Latest Posts

Latest Posts

Oxytocin: The Cuddle Hormone by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

Oxytocin, often referred to as “the cuddle hormone” or “the bonding hormone,” seems to be appearing quite frequently in the news these days. I see articles about oxytocin everywhere I go, and as a couples counselor, I’m a big advocate for anything that increases cuddling or bonding; especially when it is something easy, natural, and doable without spending any money or even a whole lot of extra time.

So what is it? Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain. Its primary function is intimacy: when released, it increases feelings of trust, love, connection and bonding. It is released in a variety of ways and situations, one of the most important of which is during childbirth. It helps move the labor process along, it assists the process of lactation, and also literally creates the mother-child bond. It is also released during physical contact with another person, whether that person is a friend or a partner or a relative.

But oxytocin is so much more than that. The benefits of oxytocin are innumerable: in addition to facilitating bonding between people, it also lowers blood pressure, lowers cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, relieves pain and increases pain thresholds, decreases anxiety and aids in recovering from PTSD, helps develop better social skills, better self-esteem, better sleep, lowers the risk of heart disease, increases the functioning of the immune system and helps it to recover from illnesses more quickly, etc. It has even been found to reduce drug cravings in addicts.

All of this, without having to spend money or put medicines or drugs into your body. So how do you increase your oxytocin levels? Very easily, actually. Touch. The simple act of human touch, whether it is platonic or romantic, releases oxytocin. When touch is given with intention and care, it releases even more oxytocin. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with another human being, that touch is even more effective in releasing higher levels of oxytocin. Higher levels of oxytocin lead to increased levels of trust, so it’s a cycle- the more you do it, the more you get, and the more easily and quickly it is produced in the future.

If we look at oxytocin from a relationship perspective, its easily one of the most effective ways to increase your feeling of connection and bonding with your partner. It really is as simple as cuddling more, touching each other more, kissing more, focusing more on intentional loving physical touch. The immediate benefits of oxytocin are great, but the long-term benefits to a person’s mental and physical health really demonstrate why oxytocin is so important. Lack of physical touch is a major cause of depression, so it follows that increased physical touch can serve as an effective way to combat depression, but also serve as method for improving relationship connections and trust.

Anxiety by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

Anxiety: it’s something everyone deals with at one point or another, whether we all admit it or not. It’s one of the main reasons people seek therapy, and often medication. But what if I told you that anxiety is a completely normal reaction?

Not only is anxiety normal, it’s necessary. Anxiety is our body’s “fight or flight” system kicking into gear. Most anxiety is rooted in fear- fear of the unknown, fear of failure, etc… Without anxiety, we wouldn’t recognize potentially dangerous people or situations. Anxiety can also be a motivator- say you’re anxious about your first day at a new job. That anxiety can help you be more determined to do well and pay attention to what you’re doing.

Obviously, not all anxiety is healthy. If it monopolizes your day because you can’t think about anything else, if you’re losing significant amounts of sleep, if it’s causing stomach or physical reactions, then it can definitely be a bad thing. Those are times when seeking help to control the anxiety, through therapy and sometimes medication, is absolutely warranted and can be quite helpful.

However, I often encounter clients who want help “getting rid” of their anxiety around situations and people that warrant an anxious response. You’re worried about running into an ex-partner at a particular party that you may both be at? That’s a normal response. You’re a bit hypervigilant when walking to your car after getting off of work because it’s dark and you’re in a bad neighborhood? You’re in a new relationship, and you’re unsure of the other person’s feelings and where they stand? All normal. It’s difficult for any therapist to help clients “get rid of” this type of anxiety, because the last thing we want to do is stop you from having a healthy response to what’s going on in your world.

So, how do you tell the difference between “normal” anxiety and anxiety that warrants more concern? If you have a therapist, talk to them about it. If not, then ask yourself these questions:

1. Am I consistently losing sleep over this?

2. Where do I feel the anxiety? (stomach, head, jaw, etc.)

3. Is this interfering with my day-to-day life? (For example, is it affecting your relationship, work, social life?)

4. If one of my friends told me they were having this problem, what would I say to them?

Losing sleep, physical pain and interference with your daily life are key indicators that there is something more serious. The last question is about determining whether or not this is something you can work through on your own or if you need to ask for help. Asking for help is never wrong and sometimes issues that wouldn’t normally get to us throw us off track because of other things going on in our lives. Regardless of what type of anxiety it is, talking to a therapist can help you work through underlying issues, as well as learn was to self-soothe and lessen anxiety overall.

