How to Sustain Desire in Long Term Relationships

"I find myself fantasizing about other people. Is something wrong with me?"

"I can't remember the last time we had sex."

"It just feels like a chore."

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We know you love your partner. You've been together for years. But something feels as if it's missing - there's a spark, an energy, a passion that's been gone for years now.

How do you maintain desire in long term relationships?

Pioneering sex therapist Esther Perel says that in her research, she finds two common themes. Couples find their partner most desirable when reuniting, when he/she is in his/her element, and when there's novelty

Reuniting with your partner means they've gone out and done something. For a while, I can anticipate what he or she is doing, where they are, and even long for their return. I missed you. 

Seeing our partner confident, self-assured, and in his or her passion where we find tremendous desire. My partner doesn't need me to do anything for him/her. Look at how confident she is on stage. Do you see all the people gravitating toward him?

And finally, bringing something new, original, or unexpected to the relationship brings us desire. I find my partner desirable when he surprises me. 

Dis-satisfactory sexual relationships happen and, while there's opportunity to implement these practices in your relationship, a trusted therapist can help guide the process. 

Exercise can help emotion regulation

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New research suggests that aerobic exercise can aid in emotion regulation.

Harvard University researchers measured the amount of change a moderate amount of exercise had on emotional responses to an upsetting film clip in study participants. They found that the clip produced a negative emotional response in all participants, but those who'd participated in exercise before watching it were able to recover more quickly than those who hadn't.

Additionally, participants who exercised reported feeling less sadness than those who hadn't.

Healthy living has always included recommendations for exercise, and this new research seems to suggest the benefits extend beyond physical well-being.

Wise Mind

Wise mind, a Dialectical Behavior Therapy concept, asks us to become aware of our different mind states. Finding your Wise Mind, that midpoint between acting emotionally and rationally, becomes a powerful tool for navigating difficult life situations.

Intrinsic Motivation, or how to get yourself to do something

Motivation can be tough to come by. 

Watching a movie sounds so much better than doing the dishes. Going for a bike ride is way more fun than doing the project you brought home from work. Grabbing a beer with friends sounds so much better than taking the dog for a walk.

So how can you get yourself to do the things you're supposed to?

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when we're compelled to do something to avoid a punishment or earn a reward, like a child cleaning his room because he doesn't want to get grounded. Intrinsic motivation is doing something because it's personally rewarding, and it's the real key for finding and staying motivated.

So how do you tap into that intrinsic motivation? What's the secret to unlocking your potential?

It's simple, really. Focus on why you're doing things. Align them with your values (which may take a little more soul searching.) Pay attention to the moment. Keep your attention and awareness on the moment instead of allowing your mind to wander. And look for the enjoyable moments. Sure, doing the dishes may not be fun, but pay attention to how much better it feels to have a clean kitchen.

Quick Mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation can feel like a commitment. We can often find excuses or reasons not to practice. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months, and months into years. Break the cycle.

Do one action mindfully.

Just one!

It could be something you do everyday, like brushing your teeth. Notice how the bristles feel against your teeth and gums. Notice the water, taste the toothpaste. Take a minute to be truly aware of the moment, without judgment.

Notice your train of thought. Bring it back to brushing. Feel the toothbrush in your hands, listen to the sounds it makes. 

Carve out the time. You can find it. 

Emotional Flooding ... and how to stop

The dog won't stop barking, the kids won't listen to anything you say, you're tripping over shoes strewn over the house. Before you know it, you're furious - an uncontrollable rage that's pulsing through your whole body. You're ready to blow. 

It's flooding. You're so consumed by your emotions you're drowning in them. It's the opposite of numb. You can't NOT feel what you're feeling to the infinite degree and you don't know how not too. You've lost the ability to use your higher thinking and you're acting on impulse. 

Yelling at the kids to listen to you.

Hitting the dog in a desperate attempt to get him quiet.

Throwing shoes across the room.

