Make. Everything. Intentional. Including Your Therapy Sessions!

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

giphy.gif

One of the words I say most often in session is intentional. In therapy, we create a safe, intentional space for clients to lean into emotions, difficult conversations, and vulnerability within thoughts and behaviors that need attention. As therapists, our hope in this experience is that we are planting seeds for how to create that intentional space at home, both for your own internal world and in your relationships with others. 

I think we can address many relational issues with a bit of intentionality in one way or another. Being thoughtful about your words, actions, emotions, time, and energy takes you out of the daily grind of merely going through the motions. This includes therapy itself! Making the most out of your therapy sessions requires some thought and insight. Here are a few simple ways to do so:

  • Before you begin, take a moment to notice how you feel. An emotional pulse, if you will. How am I doing this week? What feelings came up for me? Any insights about my emotions?

  • Set an intention for session: What is on my mind and in my heart today?

  • In couples work, it helps to fill your partner in on your intention before session, to avoid any surprises in the room. It can help you both feel united upon getting started.

  • As you leave, remind your partner that you’re in this together. Hold hands for a moment, or have a quick hug or kiss in the hallway. It’s important to remember that you’re connected, even when working through something.

  • Show up. I mean really show up. Being physically present on the couch is not the same as being emotionally present in therapy. Do the work in between sessions. Think about your goals when you’re at home stuck in that fight again. Write some things down to keep you mentally on track. 

  • Be patient. Fully engaging in therapy is a process that takes time to develop. Remember that long-term change doesn’t happen overnight. Trust yourself, and you will start to feel some momentum internally.


Faking It: Why We Do It & Why We Shouldn’t

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

giphy (6).gif

“Most women at one time or another have faked it,” says Meg Ryan as Sally in must-see 1989 movie “When Harry Met Sally.” It may have been 30 years since she enacted a very impressive orgasm in the middle of Katz’s Deli, but a recent study shows that her words continue to hold true. Indeed, 58.8% of 1,008 women (between ages 18 and 94) reported having ever faked an orgasm.

As reasons for the deceit, women in the study listed wanting their partner to feel successful, not wanting their partner to feel bad, and just wanting sex to be over and knowing that faking it was the best way to get there. Though faking that climax may successfully send the intended messages (and allow you to just get to bed when you’re tired), this is problematic for several reasons. First of all, lying to your partner isn’t a great way to feel connected to them – plus it limits their chances of actually being successful in the future. How will they learn what actually works for you if your acting chops steer them in the wrong direction? This also reinforces the idea that successful sex must include orgasms for both parties or else it’s a failure, when in reality, loads of people can have pleasurable, satisfying sexual experiences without having an orgasm.

But, a silver lining: This new study also shows that the majority (67.3%) of those who have ever faked an orgasm in the past say that they no longer do. These women who no longer fake orgasms reported feeling more comfortable with sex whether or not an orgasm occurred, feeling more confident with themselves as a woman, and feeling more accepted by their partners. This means that the news that faking it has a negative impact on our sexual satisfaction must be getting out there. So let’s keep this trend going!

 

What if we freed ourselves from the expectation that sex must include both parties having a perfectly timed orgasm? What if we shifted our focus to pleasure instead of performance? What if we actually communicated with our partners during sex?

 

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Of course, this is easier said than done. Due to a combination of gender norms, pressure to perform, and poor sex education, many don’t feel equipped to have a conversation with their partners about what they want or need – or even understand it themselves. And those who do are often too embarrassed to talk about sex, too uncomfortable in the moment, or too worried about hurting their partner’s feelings to speak up. If this is you, reach out. If you’re willing to take the risk in being honest with your therapist, we can help you get there (for real!) with a partner.

The Meaning of Money

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

itsourdebtnow.gif

Confused as to why you keep fighting about one partner’s Dark Matter habit on a biweekly basis?  You’re likely not really fighting about caffeine and might be battling over your independence to make purchasing decisions and the significance of treating yourself vs. your partner’s perception of unwillingness to delay gratification and disregard for future financial security. That’s a lot for a cup of coffee to hold. 

Whether folks are preparing for new kiddos, working to control their own spending or finding ways to combine accounts that feel equitable, finances are a topic that has been coming up A LOT lately. And these discussions are very rarely easy because they encompass so much more than dollar signs.

Money is literally and figuratively symbolic. Literally- we exchange a concrete/digital object for goods and services. Figuratively- money is a metaphor for many things individually, relationally and societally. Amongst many other layers, it can function as a representation of security, empowerment, trust and independence in a couple, which might be huge issues that are often played out in these discussions without even realizing it. 

Before you find yourselves embroiled in your next battle over spending, consider what’s below the surface, the meaning you and your partner make of money. Often it falls into the broad categories of: social status, security, pleasure and our perception of power dynamics in the relationship, with plenty of overlap. 

Consider questions like: 

  • Status: Is it important that others perceive you as financially successful or to have items that reflect wealth? 

  • Security: Is having an emergency fund and money set aside for the future more important than spending now? 

  • Pleasure: How important is treating yourself to your favorite things or financially indulging in activities you enjoy? 

  • Power: How does the idea of combining accounts feel? How freely would you spend knowing your partner could see your purchases?

In what areas are your meanings similar and where do they differ? Knowing where each of you are coming from can help create empathy, identify where strengths lie and inform how to create compromise that feels equitable for you both.


