Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Protecting yourself with boundaries

By Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott July 28, 2021 In-laws & FamilyMarriage

Our families of origin have an immense impact on who we become as adults, and on our relationships. Whether friendships or romantic relationships, family imprints onto our personalities and our behavior patterns. If we aren’t able to recognize those influences and set boundaries, then our relationships could suffer.

While it’s a good idea to set boundaries regarding what behaviors you will and won’t accept from family members, you also need boundaries to protect yourself from the unspoken behavior patterns you picked up from childhood. Let’s look at a few ways your family can influence you, and what to do about it.


All families have their own unspoken rules and expectations for your interactions with one another. While some things are said outright, many are implied or picked up through patterns of behavior. For example, you may have learned as a child that you shouldn’t ask for what you want, because your parents modeled behavior that demonstrated otherwise. Or, you may have picked up that it’s best to keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself because your family always praised people who were quiet and reserved.

When you bring these unspoken rules into your relationships, this can create difficulties in your communication and problem solving. It’s essential to weed out the quiet rules you both live by so you can build a healthier relationship with full awareness of your instincts.

Build the boundary: In order to protect your relationships from your own unspoken rules, the first thing you have to do is identify what those are. You can do this through brainstorming, journaling, conversations, or counseling. Once you’ve identified your unspoken rules, it’s time to communicate. When appropriate, discuss those rules with your dating partner, your fiancĂ©, or your spouse, and encourage them to explore the same silent narratives in their own background. Understanding what drives our behavior is the first step to creating healthier relationship dynamics for ourselves.


Did you have an unspoken or spoken role you played in your family? Do you still fill that role? Every family has its own manifestation of these roles, though that looks different from one family to the next. Some families are very rigid when it comes to who plays what role. Others fall into a quiet pattern in which they play their roles, but don’t necessarily voice them. The roles become most apparent during conflict, or when one person steps on another’s toes–and consequently, into a role that doesn’t “belong” to them.

Roles can create speed bumps in good relationships. They create unspoken (and unmet) expectations, as well as conflict that’s difficult to overcome if you don’t recognize the role you grew up playing. It’s likely you continually try to play that role, over and over, and it could be contributing to painful interactions between you and your partner.

Build the boundary: It’s time to get to the bottom of the roles you each play. What are some recognizable patterns you’ve acted out throughout your life? Are there specific situations you were thrust into within your family where you were forced to play the peacekeeper, the referee, the critic, the secret-keeper? Identify your roles and discuss how this might be affecting your relationship now.


Finally, the relationship dynamics in our families inform how we behave in our adult relationships. Depending on the environment you were raised in or the behaviors you observed, you internalized a set pattern of behavior that you may now uphold as “right”. Because each individual has a different set of internalized beliefs and patterns of behavior, two people who marry could potentially bring a major clash of dynamics and beliefs into a marriage relationship.

Build the boundary: Talk through how your families interacted with each other. Were your parents openly affectionate or reserved? Did you hash out problems with shouting matches or suppress your feelings? Were you allowed to question one another or expected to keep silent? When you’ve explored all the possibilities, you’ll have more information to help you move forward in a more positive way.


…but with a little help, you can take your relationship from bad to better, or good to great. It’s absolutely possible, and we’ve created a guidebook that can help you get started on your journey. Real Relationships is a practical guide you can use to improve any important relationship in your life, whether it’s a friendship or romantic relationship. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Appreciating Your Partner's Personality



Do you ever find yourself getting annoyed with your partner’s personality? Of course, you still love them unconditionally, but man, sometimes you just can’t help but wonder… Why do they do that? Why are they that way??

The ironic thing is that if you’ve been together for any length of time, the traits that start to annoy you are often the same ones that drew you to each other initially. That gregarious sense of humor now sometimes makes you grit your teeth. Those superb planning skills can feel more exhausting than efficient.

