Should You Let Go of a Difficult Relationship?

I am often asked why I believe the divorce rate has become so high in this country.  Although I don’t presume to have all the answers to this question, I do notice a trend in the couples that seek out therapy and yet end in divorce.  While I still treat plenty of couples that have grown resentful and cannot even sit next to each other in my office by the time they come to seek my help, I also seem to be seeing a lot of couples that have positive feelings towards their significant other, but are nonetheless miserable in the relationship.  Unfortunately, the latter couples are more likely to end up divorced and my belief is that this is due to the relationship being flawed from its inception. 

The trend in our society has been for couples to seek out marriages later in life than previous generations.  There are many benefits to this lifestyle choice, including more career satisfaction and more maturity when entering the relationship.  However, it also seems to lead to fear of ending up alone and rushed decisions to marry, at least for many women, based on the fear of an inability to have families.  So when you meet someone who is mature, well rounded, has built a nice life for themselves and is an all-around good person why would you not want to spend the rest of your lives with them?  The problem becomes that sometimes two wonderful people have had life experiences that don’t allow them to meet each other’s needs. Of course, there is little worse than a spouse who is unable to meet your deepest needs.

When someone comes to my office in these circumstances I often hear statements about how they have shared their desires for changes with each other and their partner is receptive.  Sometimes there is even an initial push to make those changes in order to save what is basically a good and loving relationship.  However, over time those changes fade and the old behavior patterns emerge and both parties are left frustrated all over again.  They are eager to uncover why this keeps happening and how to solve the problem.  

The reason is often easy to determine: people grow and adapt based on experiences with their families of origin and other relationships.  For instance, they may learn through a difficult childhood to be extremely self-sufficient, thus making inclusion of their significant other difficult when it comes to emotions, major decisions or milestones.  It may not occur to such a person to share big news or skip an important work meeting for a birthday.  None of these decisions makes this individual a bad person, but it may make them a bad partner for someone who watched their parents be a connected team and place value on being present for celebrations of each other.

Solving these problems is a much bigger task and ultimately sometimes an impossible challenge.  The couple mentioned above can learn how to navigate these differences once they understand they are present and implement systems for making these decisions.  The question is whether they are both invested in changing and that investment comes when they recognize their behavior as a problem for their relationship.  Unfortunately, if their behavior is not something that they can recognize as a problem, it is not likely to change.

My advice would be to consider letting go of relationships where your needs are not being met, even if it means that you are letting go of a wonderful person.  Just because someone is a good person does not mean they are the right person for you.  Often understanding that someone is loving you in the best way they know how, but it is not the way you need, helps you to let go.  Think about whether the relationship you are in meets your needs.  What things do you truly need to make you feel valued and understood?  Everyone deserves to be with someone who can meet their needs, whatever those needs may be, and while nobody will likely be a perfect match to everything you want you should never stay in a relationship where you are thinking that someone will change for you over time.  I ask each couple that comes to see me before they get married one question and it is a good question to ask yourself about your relationship: if your significant other never changes would you still want to be with them?

If you are already in a relationship that you think may fall into this category, do not despair.  I always advise meeting with a therapeutic professional who may be able to help both parties gain the self-awareness necessary to make compromise possible.   Either way, open communication and an awareness of the real underlying problems within the couple’s dynamic will be incredibly helpful to improve any relationship.  While it is never easy to make a decision about whether or not to end a long term relationship, I hope being armed with some information about why it may not be working will help you come to the best possible decision for you.


Can Men and Women be Friends Without More?

Yesterday I was listening to a great new radio program called “The Happy Hour” on TODAY Show Radio (SiriusXM channel 108).  The show included lively discussion about relationships, and more specifically, the question of whether or not men and women can be friends without more.  Not surprisingly there were differing views regarding whether or not this was possible.  The thoughtful comments and insights on the show made me think about the patients I have seen over the years and how small steps across boundaries can lead to extramarital affairs.  There are definitely patterns in the seemingly minor problems that lead to major boundary crossing.  Awareness of these patterns can help prevent you from putting yourself in situations that are potentially damaging to your romantic relationship. 

It is my opinion that men and women can be friends in certain circumstances.  Of course, the key to sustaining a healthy friendship with anyone is creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries.  I think this is especially true of male/female friendships.  If you are behaving towards your friend in a way that would upset you if the same were true of your significant other, that may be a good benchmark to use for your boundaries.  It may also become important for you to ask your partner about where they feel the boundaries should be in order to avoid trouble in your primary romantic relationship. 

