There Are No Perfect Marrriages, Only Imperfect Behaviors

what are couples really fighting about?By Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

A woman came into my office recently.  She was very attractive.  She had every hair in place.  Her purse matched her outfit.  She was physically fit.  As we began to discuss why she was seeking my professional services, my “gut” kept screaming, “Because she has to be perfect!”  As I invited her to peek into my ‘gut”, she said, “Well, perfectionism may be an issue.”  That means, “yes” to a therapist.  It also means that I am going to have to dig deep for the real problem because perfectionists tend to want to appear perfect even for the therapist.

So beneath the self imposed stress of super high expectations and working and raising a family, we finally landed on the pain.  It was her marriage.  In attempting to be the perfect employee, the perfect wife and the perfect mom, she was running on empty with her emotional needs.  Her husband paid little to no attention to her and was preoccupied with sports on TV.

I asked her to tell me how a typical evening went at the end of her work day.  She said, “I walk in the door and I feel like my family is hiding from me.  My husband and I do not acknowledge one another.  There are so many tasks to keep up with that we both begin our “second job” with dinner, homework, bath time and then we both retreat to our own devices to finish off our night.”

I felt exhausted and depleted just listening to her everyday life.  We are all busy, but it is what we are busy doing that either enriches our marriages or depletes them.  I asked her to walk outside of my door and come back in behaving in the way that she would like to be greeted by her husband and family.  She began to cry, “I don’t even know it has been so long since I felt loved.  I feel critical and hardened all the time.”

Yes, perfectionism  impacts those around us.  Our high standards and expectations  on tasks tend to chase people away for fear of criticism.  We become depleted as everyone runs from our incessant demands and no one is really there to support the tremendous criticisms we place on ourselves or to fully understand the amount of anxiety surging through our bodies that fuels this desire to be “perfect.”  It is like being a hamster on a treadmill with a constant need to fight or flee.  Eventually we are worn down.  It can then develop into depression.

If this journey feels like yours, STOP!  By changing a few simple behaviors, you can recharge, reclaim and refill your “love tank”.

1.  Take time for a few loving rituals during the day – kiss good morning, hug good bye,, send a kind text, and always greet your spouse at the end of a long work day and let them know how happy you are to see them.

2.  Schedule some “me” time after your work day.  Something as simple as changing your clothes without interruptions.  This teaches your family boundaries and helps you to learn to communicate your need to “decompress.”

3.  Delegate responsibilities – even little ones can participate with picking up toys or other easy chores.  Plan a 30 minute chore time where the family works together to get everything done.  Put on some music and make it family fun time.

4.  Pay attention to your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual needs – your needs have to matter.  Your children are watching you to see if it is okay to express their own needs with the hopes of having them met.  Be a good role model for NEEDS!  We all have them.

5.  Only God is perfect, humans are ALL imperfect and we love each other anyway.  Embrace imperfection and stop and smell the flowers more and teach your family to do the same!



midlife yearsWhat Makes Marriage So Complicated?

By Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

Every day in our marriages, we have the opportunity to get de-railed.  It can be as simple as having an expectation that your spouse cuddles with you on the couch rather than flips to the sports channel and focuses all of his attention on the “boob tube”.

Often, expectations are not verbalized, so when a spouse gets put in the “dog house” for turning on his favorite sports program, he does not have a clue as to why you left the room with a big eye roll and a sigh.  However, he does know that it’s not a good sign, but to avoid conflict, he stays in front of the TV, nervously strategizing how to avoid further conflict. Can you blame him?  It is tough to walk into the “land mine field” of unmet expectations. We just never know what is seething below the surface and ready to explode and send debris and scrap metal flying in our direction!

Marriage   is that mine field.  It is filled with opportunities for appreciation and resentments to grow each and every day.  All too often, those appreciations and those resentments are the very sentiments, both positive and negative, that go unspoken. 

