Welcome to the couples expert podcast! With Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW, your source for the latest tips and practical downpour of advice on creating emotionally connected thriving relationships. Now, here’s Stuart.
Stuart: Hi there and welcome to The Couples Expert Relationship Podcast. This is Stuart Fensterheim, the one and only couples expert, and I am really excited to be here today to talk a little bit about the fact that Thanksgiving is behind us, and what’s booming ahead is both Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah has started and Christmas is right around the corner. Are we excited about that folks? Some of us are, but those of us who haven’t started shopping for Christmas presents and making plans are not so excited. Although I probably should share because my wife would kill me if I didn’t, that my Thanksgiving this year was filled with eating turkey and being around family, but the one most important thing is spending Black Friday with my wife at Home Depot looking for Poinsettias and all the different deals, and that is really where the Christmas shopping begins, Black Friday.
How about all of you? Who spent some time with their partners on Black Friday? I hope most of you did. And that Black Friday experience brings me to today’s guest, Rachel. I have with me Rachel Moheban-Wachtel who’s going to be joining us to talk about this very subject. Rachel is an expert in dealing with anger, and she has a program that’s an online relationship program and will be talking a little bit about that, but more importantly we’ll be talking about what goes on with the holidays, and how to have the best holiday you can have in spite of some of the relationship conflicts that come up.
Rachel is a therapist that has over 18 years of experience working with couples and family. One of the things she specializes in is she had realized that a lot of couples need something proactive. So she wanted to offer them some skill-building strategies as well as an educational program to really help their physical intimacy, the communication, and the conflicts that quite often come up in relationships. That’s why I wanted to have Rachel here, so she and I can talk about that very topic and see how we can make your holidays the best ever.
So I welcome you Rachel to The Couples Expert Podcast. I am very happy to have you here to talk about this topic which is really an important topic for families, particularly for couples, on some of the challenges that come up for couples over the holidays.
Rachel: Hi Stuart. Thank you for having me today.
Stuart: So tell me a little bit about your path to be a counselor, a little bit about why you chose the route you chose, and a little bit about your expertise, which is focusing on conflict and anger and all of those things. How did you decide that that was the angle you wanted to go to?
Rachel: Okay. So I always felt like psychotherapy and helping people heal and figure themselves out and work through their issues was the calling for me, and from a very young age, I would say from probably the age of 12, I had a path, and as I was working in private practice in New York City for I would say over nearly 2 decades now, I started to become fascinated with couples and relationship issues and just what brings people together and what issues come up. I just found it fascinating. And so my specialty is working with couples and singles, and it’s wonderful work. I love doing it and in the process, I decided to design a program, which is an online program people can access at their convenience whenever they want.
It’s a five audio program with a whole lesson PowerPoint, and basically it takes couples…it’s like a home study where it helps couples work through the five issues that all couples face which is communication, anger, money, physical intimacy, and emotional intimacy. So it’s fun; it’s light; it has some wonderful exercises and strategies and some very good psycho education, and it really helps couples.
Stuart: Alright, so tell me, you said that – you felt that being a therapist or – help me understand. Are you primarily a coach, or are you primarily a counselor?
Rachel: I primarily I’m a Psychotherapist. I’m a licensed clinical social worker, so most of my training, a lot of it is doing clinical work. So I have a private practice in New York City, as I mentioned, but I also do a lot of coaching because what I do is promote my program around the world, so I get a lot of clients that like to do virtual work with me too, and that comes under a coaching modality. So I do both.
Stuart: Oh, okay. That’s great. And when you say that it felt like a calling, in what way did it feel like a calling to work with couples?
Rachel: I just always ask the question why. You know, I never just took anything at face value. I always wanted to understand the deeper meaning and why people are the way they are, why they behave the way they do. The whole nature/nurture issue was always fascinating to me and so you know, all of that was of interest, and studying it made me even more interested, and then working with people just – I enjoy it so much. So it’s constantly challenging and interesting and fascinating to me.