One factor that can influence whether a relationship can successfully be maintained on a friendship level is the circumstances under which you meet the individual in question.  For example, men and women who meet in professional settings are more likely to develop friendships that are healthy and appropriate than those that meet out socially.  The professional capacity of the relationship sets implied boundaries that facilitate the friendship’s harmless nature.  Regardless of what boundaries are introduced at the beginning of the relationship, however, it always remains important to respect and maintain those firm boundaries as the friendship moves forward. 

I’ve also noticed that men and women seem to view this issue through very different prisms.  For many women it is important that they do not share too much of themselves and develop a strong emotional connection with their male friends.  These emotional connections often cause boundaries to become blurred and potential affairs to take root.  For men, the impetus to cross boundaries often seems to be much more related to flirtations and physical proximity.  These differing motivations can also result in the two friends having drastically different perceptions of the relationship. 

One should also be mindful of the priority he/she is placing on their romantic relationship compared to other relationships.  It is typically symptomatic of a problem if you are investing more time and energy into a relationship with a friend than with your significant other, especially if that friend is the opposite sex.  Have the self-awareness necessary to recognize when you are at risk of losing the proper balance between these relationships. 

I believe that maintaining fidelity to your relationship with your significant other has to come from an awareness of, and faithfulness to, appropriate boundaries.  It also helps to invest a lot of time and energy into your relationship with your significant other and not to share emotional experiences with your friend that you wouldn’t share with your significant other. Additionally, don’t badmouth your significant other to the friend.  This may lead to comparisons such as my friend listens to me more than my partner.   Avoidance of comparison is extremely important.  Someone that you share responsibilities with cannot possibly be fun or energetic all the time whereas you might primarily be seeing your friend in their best environment.  When you compare people in this way, you might as well be comparing apples and oranges.  Maintaining healthy relationships with opposite sex friends may seem like a minefield, but if you respect boundaries you stand a better chance of maintaining the appropriate balance in your relationships. 


Dealing with Holiday Depression

It has always been amazing to me that the time between mid-November and the start of January is my busiest period of my professional year.   The holidays are always painted in stories and movies as an idyllic time full of love and happiness.  Even on social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, the highlight reel of everyone’s holiday celebrations displays a skewed representation of the holiday season as a non-stop joyous celebration.  Unfortunately, the truth is far less joyous than you might suppose.  The reality is that many people struggle during this season.  They struggle with feelings of loss and isolation that are only exacerbated by the messages and images of happy family celebration that surround them. 

When you really think about it, there is no surprise that depression rates are higher during this time of year.  Families are often complicated and the holidays can force more time with your extended family than you are accustomed to.  Pair this with an increase of alcohol consumption and there are bound to be hurt feelings and old frustrations bubbling to the surface.  If families are far away and you are unable to spend time with them you may miss them and feel isolated.  In some instances you may be shamed or experience guilt over your inability to participate in family traditions.  For many, this time of year also comes with a reminder of the loved ones they have lost.  Additionally, you may spend time comparing this holiday to previous ones or measuring what actually happened with what you hoped would occur.  Furthermore, omnipresent  social media may cause  you to compare your decorations, gatherings, food, or experiences to those of your acquaintances and friends.  The outcome of such comparisons is often dissatisfaction with something that we might otherwise have found extremely satisfying. 

So the question becomes how can you keep yourself from sinking further into a depressive state this time of year?  There are a few simple ideas that may help you achieve that goal.  First, stay off or limit your exposure to social media.  Spend a few minutes every day instead focusing on what you like about the holidays and thinking about things for which you are grateful.  Learn how to kindly say no to things that consume too much time and energy and take away from the experiences that are important to you.  If you find yourself losing focus of your priorities, ask yourself what you value about this time and stay focused on that.  If you value your children having the experience of being doted on by their grandparents, hold onto the thoughts of that occurring and let go of the parenting criticism that might come with that visit.  Most of all, make time for the people who value you and who you enjoying being around, even if those are not the people with whom you feel obligated to spend time.   Honor anyone you may have lost.  Tell stories about them or create a tradition that keeps them alive in your heart. Remember that nobody has a perfect life or everything that they want but what they are showing you is often their best.  Give yourself (and others) permission to be human and imperfect.  You may be amazed how much more enjoyable the holiday season can be!


The Importance of Exercise for Mental Health

Very rarely do people take into account how their physical health and mental health are connected.  I talk with every patient that seeks my help about setting not just goals for their mental health improvement but goals for their physical health as well. Both our physical and emotional well-being is important for our overall health.  Therefore, it is important to evaluate improvement options as a whole person solution. 