Suddenly you've turned into this monster, doing the very things you thought you'd never do. How can you stop yourself before it gets too far?

1. Recognize the physical signs of flooding. Is your heart starting to beat faster? Are you clenching your fists or jaw? Take a quick body scan to see where you're holding your tension and try to release it.

2. Take a minute to focus on your thought stream. Are you taking these actions as personal attacks against you? Are you jumping to conclusions? Are you turning toward blame? In what ways can you change your thinking pattern?

3. Take a break. Take a few deep breaths and watch your belly rise and fall. Close your eyes if it feels right. 

Using these calming strategies, engage your higher thinking to productively problem solve. 

Relationship Activity Questionnaire

When relationships are in crisis, we often forget how or why attraction started in the first place. Use this worksheet to learn more about your partner, turning the focus temporarily away from problems.

"I'm not good enough"

It's been a common theme in sessions this week; this idea of not being good enough. I've heard from several clients,

"I'm tired of trying."

"I should be doing more."

"Why can't I just do [insert action]?"

The judgments flow freely and harshly. The comparisons to both real and imagined people keep clients stunted in the vicious cycle of inadequacy. Left unchecked, stuck inside our heads, this inner critic can paralyze us. 

"What can I do?" a client plead earlier this week, desperate for relief.

Focus on progress instead of perfection

Instead of focusing on your shortcomings, in what ways have you made improvements? What are the areas you'd like to change and how are you moving closer toward your goal? Focus on the positive.

Comparison is the thief of joy

The people you compare yourself to are probably comparing themselves to someone else, too. Measuring yourself against others is the surest way to limiting your sense of worth. Everyone's journey is different; there's no better or worse.

You can't hate your way into success

Motivational posters don't say "suck it up," or "gosh why are you so awful?" Telling yourself you aren't worthy or lovable won't make you more worthy or lovable. 

You are enough just as you are.

G.L.A.D. - A simple mindfulness exercise

Incorporating mindfulness into your daily life doesn't have to take much time. This simple exercise takes less than 5 minutes and provides an opportunity for reflection, something we often forget to do.

G.L.A.D.

In a journal, reflect on the following:

G: Write one thing you're grateful for. It could be basic, like the shoes on your feet or the bed you can sleep on, or it can be a meaningful relationship in your life. 

I'm grateful for my dog, as she provides me entertainment and company.

L: Write one thing you learned today. It can be something you learned about yourself, about how you relate to the world, or a new skill or piece of information you discovered.

I learned I do my best work when my office is in order.

A: Write one thing you accomplished today. This is a small accomplishment (unless you have a big one to celebrate), but is a simple reminder of the things you do every day. 

  • getting out of bed
  • getting enough sleep
  • paying all my bills on time
  • making it to work on time
  • completed all my domestic chores

D: Write one thing that delighted you today. These are things that made you smile or laugh, things that entertained you, or simply made you happy.

I was delighted by the Youtube video I watched today, which made me laugh. 

Set yourself a reminder and practice this exercise everyday for a week. Notice how you feel during and after this exercise.

"I don't like feeling this way."

"I just don't want to feel like this anymore," I remember saying to my therapist. I was anxious and sad and didn't know what to do about it, but knew I didn't want to feel that way anymore. I was fed up. 

What I didn't know then was that I was experiencing distress intolerance. We often feel uncomfortable. There are times we're too hot, too cold, have achy or sore muscles. The type of discomfort I'm talking about is emotional discomfort - feeling sad, ashamed, disappointed, etc. Some find they're able to ride out difficult emotions, but for others, they "can't bear," or "must get rid" of these difficult feelings. This desperate need to escape emotional distress has a compounding impact, often interfering with other areas of one's life.

It makes sense to move away from things that feel unpleasant but for emotional distress, it often causes more problems than it solves. Often people intolerant of distress use the following tactics:

Avoidance. Avoiding people, places, or things that trigger an emotional response. Distracting and suppressing the emotion.

