marriage 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


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


The Rule of 3: Keeping Your Relationship Strong for a Lifetime.

Making a relationship last a lifetime can seem like an overwhelming task.

But keeping a marriage or relationship fresh and connected every day is a choice you can make every second, minute, hour, and week of the year. 

It doesn't take much to remind your partner or spouse that you are still happy with the choice you've made. I've developed a "rule of three" to help couples stay on top of their relationship's intimacy. 

I know rules aren't the sexiest thing on the planet, but these may surprise you. 

1. Rule One: Every Day

Do you remember that old hypothetical situation where someone will offer you either a million dollars right now or a penny doubled each day? If you took the million dollars, you'd miss out on nearly 5 million dollars. 

That's how this rule works. 

If you will find 10 seconds out of every day to remind your partner or spouse that you love them, and commit to that practice, by the end of month, you will have built up incredible positive regard that can help prevent or repair from nasty conflict

What can you do in 10 second?

How about a text message? A love note written on a post-it? Do you any tokens of affection that you share? Could you hide it under a pillow? Underneath a windshield wiper? 

There are innumerable ways that you can send a positive message in only 10 seconds. Find one each day to start, then increase your time by 5 seconds as you start to get a little more creative. 

2. Rule Two: Every Week

This one can be more challenging if you have kids, but it is all the more important.

It is still task-oriented, which means that you may have to schedule some babysitting or have the kids stay with family members. 

I'm a big advocate for parents getting away for a lunch or dinner together alone, even if it means postponing one of the kids' activities. 

Parents' schedules should be more important at least one day of the week. Yes, there's football games, band activities, or theater performances to get to, but parents who put their relationship as a priority make their kids emotionally safe. 

Plan a night out. Go to a breakfast or lunch together. Share a meal at home that is intentionally set apart from the kids' table. Your children need to know that your relationship is important. 

3. Rule Three: Every Month

This one may be easier than you think. The monthly task isn't so much about event planning as it is about meaning-making. If you have the ability to get away for a night or two, then by all means, take advantage of it. There's no need to let those Marriott points just sit there without being used. 

However, if you're like me and life gets hectic sometimes, something like a handpicked bouquet of flowers may send just the right message.

I once had a coupe who wrote a love letter from his office and mailed it to his partner from his office at the end of each month. 

The monthly task does not need to take your money, just your time and creative energy. 

Get going on these tasks to help you jump-start a relationship bogged down by responsibility or childcare. They can be a great way to renew a commitment or create that spark again.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


5 Ways to Keep Your Long-Distance Relationship Alive.

Yes, long-distance relationships can work.


I'm not saying this because I've been through it. Before my wife and I were married, we spent four years in different cities, which in Texas, is no small feat. 

So I do have some personal experience, but I've also learned a lot from the couples I work with who have done this well.

Even if you're not within driving distance, technology mixed with a few lessons from some old-school love stories can help you keep a long-distance relationship healthy and vibrant.

1. Love Letters.

Yes, Skype and FaceTime rock. When I was doing the long-distance thing, the webcam idea was just hitting the market and we never really got the benefit of seeing each other on a screen or a tablet. However, I'm thankful for this because it also made us rely more heavily on some old world techniques for keeping communication open. 

Don't neglect the power of pen and paper. There's something uniquely powerful about taking the time, thought, and effort, to write your feelings down on paper.

The words you use may be simple, but in a culture built around immediacy, the relationship message you send is what keeps long-distance relationships alive, which brings me to number 2.

2. Initiative.

We love initiative. We don't want someone to love us because we ask them to love us, we want them to love us because they want to love us. It means more that way because it affirms our value.

We don't want to feel like a chore. 

Find meaningful ways to express love without being asked. One of the challenges in long-distance relationships is that you have fewer opportunities to show your partner or spouse that you love them in the minutia of life that glues relationships together. 

Normally I work with partners to both show initiative, but also to ask for what you want if you see a lack of initiative. Both are healthy. But with long-distance relationships, spontaneous acts of affection are relationship gold.

3. Always have something on the calendar.

This is a trick I discovered when I learned about a key difference between my wife and I. I always knew that I would see her again soon. She knew it too, but she really needed to have that date on her calendar.

She needed to be able to expect proximity to me.

I've been known to be a little....impulsive. In our long-distance relationship, this served us well. One day, I had been in a bus for 10 hours round trip for a football game. I got back to campus at around 2:00 in the morning where I had planned to go to sleep and then get up and drive to see my wife. 

I don't know if it was the coffee or the adrenaline from the game, but I just decided to hop in the car and drive (College students: Don't do this).

The surprise was welcome. It showed initiative. She was excited to see me. But my impulsivity shouldn't also mean that I don't accommodate her need for structure, which brings me to number 4.


