energy to how it feels when we dance, or whether we should keep this particular dance alive. We need to change.

change requires novelty.

Novelty requires possibility.

Possibility requires curiosity.

We must believe it is possible to find a secret mystery in a dance we've come to know and predict. We must stop asking, "Why?," and start asking, "How?"

We must believe that it can be different. Only then will we find the courage to step out of line because the two-step we've been in isn't working anymore and we need to tango.

Changing a dance takes time. Your partner may have a more difficulty finding the courage to believe you are a mystery and not a certainty. He may think that as soon as he tries to tango with you, you'll trick her and go right back to the two-step.

It's this fear that leaves partners standing out alone on the dance floor. A million steps have turned into a story that can no longer be edited.

Creating a relationship starts between dance partners. But changing a relationship starts within. You have to believe that the dance can change. I know you feel certain that you know what to expect from this dance, but we know change is possible

The question is, do you have the courage to believe it?

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How to Say I'm Sorry Without Sounding Like A Jerk.

Image by Leyram Odacrem on Flickr

Image by Leyram Odacrem on Flickr

Saying "I'm sorry," has as much potential to cause damage as it does to heal. Think about the last time you heard an apology that you knew wasn't genuine.

"I'm sorry, okay!"

We all know that one. That's the patronizing apology. The one someone throws at you like a pissed off heckler throws a tomato at a villain on the way to the gallows.

All it does is make you even more hopeless.

Or what about the apology that someone gives out too soon. It might be genuine, but they're apologizing and they really don't know why.

This is the apology that you run away from. The one that makes you resent the apologizer because you're not ready to let go of being angry or hurt. 

Then it's your fault. 

My personal favorites are apologies so blatantly patronizing that they make the person receiving the apology feel like a magician's assistant, pinned to a wall hoping the knives you're throwing don't make it to her heart.

"I'm sorry you feel like I hurt you." 

Translation. 

I'm sorry you're stupid. 

Just don't. Don't ever, ever, ever say the words "I'm sorry," before the words "you feel." It never works.

Apologies are hard. It's sort of like baking your own sourdough bread. The expert bakers make it look so easy.

Yeah, just throw some flour and water in a jar and let it sit there until the next day when you throw in more water and flour. Then do it again for a couple of days until the water flour mixture smells like a perfect beer and throw it in the oven with some more water and flour. No grandma's secret cooking magic required.

Simple as that.  

It seems like apologies should be easy too. Just apologize. When you've done something wrong. Just say I'm sorry.

If it was that easy, we wouldn't fumble over it so much.

Apologies are meaningless unless they've got the substance they need, which requires two steps. 

1. Don't apologize until the person receiving your apology knows you understand why they're upset.

It doesn't matter how well you get it. If the person to whom you're apologizing doesn't know you get it, then you don't get it. 

Easiest way to accomplish this? Just ask. "Do I get it?" Do I understand how I hurt you? If they say yes, then you've completed the first task. 

2. Don't apologize unless you're authentic about it. This is not an excuse to avoid an apology because you don't think you've done something wrong. If you go through the first step, you'll probably see where your mistake was.

We all do things to hurt each other without meaning to. Avoiding a heartfelt apology because you don't want to admit fault is a good way to make things worse.

Just because you didn't mean to hurt him when you compared him to your last boyfriend, doesn't mean you don't need to make it right. 

What it does mean is that you shouldn't apologize if you're going to roll your eyes while you're doing it.

Either the person asking for the apology needs a reality check, or you do. 

It's probably you.

So here's a recipe for you to remember when you're unclear about the best way to apologize to someone you love: 

Empathy + Authenticity = Apology.

It's that simple.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Spring Forward a New Start in Your Marriage.

Spring is the season of fresh starts.

Every first day of the year, most of us spend a few hours with a new journal or word document with our best intentions to make this year's resolutions stick. Despite research that says that less than 10% of us will actually follow through with those resolutions, we go through the same ritual the next year.

Yesterday, spring officially kicked off. Although for those of us in central Texas, it feels like spring has been here for a while, our spring was ushered in with a couple of beautiful green days with crisp and cool weather.

Another chance for a new beginning.

Spring is one of those times of year that many of us start thinking about how we can start over. We clean out those cabinets that have been accumulating garbage. We put junk out in the front for the city to come clean up.

We decide to get in the gym again to get ready for summer which will show up in about...five minutes.

But what our marriages?

Have we been accumulating any junk in the closet of our relationships that need to be cleaned out? Relationship distress has a tendency to fester beyond repair if left unattended. Is it time to start working on our relationship fitness before we run out of breath?

There are more reasons than I can count why spring is a good time to ask yourself whether it's time to make some changes in your relationship.

New growth

Spring is the season of new growth. It is the earth's declaration that new life is coming. I'm looking out over my backyard as I write this. We have a number of young and old trees. Spring is everywhere on these trees. Trees both young and old sprout beautifully bright and neon green leaves.

Some couples worry that they're too far gone to change. They tell me that they've been together too long, or that they know each other too much to experience something new...which always reminds me of those trees. 

It doesn't matter how old they are, each season, old trees bring forward something new.

When something new develops, the old must be understood. Examined. Mourned or celebrated. But eventually discarded and exchanged for something better.

All relationships can change. Sometimes it is difficult to know what kind of change we need, but all relationships either change or they die.

Marriages either weather the seasons or they wither. Maybe it's time to start thinking about the change you need in your marriage.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How Your Brain Gets in The Way of Your Heart.

Image by Chi Tranter on Flickr.

Image by Chi Tranter on Flickr.

Your brain may be getting in the way of the love you’re trying to make. 

I’m spending the week at the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s annual conference. Right now, I’m with about 200 or so of my closes colleauges, listening to Mona Fishbane share her genius with us. 

Mona’s specialty is love and relationships are best understood at their most basic ingredient, the breadcrumb of love.

When we get into distress, our amygdalae, the fight or flight parts of our brains, take over and the opportunity to de-escalate conflict at the point pretty much goes away. 

On the other hand, when we’re in the beginning of our relationships and everything is great, we’re constantly soothed by the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which are very involved with the experience of orgasm. 

So over time, as life crowds our relationships and kids take over our energies, it becomes more and more difficult to get those super warm and sexy hormones that keep us happy and glued together.

When we start to fight, not only are we deprived of those loving hormones, we’re flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. 

This is overwhelming when it happens again...and again...and again.

They say things like:

She's no good for you.

He doesn't love you anymore. 

Once our hormones start talking to us, our relationships start to become very distressed. In that distress, we start making decisions about whether we want to stay or go. 

This is an incredibly stressful experience. It's also what happens when we're worried we're no longer in love with our spouses. This may be a good reason to get therapy, but it may not be a good reason to get a divorce. Why?

Because it can change.

We have so much on the line. So when we fight, we start to behave in ways we'll regret.

And it gets worse and worse. We yell louder. We fight harder. We run faster. Then, when asked to apologize, we do something new. 

We rationalize our behavior.

To our partners, this looks like a lack of responsibility; so they point that out, which of course, just makes things worse. We are the only ones who can be responsible for our own behavior.

The next time you start to rationalize your own wacky behavior, just remember what Robert A. Heinlein said, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” 

When we try to explain our reactive behaviors in self-righteous ways, our brains are going through complex task to try and win the argument. We’re surviving.

By winning, we’re still alive.

To our spouses or partners, it looks like selfishness. To them, we look like torturers. 

We’re all wired in different and unique ways. The great mystery of love is that those of us who protect ourselves by going inward and getting defensive usually find people who survive by trying to neutralize the distance between us. This works well when we’re not in distress, but it feels like war when it’s not going well. 

I know it sounds bleak, but it can be different. The good news is that brains are flexible. Scientists have discovered this concept in the brain called neuro-plasticity, which is basically evidence that people can change. 

If you’ve asked yourself this question, then here is your answer. 

There's hope.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

SEO, Hashtags and Other Riddles

This is a presentation that I've developed for therapists who are attending my workshop at TAMFT's 2016 annual conference. I believe strongly in the services that licensed marriage and family therapists provide, and I've put together some thoughts on how therapists can proliferate their message. Follow along with this presentation or refer to it as you develop your own digital spiderwebs.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-960-9898

3 Ways We Fail To Listen.

Image by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr

Image by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr

The person you love the most is the hardest person to listen to in a fight.

If you've ever struggled in your marriage and thought, "How can he be so nice to his colleagues and talk to me like this?" then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

We think we listen, but we don't. We watch people "listen" on television shows and presidential debates, but what we're actually watching are one-way dialogues where no one listens vulnerably and with compassion. So we're programmed to think that listening is a one way street.

As long as I get what you're saying, then I'm listening.

If that's true, why is it that as soon as we react to what our partners say, offering a totally reasonable response, what we often hear is something like, "You're not listening to me!"

I've put together a small list of ways we don't actually listen in the hopes that we can make the basic ingredient of couple communication work more smoothly.

1. We forget to ask if we're listening.

Listeners don't tell their partners they're listening; listeners ask their partners if they're listening. If you're truly listening, then your spouse will tell you.

At the end of a long day when my wife and I get home, we're both exhausted, and both want the other to listen to us.

It takes more energy to share than to be shared to.

Sometimes, I'll get distracted by the news or a baseball game while she's telling me something about her day. Very gently, she'll place her finger on the mute button and wait for me to look up at her with a cute but expectant smile on her face.

This is a clear message that I'm not listening.

We need to be as good at asking if we're listening as our partners are at showing us we're not. If we can develop that skill, then the mute button won't even be necessary. Master these questions:

Did I hear you right?

Do I understand you?

Did I get it?

Use these questions in combination with number two, and you'll be on your way to changing your marriage moment by moment.

2. We don't repeat what we heard.

One of the most annoying things I ask my clients to do is repeat back to their partners what they heard from them. This isn't so hard when we're talking about pizza or dinner plans, but what makes it tough is when we get into conflict.

Our brains do funny things when we're in distress, especially when that distress becomes chronic and predictable.

Our own bodies work against us - secreting what I like to call the battle hormones - convincing us that rather than listen to a criticism, we should fight back and win at any cost. 

This is the opposite of what it means to listen well.

Sometimes listening well means letting down the defenses. One of the hardest things I have to convince folks is that it doesn't matter if you feel attacked. You need to listen; because the only way to disarm an attack is to understand its purpose.

So when your partner or spouse isn't doing their best job to soften her or his criticisms or attacks, you can do your best to listen well by repeating back what you heard.

This sends the message that you're invested - that you care - without you having to lose ground or agree with the attack.

3. We only appear interested.

I once heard a married couple who were also therapists give what I thought was some of the worst advice on listening, ever.

They reinforced the ancient idea that men and women have innately different capacities to listen. Women had higher emotional needs and men just want to scratch their crotches and watch football.

To deal with this, the husband of the pair said that as long as you are looking in the direction of your wife and nodding your head, this will satisfy her need to be heard.

No.

This is a lie. It's not good enough that we pretend to listen. If you can't listen at any given moment, just be honest and say you can't listen. But show enough initiative to come back in 30 minutes and start the conversation equipped with the first two steps.

Great marriages exist between intellectual peers.

Your partner needs to feel like you care about what they face when they walk out the door, like you'll remember at least some of the details the next day. If you struggle to be interested in mechanical engineering, then do your own research on your own time to generate an interest.

It'll go a long way in about 3 hours when you're hoping you'll get lucky.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

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