Stuart: Alright, great. What do you see – because obviously with Christmas right around the corner here, and we just got through with Thanksgiving, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges that couples have over the holidays in terms of their relationship with one another?
Rachel: Yeah, I think it could be difficult because with couples that come together, there are a lot of in-law issues, step children issues, and I think oftentimes, my couples feel as if they are not the priority to each other. So that becomes an issue, and so it’s always working around them being the priority and being the most important and making decisions based on them working together as a team. So I would say that’s the number one challenge, and once they do that, they can overcome all those other challenges.
Stuart: And so do you see money as one of the biggest issues that pull couples apart in the holidays or is it religion or you know, like you’re talking about, family dynamics and having the conflicts that redate the couple? What do you see is the challenge that couples deal with?
Rachel: Yeah, I think that money can definitely be a major issue, but some couples suffer more with money issues than others. So I don’t want to say that’s primary. I would say communication is primary. A lot of couples have difficulty with communication, or they don’t communicate enough and I think if you center around communicating, that becomes very helpful.
Stuart: What do you think is the reason that couples don’t communicate?
Rachel: I think that communication is challenging. A lot of misunderstandings come up. A lot of times, couples have certain expectations of each other. So one partner may think, “Oh, here she knows that,” or, “I forgot to tell you this,” and then a big fight comes up. So as long as you’re communicating, you know, you can prevent a lot of those things from coming up.
Stuart: What should couples do with those triggers? The triggers that bring up the conflicts and with not communicating and then they feel unimportant with one another, how should they then repair those things?
Rachel: I think by showing each other that they are committed. I often see this in my practice where I work with couples, and I say what’s so important is that they are committed to each other. Sometimes I think that these couples can really work their issues through but then the couple is not committed. And then I see couples with the most challenging issues and they’re so committed that they’ll do anything to make it work. So I think commitment is important, and I think hearing each other out, which is obviously under the umbrella of communication but more than that, not trying to fix it or problem solve but really sitting and hearing the other person and what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and then together working through the problem solving as opposed to just fixing it or – It’s important to hear each other out.
Stuart: But as couples are communicating about those things, people tend to get triggered. How should they deal with those? Because if you are having conversation about something, as you’re talking, you’re talking about a lot of assumptions that people make about one another. How do you deal? How should people deal with those things when it happens?
Rachel: That’s an excellent question. I think you, yourself as an individual, have to be aware of your triggers, and once you are, you let your partner know and one of the things I do when I work with my couples is I help them understand each other’s triggers. So say if a partner is suffering from a trigger, but they’re not yet aware, at least their partner can help them and say, “Well maybe you’re being triggered by so and so right now.” So I think it’s working together as a team, but most importantly you taking ownership and being aware of your own triggers.
Stuart: So how should the partner then – because when people are triggered, they quite often see their partner as not really on their side and how do you then turn that around?
Rachel: I think the magic word here is empathy. I think that when your partner or the couple understands more of what’s underlying, whatever the reactions are, or whatever the subjective experience is, and understanding the emotions behind it and why they’re reacting in that way, the deeper feelings around it or meaning behind it, and they have more empathy; that helps. That’s, I think, the key.
Stuart: When you say empathy, are you talking about putting yourself in your partner’s shoes or how do you define the empathy? I know that at least for me, when I’m pretty angry or I’m triggered in some ways, empathy is the last thing that I’m going to really be in touch with.
Rachel: Yeah. I think first you need to manage whatever it is you’re feeling and then communicate, assert that. And then try to understand whatever it was that your partner was doing that probably wasn’t just a reaction, and understand why they had that reaction. So it’s step by step, and I think the empathy piece, and I wasn’t quite clear on that being more of a deeper understanding of why and having more sympathy or let’s say feelings around why that reaction happened.
Stuart: You know, one of the best videos that I’ve seen recently, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, it’s from Brene Brown. Brene does a whole series of little cartoons because she does incredible TEDTalks, so if people haven’t heard her, I really recommend if you go on YouTube, you could see the stuff with that. She does a really cute video on empathy ,and it really differentiates how people can be empathetic with their partners, and it’s such a wonderful video. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that.
