As couples embark on the journey of parenthood, their relationship naturally undergoes a huge transformation. However, in a society that often places excessive focus on children, it’s easy to overlook the vital need to nurture and prioritize our connection with our partner.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Suzanne Burger is here to share valuable insights on how couples can maintain and strengthen their bond throughout the challenges of parenthood. In addition to being a couples therapy specialist, Dr. Burger also works with trauma, anxiety, and offers parenting counseling.
From practical activities to thought-provoking discussions, this episode is a must-listen for anyone seeking to be more deliberate in striking a harmonious balance between their roles as parents and partners!
Dr. Suzanne (00:00):
The research does show that the quality of the relationship declines for about two thirds of couples during the first two years postpartum. That’s a lot of people.
Dr. Sarah (00:17):
When couples transition into parenthood, the relationship between these two people naturally shifts and evolves. But sometimes in our super child-centric society, we can lose sight of the importance of prioritizing and nurturing our relationship with our partners here today to talk about ways that couples can stay connected to one another. Throughout parenthood is Dr. Suzanne Burger. Suzanne has a private practice as a licensed clinical psychologist and she has more than 25 years of experience. In this episode, we talk about activities that we can try with our partners to expand intimacy and communication, and it’s really full of thought provoking ideas that could really help. I think couples reframe what it means to be in a committed relationship as you parent together. This episode is a must listen for anyone seeking to be more deliberate in striking this harmonious balance between their role as a caregiver or a parent and as a partner.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hi, we have a great guest today. I’m really, really excited. Suzanne Burger, you are here to talk with us about couples and parenting and identity shifts, so thank you so much for being here today.
Dr. Suzanne (02:08):
Thanks, Sarah. It’s great to be here and I’m excited to share with your audience some of the things that I have learned over the past. I mean, I’ve been in practice for over 30 years, but I’ve worked a lot with new parents over the last 20 and there’s a lot that happens in the transition from being a couple and a twosome to John Gottman is a well-known couples serviceman. He and his wife wrote a book called And Baby Makes Three, and that’s a big shift from two to three.
Dr. Sarah (02:40):
Yeah. How did you get into this work? What’s your story with this path?
Dr. Suzanne (02:47):
Sure. First I used to see a lot of kids in therapy. Half of my training was with children, and there was a time probably about 25, maybe 20 years ago, where I kept running into this feeling of I’m working with the child, but whenever I have parenting meetings, I sense the tension or the conflict in the couple. And very often I felt like, wow, I can only do so much in this hour or week if this is what’s going on at home. And I am kind of more interested in seeing what’s going on with the couples. So I started to do more couples work. I did some formal training in it, and then as part of that, there was this program through The Gottman Institute, which is out in Seattle that was called Bringing Baby Home. That was a psychoeducational program. And I just thought, what a great resource to offer new parents. There’s so much going on as new parents, there’s such a big adjustment. There’s anxiety, there’s exhaustion. Sometimes there’s a mood issue, and very often the relationship gets lost and shuffled.
Dr. Sarah (03:56):
Yeah, it’s so interesting because the reason that we even our colleagues and know each other is through the Hudson Valley Birth Network, which is an amazing group of clinicians and birth supporters in New York. And it’s so interesting how I feel like our work is very much under that umbrella of that perinatal maternal mental health space. But I feel like you and I have both found we’re a bit once removed from that direct work. I’m working with the parenting family children piece and you are working with the couple relationship piece, but it’s all connected to that when we become a family, how does that shift everything?
Dr. Suzanne (04:43):
That is the question, right? Yes. And that is partly how I got involved with Hudson Valley Birth Network because I thought, who is interested in knowing more about this? Who is the audience? And I remember trying to speak to OBGYNs and pediatricians and did a little bit there, but they weren’t that receptive. And I’m like, how else do you reach new parents? And then I found this group and I thought, wow, these are the people that really have, they’re working with new moms, new parents, and often with birth trauma or with whether it is depression, postpartum that they could really benefit from some of this. And I think one of the things that’s so challenging, especially in certain communities, and I think Westchester is one of them to some degree, is there’s such a child-centric focus. A lot of people leave the city when they become parents so that they can provide better public school opportunities, more space. It’s very much, oh, now we’re a family, we’re going to move to Westchester. And there’s so many messages around the kids, the kids, it’s their schedule. It’s early on, it might be their feeding and napping schedule, but by the time they’re five it’s like, oh, well they’ve got on Saturday, they’ve got soccer practice or theater or dance. And I think couples just get on that track and that gets reinforced around them and it’s very hard for them to get messaging otherwise to say you matter to as a couple.
