Rituals: A Bowl of Comfort Food for the Couple


As far back as 20,000 BC, people began making soup. Of course with limited resources and ingredients, it was not a hardy bowl of your modern day chicken, noodles, vegetables, and delicious spices. It was not until the 1700s when immigrants began contributing their own ingredients and spices that the originally simple broth we called soup burgeoned into a universal dish of endless varieties. Today, every country has a soup that represents some of its staple ingredients, culture, and history. Individuals similarly enter relationships with their own recipes of what life should look like on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. When one person’s ingredients for tradition and routine combines with another in a relationship, they have created their own soup or rituals unique to them.

Rituals are routines in relationships that carry a specific meaning. They can occur repeatedly at different time periods. They can be as simple as dinner every night at a specific hour to how and where birthdays are celebrated to the way in which you take care of one another when one of you gets sick. We need rituals to deepen our relationships because they give us a sense of belonging, meaning, and security. Rituals also help the couple learn about each other’s values and the beliefs they hold close to their hearts.

I always tell my couples no matter how similar their cultural backgrounds or whether they are the same ethnicity, the household in which you grew up in your family is ultimately the culture unique to you and only you. The experiences, both good and bad, the way your family handled conflict, the order in which you opened Christmas presents, the person in charge of carving the thanksgiving turkey, the pizza toppings you chose for Friday movie nights, these are all unique to your household culture. As they are repeated, they become the ingredients that become a part of who you are and how you approach life. Inevitably you will carry these ingredients of life with you into your long-term romantic relationship, expecting your partner to love the “taste” until you’re reminded that the delicious soup you had been used to all your life demands an acquired taste.

Today, more and more couples are moving in together before getting married and when they are asked what changes they anticipate after saying “I do”, their response is almost always, “we’ve lived together for a while now so getting married isn’t going to change anything”. But this is a very common misconception…marriage changes everything. Making a commitment isn’t just about moving from apartment 203 to apartment 415. When you move in with one another, you are sharing your ingredients, you are showing your significant other what a typical Monday looks like for you, how you prepare your meals the way mom did, what you expect the morning of your birthday because that’s what your family did for you every year. It is easier to understand you have different ingredients to offer when you first move in together but eventually the couple reaches a point in their relationship when they must combine what they brought into one pot and let it stew. At this point, your rituals and my rituals become our rituals. Sounds beautiful but some couples don’t transition so smoothly into this pot of comfort; change is not always a comfortable feeling for us humans, especially when it goes against behaviors and traditions we value. As mentioned before, rituals give us a sense of belonging and security so modifying our rituals might feel like we are giving up a part of who we are. So yes, when we view combining rituals from this perspective, that may be true; however, what if we viewed it as making room for other delicious ingredients we’ve never tried before? What if we viewed it as a recipe for the love we share with our significant other? What if we viewed it as an opportunity to create something we can call our very own? What if we viewed it as a chance to understand what gives our significant other comfort, meaning, and hope in life and why?

Rituals are an opportunity for growth. They are an opportunity to take your favorite ingredients and your significant other’s favorite ingredients and make something new and delicious. Making your bowl of comfort food requires patience, understanding, flexibility, and love. Allow time for the flavors to come together, accept that there might be certain ingredients that you may not be fond of but remember that openness to new ingredients will make a richer and more nutritious soup.

How to Make Your Relationship Soup Without Making a Mess in the Kitchen:

  1. Sit down with your significant other and independently make a list of your own family rituals
  2. Share your list with your significant other:

Answer questions such as what you liked and disliked about that ritual and whether you would change anything. If it is a ritual you would like to hold onto, why? What meaning does it carry for you? Help your partner understand while encouraging curiosity.

  1. Compare your rituals:

What do you have in common? What is different? Did you hear your partner mention anything that you would want to incorporate in your future together? Why do you think it would benefit your relationship?

  1. Create your own recipe

In detail, discuss the rituals in which you would like to create together. Include the specifics such as where, when, who, and how.

Sometimes it takes a few tries before getting the recipe just right. As a couple, continue playing with your ingredients until you feel you’ve created the right soup for you. Then, grab a couple spoons and dig in.

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Center for Relationship Wellness
1560 W. Bay Area Blvd., Ste. 270
Friendswood, TX 77546

New Year’s Love Check-In

Young couple drinking coffee in restaurantWhen the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, we all turn to one another for a kiss and we celebrate. But New Year’s Eve rarely goes by without most of us taking stock of how the year has been, and thinking about what we hope the new year will be.


We review the events that made the news, rate the best songs and movies, and then we inevitably turn to our own lives. We think about the joys and sorrows of the past year, who has left us through death or breakups, who has arrived in our lives, and we take stock of our health status. We haul out our list of goals and resolutions made in the past and measure our status against them, and we set new goals for our lives in the coming year. Most people pursue this kind of self-examination ritual at year’s end.


But very few of us sit down with our partner, the most important one in our life, to have a love check-in. In this article, the Center for Relationship Wellness will make suggestions on creating a positive process to bring you closer to your partner and address difficult issues in a constructive way. We’ll present some helpful questions to ask and topics to explore, and bring you some checklists to make the process easier for you. Finally, we’ll make some recommendations for resolutions to ensure that next year is the best one yet for your relationship.


Let’s Get Started

Young attractive couple by fireplace talkingIt’s no secret that successful relationships take work. Everyone has misunderstandings, distractions, and conflicts, and it takes commitment to bridge the gaps between us when they occur. One gift the holidays give us is the time for one or more intimate conversations to check the vitals in our love nest. But where do you start?


The most logical place to start is to share your reflections about your own life with your partner. Under ideal relationship conditions, you would already be fully aware of one another’s current status, goals and most important, life dreams. But the rush of every day always seems to get in the way, what with jobs, kids, extended family and other challenges life throws our way. So instead of plunging into an intense conversation, how about preparing yourself by just sticking a toe in first?


