Did you know that a staggering 67% of couples experience a dip in relationship satisfaction after the birth of a child?
Joining me is clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and sought-after relationship expert, Dr. Tracy Dalgleish. Dr. Tracy is the founder of Be Connected Digital, the author of I Didn’t Sign Up for This, and the host of the I’m Not Your Shrink podcast.
Today, we discuss how to signal for support and communicate our needs (even when sleep-deprived) to our partner, the impact our new identity as parents has on our relationships, and how to navigate the mental load of parenthood.
Our hope is to normalize the struggles many parents face in this season, offering a reassuring message: you are not alone and there are things you can do to strengthen your partnership and deepen your connection.
Dr. Tracy (00:00):
I really wish parents had a better grasp on the concept that I teach in my book, which is interdependence. And I’ll sum that up in this one phrase. I am me, you are you and we are both okay.
Dr. Sarah (00:22):
Did you know that 67% of couples experience a dip in their relationship satisfaction after the birth of a child? This is a staggering percentage that my guest today, Dr. Tracy Dalgleish shares with me, and yet it’s not surprising. So with this in mind, what steps can couples take prophylactically to buffer against becoming a statistic? And how can we implement practical strategies after the fact to strengthen our bond with our partners even amidst the messy and chaotic moments of parenthood?
That is exactly what Dr. Tracy is here to talk about today as a clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and very much sought after relationship expert, she is the perfect person to speak to about these questions. And not only that, but she’s also the founder of Be Connected Digital, the author of, I Didn’t Sign Up For This, and the host of the I’m Not Your Shrink podcast. So she brings a ton of expertise to this conversation. This episode has practical tips for how to effectively signal for support even when we’re sleep deprived and in the thick of it, how to navigate the mental load that accompanies parenthood and guidance for exactly how to go about rebuilding strength in your connection to one another so you don’t find yourself waking up one day and asking, how did we get here? So if you’re a parent or planning to be one, or even if you’re just interested in the complexities of relationships, this episode is for you.
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.
Hello, welcome back to the podcast. Today we have Dr. Tracy Dalgleish here with us. We are so lucky for this one. You guys, this is going to be a really fun conversation because we talk a lot about parenting on here, but we don’t talk as much about all the backend stuff about being a parent that has to do with our other relationships. And I feel like Tracy, you have a wealth of wisdom to share with us in that respect. So thank you for being here.
Dr. Tracy (02:46):
Thank you, Sarah. I am so excited for our conversation today. And yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth behind that where a lot of times we are focused so much on what we can do, what we can say, how we show up with our children that we often forget that this foundational piece around remembering when we feel good and connected in our partnerships, we have a better sense of resilience to then move forward with parenting in those really hard moments.
Dr. Sarah (03:13):
Yes, I love that because I don’t think that’s said explicitly to new parents. I don’t think parents think that’s going to happen. And it’s something that just sort of is like this slow building of a drop, a drop, a drop a drop. And before we know it, we’re very much drowning. We’re very much underwater, but it’s like to mix metaphors, it’s like the tote in the pot of boiling water will jump right out, but if you put a tote in a cold pot of water and you slowly turn up the heat, they’ll just boil. And I feel like that’s the more we can create a narrative around this that’s very compassionate and hopeful, but also realistic that like, hey, there’s ebbs and flows in our relationships with our partners that are in direct relationship to our other identities. And so when we take on a new identity as mother or parent or father, that’s such a big one. It’s so all consuming appropriately for the first bit of that transition, but then we can sometimes forget to go back and reconnect and rebuild the sort of strength of these other relationships that do have to take a little bit of a step to the side when we first become a parent, but shouldn’t stay that way forever. And I think that’s where people can get, they wake up one day and they’re like, how did this happen?
Dr. Tracy (04:41):
And so many people get there. And part of the work I always want to do is to normalize that for people who are struggling in this season is for you to know that even though parents at the park are not talking about these hard moments in their relationship, even though it feels like you’re the only person in this well of resentment towards your partner, and having those seething moments of why can’t you just change the diaper without me telling you, you are not the only person in that.
And what we know, Sarah, is that 67% of couples will experience a significant dip in their relationship satisfaction after the birth of their child. And even though we know that from the research perspective, we still quote fail parents by not preparing them and their relationship in this emotional relational way. We don’t teach them how to show up relationally when they are sleep deprived. We don’t teach them how to signal for support when they’ve been up all night and can’t possibly do one more feeding in the night or to even have these conversations around what roles they want to play and how they’re going to tackle the mental load. A of the, my hope is, and unfortunately I reach people once they’re in the state of distress and I don’t reach them in the preventative stage, but my hope is that we get to this point where we can do more of this preventative work.
