While I’ve heard the term “family meeting” all my life, it was often in relation to someone being in trouble or there being a problem that parents had deemed out of hand and the meeting was called so that parents could voice their concerns and set expectations, or even scold. Such family meetings don’t sound fun at all. When I was trained in Positive Discipline, family meetings took on a whole new meaning. Instead of an experience reserved for the most pressing of problems, they became a way to connect, bond, give voice to all family members, teach problem solving skills, and have fun. Still, for over a year I thought, “we’ll start family meetings when our son is old enough to participate…they’re called family meetings after all.” But then, between figuring out how to parent a toddler and with little free time to connect as a couple or problem solve, I decided that it was time to implement regular family meetings. My husband and I picked a weeknight after our son goes to bed when we can talk without distraction, and we roughly follow the “9 Steps for Effective Family Meetings” included below. Here are some of the things that I found most helpful.
Building a culture of appreciation.
Family meetings are a great way to build a culture of appreciation in your relationship. When life gets hectic and tensions are high, it is often easy to notice what your partner is doing “wrong” or those personality traits that get under your skin. However, when we focus on those we can get caught in a loop of frustration, criticism, and defensiveness. That’s why it’s important to begin each meeting by sharing the things we appreciate in our partner. Giving and receiving appreciation helps us relax and move from a place of vigilance to a place of openness. You can work appreciations into your daily rituals as well, maybe right before bed or during dinner each night.
Consistent, dedicated time for relationship and/or parenting concerns.
Every relationship (parenting, romantic, etc.) has its challenges. Sometimes these challenges are predictable and other times they seem to pop up out of nowhere. Family meetings provide an opportunity to really listen and respond to each other’s concerns. This dedicated time has been great for our relationship too. Instead of feeling like our only options are to address a concern in the moment or just let it go, we know we have a time when we are committed to listening to each other. Knowing that we will have an opportunity to be heard allows us to pause when needed without feeling dismissed. If one of us is busy when the other wants to talk, we can ask that the conversation be tabled until our meeting.
Planning something fun.
The last part of any family meeting should be to plan a fun activity for the week. For a couple, this could be a date night (or during COVID times a treat and a movie, a backyard fire, or a weekend walk). Again, this is all about connection. I encourage you to plan something as a couple, but you can also think of something to do with your whole family.
While I look forward to the day when our son can participate in family meetings, I hope that my husband and I continue to have our own. We have always talked things through, but there’s something comforting about knowing we have that specific time. I’m also glad that we’re practicing now so that when our son does join us we’ll be better able to model connection, communication, and problem solving skills.
As a couples therapist, I see couples who are struggling to re-invigorate their sex life, they are struggling with finances, they have trouble raising their children, etc. Having these reasons in mind as to why many of my couples come in on the brink of divorce, researcher Dr. John Gottman says that the main reasons why couples divorce is due to sex, finances, and raising children. I must say that though Dr. Gottman has a point, I disagree—couples divorce due to lack of emotional connection.
If you are not emotionally connected and engaged in your marriage, you will not be able to manage a sex life together, manage money together, or create a safe parenting space together. Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of the dynamic Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, says that the erosion of an emotional bond between two partners is the beginning of the end to their relationship. As humans, we are wired to connect in a safe and emotionally healthy way. If we do not have this in a marriage, we will slowly disconnect and eventually divorce if no action for couples therapy is taken.
Disconnection can look like many different things. Maybe you and your spouse keep arguing about household chores or who will walk the dog next. Perhaps a spouse can feel unsupported in their idea to switch careers. Maybe there is just an overall feeling of loneliness on both parts in the marriage. The main point to understand on a general disconnect in the marriage is that it can be understood and helped. Much of what we do in couples therapy at Austin Family Counseling is strengthen the emotional bond between partners as well as create a safe space for re-engagement and for couples to work on issues that have been reasons for feelings of disconnection in their marriage. Basically, a general feeling of disconnection is not a valid reason to divorce when there are many resources and tools to help build and strengthen your marriage. Rarely do couples come to me with the presenting problem of lack of engagement and leave the therapeutic process unhealed, reassured, and optimistic about their exciting new opportunities to re-spark their romantic life.
Extreme cases, however, can absolutely be reasons to separate. In my years of practice, I have seen such reasons for a therapist to recommend separation as physical abuse, emotional/verbal abuse, and active addiction.