Personality traits tend to stay pretty consistent over the course of life, which means attempting to change them or waiting for them to change on their own is not the best use of anyone’s time, energy, or relationship! What’s more useful? Learning to appreciate your partner’s personality and manage your differences and similarities in positive ways. Here are some tips to do just that.

Compliment them.

If there’s an aspect of their personality that sometimes irks you, flip your perspective and think of the positive sides of that trait. Then give them a nice compliment. Be specific (and genuine, of course!) For example, if your partner is a homebody and prefers fewer social events than you, the flip side might be that they have a knack for making time at home together peaceful and relaxing. You might say, “You’re so good at prioritizing quality time at home. You make it a sanctuary for our family, and it means a lot.”

Keep a sense of humor.

This applies to how you react to them, as well as to yourself! If you occasionally find parts of your partner’s personality to be irritating, well guess what – they probably experience the same with you. It’s all good! It simply comes with the territory of knowing someone well. So don’t take yourselves too seriously. Make up a funny name for your bossy side or start an inside joke about taking an hour to leave social gatherings. Allowing each other to be completely themselves is one of the ways we can show and feel love.

Brag on them.

Have you ever noticed how talking to a third party about your partner can sometimes give you a refreshed perspective? It can help you see things more objectively and appreciate traits that you might be overlooking or taking for granted. Maybe you’re talking with friends, and while there is some good-natured venting going on, the topic at hand makes you realize how observant and thoughtful your spouse is. Instead of keeping the thought to yourself, don’t be afraid to gush over them a bit – even in their presence!

Make differences work for you.

Do you know any couples whose personalities seem to perfectly complement each other? Maybe you are one of them, in which case this might come pretty naturally to you. However, sometimes even the most well-matched couples have personality differences that take more effort to make work in their favor. Whether it’s getting creative with how you split household duties or agreeing on a “1-week rule” as a compromise for how you make big decisions, differences don’t have to be detrimental. They have the potential to make you a great team!

Understand your similarities.

We usually think of the differences as the main source of conflict, but being very similar in certain ways can also cause some friction. For example, if you’re both very stubborn or competitive, you might let arguments go on too long or have trouble apologizing. If you both dislike change, you might be prone to complacency or have a hard time being flexible when you need to be. Being aware of how your similarities might cause imbalance in certain areas of your relationship can help you avoid letting it go too far.

Our individual personalities are not only the consistent foundation of who we are, they are also a huge part of what makes a relationship work. Over time, familiarity can create friction as different aspects of our partner’s personality interact with our own. Learning to see the differences and similarities in a positive light while appreciating each other for who you are will help your relationship continue to grow.

Want to explore how to leverage personality to strengthen your relationship?

Check out our Discussion Guide for Couples, which has an entire section devoted to personality, in addition to 13 other crucial topics. Discussion prompts guiding meaningful conversation alongside practical next steps make this guide the perfect companion to your next date night. 

if interested in the 'Discussion Guide', email

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

3 Ways Empathy Transforms Your Marriage

Some people are natural empaths. They feel what others are feeling without even trying, even people they’ve just met. Most of us have to work at empathy a little more intentionally, even with someone as close to us as our spouse. Research has shown that reminding people what empathy is can actually help them be more empathetic. So as a review for those of us who are not natural empaths, empathy is understanding or feeling what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference – or in other words, putting yourself in their shoes.

Seeing things from your partner’s frame of reference increases your connection and does wonders for the way you communicate. Here are three scenarios that show how empathy can have a profoundly positive effect on your relationship:

Empathy reminds you that your spouse is human.

Have you ever noticed how it’s really easy to feel anger and indignation toward someone when you’re not interacting with them in person? For example, say you’ve been emailing back and forth with a Customer Service rep about a mixup with your order. It’s been going on for over a week, and your problem is still not solved! Frankly, you’re not even sure the person understands the issue – how can they be so incompetent at their job?! You’re about to send a scathing reply when your phone rings. It’s the representative you’ve been dealing with, and you’re caught off guard by how friendly they sound. Turns out this whole time you’ve both been misunderstanding each other. You get your issue resolved, he jokes about you becoming best friends, and your anger has melted away as you hang up. In actually talking to the person, you realized he is just that – a person, trying to to do his best.