Dr. Sarah (06:22):
Yes. Yes. And I think that that is a parallel to the messaging that the individual parents get If we have a super child-centric view, and don’t get me wrong, paying attention to the needs of the children are critical, but they live within a larger network of relationships and of people, and so it’s like we have to really be able to, I think what I agree with you, we’ve got to zoom out and look at, okay, how is a family being supported on the level of the child? How are parents able to think about the child’s needs and prioritize those? How are they able to identify the needs of each of their own as a parent, whether it’s maternal mental health or paternal mental health, how are those individual parents getting support and thinking about that. And then even larger, even more higher up on that relational web is the couple’s relationship right outside of their role as parents, outside of their relationship with their child, but as a couple, it’s also interconnected, the health of all of those things, the child, the parent, the parenting couple, the family as a system, we’re talking about family systems, right?
We’re talking about what is the health of the entire family system and each piece, I always kind of equate a family to a spiderweb. It’s all connected. You can’t pull one thread without everything moving. We have to support the entire web.
Dr. Suzanne (08:05):
Exactly. Couldn’t agree more. And you’re using images of a web and I’ll share an image from Stan Tatkin who is a well-known couple’s therapist. He’s written a few books and he talks about the parents as being the hub of a bicycle wheel and the kids being like lines going out and these spokes in the wheel, but not making the kids the hub for one thing. It puts too much pressure on the child to feel like they are somehow holding the family together. But also John Gottman is known for saying that the best gift you can give your child is a model for a strong and healthy relationship. And I don’t think we talk about that enough.
Dr. Sarah (08:53):
No. Can you talk more that I could not agree more. And the idea of modeling as the best way of teaching is super core to everything I believe, but in terms of how it shows up in our own relationships as parents, as the grownups, our relationships that we’re modeling for our kids, how that’s getting absorbed to them as the little sponges that they are.
Dr. Suzanne (09:23):
It can go from the most concrete thing like wow, at the end of the day when there’s a reunion after one or both parents have been away and at work before they go to hug their children, they hug each other and then they hug their child and it’s like a family hug. That’s just a visual that hopefully is helpful. It can be modeling that mom and dad have some couple time and when you have infants, that’s going to mean really relying on whatever resources you have. If you have friends or mom’s group or dad’s group where you do a little bit of swapping for a couple of hours saying, we’re just going to have time, just we’re going to have adult time. If you have family around all the better if you can rely on those resources. And some people can rely on childcare and pay for it, but certainly that’s not everyone.
It’s prioritizing from a pretty early stage, we still take time for our relationship. We still have date night. There’s research that shows that couples that thrive on average, I mean there’s some exceptions to this shortly postpartum, but during maybe that three month window, but that on average couples that thrive devote five and a half what Gottman calls, magic hours to their relationship. And that might include just 15 minutes daily of a real adult conversation to a regular date night or date, afternoon or morning if that’s what it has to be. It’s getting creative around that, but it, it’s carving out time and space to make the couple a priority.
Dr. Sarah (11:07):
Yeah. Tell me more about what fits in magic time.
Dr. Suzanne (11:13):
It gets broken down and I’m not a behaviorist and this can get kind of behavioral and prescriptive, but it includes everything from a really present hug. The research that shows that couples that hug for 20 seconds start to co-regulate their heart rate and their breath. So taking time for real present hug and kiss departures and reunions are important places for couples to feel that sense of ness even with the demands of a crying baby. And it can include what Gottman calls, 20 minute stress reducing conversation daily. It’s just each partner sharing what’s gone on in their day, not advising, not trying to solve it for each other, not feeling burdened by the other ones struggle, but witnessing the importance of I’m here with you, we’re in it together and the date night or whatever time, like a couple of hours. And then there’s something that I think for new parents is really hard to carve out, but Gottman calls at the state of the union meeting, which is an opportunity to look at how’s the relationship going? How are we doing as a couple, not just how’s our child doing, which is what a lot of conversations between your parents is about, but how are we doing? And it is like what’s been helpful, I felt really cared for when you remembered that I wasn’t in a great mood and you picked up my favorite flavor of ice cream on the way home to raising grievances and not letting them pile up and not letting that kind of distance that sometimes happens in couples as they become parents grow. So those are some of the elements.
