Tag Archive for: Communication

How often do you say “thank you” to your spouse or significant other? 

If this question makes you feel uncomfortable, guilty, or maybe even ask the counter-question, “For what!?,” you’re not alone.

A recent 50-year study completed by The Gottman Institute found that the single most important phrase couples can use in their relationship is “thank you.” After observing 40,000 couples during therapy sessions, Drs. John and Julie Gottman found relationships with an “enthusiastic culture of appreciation” were more likely to be successful for a lifetime than those who don’t regularly practice gratitude.

Think back through your last couple of days or weeks. How often did you say “thank you” to a total stranger? Of course, you thanked the person who held the door open for you or the waiter who refilled your glass. Do you feel the same urgency to say “thank you” to your partner? Do you express your gratitude when they empty the dishwasher, finish the laundry, or listen while you vent about your day?

In full transparency, after completing this simple exercise, I realized I don’t say “thank you” to my husband as often as I should. It’s not that I’m not grateful for him. Life is just busy. There are a million things on my plate, and I don’t pause long enough to show him how appreciative I am.

The Gottmans’ study also revealed that couples who have been together for an extended period (typically two years or longer) can often develop a culture of “only noticing the things their partner is doing wrong rather than what they’re doing right.” 

For example, if your spouse was home all day but didn’t fold the massive mountain of clean clothes on the dining room table, you may come home and tell them how frustrated you feel. You might automatically assume they were lazy or even left the clothes for you to tackle. But, if you come home to a nicely stacked pile of laundry, you may say nothing. You’re just relieved there’s one less thing on your plate. 

To shift this mindset and create a positive cycle of appreciation in your relationship, the Gottmans suggest giving four things a try:

  1. Practice noticing the positive. Watch your partner and note the positive things they do. 
  2. Say “thank you.” Tell them every time you notice something that makes you feel grateful.
  3. Focus on the present. When you shift your mindset toward the positive, you’ll also have to practice letting go of the past. Don’t let previous actions cloud your desire to build something different in your relationship.
  4. Remember, this isn’t about changing your partner. Creating a cycle of appreciation begins with changing your mental habits, not changing your partner. If your partner isn’t immediately on board, stay positive and express that gratitude. Watch how contagious gratitude can be.

As you think about this information and how to apply it to your relationship, remember that creating new cycles and building new thought patterns doesn’t come easy. In fact, it can be quite challenging. First Things First is always here to support you. We have resources on our website and provide one-on-one relationship coaching if needed! Find out more about this service at FirstThings.org/coaching.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at [email protected].

Have you ever felt like everything you say or do rubs your partner the wrong way?

Here’s an example: You say, “We should go out to eat tonight and find some really good pasta.” Your significant other responds, “Right, because the pasta I cook for you at home is never good enough.” You’re left wondering what happened and where their defensive attitude came from.

Or perhaps you’re the one who feels consistently cut down by your spouse.

You try time and time again to connect with them, please them, and build intimacy. Still, you feel your efforts are met with a lack of desire, understanding, and appreciation. Overall, you feel alone and misunderstood.

If either of these examples resonates with you, your relationship could be stuck in the Negative Override Sentiment.

According to University of Oregon professor emeritus and psychologist Robert Weiss, all couples develop sentiment overrides and use them regularly during interactions. 

“In essence, the residual emotions from every interaction (words, gestures, facial expression, or body language) accumulate over time, becoming a new dimension of the relationship that derails the objectivity of current interactions,” says Weiss. “One or both partners silently harbor the emotions of feeling unimportant, unwanted, or uncared for and now perceive everything said with a negative filter.”

For many significant others, this negative attitude or filter can come as a shock because they don’t recall doing or saying anything to warrant their partner’s underlying disdain for them. 

However, the Negative Override Sentiment was built every time you were late, and your partner was eagerly waiting for you. It grew in your partner when you, perhaps unintentionally but frequently ignored communication or interests that were important to them. Negative Override Sentiment may have smoldered in your partner because you simply didn’t show appreciation for a meal they cooked, an errand they ran, or a large task they completed.

