When I was in college, one of my favorite shows to watch was The Late, Late Show with David Letterman. He was known to have funny skits as well as the famous Top 10 list. 

You’re probably wondering why I’m taking this stroll down memory lane.

Well, you’re probably reading this because you have had issues in multiple relationships with friends, family, work, and dating. And it may be getting to the point where you begin to wonder some things like:

  • Why do friends and family keep ghosting me? 
  • Why can’t I seem to get along with anyone at my job?
  • How do I get others to see that my way actually works better than theirs most of the time?
  • Do I want to have all the control in my relationships?

The answer may be that your relationship issues are a “you” Problem. 

Here are 4 reasons which signal that relationship issues are a “you” problem. (Look at this as my version of David Letterman’s Top 10, except there’s only 4.)

1. It’s never your fault.

When you don’t take or acknowledge any responsibility for problems in your life, that is the epitome of a “you” problem. The blame can’t be and isn’t always on everyone else. People make mistakes and missteps, including you. Accountability and self-awareness are keys to effectively process how you impact your life and the lives of others around you.

2. You lack self-awareness.

Take some time to think about your past relationships. Look for patterns and tendencies, not of past partners, but YOUR OWN. Were you critical? Did you always have to be right? Did you listen? It’s essential to examine your behavior in the relationship. In taking an honest look at yourself, you may find some things that you don’t like to see or that you were unaware you did. 

3. You notice similar negative patterns.

Maybe you become comfortable with the way things go in your life. You get takeout from your favorite restaurants and get your clothes from your favorite stores. We also have patterns in our relationships. You may have met your former significant others in similar ways. When you look back at your previous relationships and recognize many unhealthy commonalities between them, that may be a “you” problem.

4. It’s your way or the highway.

It’s normal to want to have some say over what happens in your life. Or to be concerned about what happens in the lives of those you care about. It’s another thing altogether to consciously or unconsciously believe that the people in your life should automatically defer to you about the desires in their lives. It can be a “you” problem when people move out or are moved out of your life because they don’t respond in the way you would like.

When problems arise in your life, it’s essential to look at the person in the mirror. This is not to say that everything is a “you” problem. But, you do contribute to the problem. Being open to changing, growing, or adapting as needed is a significant first step toward correcting “you” problems. 

Growing isn’t meant to stop you from being you, but to help you be a better version of yourself. Once you are a better “you,” then forming meaningful relationships becomes easier. 

Other helpful resources:

4 Things to Know About Emotional Safety

Create the connection you crave in your closest relationships.

What is emotional safety?

Emotional safety. Does that sound like a lofty concept? Let’s break it down. Emotional is defined as relating to one’s feelings. Safety means keeping yourself or others free from harm. So, put them together, and what does emotional safety mean? When you’re emotionally safe, you’ve removed yourself as a barrier to others freely being themselves. Recent neurobiology research by Dr. Stephen Porges reveals that emotional safety is one of the most important aspects of connection in a relationship.

Here are some things to know about emotional safety.

Emotional safety comes from within. It starts with you. It consists of identifying your feelings and being able to feel them. 

Emotional safety means revealing your true self to another person. It is expressing who you are, including your hurts, fears, and dreams. It’s expressing yourself authentically, sharing dissatisfaction, fears, and insecurities, and having a conversation without it blowing up into an argument. It’s sharing without fear of shaming, yelling, or rejection.

We all need at least one person with whom we can be ourselves.

Ideally, marriage is a safe space for you and your spouse to reveal your true selves. Parenthood allows you to create a safe environment for your children to grow and learn who they are as individuals. And friendship is a space where you can be the most real you.

Why does emotional safety matter?

Emotional safety is essential in any relationship, whether romantic, family, friends, or co-workers.

When we trust that someone else can see, hear, and understand us, we relax more with them. We open up about who we are and feel connected. Emotional safety is reciprocal. When we are safe for someone else, we deepen our relationship.