Rachel: I haven’t but I will take a look at it.
Stuart: Definitely check Brene Brown out; she’s just wonderful.
Rachel: I was just going to clarify a little bit. It’s funny because I had a client the other night tell me, he said, “You know, there’s a difference between sympathy and empathy, and I’m growing more empathetic now.” Where before he would feel bad about whatever the person was telling him, and now he’s saying, “I could put myself in their shoes.” You know, so there is that difference between empathy and sympathy.
Stuart: Right, and I think if you’re going to have a relationship that’s truly where you feel important to your partner, the empathy piece is really in some ways, a stepping stone to that, and I think the problem with couples when they are triggered is that what happens is there’s so much confusion, and if you don’t have a secure relationship with your partner where the two of you really feel that you know you can count on each other, then going and communicating those things just feels very unsafe. Because you’re not really sure how your partner is going to respond. So you need to have that relationship where you have some experiences with one another in which you really know you can count on your partner.
Rachel: That’s absolutely correct, yes, and they’re on your team, and they have your back, absolutely.
Stuart: How do you bring couples from the point where they’re feeling very disconnected to where they feel more secure? What are some of the tools that you’ve used in your office when you’re meeting with a couple to try to help them really see, so they can begin to strategize together about the holidays or whatever you know, getting in the way?
Rachel: Yeah, I think the important tool that I use is, and again, it depends on the couple, some couples can be volatile and this can be difficult, but I think hearing the other person out and understanding what their subjective experience is, and that helps to bring them and make them feel more connected and just talking about what they’re feeling and why. And I would say the other thing is taking ownership, you know, so whatever it is that they’re bringing into the relationship that they’re contributing in a negative way saying, “You know, that is actually me,” or, “That’s my trigger; that’s my issue,” and that always helps to create more connectedness when they hear their partner taking that ownership, it helps them to move closer together.
Stuart: Do you utilize a particular model when you’re counseling with the couples you use, like there’s many different ones out there, and I didn’t know if you have a certain model that you look at or you look at a couple.
Rachel: Ideally my orientation is always humanistic, and I like to work more on a deeper level with couples, so I like to work with the couple at hand but then also do some individual work within the couple, but I use different modalities. I do more psychotherapy; I do cognitive. So it’s a mix depending on where they’re at and what they need and what their capacity is.
Stuart: So is there like a particular way you approach a couple with in terms of whether or not you sort of believe in the whole approach of cycles that come up for couples and that that’s the problem, or do you feel like it’s more strategies that you utilize?
Rachel: I like to use both because a lot of times my couple will say, “Okay, so can you give us a tool on how to work with this, how to deal with my anger or when we get into a fight? How do we prevent it from escalating?” So I’ll give them tools and strategies, but I like to work more from understanding themselves and their dynamics and how to shift those dynamics and create a more positive connection.
Stuart: So do you believe that the partner can help someone overcome those things from the relationship or it’s more individual based?
Rachel: I think that it depends. It really depends on the level of sophistication of the couple and how deep they are willing to work. I have couples that couples work lasts between 6 months to a year, and I have couples that are with me for years because they really want to work together and sometimes they want to be there to witness whatever individual stuff their partner is going through. They both want to be there to help each other heal. So it really depends on what want and where they’re at.
Stuart: So really, help you – one of the things – it sounds like what you do a good job with is helping the couple recognize they can be each other’s support.
Stuart: And the safety in the office is really about the partner more than anything else.
Rachel: Yeah, and also, it helps to deepen the emotional intimacy for them too.
Stuart: Alright, that’s terrific. So with the holidays coming around, and one of the things you and I talked about is trying to really share some specific tools for folks. So I’d like you to sort of help people really understand what are some strategies that they could use over the holidays and some tips you might be able to give them.