Dr. John Gottman and his team at the Gottman Research Institute recently followed 96 couples to better understand the Negative Override Sentiment. Their study found an antidote they named the Positive Override Sentiment. Here’s how it works: 

  • One partner makes a statement such as, “We should go on vacation. We haven’t been anywhere together in quite a while.” 
  • The significant other may use the Negative Sentiment Override and respond with something like, “Well, what do you want me to do? Quit my job so we can spend more time together? I never have enough time to give you.” 
  • The other partner may have shut down or become defensive in the past. But, this is an opportunity to nip the negativity in the bud and create a new environment for the relationship by using a Positive Sentiment Override response such as: “I miss our vacations. You’re really fun to hang out with. Do you remember that one time at the beach when we (insert positive memory here).”

The goal of using the Positive Sentiment Override antidote is to re-establish hope in the relationship, remember moments when both partners felt more positive toward each other, and establish the opportunity to create positive interactions again. 

What if both people in the relationship are stuck in the Negative Sentiment Override? Research shows that it only takes one partner to change the usual rhythm of the relationship. As with any new dance, it may feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at times, but with a bit of practice and persistence, you can kick the Negative Override Sentiment to the curb and build a stronger connection over time.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

If you’re a parent, you’ve more than likely experienced a toddler’s extreme desire for independence.

From age two to four, many children are determined to “do it myself.” 

But, have you ever experienced an adult who doesn’t “need help?” They’re so determined to do everything on their own they refuse to delegate, ask others for assistance or set boundaries.

Or are you the one who doesn’t “need help?” Do you pride yourself on your ability to do everything independently and shy away from situations that feel remotely interdependent or out of your control?

I am currently nine months pregnant. I’m uncomfortable, slow, and my brain capacity is lower than I care to admit. I recently met with a fellow non-profit leader and a leadership team member. I stood up to throw my water cup away and heard:

“Lauren, I can take that to the trash. Don’t worry about it!” 

“Lauren, I could’ve taken your cup with mine!” 

“Lauren, seriously, you don’t have to do that…” 

I ignored these advances and did it myself. No big deal. Then I heard my leadership team member say, “Lauren does everything by herself. Even at 9 months pregnant. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

We laughed. We moved on. But that statement stuck with me. Is it true? Am I too independent? How does independence develop in us over time? What happens when people are too independent in relationships? How often do I say, “I don’t need help?”

“As valuable as having a sense of independence is, taken to an extreme, this can actually get in the way of us being able to connect with others in a meaningful way,” says Jodi Clarke, a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Clarke says those with an extraordinary sense of independence may find it difficult to achieve emotional intimacy in romantic relationships.

In a work or school environment, these individuals may struggle to work on a team, collaborate well or share projects with others.

What makes some individuals need more independence than others? According to Dr. Amy Marschall, a Clinical Psychologist, extreme independence or hyper-independence can be a trauma response. Although, not everyone who experiences trauma will have the same response. Some people have the opposite reaction by believing they are incapable of independence.  

Trauma can refer to an event or series of events that occurred to a person, such as a car accident, death, or abuse. Trauma can also refer to mounting emotional and relational experiences over time, typically from childhood and/or adolescence.

Examples of trauma that can lead to hyper-independence include:

  • Being consistently told that it’s weak or unacceptable to receive help from others.
  • Experiencing neglect in a physical, mental, emotional, or relational sense.
  • Feeling unsafe or distrusting in a relationship with a caregiver and unable to trust those in authority fully.
  • Experiencing high uncertainty and unstableness leads to seeking control in every situation and aspect of life.

In other words, highly independent people have developed a need for self-preservation and control out of a necessity to survive. They haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to trust anyone other than themselves and build healthy, interdependent relationship skills and habits. 

After some reflection, I don’t think I’m hyper-independent. Still, I have some very independent tendencies in my relationships and roles in life.

To ensure I’m not creating an unhealthy bubble of self-dependence and pushing away those I love and care for, I’ve decided to stay aware and open by focusing on these five steps:

  1. Let go of perfectionism. Allow others to do things the way they do them.
  2. Accept there is a lack of control in every situation.
  3. Assess the cost of not asking for or accepting help from others.
  4. Normalize asking for help and avoid seeing it as a sign of weakness.
  5. Learn the art of delegation.

If you’re questioning your level of independence in relationships and relational environments, I encourage you to dig deeper: 

  1. Assess your desire for independence. 
  2. Ask yourself questions. Where did my independence come from? How extreme is it?
  3. Focus on the five steps above. 

