Healthy Relationships – Podcasts

By LifeStance Health on May 19, 2020

Dwight Thompson (00:00):

Hi. Welcome to Reset Your Mindset by LifeStance Health. Myself, Dwight Thompson, and my cohost, Nicolette [Leanza 00:00:09], will bring you conversations with leading LifeStance Health professionals who will help guide you on your journey to positive mental health and wellbeing. At LifeStance, we believe in the three pillars of mental health: mental flexibility, mindfulness and resilience.

Dwight Thompson (00:28):

Hi. Today we are joined by Melanie Falls, one of our clinicians that works out of our LifeStance Beachwood, Ohio and Brecksville, Ohio offices. Melanie has over 25-plus years in experience. We are really thrilled to have her joining us today to look at, as we are approaching Valentine’s Day, look at healthy relationships and what those tend to look like. Before we get into that, Melanie, thank you for joining us. Would you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Melanie Falls (00:54):

You’re welcome. I’m glad to be here. Like you said, I’ve had probably closer to 30 years of experience in working in a number of different types of therapy. I have been with LifeStance, formerly PsychBC for about 17 years now, initially part-time but now closer to full-time. I’ve also worked as an administrator in mental health for a number of years.

Melanie Falls (01:30):

I am somewhat of a generalist. I focus on relationship therapy trauma. I have a license in chemical dependency, and so I do some of that work. I have to say, probably my favorite is working with couples and families.

Nicolette Leanza (01:54):

Great to hear. Thank you again for being here. To jump into our topic, let’s start with tell us a little bit about what does a healthy relationship look like.

Melanie Falls (02:07):

I like the way that there is John and Julie Gottman who have done a lot of work in marriage therapy and actually were the first ones to really study it from a research standpoint. I like their definition or their criteria for a healthy relationship. It’s a relationship that has fondness and affection, a relationship that when you hear them talk to or about each other, they talk about we. There is a we-ness versus separateness. They are expansive about their relationship. In other words, they talk about their experiences, even the negative experiences, in a light that says we’ve worked on this and we’ve conquered this, we’ve overcome this, and here’s where we are now. They share values and they emphasize their commitment to each other.

Dwight Thompson (03:23):

Wow, that’s great.

Melanie Falls (03:23):

I think a good way to sum this up is it’s a very close friendship with sensuality and sex involved.

Nicolette Leanza (03:34):

That’s a great definition for sure. What is-

Dwight Thompson (03:41):

That is phenomenal.

Nicolette Leanza (03:41):

What are some of the combinations you see as you’re navigating couple’s counseling couples?

Melanie Falls (03:46):

I think if I were to classify types of issues, I think probably the most common one are relationships that have lost their way. They haven’t been able to stay connected and keep the relationship vibrant. Of course, these are often relationships where they’ve been married for a long time and they … not even necessarily a long time, five plus years. They have other worldly things that they have to pay attention to, jobs and children and helping their parents and parents-in-law, and they lose their way.

Melanie Falls (04:42):

Another common problem is relationships that turn into live-in enemies. Not only have they lost their way but conflict has become the hallmark of the relationship as opposed to friendship.

Nicolette Leanza (05:07):

Is that like conflict becomes the norm to the relationship?

Melanie Falls (05:10):

Conflict becomes the norm. Lack of trust, a good deal of arguing or what we used to call silent violence, the silent treatment. There are relationships where something critical has happened. This might be the third general category where something critical has happened. They have lost a child. They have had the death of someone else in the family who was very important to one or both of them. They have lost a job, one of them has lost a very important job. One of the partners or both become not only disengaged but themselves depressed and anxious which, of course, complicates the nature of the relationship.

Nicolette Leanza (06:07):

For sure. I can only imagine.

Dwight Thompson (06:11):

Melanie, thank you for that. That was really insightful. When we return, we can start to talk a little bit about … you just obviously started to point out some of the things that can prevent us from reaching those healthy relationships. I think it will be helpful to look at what we can do when those negative events do happen and people are navigating those troubled waters and what can be done to navigate that. We’ll be right back.

Dwight Thompson (06:46):

Melanie, you pointed out for us some just really insightful piece of information when it comes to relationships. I love that the example that you gave of the characteristics that a healthy relationship looks like. Can you one more time, who was it that founded that research and did that research?

Melanie Falls (07:05):

The Gottman’s. They’re a married couple, John and Julie Gottman.