Imagine the above scenario going, “Hey honey, I so appreciate that you have had a long day at work and want to relax, however, I am needing some me and you time.  How can we both get our needs met?  Marriage is not just about good communication, it is also about understanding our own needs, and problem solving together to meet those needs.  It is about being a grownup rather than a “tantruming 2 year old” if our expectations are not met.  It is about not projecting our needs, desires, faults and fears onto our spouse, but taking charge of them by owning them and sharing them in loving ways that offer our spouse an opportunity to be supportive.

To practice this, I invite you to think about what you appreciate about your spouse and what you resent or are struggling with in the relationship.  Next share your appreciation and your struggle with your spouse.  Do not attempt to solve the struggles for one another, just listen.  Afterwards ask your spouse how you can be supportive of their struggle.  Make sure that you do not own your spouse’s struggle.  Just be willing to hear it and to show empathy.  This is one way that we can take responsibility for and begin to clear out the resentments that can build up daily in our relationships and prevent us from getting the love we want.

Try this exercise and tell us how it works in your relationship.

Marriage and Vulnerability

Symbol HeartA new friend of mine is struggling in her marriage.  Her husband had an affair and they are both in a lot of pain.  I wanted to sit quietly and be like Buddha with outstretched arms to embrace all that she wanted to share.  That lasted about five minutes before I wanted to lunge at her with advice.  We can’t help ourselves, can we?  Connection with other humans can trigger our own vulnerabilities.

The need to give advice or “fix” something or someone can come from our own vulnerability towards the experience.  My friend was talking about being in “limbo” and waiting for her husband to make a decision, “Are you in or out of the marriage?” I wanted to leap out of my skin and project, “I can’t stand to feel stuck or powerless, how can you?  I wanted to tell her that she too, had to  figure out if she wanted to be in this relationship or not.  That deep decision would then drive her behavior. It was her marriage too and I was quite sure that the affair did not happen in a vacuum.  Why was she leaving all of the decision making power up to her husband?

The answer is simply, vulnerability.  Her husband moved out of the house because he wanted to avoid feeling guilty, inadequate, controlled or punished.  She went to an all too familiar place, “I’m a victim”, so she could avoid decision making, responsibility, guilt, or shame.  They both began doing more of the same, avoiding conflict and denying feelings to protect themselves against being vulnerable.

The problem is that healing in marriage is often where vulnerability and shame intersect.”  Healing requires that we take full inventory of our own faults, fears and failings.  Inevitably, that intimacy with the self, can produce feelings of shame.  Couples in ruptured relationships,  often  bounce shame back and forth as if it was a tennis ball, or a hot potato.  Spouses do not seem to know what to do with it, but kick it down the road, playing “kick the can” or “marital chicken”.

Webster defines vulnerability as “leaving oneself open for attack”.  Couples can feel that their spouse will retaliate using their vulnerabilities as a weapon or an “Achilles heel.”  Vulnerability is a double edged sword that can deepen intimacy or wound it like an arrow to the heart.

Couples who heal their marriage engage in these behaviors:  They risk being vulnerable first with themselves, then with their spouse.  They identify their feelings.  They script their needs.  They take ownership of their behaviors.  They identify the problems within their relationship.  They take responsibility for their role in the downfall of their marriage.  They are willing to change their own behavior.  They are willing to risk being fully known.  It is not easy work, but it is often transformative, like watching a cocoon become a butterfly.  We cannot be intimate with others until we can be intimate and honest with ourselves.  Recognizing our own limitations as an imperfectly, flawed human being opens the door for the possibility of forgiveness.


Is Your Relationship Stuck in a Rut?

by Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

 Is your relationship “stuck in a rut” because you have the same argument over and over and over again?”  Do you say to yourself, “Here we go again” and “If only my partner would change or see things my way, our relationship would improve?” If this sounds like you, those thoughts may be helping you to be a part of  the problem.