Dr. Sarah (13:10):
I love those. It’s funny, it reminds me a lot of the stuff we tell parent, different but similar to the stuff we encourage parents to do to develop that secure attachment with their children, right? Do I see you? Do I hold you in my mind? Do I look at the world from your vantage point? Do I have the capacity to soothe you and not just rescue you but soothe you and join you in your pain so you don’t feel alone in it? These are the recipes for being a secure base and for being a solid and secure attachment figure. And there is attachment in our romantic relationships just as there is attachment in our parent-child relationships. So it’s about relationships basically.
Dr. Suzanne (14:04):
Definitely. And part of what starts to happen is in that transition to parenthood where triangles can start to develop that can start to stir up old feelings triangles from the couple’s childhood. And so they might have to work on that where one feels shut out, sadly, it’s often dad who feels like in straight couples where dad feels like mom holds all the power in the family and it’s shifted in our culture, but where even if both are working that to a large degree in straight couples, mom still manages most of the parenting. It’s changing but not adequately. And there is, I think partly because of, I don’t know if it’s covid, I certainly am seeing it with a number of my couples where there’s a heightened degree of anxiety around safety and more anxiety about leaving children. So that very often in these heterosexual couples, dad doesn’t get a lot of chance to be alone with his kids and then he doesn’t feel empowered and it just becomes a vicious cycle and mom feels alone with it. But yet, I can’t tell you the number of times where I’ve had couples say, the dad will say, well, I had them for a day. And mom comes in and says, well, the house is a mess. Why didn’t you clean up all the toys? Rather than can there be something affirming about, well, you’re also a parent, you’re going to do it differently than me.
Dr. Sarah (15:53):
Yes. Oh, that’s really interesting. I see that a lot in terms of supporting couples who are parenting together, who feel as though, okay, I’m parenting this way, my partner’s parenting this way. We don’t always agree, is this going to mess things up? Is it going to derail what I’m trying to do with my kid? And I often, I’ll say, obviously there’s extreme situations where we’re so undermining of one another in our parenting that we really will confuse a kid and need to develop some level of overlap and consistency. But generally, as long as we’re sharing values, for the most part, we don’t need to share every standard. We don’t have to have the exact same relationship with our child as our partner does with our child, and that’s okay. We really have to let each parent have a relationship with their own child that is individual.
Dr. Suzanne (16:53):
Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better. And I would add to that, that it also requires maybe a new level for some couples who haven’t had a lot of conflict to learn how to do conflict more effectively that maybe they have had this incredibly harmonious, lovely romantic courtship and early stage of their relationship. But it’s almost impossible to become a parent and try to make decisions around parenting and have a partner and not have differences in disagreements. So couples have, there’s a learning curve there, and it depends also on what’s been modeled for them. What have they observed and when they were kids growing up, what did they see their parents doing around compromise, around accepting influence and around when there are these disagreements, if there is a rupture and someone is short or we’re not even talking about the elements of parenting like exhaustion and lack of time, but all those things feed into couples are likely to get testier with each other.
Dr. Sarah (17:59):
Yeah. When you are working with a couple who’s struggling with that, maybe they have this is like, whoa, we’ve never really had to learn how to navigate these kinds of intense moments with each other or this level of discrepancy in our value system or the way that we operate because maybe it’s been just smooth sailing or maybe it’s just that we haven’t really had anything put pressure on those places for us. How do you support them? What would you try to work with a couple to think about differently or strategize around?