This is perhaps the main reason that couples should divorce. Physical abuse of any kind is not acceptable in a marriage or any other kind of relationship. Physical abuse is seen in marriages where one partner has significant anger issues and has not managed their emotion to the point of it being unsafe to be close and vulnerable to this person. Women who stay married to physically aggressive men are very likely to have come from abusive households where they see abuse as a “natural” thing.
According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, since the stay-at-home order has been put into effect in 2020, an alarming increase of domestic violence cases has occurred in the US. More partners are shut into their homes with their spouse, putting them more at risk of physical danger when the aggressive partner becomes triggered. Other effects that are brought on by the stay-at-home order are alcohol abuse, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, all VERY easy triggers of physical abuse.
If you are involved in a physically abusive marriage, I urge you to reach out for help and escape from a dangerous situation as soon as possible within your boundaries of safety. If you are in Austin, the Salvation Army’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children, the SAFE Children’s Center, and Casa Marianella are all places where women and families can go for refuge from a physically abuse situation. As a couples therapist who becomes aware of physical abuse, I am ethically bound to stop couples therapy immediately and let the abusive partner know they need to do their own counseling and anger management if couples therapy ever resumes.
Aside from physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse is another form of abuse that is sadly much harder to spot. Physical wounds leave visible marks, but emotional wounds can go unseen for sometimes decades. Emotional abuse is defined as any form of emotionally manipulative behavior perpetrated by one person to another that can cause PTSD, stress, or anxiety. Some forms of it are below:
Gaslighting: making the partner being gaslit think something is different than they actually experienced it. Example: “Something must be wrong with your memory because I never said that!”
Minimizing: making someone feel inadequate or unworthy based merely on how they are feeling Example: “I don’t know why you’re feeling that way, you didn’t have it that bad!”
Intimidation: using threatening language to reinforce a sense of control by the partner through invoking fear. Example: “I will hit you if you say that to me one more time!”
Though no form of abuse is ever acceptable, there tends to be more hope for emotional abuse than physical abuse in the couples I see. Sometimes, separation is key for partners where verbal abuse is going on before they are able to come back together and make the decision to either stay together or divorce. However, in my sessions with couples, a hard boundary I hold is to have no gaslighting, minimizing, intimidation, or name-calling in session. If you believe your partner has narcissistic qualities in them, definitely seek help for mental health as these can have longlasting negative effects on someone’s sense of self.
Though many treatment modalities indicate couples can survive an active or recovering addiction, in extreme cases a marriage cannot always survive. If a partner is currently abusing alcohol and becomes physically or emotionally abusive, it is in the other partner’s best interest to leave when the marriage becomes an unsafe place. Unless the addicted partner commits to going to AA or therapy to work on their addiction, the marriage will become an unsafe place for both people, triggering an abusive cycle that both partners will be feeding into.
When a partner is addicted to an illegal substance (i.e. cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine, etc.), the marriage is further complicated due to the unlawful possession of illegal substances in a household. Not only is the marriage riddled with addiction and addictive patterns, but this presents the marriage with far more dangers and reasons to divorce. Though only one partner is using, both spouses when living together are subject to legal ramifications that puts the non-addicted partner in a very precarious position.
When couples come to me with an addiction present, I hold a firm boundary that the person who is addicted seek help through groups (i.e. AA, NA, SLAA, etc.), separate individual counseling, or in further cases checking into a detox and addictions treatment center for couples therapy to continue. It is unethical to do couples counseling while a noticeable addiction is going on due to the fact that the vulnerability needed in couples therapy can at times exacerbate the addicted spouse’s addiction.
October is domestic violence awareness month, my goal is to give you all a little information about what violence in relationships might look like, the prevalence, what you can do when you’re experiencing violence, and how to support those who might be. Every relationship is unique whether you are reading this and thinking about your own romantic relationship or someone you care for, it is important to recognize that every situation is different, relationships can be complex, and this in no way summarizes every experience.
Conflict is a normal part of intimate relationships. There are times, however, when conflict can result in violence. Intimate partner violence (IPV) describes numerous behaviors that aim to cause harm to a current or former romantic partner. Different types of IPV include physical violence, sexual violence, emotional violence/psychological abuse, threats, and stalking. Additional behaviors can include financial abuse (for example preventing a partner from earning an income or obtaining financial resources), and relational aggression (for example damaging a partner’s reputation or hurting their social standing).