Dwight Thompson (07:10):

I’m sure people have actually heard about the Gottman approach. You mentioned, one thing that jumped at me are couples that are navigating those tragic events or that lack of trust. When that starts to happen, I think it’s important, in my judgment, not to have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately call it quits. If you were giving some advice to some folks that were in that position, what are first steps when it comes to resolving some of those issues?

Melanie Falls (07:42):

I think that when it’s recognized, that it has taken that U-turn. The relationship is becoming very troubled. Getting somebody to help, getting a neutral and trained third party to help navigate what’s going on because … and of course, I mean a counselor, a psychologist, someone who is in the counseling business.

Melanie Falls (08:19):

Couples are reviviscent often about this depending on what their backgrounds are. Sometimes cultural backgrounds keep them from feeling comfortable with engaging a counselor. I think this is the best way to begin to get your arms around what is going on.

Melanie Falls (08:41):

The first thing that a counselor would do is learn about each of the individuals, about the history of their relationship and begin to pinpoint fundamentally what the problem is. Then it expands from there. Once you know where the U-turn happened, then you can begin to work backwards and help them understand what that U-turn meant to them, what that situation meant to each of them, how they interpreted it, how they saw it individually and how they saw it as it affecting their marriage.

Nicolette Leanza (09:29):

Let me ask you this, Melanie, has there been times in your experience where things seemed like they weren’t fixable and that you’re helping them navigate, improving their communication and how they deal with conflict where you really saw such the differences of perspective of how they navigate things that you were thinking, like maybe this isn’t best that they stay together?

Melanie Falls (09:53):

I wish I could say I’ve never had a time like that, but in reality, there are times that couples have such an intense fracture in the relationship and one or both of them have the inability to suspend skepticism and negative feelings and work their way back into a positive place.

Melanie Falls (10:22):

Sometimes, in some theories, they talk about externalizing, when an individual has externalized that other person and the relationship, meaning they no longer see them as an object or someone who is a part of their psychological makeup, a part of their being. That often signals that it might be too late.

Melanie Falls (10:57):

Other instances I’ve seen is when there is an affair that’s happened and that love relationship has become distorted and moved over to another person.

Nicolette Leanza (11:14):

Good. I guess this is where we come to what do you tell them? Do you say in the context of it that you’re thinking that they’re not suspending it enough or … how do you as a counselor share that information of your thoughts on that?

Melanie Falls (11:34):

First, I try everything that I … every tool in my toolbox to try to help them to connect again. I point out that they need to suspend disenchantment, suspend the place that they are and take a tiny leap of faith toward each other and towards listening to each other and opening their hearts, if you will, to each other.

Melanie Falls (12:10):

Sometimes they’re able to hear that, but if it’s clear to me that they are not able to do that, I will tell them that, frankly, I’ve exhausted the tools that I have and never go so far as to say, “I think you two should get a divorce.” I will tell them that I think I’ve suspended or I’ve used what I have to give them.

Melanie Falls (12:40):

Often, they will self-select out. They will come to me and say, “This isn’t working, and we think that …” sometimes they do say we’ve decided to get a divorce or sometimes they just say this isn’t working where we’re not going to [inaudible 00:12:59].

Dwight Thompson (13:03):

Thank you, Melanie. Melanie, when we’re looking at some specifics and some of the tools that you actually implement during your interactions with couples, and I know that we’ve actually been referring to most of the couples during this conversation as actually married. Obviously, I’m sure you’re seeing couples that are maybe not at that stage yet. Might be boyfriend and girlfriend, they might be engaged. When you’re working with them on how to handle this conflict, are there any specific tools that an individual might take away just from an individual standpoint on what someone can do to be a better version of themselves and then naturally become a better partner?

Melanie Falls (13:46):

I think that the foremost tool that I use is helping them learn how to communicate and in the communication, learning how to listen and talk and be vulnerable to that other person.

Melanie Falls (14:11):

For example, I ask them to set a time where they can … designate a time, even if they have to schedule it into what sometimes is a very busy schedule and talk, meaning that one listens and listens actively, trying to suspend their defensiveness which is not an easy task. If you can suspend your defensiveness, your temptation to jump in and say, “No, I didn’t say it that way,” or “You didn’t understand that,” or “What do you mean by that?”