Applied to your relationship, empathy is like that phone call. Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and truly seeing things from their perspective helps you remember that they are just a person, doing the best they can. It’s easy to get caught up in how ticked off or frustrated we are at something they did or didn’t do – that’s normal, we’re only human, too. They’ll mess up, and so will we. So before you hit send on that stinging reply, take a second to remind yourself of the human behind the behavior – your funny, smart, and loving spouse.

Empathy makes it easier to assume positive intent.

Picture the scene: It’s Friday after a looong week. You didn’t plan anything for dinner, but your spouse assured you they’d be home early to wrangle the kids so you can throw some leftovers together. Well, it’s now 6pm, the baby just had a blowout, your toddler is getting crankier by the minute, and the leftovers you’d planned on eating are giving off a questionable odor. Where is your spouse? They’re not answering their phone, even after your fifth call and fifteenth text. At this point it would be easy to start getting yourself really worked up, stewing over how they let you down and making assumptions about why. Just then, they burst in the door, looking disheveled and laden with carryout bags. “I’m so sorry!” they say. “I was in a hurry to get out of the office so I could get across town for your favorite takeout, but I forgot my phone, and there was an accident on the freeway, and…”

Leaning into empathy means that instead of immediately dismissing what they’re saying as excuses, you really feel their distress over letting you down. They were simply trying to do something thoughtful for you, and things beyond their control prevented it from turning out as they’d planned. Instead of assuming that they’re being intentionally inconsiderate, empathy allows you to see a more realistic interpretation: that your spouse cares about you deeply and 99.9% of the time would not be intentionally thoughtless or want to make things more difficult for you. Assuming positive intent means you can approach and react to them with more kindness and understanding in times of conflict.

Empathy promotes a team mentality.

Let’s say you have a big project going on at at work, and the deadline is fast approaching. Your small team of colleagues could really use some extra hands on deck to make sure you deliver. If your manager understands your role and can empathize with you, they’re more likely to jump in to help if they can. Maybe they’ve been in your position, and they really understand how stressful it can be. Even though they’re your boss, you probably feel a sense of team camaraderie with them, a sense of “we.”

We know that remembering you’re on the same team is key to maintaining a healthy perspective when you’re not seeing eye to eye, but when you’re fighting with your spouse, it’s easy to feel like it’s you versus them. Showing empathy to your partner is like working shoulder to shoulder with them towards a solution. You can both still have your own thoughts and feelings about it but there’s comfort in knowing your partner is in it with you, not against you.

Experts have found that empathy in a marriage can be transformative. What are some ways you show empathy to your spouse? What effects has it had on your relationship? 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

4 Romance Myths to Bust Now


By May 12, 2021IntimacyMarriageRelationships

Modern marriages typically begin with a romantic relationship. Unlike marriages of the past, which were often arranged for political purposes or financial stability, marriages in the Twenty-First Century revolve around the initial rush a couple experiences while falling in love. Unfortunately, as so many licensed counselors and therapists already know, romance isn’t enough to sustain a marriage.

There are many factors at play in a successful marriage besides romance, but today’s engaged and married couples may not understand how prominent those factors are. As the butterflies of engagement and early marriage give way to broken expectations and disillusionment, couples often chase and grieve those early romantic feelings.

The first step to helping couples joyfully embrace a more realistic view of long-term marriage is to help them identify and bust common myths about romance. When we’re young, we often see one another through rose-colored glasses. But when the reality of real-life marriage strikes, it can feel deeply disappointing.

If you’re working with engaged or married couples, here are four myths about romance you can help them explore.


Couples need to know that being in love does not mean their expectations align. In fact, each individual’s expectations may lead to tension down the road. It’s imperative that engaged couples in pre-marriage counseling understand where one another stands. And if your couple is married, then they need to explore their own expectations, and whether they are the source of frustration in the relationship.