The perfect way to start would be a more lighthearted warm-up question and answer session like this one from Psychology Today that will let you deepen your ties. So pop some popcorn, brew up a pot of coffee or hot cocoa, get cozy with your partner, and have at it:


  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and tell you partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
  13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  14. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  16. What do you value most in a friendship?
  17. What is your most treasured memory?
  18. What is your most terrible memory?
  19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  20. What does friendship mean to you?
  21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
  23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
  26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
  27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  28. Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.


As you dig into a check-up of your relationship, you’ll find it’s much easier to target the areas that are working well. But if you can address the issues that need attention without getting agitated, it’s entirely possible you and your partner can unite to generate new understandings.

Friends Preparing Christmas PresentsOnce you’ve explored the aspects of your relationship that need work, you can, as a team, set goals for yourselves, both as a couple and as individuals.


To help you both in this process, we’ve found a questionnaire called The Relationship Checkup to give you lots of fodder for discussion:



The Relationship Checkup is a list of 11 points that will help you evaluate your relationship. These points are based on recent research completed separately by psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Dr. John Gottman (see Suggested Reading, last page). Check off the statements that apply to your relationship, and you will quickly gain a sense of the strengths and the opportunities for improvement.

1. People in successful, long-lasting relationships invested themselves fully in the relationship. While they have positive relationships with their parents, siblings, and other relatives, they are not overly involved with them. Some signs that you have a healthy relationship with your family (not too close, not too distant) include:

 __ Your families visit when invited.
  __ Their visits are short but satisfying.
  __ You speak with family members by phone, but not too often.
  __ Family members give advice when they are asked.

The following are some signs that your family may be too involved in your life. This can create problems in your relationship over time.

 __ Your family members visit too often.
  __ They stay too long.
  __ They telephone frequently.
  __ They give unsolicited advice.
  __ They drop in unannounced.

2. People in successful relationships have their own identity as a couple. There is a feeling of both togetherness and independence in the relationship. If you have developed an identity as a couple, the following things are most likely true:

 __ You feel loyal toward each other.
  __ You listen carefully to each other.
  __ You know each other’s histories.
 __ You pay attention to each other’s moods and body language.
 __ You share your thoughts and feelings.
  __ You allow each other a private space and don’t intrude on it.
  __ You respect each other as separate, autonomous people.

If you have not fully developed your sense of identity as a couple, you will recognize signs like these:

 __  You are sometimes disloyal toward each other.
  __ You don’t listen carefully to each other.

  __ You don’t know very much about each other’s pasts.
  __ You ignore each other’s moods and body language.
 __ You keep your thoughts and feelings to yourselves.
  __ You sometimes invade each other’s private space.
  __ Even though you may live in the same house, it sometimes seems like you are living parallel lives.

3. Bringing children into a relationship changes it radically. Couples with children learn to successfully integrate them into their relationship. Positive signs include:

  __ You accept that there are times when you must place your own needs after the needs of your child.
  __ You do your best to stay in touch with each other emotionally and nurture your relationship.
  __ You set aside time every week for the two of you to spend time alone together.

The following signs indicate that you have not fully integrated children into your relationship:

 __ You resent the times when you must put your child’s needs ahead of your own.
 __
 You are overly focused on your child.
  __ You have lost touch with each other emotionally.
  __ You hardly ever find time to be alone with your partner.

4. Every relationship is challenged by crises and life transitions. Losing a job, a death in the family, a serious accident, or other significant event can test any relationship. If your relationship has successfully navigated life’s crises and transitions, the following statements are most likely true:

  __ You never blame each other for the stress that comes with the crisis.
  __ You face difficult times as a team.

  __ You look for ways to support each other emotionally.
  __ You help each other keep your perspective when there is a crisis.
 __ You seek outside support during times of crisis (talking to friends and family, seeing a counselor, etc.).

If the crises and life transitions have done harm to your relationship, you have probably experienced the following during the difficult times:

  __ One partner seems to emotionally abandon the other.
  __ One partner blames the other.
  __ One partner becomes extremely angry, worried, or anxious.
 __ You don’t seek support from people who could help you.

5. Successful relationships are safe places where anger, conflict, and differences may safely be expressed. Each partner is allowed to have and express their own views. The following signs point to this being true:

  __ You have had serious conflicts, but you have not allowed them to damage your relationship.
 __ You respect the other person’s right to stand his or her ground.
  __ You may find anger uncomfortable, but you accept that it is a part of life.

In relationships where it is not safe to express conflict, the following things are true:

 __ Your conflicts have harmed your relationship.
  __ You disagree about many things but never talk about them.
  __ You both try to intimidate the other into agreeing with your point of view.
  __ Anger is so uncomfortable that you avoid it.
 __
 There are no limits to what you will do when you become angry.

6. Successful long-term relationships have a positive sexual component. The partners take care to protect their sexual relationship from the demands of work and family. The signs of such a relationship are:

  __ You sometimes have different levels of sexual need, but you make room for each other’s changing levels of desire.
  __ You are honest with each other about your changing sexual desires and feelings.
  __ You set aside time for your sexual relationship and protect your privacy.
 __
If a sexual relationship is less than satisfying, the following statements are true:
  __ You find it hard to talk about sex.
  __ Sex is like a battlefield.
  __ You never have time for sex.

7. Successful partners share laughter and fun times, and work to maintain their mutual interests. For example:

  __ You have fun together.
  __ You make each other laugh.
 __ You find each other interesting.
  __ You each have your own interests that you pursue on your own.

If your relationship is becoming stale, you will tend to describe it like this:

  __ You rarely have fun together anymore.
  __ You don’t laugh much when you are together.
  __ You are bored with each other.
  __ You avoid spending time together.
  __ You have few shared interests.