And for those listening, if you are on your way to have your first child or even your second, third or fourth, you can still do this adjustment because every time we go through a transition, there’s an opportunity for us to check in our partnerships, do some tweaking and make a plan for how we want to move forward.
Dr. Sarah (06:31):
Yes. And I would love, I’d really love to talk about repair if we are in that already, the people who are coming to you. And oftentimes to me, people come to me usually when they’re in disrepair with their child, and I think they come to you when they’re in disrepair with their partner and then it’s like, okay, we can work on repair, we can work on making it better, which is totally, I find to be a very hopeful thing. And I want to talk to you about that piece. But I love this idea of starting with, if we haven’t yet gotten there, what’s our prophylactic, if you wish, if you got your wish that people would actually be coming to you before there was, they realized they’re in a pot of boiling water, what would you want them to know?
Dr. Tracy (07:21):
I would want, that’s such a big question. My mind is trying to grab water. What’s the one thing I want them to know? Oh gosh, I really wish parents had a better grasp on the concept that I teach in my book, which is interdependence. And I’ll sum that up in this one phrase. I am me, you are you and we are both okay. And I think in parenthood this is so important because the way I’m going to rock baby and shush baby and put baby to bed, the way I’m going to do that is of course going to be different than how my partner will do it. And it doesn’t necessarily mean either way is right or wrong. Of course, we look at the baseline of safety. Are we safe? Yes, of course. Or how we approach tasks in the home or even how we set boundaries and emotionally validate our children.
Those are always going to be different between you and your partner because you’re two different people. And I think if we could learn to recognize the strengths and our differences early on, then we can enter parenthood feeling more shoulder to shoulder rather than you versus me.
Dr. Sarah (08:41):
Yes. That is really powerful. It’s so powerful. And I imagine you need some skills, some relational skills and some self-reflection skills self to be able to really go into relationship with that kind of intentionality. And you have to be able to look at it, see it, label it, process your feelings about it, communicate your needs to the partner. Say, how do we get in alignment? How are we not competing with, how do we make it so that our needs aren’t competing with each other? They’re not mutually exclusive. It’s not necessarily easy work. It’s definitely doable and powerful though.
Dr. Tracy (09:27):
And that self-awareness really is the first step. And when we become aware of things, it means we can start to slow down. We don’t have to say everything on the tip of our tongue. We don’t have to tell our partner everything they’re not doing in the quote right way. It becomes more about stepping into our own curiosity around, huh? Look at what I’m feeling right now. What’s bringing this up for me in this moment? What was this cue around me and what’s happening here? I like to tell this story. I remember these were the earlier days. My kids were young, I was solo parented on weekends and I found myself cleaning the kitchen. And every Saturday I had the narrative, I’m all by myself, I’m doing this all on my own. I’m exhausted. It’s all on me.
The kids would ask for one more thing. I was doing naps, wiping bums, and the dog layered on top of it, two kids, 200, two, all of the things. So I find myself in a moment of pause where the kids are at a good place. I can’t remember what they were doing, but I started to clean the kitchen and then I was wiping the backsplash and then I had the gloves on with a magic eraser and I’m deep cleaning the walls. And then I hear it in my head. My husband doesn’t do anything. And that for me was the moment into my own experience of resentment that I was choosing this path down the deep clean of the kitchen. That’s not what was really going on inside of me. I was overwhelmed. I was overstimulated. I needed to put my body against the wall. I needed maybe some water or just to sit down because the kids didn’t need me in that moment.
But here I am choosing to do all of these things and then my mind does what our minds are so good at doing as we find what our partners don’t do. My mind discounted that my husband made breakfast that morning that he prepared the lunch for the whatever the list is, but because I was cleaning the walls and I’m noticing this splatter of pasta sauce from the other night that my husband didn’t wipe up after him. I’m thinking he doesn’t do anything and it’s not true. And so that awareness there of slowing down and when we don’t have that awareness, what do we do when we are on autopilot? I’ll tell you what I did, Sarah, and I like to tell people, I say this in my book, I have been a human a lot longer than I’ve been a couple’s therapist. I pick up my phone, I open up the text thread and I start texting my angry thoughts and feelings to my husband, which of course doesn’t feel good because he’s at work.
He feels helpless. And away we spiral into our negative cycle. But it’s in those moments where we can slow down and say, okay, wait, hang on, I’m in one of those moments. What’s happening for me right here? Yeah, I am overstimulated. I’m doing too much. This isn’t about the kitchen wall. This isn’t about my husband, this is about me and what I need in this moment. How can I do something different for me? And if there is something that we need to talk about, which oftentimes we do in relationships around navigating the mental load or how we’re going to parent together, we can have that conversation. But if at every moment I’m railing my husband with these angry texts because that’s what anger wants us to do, we want to put it outwards and externalize, that stops us from having any sense of agency and control over what we want to do in those moments.