There are many typical patterns of interaction that are observable in couples. These patterns help to maintain the balance within the relationship. The three most common patterns are: Pursuer-Distancer – one person approaches the other person avoids.  Blamer -Placatar – one person blames and criticizes and the other person wants to avoid conflict  and therefore, accommodates and accepts responsibility for the other’s displeasure.  Overfunctioner-Underfunctioner – one partner is overly responsible at her own expense while the other partner is not responsible and allows the partner to take care of him.

The first step to becoming unstuck is to identify your pattern of behavior.  Secondly, making your relationship change requires that YOU make a behavioral change.  My father once said to me, “You’re mom’s been trying to change me for 25 years and it still hasn’t worked.”  A common mistake for many couples is that they  both struggle to change their partner, which maintains the “stuck” pattern of arguing over the same problem.  It is a circular dance that results in power struggles and a block to intimacy, producing no winners.  Attempting to change your partner is a form of control and manipulation that simply does not work. There are many books on the market to provide you with new interaction skills to try.

Thirdly, remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  Therefore, if you make the choice to interact differently, you will get a new result.  For example, Mrs. J. says, “In our last fight, I told my husband he was a lousy lover and we haven’t made love since that fight.  I criticize him a lot because he never listens and just keeps clicking the channel changer.”  Mrs. J’s criticism prevents her even further from getting what she wants.  What would happen if instead of being a blamer, Mrs. J says, “Honey, I really want our love life to be spectacular.  I guess it’s an expectation I have, but I am not sure how to improve it and I need your help.  Do you think we could get one of those better sex videos?”  Which would you be more likely to respond to in a positive manner?  Not only is Mrs. J not blaming, but Mr. J will not likely placate. For every new action, there is a new reaction.

 It is important to listen to yourself.  Realize the impact that you are having on your relationship and the role that you play in your relationship. Changing your own behavior makes you feel empowered.  Trying to change someone else and feeling “stuck” makes you feel powerless.  Choose power by changing the only person you have any real control over – YOURSELF.

Marriage Is Not Dead, Obsolete or Irrelevant

By Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

I recently read that 40% of Americans believe that marriage is outdated and no longer relevant and that 1 in 2 marriages that begin this year, will end in divorce.  Only 51% of the adult population is currently married and more people are opting to live together and have babies out of wedlock.  Many people are saying good riddance to marriage.  Why?

I do not believe that this is a positive or healthy trend for our society.  Imagine being 22 years old, falling in love and longing to get married. However, fear comes over you as you walk down the aisle because no one  in your family or in the media has had a successful marriage.  You wonder, “How can I beat the odds?”  I am here to tell you that you can!  Read further to understand why marriages are failing and how you can succeed.

There is an old Aesop’s fable called, “The Fox and the Grapes” that helps us to understand the negative portrayal of marriage in our culture today.

” A very hungry fox walked into a vineyard where there was an ample supply of luscious looking grapes. Grapes had never looked so good, and the fox was famished. However, the grapes hung higher than the fox could reach. He jumped and stretched and hopped and reached and jumped some more trying to get those yummy grapes, but to no avail. No matter what he tried, he could not reach the grapes. He wore himself out jumping and jumping to get the grapes.

fox and grapes

       “Those grapes surely must be sour,” he said as he walked away, “I wouldn’t eat them if they were served to me on a silver platter.” 

“It is easy to hate what you cannot have.”

When something is inconvenient, difficult or we feel powerless to achieve  it, we simply say, “Oh, that’s outdated or no longer relevant.”  As a marriage therapist, I often witness people making up there own relationship rules  based upon fears rather than on facts.  I see  couples who live on two different continents and their marriages are struggling.  They attempt to define the problem as communication, jealousy or other issues rather than look at the obvious issue – they both want to be in charge and fear the loss of their own autonomy or the loss of self.  Career becomes more important than marriage.   Defining the real problem would mean that they would have to come to grips with their “emotional blind spots” and relationship deficiencies.  That is often painful and difficult because they are often products of a failed marital system themselves and do not want to uncover the past pain. So rather than solving the tough underlying problems, couples create an unhealthy and unsustainable system of their own.