Numbing and withdrawing. Using drugs or alcohol to numb the emotional pain. Binge eating or excessive sleep to withdraw from others.

Harmful releases. Taking the distress out on ourselves, including scratching, cutting, and picking.

These tactics can provide short-term relief, but often cause more problems in one's life. From neglecting relationships to drug and alcohol abuse, the effect compounds upon itself. Now, in addition to dealing with upsetting depression or anxiety, you're struggling with an addiction that prevents you from holding down a job. Because you feel so ashamed and cut yourself, you're constantly living in fear that someone will find the scars.

The more we struggle with and fear distress, the worse it gets. In fact, the best solution is to lean in and tackle the distress head on. Since it's impossible to get rid of emotional distress, it's imperative to learn how to live with it. Working with a trusted mental health professional can help you develop a distress tolerance action plan to move through the pain and discomfort.

Are you suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Winter, especially in the Pacific Northwest, can be brutal. Days on end of limited light, the endless drizzle of rain, and a sun that sets at 4 p.m. can take it's toll on anyone. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of mood disorder whose onset occurs with the change of the season. For most people with SAD, the transition into winter finds them moody, irritable, and sapped of energy. Researchers believe SAD may be a type of hibernation found in other animals or an imbalance of serotonin or melatonin

Treatment for SAD include light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy. In addition to recommendations from your doctor, you may find the following helpful:

  • Make your environment brighter. Open the blinds, turn on the lights, and sit closer to windows throughout the day.
  • Spend more time outside. Go for walks or spend some time in the park. 
  • Exercise. Finding a physical activity you enjoy doing will decrease depressive symptoms. 
  • Schedule social activities. Plan to do activities with friends to get yourself out of the house and engaged with the world.

It's normal to feel sadness occasionally. If you're finding your not enjoying activities you once did, if you feel overwhelmed or hopeless, you might be depressed. Seek the guidance of a professional for an evaluation.

Managing Holiday Stress

'Tis the season! What's the most wonderful time of the year for some is a complete nightmare for others. The holiday season, stretching from Thanksgiving through New Year's, can often be long, stress-inducing, and painful for people.

Learning how to manage your stress level, especially around the holidays, is a great skill to develop. 

Plan. Start thinking about your holiday plans before they sneak up on you. Who are you celebrating with? Are you traveling? What will you need to do in anticipation of the holidays? Spending time considering the impact your plans have on your life may reduce your stress level.

Set aside differences. Beyond the actual holiday (are you celebrating Christmas? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa?), learning to set aside differences to enjoy time with family and friends is key to reducing stress level. If your Aunt Anne thinks Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to America, just let her. Your brother's kids driving you up the wall and you wish he'd step in to discipline them? Let go of your parenting ideas. Setting your ideas of "how the world should be" aside and allowing everyone to experience it themselves, no matter how frustrating, will reduce your stress level!

Act intentionally. The holidays come with a lot of obligation. You have to make Christmas cookies for the gift exchange party. You always go to your grandmother's house for Christmas Eve, even though you hate it. And if you don't: disaster. Instead of acting out of obligation this year, focus on acting out of intention. What will happen if you don't go to your grandmother's house for Christmas? Could you take her to brunch a week later instead? What will happen if you purchase cookies for the office exchange instead of spending five hours in the kitchen making from scratch? Look beyond your initial reaction to consider what will actually happen. And from there, choose to act intentionally. 

Make a budget. Holidays are expensive! Travel cost, gifts, parties, etc ... it adds up quickly. Spending a few minutes planning your holiday budget will help you feel in control of your finances and live within your means. 

Honor yourself. Above all else, choosing what's best for you is most important! Be reflective. Take inventory of what you're willing to do and what you'd rather not. Stick to your healthy habits. Be mindful of how you feel. If you'd rather stay in with a good book on Saturday night than attend the company holiday party, it's ok to do so. It's ok to take 30 minutes on Christmas morning for a jog. It's also ok to feel occasional sadness, despite the holiday season!