Dr. Suzanne (18:34):
Very often it’s working with them both in terms of their physiology as well as in a more cognitive way. So it is helping them start to learn when they are in this kind of fight or flight state or even freeze where they just remove themselves, not even consciously, but just this, I can’t do anything here so I’m just going to shut down and disconnect. And learning the early warning signs around that and what can help them and self-soothe so that they can actually problem solve together. I do a little bit of psychoeducation around, we can’t really collaborate or problem solve when we are in that kind of physiological arousal. So it’s learning to like, wow, I am starting to repeat myself. I’m getting loud. I have no interest in what my partner or spouse has to say. Those are signs for, let’s just take a pause. And that pause might actually need to be sometimes more for men. The physiology of whether it’s testosterone or we don’t quite know, but on average, if it gets to that state of someone who’s just flipped their lid, they need 20 minutes to come back. So it’s learning how to take breaks, how to use timeouts effectively.
Dr. Sarah (19:55):
Dr. Suzanne (19:56):
And I recognize that with new parents often it feels like there is no time. It’s learning. Then how can you do that? Maybe not the same day, but have an agreement of when we are this disrupted, we know we will come back within an agreed upon time. It might be as much as 24 hours. I discourage anything more than that. So that’s one thing. And then the other is, I mean there’s a lot more, but learning how to express needs and express grievances without criticizing.
Dr. Sarah (20:28):
How? What’s your strategy? I think that that is a tough one for a lot of people, especially when they are, that first piece you mentioned is kind of a prerequisite, right? Because in order to be able to articulate your frustrations or your grievances, you really need to be regulated. You need access to that prefrontal cortex, that thinking part of your brain.
Dr. Suzanne (20:51):
Exactly. So some of that is slowing things down sometimes with really couples who really struggle with this, it’s really being structured. So it’s like you are going to have the floor for 10 minutes and your partner’s role is to just help you feel understood in what you want or need here or what you fear. What are the hopes and the fears around this issue? Or it might be around the child’s safety, it might be around scheduling. It might be around do you trust your in-laws to babysit overnight, whatever that might be. And it’s postponing decision-making kind of saying, let’s first really take time to understand each other. What is this about for both of us and speaking and really kind of coaching the speaker to speak about their own experience. So there’s a shorthand for that. Describe yourself, not your partner. I get really anxious when your mother is around because I just see her on the phone and I worry she’s not tending to Jason. And it makes me feel really scared is very different than saying, well, you don’t care about this because you do the same thing. You sometimes go and do your own thing or you’re playing a game on your phone and Jason’s crawling around and I get really, that’s not going to be helpful. So it’s really helping partner a talk about their experience and not blame, not criticize. And what we often say is that behind every grievance or complaint is a longing, so can you get to the longing? Can you go deeper to get to that?
Dr. Sarah (22:42):
That’s really impactful I feel like, because I think we often will stay in anger because anger is in some ways protective than going to sadness or fear or grief, which is kind of what I’m hearing you say. If I feel like my partner doesn’t see the work I do or doesn’t value my ability, if I am thinking about the father of our little fictitious Jason, right? If I am being told that I don’t care about him always on my phone, I might get mad because I’m being criticized, but deep, deep down, I might be hurt and sad because I want to be seen very much as a father who cares because I do. And to feel so misattuned to in that moment is so threatening and scary, but it’s really hard for anybody. And I do believe a lot of men have grown up in a society that has really, really trained them to have less comfort in staying in the sadness and the vulnerable feelings.
But anger is a more powerful feeling. Anger is a more powerful feeling. It’s more empowering to go to anger than to say, oh, that really hit me hard. That really made me feel like the work that I do is not being seen. And I don’t know that I agree with your view on me here versus what is the matter with you for saying that with Meg, there’s a million ways I help, blah, blah, blah. You know what? It’s safer to go there. It’s much, much harder to go to the ugh, that got me. I don’t feel that way.
Dr. Suzanne (24:41):
You got it, you got it. And I would add to the emotions that you listed. One that comes up so much between couples is shame and the defense against it. Basically it’s one of the worst feelings, even more so than grief or fear sometimes is I am, it taps into very young places and people of I’m no good and my partner sees that in me. So of course it’s unbearable, so I have to defend against it. I’m going to get defensive. And then in the defensiveness, you don’t actually hear that partner A is really anxious about safety for Jason and that that’s what it’s about for that partner. It’s not about shame.