Your relationships, family, and co-workers will thank you in the end.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

We are all guilty of phubbing whether we’re aware of it or not.

Answered a text during family dinner? You phubbed. Checked your notifications during a meeting your colleague was leading? Phubbed again. Decided to scroll through social media during your downtime instead of calling your close friend or family member? Major phub.

Phubbing is the act of ignoring your companions or relationships to give attention to your phone or device. In other words, you are snubbing others for your phone. 

While many parents complain of feeling snubbed by their teens for technology, it’s clear adults are also struggling with the distracting screens.

Researchers now have a clear picture of how phubbing impacts adult relationships. A recent tech report released by the Institute for Family Studies found that 1 in 7 parents of teens (15%) use their phones or other digital devices “almost constantly” during conversations, meals, or family events. Also, using a sample of 145 adults, researchers James Roberts and Meredith David found that regular phubbing between romantic partners leads to relationship dissatisfaction.

A new report from the Wheatley Institute surveyed 2,000 married couples. It found that 37% of married Americans (roughly one-third) feel their spouse is often focused on a device in place of having a conversation or spending time together. Interestingly enough, this statistic varies greatly between socioeconomic status. Phubbing is worse among lower-income couples, with 44% reporting their spouse is distracted by their phone compared to only 31% of higher-income couples.

It makes sense that phone usage would create frustration in a marriage, but this study reveals even more.

Couples who experience excessive phone use are less happy about their marriage than others.

Only about 6 in 10 married adults whose spouse is often on the phone (59%) say they are “very happy” with their marriage, compared with 81% of those who don’t struggle with this issue. More so, 1 in 5 married adults (21%) with a spouse who overuses a phone say they are not happy with their marriage, compared with only 8% of couples who do not report the phone as an issue.

Of course, the question has to be asked: Is phubbing the real issue?

Or are there other factors in the marriage that increase the phubbing behavior? According to the Wheatley report, infrequent sex and fewer date nights may be contributing to lower marital satisfaction among couples who have a phone problem. Fewer than half of these couples (44%) have sex at least once a week, and about 1 in 5 of these couples (23%) report that either they haven’t had sex at all in the past 12 months (11%) or only once or twice (12%).

In contrast, couples with greater control over their phones are more likely to report more frequent sex and date nights.

Smartphones get a lot of blame for relationship and mental health issues. There’s no doubt that correlations exist between relationship dissatisfaction, loneliness, anxiety, and smartphone usage. But smartphones themselves aren’t the real issue–phubbing is. Whether couples find themselves using their devices to avoid spending time together or they slowly slide into prioritizing their phones over each other, phubbing is a choice. It’s something to be aware of and practice against for the health of ourselves and our relationships.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

I introduced my 4-year-old son to the Broadway musical “Wicked” last week. Shameless plug, it’s one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.

As the cheeky but pointed song “Popular” blared through the speakers, he asked, “Mom, what does that word mean – popular? Is it important to be popular?”

Good question, kid. Here’s what I found.

Research from the last two decades reveals that Americans prefer a few close, intimate relationships over many superficial ones.

Even in the era of social media influencers who gain popularity through hundreds of thousands of followers, we innately know these numbers do not provide the connection we seek.

A review, or meta-analysis, of 38 studies released by the research group Frontiers in Psychology found that having a few high-quality adult friendships can significantly predict well-being and protect against mental health issues such as anxiety and depression for a lifetime.

On the flip side, people with a large amount of low-quality friendships are twice as likely to die prematurely

This is a risk factor greater than the effects of smoking 20 cigarettes per day, according to the Public Library of Science Medical Journal.

So, how can you tell if a relationship (romantic or platonic) is of quality or not? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I be honest and vulnerable with this person, and are they always open and honest with me?
  • Do I value this person for who they are rather than just for what they do?
  • Can I rely on this person?
  • Do we communicate openly, regularly, and respectfully with one another?
  • Do they encourage me to grow as a person and make good decisions?

While low-quality friendships may decrease your potential long-term health benefits, daily interactions with familiar faces or acquaintances can bolster your confidence, provide stability, and increase “feel good” chemicals in your brain. 