Explore the couple’s spoken and unspoken expectations. What is their understanding of gender roles in marriage, for example? How do they expect chores and responsibilities to be distributed? Who do they think should handle the bills, the cooking, or putting the children to bed? What personal expectations for behavior or intimacy does each individual have?


Many of the good things couples experience in dating and early marriage revolve around an idealized view of one another–which begins to fall away after the wedding, when everyday life sets in. Couples are often distressed when they realize how profoundly each individual can change after the initial romantic rush begins to fade.

Life circumstances change, people change, and marriage includes trade-offs and worries that single people simply don’t have. Your couples should not assume that the good things will continue getting better over time.


Many dating and engaged couples subscribe to the belief that getting married will solve their problems. Instead, your couples need to know that oftentimes, struggles and problems become worse after marriage. In part, this is because the rose-colored glasses do eventually come off. Suddenly, it’s apparent that romance can’t solve major issues the couple might have been ignoring.


It’s not possible for any person to complete another, or to make another whole. The responsibility for becoming a healthy adult lies solely on the individual. Encourage your couples to become healthy individuals so they may show up as their best, healthiest selves in their marriages. A marriage made up of two healthy, whole individuals is infinitely better than a destructive, codependent relationship–which is what spouses create when they expect the other person to complete them.


Our latest book, Helping Couples, was written in collaboration with Dr. David H. Olson of Prepare/Enrich. It’s a handbook of proven strategies for counselors, coaches, and clergy who work with engaged and married couples to both prepare for a healthy, lifelong marriage, and to nurture existing marriages. The book is available now, and you can order yours here.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

10 Questions Happy Couples Are Constantly Asking One Another


Written by Anita Chlipala, LMFT

Ah, relationship beginnings. The stream of non-stop texting, the late-night conversations that will make you starry-eyed even into the next morning. Then time passes, you get married, life gets crazy, and you fall into the rut of talking about who’s picking up the dry cleaning or what you’re having for dinner tonight. Your daily conversations went from loving talk to logistical talk.

Newlyweds vow that this will never be them. But too many couples become emotionally disconnected and they never saw it coming.

This doesn’t have to be your story. When I was writing my book, First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love, it became clear that couples who managed to feel connected did things differently. They were deliberate about maintaining and engaging real dialogue with each other (sorry, conversations about the dishwasher don’t count). Notably, their methods didn’t involve grand displays of affection or an inordinate amount of time. In fact, the little things often pack more punch than the few, infrequent grand gestures.

One of the easiest ways to reconnect—that doesn’t even cost a dime or that much time—is to ask meaningful, open-ended questions and be fully present in conversations.

I’ve rounded up some of the best questions, but before you begin, two things:

  1. Be intentional. Set aside time (start with 20 minutes) where you can focus on your partner without any distractions and shut off the TV and put the cell phones in another room.
  2. Let yourself be vulnerable. It’s a pathway to intimacy and it helps you build and maintain trust.

Here are 10 questions that will help you to deepen your relationship. Once you get started, don’t be surprised if your 20-minute conversations turn into an hour!

1. What is your best and worst memory of your childhood?

Talking about your childhood experiences, both the positive and the things that hurt you, can give your partner insight into what has shaped you as an adult. Knowing their beliefs can bring more understanding and appreciation of your partner’s beliefs, ways of being, and differences.

2. List your three biggest needs, and how can I fulfill them?

One of the best ways to make sure your spouse feels satisfied and connected is to fulfill their needs. Think about the things that are essential to feeling happy in your relationship, and give your partner specific ways that they can meet your needs. This doesn’t mean they are at your beck-and-call, but when they do things that are important to you, how could you not feel even closer?

3. Of your friends and family, who do you think has the best relationship and why?

Sometimes people have a hard time articulating what they want or need in a relationship, but they can recognize it when they see it in another couple.