4. Be flexible.

Partner in healthy relationship needs healthy communities. Sometimes, when you're planning trips to see each other, it means that you don't have a ton of opportunities for liesure time with your own immediate community to continue to build relationships.

But you need those social relationships, so be careful not to neglect them.

Sometimes a weekend at home is what is needed. Consider it an opportunity to strengthen your relationship in an indirect way. Foster a healthy intimate relationship by creating healthy social relationships.

Then, when you do get to see each other, make sure that you integrate each other into your own social worlds. One of the worst things that can happens is that you forget to intentionally include each other into your own communities. It can feel very exclusive.

5. Make room in your daily schedule.

You don't get to come home to each other. You don't get to go to the grocery store after work or yell at each other and then make up. Not regularly anyway. So, you need to find other ways to have little intimate moments. 

For some of us, this is hard. If you are an especially focused person who tends to compartmentalize your world - when I'm at work, I'm at work only - this may be difficult.

One of the best ways you can create healthy long-distance relationships is by intentionally opening up little moments in your work day, school day, or other times you wouldn't normally to send a text or do a quick FaceTime. 

Plan a FaceTime lunch where you bring an iPad and go out to the picnic during the middle of the day. Snap a picture of the report you just wrote to share how proud you are of your work. Use emojis.

Yes, emojis. 

You'll be amazed at how this discipline will become a habit that serves you the rest of your lives, when you need it less. You'll be that embarrassing couple that makes people jealous.

Is that such a bad thing?

Do you have your own tips and tricks? Comment here, tweet them to me, or post on my Facebook page.

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


The Problem With Waiting Too Long For Help.

Image by Shiro Kazan on  Flickr

Image by Shiro Kazan on Flickr

We wait way too long to ask for help. 

That growth we should have checked on two months ago has started leaking something nasty, and its just now that we're checking it out on WebMD.

You're seeing spots where just a few hours ago you had a headache you hoped would go away. It started as a stomach ache until you find yourself wrapped around your toilet regretting the suspicious oysters you took a chance on. 

it started as just a few arguments, but now the fighting will never stop. 

It's hard to find a therapist. How will you know that it will make a difference? How will you know that the therapy will be any good? Or that your therapist will understand you?

When should you seek help in the first place?

There's a simple answer to this question, I think. When do you know there's a problem with your body? Simple. 

When it hurts.

Pain serves a purpose. It sucks. But it serves a purpose. It lets us know something is wrong. Listen to your pain. When should you get help for your relationship? For your marriage? 

When it hurts. 

Couples tend to know the difference between a cold and pneumonia. Most of the time, with a cold, you might swallow some throat lozenges, drink some NyQuil (or a few hot toddies) and wait it out. But at some point, when the cold doesn't go away, and when new symptoms develop, you start listening to the pain. You get help.

I have this dream that I would be able to see lots and lots of couples for three sessions or less, but that usually doesn't depend on how good I am. 

There's nothing scientific about that number. It's just a hunch from what I experience from couples who are prevention-minded, who deal with the blister before it is a callous.

They get in quick, before the uncomfortable conflict (or silence) turns into business as usual, before the exception becomes the new and unfortunate rule. 

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
— Henry Ford

Trying harder may not fix what needs to be changed by trying differently.

Couples know what it takes to change, they just don't know they know. And when they don't know that they know, they stay silent or hope things will change on their own. But they don't always. Sometimes, they need to know that something different is possible.

My job isn't to teach you new things. I teach my students, not my clients. In fact, I teach my students not to treat their clients like students, but that's a different story. 

What usually resolves long-term distress is when couples experience each other differently, and when those new experiences become the new rule.

My job is to help you get out of your own way so that you can have new experiences by uncovering what you don't know that you know.

What would it be like if you could expect compassion? If you could expect romance? If you could expect empathy? If you could expect to be loved as you hoped you always would?

Possibility is my passion. That's why I love my job. 

Don't wait. 

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


Can You Hear Me Now? 5 Ways We Don't Actually Listen

Photo by  Dragunsk

Photo by Dragunsk

One of the ways I know someone isn't listening to me is when they tell me they're listening to me. 

Listeners don't have to tell you that they're listening. You just know. Conflict usually has more to do with perspective than actual truth. If you give two people the same picture, they'll often describe two very different images.

So when two people who love each other have very different ideas about a common issue like sex or money, how do you resolve the differences?

That's why listening is so important. 

We do a pretty good job of mucking things up when it comes to listening. Here's just five of the most common listening mistakes.

1. Hearing but not listening

The sneakiest of the five, this one gives the appearance of listening. Hearers are listening to debate rather than to understand or validate. It's really hard to listen when we fight. I'd much rather you were just wrong.