Rachel: Alright, so I’m going to give 9 tips for keeping your relationship happy and overcoming the challenges during the holidays. So the first one is keeping your expectations realistic. We tend to over-idealize the holidays, which only leads to disappointments. Holidays are difficult, and they don’t have to be perfect, and a lot of couples need to understand this together. The other part of this is you know, I have clients where their partners think that they’re mind readers, where if they don’t live up to what they want their gift to be then their partner has failed them , so they almost set themselves up. So just let them know what you want and just keep those expectations realistic.
Stuart: So being realistic with – so does that play itself out in terms of don’t expect the holidays to be a wonderful experience or how are you looking?
Rachel: It’s twofold. It’s obviously don’t over-idealize; keep the expectations realistic, and also, keep your expectations realistic with your partner too. Don’t over-expect from your partner.
Stuart: Okay, so what’s next?
Rachel: So next is always approach family events as a team, and I was talking about this before making sure that you’re putting your partner, your family first. You know, dealing with your in-laws can be stressful, and I think your partner needs to know that you are committed to them first, and they are the priority. So always approach family events as a team.
Stuart: So this is one that I know we’ve struggled with, and you know, with families now people are staying alive longer which is a good thing. You have the challenges of where do you go for Christmas, where do you go for Christmas Eve, how should people make that decision?
Rachel: I think they need to make that decision together and make compromises around it and really talk about what is most important for this year and work together on making those decisions.
Stuart: But what if they’re splintered by it and they have different strong opinions? How do you feel like they should figure that out?
Rachel: I have a couple that I’m working with and they both – they have very big families and they’re very committed to their families, you know. So how do they negotiate the holidays? And the way they do it is they compromise. They spend Thanksgiving with his family, and then they spend Christmas and New Years with her family, and then every year they’ll switch, but they try to make compromises around it.
Stuart: So it’s important to just keep your partner’s feelings as a priority.
Rachel: Exactly, yes.
Stuart: Alright, that sounds great.
Rachel: Then next is you want to talk to your partner and discuss finances, right, as a way of prevention and create a budget together. So you want to make sure the finances aren’t stressing you out. If one partner may want to spend more on gifts than the other, or you want to make sure you’re on the same page with finances and create that holiday budget together.
Stuart: And how early do you think that budget should be created?
Rachel: I think that should probably be created, I would say, around September. You know, this is how much we’re going to allocate for gifts this year. You want to give it some time.
Stuart: Because Black Friday is coming before the holidays, and that’s where people can save their money, right? Alright, so we have keeping each other as a priority, working as a team, creating a budget, what else do you have there?
Rachel: The other thing is setting boundaries to avoid arguments. You always want to have a prevention plan in place. So you want to agree to structure this into your relationship and in the freebie, I talked about the Timeout Strategy which is a wonderful strategy that I use which when anger starts to escalate from an argument: you take a timeout, and the person who calls the timeout, what they do is they say, “Let’s talk,” and they give a designated time of when they want to resume the conversation when they’re a little calmer. And I actually describe this step by step in that freebie that I will be sending out.
Stuart: Talk a little bit about that because I don’t think you’ve mentioned a freebie before.
Rachel: Yes. And there’s a link and you can access the freebie, and you get two wonderful strategies that you can implement in your relationship right away and you can access that at www.relationshipsuite, that’s S-U-I-T-E for suite, relationshipsuite.com/intimacy.
Stuart: I’ll have that in my show notes so folks don’t have to write that down particularly if they’re driving when they’re listening to this.
Rachel: Oh, that’s true, okay.
Stuart: What else?
Rachel: So the next one is creating new traditions. You know, we often tend to take on the traditions of what we know from our childhoods and so we can pick one that better suits our lifestyle today and you want to do this together with your partner and that reminds your partner how important they are to you, they’re the priority and it only serves to strengthen your relationship. So you want to create new traditions together.
Stuart: I like that a lot because, particularly if we’re talking about blended families, that’s where the new traditions really become very important I think.
Rachel: That’s such a good point Stuart because yeah, a lot of families today are blended.
Stuart: Right. How would you say that people should deal with the whole blended family concept over the holidays with all the potential issues that could come up?