The Impact of Childhood

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

tenor.gif

A common question I ask my clients during the initial stages of working together is, of course, about their childhood. It’s not because I want to blame parents for my clients’ emotional wellbeing, but so that I can have a full picture of their emotional and relational development, potential early traumas (trauma, by the way, comes in all shapes and sizes, and doesn’t just include physical or sexual abuse), and how their early interactions with loved ones may have influenced their adult relationships with themselves and others.

After all, how can we understand one’s adult relationships without first understanding where one learned what it meant to be in one? And, as it turns out, our very first relationships were, in fact, with our parents or caregivers.

People—and research!—tend to weigh heavily the effects of negative childhood experiences on one’s mental health, but until recently, no one looked into the impact of how positive childhood experiences may help reduce the impact of negative childhood experiences. The recent study showed that there are seven experiences that can offset negative childhood experiences. For each item, respondents in the study were asked to respond "yes" or "no" to a prompt, "Before the age of 18, I was..."

  1. Able to talk with the family about my feelings

  2. Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times

  3. Enjoyed participating in community traditions

  4. Felt a sense of belonging in high school

  5. Felt supported by friends

  6. Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me

  7. Felt safe and protected by an adult in my home

What they found was amazing! It shows that we need to look at more than just the sum of our negative childhood experiences to understand our adult mental health and wellbeing—we need to also understand the extent to which we also had these positive experiences. According to the study, the more “yes” responses you had to these seven items, the higher your score of overall mental health as an adult.

How many “yes” responses do you have, and what impact do you think these had on your ability to develop into a healthy, emotionally attuned and aware, adult and partner?

Perspective: A Word on Assumptions

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

1_cpVlMPuJgvMXKnFCetbrPQ.jpeg

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

-Anais Nin

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with another human, you know that it doesn’t take much to miscommunicate. Trivial matters can be taken out of context, while major issues might be overlooked and minimized. I say one thing, and you interpret it wildly differently than what I intended. It’s infuriating! 

Have you ever wondered what’s behind those missed messages? There are many layers in between the intent you began with and the impact it had on your partner. Your individual personality, your family background, and your current mood all influence how you interpret a simple conversation. In your relationships, you probably have many different definitions of what it means to be on time, clean, organized, sexual, forgiving, healthy, etc. because you are two different people operating from a different worldview.

To narrow the gap, let’s consider your assumptions about one another. Assumptions can be pretty dangerous if unchecked. Are they positive or negative? Where do they come from? Do you notice these in conversation? Pay attention here, because we assume and jump to conclusions all. the. time. Ask for clarification first. Write them down. Or at least ask yourself, “Why did I just think that about you? Let me try again.” See if it changes your perception of the situation at hand.

Our favorite marital researchers John and Julie Gottman discuss the importance of breaking down negative interactions to soften criticism and build positive regard for one another. For instance, when your partner forgets to do the thing they said they’d do, you could think “Wow, they never consider my needs. What an ass.” OR “Huh, I bet they had a rough day and just forgot.” The first is a character attack and the second chalks it up to external circumstances. The second is MUCH easier to live with. It leaves you with positive (maybe even hopeful?) energy toward your partner, rather than stacking up a mental list of why they’re so terrible.

How about a little grace for your loved ones? These good faith assumptions about others have a compassionate ripple effect on the people around you. Start the trend!


How to Bring Up the Tough Stuff

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

Most couples have a list of issues that continue to pop up during conflict even when the initial battle was about something totally different. Maybe you started off being irritated by your partner’s dirty dishes in the sink, but then you’re suddenly having a blowout about your feelings about their mother. How did you get there? Why did you go there now? Indeed, the vulnerable issues that live just below the surface often emerge unexpectedly at the worst possible moments.

giphy (5).gif

It stands to reason that you’d be more equipped to handle the toughest, most sensitive issues when things are otherwise going well. You’re relaxed, you’re connected, and you’re open to hearing your partner’s side. But I often hear from clients that these are also the moments that it feels nearly impossible to bring up a tough topic. After all, why would you introduce a conversation that has the potential to ruin a good, drama-free moment? It feels much more natural to bring up a tornado of negative feelings during a fight because you simply don’t feel that you have as much to lose. Once you’re at war, your instincts tell you to bring out all the ammunition in your arsenal. However, this just makes these conversations so much harder than they have to be.

Instead, I invite you to bring your relationship concerns up in a more intentional way—and, yes, that means bringing them up at a time when everything is actually going well. If you’re in therapy, this is an amazing space to do just that. When my clients say to me, “Everything’s going well, so we don’t have anything to talk about,” I encourage them to use the we’re-doing-well feeling as a foundation for talking about the harder topics.

But how can you avoid blindsiding your partner with an issue during a lovely or benign moment? Enter: the meta conversation. Have a conversation with your partner about the conversation you’d like to have. Gain their buy in first, and the interaction that follows is guaranteed to go much more smoothly.

Here are a few examples of how to do that:

  • “I’d like to have a conversation about something that’s bugging me. Is now a good time?”

  • “I have some thoughts that I’ve been nervous to tell you. Are you in a place where you can hear them?”

  • “I’ve noticed that I’m feeling irritated by something you’ve done. Would it be OK if I told you about it?”

A few important things are happening here: First, each of these statements begins with the word “I” instead of the word “you.” “I feel irritated by one of your habits” instead of “You have an irritating habit” makes a huge difference in preventing defensiveness from your partner.