So I'll hear what you say, but only so I can point out where you are flawed in your thinking. 

2. Empathy

This may not be something you were expecting to find here, but hang in there for just a second. I think empathy is overrated. Curiosity is much better.

I see more intimate partners accidentally get themselves in trouble because they make assumptions about how the other feels or what their intentions are. If you are curious, you are listening to understand whereas, empathy gets in the way of curiosity.

3.  Time-Travel

Have you ever been in an argument with your significant other, only to discover you were not only arguing about something that was happening in the moment, but also something that happened two weeks or seven years ago?

One of the barriers to effective listening is that our own brains work against us. When we're in conflict, our brains interpret this as distress. In distress, the past and the present collapse and we access painful emotional memories that occurred years ago.

It takes us out of the present, and we time-travel to past wounds.

4. Yeah, but...

Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that if we give in just a little bit, we can make our point and win the day. If I concede on this one small thing you're saying, then maybe you'll see that I really am right and give in.

However, "You're right, but..." or, "I get it, but..." are usually good ways to make arguments even worse. 

5. Solving the problem

One of the biggest ways we can help ourselves is to remove any agenda or intention from our listening outside of being curious about our partners' experiences. If you are used to a fast-paced work environment that depends on finding solutions to problems, then you might discover that this approach doesn't work as well at home. 

Most of the time, even in conflict situations where we need to solve a problem, listening is the solution to the problem. That's because we're always having two conversations: 1) the resolution to the problem; and 2) the resolution in the relationship. 

Not only do I need to have a solution to the problem, I also need to know you care. Listen to resolve the relationship before you resolve the problem. 

The Golden Rule in intimate relationship listening is that unless our partners know we're listening, we're not listening. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


The Only 2 Reasons To Say "I'm Sorry."

Couple Holding Hands

Couple Holding Hands

Apologies are overrated. 

"I'm sorry," should be the least repeated phrase in an intimate relationship. We have such good intentions when we apologize. We want to stop fighting. We feel frustrated. We feel bad.

For apologies to work, there are two conditions that we have to meet. 

1. You feel healthy guilt about an intentional behavior or action.

Many times we feel the need to apologize when our partners or spouses are upset. Maybe they even demand an apology for something you did or said. If you can reflect on what you said or did and genuinely come to some resolution that what you said was out of line, then you've met the first condition. 

Be careful with this first one. Many people rush to an apology without having met it. If you do, you'll commit the first of two apology errors: the error of inauthenticity. 

You'll apologize, which might please your partner, but you'll really just be giving in. Over time, if you apologize this way, you'll build up a sense of resentment toward your partner. You'll have to hold yourself accountable for being willing to apologize for something you don't feel was intentional. 

There's another option, however, and it begins with the second condition.

2. Your spouse or partner is convinced that you understand her or his pain.

Let's say you feel like you get it. You really were a jerk and you shouldn't have said what you said. Let's also say that you still feel a little frustrated and don't want to take the time to listen to your spouse talk about why she or he is frustrated with what you said, so you apologize. 

By doing this, you unintentionally commit the second apology error: the error of patronizing.

If you get really lucky, this apology might satisfy your partner. More likely, however, your she or he will feel like you are just being patronizing, leaving you with something else to apologize for. 

Try something different.

Meet the second condition before you start worrying about the first. Listen to your partner. Try to avoid defensiveness. You may have a reason to feel angry, but set that aside for the moment and listen to what she is saying.

Once you can ask her, "Do I get it?" and she can respond, "yes," then you can examine the first condition.

If you reflect on what you said or did and know that you shouldn't have said it or did it, then apologize. It will be genuine.

If, however, you've met the second criterion and still don't believe you've done anything intentionally wrong, then clarify your intention. Some of the most powerful words you can say are, "that wasn't my intention." 

It will only work, however, if your partner knows you get it. Otherwise, it will probably just make things worse. Curiosity about experience and empathy about pain are the most important ingredients to a great apology.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


How to Forgive

Anger is about fear, woundedness, and risk.

Chronic anger, anger that lingers like the smoke in your kitchen after the stove has burned too hot, is often falsely accused of being the main culprit when forgiveness is withheld or when conflict is volatile. Think about that thing that your partner or spouse did that hurt you.

What were the immediate emotional experiences you can recall? Was it anger? Or something else? What was going on around you? Were you afraid of something that might have happened? Were you seeking support for something that had already occurred? Did your spouse let you down? Did she or he not understand the significance of how you felt?

Forgiveness often gets confused with giving in. 

Partners who give forgiveness often feel doubly burdened by their spouse's misstep and their own hesitation to offer those three little words: I forgive you. Why can't I seem to forgive? Why is it difficult to just offer forgiveness and let this anger go away? 