Melanie Falls (14:52):

Suspend that and listen to the other person even to the point of jotting down things that you may want to remember or that you want come back to and let the other person, the person who was talking, the person who is expressing their concern, their upset, completely talk about it without any interference from the other person.

Melanie Falls (15:26):

What often happens if they can manage to do that is the listener will initially be defensive, will come up with these things that they want to say to defend themselves or dispute what the other person is saying, but if they do it, if they’re patient, they find themselves, and I’ve had many people come back and tell me this, they actually start to take the other’s person’s side. They start to hear the story, hear the concern and empathize.

Melanie Falls (16:05):

Then, of course, the other person, they switch roles. The other person gets to express themselves in the same manner. I think communication is a real key to helping couples get started on a healthy or a happier relationship.

Dwight Thompson (16:29):

It seems like that’s what it all comes back to.

Nicolette Leanza (16:32):

To piggyback on that, I think with the key of those communication skills that you’re showing them, they can then improve how they argue and how they navigate arguments and disagreements. I think that’s key. Oftentimes, I’ll hear people say, “It’s not good to argue.” Actually, that’s not a negative thing. It’s about how you can navigate that argument and that disagreement. Do you have any tips of how one can argue fairly?

Melanie Falls (16:57):

Yes, I do, but let me first say arguing is important in a relationship. Whenever I’ve heard somebody say, “We never argue,” a red flag goes up in my head. No two human beings, regardless of how much they love each other, can exist in a relationship, a close relationship, without having disagreements. They’re still two individual people. Learning to argue is an important skill.

Melanie Falls (17:37):

The first tip is when you are upset/angry, take the word you out of your vocabulary.

Nicolette Leanza (17:49):

Hard to do sometimes.

Melanie Falls (17:50):

It’s hard to do. Begin with I was upset when this happened. I felt this way when that happened. Start the sentence with I. It takes practice but it’s doable if you practice.

Melanie Falls (18:09):

The second tip would be when you are clear that you’re so angry that you cannot think straight, that your amygdala is pumping your [pinnacles 00:18:22] through your brain 1,000 miles an hour, that’s the time to say, “I am too angry right now. I need to take a time out and come back to this.” I think between those two, managing the intensity of your emotion and taking the I position in communicating, I think are probably the two most important elements.

Nicolette Leanza (19:00):

Melanie, let me say this. Let me, as we wind down our time, throw at you some of my take-aways that I’ve heard you share today. You’ve definitely shared a lot of great knowledge and I definitely thank you again, I think when people are coming together as a couple, that it’s inevitable that as two individuals that you’re not going to have a difference of opinion. I think something you said key was that arguing is important. It’s all about how you argue and that you can take the you out of the argument and come from a point of view of the I statement per se, I felt this way or that, as well as taking the fuel of the anger that might be adding to the disagreement and taking a step back and taking a time out is also very helpful.

Nicolette Leanza (19:46):

I think just communication is the key overall. I think that’s probably the number one thing you are showing your clients, how to communicate better, and that you definitely follow it. It sounds like a very specific method of the Gottman approach that it seems to be very helpful. That is something I think if couples even researched more on their own, would see that that would be a very helpful approach as well.

Melanie Falls (20:09):

Yes. I am an advocate of the Gottman method, not strictly adhering to it but definitely advocating for it. They have a new book out that I think … and I’ve recommended to many of my couples, it’s called Eight Dates.

Nicolette Leanza (20:28):

Eight Dates.

Melanie Falls (20:28):

Eight Dates. The premise of the book is you schedule eight dates with each other. At each date, there’s a topic that you talk about to understand and get to know each other better. They spell out the topics in the book. I think it’s a marvelous idea-

Nicolette Leanza (20:49):

Sounds great.

Melanie Falls (20:49):

… yes, that they’ve done.

Nicolette Leanza (20:51):

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.

Dwight Thompson (20:53):

Yeah, that sounds very interesting. All their approach does. Even some of the verbiage that … I think that we hear often, maybe even in some ways sounds cliché, is at its base just so important. I think it’s important too to point out that what we’ve been discussing obviously is maybe a little bit more geared towards romantic relationship, but this is stuff that you can implement in relationships just throughout your life in general.

Nicolette Leanza (21:20):

That’s a good point.

Melanie Falls (21:22):

Yes, absolutely. Yes.