Appreciation in Relationships by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

One of the reoccurring themes I see in couples counseling is appreciation, or the lack thereof. Particularly with couples that have been together for a long time, appreciation can fall to the wayside when they start to take things for granted. This could be something as small as minor household chores. If your partner has always done the dishes, you may not think to thank them or acknowledge how much you appreciate it. What if they just stopped one day? The dishes would pile up, the kitchen would be a mess, it may attract bugs or pests, etc. Often, we don’t realize how important something little like that is until it doesn’t get done. When I ask couples to start acknowledging the little things their partner does around the house, they often think that it is a ridiculous suggestion. Why should they thank their partner for something that they should be doing anyway? That attitude signals a problem to me: the little things your partner does are just as important as the bigger things. Those little things help your household and relationship run more smoothly. Why wouldn’t you thank them for their contributions to that, just as they should be thanking you for yours?

There are several other reasons that appreciation is so important in relationships. One of them is because it increases your positive interactions. According to John Gottman, renowned couples researcher and therapist, couples need a positive to negative interaction ratio of 5:1, meaning for every one negative interaction or thought you have regarding your partner, you need 5 positive ones to make up for it. Thanking your partner for the little but important things they do is an easy way to increase that number. Gottman also discusses what he calls “building a culture of appreciation, fondness, and admiration” within your relationship. Many people struggle with what is called “hyper-vigilence for negativity.” This is when you search your environment and your situations for the bad things instead of the good. If you’re looking for bad, you’ll find it. The same applies if you’re looking for good… so why wouldn’t you choose to look for the good instead? The happiest couples are the ones who look for opportunities to recognize their partners for the good things they do.

Another way to show appreciation is to compliment your partner. Reminding them of the things you love about them, particularly when they’re having a bad day or are feeling down, is an excellent way to show them appreciation, fondness and admiration. It’s very important to remind your partner that you support them, you’re proud of them, you’re attracted to them, and all of the things you admire about them. Give affection and compliments as often as possible. Remind yourself and your partner of what made you fall in love in the first place, and do that as frequently as you can. Making appreciation a priority in your relationship is a surefire way to keep the spark alive, and to increase both partners’ happiness and satisfaction.

Ascribing Intention by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

In a recent blog, I discussed the dangers of assumption. This month, I want to take it a step further. Assumption’s pesky cousin is ascribing intention, or taking something someone says and infusing meaning into it based on your perception of what they’re saying instead of what is actually coming out of their mouth. Perception is colored by a lot of things: your mood, the other person’s tone of voice, your personal opinions and views on the subject at hand, and personal insecurities. Any of these things can affect how you hear what someone else says, so when you find yourself assigning a specific negative intention to what someone is saying, the best course of action is to ask, rather than assume. By asking, you’re giving them the opportunity to explain their thought process and clue you in to what’s going on with them, which can help you to understand where their perspective. You’re also preventing unnecessary conflict and negative emotion, which are the natural byproducts of assumption and ascribing intention. In the event that you can’t ask them, then ask yourself this question- why are you automatically going to the worst possible scenario? That indicates that there may be a deeper issue, that your internal radar for other peoples’ intentions towards you is automatically set to “negative,” and you may need to consider where that is coming from and why.

Experts call this behavior “hypervigilance for negativity.” It has very little to do with what is being said, and everything to do with how you’re filtering what is being said. If you are looking for negativity, you’re inevitably going to find it. I am not expecting everyone to go through life ignoring every negative thing they come across, but as an expert on mental health, I’ll tell you this- progress and growth does not come from focusing on negativity. It comes from finding a silver lining whenever possible and reframing what could potentially be seen as negative into the most realistic positive perspective.

Ascribing intention through hypervigilance for negativity is a recipe for complete disaster. People often fall into this when they’re at their worst: if they’re depressed, when they’ve had a bad day, when they aren’t getting what they want from their partner, etc. This occasional behavior can easily develop into a pattern, and it’s a hard one to break because it goes hand in hand with feeling victimized and like the world is out to get you. If you fail to recognize your role and accept responsibility, you get caught up in the idea that you have no control and things just “happen” to you. This is rarely the case. You have more power than you realize. By simply asking instead of assuming and ascribing intention, you are taking control of the situation by admitting that you don’t know everything and allowing the other person to provide you with the information you need to reframe the situation and look at it from a more positive perspective.

Assumption by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

One thing I see come up frequently in counseling is assumption. Often, when people are in relationships with one another, they start to think they know what their partner is going to say before they say it, and will sometimes play an entire conversation out in their heads rather than actually having that conversation with their partner. Even worse, sometimes people build resentment towards others based on the imagined outcome of conversations that never actually happened. I like to compare assumption with the ability to read minds. Can you read minds? No? That’s what I thought.

Once you start assuming that you know how a situation is going to play out before it happens, you’re making two major mistakes: you’re saying that you have the ability to predict the future, and you’re not giving the other person the opportunity to have an actual say in a conversation that affects them. I know that if you’ve been with someone for awhile, especially if it is a conversation that you’ve had more than once, it can be easy to fall into the trap of avoiding that topic because it never goes the way you want it. This is inevitable when you attempt to have the same conversation the same way every time; it makes no sense to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. You have to change your approach, which often means empathizing first with the other person’s position and seeing things from their point of view, or as Dr. John Gottman would call it, “accepting influence.”