Dr. Sarah (25:28):
Yeah. So how do we communicate to our partners? I guess that’s really, that’s the task is like how do you communicate, like you said, your need, your wish, your fear, your feeling, the thing that’s not happening and how it’s impacting you in a way that does not necessarily activate that shame and that defensiveness in the other person got to that is challenging. I agree. I think that starting with your own experience describing you is a great place to start.
Dr. Suzanne (26:07):
It is describing you. It’s using I statements and it’s also just because of how we’re wired, not making it long paragraphs just kind of short. This upsets me. This is what I hope for.
Dr. Sarah (26:26):
I often will too. This reminds me of a formula that I use a lot with people for talking to their in-laws and things like this by partners too. It’s like one, start with the benefit of the doubt or find that good intention. I know you didn’t mean to make me feel this way, or I don’t, don’t think you maybe even realize that this is what I’m feeling because of this. To state the thing that’s happened and how it makes you feel sort of objectively. When your mother-in-law came over and she was on her phone, it made me feel scared. And then state number three would be state what you would like to see different next time. So you’re actually giving some, it’s not just I’m saying this is a problem, I’m coming up with a solution. I really want to make sure that next time she comes over, before she comes over, you are able to have a conversation with her about turning off her phone when she gets here. And so it’s asking for the thing you want.
Dr. Suzanne (27:26):
Exactly. That goes back to saying what’s the wish or the longing underneath the complaint and that it’s also very specific and it’s much easier for partners to be responsive without getting defensive If they feel like they’re given more guidance, where do you want to go with this? Not just what’s not working.
Dr. Sarah (27:47):
Yes, yes. And it also doesn’t put, it owns some of the labor. If I just tell you I’m mad about this thing and that’s it, what I’m doing is I’m handing you the problem and I’m implying come up with a solution. And that’s versus saying, this is the problem. This is how I think we could solve it. And now we’re having a conversation about a collaborative problem solving thing versus So we’re bringing some of the work to the table.
Dr. Suzanne (28:19):
Exactly. And you’re not just bringing the work to, you use the word collaborative and I think that is so helpful to couples. It’s like, we can do this together. There’s more of the sense of i we versus I and you and that is what couples I love. I know I’m doing good couples work when a couple who hardly ever used the word when we started uses we a lot.
Dr. Sarah (28:48):
That’s so true. That’s such a nice little subtle signal. Words have so much power.
Dr. Suzanne (28:58):
I do think another piece of the transition for parents is some of it’s really incredibly exciting. It’s not just the excitement of loving this new little being. It’s also we get to have a shared vision and it’s an opportunity for them to talk about, to learn more about each other and what worked for you in terms of how you were parented. What would you have wanted to be different? This is what I wanted and we get to do it differently than our parents did. Maybe it was great and we want to do a lot of what our parents did, but I don’t hear that, at least not the people who come to see me. I don’t hear that all that often.
Dr. Sarah (29:37):
Yeah. Well, I mean interesting why we think that is right, why people are going to come to you if they’re struggling in their relationships. I’m just wondering out loud, but is there a correlation between people who find themselves struggling in their relationships after having a baby and people who maybe didn’t have the easiest relationship with their own parents? Not causation necessarily, but correlation, right? Is there some ways that these patterns start to play out generation to generation to generation? Because all the things we’ve already been talking about, if you had a challenging relationship with your parents, what was modeled to you? What were you seeing them do in terms of navigating complex conflict? How did they handle your emotions? How did they handle each other’s emotions? How did they handle power dynamics? How did they handle holding space and listening to one another and being curious and open and interested?
Those are these qualities we’re talking about being so important in nurturing in our relationship with our partner, but if we ourselves didn’t get that modeled to us by our own parents and we’re coming into a partnership and we’re becoming parents and all this old stuff is getting activated. It’s a powder keg for a lot of people. So it seems to make sense to me that there may be a correlation between people who code a couples therapy and have stuff. Then that doesn’t mean that everyone who goes to couple therapy had trouble with their parents. Just I wonder if there’s a connection to some of that.