Seek professional help. If your anxiety or depression isn't going anywhere, don't hesitate to see a counselor. Bouncing what's happening off a trained professional may help reduce your symptoms and help you navigate this stressful time.

What I'm Reading

There's never a shortage of great reading material on mental health. I recently stopped at the store to pick up a couple things:

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom by Rick Hanson. A great read on how contemplative practice can help harness your mind to cultivate happiness, love, and wisdom.

And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives by relationship expert John Gottman. Relationship satisfaction plummets after the arrival of the first child, and Gottman offers six steps to keeping the relationship spark alive during the most difficult first months of a child's life.

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Introducing practices of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy, four experts provide meditations and tools to sit with uncomfortable feelings. It's not just "thinking your way" out of depression, but developing a practice that works. 

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Drink explores contemporary trends with women's relationship to alcohol. 

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are by shame expert Brene Brown. Brown offers ten guideposts challenging us to change our thinking from "What will people think?" to "I am enough."

Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother's Life With A Daughter's Anorexia by Clare B. Dunkle. A memoir about a mother's struggle with her daughter's anorexia. Too often we're consumed with focus on the individual struggling with illness, but the entire family suffers.

Navigating Life Transitions

Transitions are a natural part of life, and even the most positive life changes can be stressful. Moving to a new city, losing a loved one, accepting a new job, becoming a parent, settling a divorce - all bring a mix of emotions. Navigating these life transitions can be aided with a few simple tools.

Expect the emotional roller coaster. Some days will be easier than others. You may feel a range of emotions, from angst and worry, to excitement and anticipation. This is normal! Curbing your expectations (and removing should's from your vocabulary) will help you adjust to the new normal.

View situations as opportunities. Just a minor tweak in viewpoint can make a tremendous change. Instead of viewing unexpected transitions as setbacks, challenge yourself to make a positive re-frame. This situation is a forced opportunity for you to learn and grow as a person.

Develop a self-care ritual. There's no time like the present to develop a practice that makes you feel happy. From painting, to bubble baths, to yoga, there are a billion things you can carve into your life to take care of yourself. Setting aside intentional time to nurture your body/mind/soul can ease the pain of a growth period and help gain perspective.

Get support. Talk to family and friends. Seek support from a licensed mental health practitioner. Attend a church or religious organization. Do what makes you feel understood and supported. Chances are, you aren't the first person in the world to go through this experience. 

Seize the moment -- a new chapter of your life is here!

 

Mindfulness Apps

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Over the last few years Mindfulness, the process of active, nonjudgmental awareness, has exploded in the mental health field. It's a practice that's been proven to reduce anxiety, help with emotional regulation, and improve overall well-being. The goal is to become aware of what's true, moment by moment.

There are a variety of ways to practice mindfulness, including yoga and martial arts. The majority of research has focused on mindfulness meditation. 

If you've never tried meditation, it can be an incredibly difficult practice. I've found the Stop, Breathe, Think iPhone app to be a great tool for developing a practice. The app allows you to "check-in," with questions regarding your mood and physical state. Depending on your responses, the app generates guided meditations that vary in length to focus on specific topics. Best of all, the app is free. 

Unhelpful Thinking Styles ... and the Traps We Get In

I remember the first time my therapist asked me, "so what if that did happen?"

Six years later I don't even remember what we were talking about, but I remember exactly how it made me feel. Anxious. Silly. Stubborn. I knew the words coming out of my mouth sounded dumb, but it was how I knew the world to be. There was a way things should be. It's not supposed to be like this.

Knowing what I know now, I realize just how rigid my thoughts were. I'm forever indebted to that graduate student intern who nudged me into a less stressful way of being.

One of the first things I share with new clients is the Unhelpful Thinking Styles worksheet shown below. It covers several ways our mind traps us, from black and white thinking, to ignoring truths, and emotional reasoning. Just knowing the unhelpful thinking styles sometimes isn't enough. Having a therapist to catch you in these traps and challenge you to break free can bring relief almost instantly.

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