We live in an “anything goes” culture.  The rules and traditions of marriage are being redefined, mostly out of convenience even though there is much history and scientific evidence to prove the benefits of marriage for men, women, children and the society as a whole. Living in Silicon Valley,  where work-a-holism is a virtue,I  have seen all of the crazy  attempts to justify and rationalize faultering or failing marriages, “It wasn’t meant to be.”  “People are not suppose to be monogamous.”  “We are too different and have nothing in common.” or “I fell out of love with my spouse.”  My reality is simple.  Marriage is not dead, outdated or irrelevant, we are just not very good at it as a culture.

There are three primary reasons for this trend:  First,  when I ask a room full of couples to raise their hand if they want a marriage like their parents, only one or two hands go up.  With the divorce rate skyrocketing, many people have had lousy marital role modeling and therefore, have not witnessed the skills necessary for a lifetime marriage.

Secondly, there is also the dilemma of roles in marriages today.  As in the above example with two income earners and careers, there is very little time and effort to put into the nurturing of a marriage.  I find that couples are very unsatisfied with their role and their spouse’s role in their marriage.  If two people are on horseback and both are holding the reins, there is still one who sits in front.  The power dynamics in this “gender-blender” culture are confusing to most people because even though they may want to ascribe to being progressive in their views, their biology sings a different tune.  “I want to be equal, but my husband better take care of me financially.” or “My wife wants to work, but I wish she were not so stressed out all the time so that she would be interested in more love making.”  Men are becoming more passive and women more demanding and they both tell me that they don’t like it and they want to stop.  Marriage is a dance and couples are stepping all over each other’s toes!

And thirdly, we are a self absorbed, individualistic culture where, “What’s in it for me?” often competes with a spouse’s needs. This makes it exceptionally difficult for couples to merge from a me state of being into a we state.  Couples compete, or avoid conflict and struggle with the loss of autonomy and effort that it takes to really learn how to collaborate with one another.  Collaboration is the only conflict style that truly preserves a relationship.

Your relationship success depends upon these three foundational concepts:  Commitment, Communication and Conflict. And they tend to work in a circular fashion.  Couples are committing less to long term marriage out of fear.  It is often the source of conflict, but conflict and communication is avoided because there is no long term commitment.

First of all, marriage is an art.  And like all artists, we do not simply come into the world knowing how to paint.  Sure, some artists may have more natural talent than others, but all artists have to learn, practice and commit to their craft.  Imagine if you would learn skills, practice the skills and commit to improving your relationship how much better it could be?  As human beings, we all have the ability to learn.   The choices we make, the habits we create, the energy we invest all help us to grow our relationship skills.  Once we gain mastery over relationship skills and our marriage becomes of supreme importance to us, the permanent commitment of a relationship is reinforced and valued.

Secondly, Human beings naturally move  towards people who make them feel good.  Therefore, if your communication style is blaming, shaming or complaining, it will evoke a defensive, avoidant or contemptuous partnership.  Learn how to  communicate effectively by taking ownership of how you are feeling, thinking or behaving.  ( remember no one is perfect)  Develop empathy and deeper understanding for your spouse through listening and being attentive.  And affirm and encourage your spouse on a daily basis.  Take the time to define your roles, responsibilities and expectations in marriage and communicate  them with one another.  Work at it until you are gliding on the dance floor of life together like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Thirdly, like childhood  developmental stages, there are stages in a marital relationships.   Some of the stages (like adolescence) are tougher to get through and couples can get stuck.  (For a full discussion on these stages, read How To Be A Couple:  Sex, Love and Marriage available at  Couples generally come into marriage therapy because they are stuck in stage 3, setting boundaries or stage 4, conflict negotiation stage.  Both of these stages send romantic love and infatuation feelings into a tail spin as our differences emerge and fuel a fight or flight reaction.  Couples begin to doubt their choice in partner.  “Who did I marry.  I thought you were different!”  I enjoy teaching couples that there is purpose in our differences.  It is the ingredient that transforms each one of us to become a better version of ourselves.  Getting through this stage successfully requires fair fighting rules, problem solving skills  and a collaborative style of conflict resolution.  Otherwise, the marital house that you are building, will not have a secure foundation.