Dr. Suzanne (31:25):
I would say no doubt. I don’t know that I can quote any research that I’m sure there is, but I’m coming to mind right now. I would add though that I think, and this is what the hope was of the Bringing Baby Home program in the first place, that kind of psychoeducational program, if that were integrated more, not as psychotherapy, but just like people go to Lamaze class as part of preparation for the transition to parenthood, oh, these are some things we should be mindful of. These are things we can do. All couples could stand to benefit from that because the research does show that the quality of whether it’s marriage or committed relationship, the quality of the relationship declines for about two thirds of couples during the first two years postpartum. That’s a lot of people, whether they’re going to seek help, and most if they don’t have time, B, they may not have the resources. Three, there might be cultural or familial stigma around that. So the research in couples work is at least couples wait on average seven years from the, they’re struggling until the time they seek couples therapy, and that’s those who don’t get divorced.
Dr. Sarah (32:46):
Dr. Suzanne (32:48):
Yeah. So I mean, part of why I wanted to do this with you is because I think there’s so much to be gained from being proactive and to say most couples struggle with this transition, it is huge. There’s more exhaustion, more decisions, more work, much less time to devote to the relationship. And then all these complicated hormonal shifts that we haven’t talked about sex, but sex changes too. And it’s a lot for couples to navigate on their own, especially if they don’t have good modeling and if they don’t have a lot of support from family or community.
Dr. Sarah (33:32):
And it’s just like you list it off so many things that I think are deeply ubiquitous to the parent experience. It’s not almost all parents are going to be able to check off most of the things you just listed in terms of things that they are navigating in terms of stressors post baby. And so yeah, there’s no reason to wait seven years to do something and to fix something that’s already on the precipice of falling apart. How much better would it be to get sort of preventative support or support at the beginning of the stressors instead of waiting? It’s just funny like, oh man, this is so the plight of parents everywhere how many times? I just am curious if anyone who’s listening right now just, I’m going to do an invisible poll, but how many parents that are listening right now after having a baby delayed a dentist appointment or a doctor’s appointment or any other thing that was like, okay, I know I need to do this for my health or my wellness, but it keeps getting kicked to the bottom of the list. And those are things that are really specific and concrete that we are aware of the idea that we’re, am I prioritizing magic moments? That’s not even something people even know to prioritize. They don’t even know. They don’t even know that it is a thing. So it’s like all these ephemeral qualities that keep my relationship healthy, they’re not on anyone’s list. And that’s a problem.
Dr. Suzanne (35:13):
For sure, for sure.
Dr. Sarah (35:16):
Yeah. But this is why I think that the work that you do is so valuable, and I’m really glad to do this podcast episode with you because I think if people are listening, they’re like, oh, I could do that. I could spend 15 minutes a week or a day that five. How do I get to that five and a half hours of doing some sort of check-in with my partner or a walk or a hug?
Dr. Suzanne (35:45):
And even if it’s not directly, let’s say one person’s up at 2:00 AM taking a picture of baby and just sending it to your partner and saying, this makes me feel loved. A small little what we call bids for connection, where it’s like, you are on my mind. I may not be with you. I may be tending to our baby, and you’re on my mind.
Dr. Sarah (36:12):
And I think it makes me think too of the baby centric, child-centric dilemma. It’s a lot to hold a child in your mind all the time. And I think the expectation that we’re supposed to makes us feel like, oh my God, I can’t possibly add anything else to my list. But if we can kind of step back and dismantle that whole paradigm, which is I think your big point, we don’t have to be child-centric and that’s not a bad thing. How do we make space?
Dr. Suzanne (36:48):
I often say to moms when I’m working with individuals, less with couples, but I’ll say to couples too, kids are for the most part resilient. And yes, you don’t want to neglect them and they need a lot. They have a lot of needs and you don’t have to do it perfectly. I think that’s another sense I get more in this generation than I guess I thought existed in mine was this kind of perfectionism around parenting and the pressure that is putting a more, I mean, I’ve seen it occasionally with dads, but more on women where they feel like they have to be perfectly attuned, perfectly responsive. And I actually there to provide a little bit of psychoeducation saying that it’s actually really helpful for your child, just like it is almost inevitable in your relationship to have missteps and there’s a lot of growth that can come from that. I think that’s the other thing I meant to mention with couples. I think it’s really important that kids have an opportunity to witness how their parents, when there is an argument or a rupture, yes, it’s got to stay within certain bounds. There’s certain rules of engagement that I talk about with couples at the same time. The repair, the coming back together for kids to see a little bit about how parents do that is an invaluable lesson in how do you bring forgiveness, compassion, taking responsibility for mistakes made. Those are wonderful teaching opportunities for children.