Dr. Sarah (13:02):
Yes. And it’s so funny, this happens every time I talk to a couple’s therapist on this podcast, I’m always like, there’s so many parallels between how we think about relationships within a partnership and our relationship with our child. And it’s like what you said made me think about the fact how many times what I’m really hearing you say in that moment of your mind goes to, my husband never does this. My husband never does anything. It’s such an absolute, right? It’s such a global statement. It’s such a fixed statement. And I think we do this with our kids too, where we’re like, why don’t you ever get along with your sister? Why are you always leaving your clothes on the floor? Why do I always have to repeat this 15 times? And I’m literally, I’m saying this just like you. I said those things like last night I catch it and I’m like, oops, shouldn’t say that.
I got to go back. And then it’s like, but that awareness, that’s the practice, right? We are going to say those things or think those things and ideally we can catch our thoughts before they turn into words and sometimes we can’t and that’s where the repair comes in. But that debrief that you’re kind of talking about, it’s not that we don’t talk about these things. It’s not that you have to, okay, zip that up and push it down. That’s obviously not what you want, but it’s like, okay, you notice the thought, you notice the feeling you’re going to log, that you’re going to come back to it when you are calm and when your partner’s calm or your child’s calm and you can feel connected and then say, Hey, I noticed this. I noticed I was feeling this thing. I noticed this pasta sauce on the wall, or I noticed your underwear in the bathtub. Does that happened recently? Not my husband’s, my son’s. And I’m like, I didn’t like that. And noticing, I’m getting kind of frustrated a lot about this.
How do we solve this? How do we make this work better for both of us? Or if you have more of a partnership versus obviously parent-child relationships have a different hierarchy, but they’re still your you. I’m me. We’re both. Okay. I love that. And that ties into this as well, but I think I love it so much.
Dr. Tracy (15:22):
So I think you’re talking about two things here. So one is repair. I know many couples struggle with this, and that is this narrative of if we fight, it must mean it’s a bad relationship. If we argue and disagree with things, it must mean that we are doomed. And actually, I like to remind people that if you aren’t having disagreements, that’s a time to be more concerned because that means somebody is giving up themselves, shoving down their feelings and pushing away their needs. They’re abandoning what they need.
So it’s not that we don’t ever want to fight, but rather how do we then have these hard moments and then come back together? And we know from the Gottman research that master couples, they call them master couples, those are the ones who are together, who feel satisfied and connected. They have learned to repair faster. So we’ve got to learn how to repair. And for many people that was not modeled to us. I love asking clients, tell me, what did anger look like in the home? Tell me who did you see go to, who to repair after conflict? How was conflict modeled or handled in the house? And a lot of people say, I didn’t see it. I just thought my parents just never fought. And then that becomes an internalized belief of, oh, we’re fighting. There’s something wrong with us. Or the other side of that is I just saw my parents get angry and I never saw the repair.
That was one piece that came up from there. But then the other thing that you’re talking about, Sarah, is how do we then actually do this thing as a team? What kind of systems do we have in place? What kind of meetings have we set up for each other so that we can actually touch base and function together? And I think so many people operate on the belief that your relationship should just run on its own when in reality this is the most important business team that you are running, which means you’ve got to have those check-ins.
Dr. Sarah (17:28):
Yes, I love that. Because actually I do a lot of work with couples in the context of parenting and which brings up a lot of this mental load of parenthood and who’s got what job and who’s really got 90% of the job. But the person that executes the last 10% has the perception that they’re doing the job, which is tricky, not quite.
That builds a lot of resentment because it’s like who’s receiving the gratitude for what? And I think a lot of what we talk about in my work with those couples is like, where is the time that you are reviewing ahead of time? What has to get done and who’s going to do it and what’s the week looking like? That sort of family meeting, the family executive meeting time. Can you talk more about how you utilize that with your work? I think it’s so overlooked and people sometimes are like, that takes the romance out of it. It’s like it’s so important.
Dr. Tracy (18:26):
Yeah, interesting. I’m an avid reader. I love to read and I will rotate in romance novels in there. And I do get angry at how relationships are portrayed because they’re shown to be so easy and effortless and the man knows how to approach the woman in all these romantic ways and that you never see the book in the middle season, right?