When you feel emotionally safe, you are more likely to be your best self and contribute to your greatest ability. You are free to dream, collaborate, create, share, and express yourself. When we open up and do this in a safe environment, we invite others to do the same. 

In relationships, we need to feel safe before we can be vulnerable. Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” Safety creates a foundation for intimacy and closeness.

How do you build & keep emotional safety?

Now, we have a good idea of what emotional safety is. We can examine our relationships and see where it exists. But, how do we build it if it doesn’t exist? 

The foundation is trust. We can’t feel safe with someone if we don’t trust them. Building emotional safety requires building and keeping trust. Trust is a two-way street. It’s built with honesty, credibility, communication, and authenticity.

Another important piece of emotional safety is recognizing what not to do in relationships. We may not be aware of the subtle ways we cause harm with sarcasm, blaming, or shaming others. Instead, traits like respect, kindness, and appreciation foster safety.

Here are some actions you can take to maintain emotional safety:

  • Be consistent. Be there for your spouse, child, friend, or co-worker. When you are consistently present, others see you as reliable and trustworthy.
  • Listen actively. Listen to learn, not to respond. I often struggle with this. We have to slow down and listen.
  • Be curious, not judgmental. Be interested in what the other person is interested in. Ask questions. 
  • Lead with empathy and compassion. Feel what they feel and genuinely care about who they are and what they believe.

What happens if emotional safety isn’t there?

A lack of emotional safety leads to disconnection. Disconnection is a massive threat to a relationship. When we feel disconnected, we begin to feel lonely and distant, and the relationship can start to crumble.

If you feel disconnected from someone, try to find out what’s going on. It could be you. It could be them. If you can, talk about it and make a plan to rebuild your connection.  

Take steps today to create emotional safety in at least one of your relationships. Start by seeing if you’re in tune with your own emotions. If you are, make sure you’re maintaining it well. We all need emotional safety in our relationships.

Other helpful blogs:

It’s been one year since our lives drastically changed. Schools shifted to virtual learning, many of us were scrambling to set up home offices, and some lost their jobs. Life looks somewhat different today. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel; there is hope. 

With so many drastic changes, 2020 also saw a rise in stress, anxiety, and loneliness. The American Psychological Association reports that 78% of Americans say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. I’m part of that group.

As anxiety and stress increase, self-care is essential, whether that’s through outdoor exercise, getting into nature, yoga, reading more, unplugging from technology, or breathing exercises. I enjoy going for a run. Being outdoors is my go-to. (In cases of extreme stress, anxiety, loneliness, or a psychological disorder, seek the help of a professional.)

If we don’t care for ourselves, we’re unable to care for others.

There are many techniques and practices to help us navigate stress

Let me introduce you to a method that neuroscientists have found useful. You may already do this and not even realize it’s an actual practice. Enter: havening. Neuroscientist Dr. Ronald Ruden created havening techniques a decade ago. Havening uses gentle touch to the upper arms, hands and face, and constructive messaging to replace stressful responses with healthier ones.

Havening can be as simple as rubbing your hands together, on your face, or through your hair when you feel stress rising. You may do these simple acts without even realizing it. But neurologically, it helps your brain cope with stress.

You may be asking, how does this help? (I know I was). 

Havening helps boost oxytocin, a “love hormone” that is typically released through human touch and bonding. Contact is something that we’ve been lacking over the past few months. The hugs, handshakes, and high-fives all help us de-stress. Havening can convince your brain that you are receiving some of this touch. 

We are built for community, for relationships, and to do life with other people (in-person, not virtually). This has presented challenges for many as we balance our need to be with people and health concerns. Of course, I’m not suggesting that havening should replace personal contact and touch. But in a world where touch and close proximity is still being limited or feels uncomfortable to many, havening is a great way to calm yourself and the ones you love. It’s also helpful for those who are not comfortable being touched by others.