8. Relationships that last are safe places where you can let down your guard and be vulnerable. You know you can count on the other to comfort and encourage you. If this is true, you might describe it as follows:

  __ It is okay to be vulnerable when you are with your partner.
  __ You understand each other.
  __ You encourage each other.
 __ You pay attention to each other’s moods and respond when the other seems needy.

If your relationship is not a very safe place, the following is probably true:

  __ It is not safe to be needy and vulnerable in your relationship.
  __ You exhaust each other’s emotional reserves.
  __ You don’t pay attention to each other’s moods.
  __ When you are worried about something, you avoid telling your partner.
  __ You feel worse about yourself when you are with your partner.

9. People who have successful long-term relationships stay romantic and idealistic about each other, even though they are growing older. These are some of the signs of such a relationship:

 You have good memories of when you fell in love with your partner.
 You are glad to be growing older with your partner.
If you have lost some of the romance of your relationship, you are likely to agree with these statements:
 You can hardly remember the days when the two of you first fell in

 Seeing your partner grow older makes you feel badly because it reminds you that you are growing older.

10. You have far more positive moments in your relationship than negative ones. Some signs of positive moments include:

  __ You show affection for each other.
  __ You apologize for the hurtful things you may say or do.
  __ You show each other empathy.
  __ You are polite to each other.

Examples of negative moments include:

  __ Your discussions often leave you feeling frustrated.
  __ You often pick on each other.
 __
 Many of your conversations turn into arguments.
  __ You behave disrespectfully toward each other.
 __ You are physically violent with each other.

11. People in successful relationships are able to manage conflict productively. They are skilled at keeping times of discord from getting out of control. For example:

  __ You call a time-out when your emotions escalate.
  __ You know how to calm yourselves down.
  __ You take care to speak and listen nondefensively.
  __ You take care to validate the other person’s point of view, even when you disagree with it.

Couples in less successful relationships allow conflict to become damaging in the following

  __ You blame each other.
  __ You treat each other disrespectfully.
  __ You deny responsibility for your own actions.
  __ You become so angry that you leave or emotionally withdraw.


Number of items you checked in the [positive] areas:
Number of items you checked in the [negative] areas:

Ideally, you checked no items in the [negative] areas. If you checked more than five, you have some opportunities to improve your relationship.



New Year’s Love Prescription

Couple sitting on the couch under a blanket togetherYou and your partner have done the hard work to take stock of your relationship’s health. Hopefully you’ve carefully sidestepped any land mines, and have come out of the process with a greater understanding. You can now appreciate and give thanks for the blessings, but have pinpointed areas where there is work to be done.


It may be relatively easy for you both to know the goals you want to set now. But the challenge is how to make the new behaviors stick. To get you both thinking along these lines, this excerpt from Woman’s Day offers some new ways of thinking about things by presenting seven resolutions:


“The great thing about relationship resolutions is that once you see a result, you activate reward centers in your brain, and you’ll naturally want to continue,” says Deborah Anapol, PhD, relationship coach and author of The Seven Natural Laws of Love. Here, seven relationship resolutions—and how to make them stick.

Resolution #1: Be more understanding of my partner’s faults.

So, you’d like to switch off that nagging gene and let the little things slide (such as socks on the floor)? Good idea! “No man wants a partner who nags him, and no woman wants to be that type of woman,” says Julie Spira, dating/romance coach…

How to make it stick: Every time you’re about to let loose with a “You always/You never [fill in the blank],” stop yourself and ask, is it worth the argument? Instead, sit down with your partner and make a list of things that you’ll agree to nudge each other about, like paying bills on time or getting the car inspected, and agree to let the rest go.

Resolution #2: Have more/better sex.

Would it help you to know that virtually all couples want this? “For a lot of women, the problem is they’re not satisfied with the sex they’re having, and they either complain about it or avoid it altogether,” says Dr. Anapol. For men, there’s often ego involved—men want to feel they’re good at pleasing their partners.

How to make it stick: The key to a more active, satisfying sex life is to make it a priority, says Dr. Anapol. Set aside time to talk about how you can improve the situation—preferably not when you’re in bed after a long, tiring day. “Find something you like and appreciate about what your partner does, and tell him what that is. Then follow that up with a request.” For example: “I love when you reach out to cuddle me when we get into bed. Can we spend more time doing that before we move on to sex?”

Resolution #3: Find happiness outside of my relationship.

Sure, you want to lean on your lover when times are tough, but when you’re too needy, it can be a turnoff. “We’re all more appealing when we have our own lives and are confident and feeling good about ourselves,” says Spira.

How to make it stick: Think of things that used to make you happy that you don’t do as much anymore, such as taking art lessons, practicing piano or even just seeing movies your partner doesn’t enjoy—and do them. Make dates with your girlfriends, join the softball team at work, whatever. “Live your life as though it’s not wrapped around his,” suggests Spira. Having interests and experiences that have nothing to do with each other means you have more to bring to the relationship.

Resolution #4: Increase my gratitude for my partner.

There has been research that shows that the biggest difference between happy and unhappy couples is that the happy pairs express gratitude for each other, says Dr. Anapol. Expressing thanks creates a feedback loop: Your partner feels good, which makes you feel good, and so on…

How to make it stick: You’ve heard of keeping a gratitude journal for yourself, so why not create one for your relationship? “It doesn’t need to be a daily thing, but maybe once a week each of you can write down a few things you’re pleased about and want to thank your partner for,” says Spira. Like, “I’m grateful that you took the dog for a walk on three early mornings,” or “I’m grateful that you didn’t say anything about how much time I spent on the phone with my sister.” Then share it with each other. You can express gratitude physically, too. Did he get up and clear the dinner dishes without a word, letting you sit and read a magazine? Give him a hug at the sink.