Second, each of these statements end in a question – a request for buy in that may receive a yes or a no. Wait for an answer before you bring up the issue at hand. If your partner says, “No, it’s not a good time,” respect that, and ask when a better time would be. Once your partner has been able to emotionally prepare, they may be able to lean in instead of putting up defenses. The good news is that if you’re able to bring up the tough conversations with a loving and thoughtful meta-conversation, you’ll set yourself and your partner up for success, and you may actually come out of it feeling more connected than when you started.

Is Your Date Night Reallllly A Date?

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

tinafeycrab.gif

Date nights are as ubiquitous in couple’s therapy as presenting with communication issues. Both often function as a generic catchall that may not accurately speak to or address the problem at hand.  Do you really have problems communicating or do you simply not like what your partner is saying?  Similarly, will simply adding date nights to the schedule get you closer to the feeling you’re wanting?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for taking time as a couple. You’re prioritizing your relationship, doing the work of finding childcare and reorganizing schedules. You’re setting intentional time to spend together.  These are all wonderful, relationship-building things… and then what?

For many of us, we’re simply re-enacting much of what would happen at home. But, bonus!, with the additional stress of getting out the door on time only to have the same conversations while spending more money.  We’re not exactly “dating” we’re simply eating dinner in a different location. 

If you’re in a long term relationship, think back to what it’s like to actually date. You primped and primed solo, potentially to your favorite “going out mix,” you picked your trusted fabulous-but-not-trying-too-hard ensemble, fantasized about how the night would go and then you saw your partner. Whether you met up at someone’s abode, hopped into an actual car or simply met at the bar, you did none of the prep work a’ deux. There was no rushing around while the other person repeatedly called out how you were running late or sat on the couch taking 12 minutes to put on one shoe before resting a bit then moving on to the next. (Hyperbolic, maybe.)

lizzo.good.as.hell.gif

There may have been similar levels of stress, but it was likely positively coded as anticipation and excitement rather than anxiety.  Sure, the stressors are likely quantitatively and qualitatively different now, but how can you recapture some of the features of old-school dating given your current context?

One idea is a Surrender Date, as in surrendering control of the evening to your partner.  Obviously, this concept operates uniquely for every couple, but the basics are as follows: 

  • Each partner is completely responsible for the entirety of one Surrender Date.  This means asking out their partner, scheduling the day, time and activities and procuring child care, pet care and managing any other necessities.  

  • The activities of the date are kept secret from the surrendering partner. Beyond directives around clothing and shoes requirements, keep mum about what’s in store.  I often have clients choose what their partner will wear. 

  • Get ready separately and meet up outside the home.  This looks different with kiddos involved, but there are ways to make it work. The goal is to step out of the usual stress of getting out the door and travelling together. 

  • Discussing kids, work or home management is off limits. This is a date, not an administrative meeting. 


Mindful Days of Summer

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

summer.jpg

As Amy F and Amy S have pointed out in earlier blogs (why yes, we do do everything together, the 3 Amy’s), there are oh so many ways to enjoy Chicago summers. From festivals to picnics to bike rides to beach days to movies in the park, the fun is endless! And as we’re nearing the dare-I-say end of summer back to school days, we scramble to do all the things we haven’t gotten to yet. I bet you have your list, too. 

It’s amazing that even when it comes to fun and enjoyment, we do it quickly. We race from one activity to the next, often on our phones taking pictures of said activities, rather than enjoying them for what they are. We plan and prep and run, knowing that our days of sunshine are limited. Better maximize while we can!

Something to consider: let’s slow down a bit. Really slow down. In mindfulness practice, we are encouraged to notice what’s happening around us, and let it be what it is. This goes for emotions as well as physical surroundings. So enjoy that fro yo, savor every last scoop. Notice the color of the neighborhood flowers while you’re walking your dog. Pay attention to how the water feels when you’re swimming in Lake Michigan. Inhale that sweet smell of BBQ down the street. Watch how your partner looks at you when they are full of joy. Appreciate that beautiful skyline sunset. Isn’t it amazing?

Although we are creatures of habit, we do get bored with routine. This is a chance for you to shake it up a bit! All that spark needs is a little change of scenery to light up again. Sit outside on that nice deck for an after-dinner beverage. Ask a question you haven’t asked in a while. Feel the wind on your face during that road trip (yep, just like dogs do!). Take the kids in the wagon to watch the fireworks. The novelty of something slightly different can offer fresh energy for you and your loved ones.

Enjoy every moment of our Sweet Home Chicago! You may or may not find me (mindfully) eating hot dogs at Wrigley. Don’t judge.


Gaslighting: Know the Signs

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

giphy (1).gif

I’m all for guilty pleasures as a form of self care. But, recently, one of my go to treats, The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, has become harder to watch. Why? Because of what appears to be an epidemic of gaslighting. For fellow members of Bachelor Nation, look no further than Luke P. for a demonstration of what this abusive tactic looks like. For those who have other things to do on Monday nights, read on to understand what the term “gaslighting” actually means, so you can be aware if it’s happening to you—or if you’re doing it to someone else.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which the abuser questions the victim’s judgments and reality to the point that the victim begins to doubt their own feelings or even their sanity. The term come from a 1940 play-turned-movie in which a husband continuously dimmed the lights and then denied any change in an attempt to drive his wife crazy.

giphy (2).gif

What does gaslighting look like?

