Verbal Communication In Relationships
I got to share some of my thoughts on the topic of 'couples who swear' with journalist Tierney Finster for MEL Magazine. Finster asked three therapists (including me), to weigh in on the topic. Read below to hear what we said.
by Tierney Finster
Even if you don’t find cursing offensive in general, it’s never particularly relaxing to hear couples swearing at one another in public.
So much so that some couples have, um, sworn off ever swearing in each other’s presence. For example, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have successful refrained from cursing at each other — angrily or playfully — for 20 years.
yungsquat@Nissafitt: Will & Jada said they didn’t curse at each other or raise their voice to each other in 20 years, I love that. Like I’m so impressed do you know how good your communication has to be to do that ? Wow
“I said to Jada, this is the deal: I grew up in a household where I watched my father punch my mother in the face, and I will not create a house, a space, an interaction with a person where there’s profanity and violence,” Smith explained on a recent episode of Red Table Talk, the Facebook show starring Pinkett Smith, their daughter Willow and Smith’s mother-in-law Adrienne. “If you have to talk to me like that, we can’t be together. We’re not going to use any profanity in our interactions, we’re not going to raise our voices. We’re not going to be violent. I can’t do it.”
But does cursing at one another always lead to such extremes — or constitute a sign that a romantic relationship is unhealthy? Especially given the multitude of venues for cursing (while shopping at Target or building something from Ikea; invoking a different vibe during sex; and of, course, when arguing). Isn’t it more individual than that? That is, getting called a “fucking asshole” by your romantic partner, or calling your partner a “bitch” or a “motherfucker” may either sound like your worst nightmare or light-hearted banter depending on your past experiences, communication style and sense of humor.
For an official diagnosis, I asked a three professionals — a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist specializing in sexuality and marriage and family therapist — what they thought. Here’s what they told me…
YOU’RE JUST BEING FUCKING HONEST WITH EACH OTHER
David Ley, clinical psychologist: I tell patients, audiences and my wife, research clearly shows that people who cuss more are more honest, because we aren’t filtering information before telling you what we think. Every time I drop the F-bomb, just reframe it as, “David is being really fucking honest with me right now.” If a couple can’t handle cussing within a relationship, I don’t think they “can handle the truth.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FUCKING CONTEXT
Amanda Luterman, a psychotherapist specializing in sexuality: It’s my understanding that swearing is used carelessly far more often than it’s used for the purpose of verbal violence, and the long-term consequences of using vulgarity has largely to do with the emotional climate in which it’s used. If members of a couple feel tense, on-guard, anxious, defensive, vulnerable, belittled, frightened or in any other way uncomfortable in the context in which vulgarity is used, it’s having a negative impact on the emotional safety in the relationship and probably resulting in a decrease in mood over time in one or more partners.
That said, I typically don’t bother discouraging potty mouths if it’s stylistically casual. But when folks argue, I remind them that vulgarity reliably conveys anger and hostility to most people and thoughts and feelings come out more harshly. Thus, people tend to run the risk of relaying disrespect more reliably when swearing and tend to not speak as carefully if it’s used in anger.
Where eroticism is concerned, like most behaviors, it’s all about consent. Vulgarity comes across as a lack of respect for the person in a degrading fashion if it wasn’t first verified with good intention. And nothing turns off a person faster than unwanted degradation. Yet, the right vulgarity in the context of a respectful relationship can be very arousing, and in fact, it’s a vital part of some healthy and satisfying relationships.
If I had a hard-and-fast rule about vulgar language in bed, it would be, if it makes things hotter, it’s great. If it’s what makes things hot, it’s not great.
IT’S ABOUT SO MUCH MORE THAN FUCKING WORDS
Gaea Woods, marriage and family therapist: People should be free to use whatever amount of profanity works for them, so long as their use of words isn’t hurting anyone. Like most things, it depends so much on context. Does a couple use profanity to playfully talk to each other throughout the day? Does bonding through mirroring one another bring the couple closer? Or does one partner curse during arguments to assert power and control over their partner? There’s a clear difference between cursing to add emphasis to an expression of frustration versus cursing as an intimidation tactic.