Small connections with strangers—a barista, clerk, co-worker, or neighbor—can be surprisingly sustaining.

Dr. Gillian Sandstrom conducted research that found people who have more superficial interactions regularly are happier than those who have fewer. Also, people tend to be happier on days when they have more than their average number of simple interactions.

In short, research confirms popularity isn’t the goal. It’s more beneficial to build relational depth with a few close people.

But being friendly and interacting with strangers can boost your mood in the short term. As 20th-century artist Pablo Picasso once said, “When you are young and without success, you have a few good friends. Then, later on, when you are rich and famous, you still have a few… if you are lucky.”

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

It’s an election year, which means more news, more debates, and more campaign ads are on the horizon.

While many have figured out how to avoid heated politically-fueled conversations around extended family members, it’s more challenging to keep the peace when you and your spouse have different political views.

As the political landscapes become increasingly polarized in our nation, maintaining harmony within the confines of marriage can feel like a high-stakes balancing act – but it’s not impossible. With understanding, respect, and open communication, couples can navigate the choppy waters of divergent political beliefs and emerge with a stronger, more resilient bond.

Finding commonality amid differences requires a delicate touch.

Here are some strategies for married couples seeking to keep the peace and the passion alive this election season and beyond:

1: Listen with empathy and speak with respect.

The foundation of any healthy relationship rests on open communication. When discussing political matters, prioritize active listening over winning debates. Seek to understand your partner’s perspective, and ensure they feel heard and respected. Remember, love and respect can transcend political differences.

2: Establish boundaries ahead of time.

It’s crucial to recognize the point at which political discussions become counterproductive. Agree on boundaries to prevent heated debates from escalating into arguments. Designate specific times or spaces for discussing politics, ensuring that these conversations don’t overshadow the shared joys and interests that initially brought you together.

3: Find common ground.

Explore areas of shared values and interests that extend beyond the realm of politics. Engaging in activities that you both enjoy can strengthen the foundation of your relationship. Remember: a deep connection goes beyond the voting polls.

4: Embrace the art of compromise.

Successful marriages thrive on compromise. When faced with political disagreements, seek a middle ground where possible. Understand that compromise doesn’t mean abandoning personal beliefs but rather finding solutions that respect both perspectives. Two things can be true: You can love your spouse dearly, and you can completely disagree with their political views. Those two things can coexist.

5: Lead by example.

Be a model of the values and behaviors you wish to see in your partner. Encourage open-mindedness and a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints. Leading by example can inspire positive change and create an environment where differences are celebrated rather than feared.

6: Seek professional guidance if necessary.

If political disagreements begin to strain the fabric of your relationship, consider seeking the guidance of a professional counselor. A neutral third party can provide valuable insights and tools to help you navigate complex issues and strengthen your connection.

Instead of allowing political differences to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, use them as an opportunity for growth and understanding.

By cultivating empathy, establishing boundaries, finding common ground, embracing compromise, and leading by example, you can not only survive the political storm but emerge with a relationship that stands resilient in the face of challenges. After all, the strength of a marriage lies not in the absence of differences but in the shared commitment to weathering life’s storms together, hand in hand.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at [email protected].

“Momma, when you die and I don’t have a Momma anymore, can I go live with Nana and Poppy?” my four-year-old asked nonchalantly last Saturday.

“Well, if anything happens to me and your dad, you can certainly live with Nana and Poppy. What made you ask that question, bug?” I said blindsided.

“People die. And, I know you’re gonna die and live with Jesus. So. I just want to have someone to live with, too,” he responded. Then, he ran outside and started digging in the dirt with his dump trucks.

I was in shock from the conversation. What was going on in his little mind? Where did that question come from?

My husband reminded me that our son has attended four funerals in his short four years of life– three great grandmothers and a great aunt. That’s a lot of death to unpack. I also learned he overheard a conversation about the tragic shootings and deaths of 3 adults and 3 children at the Covenant School in Nashville a few weeks ago.

As a parent, I want to protect my son at all costs.

I want to keep him from having to deal with the hard, unfair and cruel injustices of this world. But, the truth is, avoiding difficult conversations and shielding him in an effort to preserve his innocence does more harm than good in the long run.