Dwight Thompson (21:27):

We have so many relationships, I think, that we navigate that they don’t just all fall into one category. I just think it’s really helpful that you shared some of this insight. I know personally, I found it very helpful and I think our listeners will as well.

Melanie Falls (21:42):

Absolutely. Just a point around that, one of the keys to a positive romantic relationship is to give more positive interactions than negative interactions.

Nicolette Leanza (21:58):

That’s good.

Melanie Falls (22:00):

And pay attention to those. It doesn’t have to be just verbally. It can be a hug, a tap on the shoulder, a call in the middle of the day, how are you. If people have been studied working with children and helping children to become happy, healthy adults, most of us know that having the ratio of positive to negative interactions with children is a way to help a child to be happier and healthier. These ideas definitely can be extrapolated into other kinds of relationships.

Nicolette Leanza (22:43):

For sure. Thank you again, Melanie. Thank you for joining us today. We’d love to have you on again.

Melanie Falls (22:53):

Thank you.

Dwight Thompson (22:53):

Thank you so much, Melanie.

Melanie Falls (22:54):

You’re welcome.

Nicolette Leanza (23:03):

Dwight, today’s conversation was amazing. Melanie is so knowledgeable. I took away so many points, in trying to even consolidate into just a few take-aways is hard.

Nicolette Leanza (23:18):

I think one of the biggest things is her recommendation of the book by the Gottman’s, Eight Dates. I think that’s very helpful. I think people often like to go to their internet or go to books to help guide them as they’re trying to do even maybe relationship maintenance or to try to navigate some issues. It was great that she recommended that book. I think it-

Dwight Thompson (23:41):

I totally agree.

Nicolette Leanza (23:43):

Another part on my end is her emphasizing how arguing is important and how we navigate our arguments in that when we are able to have a disagreement and navigate it in a healthy way, it can actually bring people closer together to be able to work through arguments and disagreements. That ultimately can make the relationship stronger.

Nicolette Leanza (24:07):

One of the things you pointed out is that in the context of this podcast, we were following a lot about romantic relationships but also family relationships. A lot of these tips can go with among family, friends, just whoever we communicate with. That also goes with a disagreement with others. If you can understand how to navigate those disagreements with others, that can be very helpful as well.

Nicolette Leanza (24:33):

I think when it comes to some relationships where it seems like they’re needing some help, where the conflict is the norm, I think it’s important too, and this is an important take-away that people do maybe step out to ask for help, to meet with a counselor. Sometimes that third party as a mediator/neutral person can best help guide the couple or the issues within a family or just with another person to help navigate them out and through it. What about yourself? What were some of your take-aways?

Dwight Thompson (25:07):

I can totally echo the sentiment that that third party presence is so helpful. That was one of my major take-aways. Something she referenced as something that we discussed in our previous episode regarding there’s some barriers sometimes that might lie culturally or whatever it may be as something to seeking that third party help. I thought it was important that she shed light on how to take the initiative to do so.

Dwight Thompson (25:33):

Melanie really did a phenomenal job. For me, another one of my take-aways was the importance of the verbiage that we use. [crosstalk 00:25:40]. I think that’s something that we can really easily overlook. We have just the conversations that we have. I think we get comfortable maybe with our partners at times or [crosstalk 00:25:52] whatever it may be. We tend to maybe play a little bit fast and loose with some of the words that we use. It’s important to be very mindful of how you’re referring to your partner and your relationship as a whole [crosstalk 00:26:05], the importance of just using the word we when you’re referring to those relationships instead of two totally separate entities. Of course, you’re separate individuals but viewing yourselves as the unit and just that verbiage goes a long way.

Dwight Thompson (26:20):

I think the other thing that Melanie pointed out was the importance that it’s natural. Things are going to ebb and flow just in life in general in any relationship you have. When you are navigating some of those more difficult times or difficult circumstances, there’s a balance between having a knee-jerk reaction and just calling it quits and separating yourself from that person.

Dwight Thompson (26:45):

However, there also is a point where you know you have to be aware enough and self-aware to recognize where maybe you have exercised all options and separating is actually the best decision for the both of you. I just thought those points were really poignant. I thought Melanie did a phenomenal job.

Nicolette Leanza (27:06):

Yes. I agree.

Dwight Thompson (27:07):

Our listeners will definitely have some excellent take-aways.

Nicolette Leanza (27:10):

I think so. Thank you, Dwight.

Dwight Thompson (27:13):

Thanks everybody for listening.