This technique can also be beneficial for kids, especially as anxiety has risen due to online school and the lack of time with friends. If your child has been struggling with meltdowns, anger, or anxiety due to loneliness, encourage them to pause, take a deep breath, and wrap their arms around themselves in a big bear hug. It may seem weird at first, but practicing havening can help you feel more grounded and connected.  

We have learned much over these past 12 months. We’ve learned resilience, flexibility, what’s important, and that we are made for relationships. We’re made to be with other people, and our brains need that connection, along with physical touch. 

As we push forward through this pandemic, continue to take care of yourself and your family. If you haven’t already, figure out what reduces your stress and brings you joy. Use havening if you feel out of control or anxious. Put self-care at the top of your to-do list. And if you take up running, I’ll see you out there.

Other helpful resources:

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How Your Family Can Celebrate Black History Month All Year Round

Get ready to learn from and interact with people of many different cultures.

February 28th will come and go. Another Black History month completed. Your kids did a neat Black History project at school. You learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, slavery, and Frederick Douglass. Now it’s back to normal. But you don’t want it to be. You want Black History month to positively impact how you see your country and see people of different races and ethnicities. You want to figure out how February can be a starting point for celebrating the unique contributions of diverse Americans and not just a time that’s limited to February.

As families, we have less control over what schools teach, society markets, or our government regulates. However, as a family, you can use the month of February to start conversations, enrich your experiences, and learn about different cultures. Hopefully, you’ll ignite a curiosity that can only be filled by continuing to engage in practices that celebrate African Americans’ contributions and the many rich heritages that make up America.

Here are some ways your family can celebrate Black History month all year round. None of this takes much work. It merely takes being intentional. Pretty soon, your kids will look forward to learning from and interacting with people of many different cultures.

Experiences

Often, the best way to learn about a culture and history is to immerse yourself in that culture. 

Each month, visit a black-owned or uniquely black-operated establishment: restaurants, clothing stores, entertainment spots, places of worship, barbershop, boutique, etc. 

You may get a few looks. 

It’s ok. They are only trying to understand why you’re there. 

Choose a day of the month to listen to music from predominantly black artists: jazz, blues, black gospel, hip hop, R&B, etc. (Think Motown Monday or Friday night Jazz.)

Experience the difference. Discuss what’s different from what you’re used to. What made you comfortable or uncomfortable? What’s good about it? What’s similar to what you’re used to?

Education

Visit museums, watch documentaries and movies, and read books.

As a family, choose a few months out of the year (for instance, once a quarter) to learn something new. You may watch a documentary or visit a museum. Read or listen to audiobooks. Libraries are full of children’s books that highlight various achievements and contributions of African Americans. 

You may follow a theme throughout the year—for instance, music. You might visit the National Museum of African American Music, watch documentaries on the Harlem Renaissance, or play jazz throughout your home on Pandora or Spotify. 

Another example—sports. You might learn about the Negro Baseball League, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, etc. 

*Terms to Google: Harlem Renaissance, The Great Migration, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Miles Davis, Tuskegee Airmen* 

Discuss how what you’ve learned has influenced this country. How have the contributions made America a stronger or better nation? What have you learned that was not so positive?

Relationships

Develop authentic relationships with African Americans where you learn about their experiences. Of course, no one person or family represents the entire African American population. You’re learning about the individual and how their experience as an African American has impacted their life. Their experience as an African American will be different than another African American. Eat with them. Spend time together. Go to places of entertainment with them. Initiate conversations to better understand their story. Be willing to be uncomfortable to better understand.

Check your motives in the process. Do it for the right reasons, not just to check off the box to say you’ve done it, but out of a genuine desire to better understand differences. Diversity brings richness to a community that can’t be gained any other way. We have diverse relationships because we all benefit from them.

Curiosity often begets more curiosity. It’s easy to turn the calendar and return to being with those we’ve always been with. Talking to the ones we’ve always talked to. And listening to what we’ve always listened to. 

But we can all be better. We become better through continual exposure, knowledge, and understanding. Let February launch us all to be better.

