Lori Epting on healthy marriages and norms
People of Charlotte, please meet Lori Epting, LCMHC, marriage counselor, business owner and author. She has been featured on NBC, FOX, and more, offering marriage advice, pulling from her recently released book, From Chaos to Connection, A Marriage Counselor's Candid Guide for the Modern Couple (which has been praised by the author of The 5 Love Languages).
Now let's get to know Lori's story!
Disagreements are normal in any relationship. How do you know when it's time for therapy?
Disagreements are not necessarily the sign that it’s time for therapy. Disagreements can be a healthy sign that two people are expressing their thoughts, feelings and needs with each other, which will naturally be at different at times and create disagreement. Couples can have lots of disagreements and still feel secure that their relationship is intact.
Secure, healthy relationships are built on trust.
On the contrary, couples who never disagree or argue are oftentimes most at risk for disconnection. It is unlikely that two people agree on everything in life, and if no one is voicing a contrary opinion, it is usually because they don’t want to create conflict by expressing what they are really thinking and feeling. If partners aren’t being open and honest with each other about their true thoughts and feelings, disconnection is likely.
Disconnection is a better barometer of whether couples therapy is needed. Unfortunately, one or both partners may feel disconnected for years before seeking help. Some good pointers for whether or not it’s time for therapy are:
One partner says so (if one partner is voicing discontent and a request for therapy, believe him/her that things are to the point that help is warranted).
You can’t see the good stuff very often.
There has been a significant break in trust.
You are in a constant negative cycle of communicating.
You are avoiding communicating all together because it doesn’t result in resolution or connection.
You are having consistent thoughts like, “She doesn’t care what I think” or “He doesn’t care how I feel.”
You don’t seek each other out for comfort and connection.
What are some toxic habits that you have seen between couples?
Deceit, criticism, shutting down and being overly argumentative, independent or dependent are examples of common, highly toxic habits. And here are the reasons why.
Secure, healthy relationships are built on trust. Therefore, any form of deceit is going to be incredibly damaging to a relationship. Couples are likely to get into unhealthy dynamics if trust has been broken and there hasn’t been significant efforts to rebuild it.
Communication is another place that couples can get in bad habits. Some examples are criticizing instead of asking for your needs, shutting down instead of expressing yourself and only arguing about facts (who did or said what when) instead of sharing more vulnerably how you feel. Communicating in an effective, relational way involves certain skills and some partners need to learn these skills. There is no shame in needing to learn healthy communication skills and conversations can be transformative when they are learned.
Listen and understand their fears.
Finally, when partners don’t rely on each other emotionally, relationships can suffer. A healthy relationship requires two people to feel safe to be vulnerable with each other and to lean on each other in healthy ways for comfort, support and connection. If partners are too independent (they think they don’t need emotional support and can do it themselves), the relationship can disconnect pretty easily. On the contrary, if partners are too dependent on their partner and don’t have their own supportive outlets and healthy coping skills, they can negatively impact their relationship.
What is emotionally focused couples therapy?
Emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT) is a highly effective model of couples therapy used by trained couples therapists. EFT is rooted in the science of attachment theory. Think about infants who have healthy bonds with their caregivers—they know if they cry out for a need to be met, food, diaper change, swaddled and rocked—their caregiver is available and responsive to them. When a child develops a safe and secure bond with their caregiver, they statistically have more positive outcomes throughout their lives. As researchers studied adult romantic relationships, they found that couples who report relational satisfaction also have a safe and secure bond with each other. Now, we don’t necessarily need to be swaddled and rocked (even thought that sounds amazing right now), but we do need things from our partners to feel emotionally connected to them. EFT helps couples who are in distress create a strong emotional bond, which leads to improved communication and a stronger, more satisfying relationship.
Any advice if one spouse wants to go to therapy and the other spouse does not?
I strongly urge spouses to consider therapy if one partner is asking for it. Otherwise, the problems may worsen. However, it is understandable that a partner may resist couples therapy for good reasons. They may fear getting blamed for their partner’s unhappiness or for the problems of the relationship. They may have had a negative experience in therapy before. They may have never done therapy and have misconceptions about what couples therapy would be like.
These are some healthy, effective ways to motivate a resistant partner to come to therapy:
Acknowledge that you know you have a part in the problem or unhappiness (it’s not all your partner’s fault) and you are open to understanding your part.
Listen and understand their fears.
Encourage them to learn more about couples therapy before refusing it all together. Two helpful websites are https://iceeft.com and my marriage blog, https://marriagesense.org. Also, many couples therapists will set up a 20-min consultation. It can be extremely helpful to have a conversation with a couples therapist where each of you can ask questions and get to know their process. Knowledge is power.