The American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement earlier this year encouraging parents to have hard conversations with young children: 

“Taking a proactive stance and discussing difficult events and topics in age-appropriate language can help a child feel safer and more secure. If adults don’t talk to them about it, a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence. So, be the first to bring up the difficult topic. When parents tackle difficult conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive.”

While this statement is empowering, sitting down and having these conversations can be stressful. How do you define age appropriate language? What if you don’t have all the answers to the questions they ask?

Here are a few things to remember when these hard conversations happen:

1: If you can, practice ahead of time.

When a tragic event occurs, try to be the person your child hears it from first. Decide what you’re going to share, how you’re going to share it, and most importantly, when the best time is to have the conversation.

2: Timing is everything.

Choose a quiet place to sit with your child one-on-one and look them in the eyes. Avoid having hard conversations when you’re busy making dinner or when your child is playing. The conversation at hand should be the center of both your attention.

3: Ask them what they already know.

“There was a shooting at a school. What do you know about this?” And then listen, listen, and listen more.

4: Tell them how you feel.

Sharing your emotions with your child allows them to create a deeper connection with you. It’s also a great opportunity to model behavior and emotional regulation for them.

5: Stick to the facts and avoid details.

Tell them the outline of what happened. There’s no need to share gory details or show gruesome graphics. 

As a parent, the greatest thing you can do for your child is build a deep connection with them. No matter how hard we try, we can’t control them or the world around them. Having hard conversations when they’re young allows them to see you as a safe, wise and trusted source for a lifetime.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Jonas Kakaroto on Unsplash

I gave a presentation to a local community group last week. At the end, someone in the audience raised their hand and asked, “I keep hearing all this stuff about how lonely we are. Is it really true? And what do we do about it?”

A few days later, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released an advisory statement. The headline read: New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States.

Awareness of the rise in loneliness and isolation in our country is the first step to finding a solution. The next steps are to understand why it’s happening and what to do about it. Let’s break it down.

Why is loneliness increasing in our country? Here are a few potential causes:

1: Children have not received emotional connections from parents and caregivers.

A meta-analysis of decades of research on the average American’s “attachment style” reveals today’s adults are more likely to have an insecure attachment style than a secure one. This means we desire relationships, but we are also fearful of them. 

 (Konrath, S. H., Chopik, W. J., Hsing, C. K., & O’Brien, E. (2014))

2: Concerns about societal issues create distrust.

One psychologist who dove deep into Americans’ insecure-attachment trend found a list of fears that people may be wrestling with, such as: war in Europe, trends in technology, school shootings in the news, and the national debt. When society feels scary, that fear can seep into your closest relationships.

3: Technology produces fake intimacy.

It’s no secret–  technology hinders us from creating deep emotional connections. There’s a large body of research revealing the impact of technology on relationships. Staying up-to-date with someone on social media is not the same as having them over for dinner or being a regular part of their life. Technology helps us form digital communities that can hinder us from forming more tangible relationships.

Faith Hill, a reporter and contributor to The Atlantic draws this conclusion in her recent article America’s Intimacy Problem: “All in all, we can’t determine why people are putting up walls, growing further and further away from one another… The good news is that if humans have the capacity to lose trust in one another, they can also work to build it back up.”

What do we do to build connection and trust back up?

Here are a few potential solutions suggested by the Surgeon General and mental health experts alike:

1: Create and use more community spaces.

Playgrounds, libraries, and community centers provide opportunities for human interaction and connection for children and adults. Creating these spaces is half the battle. To experience connection and reverse isolation, we must be willing to use them in our everyday lives.

2: Use connection as a healing remedy.

Because loneliness and isolation are risk factors for several major health conditions, healthcare professionals are well-positioned to assess their patients’ loneliness and isolation and suggest connection and relationship-building remedies.

3: Enable public policies that ensure connection.

At every level, the government can play a role in creating more avenues for connection. Increasing free and easy access to public transportation and providing family leave are a few ways to discourage loneliness and isolation from a systemic level. 

4: Consistently gauge your use of technology.

Only you can prevent fake intimacy from forming in your relationships. How often are you “liking” a picture rather than inviting a friend to coffee? Or scrolling on your phone rather than having a conversation with your spouse?

At its core, the loneliness epidemic has one cure: deep, meaningful relationships. While this ideal has many obstacles, prioritizing relationships is the first step forward. 

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash