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.
It is no surprise that our holiday season is going to look a little… different this year. As we wrap up the last two months of 2020, some may be feeling excitement as their favorite time of the year approaches, while others may be feeling anxious, dread, and sadness as they anticipate the upcoming months. Here are three realistic mental health tips to keep in mind as we enter the 2020 holiday season:
Make decisions that feel best for you.
Everyone has an opinion. Literally everyone. At the end of the day, the most important opinion to listen to when it comes to your decisions is your opinion. How are you feeling about family gatherings this year? When you think of a family gathering, do you feel a pit in your stomach or excitement? Whatever is coming up for you as you ponder upon this thought, honor it. Humans are intuitive by nature and we have an internal compass that helps us navigate through life and the difficult decisions that come with the journey. Different family members may feel differently about family gatherings this year, and that is okay! Avoid letting others dictate what you should (or shouldn’t) do; that is for you to decide. Try to advocate for yourself this holiday season by doing some self-reflection, honoring your feelings, and making (safe) decisions accordingly.
Give yourself time to grieve.
When we think of grief, we often associate it with the passing of someone we love dearly (including our beloved animals friends). Grief is also applicable to other changes in life that are less commonly recognized, such as the ending of a relationship or friendship, moving to a new city, transitioning from high school to college, transitioning from college into the working world, and even the ending of a habit, routine, or aspect of one’s life that was previously enjoyed. The connection between all these events is that they are major life transitions, both expected and unexpected. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly falls under the umbrella of unexpected changes! Once these transitions occur, we then experience an internal understanding that life is not going to be the same moving forward. Grief is a natural response to loss; it is not a comfortable experience, but it is an important part of the life journey for human beings. So, what do we do to help process these heavy, uncomfortable, and confusing feelings? We acknowledge them, feel them, and honor them. For healing to begin, the pain and uncomfortable feelings must be faced and not denied. If denied, the grieving process is prolonged. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to grieve and each individual person has a grieving process that is unique to them. For this reason, do not let anyone tell you how to feel, and do not tell yourself how you should feel either.
Make time for yourself.
Self-care is something that is often talked about yet rarely understood. At its core, it is all about carving out time for yourself to do something that brings you joy. It helps refuel us rather than take energy from us. What do you need to feel your best? Is it exercise, quiet reading time, or just a moment to sit in quiet? Self-care doesn’t have to consume hours of time, simply being aware of what you need to feel your best and being intentional about carving out time to make it happen over the course of a week, may be the act that you need to remind yourself that no matter what happens, you have your own back.
With this in mind, know that there is no “right” way to do the holidays this year other than what feels right for you and those you love. We must remember to respect the decisions of others without judgement and apply this same understanding and respect to ourselves. If you are feeling on the fence about making a decision or don’t quite know what your comfort level is just yet, check out this helpful article by the CDC regarding how to safely gather this holiday season. Well wishes and safety to everyone this holiday season.