Rachel: Yeah, I think the prevention piece is important and trying to avoid that as much as you can and again, that comes under just communicating and what do we have to be aware of, what can come up and how do we prevent that from happening?
Stuart: Okay, great. I see that we’re running sort of out of time here, so how many more do we have?
Rachel: So we have four more.
Stuart: Okay. Go ahead and let’s get into those.
Rachel: Okay. So we also want to learn how to assert our needs and say no, right? So all us have a hard time saying no, and so they’re agreeing to everything so they don’t upset anybody, “Yeah, I’ll go to this party, I’ll go to that party.” So we want to be able to create boundaries for ourselves and say no. Did you want to say anything on that because that can put a lot of stress on the relationships and what’s important to be able to assert ourselves?
Rachel: Should I move on?
Stuart: Yeah, go ahead.
Rachel: The next one, number seven is acknowledging our feelings, and what I mean by that is we want to control how we feel as the holidays tend to trigger a lot of reactions for us: sometimes events, sometimes grief reactions, important people for us that have passed. Holidays can bring all of that up, you know, certain events again and people that we love and lost. So we want to make sure that we’re aware of our feelings, we’re acknowledging them, we’re aware of our reactions and those of our partners, and if we need to do more grieving or whatever around these reactions, we can work through them with our partner, and that really helps, because this can become very challenging during the holidays.
Stuart: Right and I think staying with true to the holidays mean being sensitive and kind to one another, and I think we want to highlight that tremendously. Sometimes what happens is we lose sight of what the holidays are really about, and that sensitivity to our partner sometimes isn’t as present as it needs to be.
Rachel: That’s right. The next one is just slowing down and practicing self care. You know, we want to carve out 15 minutes to unwind and relax each day and do something that we love to take care of ourselves and our partner. So we don’t want to overlook ourselves and if we have to make a list as part of doing that, we make our list to just prevent ourselves from doing too much because that can be stressful too during the holiday season.
Stuart: Get a massage.
Rachel: Exactly. And so finally, the last tip to keeping the relationship happy and moving through challenges during the holidays is you want to plan date nights and make sure that we keep the intimacy alive and consistent with our partner. Again, the holidays can be stressful so we want to carve out time for each other, do things that we both love, and make sure they we’re sustaining the romance and the intimacy. And again, in the freebie, in that link, there is a step by step way that I explained how to do this. There’s a little excerpt of my program in there, an audio on how to have intimacy dates.
Stuart: What do you mean when you say intimacy dates?
Rachel: I mean really carving out time together and keeping the romance alive and yeah. So there is a step by step process in that link on how to do that.
Stuart: Alright, terrific. It sounds like that’s a lot of really good, helpful advice for those that are struggling over the holidays. So I really appreciate you sharing those things and what do you think – I’m thinking closing. I always like to ask guest a particular question about their experience as a coach and as a counselor, what do you think, over the time that you’ve been working with couples, what have you learned about yourself that may have been a little bit of a surprise or just something that when you stand back and you think about it, you go, “You know, I didn’t really expect to sort of do that or learn that about myself”?
Rachel: I think what I learned is how common so many reactions are; how gender issues do exist. You know, and man and woman react differently and the same in so many ways and just how so many issues can be common in all relationships. It’s how much we’re committed to our partners and how deep we’re willing to go and work with them. I think that’s the key, but just how common issues are on a universal level for couples.
Stuart: Rachel, I want to just really thank you for giving of yourself and your time and your kindness and your work with couples that really is just helping people have relationships that are meaningful and that experience for people, if they can have that kind of relationship where they know they’re important to their partners really are going to give them that holiday that is just really special, and I want to wish everybody Happy Holidays, Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah. Really make this holiday season the one where you can say, “We did this as a couple; we did this as a team, and we really showed each other how much we love each other.” So thank you again, Rachel.
Rachel: Thank you so much Stuart and happy Holidays to everybody!
Stuart: You too. Take care now. Bye-bye.