Resolution #5: Be a better listener.

Romantic couple at homeHere’s a perennial female complaint: The men in their lives have what they call “selective hearing.” But being a good listener has to be mutual—maybe he didn’t “hear” you when you asked him to get the laundry out of the dryer, but you didn’t listen to him when he wanted to vent about his boss.

How to make it stick: When there’s something you want your partner to hear, ask him if he has 5 minutes to talk so you both can focus on the subject at hand. Shouting “Listen to me!” is sure to get the other person to shut down, but sharing a few minutes of mutual active listening gets results, says Spira.

Resolution #6: Show more interest in my partner’s life, work and interests.

Are you feeling guilty because you’ve been doing a lot of nodding and smiling as your partner tells you about his favorite sports team or latest work project? “It’s easy to fall into a rut,” notes Dr. Anapol. Why? We assume, wrongly, that the people we love stay the same, but they don’t. No one does; what we enjoy, what we think about and what makes us tick changes all the time.

How to make it stick: “Try to notice things your partner is doing, and comment on them,” suggests Dr. Anapol. For example, “I see you were reading that finance magazine; I didn’t know you were interested in that. Tell me about it.”

Resolution #7: Institute a date night.

Busy couples, especially those with young children, always say that they’d like to make their going-out habit more regular, but too many keep it at the bottom of their to-do list. Date nights (or date afternoons or stay-at-home dates after the kids are in bed) are important, not so much for what you do, but for the ritual. By making dates regularly, you acknowledge that your romantic life is just as important as your job, parenting, household responsibilities, and so on.

How to make it stick: This may seem like a no-brainer, but the way to keep this resolution is to…just do it. “You have to create a day per week or every couple of weeks, and honor it,” says Spira. “Take turns choosing an activity. Try some date-night foreplay, like sending an email or leaving a note for your partner saying how much you’re looking forward to it.” And though regular dates, especially when they require a babysitter, can get expensive, you can find ways to cut costs. “Look for local listings of free or low-cost events, like an art opening or free concert, so you can spend your date-night budget on the sitter,” suggests Spira.




Your Resolutions for More Love This Year

The next step is formulating your understandings into resolutions. The Center for Relationship Wellness recommends that you write down each area that needs work, along with a positive resolution for improvement you each can commit to.


After you state your resolution, be sure and include several ways you will be able to observe and measure the results of your work toward your mutual goals. We also recommend revisiting the list on a regular basis throughout the year, so you can stay on target and make progress you’ll be able to see clearly at the end of next year.


Finally: Need a Skills Refresher?

You may discover during this process that you’d both like to brush up on your communication skills. If a weekend getaway is a possibility, consider our two-day couples workshop, The Art and Science of Love (ASL), presented by Dr. Don and Carrie Cole. Here’s how we describe it on our website:

Unlike many couples counseling retreats, we do more than simply suggest ways to enhance your relationship, we offer real practical help for couples struggling with conflict. Research has taught us that conflict is universal in intimate relationships. Success in our marriages and intimate relationships hinges not on the absence of conflict, but on healthy conflict management. In this workshop, you will learn practical tools to help improve your conflicts:

  • What are the four relationship “killers” and how to make them better
  • How to process an argument and come to a sense of healing and forgiveness
  • How to soften the way you bring up a problem with your partner
  • How to repair your conversations when they get off track
  • How to deal with the “gridlocked conflicts” which seem to never get any better

We’ve also learned that successful couples have found ways to listen to each other’s dreams and deepest needs. The Art and Science of Love workshop gives you an opportunity to share those dreams and to listen to your partner’s so that you might have a better chance of making those dreams come true.  That’s a lot to cover in two days but the vast majority of those who attend marriage retreats and learn new couples therapy exercises report significant improvement in their relationship over time.


To see our ASL workshop schedule and register, click this link:



If a more affordable option is desired, we recommend reading the following books by Dr. John Gottman:


The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert


The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships


Happy New Year to all our readers! Wishing you a year of fulfilling connections!



Or pay by Check:
Make checks payable to: 
Center for Relationship Wellness
1560 W. Bay Area Blvd., Ste. 270
Friendswood, TX 77546

Argh!!! How to Avoid a Blended Family Holiday Shipwreck

dinner big familyAt the Center for Relationship Wellness (CRW), we specialize in treating couples who’ve created blended families. When we (Don and Carrie Cole) married many years back, we created one ourselves, so we know the challenges in blending families with different histories, cultures, parenting styles, and traditions.


This holiday season, we’d like to present some thoughts and tips for minimizing stress and maximizing enjoyment to all the blended families out there. We’ll be highlighting points from our past blended family blogs and calling in some experts to add their wisdom to the mix. So let’s get started!


Because holidays are emotionally loaded, they have the potential to go south quickly and even explosively. People have expectations and dreams for their holiday that match what they might have seen on TV and in the movies. They might be expecting to prove themselves by mounting a perfect holiday celebration for family members who have a variety of different, perhaps conflicting, dreams and desires for their own holiday. When expectations are high and emotions intensified, emotional triggers can easily be activated, and sparks can fly. But if you think and plan carefully, most all of this can be avoided. Here’s a tip from one of our previous blogs to get you started:


Hopefully, long before the holidays, you and your partner have put in the time to bond with each child, both separately and together, as a core parent and as a stepparent, and you’ve planned some activities each partner’s kids can join. This investment will pay off to make things much more comfortable when everyone is together in the same space for long periods of time.


First off, meet with your partner. Create a plan to make decisions with your exes on just where and when the festivities will happen, and when each of you will have the children join your family’s holiday celebrations. In rare occasions, all exes will put aside their differences for the sake of the children, creating a sort of extended family tribe that celebrates holidays together. If you can see it in your heart to do this, and are willing to work through any communication snafus that may arise, the benefits may be far beyond your expectations. In any event, make every attempt to curtail hostilities with exes as you craft your plans with them.