The path of least resistance is to follow the fox and exclaim that marriage is irrelevant.  However, remember that the fox really did want the grapes, he just did not know how to get them.  Check in with and discover that the fruits of marriage are within your reach!


Probelm Solving in Marriage

marriage-600x319[1]by Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

If the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing and expecting a different result” then no wonder couples drive each other crazy!!   It does not seem to matter how intelligent two people are, when they come together in a marriage, good problem solving skills seem absent.  Control, guilt, manipulation, demandingness, and coercion do not solve marriage problems, they simply add to the dysfunction.

Good problem solving requires right and left brain activity.  It is both an analytical process and a creative process.  We first have to prioritize and define the problem that we are going to tackle.  Then we have to brainstorm possible solutions and pick one to try out.  In couplehood, it is often the first step that gets skipped – what are we fighting about?  Rather than defining the problem in clear terms, couples often blame each other or point fingers at the symptoms.  Problem solving is the practice of change and most people do not want to change what they do, they just want to change what their spouse does!

Problems are problems because we cannot readily find a solution.  I suffered from intermittent  neck and shoulder pain for several months.  I thought the cause was a fall while hiking and that it would just go away.  I did not want to go to my doctor because I figured she would just give me Advil to take.  I looked online and began to catastrophize that it was “frozen shoulder” or something worse.  I went to an acupuncturist and a massage therapist trying to find a solution.  Finally, one day while on my computer, my husband walked in my office and exclaimed, “No wonder your neck and shoulder hurt, look at how you are sitting at the computer!”  He had me stand up and pumped up my chair and lowered my screen and like magic, the pain went away!

Couples spend most of their time arguing over symptoms rather than solving the problem.  I have an exercise I call, “define it”.  I put a pillow between them on the couch and I say, ” You are not the problem and your spouse is not the problem.  The problem is the pillow between you.  See if you can both work together to define the problem between you.”  This helps couples to stop pointing fingers at their spouse and to begin to really define the actual problem so that we can begin to solve it.

A good way to define the marital problem is by using the “5 whys” technique.  Example:

Why did we have that fight today?  We had that fight because you were late.

Why did we fight because you were late?  We fought because I asked you specifically to not be late today because the babysitter had to leave on time.

Why did you have to ask specifically?  Because we are usually late to pick up the kids.

Why are we usually late to pick up the kids?  Because we do not set good work boundaries or take turns picking up the kids.

Why do we not take turns picking up the kids?  Maybe we need to.  That’s a good solution!  The problem is that we both off shift the responsibility to each other rather than taking turns and being accountable.

Solving problems together is satisfying.  It bonds you together in powerful ways and helps to reinforce your commitment that you can work through anything together!




The Amazing Journey of Marriage

How To Be A Couple by Sheila Kreifels, LMFT & Teresa Lauer, LMHCby Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

Our pastor’s black lab died on Sunday. During the sermon, he began to share, but was too choked up with grief. The church was completely silent. When he finally could utter a few words he simply said, “I wonder if we could all be a little bit more like “Blackie”. Greet one another with pure joy in our hearts and unconditional love.” I guess that is why God spelled backwards is dog.  There are examples all around us of God’s love and His desire for us to experience that love.  Marriage is one of His greatest examples.

Through marriage we are afforded the opportunity to learn how to love joyously and unconditionally.  There is something magical that happens during a wedding ceremony.  The friends and family gathered around  the room look back and forth from the bride to the groom.  Watch the next time you are at a wedding.  Everyone is taking in the connection between the two love birds.  Everyone is routing for them.  The groom is focusing on the bride as if no one else exists and the bride’s eyes are gazing at her groom.  They are locked in this state of joyous, unconditional love for one another.  And God is on the altar saying, “That’s right, you two love one another as I have loved you.  I know it is not easy, that is why I am here to help you both. Find your way, through one another, to me.”