Romance captures us in a certain way. That’s a whole different topic. So the weekly meeting, what did I want to say about that? There are something else that you had said there that felt really important. I’ll come back to it, but this isn’t about taking out a romance or passion or excitement or anticipation. Those are all important things that we need in our relationship. But having these meetings, I circled back around to it. What I tend to see around parenting is that one person is the driver and the other person follows, and the driver tends to be the woman. She is in a heterosexual relationship. She is the consumer of social media. Most of us in our social media communities can say that the large percentage of our followers are women. And perfect example, my husband knows, I use this as an example. I look over at him, so I’m consuming sleep strategies, food steps, conscious parent, secure parent, all those things.
I look over at him and he is looking at golf, the dirt bike, the new skiing at this trail. And of course, and I get it, but the challenge with that is that then I am 20 steps ahead of him. And so we don’t get that chance to touch base and get on the same page and in the heat of the moment, because we’re all parenting by the seat of our pants, often we don’t get the course on how to parent the toddlers ahead of time. We’re in the moment, the toddlers having the meltdown, and I’m saying validate. You have to validate why can’t there’s a boundary. Set the boundary and then validate. And so it makes sense when parents are really struggling. So this weekly meeting, and it doesn’t have to be complex, but it does also need to be something that is enjoyable at the start.
Otherwise nobody wants to enter into that meeting. And what I mean by that is if you say, Hey, let’s have these meetings. It’s a good way for us to check in and to be a team. Your partner says, yes, that’s great. So you decide to sit down on Sunday night, the kids are watching a show or they’re in bed and you bring out your laundry list of fractions, infractions, whether that your partner has done this week, they don’t want to show up to that meeting again, nobody would. Whereas if you develop a meeting where you ask each other, what is something that you appreciate about our relationship this week? What’s stressful in your life coming up and how can I support you? What are you grateful for about our partnership? Those kinds of questions build connection and that team mentality.
Dr. Sarah (21:40):
Hey, jumping in here because you just heard Dr. Tracy say, we are all parenting by the seat of our pants. We don’t get the course on how to parent the toddlers ahead of time. But here’s the thing. There is a course one that teaches you how to understand what is happening inside of your child’s brain and body and nervous system and equips you with tools for managing their tantrums and meltdowns and all around dysregulated behaviors in a psychologically sound manner that supports neurobiology and fosters mental health, both our childs and our own. So if you’re thinking, sign me up, I need this in my life, just go to drsarahbren.com/tantrums to get instant access to my two and a half hour video course plus a bunch of extras too called The Science of Tantrums. That’s drsarahbren.com/tantrums. Okay, now back to the show.
Yes. That is so nice. I love this idea too of thinking because of one of the things that you made me think of when you’re talking about these questions is that the theme of those questions is being curious about the other, but also I think it’s nice to have, sometimes we get really stuck on what we want to do and not how we want to feel. And a lot of times I’m like, what do you want this to feel like? What do you want this relationship to feel like? What do you want parenthood to feel like? But also in a very, very more minute day-to-day, like how do you want this weekend to feel? Do we have a lot of energy? Do we want to make some kind of exciting plans? Are we feeling like we want it to be a cozy, relaxing kind of down to earth weekend?
Do we want to cancel all our plans and have snuggle up movie time with the kids? It’s so much easier to figure out how to reverse engineer a feeling than to create a laundry list of tasks. I mean, it’s easy to create a laundry list of tasks, but we don’t have a lot of say what the resulting feeling will be. But if you start with the feeling and you work backwards, there’s a lot more control you have over how it’ll feel. And that’s a strategy I’ve been using a lot lately in my own home, but with my clients too.
Dr. Tracy (23:54):
Yeah, I think that’s beautiful.
Dr. Sarah (23:55):
That made me think about just this.
Dr. Tracy (23:57):
Yeah. What do you want this to feel like? And even I had suggested to my community at one point, let’s look at your intentions for the weekend. How many of you pause on Friday and say, what are your desires for this weekend?
And here are mine. And so instead of then waiting to see if there’s a moment for you to have time for yourself or time to connect, or maybe you’ll get to do this fun thing that you’ve been wanting to do, you actually label it out loud and you are more likely then to have that happen because your partner can say, oh, interesting. I really need this, which is different from yours. How do we then co-create this? How do we make sure we both get our needs met?
Dr. Sarah (24:43):
Yeah, and I think the most critical piece for that to be a possibility is the thing you said first, which is pause. How often do we pause and say, okay, it’s Friday pause, that was a week, it’s done. And now I’m just going to take a moment to just slow down, reflect, integrate it all, and then orient myself to the next piece.
And that’s a whole week kind of trajectory. But you could do this in the micro moments too, of like, okay, I just finished that phone call. Okay, what’s next? Now I’m going to pack the lunches, or now I’m going to do this other thing, or now I’m going to just say hi to my husband who just walked in the door. These, we don’t pause, we are very go, go, go. And I think it’s very hard to build that in, but the impact is pretty substantial when we do it.
