I know relationships are supposed to be hard work, but…

I know relationships are supposed to be hard work, but…

Are they supposed to be this hard? I may not get that exact question asked of me, but I certainly know it is prevalent amongst my clients. And now as we step into the holiday season, relationships tend to become more strained.

Personally, I see the older generation of couples, perhaps in the age range of 60-80 years becoming closer, whilst couples 30-50 years of age are becoming more strained. The variants that make this more plausible may have to do with young children corralled in their homes needing care, schooling, and let’s face it – entertainment. ‘What are we doing today mom?’.

I also feel during COVID-19, we all seek more self-soothing in some manner. Rather than getting this through human connection, we may retreat to our rooms and our devices, seeking out stimulation in some shape or form, or finding ourselves in the kitchen a lot more, craving ‘something’.

However, back to the topic of relationships in general. I think many of us wonder, Is it normal not to like my spouse on most days of the week? Why am I thinking so much about my relationship? Again, is it normal to be googling Condos for Rent during my lunch break? What would my life look like alone? Could I survive financially? How about my kids? Maybe I am meant to be alone?

So, none of those questions above are easy to answer, nor could I answer them for you. Just like your MD cannot provide each one of his/her patients with the same prescription to health, I cannot give out blanket advice about your relationship. Everyone reading this has a unique situation, which calls for individualized attention and deep discussion. One thing I do know, if any of these questions above are spinning through your head, it is time to make an appointment. Talking to your friends is okay to release some of the angst, however, your friends care for you deeply and they may want you to take the path of least resistance to relieve the stress, even though it might not be the right path to go down at this moment.

I could write pages on this topic, but my goal here is not to save your marriage, or give you enough advice to make your life a lot easier in the coming months. I can tell you most of my clients have waited much too long before talking to a professional about it. Or…they think one session will do it. Building up resentment is like mold build-up underneath the tile or walls. You don’t see the level of toxicity on the outside, or how it is shutting down your biochemistry, but it certainly is changing you mentally, physically, and emotionally. It is a stress on the body you cannot ignore. At some point joy exited your life without you even noticing.

I don’t want to sound gender biased, but I have done this long enough to know that women are more passionate about getting help. Chances are they breached the topic of couples’ therapy sometime in the past, and their male counterpart gave it a brief acknowledgement, but consoled their spouse with ‘we can do it on our own’. In homosexual relationships, this is equally true. One partner tends to be more passionate on the topic than the other. Rarely are both ready to plunge into seeking professional help at the same time. The one exception is when infidelity showed up at the door one day and you BOTH looked at that package thinking, ‘Ahh… who ordered this??’. And now the road towards prevention has been completely wiped out (think massive flood waters), so you immediately crank the steering wheel guided only by ‘detour signs’ (a.k.a. Google, books, and maybe a therapist) and to be honest, you don’t have a clue where this road is headed. You likely also forgot about your destination. There is so, so much uncertainty.

So, when does ‘hard’ become ‘too hard’ in a relationship?

via @luellajonk

So, when does ‘hard’ become ‘too hard’ in a relationship? To help you answer this question, think of your marriage as a university course. It sparked your interest enough to sign-up for it. You felt somewhat compelled, or pressured, to take it. You then calculated your risk/benefit ratio and the sum was negative. So, naïvely you dived in.

Fast forward months, years, or decades and you are looking back at that decision and wondering if it was the right thing to do? Is this ‘choice/career path’ really for me? Hmm, maybe I was too young, stupid, naïve, or all of the above? What did I do?

Now some of you out there are thinking – yes, but I made a commitment and I am sticking with this career choice, I am sure I will find that perfect job one day. One day I will find happiness.

Then there are those of you that feel very certain – no way – this is clearly not for me! I need to VW! This course is clearly WAY TOO HARD – and I am gaining very little from it. If I look at this material one more day … I just can’t do it.

As your therapist, I need to let you know these decisions are extremely difficult and as I said before, each situation, each couple, merits deep conversations, in and out of my room. I need to hear your story and try to guide you through what that ‘best’ decision could be. Clients enter therapy at various levels of the decision process and it is a process indeed. When they come to me at the EJECT stage, I most often suggest space. The Gottman’s call this ‘negative sentiment override’. The couple needs to separate from each other for some time in order to gather thoughts and see if they feel better or worse separated. Otherwise, the resentment or whirling thoughts will not settle. The smallest actions or words will be enough to trigger emotional discord.

If you come to me at the state of arousal or curiosity, this is much preferred. This is a stage in which you can do some individual inner work and learn more about yourself and your needs. Like I said in a previous post, if you want it, ask for it.

Third stage? There is no third stage really. As stated previously, most couples wait until it is too late. They are either approaching it as preventative medicine, or they are looking for an immediate fix or pill to reverse the damage. I am using the word medicine for a reason, as I see the physical signs and symptoms of breakdown. Memory, hair loss, weight loss/gain, IBS, and heaven forbid, chronic disease.