Now what if the bride came walking down the aisle, all eyes on her, and her phone rings.  She stops and answers saying, “Hey, where are you, thought you’d be here today…”  Then the groom impatiently looks at his watch and the audience begins to grumble…The moment of connection is lost.  That is how vulnerable we all are to being sinful and flawed in our marriages.

Overcoming our flaws and shortcomings is what the journey of marriage is all about.  How do we help one another to become the best version of him or her self?  How do we become the joyous and unconditionally loving dog for our spouse?  How do we surrender to our selfishness and lay down our life for our spouse?  One way is to remember that first powerful connection while walking down the aisle or standing at the altar awaiting to receive your lovely bride.  Create that moment for your marriage each day by focusing on just the two of you without interruptions.  Let no man, woman or child come between you.  Or job, substance, shame, or deceit.  You can re-create that powerful moment each and every day  by surrendering to the power of deep connection and love, even when you do not feel deserving.  That is the amazing journey of marriage.




Symbol Heartby Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

Recently, I embarked on a new adventure to strengthen marriages in my church.  I was driven by three thoughts:  I want to serve my community in the best way that I know how with my skills and talents as a marriage therapist; I want to dispel the current belief that marriage is no longer relevant to our culture; and I want to bring people together  and build what I crave in my world – connection.   I want a place to share honestly and authentically the trials and tribulations of being a faith-based couple  raising a family.  When people can risk vulnerability in a safe environment, they become transformed. I want that!

The hard part is where to find a safe environment?  (Besides a therapist’s office!) The definition of vulnerability is “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or open to attack or damage”.  Yikes!  The journey to be authentic with others is like getting pricked by a thorn as you pick a beautiful rose.  The thorn can appear as the red flush of shame, a thought of unworthiness, or the discomfort of a childhood wound getting ripped open again.  Sometimes it can be all three…

My first task in the church was to facilitate a ‘”vision session” with couples.  It was a fun evening with food, wine, ice breakers, and entertaining exercises designed to promote connection, vulnerability and the birth of new ideas to support marriages.  I was on top of my professional game and the energy in the room was palatable.  I  hit a “nerve” in the church members.  They were all longing for this greater connection too. There was only one problem.  As the facilitator, I was an observer of the intimacy that engulfed  the room rather than a participant.  It reminded me of growing up in my navy family, moving every two years and feeling like the outsider, excluded.  Ouch!

When people provide their core gifts and talents to our world, they are confronted by their old wounds which can leave  a feeling of vulnerability.  What was my  wound still communicating to me?  ” You have to earn the right to be accepted.”  That manifested in different ways as a child in the different places we lived – smart, funny, troublemaker,  good girl.  I adapted as necessary.  Unworthiness says, “There are conditions for my  acceptance of you.  You have to be a certain way.  Therefore, how you are is not good enough.”

This vulnerable feeling grew inside me as I continued to facilitate.  I waltzed from table to table attempting to connect,  both  as the “all knowing” facilitator and the “new girl” fending off loneliness.  At the end of the three hour session, the bonded couples did not want to leave. They demanded to secure a calendar date to come together again. They chose a date when I would be out of town.  I shared, “I won’t be available on that date.”  A woman hollered out, “We don’t need you!”  Others rushed to my emotional rescue. They picked a new date, but it was too late.  My heart was bleeding all over the floor and I quickly disappeared.  Although as a professional, I could not physically leave, I left emotionally and mentally for a few moments as I attempted to put my pieces back together.  “Retreat!  I will not let you harm me!” I screamed through my skin as anxiety swallowed me up.

A midst the shame, unworthiness, and scattered pieces of my heart, I put myself back together again.  I have learned that emotional pain presents us with opportunity.  I want to continue to risk and grow, and you can too!  Begin by asking yourself these questions:

1. What was the internal and external setting?  I was tired and drained from the stress and energy that it takes to facilitate for 3 hours   Everyone else was having fun and I was “working”.  I was craving for myself what I  observed others get, connection.  I met most of the people for the first time which is always more anxiety provoking for me.