Gaslighting can show up in many ways—but it ultimately looks like the abuser continuously questioning or denying that what you are saying is real or valid. Those who gaslight generally stick to their story even when you point out evidence to the contrary. (“Your memory is bad,” or “That’s all in your head.”) Instead of addressing an issue that’s important to you, they’ll often deflect, brush your feelings aside, or change the topic. (“Not this again…”) They’ll very rarely validate your side of things. Instead they’ll minimize your thoughts and feelings (“Calm down.”) and shift the blame to you. (“You’re overreacting,” or “You’re too sensitive.”) They may also claim that they only behaved badly because of the way you treated them first, twisting the truth to favor their side. They may even discredit you to others, implying that you are unstable or roll their eyes when you speak. And they may let you know what others are really thinking of you. (“Your family thinks so, too…”)

Like other forms of emotional abuse, gaslighting is often done in a way that’s difficult to detect, and it is often coupled with charm and framed as compassion. (“I’m telling you this because I love you.”) When you believe that your partner would never hurt you intentionally, you may begin to doubt that your version of things is valid at all.

giphy (3).gif

What does gaslighting feel like?

After communicating with someone who’s gaslighting you, you’ll probably feel confused and left wondering if something is really wrong with you. You may find yourself apologizing for your feelings or rewriting a story in your head that you were certain of just a few minutes ago. Over time, you’ll begin to second-guess yourself constantly, and you may have trouble trusting your own judgment or making even simple decisions. You’ll begin to feel that you can’t do anything right or that you’re not a good partner. And you may wonder why you’re not happier in a life that’s supposed to feel good.

giphy (4).gif

If this describes you, please reach out to trusted family and friends or tell your therapist. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also a great resource: https://www.thehotline.org/what-is-gaslighting/

While gaslighting might make for entertaining television (although, that’s debatable), it absolutely cannot be part of a healthy relationship.

Once upon a time...

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

dprincesses.gif

Once upon a time in a faraway land when science was real and news was not fake, objective truth could be found the world over. In any disagreement, one person was right and one person was wrong. Alas, this is no longer the case because… none of those things have ever been true in the first place.

Unless the truth at issue is dependent upon the logical and consistent laws of nature (think 2+2=4, gravity causes apples to fall from trees, the device you are reading this on exists whether you are holding it or not) there is no capital T Truth.  

As my clients are intimately familiar with me saying: you might think my sofa is gray-blue, you might say charcoal. Neither are wrong, nor are they right, because we all live in our own versions of reality. We filter everything, from colors to words to experiences, through the lens of our own unique perspectives, which then become our own truths, which we use to frame stories about the whys and hows of our worlds.  This means in any conversation, there is each individual’s story and the shared narrative between them. 

And this is where we run into trouble. 

Because we buy into our own stories and are humans wanting to be right, we find evidence to support our narratives and are quick to dismiss information to the contrary. In some areas this is functional and even necessary (the earth is not flat.) In relationships, however, buying into our own stories without checking in with our partner can lead to arguments and frustration with little room for understanding, empathy or change. We make meaning about behaviors, statements and experiences that may not align with our partner’s experience and spiral from there.

One simple way to check in about our narratives is by using the prompt: 

The Story I’m Telling Myself Is….

The story I’m telling myself is… you were late because you don’t care about how important this event was to me. 

The story I’m telling myself is… you’re not interested in sex because you are not attracted to me. 

The store I’m telling myself is… you keep sending me flat earth videos to annoy me and not because you actually believe this is a thing, right?

The prompt takes pressure off of the speaker by highlighting it’s simply their version of events and doesn’t immediately put the listener on the defensive, as it feels less like an attack.  It puts one partner’s version of a situation between both people in order to take a gander together, with the listener able to comment on their experience of the same event. It can make room for complaints without spurring an argument or be a way out once one has already begun. 

Sometimes your stories will be accurate and sometimes less so, either way voicing them allows you the opportunity to collaborate with a shared narrative moving you closer to happily ever after. 

6 TED Talks Guaranteed to Change Your Relationship...with Yourself AND with a Partner

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

download.jpeg

One of my favorite ways to supplement the work we do in counseling is having individuals and couples utilize exercises, books, articles, podcasts, and, above all, TED Talks, to further explore whatever might be important as a part of the therapeutic work in relationship and sex therapy. There are a few TED Talks, in particular, that I can’t not suggest, because they are just.that.good. Here are the absolute MUST-WATCH Top 6 TED Talks that are guaranteed to change your relationship, whether that be the relationship with yourself or with a partner!

  1. The Truth About Unwanted Arousal, by Emily Nagoski

    “Sex educator Emily Nagoski breaks down one of the most dangerous myths about sex and introduces us to the science behind arousal nonconcordance: when there's a disconnect between physical response and the experience of pleasure and desire. Talking about such intimate, private moments can feel awkward or difficult, yet in this straightforward talk Nagoski urges all of us to share this crucial information with someone -- judges, lawyers, partners, kids. "With every brave conversation we have, we make the world that little bit better," says Nagoski.”—TED Talks

  2. The Keys to a Happier, Healthier Sex Life, by Emily Nagoski

    “How can we unlock the door to our own authentic sexual well-being? Sex educator Emily Nagoski suggests that the key is realizing that we are all normal, whatever our proclivities. In this playful but informative take on sex positivity, she delves into the science of sexuality to demonstrate how we can shed our insecurities and define pleasure on our own terms.”—TED Talks

  3. The Power of Vulnerability, by Brene Brown

    “Brené Brown studies human connection -- our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.”—TED Talks