It’s also important to look at the meaning and history of the words you’re using. The first of four idioms author Don Miguel Ruiz describes in his book The Four Agreements is to be impeccable with your words. He speaks about the importance of saying only what you mean, avoiding using language to speak badly about yourself or to gossip about others. Instead, he encourages the use of words to express truth and love. His sentiment highlights the power of words and verbal expression. Being mindful of the intention behind the language you use can bring awareness to how you may (or may not) be hurting yourself or others through the use of your words.
The question of healthy communication is much easier to define than “normal communication.” The idea of “normal communication” might be defined by what we grew up with — for example, what communication style we experienced within our own household, and what we were exposed to within our community. Of course, this can widely vary from culture, geographic region, socioeconomic status and so on.
Therefore, the question of healthy communication is much easier to identify than “normal communication.” A good place to start when contemplating questions about whether your present relationship is healthy can be to examine what messages about yourself you may have internalized from past experiences. Just because you’re accustomed to a certain communication style — or are used to hearing a lot of profanity in your household — doesn’t necessarily mean that communication style is healthy.
Discussing issues of abuse can be difficult for couples and therapists alike. Discomfort and societal prejudice can interfere with openly discussing the subject. Assessing for abusive dynamics in a couple could include a discussion of how conflict is handled within the relationship. For example, some helpful lines of questioning would be: to explore how a couple fights, how tension is released and whether there’s an inequality of power in the relationship.
Individual partners within a couple could consider whether they feel intimidated, isolated or put down by their partner. Whether they notice themselves making excuses for their partner, or shifting responsibility for potentially abusive behavior to themselves, saying, “I caused it,” for example. These could be seen as indications of whether or not the relationship is verbally abusive.
So many of our attachment needs are tied up in communication. It’s important to assess how you’re responding to the attachment needs of your partner. In other words, what’s the dynamic between you and your partner? Is there shared responsibility in the relationship? Is there a reactionary pattern of blame, stonewalling or turning away from your partner in a time of need? Recognizing dynamics can be seen as a first step in working toward finding better ways to turn toward each other in a vulnerable and honest way, and to build trust and support within a relationship.
Emotional Wellness Talk
Thanks to Gyals Network, WeWork, and Pulse TMS, I got to share some of my thoughts about emotional wellness, self care, building inner resources, and maintaining an optimistic perspective despite life's ups and downs.
To me, achieving emotional wellness and practicing self care means looking inward, being curious about yourself, and others from a nonjudgemental perspective. It’s a practice. It’s more than epsom salt baths and facials.
Coincidentally, I broke out in all-over-body hives the same week I gave this talk. Dr. says it’s from stress. Proof that our bodies have limits and that self care is hard work! Also that I am pushing myself too hard, and not listening carefully enough to my own internal limits.
An invitation for me to re-examine my relationship to the strong woman complex (as Margena Carter spoke about so eloquently). Meaning a woman who bears the responsibility of societal standards of the female gender, while simultaneously earning a living and pushing through hardship without asking for help.
Journalist Tierney Finster, recently asked me to share some tips about maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships for an article she was writing for Mel Magazine.
My ideas are in good company. Finster’s story also includes thoughts and practical advice about negotiating boundaries from these notable sex and romance experts:
Dr. David Ley is a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and author.
Nina Hartley is a legendary porn star and creator of the erotic instructional series Nina Hartley’s Guide.
Ashley Manta is a sex educator and relationship coach.
Full article below, or read it online here.
‘Till Death Do You Part—But How Much Time Should You Spend Together Until Then?
by Tierney Finster
Sleeping with my boyfriend calms me. Whether we’re at his house, my house, his parents’ house, one of the spots we find on Hotel Tonight or in the closet at my friend’s house where we first had sex hours after meeting, dozing off with him continues to be one of the sweetest, most grounding pleasures of my life.
But does that mean we should sleep together every night? After all, we’re not roommates. We don’t share a home or pay rent together. Between the two of us, we spend most of each week tending to our professional lives, hanging out with friends and family and trying to find moments where we can just chill as individuals.
In other words: There’s simply not enough time to get together every night.
Or perhaps, even though I cling to a leopard body pillow in his absence — curling up against it exactly as I would curl up against him — I actually don’t want to sleep with him every night.