2.  What was the antecedent?  (the trigger that came before)  The experience  of being excluded as the particpants at each table experienced greater inclusion with one another.  This left me vulnerable to attack.

3.  What was the behavior?  The woman hollering, “We don’t need you!”

4.  What was the consequence?  The initial consequence was  feelings of shame, non-acceptance and  retreat.

What are the take-aways from this experience?

  • We are all susceptible to vulnerability
  • We need to self protect our vulnerable wounds with healthy boundaries, rather than avoid being vulnerable.
  • Using the above behavioral formula, we can gain self awareness and take responsibility for taking care of ourselves.
  • Vulnerability provides us with great opportunity to grow, heal, change and connect with others.
  • If you resist and fear vulnerability in your relationship with others, we could conclude that you equally struggle with self protection.  Boundaries do not keep people out, but invite them in with less risk of further wounding.  They are porous and flexible.
  • To invite people into our “inner world”, it helps to know where the wounds are – what hurts, what feels good, what do we deserve, not deserve, what we like and what we don’t like?
  • You see, the safe environment is created within each one of us, through deep decisions that we make about our lives.

Although I do know that meeting new people can bring out greater feelings of vulnerability for me, I mistakenly assumed that I would not need my “psychic armor” at a church gathering!  Wrong!

On a sunny day, you might don a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen to enjoy the sun, but avoid a burn, boundaries help us to risk getting close to people without being damaged.  The moon is a hazardous environment, yet with a space suit, an astronaut can walk all around this hazardous environment and be protected.  I neglected to bring my space suit to this session!

What settings or situations make you feel more vulnerable?  In your marriage?  In your friendships?  At your job?  How do you respond to vulnerability?  Is it stopping you from living up to your full potential and loving with your whole heart?  Join with me to embrace our “soft white underbellies”, our imperfect, human selves and shared human conditions.  Rejoice in our vulnerability!




Valentine’s Day Everyday

what-is-love[1]by Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

I love Valentine’s Day, but I did not always feel that way.  As a young adult, I suffered a broken heart.  I know, not very unusual, but it is the reason that I am a marriage therapist.  You see, like many “love doctors” this broken heart fueled my desire to uncover the mystery of love and marriage.  However, 20 years later, it still remains a mystery.  I have learned a lot along the way and it has opened my heart in ways that I would have never imagined.  When something becomes of supreme importance to you, you practice  it and put time, energy and effort into it.  These are two of my favorite discoveries:

First, love is a decision and marriage offers you the opportunity to make that decision everyday.  In the book, “The Art of Loving”, Eric Fromm says that the modern culture solves the problem of love by asking the wrong question, “How can I be loved?”  We have become consumers of love and use beauty and financial success to get more of it.  Rather than asking, ” How can I be loving?”  Imagine the transformative nature of asking and answering that question each day…No one is perfect, we all need to work at love.  But there is only one person who you can change and that person is YOU.

Secondly, we are looking for love in all the wrong places.  We will not discover the mystery of love and marriage on TV or at the movies, or in books, magazines or songs.  Love and marriage is revealed to us in the greatest love story ever written, The Bible.  It is the best “how to” book on love and marriage.  God’s design is brilliant and purposeful.  He knew that marital love would transform us.  We are made to yearn for that transformation, to love like He does.

No easy feat I know, but look around, you will find this kind of love.  I love to look for it.  I met a couple in a nursing home.  The husband was only 70 years old and was struck down by Alzheimer’s, unable to walk or talk.  His wife told me that she comes to the hospital everyday at 7am just as his eyes open and stays until 7pm when his eyes close.  She had such joy, I had to ask how.  She told me that her husband gave her and their 6 children a fabulous life  and then she added, “When you have been loved like I have been loved, it’s a joy.”  This woman was laying down her life for her husband the same way that Jesus laid down His life for us.  Her story changed me.