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Is Stress Killing Your Relationship?

Find ways to manage stress before it does major relationship damage.

Are you overwhelmed with deadlines at work, kids in school, the weekly to-do list, health concerns, drama on social media? Is stress taking a toll on your relationship? Do you find yourself taking out your stress on your significant other? If so, you’re not alone. 

Stress, handled wrongly, hurts relationships. It’s a reality. Often it’s the small stressors that build up and do damage. 

We all face daily stresses. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use a magic wand and remove all the stress in our lives? The reality is we have to learn to manage stress, not let stress manage us.

Here’s how to tell if stress is impacting your relationship:

Stressed out people are more withdrawn. 

When you’re stressed, you may pull away from those you love or be less affectionate. Maybe you’re working longer hours, spending more time alone, or camping out in front of the TV as a way of escaping all you have to deal with. Isolating yourself can damage your relationship.

Stressed out people see the worst in others. 

When we’re stressed, it’s easy to allow the small things to overwhelm us. A minor thing your spouse does, like not picking up their shoes, suddenly becomes a sign of disrespect and a lack of appreciation. Maybe they just forgot their shoes. But stress is blurring your vision and you see them doing it out of spite.

Stress leads to exhaustion. 

Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Whether the tension stems from work, kids, or our calendars, it bleeds over into all aspects of our lives. Have you ever noticed that when you’re mentally exhausted, you just want to sleep? Stress takes a toll on our bodies. This can leave our spouse (and others) feeling neglected.

Stress makes us irritable. 

Who wants to be around grumpy people? The longer the stress lasts, the crankier you get. This can lead to arguments and hurtful words. 

[How Not to Blow Up On Your Kids When You’re Stressed Out: The Timeout is a great read if you’ve got kids]

Stress causes us to put other things in front of our relationship. 

Technology is a fabulous tool but can also be a source of stress. Endless work texts or emails can interrupt time with your spouse. When we are stressed due to work or other obligations, it becomes easy to prioritize those above our relationship.

So, if you find yourself resonating with these common signs of stress…

Make a plan…when you aren’t stressed out. 

If both of you are in a place of little stress, plan how you will deal with stress once it increases. Help to identify each other’s stressors and stress patterns. Look for ways to reduce stressors before they take over.

Reduce your stress. 

You can’t help your spouse if you can’t help yourself, so identify what reduces your stress. When I feel overwhelmed, I like to go for a run. It’s time to decompress, soak in the fresh air, and clear my mind. Maybe it’s exercise, music, or getting in nature. Communicate to your spouse what you need to do to reduce stress. Make sure you both have time to de-stress and refresh. (Read How Couples Can Help Each Other De-Stress and Improve Their Relationship)

Prioritize your relationship. 

You’re a team! Commit to each other and to ensuring that stress will not take over your relationship. Dr. Michael Mantell, an Advanced Behavior Coach, puts it this way: “Help each other remember you cannot control the uncontrollable, to always look for victory not defeat, to agree to set aside time to talk and be each other’s defense attorney, not prosecutor.”

Ask for help. 

Your partner can’t provide for all your needs. Putting that expectation on each other isn’t healthy. Sometimes we need help, whether that’s a trusted friend or a therapist. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Protecting your relationship must be the priority. 

Stress is a reality. You can’t make it go away, but you can manage stress so that it doesn’t kill your relationship. What will you do today to reduce stress in your life?

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

We throw the words compromise and sacrifice around quite a bit in relationships. But what exactly do they mean? And don’t they mean the same thing? 

Well, the short answer is, not exactly. It’s complicated, kind of like relationships are sometimes. Read on to see what I mean.

Both sacrifice and compromise require someone to lose or give something up, but in two very different ways. 

Compromise involves people meeting in the middle to solve a problem. Each person gives in a little… or a lot. Here’s a simple example: one person wants to meet for coffee at 11:00, while the other prefers 11:30. They meet in the middle and decide on 11:15. Each person gave up 15 minutes; problem solved.