  4. Listening to Shame, by Brene Brown

    “Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.”—TED Talks

  5. The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, by Esther Perel

    “In long-term relationships, we often expect our beloved to be both best friend and erotic partner. But as Esther Perel argues, good and committed sex draws on two conflicting needs: our need for security and our need for surprise. So how do you sustain desire? With wit and eloquence, Perel lets us in on the mystery of erotic intelligence.”—TED Talks

  6. Rethinking Infidelity…a Talk for Anyone Who Has Ever Loved, by Esther Perel

    “Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be? Relationship therapist Esther Perel examines why people cheat, and unpacks why affairs are so traumatic: because they threaten our emotional security. In infidelity, she sees something unexpected — an expression of longing and loss. A must-watch for anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on, or who simply wants a new framework for understanding relationships.”—TED Talks

There are SO many incredible TED Talks out there, so we encourage you to seek out the ones that interest you. What are the ones we missed? Tell us your favorites in the comments, and we’ll be sure to add them to our must-watch list!

What’s Stress Got to Do With It?

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

N01MdD.gif

You would think that the key to a happy, successful, strong long-term relationship would be: Love? Trust? Honesty? Respect? Not exactly. (I mean, yes, and…) There is research that shows the essence of a healthy relationship boils down to a foundation of healthy stress management skills. Perhaps not quite what you’d expect, nor as glamorous, but I happen to agree.

Life is a series of stressors, no matter what season you’re in. You’re juggling family, work, parenting, self-care, and relationship demands on a daily basis. If you don’t have healthy coping strategies and outlets, your stress will likely impact many different areas of your life, especially within sex and relationships. How you interact with others, how well you sleep, how you take care of yourself, and how your attitude shapes the world around you can certainly play a major role in your overall well being. Why not pay special attention?!

A few thoughts to consider as you take stock in your stress management skills:

Looks: How do you know if you’re stressed? Take a look at how your stress presents itself. Are you more irritable than usual? Have trouble sleeping? Do you become quiet or withdrawn? Does your stomach act up? Get to know your signs well so you can spot them quickly. 

Outlets: How do you relieve stress? What are your best outlets? Exercise, meditation, walks, reading, writing, music, talking to a friend, playing a sport, to name a few. Stress loops in a cyclical manner internally, so if you don’t expend that stressful energy and put it somewhere, it will continue to cycle in your body until the next stressor comes along. Get it out!

Goals: What would you like to improve? Define a step in the right direction. Many people don’t like to talk about their stress because it “brings it to the surface,” but I find that naming it can actually diffuse some of the tension. Acknowledge that it’s there, or tell your partner a bit about what’s going on. You might feel more supported in doing so. You do not have to carry your stress alone!

I realize this information may seem like common sense, but stress and mental health are incredibly intertwined, and this shows up every day in session. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor and check in about your stress. You and your relationships depend on it! 


Wedding Season Hack: Make Others’ ‘I Dos’ a Date Night for You

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

rachelrossbridesmaid.jpg

It’s wedding season! For busy couples who struggle to make space for romance, attending someone else’s nuptials can be the perfect chance to have the date night you’ve been craving. But when we get wrapped up in the celebration, it’s all too easy to focus more on the cake than on your significant other. Whether you’ve been with your plus one or a few months or twenty years, it’s worth taking advantage of someone else’s love to add an extra spark to yours. Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Have your own “first look.”

How often do you get to see your partner all dressed up? Make sure to take a minute to soak each other in before heading out. Try getting ready in separate rooms and having a grand reveal a la “She’s All That.” Bonus points for asking the babysitter to take a few prom-style photos.

2. Give those vows some thought.

You’ve heard “to have and to hold” and “til death do us part” so many times that you’ve started to tune the ceremony out altogether. Instead, as you’re witnessing the happy couple make promises to each other, really listen. Is there anything they’re saying that you’d like to apply to your own relationship? You don’t have to be getting married to vow to improve your partnership or to recommit yourself to promises made long ago.

3. Just dance.

Whether it’s a slow, romantic song that allows you to press up against each other or a classic sing-along that reminds you how much fun you can have together, it’s always worth it to spend some time on the dance floor instead of lurking at your assigned table. Letting go and being playful with your partner will set you up for a connected evening.

4. Take a break, together.

Escape the madness of the festivities by taking a romantic walk outside or exploring the other rooms of the venue. Some just-the-two-of-you time will remind you that this is, after all, a date night.

5. Don’t pass out… yet.

There’s nothing like the high you get from a beautiful celebration. Head home or back to your hotel room before you’re absolutely can’t-hold-your-head-up exhausted. Leave time to reflect on the highlights of the night—and maybe even have a post-wedding party all your own. ;)

Do What You Can...When You Can!

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

ialreadydidsomethingtoday.gif

So summer has finally arrived and we are at last momentarily blessed with weather that allows Chicagoans to dig in to all that the city has to offer. However, for folks whose bodies aren’t so keen on participating, whether from chronic illness or emotional distress, the season may not always lead to sunny dispositions. What’s on the agenda when you’re out of spoons to dig into all those urban activities?

  1. Do What You Can When You Can: Have a go-to list of the activities you’d like to add to your summer bucket list and when you find you’re having a good day, pick one.  You won’t have to spend extra energy searching for things to do and can get going while your energy is highest. 

  2. Find Clarity Around Your Body’s Needs:  Be clear with yourself, partners and friends around what you need to be comfortable. Whether that’s staying out of the sun, not walking long distances or working around a certain diet, name from the start the things that will allow you to better enjoy an experience. 