For our purposes, let’s assume you are in the majority who will celebrate apart from your ex. Once you have a rough idea of these critical decisions, it’s time to have a meeting with the kids about the holidays.


There are two goals you want to reach in this meeting. First, you want to discuss and set expectations for what the holiday will look like. Second, you want to frame the event by making it a fun and creative experience. In “Tips for navigating the holidays with a blended family” by Molly Cerreta Smith, she gives us a few clues about how to do this. She advises us to “Look to the future, not the past.”

Understand — and help your children understand — that your holidays will be different with the new blended family than holiday celebrations in the past. But look at it as an opportunity to create new and special traditions.

“In most cases family members set themselves up for disappointment by making comparisons with the past,” says Rosalind Sedacca, CCT, who is considered “The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce” and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children – with Love!

Talk to your children about how things are changing, and include them in your decisions.

“Stepparents and stepchildren can erroneously expect the newly formed stepfamily to replicate the close bonds and sense of security within their original family,” she says. “By talking about these realities, sharing expectations and understanding that this new family dynamic is unique and different from the first family, the pressure is released. This opens the door to new traditions, new activities and new ways to spend time together as a blended family.”



Christmas An Evening in DecemberKeep in mind that each family member carries with them issues that can trigger negative emotions and pain. The children may be missing family holidays with both parents, wanting the same kind of celebrations, or suffering the pain of remembering the fights that led up to their family’s split. Adults also carry old pain from dysfunctional family patterns they grew up with.


“The challenges in a relationship where both individuals carry unresolved trauma can be illustrated by considering the challenges in blending a step-family. As in a marriage between two individuals with children from other relationships, each individual may bring personal difficulties into the relationship that have nothing to do with their new partner, family member, or loved-one. These painful issues may express themselves in a variety of negative or undesirable symptoms and behaviors.

Putting it briefly, two key ingredients in significant relationships are intimacy and dependency. For traumatized individuals, intimacy and dependency are very substantial challenges in themselves. The experience of trauma—whether prolonged developmental trauma or events of shock trauma—frequently, if not always, damages an individual’s ability to trust and feel safe in the world. Healthy intimacy and dependency require some ability to trust, and the willingness to allow that trust to grow and deepen. Individuals must be able to feel some essential element of safety in the relationship and be willing to help create a safe place for their partners and loved-ones.”

Creating a blended family is challenging regardless. A high pressure situation such as a blended family holiday can result in feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and the potential for being triggered increases.


The new marriage may bring an additional host of insecurities as children joust for position and parents reach for unity upon which to base their new blended family. Deep seated pain, anger, anxiety and fear can hijack seemingly ordinary interactions at a moment’s notice as family members are triggered… Each of these incidents has the potential to drive our loved ones further from us, and weaken relationships with our partner and the children we want to blend into our family and bind to us in trust.


As adults, we may know generally what our deep-seated issues from our core family are, but each of us also has a set of emotional triggers connected with specific experiences we haven’t fully processed yet. Our strong and emotional reactions to people or situations may arise suddenly once we’re in a new marriage complicated by the addition of children.

Just knowing in advance that triggers will happen for everyone can help parents cope when confronted with the surprise of drama. But for extra assurance, competent, skilled counseling can help parents sort through their own triggers, and get tips from a professional therapist on how to ease the transition for children.


So keeping all this in mind, what’s the best approach to take? The experts at Psychology Today present their best ideas:

  1. Take calm-down breaks. Soon after you awake, close your eyes, take several deep breaths and meditate or just relax. Imagine yourself in a beautiful place, think of a happy memory or visualize yourself succeeding at a cherished goal. “Quieting down your mind before you begin your day can help it get off to a great start and things will flow for you,” says Debra Berndt, an expert in creative visualization and hypnosis… In addition, whenever you get stressed out, anxious or feel overwhelmed during the day, take quick relaxation breaks of 1 to 5 minutes to calm yourself down. Conscious, slow breathing can help you when you’re feeling frustrated waiting in line at the supermarket, post office or drug store.
  2. Put on rose-colored glasses. When people try to push their bad habits on you during this holiday season, tune into their motivations. For instance, before you get annoyed at Aunt Jane, who keeps urging you to try a piece of her apple pie, or your co-worker Frank, who keeps trying to fill your glass with booze, first take a deep breath. Then, step into their shoes and realize that Jane is just showing that she loves you, and Frank is merely trying to be convivial. Then graciously thank them for their misguided attention. Rather than view your situation with annoyance, be grateful instead.
  3. Get moving. Perhaps one of the best ways to overcome stress during the holidays or any other time is to exercise regularly. Research shows that physical activity not boosts your fitness and energy levels but can also elevate your moods. In addition, exercise has been found to reduce anger, tension, fatigue and confusion. Despite the many demands on your time, this is not the season to stop exercising. Indeed, when regular exercisers are inactive, they begin to feel depressed and fatigued after just one week, according to a study from scientists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Exercise also can give you that much-acclaimed “runner’s high.” Indeed, research shows that rigorous physical activity of any kind pumps up production of endorphins, your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
  4. Go for real foods mostly. Inevitably, at this time of year, you’ll be tempted with sugary, empty-calorie “treats” just Dinnerabout wherever you go. But to be your most energetic, focused and happy self, it’s best to eat foods that grow on trees or on the ground (vegetables and fruits) and to choose healthy fats (such as olive oil and flax seeds), lean protein (such as fish and organic chicken) and legumes, nuts and seeds.
  5. Take polite portions of “comfort” foods and drinks. During the holidays, it’s easy to “fall off the wagon” and use—or over-use—alcohol, sugar and caffeine. It’s best to think before you treat your body like a trash can instead of a temple. The best way to stay true to the best you is to limit your consumption of such comfort or pleasure foods and drinks as apple pie, cookies, pasta and eggnog. When offered these and other “goodies,” try to take three to five “polite” bites and sips—and only after having a well-balanced meal with smart carbs (vegetables, fruits or whole grains), fats and protein…Be aware that if you’re a sugar addict, you must be especially vigilant when it comes to desserts and quickie carbs.
  6. Prepare “Nice To Do For Me” and “Need to Do For You” lists. Writing down all that you have to do during the holidays will help you realize how do-able your tasks are. Be realistic as to what you put on your lists. Then start tackling one item from each list in turn. For example, after buying gifts for your mom or significant other, take time to work out, too. By alternating between lists, you won’t feel deprived, because you’re being good to yourself. Better yet, as Cheryl Richardson suggests in her fabulous book, Take Time for Your Life: A 7-Step Program for Creating the Life you Want, prepare an “Absolute Yes” list, which will reflect priorities that inspire you to use your gift of time well. “When you practice extreme self-care and put yourself first, you are then fully available to others without resentment or anger,” she aptly points out.
  7. Be generous. One of the best ways to stay calm, content and cheerful this time of year is to act generously with your loved ones, co-workers and friends. This doesn’t have to mean you’re spending a lot of money. You can be generous with your compliments. You can generously offer to do a loved one’s dreaded errand. You can generously write a fun, short poem. When you are creative with your gifts and thank you’s, people will appreciate your real, heartfelt sentiments.