4. What is the best part about being together?

As time passes, you grow together as a couple. You’ll continue to experience new things as a couple and your answers may change as the years go by. Revisit this one frequently.

5. What kinds of things do I do that annoy you, and what kinds of behaviors do you think I should stop or modify?

You can hope that your partner is honest with you about your behaviors that bother them. This isn’t always so. Some people are conflict avoidant and they ignore these actions, only to have feelings come out in resentment or a rage later. It might hurt your ego, but it’s not realistic to believe that we won’t annoy our partner, even unintentionally. Being proactive can help minimize unnecessary negativity.

6. Does anything keep you awake at night that you haven’t shared with me?

Sometimes your partner may keep something from you because they don’t want to burden you with their troubles, knowing you have enough stress of your own. When you know each other’s stressors, you can provide support, understanding, and empathy.

7. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing but haven’t yet? What’s prevented you from doing this?

Your partner may have different dreams than when you first met him. That’s okay. Asking this question gives you insight into what they want and what blocks them from achieving their dreams. You want to be your spouse’s biggest supporter in reaching their goals.

8. Why do you love me? And when did you feel most loved by me?

It’s easy to say the three words, thinking that might be enough. But knowing why reminds your partner that you recognize their unique qualities. Also, people love differently and thus they feel loved differently. Differences are inevitable, but it’s important to have ongoing communication about what you both need to feel the most loved by each other.

9. What would you consider unforgivable and why?

It’s not surprising for couples to make brief statements like, “If you cheated I would leave you” or “If you blew our savings I would get a divorce.” They don’t talk in-depth about the pain that they would feel and why. Knowing in greater detail what would deeply hurt your husband can bring a dose of reality and help protect your relationship.

10. How can we make our sex life better?

One of the most vulnerable areas in most marriages, if not the most, is physical intimacy. When a repeated rejection to sex is taken as a personal rejection, disconnection can easily set in. Talking about sex is an important part of having a great sex life. Be gentle and positive, and focus on the things you need and want (as opposed to what your partner is doing “wrong” or not enough of).

Intimacy suffers when people stay focused on the things that aren’t going well or take the good things for granted. Asking questions and constantly pointing out what you love will help you stay focused on these good things and will help your relationship soar. It’s no secret, but it’s how happy couples stay happy.

The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021



My husband had this annoying habit when we were first married: He would tell me the truth.

I would request his opinion on my shirt, for example, and he would casually let me know if it looked sloppy or less-than-flattering. He would thank me for the meal from my shiny new Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, but upon my further inquiry, he’d suggest I cut back on the garlic.

Or I would begin a well-known wifely script. “I feel so [insert adjective]. I can’t believe you’re attracted to me.”

My husband was supposed to reply, “I am married to the most beautiful woman in the world.”  But he would recognize my moments in the quicksand of insecurity, my attempts to drag him in.

A truth-teller would not speak with inaccurate superlatives. Instead, he extended a branch: “I’m guessing you don’t really think that’s true. I’m not going to tell you that you’re the most beautiful woman in the world; you wouldn’t believe me anyway!”

Really? Try me.

“But you are beautiful to me.”

Kind of anti-climactic. Didn’t he know how this script was supposed to read? Who is this guy? Just tell me what I want to hear!


At times he thought that I wanted to be reminded of scriptural principles. (And I did. But not when I was sinning, for Pete’s sake.) Not in a self-righteous way. Just carefully, honestly telling me what I needed to hear.


He would also be gut-level honest about sin he was struggling with. At first I’d feel awkward. Or disappointed. Or extremely angry.

But the more this happened—and the more I started to reveal my own struggles—the more intimate and refining our relationship became. I felt closer to him as we confessed our failures to each other, then asked forgiveness and even quietly held each other accountable to change.

As he grew more gentle, more careful about his timing and choice of words, I recognized something valuable and rare: trustworthiness.