Express how much the relationship means to you. Here is an example of a great approach to a resistant partner: “This relationship means so much to me and I’m afraid our issues are going to strain our relationship further. You are so important to me that I don’t want to do this wrong. I want to learn from someone who can really help us, who can help us see what we can do to make our relationship better. It would mean a lot to me if you would come with me. And I hope it helps me be a better partner to you. Will you come?”
What has been your observation during the pandemic regarding relationship issues and how have you counseled couples to find connection amidst the chaos?
It’s been so interesting to watch the impact of this pandemic on relationships. For some, the impact has been positive. Couples who experienced the slowdown of life had quality time with each other for the first time in years. Often, couples disconnect due to lack of time they have for each other, and for many, the pandemic created time for couples to be with each other.
For others, the stress of the pandemic created a lot of strain on their relationship. Stress can heighten emotion and make it difficult for couples to communicate effectively, which can also lead to disconnection, feelings of loneliness or even a hopeless feeling about the relationship. As the title of my book implies, I believe couples can find connection amidst ANY type of chaos, including a pandemic. So, I’ve been leveraging the same tips and training that help couples turn towards each other in positive, healthy ways. They are just tweaked a bit given the situation. A few specific examples include the following:
Keep communication on track by thinking about how you’re talking (i.e., ask nicely, don’t criticize!).
Handle increased stress with healthy outlets.
Set aside 20 minutes for connection.
Empathy is key to all relational issues; utilize it to stop the “Who is helping the kids more?!” argument.
Reduce spouse overload by recharging alone.
What acts or habits between a couple can you recommend to strengthen a relationship?
A strong relationship can be the results of some simple, yet effective habits. One of the most effective habits couples can have is responding to each other with empathy. It is truly the most effective relational skill out there and is a super effective way to start strengthening your relationship now. Very few things are as connecting in a relationship as receiving empathy from someone you love. If you or your partner had a tough day at work or with the kids and are met with an empathetic response, the relationship strengthens.
Empathy looks like this: “I’m so sorry that was hard, can you tell me about it?” or “I’m so sorry the kids were tough today, I bet you are exhausted!” On the contrary, an unempathetic response can be so damaging. If you minimize, shut down or invalidate your partner’s hardships, disconnection and conflict happens quickly. Nothing feels as good as empathy from the one you love and the best part: it’s easy, simple and takes very little time to respond empathetically to your partner.
Also, if couples are in the habit of being vulnerable with each other (yes; this means they know their feelings and can express them in healthy ways), they will likely have a strong, secure relationship. Being able to be vulnerable and express needs in healthy ways keeps communication healthy and connecting. Instead of saying, “You never help me with the laundry,” which is critical and disconnecting, you say “I’m feeling overwhelmed with all I have on my plate. Could you help me with the laundry this week? Thank you!”
What inspired you to write a book and how can the book help couples?
Through the last several years, I have seen an increase in couples coming to therapy with the same struggles. Weary couples sit before me day after day, lamenting how they are drifting farther and farther apart, due to the busyness of their jobs and all the kids’ activities, and how they don’t have time for each other. As I was hearing the same struggles from couples, over and over, I realized that at the same time, I was in it too. I have two young kids and also know the feeling of drowning in the demands of being a mother, a wife and business owner. I was helping these couples through the same chaos I was wading through myself.
I remember thinking this is really unfair! Yes, I know how to navigate these struggles, but only because I spend more time in a month learning what makes relationships work than most people do in a lifetime. The average person doesn’t have the time, energy, and resources to devote to learning all of this and we don’t teach how to have healthy relationships in school. So, I started writing. I wrote what I knew. I wanted to write it in a way that was easy to read for the weary, exhausted couple who I unfortunately won’t ever see on my couch. Therefore, the book is light-hearted and relatable. I wanted to be authentic and transparent about who I am, what I go through, the struggles in my home and how I handle them. I wanted to show couples that they’re not alone. I also wrote about my experiences helping couples through the same struggles time and time again. So, through the book, couples will be able to:
Find their way out of the fight heard round the world: "My day was harder than yours."
Understand why their communication with their partner needs work and what to do about it.
Get out of the blame game: is it your fault or mine?
Feel normal if their post-child sex-life is in shambles.
Understand the reasons why they are stuck in the same old fights and learn how to get out of them.
Develop ways to move through the inevitable hurts in ways that not only heal, but also bring them closer together.
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