“You don’t have to see someone everyday to love them and be in a healthy relationship,” a friend assured me a couple months ago when I worried that our mutual independence was a sign that our relationship wasn’t serious. This friend, like most of my best friends, practically moves in with her new dating partners upon first meeting them. She even bought property with her current boyfriend before their one-year anniversary. Another of my closest friends is set to marry a guy he’s been seeing for just a few months before the end of the year. Yet another, although still renting her own apartment, doesn’t think twice about the daily schlep across town from her office to her girlfriend’s house.
So who’s right — me or my friends?
Whether we’re talking about sleeping, socializing, working or any other facet of life, is there a certain amount of time in one another’s company that speaks to the passion and fortitude of a shared union? Especially in an era when sexual diversity — including a rich spectrum of non-monogamous relationships — is more visible than ever; when the gig economy has us juggling a few jobs at once; and when more and more people are calling bullshit on the fairytale love stories that were once the expectation.
For answers on this and everything else above, I turned to a quartet of notable sex and romance experts (all of whom also happen to be in long-term relationships):
Dr. David Ley is a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and author.
Nina Hartley is a legendary porn star and creator of the erotic instructional series Nina Hartley’s Guide… (She also has a degree in nursing, and in my humble opinion, is the real star of Boogie Nights.)
Ashley Manta is a sex educator and relationship coach who mindfully combines sex and cannabis to deepen intimacy and enhance pleasure.
Gaea Woods is a marriage and family therapist.
Here’s what they had to say…
The answer is unique to every relationship. I’ve seen couples who spend almost 24 hours a day together — they work together, they exercise together, they socialize together — and it works for them. I’ve also seen couples who live on opposite sides of the country who only get together once or twice a year for vacation — communicating the rest of the year via computer or phone — and it works for them.
Ultimately then, couples need to negotiate and communicate about these issues from a place of mutual respect and integrity, sharing what their honest needs are. The problem is when we have a mismatch between one partner’s level of need for connection and the other. This is also a fluid thing that changes over the course of relationships. Often, couples are very intense early in the relationship — the so-called honeymoon phase — but this need for intense closeness diminishes over relationship. Sometimes that feels like a loss, which needs to be discussed and processed.
More largely, I’ve found that it’s helpful to encourage couples to identify what needs emotionally they want met through closeness. That way, if they’re looking for acceptance or simply a discussion of shared interests, it’s easier to find and receive it from their loved one. For example, my wife and I had to watch a lot of Pokémon as our kids grew up. And while it might be silly, we still have a code, saying “Pikachu, I choose you” to each other as a way of saying — again and again — you’re who I want to be with. Ultimately, that kind of communication and connection means more for us than 90 minutes sitting next to each other checking our phones.
I’ve met a few couples in my life who can be together all the time. There was my uncle and his girlfriend, my aunt and her girlfriend and my parents. They all could spend every second of every day together. They worked together. They lived together. They played together. Whether they were monogamous or swingers, this sort of companionship worked for them. They liked each other’s company that much and always wanted to be together. Yay them.
That said, I don’t have an exact scientific sample, but I’d say only 20 percent of the couples I’ve known throughout my lifetime have been like this. Not to mention, I think the idea that true love constitutes spending as much of one’s time together as possible is an unrealistic model of how true love works. This idea is as much of a straight-jacket as compulsory heterosexuality or monogamy. For one, some people have higher needs for alone time or a higher toleration for being separated. These couples are like, “You hate dancing, so I’m going to go dancing with my friends.” Or: “I hate golf, but I love that you have golf buddies because that leaves me two hours free on Saturday morning.”
Some couples deal well with separation. You stay interested in the world — and thus, interesting. Then you come back to the couple and share.
People must listen to themselves inwardly, and learn how to speak that truth. This is the hardest thing to do. This is what I’m still working on myself — so when any of you figure it out, get back to me. I’m not charting new ground here when I say the goal in any relationship is figuring out how to advocate for yourself while not unduly distancing yourself from your partner or jumping into the love pond and drowning with them. That space between stone-cold isolationism and full-on codependency is what’s healthy. It’s a spectrum.
Still, the cultural narrative in the West remains: We fall in love and then we get married. However, when you’re in love, you’re chemically deranged. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. You think about the other person all the time. You don’t care about work as much. Your life is upended for better or worse when your chemicals take over in that way. This isn’t a state in which you discuss shared values and goals. Instead, it’s, “We’re too much in love to talk about that stuff! I love you! You’re amazing! Of course it’s going to all be fine!” Love is a disruptor. We get hit in the head with a big rock when we fall in love. We see it in cartoons all the time — Bing! Wang! Wow!