Dr. Sarah (38:34):
Do you coach parents to couples to do that kind of repair? And how much of it is something that we want our children to witness that it is happening versus how much do we also want to actively communicate to our kids directly? Like you saw me and daddy yelling and that was probably pretty scary. And we do fight sometimes because when you love somebody, you just share it all with them. But we made up and now we’re feeling a lot better. And just the whole meta communication of the repair and also, or versus just modeling it without necessarily narrating that piece later.
Dr. Suzanne (39:23):
I think kids benefit from both. I don’t think every event has to be narrated, but the big ones do. And certainly if kids have questions or if you’re sensing that your child is distressed from something that they observed, and yes, again, I’m not suggesting that parents have these horrific arguments in front of their kids. Ideally they will stay within certain boundaries of respect. And we often talk about, this is more from my Internal Family Systems training, but speaking for your parts very young and reactive parts rather than from them.
Dr. Sarah (40:04):
Dr. Suzanne (40:05):
I’m really angry about this or I’m really annoyed, or it really hurt me, rather than lashing out or attacking.
Dr. Sarah (40:15):
Yes. Just if people aren’t so familiar with IFSs, could you articulate, pull a little bit of the curtain back on what we are talking about when we talk about parts? And we don’t have to get into the whole thing, but just in the context of this because I think it’s super, super helpful to think about our relationships in terms of our internal relational systems. So yeah, I’d love for you to elaborate that on that a little bit.
Dr. Suzanne (40:44):
I wish I could show you an image. There’s this wonderful, it was a sculpture at Burning Man several years ago that I show to couple sometimes that have, it’s a wire sculpture and the couple is sitting back to back and looking down and with arms crossed. And then inside of it there are two young children turned towards each other and one is extending the other one a flower. And I love that because I think that speaks to what in IFS we would call, there are these young vulnerable parts of us called exiles that are either too overwhelmed by feelings of fear or shame or sadness for us at the time that these events unfolded to be able to tolerate, it’s just too much. The feelings are too big. So we develop strategies or in I f S, we call them protectors that almost become like sub personas.
Sub personas that kind of like every time someone goes near something in me that brings up shame, I come up with this part of me that is, well, what about what you do? And gets defensive and they’re like, yeah, so I didn’t change the diaper even though Jason was wet. Yeah, so what about the other night when he was crying and you wouldn’t get up? That’s a protector. And it is in the service of not feeling things that when we were very young we couldn’t handle, but it’s not adaptive. Often it sometimes we still need those strategies and extreme instances, but for the most part, especially with our partner, wow, if we could say, wow, that felt really bad. And I’m actually feeling a little bit of shame around that. I forgot to do that and it feels really bad. But yeah, I really need to be more mindful of that. And could you maybe say it more gently next time? Because really the way you just said it was hard for me to hear.
Dr. Sarah (42:52):
And where my head goes when you speak from that sort of more integrated self that says, oh, that was so hard for me to hear, I felt shame. It’s almost like in order to do that work, we ourselves have to go find that scared inner part, that young part that the exile and say, you don’t have to protect me. I got this. Shame isn’t dangerous for me. I can talk about it with my wife or my husband or my partner and not be in danger. So I got you, right. Let me handle this. That’s a lot of the work I think in IFS, that integration. But it’s funny too, I think when we think about if you’re thinking about an inner self, an inner child or a part that’s getting defensive to protect you from feeling shame, for example, and like you said, some of these are very young parts, they stem from feeling unbearable shame when we were six or seven, but if you have a six or seven year old park come in to fight with your partner, they’re going to have six or seven year old social skills and conflict resolution skills and they’re going to fight a six or seven year old.
This is why we feel so kind of these immature parts of us come out when we’re fighting with people because that’s our young parts. And so I think it’s about having a lot of compassion for ourselves and the parts of us that get mad at to say like, oh yeah, you’re seven, you don’t.