Dr. Tracy (25:47):
It’s this cultural experience. I often think of my own childhood where my mom would make dinner and she would turn the radio off and play the piano in between something boiling. And I can remember I would dance in the living room as she would do that. And today, I think of just how in those moments of pause, we’re not creating, we’re not flowing, we’re distracting.
We’re thinking about the next steps we’re doing. We’re on Pinterest looking for the next recipe. We’re on Instagram, comparing ourselves to what other people are doing. When do we ever just stand there and watch the water? We fill in all of the white space with noise now. Yes, right. I know I do. It’s a very bad habit that I’m working very hard to stop, but it’s really now that I’m noticing it, I’m noticing it. I’m like, I’ve had this conversation a lot lately. And within our own relationship, we’ve been really intentional to get off of the screens a bit earlier before bedtime. So we’re reading and you love when kids get to the stage when they’re verbal and they come up with lots of really not so great comments.
A recent one was…
Dr. Sarah (27:06):
Oh, verbal kid. They’re the worst.
Dr. Tracy (27:08):
They’re so amazing. A recent one was, I don’t know why parents think their phones are so important. And I shared it with my husband afterwards. I was like, ouch, this one hurts. And so we have non defensively taken that in as an observation. Yes, we are both, and we need our phones to do work. We label now to the kids when we are doing a piece of work, but we’ve also then started to put our phones at a further reach because something is so accessible, it’s so there for us just to pick up or it’s in our pockets. And so we’re putting it away in our phones more. And as a result of that, we are talking more together as well.
Dr. Sarah (27:49):
Yeah, it’s very interesting. And I had a very, very tough mirror moment where my kid is basically their being is holding up a mirror to myself that I’m like, I didn’t want to see that reflection.
But this summer my daughter was really into making anything a phone, and we were visiting my parents and we didn’t have any real toys, phones or anything like that. She took up one of those travel tissue cases that’s the size of a very small phone. And she’s literally, it’s a tissue case. There’s not even pretend anything on it. And she’s just swiping and talking to nobody and pinching the screen and expanding it. And I’m just watching her do all these things to a tissue case and I’m like, oy, yoy. This is, I know where she’s getting. And then I said something to her at one point, and you can’t see this, this is a podcast, but she, she’s looking at her tissue case and she holds up a finger in the air, the wait one minute finger without looking at me. And she goes, one minute I’m writing an email. And I was just like, I know who you are right now, and it’s me and am looking at myself. And so it was like, ah, light bulb moment. I was like, I got to watch this because this summer she was four.
Dr. Tracy (29:18):
They see our behaviors and I think it’s the question of what do we want to give to them in that sense? And when my partner walks into the room, I want him to feel like he is the most important thing in my world. Same thing with my children. When they walk into the room, I am going, if I’m on my phone, if I’m in the middle of something, I’m going to put it and I’m going to turn to them and say, Hey, that’s what we long for. That attunement, that connection, the needing to know that you’re still excited that I’m here with you, that we’re doing this together.
Dr. Sarah (29:57):
I had a mom’s group that I was doing, and one of the moms in the group said that when her kid was starting kindergarten or first grade, it was the beginning of the school year and she goes to the parent meeting, the start of the school year, get to know the teacher thing. And the teacher was very a little bit like she was the boss and she took charge. And what she said to the parents was, I have one very important rule in my class, which is that when you come to pick up your child, you have to be off your phone.
And if I see you come up with your phone, I will tell you go and come in when you’re ready. She meant business. And she said, she’s like, the reason why is because your child is waiting for that moment of reuniting with you all day long. And that one moment that they reconnect with you, that they lay eyes on you at the end of their long day, they need to see you meet their eyes, and they need to see you light up. And that is very important. It’s far more important than if you spent the rest of the whole day with them giving them their full attention. That moment of reunification has to be, they need to see the light in your face shine when they look at you. You can’t be looking at your phone. And I was like, goose bumps. I’m stealing this. I’m taking this. I will tell the story again because it’s profoundly true. And it shouldn’t have to be that only sort of like a real boss lady teacher has the balls to tell parents that we all really need to be willing to say that and think about it and give ourselves permission to feel our own shame if we haven’t been and our own grace for the fact that maybe there’s a million reasons why we haven’t been, but now I can give some intentionality to doing it.
Dr. Tracy (32:01):
So this is where our work always overlaps because we’re talking about security and attachment bonds, and we need our caregivers just as much. So this is just as important for our partners. And when people are feeling distant, like roommates disconnected, there’s no time for each other. The roommate season is a thing, and if that is what you’re feeling, look at how you’re greeting each other and add that back in. Because when you first started dating, when you were first building that bond, that is what you were creating together, this sense of excitement, this sense of joy when you see each other, the sense of knowing that you are the most important thing in that world. You wouldn’t go on date number three, if you open the door and the person’s on the phone, I wouldn’t. Right? Yeah. I want to know that you’ve prioritized this time with me and we need to keep that in our relationships.