It takes somewhere between five to eight months before your chemicals recede back to baseline, which is when you’re left wondering, Hmm, what is this really? Growing in love is closer to what I aspire to in a relationship. A friend once shared this with me, “We don’t fall in love, we rise in it.” So there’s this other narrative of love where people come to a slow, steady realization: “Hey, this person really works. I like it. I feel comfortable, calm, safe, secure and all the good things.” This template, of course, is very different than the one we get from fairy tales and entertainment, which is never about real people doing real things and having real feelings.
I do believe in the melding of boundaries while making love though. That’s a real thing and a very cool thing. It’s hard to achieve, but when it happens, it’s like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Souls really do merge.” But personally speaking, I think to live in that merged state all the time is unhealthy, insupportable and fairly unattainable.
There isn’t a quantifiable number of hours couples should spend together because quality time and quantity time aren’t the same thing. You could spend every single day together, but if you’re not making eye contact, talking to each other and being present with one another, that’s not quality time. That’s why I think it’s important for couples to prioritize quality time, whatever that means to them. For some people, quality time is just cuddling. For others, quality time means having deep, processing conversations. Sometimes, quality time is doing things together you both enjoy. Figure out what quality time is for each of you, and then come together and negotiate.
I’m in a non-monogamous relationship, and all of my time with my boyfriend is scheduled. There’s rarely a situation where he texts me like, “Hey, what are you doing today? Do you wanna hang out?” That doesn’t happen. We have dates twice a week, and we have sleepovers every other week. That’s it. That’s because he has a wife and a number of other lovers. He has to divide his time between all of those people, plus work, plus time for himself, plus doing errands and chores.
One neat thing about scheduling intimate time with partners is that it creates a container for pleasure, passion and intimacy that recontextualizes things a bit. Couples are busy with jobs, kids and everything else going on in their life, so knowing that between 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday — or whatever day you can skin — you’re turning off your phones and intentionally connecting with each other can be very fulfilling. That doesn’t mean you have to bone the whole time. That doesn’t mean you have to be naked the whole time. It just means that both people choose to be present and show up during that time frame.
When talking to your partner about how much and what kind of time you spend together, you want to try to reach a mutual win. To that end, it’s important to be clear about what your wants and needs are. I tell people to have a three-tiered expectation, where you know your best-case scenario and total win; your perfectly satisfied scenario where you get most of the things you want; and the worst-case scenario where you get the least number of things you need to still feel like it was a productive conversation. When we frame our needs this way, it’s like, “Here’s what’s on the table. Here are the hard lines. And here are the things I’d love as options.” If people had a little more clarity about what their needs are and how they can best articulate them going into conversations, their partner would be able to meet them more easily.
A big key to all of this is being patient and assuming good intentions. When you’re having a conversation with your partner, assume they want things that are good for both of you. Assume that they don’t want to hurt you. Assume that they’re not being an asshole. Because if you can’t assume your partner wants the best for you, maybe your relationship isn’t super healthy. It’s about being kind and thoughtful as much as possible. After all, it’s way more fun to have someone who’s excited to be there, rather than someone who’s only there because you’ll be mad at them if they’re not.
Having personal space and time is very important. People sometimes have trouble navigating their own needs while also accommodating their partner’s needs in relationships. For example, someone who tends toward mentally and emotionally supporting their partners before tending to their own needs might feel guilty taking “me time” for fear of hurting their partner’s feelings. These people often have a difficult time asserting their own needs in their relationships. However, recognizing, asserting and enforcing boundaries around one’s time is an extremely important part of one’s self-care — and therefore, an integral component of engaging in a healthy, mutually beneficial and emotionally balanced relationship.
Hurt feelings around negotiating “me time” boundaries in relationships can be avoided if each partner speaks openly about their own needs. Speaking openly to our partners also assumes that we can trust our partners to listen and attempt to understand our unique emotional needs. If a relationship is supportive and understanding, each partner will want to do whatever they can, including allowing their partners the space they need in order to feel emotionally and mentally at their best.
If hurt feelings arise when someone attempts to take space away from their partner, this might be a sign of enmeshment. If we believe, for example, that we need to be joined at the hip with our partner, we may want to examine our thinking. Healthy relationships rely on a balance of dependence and independence. Independence is also essential to our individuality and self-esteem as well as achieving our full potential as humans.