  3. Be Flexible: Remember that you are allowed to change your mind.  Prioritize spending time with folks those that understand and validate your experience. You’re much more likely to say yes to something you know you can adjust plans at the last minute due to flare or leave an event if you’re feeling uncomfortable. 

  4. Make Staying Home An Event: For many with chronic illness, flares can be characterized by days on end of mindless binge-watching whilst icing/heating body parts and/or drifting in and out of fitful sleep. Find ways to break the pattern, if only slightly. Excellent example: A friend came up with the idea of “Hotel Bed” as an option for when his partner is flaring, but they want to be intentional about spending time together. They move the TV from the living room into the bedroom, rent a movie they’ve been wanting to watch and treat the evening like an overnight getaway, ice packs and all. He even made a sign to mark the occasion. 

  5. Have Compassion for Yourself : Recognize the difference between “I can’t go for a stroll along the lakefront” and “My body can’t go for a stroll along the lakefront.”  Maybe you can walk around the block instead or maybe you need a beeline to the nearest bed. Regardless, remember that your lack of action isn’t related to anything lacking in you, you are not lazy and rest is non-negotiable. 

That Toddlin' Town!

chicago-oak-street-beach-downtown.jpg

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

Esther Perel, one of our absolute favorite thought leaders in field of relational and sexual health, is a champion of relational intentionality. She purports that one of the most serious dangers to relationships is boredom, as it keeps us from seeing and experiencing our partners with fresh eyes. However, couples who regularly engage in novel activities together tend experience higher levels of intimacy and desire. Think about it: a ribeye steak paired with a juicy red wine is heavenly…but if you eat that every single day for a month, you’ll begin to find that gorgeous meal quite boring. The steak will start to taste bland, and that bottle of red will no longer excite you. Tragedy strikes, and we must overcome and persist!

If you’ve found yourself in a relational rut, fear not! It happens to be summer in Chicago—the real reason we all continue to live in this fickle city. There’s no shortage of new and exciting activities to enjoy, making it easy to keep that novel spark alive. We made it even easier for you with a list of our 10 favorite summer dates that are sure to Marie Kondo the crap out of your relationship!

  1. If you haven’t packed a picnic and watched movies in the park , have you ever even been to Chicago in the summer?

  2. Check out the best patios for outdoor dining and drinks, because it’s patio season!

  3. The Dock at Montrose Beach offers a full-service restaurant and live music every single night. Perfect date for a nice night out!

  4. The riverwalk was recently renovated, and it does not disappoint. Go for a jog, enjoy a cocktail, or grab some ice cream and people-watch!

  5. My absolute favorite “touristy” thing to do every summer is the architectural boat tour. Every time I do it, I fall in love with this city all over again.

  6. Did you know there are over 150 festivals in Chicago over the summer? You’re guaranteed to find one that tickles your fancy!

  7. You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the magic and uniqueness of having a fantastic zoo, right in the heart of our city. Head to the Lincoln Park Zoo and get in touch with your wild side!

  8. Free outdoor concerts! Enough said.

  9. Don’t have a bike? No worries: Chicago boasts several options for getting around the city. We love using Divvy bikes, and the new e-scooters that just arrived. Don’t forget your helmets!

  10. If 2.7 miles of art installations, parks, trails, and fun stops along the way excite you…it should. Get yourself to The 606!

What other Chicago summer dates did we miss on our list? We want to hear from you!

On Forgiveness...

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

past..png

Forgiveness is an essential component to building a healthy long-term relationship. There’s plenty of research out there on this. In the course of a lifetime together, you’re going to get mad, hurt each other, and feel disappointed sometimes. How do you let go of difficult feelings like anger, hurt, disappointment, and betrayal? How do you keep living and sleeping with your partner after they’ve hurt you? And what does it mean to really forgive someone?

Last week, Rachel Zar, LMFT took you through some examples of healthy apologies, and how to take responsibility for yourself in your relationships. An absolute must! This is a key step toward repairing trust. There is nowhere to go if you or your partner aren’t willing to own how your actions impact one another. “I didn’t realize that meant so much to you. I’m so sorry I hurt you.” Your intentions don’t actually matter here. All that matters is that you saw how it made someone else feel. If you bump into someone on the street by accident, you apologize, don’t you? (Well, at least I hope you do!) You didn’t mean to bump into them, but you did and you saw it. It’s the same with your partner! Give them the kindness you’d give a stranger.

Some food for thought as you reflect on forgiveness in your relationships:

  1. What does forgiveness mean to you? What does/could it look like? Have you ever forgiven someone you love? And continued to be in a relationship with him or her? This is no easy task. It requires selflessness, grace, patience, and trust in the process. We all have different definitions here, so get to know yours well.

  2. How is your anger serving you? What do you need in order to let go? Perhaps acknowledgement, time, space, a conversation? Make that known. It might help you assert your needs in moments of tension. Most of us move at a different pace emotionally, so allow your partner some space to process their feelings authentically.

  3. Is this a forgivable thing for you? You may have to ask yourself some difficult questions about your limits. Did your partner go too far? Is this something that you can overcome? Be honest, and wherever you land is OK. Trusting your limits can help you make authentic decisions, one way or another.

In her book Rising Strong, Brene Brown discusses “rumbling with forgiveness” as she quotes a pastor from her church: “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face into the pain. You simply have to hurt.” Whether you’re spiritual or not, again, trust this process. It’s deep, painful, and a potentially beautiful release.