I read the other day that 4 in 10 Americans believe that marriage is obsolete, or no longer relevant.  Imagine that God’s design for love and marriage is no longer relevant.  I guess that will put me out of a job!  But the truth is, marital love is more relevant today than it has ever been.  If  the marriage goes, so goes the society.  Keep love and marriage alive and relevant in your life by making everyday Valentine’s Day!

The Art of Long Term Commitment

images[4]by Sheila Kreifels, LMFT

The word commitment can make people squirm.  I hear statements like, “My boyfriend is a commitment-phob”, or “We’ve been together 6 years and still no marriage.”  However, I also observe couples who struggle, but never identify the problem as “commitment”, because they are too afraid to talk about it directly.   What is commitment and why is it so scary?

I define commitment as a responsibility to your partner to make the relationship exclusive and to put forth the effort to make it  work long term.  Lifetime togetherness is not luck, marrying the right person, or having the right circumstances.  It is always about right behaviors.

Take this example:  If every time a couple fights, the wife yells, “I want a divorce!”  The long term commitment becomes eroded by the fear of divorce as a constant possibility.  If when a couple fights, the wife says, “Honey, right now I am angry, but I am sure that we will work out our disagreement.”  The long term commitment is confirmed in both their minds, there is no fear because there is no constant threat of rejection.

Here is a case study:  Liezl and Dean have been living together for 2 years.  Liezl is turning 30 and wants to get married and have children.  Dean is still working on his career path and wants to be financially stable before he commits to marriage.  They are on different places on the “commitment continuum”.  Although they both want to marry  one another, their timing is different.  Liezl and Dean have not yet developed good conflict resolution practices, so they do not know how to deal with this difference.

Liezl begins to “nag” Dean about getting engaged.  She gets very upset when he does not respond.  Dean gets fearful of her emotions.  He does not want Liezl to get upset, so he begins to avoid the discussion.  This makes Liezl feel that Dean does not want to marry her which increases her insecurities.  Dean begins to spend more time at work to avoid Liezl’s emotional outbursts.

Dean and Liezl are stuck in an unrelenting pattern of emotional distance.  They have both attempted to solution for the problem with doing more of the same, nagging and avoiding.  These attempted solutions do not work because the truest form of love is how you behave toward someone not how you feel about them.  Nagging communicates to Dean that he is not good enough.  Avoiding communicates to Liezl that she is not good enough. How can they change their behaviors to be more loving, and less controlling and rejecting

Step 1.   Turn nagging into an honest boundary statement -” You never want to talk about us anymore!” becomes ” I love you and I would like to be engaged within a year, be married in two years and have children by the time I am 35.”  Is that possible for us?  Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes, but no plans.

Step 2.  Turn avoidance into an honest boundary statement – Lack of response and distraction becomes “I love you too, however I have some financial concerns and I want to be able to move into our own home when we get married.”  Men and women often have different agendas leading up to marriage.

Step 3.  Really listen from your heart to your partner’s concerns and fears and even if you do not agree with them, understand his perspective.

Step 3. Identify the common ground issues – “We both love one another and we do want to marry one another, we just need to work out the timing and come up with a plan that meets both of our needs.” 

Step 4.  For better or for worse – Build resiliency in your marriage with a “we can overcome this” attitude!  Relationships require skills which you learn over time.  If you give up, you cannot learn.

The truth is that couples rarely fear commitment.  They  fear rejection or hurt and loss of autonomy or powerlessness. We don’t want to be discarded or engulfed.  Therefore, honest communication, clear boundaries, good problem solving skills and continued love and support even during times of high conflict are key to long term commitment in relationships.

“Real love has little to do with falling. It’s a climb up the rocky face of a mountain, hard work, and most people are too selfish or too scared to bother.
Very few reach the critical point in their relationship that summons the attention of the light and the dark, that place where they will make a commitment to love no matter what obstacles-or temptations- appear in their path.”
Stacey Jay, Juliet Immortal