Dr. Sarah (32:57):
And it’s very, like we were saying, it’s like the tote in the pot of water. It’s like you don’t notice these tiny little micro moments adding up. And I know you talk about micro moments a lot, and I think they’re very profound because the reality is there are undoing, but they’re also one of the most low hanging fruits at our disposal to shift the tides.
Dr. Tracy (33:18):
And yet people struggle to do that though. Yes. So I’ve just run my roommate challenge. Hundreds of people join in this challenge, and I wish more people would join me in my program truthfully, because I teach more of this in depth. And the 10 day challenge itself is a great way to kickstart something, but we need more. And what we forget is that we didn’t get to this place overnight, so we can’t expect ourselves to get back to being connected, close, desirous and intimate overnight.
It is a process over time. So what are those small things frequently that you could be doing? It is the example of when your partner says something, you can choose to stay in your phone to keep reading your book, to walk to the other room, or you pause and you notice that they’re trying to connect with you and you say, huh? Yeah. Tell me more about that. What are you thinking about as you say that? That’s a small moment of saying, I’m curious about your inside. I talk about these four C’s of my book, curiosity, compassion. We need compassion. We need so much compassion of just how hard this is, how we’re not alone in this struggle, how our partners struggle with things in the same way that we struggle with them. Collaboration. How do we maintain our ness through things, being a team, and then also connection. How do we find those touch points throughout the day? And I’ll never forget a supervisor teaching me this early on in my training, which was each day in a relationship, you are choosing whether to grow your tree branches together. It’s a choice. It’s a choice.
Dr. Sarah (35:07):
It is. And it’s funny to take that metaphor. It doesn’t always feel like a choice. You look at even the metaphor of a tree in nature is that tree consciously making decisions on where its branches grow. And you could very easily be like, no, but it, it’s, it is. It’s using cues like the sunlight, I would say, and the access to, yeah, there is a lot. I mean, I don’t know how much about plants, but I know enough to know that there’s, if you plant something in shade, it’s going to go find the sun. And there is some intentionality, but it’s like you can’t just assume it’s just organically going to happen. You have to think about what is going to give this the most light? What is going to give this what it needs? Sometimes it’s that intentionality of being the resources that this relationship needs to thrive have to be intentionally provided and nurtured.
Dr. Tracy (36:06):
Part of that, so the reason I love the tree analogy for ourselves is because I also think of our own roots and how we need to nurture ourselves. And without being the individual autonomous self, it is incredibly hard to give to others, whether it’s our children or our partner. And so I always remind people that if we’re looking at true intimacy with somebody else, we are also practicing true intimacy with ourselves. And it’s interesting when moms come to me and we’re doing work together, oftentimes we’re doing individual therapy for relationship issues because their partner’s not interested in coming in or that’s the reason they’ve joined to be connected. My online program, the starting point for many is how do I actually want to tend to my own needs?
Dr. Sarah (36:56):
And I think that’s a very hard question to be willing to ask because especially as women, not all people, I think a lot of people struggle with this, but a lot of women have been explicitly or implicitly taught that that’s a selfish question. We’re not supposed to be thinking like that. And I think the tides are turning, but I think even though intellectually we know that that’s not true, I think in our felt sense, we still struggle with that a lot.
Dr. Tracy (37:20):
Oh, yes. Yeah. I think it’s one thing for us to kind of say out loud, yes, our needs matter and we need to prioritize this, but then when we go to actually do it, it’s really hard. And it’s hard to do it in relation in the sense that if I have to say to my partner, I didn’t like that you planned this without thinking of me, and I wanted to be considered in that, that is expressing ourselves to their person. And that’s incredibly hard for people.
Dr. Sarah (37:50):
And I think a lot of times we can then default to telling people what to do because it’s easier to tell people what we want them to do than to say, because that’s what you should do, versus I need you, I actually need this, I need for you to do this. That’s vulnerable. But it actually tends to be much more well received by another person. People don’t respond terribly well to being told what they need to do all the time, but if they receive a request because, because I need this from you, all of a sudden they’re actually not always, but there’s also other stuff going on. But a lot of times you’re actually more inclined to be like, oh, I want to give this to you. I don’t actually care about doing this thing, so I don’t want to do it for me, but if you need me to do it and I care about you, then I’m actually more inclined to do it.