It's Hard to Say I'm Sorry...So We've Broken It Down For You

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

This is Gretchen. Don’t be like Gretchen. c/o Giphy

This is Gretchen. Don’t be like Gretchen. c/o Giphy

Learning to offer an effective apology is a key relationship skill that I encourage all my clients to practice, practice, practice. When done well, apologies are one of the most important parts of repairing after a fight, and they can leave your partner feeling heard, understood, and cared for. But not every apology is created equal. And there’s a very, very good chance you’ve been doing it wrong.

It’s time for a pop quiz:

Which of these apologies is most effective?

  1. “Fine. I’m sorry, OK?”

  2. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it.”

  3. “I’m sorry I did that, but I never would have if you hadn’t done the other thing first.”

  4. “I’m sorry I did that, but that’s just who I am.”

  5. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Answer: Gotcha! This was a trick question. None of these apologies are ideal. If you’re

surprised, read on for a break down of these common apology faux pas:

“Fine. I’m sorry, OK?”

This one is in the same category as, “Come on, I already said I’m sorry. Why aren’t you over this yet?” Even without hearing the tone of the deliverer, this apology just reeks of sarcasm and complete disingenuousness. It’s clear that this person is only offering an apology to get their partner off their back. If you don’t actually mean it, your partner will know, and the apology will leave them wanting more.

“Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it.”

If you don’t know what you did, how can you apologize for it? And how can your partner feel confident that you won’t do it again? If you find yourself offering up this apology, pause first, and try to understand why your partner is hurt. Your apology may not be able to come as quickly, but it will mean much more when it does.

“I’m sorry I did that, but I never would have if you hadn’t done the other thing first.”

“I’m sorry I yelled, but I only did it because you were being rude.” “I’m sorry I forgot to do the dishes, but you weren’t clear that you wanted them done today.” Have you ever heard the saying, “Everything before ‘but’ is bullsh*t?” Adding a disclaimer after an apology completely cancels out the positive affect of the apology itself. Making excuses for your actions means you’re not truly taking responsibility for your part in things—regardless of what came before or after. Resisting defending your actions is tough, but the better you get at doing so, the more of a lasting impact your apology will have.

“I’m sorry I did that, but that’s’ just who I am.”

Once again, “everything before but….” This apology gives absolutely no confidence that you will attempt to do things differently in the future. It does not indicate that you are taking any responsibility for your actions—or even that you feel you have control over them.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Ah, the most common of the apology mishaps. Saying sorry for someone else’s feelings is actually just a tricky way of putting the blame back on then. A simple fix to this one — “I’m sorry my actions caused you to feel that way.”—makes all the difference.

So now that you know what not to do, here’s a handy cheat sheet for creating good apologies. The best apologies include all three of these parts.

“I’m sorry for doing this specific thing.”

Start by acknowledging what you are apologizing for—and being as detailed as possible. I promise, even in an argument that leaves you sure that your partner is in the wrong, there is something you did that warrants an apology. Find that thing. Own that thing. State that thing out loud without disclaimers. If you’re not sure what that thing is, listen to your partner. They’ve probably been trying to tell you.

“It was wrong for these reasons, and it hurt you in this way.”

Next, show your partner that you understand the consequences of your actions—especially the impact they had on their emotions. If you’re not sure, get curious. Remember that you can hurt your partner even without meaning to hurt them. Saying “I know that I hurt you,” is important, and it’s very different than, “I was trying to hurt you.” Intention doesn’t always match impact.

“In the future I will do things differently.”

Finally, assure your partner that you plan to take their pain to heart and do things differently next time. Don’t make empty promises here. Really think about what you could do differently.

Remember: an apology does not guarantee immediate forgiveness. Your partner may still need some time to process the hurt, and you may still need a few more conversations to iron out what went wrong. But the better you get at following the recipe above, the more likely your apology is to actually make the impact you desire.

Rape's Not Funny (Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

By Amy Stewart, LMFT

On Thursday, R. Kelly plead not guilty to 11 new counts of sexual assault. In February of this year he plead not guilty to 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. In 2002, the year he performed in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a video was released of him raping and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. He was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. In 2008, six years later, he was acquitted on all counts.

In an excellent and heart-breaking Fresh Air interview, journalist Jim DeRogatis shares his experience of the saga and the 19-year investigation recounted in his new book, “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly.”  

I could write a book of my own about my frustration and fury in response… but this isn’t about that.

Souless. The Case Against R. Kelly.jpg

If you aren’t familiar with his crimes, you are likely conversant with the punchlines. Late night hosts, sketch comedy shows, the twitterverse and water cooler chat were all quick to serve up a slew of hot takes on golden showers and other euphemisms for urine play. Whether in reference to Kelly or Trump, introduce a kink and shaming is sure to follow.

If “kink-shaming” isn’t part of your vernacular, it boils down to degrading someone for their sexual practices. The opposite looks like not concerning oneself with what others’ selves are consensually up to and into.  Some shorthands that apply:   Don’t yuck my yum. You do you. And in the purported words of Mrs. Beatrice Patrick Campbell circa 1910: “I really don’t mind what people do, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses!” (Enlightened and shocking statement at the time.)  It’s a recognition that folks’ kinks are not some moral failing and instead some thing that they find erotic, pleasurable, interesting... the list goes on.

There are plenty of opinions as to whether or not kink-shaming is ethical in response to Kelly and Trump… but this isn’t about that.

Instead it’s a reminder, that rather than address or acknowledge the harrowing sexual reports swirling around R. Kelly,  society spent 19 years deflecting from that horror to pee pee jokes.  