When it comes to the body, all types of stressors affect us the same way. It doesn’t matter whether it is an argument with your spouse, chronic back pain, sleep deprivation, high processed diet, bacterial infection, loneliness, or a sedentary lifestyle. We can’t escape from the aftermath.

Don’t despair however, because just by paying attention to one area of our lifestyle, we can reverse the damage quite dramatically. The body responds quickly and well to self-care. So, whether your first line of action is talking to a therapist, going out in nature, choosing less processed foods, or attending to your relationships, the ripple effects will be felt – I guarantee it.

The Motivation for Change

The Motivation for Change

There are very few things I am certain about in life, but this next statement is one I can make with a great level of certainty: no one finds it easy to make a change.


Change removes a sense of automaticity in behaviour, which equates to energy conservation, especially in the form of brain energy. Fun facts: the brain uses 22% of the body’s overall energy at rest, with the other two tissues coming in as equal energy consumers being muscle and the liver. So, if you spent most of your day cranking out formulas or writing papers and feel exhausted, now you know why. Quite amazing to know what takes up 2% of our body weight, uses 22% of our energy at rest. Therefore, in terms of behavioural change, which takes energy, our brain doesn’t want to do it – too much work! We all want to tread down the path of least resistance, rather than choosing a path less trodden.

We all want to tread down the path of least resistance, rather than choosing a path less trodden.

via @luellajonk

I have yet to tell a client to kick the processed food, become vulnerable, start loving themselves, schedule in a weekly ‘are we all good honey?’ conversation with their partner, or limit alcohol and they respond with, “Great! Sign me up Doc!”

So, why is it so hard? Motivational psychology is incredibly interesting. How can some human specimens be so motivated to initiate a change, while others are paralyzed by it? Some seem to take on the challenge with both engines burning while others don’t give it more than a fleeting thought.

Motivation usually comes about in one of two ways. Somehow, you become inspired to act differently by either wanting to gain or achieve, or you come to a point of desperation and are now left with no choice (due to emotional or physical pain). Clearly, we want the former, not the latter. The clearest example of the latter is what I often experience in my work as a marriage therapist.

Why do we need something so detrimental happening toward the relationship before we do something about it? I am sure most medical health professionals feel the same way. However, we are all guilty of it. Again, change is difficult. Habit formation is tough.

According to the theory of self-determination, we all have this innate psychology to seek autonomy, competence, and relatedness. An example of this in real life might be a teenager completing their math assignments.

If they are motivated by competence, then it is possible they might be seeking out post-secondary studies in architecture, accounting, engineering, business, etc.

If motivated by connection or relatedness, they might want to be in the ‘smart class’ with the ‘smart kid group’, or they want to be like mom or dad, seeing themselves related to a certain type of professional.

If motivated by autonomy, they would not like the idea of relying on anyone to show them how to complete the math work, and therefore, strive to complete the work independently. Perhaps their parents have preached self-reliance and independence.

So, if your teenager has high self-determination, but fails his math test, they will admit their role in the failure, believe they can do better, and then take action. As a parent, self-determination can work well in this scenario, but not so great in other areas of living under a ruled-abided household. I will let you play out personal scenarios in your head. Ultimately it is our caregivers who guided our behaviour and educated us in the area of pragmatics.

Okay, maybe that is enough psychobabble for one post. Let’s talk real life and why I brought this to your attention.

Perhaps I want you to have more compassion towards yourself when you are aware you want to change, but don’t know where to even begin, or what that would look like.

Look back to the three precursors associated with self-determination. Are you most motivated by competence, autonomy, or relatedness? If there is one area that resonates with you more than another, jump on it. Let’s say you are addicted to either sugar, alcohol, smoking or diet coke (or maybe all four?). What might make you say no to that substance? Is it your health – that drives you towards living to a ripe old age in a state of self-relience – free of doctor’s visits, healthcare aides, and a senior’s residence? Maybe you want to have a long retirement with your partner, travel the world, and play with your grandchildren. It is different for everyone.

Another person who is extremely disappointed with their romantic relationship may be motivated to seek marriage counselling by all three areas; Autonomy – they took the initiative to search the web for Winnipeg Marriage Therapist or Psychology Today, scanned their options and booked the appointment; Relatedness – craving more in their marriage, wanting connection and love, and for the fondness and admiration to return to their relationship; Competence – perhaps as a parent to their children? This person may want their child to grow up feeling secure in their home, to model to their children what a loving relationship looks like? Perhaps, it is an awareness of necessary skills and tools to promote better connections and communication with your partner and are determined to seek out those skills.

In summary, change is difficult for everyone.

I hope breaking it down into three specific areas of self-determination might be enough incentive for you to become more curious about what ignites you toward making a change. After you do that, don’t look back, listen to your gut, and go for it. Remember, it is never failure, only self-discovery. Personally, I love learning about myself. I guess this is why I do what I do.

Hopefully you do too.