So it’s a paradoxical thing. It’s like we default to directing people to avoid being vulnerable, but then it’s actually more effective, harder to be vulnerable, but it may actually get our needs met more effectively.
Dr. Tracy (39:06):
Yeah. Let’s use this example. This was in one of my coaching calls and Be Connected, and we were talking about how she was saying, you don’t pay attention to me. You are on your phone. You don’t make time for me. You don’t pay attention to me. With the work I did with her, we were able to come down to this core need, which is, I need attention. I feel sad. I am drifting in the water and I need attention. I need you to come and get me. And that was such a huge shift for her partner then to be able to hear it that way. Oh, I can understand that. Instead of getting his backup when she would go to him saying, you’re always on your phone. You never give me any kind of special love or you’re not romantic, all of those things, it’s easy to get your backup when someone comes to you focusing on you.
Dr. Sarah (40:05):
And it does require, like we were talking about at the beginning of the episode, it requires some self-reflection and some pause because the instinct is to go, it’s a lot easier to feel angry than to feel sad and to feel like you need something from somebody. And the only way to get it is to ask them for it, because flies in the face of some of our drives to be independent and self-sufficient. But we also, we do want what we want. And I think a lot of the times in relationships when we start to get a lot of resentment, it’s because we’re not getting what we want. And it’s just like we have to look. You do have wants and needs, both of you do. So do your kids, and it’s okay to name okay to ask for them, but it’s like what’s the most effective way to get ’em?
And it is, if the strategy to get your needs met is eliciting a ton of defensiveness in the other person, you’re not going to go what you want. Very often. You’re going to feel more thwarted, more resentful, and it’s like this downward spiral.
Dr. Tracy (41:08):
I like to ask people, where do you have the most control? You don’t have control over what they do or how they’re going to respond, but you always have a choice in how you communicate for yourself. Yes. Any strategies for the crib sheet for getting a good request in that good request is, it’s such a basic cliche. And I was thinking as you were talking, Sarah, my husband likes to poke at me and he’s like, okay, you keep talking about the pause, but why do you actually need to pause? What do you do in that moment? And it’s so funny when we think of these things like, yes, slow it down.
Why do you pause? You pause because you actually have a moment to notice what’s happening inside of you, not just the blaring red anger from the back of your brain, but you notice the clenched jaw and the shoulders up around your ears and all of the racing thoughts. And then when you have that awareness to slow it down, then you can figure out, okay, what’s actually happening underneath here for me? Is this really about the other person? Is it about myself? So let’s see. Even just a really basic script for people to understand when they communicate something. I like this one. This is a fact plus feeling and feelings are actually really hard for people to identify. Feelings are not, I feel like you don’t care about me, or I feel like you never talk to me. Those are not feelings. Those are actually thoughts with using the word feel.
Dr. Sarah (42:46):
I know I always say that. If you could put it in a sentence, it’s probably a thought. If you could say it in one word, it’s probably a feeling.
Dr. Tracy (42:52):
Right? Exactly. Okay. And then facts. Facts are not, and this is the other piece that trips us up, and we know this from emotionally focused couples therapy as part of the steps that I take people through to identify their negative cycle, what contributes to couples being stuck in their cycle is the well-traveled road of the assumptions and perceptions that they have created about their partner or about themselves. And that’s a perception, I feel like you don’t care about me. That isn’t a perception and an assumption about your partner and your lovability. So fact would be something like you said you were going to make dinner and you, you said you would be home at seven and it’s now 10 o’clock.
You said we would have time together tonight and then you didn’t come home. Those are facts. So things that you can both agree on. Often I say those are things that a fly in the wall could observe. Add that to what you feel. You got home at seven tonight or at 10 and you said you would be home at seven. I felt scared or I felt worried, or I felt uncertain. And just leave it at that and see what happens. See what your partner says.
Dr. Sarah (44:04):
Yes, I love that. I think it breaks it down in a way that gives you a formula but not a script, which I think is very, very important when we’re talking about relationships and communication between two people because there’s a million variables that are constantly changing between me and you and the environment and our bandwidth. So a script that I use this time won’t work for another time, or a script that one person uses won’t work for another.
But this formula or this way of thinking about it, I know how to observe objective fact. I know how ideally if I don’t, I’m going to work on it, identify my feelings. But that beautiful thing of putting that together and then being quiet, that is I think the third invisible part of that formula. And I love that. Wait, pause, see what they allow them to take it in. They might give you something back that you wouldn’t have ever had the balls to ask for.
Dr. Tracy (45:09):
Exactly. But we know how it’s going to go. If we go down that well-traveled path, you’re late. You never think of me. You’re always thinking about yourself. It’s like, I don’t even exist here. So what’s the point? Forget it. No more date nights, I’m done with you. I’m exaggerating intentionally. But you know how it escalates into those ways. And we know that that is going to elicit.