The voices of many victims (48 in R. Kelly’s case) and the behaviors of many predators are easily and absolutely overshadowed by society’s quick step into kink-shaming, while actively avoiding the egregious behavior that goes along with it.

It’s a common pattern. When some people are uncomfortable, they deflect with humor. Humor soothes us, it lightens the mood, it normalizes. Making jokes about Kelly and Trump’s sexual fetishes detract from the fact that they spent years using power to take advantage of young girls and women. Jokes acted as little birdies that shifted the focus away from these men’s illegal, horrifying and predatory behavior and instead to shaming them for behaviors that society finds funny.  In a story of a 34-year old man raping and urinating on a 14- year old girl, how on earth was the focus on the urine??


The intention of shaming is to make someone look silly, small and powerless.  R. Kelly was absolutely not powerless. He was the powerful, scary monster to many girls whose voices were not heard over the roar of collective laughter.

The Beauty of Grey

By Amy Berrafato, LMFT, CST

c/o Both And Podcast, Twitter, @WeAreBothAnd

c/o Both And Podcast, Twitter, @WeAreBothAnd

You either want to have sex with me or you don’t. You must not love me.

I have to be the best partner at the firm, but can’t do anything right at home.

I never make healthy decisions; I will be alone forever.

If this doesn’t work out, I’ll be a complete failure.


I hear comments like this all the time in session, from perfectionists, worriers, internalizers alike. We get stuck in limiting thought patterns when we’re feeling anxious. And it sets up a linear way of processing emotions in relationships, which are anything but linear! They’re so much more than that. They’re grey, messy, complicated, and dynamic.

Anxiety feeds off of black and white thinking. It likes to make sense of the world in an over-simplified manner to help us tolerate difficult emotions. It has to be either this way or that way. So when your partner doesn’t initiate sex, it must mean something about their feelings toward you. Otherwise you might be sitting with a more vulnerable emotion (i.e. rejection, disconnect, sadness), which is not the easiest thing to do.

Anxiety is also driven by fear, which quickly leaps into the dark despair of what might happen in the future, leaving us to lose sight of what is happening here and now. Worst case scenarios, anyone? Well, he is probably hiding something from me, been cheating for years, never loved me, got into a horrible accident, and died. The train has left and gone to crazytown.

Here’s the interesting thing: fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if unchecked. It often perpetuates the very thing we were afraid of to begin with. With trust issues, for example, if you’re so worried she’ll leave that you suffocate her with questions and demands on her time, you might push her to keep taking space from you, creating more distance. The exact opposite of what you want!

Don’t let fear be the driver anymore. Try to adopt a “both/and” dimension of emotions when you’re processing a feeling. I’m both excited and terrified about this upcoming change. I feel both scared of rejection and so close to you when we talk about our family backgrounds. This expansion allows us to sit in the grey of our feelings, building tolerance for all the different parts of your emotions. It gets you beyond linear processing, deepening your understanding of yourself. The vulnerability and connection that follow are totally worth it. Trust me.


Peeing Immediately After Sex? Unlearning This Sexual Health Myth Will Change. Your. Life.

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

c/o  Maritsa Patrinos / BuzzFeed

c/o Maritsa Patrinos / BuzzFeed

What did you do immediately after the last time you had sex? Did you lie together, connecting, cuddling and basking in the afterglow? Or did you immediately pop out of bed to take turns in the bathroom and then move on to the next task at hand? Chances are, if it ended with a feeling of intimacy and connection to your partner, you’re remembering the experience as pleasurable. If it ended abruptly, you may remember the whole thing as rushed and disconnecting. When it comes to whether you code a sexual encounter as positive or negative, the way it ends matters just as much—if not more—than how it started or what was happening mid-way through. Indeed, research shows that couples who show each other affection after sex tend to feel more satisfied with not just their sex lives, but with their relationships in general. After all, sex is a vulnerable experience, and not giving it the aftercare it deserves can often leave people feeling raw and disconnected. Plus, the hormones that are released during sex are specially designed to increase bonding, so it’s worthwhile to bask in them.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Rachel, everyone knows that I have to go to the bathroom immediately after sex or else I’ll get that dreaded, painful, awful, no good, very bad UTI!”

Well, that would make sense... if it were true. But what if it’s not? What if that rush-to-the-bathroom-or-else warning you’ve been hearing your whole adult life is just a myth? Strap in, because there’s actually no concrete medical research that shows that peeing immediately after sex reduces your likelihood of a urinary tract infection (UTI). Yes, UTIs can be avoided by flushing out bacteria before it travels to the bladder, which staying hydrated and urinating regularly helps with. And sex can introduce bacteria through the urethra that needs flushing. But, especially for those who aren’t prone to UTIs (which some people, unfortunately, just are), whether that urination happens thirty seconds or an hour or even two hours after you have sex doesn’t really make a difference. Your body will tell you when it’s time to pee—so there’s no need to force it. And pushing out a few drops when you don’t really have to go isn’t generally enough to clean out that urinary tract, anyways. If you’re having sex at night, just make sure you go before you fall asleep for eight hours.

Of course, if you really gotta go (and many do feel the urge to urinate immediately after sex), don’t hold it for the sake of a cuddle. But after you’ve emptied your bladder, come back to bed, give your partner a squeeze and have a conversation about something other than the kids or your taxes. If this becomes the norm instead of the exception, you’ll notice your feelings about sex and your partner begin to trend much more positive.