When my husband complimented me, he wasn’t just trying to make me feel good.  His looks of admiration were from a man who’d been with me in the battle, fighting with me and helping me anticipate the places I could be wounded by my own sin—or wound others.

Today I never doubt whether my husband is being straightforward.  The white lies that grease the wheels of so many relationships are not welcomed in our home.

I don’t worry that he will let me continue looking tacky in an outfit, or being tacky in the way I speak to our children. Just as I now tenderly bathe our 6-month-old son in the sink, washing the peas out of his neck so that they won’t smell, or the dried applesauce sticking the strands of his hair together, my husband cleanses me with the water of the Word, like Christ has: “that He might present to Himself the Church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). My husband nourishes me and cares for me like he cares for himself.

My husband has grown a lot in our 10 years of marriage. But I’m thankful to report that he has retained one character trait of surprising depth and worth: telling the truth.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

How to Have a State of the Union Meeting

The State of the Union is a time to reflect on the relationship and share both things that are working well and things that need to be addressed. What I see with the couples I work with is that things build up over time and lead to either big fights or distance. Having a State of the Union conversation can help you stay connected and engaged in your relationship in an otherwise distracting world. 

So, what does this conversation look like? The State of the Union has four parts to it. They are as follows: 

Give one another 5 appreciations 

In the first part of the meeting, take turns sharing five things your partner did in the past week that you appreciated. Note what the positive trait means about your partner. For example,  “I appreciate how considerate you were this past week when you picked up the clothes from the dry cleaners when I ran out of time.”

Talk about what went right in the relationship

Next, take some time to discuss together what is working, improving, or going well in the relationship. For example, perhaps your family faced difficult stress this past week and you both worked well as a team in navigating it. Or maybe you were both good at scheduling date night and following through. This would be the place to say so. Acknowledging the work you and your partner put into the relationship will help you stay motivated to continue.  

Select an issue to talk about or process any regrettable incidents  

At this point, take turns sharing any concerns you may have from the past week. Conflict is inevitable and necessary in any relationship. When handled constructively, it will leave you feeling more connected. For that to happen, you must work on attuning to one another. 

To help you stay attuned to one another, Dr. John Gottman has developed an  acronym to easily remember what to do during these conversations: 

  • Awareness – of your partners feeling and experience 
  • Tolerance – that there are two different valid viewpoints for negative emotions
  • Turning Toward – recognizing your partner’s need and turning toward it
  • Understanding – attempting to understand your partners’ experience and their perspective 
  • Non-defensive Listening – listening to your partner’s perspective without concentrating on victimizing yourself or reversing the blame 
  • Empathy – responding to your partner with an understanding, awareness, and sensitivity to their experience and needs 

To attune to one another, you should take turns being Speaker and Listener. When it is your turn to share, it is your job as Speaker to express your feelings and needs without blaming or criticizing your partner. To do this effectively, you can follow the rules for a softened start-up.  

  • I feel… (share what emotions you have such as worried, scared, sad,  lonely, hurt, etc.) 
  • …about what… (share the situation you are concerned about, not what’s wrong  with your partner) 
  • I need… (express what you need in positive terms, i.e., what you need to happen versus what you don’t like that is currently happening) 

This can look like: “I am feeling tired and overwhelmed from cooking the past seven nights. I need us to come up with a plan for this coming week where we  share the cooking or eat out more.” 

When you are the Listener, it is your job to listen non-defensively and help your partner feel heard and understood.

What can I do next week to make you feel more loved? 

Lastly, you end your State of the Union discussion by each sharing one thing your partner can do to help you feel connected in the coming week. Share what you want to see happen. For example, you may share, “One thing that would help me feel more loved in the coming week is if we spent some time cuddling in bed on Saturday morning.” 

Check-in weekly

When couples make the time on a weekly basis to check in with one another, it helps you both feel heard, understood, and appreciated in the relationship. It prevents issues from building up and gives you space and time to practice solving problems together. 

The State of the Union is just one of the many Gottman exercises that help manage conflict. Learn more with the Relationship Coach.