It’s going to elicit that defensive or the upping the anti response from the other person. But if we tried something different, maybe they’ll be different maybe, or maybe they won’t. And this is the next piece too that I always encourage people is that if you know how your partner communicates, you can prepare yourself for it. I actually created one of my free guides because of this. My free guide is 10 scripts on how to reply or how to respond to your partner’s defensiveness. Because if we know our partner easily slips into that defensiveness, we can then prepare our next response. I mean, it makes sense. And then that way we can try to do something different in the cycle. And these are all communication pieces. I mean, we also need to look at unpacking those old scripts and wounds that we carry forward in our relationships and all the other conversations that we could have had and didn’t.
Dr. Sarah (46:32):
Yeah, which is maybe fodder for another episode because there is so much there. And I think this idea too, that you could prepare yourself for what they might say. It helps you feel like you have a sense of agency because you can anticipate, which reduces anxiety, but also it helps you prepare emotionally. I know that I might work really hard at this, at delivering this, and they may not receive it skillfully back, and that will feel disappointing to me, and I might feel a little even heartbroken about that, and I know that that may happen. And so that’s going to allow me to feel that feeling versus get angry at that when it happens, right? It’s not shocking to us. And it again brings up the, okay, I’m aware there’s something bigger here that we have to work on something a little bit bigger than I don’t know how we’re having trouble asking for what we need and meeting each other’s needs versus a much more profound need of, we’re really having trouble being able to communicate in a way that feels okay and safe to each other.
And that’s something worth going to a couple’s therapist about or really getting some more support around that from a neutral party who isn’t going to elicit all the same defenses. I think one of the nice things about therapy is, especially in relationship kinds of places where two people, whether it’s a parent and a child or two partners, they get stuck in a dance. And even though they could see what’s going on, the ability to change is very difficult because every time the other person acknowledges what’s going on, we get defensive. So it’s like having a sort of objective neutral party be able to observe and reflect back to you and invite your reflection. It doesn’t elicit the same defenses, and I think that’s kind of the beauty of that.
Dr. Tracy (48:28):
Dr. Sarah (48:32):
So thank you so much for coming on. If people want to learn more about your programs, if they want to get this freebie that you were talking about, that sounds kind of amazing. If they want to read your book, where can they find you and how can they connect with you?
Dr. Tracy (48:43):
My favorite thing is for people to come over on Instagram, @drtracyd is my handle. Send me a DM and let me know what stood out for you from today’s episode. But then the other thing is all my resources are there on that link and bio there, but also drtracyd.com is the best place to see all of my resources or drtracyd.com/book is where you can grab my book. And it’s called, I Didn’t Sign Up For This: A couples therapist shares real life stories of breaking patterns and finding joy in relationships, including her own.
Dr. Sarah (49:15):
I love it. And I think that this podcast episode probably reflects a lot of the style, which is you tell stories, and I appreciate this so much about your work. It’s like I’m going to help you understand a concept that is going to be valuable to you through sharing my own story from it, or something very relatable and illustrative. So it’s not just like a bunch of do this, don’t do this. How do we do this? It’s so much more rich. So it’s a great book. I really love it.
Dr. Tracy (49:48):
Thank you, Sarah.
Dr. Sarah (49:49):
All right. Thank you so much, and we’ll talk soon.
Dr. Tracy (49:53):
Okay. Thanks everyone for joining us.
Dr. Sarah (50:01):
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Tracy, and now you feel like you have more tools for being aware of your relationship dynamics so you can begin to intentionally make shifts that bring you and your partner together. I jumped into the episode to quickly let you know about my on-Demand course, the Science of Tantrums, and I wanted to share a bit more about it with you.
So first, let me tell you what it’s not. It’s not just another one of those quick fix behavior modification strategies. I won’t be suggesting sticker charts, rewards or punishments. Instead, I provide you with a long-term framework that can guide you as you navigate dysregulation in your child and in yourself. I’ll teach you how to rewire your child’s brain, creating new neural pathways that will allow them the ability to access emotion regulation skills, increasing their ability to calm themselves and leading to fewer and less intense tantrums.
(50:49):I work every day in my practice with kids who struggles range from a touch of anxiety to severe and debilitating regulation issues. Over the years, I’ve honed a strategy that I’ve seen work with everyone from developmentally typical children to those with severe cases of behavioral and emotional challenges. So if you want to be able to apply this framework and learn how to get your child back to a place of calm connection without yelling, giving in, or making it worse, go to drsarahbren.com/tantrums. That’s drsarahbren.com/tantrums. Thanks for listening, and don’t be a stranger.