Finally, aside from our own recommendations to have an initial meeting to set expectations, create a calendar of commitments for everyone in the family, discuss everyone’s desires and visions for what matters this season, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Ease up on the expectation that you will do everything together. Especially if you have teens in the house, don’t expect them to want to stay around the adults all day long
  • “Be chill” – if something goes wrong, and it will, roll with it, and if you can, handle it with humor
  • Especially in the early years, curtail your public displays of affection with your partner
  • Leave enough time to sneak away for a few moments alone with a child if he or she needs it
  • Be open to compromise if the situation changes for any reason
  • Insist on respect all around
  • Have everyone share what they are thankful for or what the highlights of their year have been
  • Be flexible about who is defined as family – it may be a best friend, a favorite uncle or a cousin
  • Try to grab a little time alone with your partner, even if it’s just one drink and a chat in front of the fireplace
  • Reward yourself for surviving it all
  • Savor and enjoy!


The Center for Relationship Wellness would like to wish all our readers an extra special, warm and wonderful holiday season.







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Red versus Blue: Do Love and Politics Mix?


The White House, Washington, DC

The tension around this year’s election seems higher than ever. Feelings are running high as people advocate for their candidates and their point of view. Families and couples are not immune to the stress this brings. Facebook wars have been breaking out all over as people share their opinions. Internet memes, the modern equivalent to the bumper sticker quip with levels of negativity and sarcasm that are almost unbelievable. It’s hard to get away from all this. (As a native Chicagoan, at least I have the world series to distract me. GO CUBS!)


Couples don’t always agree about things, and politics is no exception. Many of us have heard the very public disagreements between Mary Matalin (republican strategist) and James Carville (democratic commentator). At times I’ve wondered about how they can possibly get along in private when the disagree so strongly in public.


Relationship science offers interesting insights for couples who find themselves struggling with major differences of opinion. Common wisdom tells us that couples who agree on things, who are compatible are most likely to be happy in the long run but that’s not necessarily the whole story.


Every Couple has Differences…

and most of them are not solvable! John Gottman’s research into couples discovered a secret that is both disturbing and liberating at the same time. 69% of the things couples disagree about never have a final solution. These differences are rooted in deep beliefs, needs or dreams, often with roots that go all the way back to childhood.



From the FDR Memorial, Washington, DC

James grew up in an industrial city in the northern United States. He was raised by his grandparents in a working-class neighborhood. Everyone he knew was a member of a union and worked in manufacturing. He remembers loud conversations about “management.” His grandfather, a child of the depression idolized FDR and gave him credit for saving the country with the social programs of the New Deal. Even though he was college educated and working in a white-collar job, he still identified strongly with the beliefs and values of his roots and was an outspoken democrat.


As life would have it, James met the love of his life while in college. Sarah was beautiful, southern, religious and the daughter of the town doctor. Her parents’ prized possession was a photo of the two of them shaking hands with Ronald Regan. Her dad loved to tease her mom by pointing out the “tear in her eye” as the photo was taken. James was head over heels in love with Sarah and she felt the same. They knew they were different, but they just knew their love would make it work. It did for a few years, but gradually things changed.


They attended a large evangelical church together. James didn’t really care about it, but went with Sarah regularly. As election year approached politics became the theme of most every conversation with their families and friends. One Sunday James refused to go to church and Sarah wanted to know why. He was angry because he felt that the minister “crossed the line.” He wouldn’t talk about it further and Sarah began to feel alienated. Will this end in a divorce? Maybe. Is divorce inevitable? Absolutely not!


Modern relationship science actually offers a path to success for couples like James and Sarah. We know that all couples have perpetual differences. Sometimes these are extreme and feel like deal breakers, but it’s usually not the differences themselves that breaks the deal, but the way couples handle them.


Gottman’s research into couples uncovered some interesting differences in the way the “Masters” of relationship dealt with conflict verses the way the “disasters” did.