Maybe forgiveness isn't about anger. 

When you offer forgiveness, you are giving someone a gift, that's true. But the part of that story that is sometimes omitted is that you do so at your own risk.

To offer forgiveness, you do not need to bother yourself with how to let go of anger. Anger isn't the real problem. Rather, bother yourself with how you might give voice to the fear or pain that you feel your partner does not understand. 

Couple Holding Hands

I often surprise new clients by telling them to stop apologizing.

There are two conditions that must be met for an apology to work.

1. The person apologizing must truly believe they have wronged their spouse or partner.

2. The person who has been wounded must be convinced that the "offender," for lack of a better word, understands her or his pain. In other words, if I have hurt you in some way, then before I try to make amends, you need to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I understand how you've been hurt.

If the first condition is met, but not the second, you're just trying to solve the problem and it comes across as patronizing.

If the second condition is met, but not the first, then you should say, "that was not my intention," otherwise you, as the offender, build resentment because you feel like you're caving in, not being authentic.

Once someone has offered a sincere apology, the next step is the risk that the wounded partner must make. 

How do you forgive?

This starts with vulnerability. You must first actively choose to reveal the pain or fear that resides beneath the anger. Think of the pain as the aquifer and the anger as the flood. The flood is what we pay attention to, but the powerful river that we hide beneath the surface is a torrent. To offer forgiveness, you must first seek understanding and empathy.

Second, you must understand what you are really doing. You are not giving your spouse or partner a freebie. You're not even choosing to forget about the act.

What you are doing is making an active and conscious choice to let yourself be vulnerable and at-risk in a relationship where you've been previously wounded.

Your head has to get in front of your heart on this. You will not feel your way into forgiveness and your partner cannot pay the debt off enough to earn your trust, because this is not about trust. It is about risk. Your risk.

You have to make the choice. 

You are telling your spouse that you're willing to place your safety and your heart in their hands again despite the evidence that suggests you might get hurt. 

Easier said than done?

That's because it is. Forgiveness is a relationship outcome rather than an individual action.

If one person has failed to forgive, it is because the relationship has not yet had the experiences it needs. The offender has not offered true empathy...enough times. The wounded partner does not feel safe. Sometimes it takes time, and even when you do it right, you have to do it again...and again. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


Why Curiosity Is Better Than Empathy

How do you know when your partner or spouse is mad at you? What if she or he isn't mad, but is just having a bad day? How do you know the difference? 

More arguments than I can count start because highly empathetic partners mistake themselves for mind readers. How many times have you heard yourself say something like this:

I just knew you were angry by looking at you, so I didn't say anything.

I didn't need to ask you! It was written all over your face.

I wasn't going to ask you for sex. It was obvious you weren't interested.

Couple Holding Hands

Couple Holding Hands

Let's assume for a moment that you are right. Let's assume that your educated and well-informed guess was correct and that she was bored. Let's assume that the reality might have been that had you said what was on your mind, he would have rolled his eyes at you as usual.

There's still a problem.

Just because you are correct, doesn't mean that you are right. The more you rely on your own insight into your spouse's boredom or your partner's frustration, the less of a voice she or he has in her or his own experience.

Depending on how your spouse reacts to feeling powerless or frustrated, this probably means that she or he will either argue with you, leaving you feeling unheard and dejected, or worse, she or he will just leave the conversation, leaving you feeling panicked and abandoned. 

Try something different. 

Even if you know without any shadow of doubt that you are correct, that he really did say he didn't care about you. Even if you are certain that she really didn't want to have sex with you, and that her reason for not wanting sex with you is because she doesn't doesn't like sex, or doesn't like you, or both, try to exchange your empathy for curiosity. 

How do you do it?

Step One

Start by cultivating an assumption that there may be a side to her experience you don't understand. I know this will be difficult, but do it anyway. If you don't really feel it, fake it. Pretend like you are curious and throw everything you learned in 8th grade theater into it. Over time, your pretending will turn into something genuinely resembling honest curiosity. 

Step Two

Take all the effort you've previously enlisted to convince him that he is wrong and redirect it toward your new obsession with convincing him that you understand. Usually people are scared at this point of "giving in." This is an unnecessary fear. You can validate him and still be authentic. 

Step Three

Finally, clarify your intention. If she accuses you of being rude, there's probably little effectiveness in responding to her accusation rudely. Rather, follow the first two steps and then say something like, "that wasn't my intention." Don't say "I'm sorry," unless you really mean it. Otherwise, you're just patronizing yourself and your spouse. 

Let your empathy go for a brief time and discover whether your genuine curiosity about your spouse or partner might not make the difference between an argument or a conversation.

Dr. Mathis Kennington