I am never surprised when I hear that someone has gotten into bad sleeping patterns, unhealthy eating patterns, or tapered off on their exercise regimen.  I have written previously about how poor sleep disrupts emotional regulation abilities and how poor nutrition can cause an emotional roller coaster.  However, the importance of exercise is often overlooked in mental health discussions.  We have a tendency to think of exercise in terms of weight loss or cardiovascular health.  However, regular exercise has enormous benefits for our mental health as well.


First, taking time out regularly to exercise is good practice in devoting the time to prioritize your needs before all of the other demands in your life.  Even if it is only twenty to thirty minutes a few times a week, it is a wonderful commitment you are making to your own well-being.  Often for those who struggle with mental health issues, making time for their own well-being is not a habit they have formed, so exercise offers a good reason to form this important habit.


Second, exercise releases endorphins, which help raise your overall sense of happiness and helps combat depressive hopelessness and the overwhelming sensation that comes with anxiety.  The physical activity forces you to be present in the moment giving you practice in keeping yourself focused.  This can be tremendously helpful when combatting mental health issues.  Physical movement helps your body function at its optimal levels, thus enhancing your attention and memory.   Plus, if you stick with it past the initial shock to your body, your energy level will increase.


Finally, exercise opens up new ways to create a sense of mastery.  When you take up a new activity, over time you will see the improvements of practicing that activity such as changes in your body, improved strength, increased endurance, higher energy level, or just strictly the ability to do something better. It makes you feel good about yourself and improves self-esteem. 


Give it a try.  I promise you are worth the 20-30 minutes of your day that it will take to see improvements!


Help With the Grief Process

Unfortunately, at some point, most of our lives are touched by the loss of someone significant.  People tend to be very familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression/Sadness and Acceptance) and often they seek out therapy with me when they begin to feel “stuck” in one of these stages.  I am often amazed by how abnormal their grieving process seems to them while it is actually a completely normal reaction.  Our society has become one that values strength, which all too often seems to be defined as ignoring your actual feelings and moving on with your life.  Therefore, these people come to see me with a lack of compassion for what they are experiencing and an idea that they “should” be further along in getting over their loved one’s loss. 


I often begin our work together by helping the person to recognize grief as a process that occurs on a continuum.  Much like other changes in our life, we take time to adjust to them and come to terms with them.  In the beginning when the loss is fresh and we are overwhelmed, a lot of loved ones offer support.  Our fragile and mercurial moods are taken without a single eyebrow raised.  And while it is wonderful to have the support during this extremely difficult time, very rarely does the true scope of your loss set in until all the planning and initial frenzy is behind you.  Friends and loved ones want to help even after the initial shock, so my first piece of advice to anyone with a loss is to ask for help.  When people offer you assistance, they mean it.  They may just not know the best way to help and they don’t want to be a nuisance.  So think about what would really be helpful to you and ask for it.  If you don’t feel comfortable asking, find one close person to set up the help for you, but take the help.


However, months and sometimes even years after your loss it is perfectly normal to still be grieving.  Grief doesn’t ever completely disappear and that is not the goal.  The goal is to move from extreme pain and despair to the point where you can think about your loved one and cherish the wonderful memories they left behind.  While it would be nice to avoid all the pain and heartache this is not a realistic way to handle grief and will lead you to a place where you carry the grief around with you like a lead weight.  Instead, you must peel the band-aid off and allow yourself to experience the full spectrum of feelings, even anger with your lost loved one.  This is all a normal and appropriate part of the process. 


For people that struggle to move forward while experiencing grief my best recommendation is a grief project.  Grief projects come in many forms.  For most people it may be a journal where you capture memories of your loved one or a scrapbook where you capture photos and memories.  If you are artistic or creative it could be sketches of your memories or poems written about your loved one.  I have even had people do recipe books for their family members that include all of the special holiday things that their loved one made.  Any way you honor your loved one and work through your memories is a valuable grief project.  It keeps your loved one fresh in your mind and gives you a sense of purpose when you feel lost in a sea of grief.  While a grief project is designed to help you work through your feelings in a purposeful way, time is the one true healer.


Keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to grief.  It affects different people in different ways and you cannot compare your grief process with that of others.  Be willing to process the grief rather than avoiding it and be open to accepting help from those around you.  If you accept that processing grief takes an unpredictable amount of time, and use available resources to help you process and grieve, you will find that life becomes more manageable and hopeful again.  If you ever feel “stuck” or need that extra boost to assist, know that there is no shame in asking  for professional assistance.