  • Masters brought up differences in a gentle way. They found ways bring up a problem without putting the partner on the defensive.
  • Masters accepted influence from one another. Even when they disagreed they could let their partner know that they were listening and respecting the other’s point of view.
  • Masters dialogued about the differences. They talked about what they felt and believed rather than shutting down.
  • Masters found ways to stay calm. They took time outs to calm down when conversations became too heated.
  • Masters made compromises. They found middle ground that they could both agree to.


iStock_000013117647LargeJames and Sarah were able to reconnect. At an Art and Science of Love© workshop they discovered new ways to deal with their differences. They stopped trying to persuade the other to change and started listening to the underlying reasons for each of their beliefs. They found a new church they could both accept. They found a community organization they could get behind and worked together to raise money to support their programs. They were even able to joke about “cancelling each other out” on election day. Most of all they found the path to respecting their differences and listening to each other again and it made all the difference.

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Going Ballistic: What to Do When an Argument Hijacks Your Emotions

femme cache derrire mais stopYou’re having a conversation with your partner about something you don’t agree on. It’s getting heated, and you “go there,” and say something that suddenly makes them go ballistic.


Very often in arguments we reach a critical point where everything goes to hell, and heads downward into the sewer. It’s then we’ve lost control of ourselves, and we feel agitated, super angry, hot under the collar. We might feel shame, feel hurt, or even feel fearful and emotionally unsafe. It’s at those times, when we feel our backs against a wall, that we might say ugly things we will regret later, and do damage that we might never be able to undo. Or we might just feel helpless and withdraw completely, sending our partner into an even more aggressive place as they try and elicit a response from us. It’s these emotional triggers that detonate results that make relationships spiral downward in flames.


How do we keep this from happening? How do we recover from that, if it does? Is it even possible? It most certainly is, and it’s vital to the health of your relationship to be able to do that, and that’s what we aim to help you do right now.



Angry man showing time out gesture on grey wall backgroundFlooding happens when you or your partner, during an argument, reach this boiling point, and your pulse is racing, your heart is pumping faster, your face is flushed, your veins are bulging, you’re screaming, sweating and tense, and feel your fuse is about to detonate. Flooding is a term coined by Dr. John Gottman, after several decades of marital research with thousands of couples in his University of Washington lab in Seattle. Tracking responses and measuring hormones in couples in conflict, he observed that these couples were unable to think clearly once they’d crossed a physiological threshold and were then too stressed to control their emotions. Dr. Gottman got his inspiration from Dr. Daniel Goleman’s concept of “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala, according to biology.about.com, is “an almond shaped mass of nuclei (mass of cells) located deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. There are two amygdalae, one situated in each brain hemisphere. The amygdala is a limbic system structure that is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. It is involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure.” More about the amygdala hijack that inspired the “flooding” concept and procedure:



Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.[1] Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.[2]

Goleman states that “[e]motions make us pay attention right now—this is urgent—and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?” The emotional response “can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.”[4][5] An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.[4]

Goleman later emphasized that “self-control is crucial…when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack”[6] so as to avoid a complementary hijacking—whether in work situations, or in private life. Thus for example ‘one key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings…nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking.’[7] The danger is that “when our partner becomes, in effect, our enemy, we are in the grip of an ‘amygdala hijack’ in which our emotional memory, lodged in the limbic center of our brain, rules our reactions without the benefit of logic or reason…which causes our bodies to go into a ‘fight or flight’ response.”[8]

Let’s allow Dr. Gottman to further explain how the brain’s amygdala figures into this picture:

Screaming woman, showing timeout gesture with handsWhen we’re stressed the part of the brain that takes over, the part that reacts the most, is the circuitry that was originally designed to manage threats—especially circuits that center on the amygdala, which is in the emotional centers of the brain.

The amygdala is the trigger point for the fight, flight, or freeze response. When these circuits perceive a threat, they flood the body with stress hormones that do several things to prepare us for an emergency. Blood shunts away from the organs to the limbs; that’s the fight or flee. But the response is also cognitive—and, in modern life this is what matters most, it makes some shifts in how the mind functions. Attention tends to fixate on the thing that is bothering us, that’s stressing us, that we’re worried about, that’s upsetting, frustrating, or angering us. That means that we don’t have as much attentional capacity left for whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing or want to be doing. In addition, our memory reshuffles its hierarchy so that what’s most relevant to the perceived threat is what comes to mind most easily—and what’s deemed irrelevant is harder to bring to mind. That, again, makes it more difficult to get things done than we might want. Plus, we tend to fall back on over-learned responses, which are responses learned early in life—which can lead us to do or say things that we regret later. It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress—particularly if we get hijacked by it—are likely to lead us astray.

Why Should I Care about Flooding?

Flooding causes a major shift in the way you see yourself, the person you are communicating with, and the world.  Your inner peace is shattered, because your metabolism is hijacked. It makes relationships very difficult, because it skews perceptions and alters behaviors.

            The results of being in this constant state of “red alert” are:

  • We tend to catastrophize, everything appears dangerous, bad or wrong: a taillight on the freeway means a multi-car collision is about to happen.  We have one thought of rejection and it feels like the relationship is over
  • Distorted and distressed thought patterns become the norm: we miss-read people’s behaviors, seeing danger or loss or pain
  • We remain vigilant even in peaceful, stress free situations
  • We easily project our fears or judgements on to others and then act as if they are true: Your SO [Significant Other] comes home tired and you project that they don’t love you anymore.  A probation office forgets to return a call, and you get angry and believe the whole system is against you…
  • Thinking errors crop up everywhere like weeds
  • We become easily triggered by subtle “data.” This data can be internal triggers such as body sensations, emotions and thoughts.  Or the trigger can be something we notice outside ourselves, such as the way a bank teller looks at us, the phone rings late at night, someone gives us an unexpected compliment, if our plans change…

All couples have misunderstandings and arguments. The issue is not whether you are arguing with your partner; it’s how that arguing is happening, and whether you and your partner can deal with your emotions and successfully lead to a sense of resolution when it does.