Sacrifice is different, though. It requires one person to meet another where they are. They give up something to accommodate the other person regardless of whether they respond or give back. Another simple example: one person can only meet at 11:00 for coffee. Rather than reschedule, the other person gives up a prior engagement to meet with this person. 

Compromise is a team effort toward a common goal, resolving conflict or disagreement. It’s mutual by its very nature. Everyone involved must give up something for it to be called compromise. A compromise works out differences.  

A sacrifice is a solo act done to strengthen the bond between two people. One person gives something up for the relationship; the other person doesn’t necessarily have to, although relationships generally thrive when sacrifice is mutual. Sacrifice seals commitment. 

The nature of sacrifice and compromise gets hairier when you consider different levels and depths of relationships. 

Here’s what I mean. 

Compromising on a coffee time with a co-worker is one thing. Settling with your spouse on how to raise your kids, save money, or where you’ll spend the holidays is a totally different ballgame. Deeper relationships call for deeper considerations.

Perhaps not so much with sacrifice. Giving up a career, living in a particular city, or spending a lot of time with other people is considered good in some relationships, but downright crazy in others.  

**Compromise happens in all healthy relationships to some degree. Sacrifice is probably more appropriate for long-term, committed relationships. And problems can occur when we get those two concepts mixed up.**

As a matter of fact, it’s possible to sacrifice for the wrong reason. An interesting piece of research found that when one romantic partner gave something up for the good of the relationship, both partners had higher than average relationship satisfaction

On the flipside, both partners felt less satisfied in their relationship when a partner gave something up to avoid guilt or hurt feelings. 

Did you catch that? The same behavior—sacrificing for one’s partner—had opposite effects depending on the motive behind it. Your reason for sacrifice makes a difference. 

What can we take away from these ideas? 

  • Disagreements happen. Compromise can help solve problems and keep relationships healthy. 
  • Sacrifice isn’t always the best option, like maybe in a new dating relationship. It can even be harmful. But when it is appropriate (think marriage), both people benefit from it. 
  • Compromise costs, but it’s typically refundable. If a compromise doesn’t work, you can usually step back and try something else.
  • Sacrifice is also costly, but it usually has a no-return policy. It’s risky. And it shouldn’t be done recklessly. 
  • Carefully weigh your relationship’s depth and outlook (and the issue you need to solve) before sacrificing or compromising. 

Some say compromise is the foundation of a relationship. Others say throw compromise out the window and selflessly sacrifice. 

I say there’s a time and a place for each: compromise freely and sacrifice wisely

Related blogs:

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

The Year of Change

Even if you're glad to see 2020 go, you probably learned a few things.

If 2020 were a movie, the storylines would make your head spin. Murder hornets, politics, a pandemic, and quarantine. Racial unrest, job loss, and Zoom. Economic roller coasters, working and learning from home, professional from the waist up, and more.

Add in crazy and unpredictable twists, turns, drama, pain, loss, even unexpected joy, and you have quite the Drama-Sci-Fi-Action-Thriller-Documentary.

We may have been taking some things for granted (until 2020).

Thank goodness 2020 is almost in the rearview mirror. Goodbye and good riddance! It’s pretty unlikely anybody will be sad to see it go. 

But, like a lot of other life experiences, while nobody would wish to go through some of what 2020 brought us, there might be a few folks who wouldn’t trade what they learned about things we often take for granted. For example: 

  • the value of spending time with people we love and care about face to face (not over Zoom or FaceTime);
  • the privilege of being by someone’s bedside when they’re sick;
  • your presence at your family member or friend’s wedding;
  • getting to go to work;
  • going out to dinner and a movie for a date night;
  • being live and in person at a sporting event; 
  • attending a faith-based service; 
  • throwing a party for friends;
  • being able to attend the funeral of a loved one;
  • children being able to go to school and the teachers who pour into them; 
  • the amazing truckers, first responders, grocery store workers, team members in the food processing industry; and
  • just being able to go outside and be around others. 