Dr. Suzanne (44:35):
Yeah, exactly. And some of that requires sometimes slowing down, pausing. It’s like something just happened inside of me and rather than going into a reactive immediate response, can I take a moment to check in with that? And there’s a couple’s version of internal family systems called IFIO, which is intimacy from the inside out, and we talk about doing a U-turn that rather than the finger pointing at the other one you, it’s like doing the U-turn. What is that in me that just got touched? What does it need from me first and foremost? And maybe then I can represent it to my partner.
Dr. Sarah (45:18):
And how many people are like, God, maybe my partner really needs to hear this, right? Or maybe I really need to hear this episode, this idea, these are new, IFS is new to the world, it’s really not been around for that long in the timeline of therapies. And I think it’s an incredibly useful way of thinking about relationships and self. So I imagine if people are listening to this and they’re like, oh, wow, that would so help my relationship if one or both of us could do that. What are resources for people? Where can they go, whether they want to work with you or work with another clinician who’s trained in this type of therapy for couples, where can they go to get information on that?
Dr. Suzanne (46:16):
I can send it to you, but through there is Toni Herbine-Blank is the person who founded the couples version of IFS and she has a directory of clinicians on her website, so if you Google either her name or even IFIO, you should get there. Amazing. I also think there are other wonderful approaches to working with couples including Sue Johnson’s emotion focused couples therapy. There’s a lot of similarity between the two. There’s some differences, and again, I think there’s a lot that couples can do without having to go see a therapist to just start with, let’s take some time for us. Let’s learn how to do conflict a little bit more patiently and slowly, and let’s learn how to do repairs and let’s know each other. The thing you said at the beginning, calling each other in mind, in psychoanalysis we talk about maternal preoccupation that’s partly hormonal with new moms, maybe more than new dads. I am so in my relationship with my infant, and I think there is a way of telling new moms, and you have this other relationship, how do you hold it in mind?
Dr. Sarah (47:43):
Yes. I feel like that’s so important. I think, and again, to bring us full circle back to what we were talking at the beginning, to hold our partners in mind and to hold ourselves in mind because we can’t, it’s like there is this sort of delicate balance. The whole family system needs to be healthy. My relationship with my child, yes, is critical. My relationship with myself is going to be a huge part of my ability to have a healthy relationship with my kid and my partner and my relationship with my partner. Having that be healthy allows me to have that healthy family system. If I have that support, if I feel like I can communicate conflict and resolve it, and I trust that I’m being held in mind and I’m able to hold them in mind, that’s going to give me the resources, the emotional resources, to then ask for time for myself or give my child what they need because my cup is full. Right? It’s all connected.
Dr. Suzanne (48:48):
It’s all connected. And I think as you say it sounds, I could imagine some of your audience saying, that sounds overwhelming, and I go back to, and it doesn’t have to be done perfectly. That sense of it’s good enough.
Dr. Sarah (49:02):
Yeah, it’s good enough. That’s so helpful. Thank you so much, Suzanne, for coming on. If people want to connect with you or learn more about your practice, where can they find you?
Dr. Suzanne (49:13):
Sure. I have a website. It is d.r., Ss as in Suzanne burger. B U R G E r.com. And that’s probably the best way to find me. And I love talking about this topic because it’s just close to my heart.
Dr. Sarah (49:33):
Yeah, I can feel that. I really can. Thank you so much.
Dr. Suzanne (49:39):
Thank you. It was a lot of fun.
Dr. Sarah (49:47):
There is so much. That changes when we become parents. Not only do our romantic relationships shift, but our whole identity can feel like it’s been shaken up. This is why it’s so vital to have support that can help you start feeling more confident and settle during this period of big transition. I think that all new parents should have access to the information and support that they need to help them during this messy, chaotic, lovely, but often stressful time. In my free masterclass, Confident Parenting From the Start, I’ll teach you my confidence recipe with three key elements to pay attention to. Plus three things you can let go of that can make or break your trust yourself. In your child’s first year, you’ll walk away from the 60 minute virtual presentation with actionable tools that you can put into practice right away to challenge your self-doubt. To stop panic-Googling once and for all and actually find the ease and enjoyment in early Parenthood, just go to drsarah.com/confidentparenting to sign up for one of my free parenting masterclasses. That’s drsarahbren.comconfidentparenting. I hope to see you there and until next time, don’t be a stranger.
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