We often think these things won’t happen to us, but no one is immune to the threat of partner violence. In fact IPV occurs across all ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and between both same and opposite sex couples. In the United States rates of IPV vary with about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men reporting they have experienced IPV 1. These behaviors start early with 1 in 5 female high school students reporting abuse by a romantic partner 2. IPV can have deadly consequences, in fact, it is the leading cause of female homicides and on average nearly three women are murdered a day at the hands of their current or former romantic partner 3.
Situational Couple Violence
Fortunately most instances of conflict and most instances of violence do not end in homicide. When we imagine domestic violence we usually picture a partnership with one coercive and controlling partner and another partner that is clearly the victim. While this does happen and can have devastating consequences, it is much more common that a couple engage in what psychologists refer to as “situational couple violence”. This type of violence is less lethal, and usually involves an argument that has spiraled out of control. Situational couple violence is far more likely to be mutual in nature and less frequent. Couples that experience this type of violence in their relationship would likely benefit from counseling services that focus on improving communication between partners, navigating recurring conflict, and tips for de-escalating when emotions run high.
Tips For De-Escalating Conflict
If you have had this experience some things to help de-escalate conflict include having a negotiated time out, this is a time that you and your partner agree upon to step away from the argument and pick a time to return. Another tip would be to match and de-escalate. When we are confronted with conflict, our default reaction is sometimes to become defensive and in turn get angrier than your partner (match and escalate), this is less than ideal and the trend is a spiral to greater conflict. Instead we should aim to do the opposite, by remaining calm we remind our partner and ourselves, that this is a disagreement, not a fight. Another tip is to hold space, take the time to understand your partner’s perspective and get to the root of the conflict instead of reacting instinctually; get curious about the feelings and concerns of your partner. The goal is always a calm conversation. These are just a few general tips for navigating conflict; additionally speaking with a counselor can likely help to develop specific tips and work through tough issues when it’s hard to handle alone.
What To Do When Your Partner is Dangerous?
But what happens when this is not possible in your relationship. When it’s not possible to have a calm conversation with your partner. It is still worthwhile to seek counseling. Women with a history of IPV are three times more likely to report that their mental health is poor compared to those who do not have a history of violence. If getting help is possible, it’s worth considering. However, we know that it is not always possible. In relationships with a coercive and controlling partner it may be unlikely that counseling would be considered and may even be seen as a threat; my recommendation for those who feel they are in this situation is to come up with an emergency or safety plan. Have a bag, phone numbers, money and documents, anything you might need. Include information on how to reach a friend, family member, or shelter that you know you can go to. You can even have this bag at another person’s house, if you feel it’s more safe than having it in your own home. Set up a key word with someone you trust so that you can alert him or her if you are in danger. Call the domestic violence hotline for more tips and help with your plan. It doesn’t always feel like it, but there is always a way out. Your safety is incredibly important. Have an emergency plan.
How Can I Support My Friend?
As you’ve read there are different types of violence and how you respond to your friend might be related to the type of violence they are experiencing. No matter the circumstance, the most important thing you can do for your friend is to be there as nonjudgmental emotional support. Listen to your friend and believe them, it is likely that it is taking your friend a lot of courage to share with you. Offer whatever support you feel comfortable offering, that is likely to be different for everyone and that’s ok. The ways you can help vary but can include anything from suggesting helpful resources to offering to let your friend leave their emergency bag at your house. The level of support you’re able to give might differ, again that is ok. Follow up with your friend; ask if its ok to follow up, they may want to pretend that they never disclosed, it is not your job to remind them, but as a friend it may be part of your role to follow up. When you do follow up ask “Is now is a good time to talk?’.
This can be tough for you too. You likely care deeply for your friend, it is important that you get support if you need it too. Any domestic violence hotline available to your friend is also available to you. Additionally counselors are available to help you navigate circumstances, conversations, and feelings that may arise while supporting a friend experiencing IPV. Experiencing IPV and being support for someone who is experiencing IPV can feel incredibly isolating or overwhelming, but you are not alone.
If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence please reach out to any of the resources below.
Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S. G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., . . . Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Silverman, J. G., Raj, A., Mucci, L. A., & Hathaway, J. E. (2001). Dating violence against adolescent girls and associated substance use, unhealthy weight control, sexual risk behavior, pregnancy, and suicidality. JAMA, 286(5), 572-579.
Violence Policy Center (2020). When men murder women: An analysis of 2018 homicide data. Washington, DC. With Data from the Federal Bureau of Statistics.
Written By: Dr. Monica Yndo. Dr. Monica Yndo is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University Texas. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research focuses on communication and conflict in relationships, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, social support, and family dynamics.