Emotional Wellness For Women And People Of Color
Come join us for the latest community and networking event in Los Angeles put on by Gyals Network, a platform and event series for the emerging female leader who wants to make a positive impact in the world. I'm excited to be one of the panel speakers discussing our topic: Emotional Wellness for Women and POC. Click here to RSVP.
Date/Time: Wednesday. October 3rd at 6:00PM
Location: Wework Gas Towers 555 West 5th Street Los Angeles, CA 90013
Cheers to those of us who struggle passionately, and intelligently to BE our best but don't always FEEL our best.
When we hear "self care" we usually think spa days, scenic walks, or just chillin' [which is cool] but there is a deeper level that we aim to explore at this empowering event.
Join us at Wework Gas Towers in DTLA as we empower ourselves to prioritize self care on a deeper level through emotional wellness. Emotional wellness involves being attentive to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, whether positive or negative. It implies the ability to be aware of and accept our feelings, rather than deny them, have an optimistic approach to life, and enjoy life despite its occasional disappointments and frustrations.
This amazing panel will be led by:
Gaea Woods, M.A., Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
Margena Carter, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Brandi Veil, CEO of Being Investments
Kristina Lembesis, Gyals Network
In this program we will cover the following:
Exercise how to be attentive to your thoughts, feelings and behaviors
Become aware and accepting of your true feelings
Remain optimistic about life despite disappointment and fustration
Source and form your "tribe" to help you through hard times
6:00-6:30 - Sign up, Appetizers/Beverages and Networking
6:30-7:30 - Discussion + Q&A
7:30-8:00 - More Networking, Close
If you'd like to sponsor or partner for this event please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationships Are Complicated Interview
I was recently interviewed by Relationships Are Complicated, a newly-launched relationships magazine. Enjoy my interview below, and check out their site for more interviews with therapists from across the world.
What are the most rewarding aspects of being a therapist?
It’s therapy’s dirty little secret that doing this work is extremely rewarding for therapists and clients alike. I identify with the concept of the wounded healer archetype coined by Carl Jung. To paraphrase, maintaining awareness of your own personal wounds while acting in service of your clients is an incredibly rewarding, and mutually beneficial experience. Jung asserts that being wounded does not make you less capable of taking care of the client, rather it makes you a companion to your client, no longer acting as your client’s superior.
What are your favorite or most interesting interpersonal relationship tips/advice?
I love working with clients who are examining aspects of how they feel empowered or disempowered in their relationships. This type of insight oriented work might involve assisting a client in clarifying their boundaries, or pointing out their defense mechanisms.
Lately I have found that many of my clients are interested in exploring non-normative types of relationships such as ethical non-monogamy. I love assisting clients along their path towards finding relationships where they feel fulfilled, free, and happy. Often this involves unpacking cultural and family of origin messages around relationships and gender.
What are some of the biggest mistakes a therapist or patient can make?
I think a mistake I made was trying not to be vulnerable with my clients. As a therapist, you can model for your clients how to address conflict within your relationship in a healthy way. Not that this is easy! One of my biggest breakthroughs with a client occurred when I noticed a misstep I had made, and brought it up during our session. Instead of creating distance in our relationship, our connection was deepened.
For a client, it can be a mistake to rely too heavily on a therapist as the vehicle for change, when in fact it’s a collaborative effort. This reaction may be a defense against acknowledging their own ambivalence towards committing to their inner work, or simply because they are new to therapy. To address this, I often work to empower my clients by enlisting them as the experts of their own experience.
I am an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. I see clients in private practice, and at The Krevoy Institute for Eating Disorders in Los Angeles, California. In my private practice, I specialize in working with adults and adolescents experiencing symptoms of distress due to: anxiety, depression, disordered eating, life transitions, creative blocks, relationship problems, self-esteem, family issues, trauma, and career issues. I work with couples to improve communication, build empathy and trust, and gain insight into dysfunctional relationship patterns.
My style is loving, non-judgmental, and creative. My role is to help empower you to change. I do this by uncovering unconscious mechanisms that drive your current issues. As your therapist I will assist you by promoting honesty, self-compassion, and self-acceptance in order for you to connect with your authentic self to come into your natural state of well-being.