couple therapy austin

How To Stop An Argument that's Going Nowhere.


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.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


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." 


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


5 Reasons The Little Things Matter.

You only need to have one bad day and one really great spouse or partner to know that the little things matter.

Your boss screamed at you or your kids screamed at you and you didn't get done what you needed. Your spouse knows it and brings you your favorite dinner or favorite bottle of wine to make things a little better.

The little things are important. Maybe one little thing won't make a huge difference, but after five or ten years, lots of little things turn into one big relationship security blanket. Here are five reasons why:

1. Little things send a big message.

Subtle actions in intimate relationships send big relationship messages. We are always having two conversations in our relationships. The first is the issue we have to resolve: the kids' schedule, the finances, or the trash. The second conversation flows underneath the first.

Questions like, "Can I count on you?" or "Will you be there for me?" sneak their way into every interaction we have. This is why little disappointments can feel so big to you, but not to your mate. 

But this can also work for you. 

Snagging your partner's favorite ice cream on the way home, planning an unexpected date night, or taking an hour out of your Saturday to shape things up around the house may seem like small gestures, but they send valuable messages about the relationship. 

2. Little things create desire.

Sex is funny in relationships. Some people need intimacy to have sex while others create intimacy through sex. Many times, these people pair up. When in distress, it can create a dance where each is seeking intimacy from the other while at the same time, withholding intimacy. 

But when we intentionally find small ways to demonstrate initiative, like sending text messages throughout the day at work without an expectation of response, intimate and sexual desire often increase. 

3. Little things create goodwill.

One of the first things I ask clients to do is intentionally be flexible about how they make sense of their partner's behaviors. I ask them to be open to new interpretations. This is important because partners almost always have two perspectives of the same event that seem vastly different. 

Emotion tends to color perception in that way. 

In order to help with this, I ask partners to consider ways that they can take initiative to foster goodwill. The little things do that. They allow partners the freedom to believe again that they can love and be loved.

4. Little things create loving feelings.

Love follows action. If we feel a loss of loving feelings in a relationship, it is often because we withhold loving behaviors. Sure, we may have justifiable reasons for withholding loving behaviors, but that is why I ask folks to be flexible, open to new experiences. 

If you choose to engage in loving behaviors, you may be surprised to discover how feelings of romance and intimacy return to your relationship. 

5. Little things communicate safety.

Can you think of ways that your parents used to behave that drove you crazy and embarrassed you, but that you look back on now with a fondness? Or on the other hand, can you remember a total lack of love and intimacy in your family of origin? 

Little ways you express love and intimacy communicate safety not only to your partner or spouse, but also to your children. Parents who intentionally put their relationship or marriage first actually put their children first. It works that way, ironically.

More than busy schedules, the best schools, or the best grades, kids need parents who embarrass each other with their affection. Who laugh together.

These are just a few reasons why the little things are important. Can you think of more? Feel free to share this post with a reason why you think the little things matter.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


What To Do If You're Thinking About Divorce.

Do you wonder if it is too late for you to turn things around? 

About four in every ten couples I see thinks the same. That's what makes this type of work so unique. Most people don't walk into a therapist's office uncertain if the relationship will still be intact when they walk out. 

You don't wonder if you'll stop being a mom. A dad. A son. A daughter.

You may worry that you'll no longer be a spouse. 

Do yourself a favor and try to ask yourself some important questions before you get too far down this road. If your spouse or partner has suggested that you should go see a therapist, don't wait. An early investment in your relationship can save a massive expense down the road, not just in dollars, but in heartache. 

If you've already starting asking this question, then here are some things to consider. 

Most of the time, marriages don't hang on single moments of relationship trauma. Even affairs are not automatic death sentences.

If you feel like you're standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, staring at your spouse on the other side, you may be surprised to discover that the gap between you is not filled with differences in personality, or flaws, but a past of daily choices that could still be different. 

Most of the time, chronic relationship challenges are co-created.

Without realizing it, we sometimes produce the very behaviors in our spouse that we don't like. If you're preoccupied with a personality flaw you're certain your partner or spouse has - which over time has contributed to your belief that she or he doesn't care about you - then consider the idea that you might be contributing to that very flaw without realizing it. 

Your head will need to get in front of your heart. 

Most of the time, I find that couples never want to get divorced, or at least, they never thought they'd be getting divorced. They just find it hard to imagine that things could be different.

If you're looking or hoping for change to occur before you can commit to the relationship, you may be disappointed. In other words, your head may have to get in front of your heart. 

To me, this means that you may need to commit to the change before the change occurs. This is a big relationship risk. I know that it is asking a lot. Couples therapy takes time to create lasting change. But with a willing heart, you may be surprised at what is able to change in a short time. 

It's okay to think about your kids.

Hell, I tell my clients not only to consider your kids, but everyone who was with you when you were married. Marriage isn't just a couple commitment, but a family one.

There are lots of people invested in you. Ultimately, your decision to be together should be about your relationship. But if you're considering divorce, you community's input is important. 

You may still land on a decision to divorce. If so, there are healthy and peaceful ways to go about it. But if you're wondering whether the relationship can make it, then an authentic conversation with your spouse or partner may reveal some life changing surprises. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


What Giant Redwoods Can Teach Us About Marriage

You would think the largest trees in the world have deep roots. 

That's not the case. I'm spending some time in northern California this week. I'll admit, most of it I'll spend in the wineries rather than the forests. But my father and mother-in-law had the opportunity to go explore the beautiful redwood forests, and they returned to us with an interesting fact. 

My lovely mother-in-law standing beside a giant redwood

My lovely mother-in-law standing beside a giant redwood

Redwood trees root less than 10 feet underground. Many times, the giant trees' roots bury only to about five to six feet. How then, do these trees - the tallest of which towers over the statue of liberty - stand firm in the face of fires, heavy winds, and unpredictable weather? 

How do they not topple at the first hint of a storm?

The trick about the redwoods' root systems are that they grow in families, or groups, and even though the roots may be comparatively shallow, they are massively wide. They reach out and interlock with the roots of their counterparts, gaining strength from closeness. As the roots grow together, these trees can withstand much more than they could on their own, regardless of how deep they grew. 

We talk a lot about being deeply rooted. But what about to whom we are rooted?

It can be hard to make life changes. We move to new places. We have children. Those children leave. We grow old. Our shoulders become heavier, broader, with greater weight and expectations. 

The greatest opportunity marriage can offer is the chance to reach out and lock in when the wind blows and when the storms come.

Sometimes it can feel as though we are barely rooted into the ground. 

But if we reach out, rather than in, maybe we'll find that we are stronger together than apart, regardless of how deep we reach into work, into activities, and into life..

Isn't that what marriage is all about?

Dr. Mathis Kennington