We could add way more to this list, I’m sure.

The point is, major disruption offers the opportunity for growth. Even when things normalize a bit, we (hopefully) won’t forget that all the things we thought were just a way of life aren’t necessarily so.

Embracing Change

Life can change in an instant, and we saw that during this year of change. The things we thought were so important took a back seat. Caring for our existing relationships and building new ones with people who aren’t “just like us” took on greater importance. The pandemic actually showed what can happen when we all come together to help meet others’ needs. 

There were monumental accomplishments, too. 

Individuals figured out how to help farmers get food from their fields and into the hands of hungry people. Right in the middle of the quarantine, people helped those who lost their homes in the tornadoes. We figured out how to host drive-in concerts and worship services. And we celebrated milestones through technology, drive-by parades, and window visitation at nursing homes. 

In so many instances, people said for years, “We could never do that,” or “That would never work.” The pandemic helped us see we could make it work, and it probably won’t return to the way things were before after it’s over. Maybe the pandemic helped discover a better way forward. Wouldn’t that be a shocker?!

Speaking of moving forward and embracing change this year, this is my final column here as I seek to strengthen marriages across the globe in my new role at the WinShape Foundation. 

Over the last 21 years, it’s been an incredible privilege to journey with you through life. Hopefully, the research and insights I’ve shared helped us all build strong relationships in every season and get through tough times (like 2020) together.

Mitchell Qualls, Operations Director for First Things First, will step in to continue bringing you relevant and relatable family-strengthening information. He is very passionate about helping people strengthen their relationships through writing content and facilitating events (when we’re able to do that again).

Mitchell married his high school sweetheart, Dalet, in 2004, and they have two children, Yadi and Bella. He is an avid baseball fan and loves running and hiking with his family.

Wishing you all the best in 2021!

Whether you’re together or apart this year, these holiday conversation starters are sure to spark some joy and help you get to know each other better.

Now go get your party started!

  1. In your opinion, what would the ultimate winter wonderland look like?
  2. What is your favorite Christmas scent?
  3. What is the single most meaningful Christmas gift you’ve ever received?
  4. If time were not a concern and you had plenty of money, how would you decorate the outside of your home?
  5. Candy canes, of course, are the traditional candy of Christmas. If you could have your way, what would be the official candy of Christmas?
  6. You have a beautiful 50-foot pine tree in your front yard that you are allowed to decorate with only one color of lights. Which color would you choose?
  7. Of course, red and green are the traditional colors of Christmas. What two other colors do you think could—or should—become the standard for the season?
  8. At Christmastime, which do you honestly enjoy more—giving or receiving?
  9. What is the first Christmas you can remember? What do you remember about it?
  10. Do you have any ethnic traditions that you honor during the Christmas season?
  11. In your opinion, what word(s) would best complete the following phrase: “‘Tis the season to be …”?
  12. What holiday food do you enjoy the most?
  13. Which event or aspect of the Christmas season do you look forward to most of all?
  14. If snow could fall in any flavor, what flavor would you choose?
  15. What makes a Christmas gift really special to you?
  16. If you could Christmas shop until you drop in any one store, which store would you choose?
  17. What do you typically do the day after Christmas?
  18. If you could indulge in only one type of cookie this holiday season, which cookie would you be eating a lot of?
  19. If you could invite any famous person to your house for Christmas dinner, whom would you ask?
  20. No other time of the year affords such a great opportunity to enjoy good food and drink. In your opinion, what is the best taste the Christmas season has to offer?
  21. What would be the ideal way for you to spend Christmas Eve?
  22. On a scale of one to ten (with one being very relaxing and ten being very stressful), how stressful is the holiday season for you?
  23. What brought you joy this year?
  24. If you could spend Christmas anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
  25. What is your favorite Christmas movie?

Related blogs:

100 CONVERSATION STARTERS TO INCREASE YOUR FAMILY’S CONNECTEDNESS