But the Biggest Reason to Care About Flooding Is…

Portrait of  young woman gesturing time out sign
Indeed, there are four types of negative interactions that are so lethal to a marriage that Gottman has labeled them the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse… The third sign that signals a marriage is headed toward divorce is when one partner becomes flooded. “Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity – whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness – is so overwhelming and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked” (Gottman et al 34). Many people protect themselves from feeling flooded by disengaging, or stonewalling. This emotional disengagement can protect one from these intense feelings of negativity, but at the same time it can also lead to divorce. The Fourth Sign: Body Language – Physiological changes in the body that coincide with flooding, such as an increased heart rate, the secretion of adrenalin, and an increase in blood pressure, are the fourth sign that enables Gottman to predict divorce. These physiological changes in the body make it impossible to maintain the discussion. Your ability to process information is reduced, meaning it’s harder to pay attention to what your partner is saying. Creative problem solving goes out the window. You’re left with the most reflexive, intellectually sophisticated responses in your repertoire: to fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall) (Gottman et al 37). A problem solving discussion that leads to one or both partners becoming flooded is doomed to fail. Consequently, their problem cannot be resolved. The Fifth Sign: Failed Repair Attempts The fifth sign that a marriage is bound to end in divorce is when one partner’s attempts at repairing the conflict fails. Repair attempts are efforts made by the couple to deescalate the conflict. The “repair attempt” is the happy couple’s secret weapon. This refers to using any method of preventing the negative emotions from spiraling out of control. A repair attempt can be a simple gesture such as a laugh, a smile or an apology; anything that helps the couple ease the tension. However, if one partner is feeling flooded, these repair attempts will be unsuccessful.

Blind with Rage? What to Do When You Are Flooded

STEP ONE in dealing with flooding is tuning into your body to recognize the signs. When you’re flooded, the most primitive part of your brain takes over and hijacks you, and you might:


  • Perspire
  • Feel defensive
  • Feel your heart pound
  • Feel flushed
  • Want to attack your partner verbally
  • Be breathing shallowly
  • Feel intensely angry
  • Find it hard to think clearly
  • Sense your stomach in knots
  • Develop a headache
  • Feel your jaw muscles tighten
  • Stop feeling any empathy for your partner
  • Start feeling trapped
  • Want to escape, to run, or
  • Feel frozen in place
  • Feel the muscles in your body tense up


Doing Time Out Signal with HandsSTEP TWO – the minute you recognize you’re flooded, and before things deteriorate further, JUST STOP!!! Signal a TIME-OUT (agree on a hand signal – the “Time-Out” signal used in sports is a good one). Tell your partner you’re flooded, upset and have to stop and calm yourself.


Once your body starts releasing the fight-or-flight hormones, it takes a good while to calm down so you can come back and be rational as you discuss the issue, and empathic as you listen. Here’s why:


Flooding is a “bio-chemical flood” preparing your body for action.  The chemicals in your body called neurotransmitters, must pass through the neural synapse, be absorbed into the tissues and passed into the urine before heart rate returns to normal.  This process takes 20 minutes.   You will need a 20-minute respite to completely calm down physiologically!  If the stressful situation remains, your heart rate will remain elevated, and your body will pump out adrenaline and your thinking will be clouded.  You will be physiologically reactive even if you “know” a different response is called for.  Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.


Then immediately STOP:


  • Talking
  • Arguing
  • Shouting
  • Being in the same room


STEP THREE – Now follow this simple system that follows the acronym “SEPARATE,” after you remove yourself from the argument:

S: Signal. Have a pre-arranged signal—a gesture or statement—denoting the need for a time-out; e.g. clamp your hand over your mouth and then say “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a time-out. Let’s come back to this in about an hour.”

E: Exit calmly and quietly. Leave the presence of the other person immediately and stay apart for at least thirty minutes.

P: Physical activity. Walk, run, ride a bike, lift weights or do other physical activity to release your body’s pent-up energy. Do not drive. Do not use alcohol or other drugs.

A: Analyze what just happened to FIND: your Feelings, the Issue, your Needs and Desires (and what you think your partner’s desires are regarding this situation). Write about your FIND in your journal.

R: Relax. Use relaxation techniques to soothe yourself— breathe deeply, meditate, pray—do what works for you..

A: Affirm. Affirm yourself and your marriage with positive self-talk. “I’m okay. We can solve this problem. I will be peaceful. I have choices. I choose to stay calm. I’m a good person. We’re going to figure this out. Calm down. Breathe. He (she) is upset right now—this isn’t a personal attack. I’m upset now; I do love him (her). There are lots of things I admire about him (her).” Avoid negative self-talk about yourself or your partner. Negativity escalates tension.

T: Take your pulse. It takes 20 – 30 minutes for an elevated pulse to return to normal. Most people think they are calmed down when their pulse is still 10% above their normal resting rate. To increase the chance of a tranquil re-engagement with your partner after a time-out, take your pulse and wait until you are both feeling “normal.”

E: Engage. Come back together with your partner. Schedule time to again discuss the topic that precipitated the flooding. Agree to discuss the topic again only after you have first experienced a period of normal time together. If it is a particularly volatile or difficult topic, Gottman suggests limiting the discussion to 15 minutes at a time, adding additional 15-minute segments as needed. If you engage too soon, SEPARATE.

Everyone has the capacity to take control of the negative cycles many of us engage in when we fight dirty and are repeatedly flooded. While breaking old habits and creating new ones is not easy, and requires commitment and discipline, it can be done. And the relationship rewards you and your partner will know and feel as a result are priceless.

Or pay by Check:
Make checks payable to: 
Center for Relationship Wellness
1560 W. Bay Area Blvd., Ste. 270
Friendswood, TX 77546