Accepting influence is a struggle for many because it forces you to not be defensive. When you’re being defensive, you listen to respond rather than listen to understand. When you accept influence, you open yourself to the idea that your way is not the only way, and that the person you’re speaking with has valid opinions and ideas that you need to take into consideration. Assumption is the ultimate manifestation of defensiveness, because you’re literally being defensive about something that hasn’t even happened yet based purely on the notion that you somehow know what the other person is going to say before they have been given the opportunity to say it.

Consider this: have you ever been in a conversation with someone where you felt as if everything you said was being ignored or discarded? This is an example of what it feels like when someone doesn’t accept your influence. Now imagine being in a relationship with someone like that; it’s a recipe for disaster. It leads to assumption because it means that you’ll eventually stop investing your time and energy into them because you know that they are going to ignore what you say and not take your advice. In order to prevent assumption and facilitate accepting influence, both partners have to be willing to find common ground and compromise instead of expecting that they will always get everything 100% their way.

Depression vs. Anxiety by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

At least a few times a week, I have clients who sit down on my couch and immediately say, “I’m soooooo depressed.” My first question is usually, “Why are you depressed?” My general rule is that if you can tell me specifically why you’re depressed, it isn’t depression. It’s sadness. Sadness is a normal emotion to have when something bad has happened. Your dog dies, your best friend moves away, you break up with your partner: these are events that cause sadness, and yes, if the feelings persist for a long time, it may develop into depression. But the difference is this: sadness is an effect, caused by an event. Depression doesn’t necessarily have a causing event; it can come out of nowhere and completely disable the person suffering from it. Sadness is an emotion; depression is a state of being.

Trying to describe depression to someone who hasn’t suffered from it is like trying to explain color to someone who has always been blind. How do you describe the color green if you can’t reference trees, grass, nature, your best friend’s eyes, etc.? You can’t. They have no reference point. For those who live with depression, explaining what it’s like to someone who has never felt it is impossible. But I’m going to try.

Imagine everything in your body hurts, like when you have the flu, but the pain isn’t physical, it’s psychological- but no less real. There is no medication that you can take to make the symptoms even the slightest bit less intense. You can’t predict when it will hit or for how long it will persist, and doing the simplest of tasks feels impossible. Imagine that in addition to the pain and discomfort you feel, your brain is telling you that it will never get better, that it will always be this way. It may even tell you that life isn’t worth living, that you should just end things now because that is the only release from this hell that is now your life. It could also tell you that you deserve this for one or countless wrongs you have done others in your life, and this incredible pain is your punishment for those wrongs.

I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there. Most therapists don’t admit their own struggles to their clients, but I’m going to let you in on a secret: the best therapists have had mental health issues, faced them, and speak from experience. We as therapists are no better than you, no smarter than you, and we’re certainly no less human than you. Acknowledging and embracing that makes us better at what we do and makes it easier for our clients to trust us. We’ve learned how to conquer these things and when we can admit to our clients that we’ve suffered from them we can also share how we got past them- and that’s the whole point. If we can get past them, so can you. There is no cure for depression, but there are definitely ways of easing the pain and learning to function in spite of it.

Forgiveness Follow Up by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

A while back, I wrote a blog about forgiveness. I wrote about how not forgiving is like carrying around a backpack full of all the things for which you had not forgiven. I want to take that a step further- imagine you’re walking down a path. That path is your life. Imagine that every few steps, you pick up a rock and put it in your backpack. You continue to do this until that backpack becomes so heavy that you cannot take another step. That is what not forgiving does to your life- it stops you in your tracks. How can you move forward if you are carrying around all of that negativity? The only way to move forward on that path is to take the rocks out of the backpack and leave them behind.

There are times, though, that forgiveness is more complicated than that. I think forgiveness is most difficult when it is ourselves we are trying to forgive. I often find that people are more forgiving toward others than they are toward themselves. It is possible they have higher expectations for themselves than they do for others, or hold themselves more personally responsible for the outcome of things. Let’s say you’ve had a really horrible fight with a friend, one where you both have said things that you didn’t mean or shouldn’t have said. Maybe you forgive that friend more readily because you know they’ve had a rough day or a difficult time lately, but you don’t grant yourself that same courtesy. In situations like this, you’re empathizing with your friend- a useful and important skill when it comes to forgiveness, but you have to leave room for forgiving yourself, too.

I’ve heard that staying angry is easier than forgiving. This is absolutely true, at least in the short term. Forgiving someone is a much more difficult process than just being angry, but staying angry takes a lot more energy long-term. Anger is a negative emotion: it pulls you down, makes it impossible to see the good in anything, and pushes people away. Forgiveness, while definitely more difficult at first, is actually quite liberating. It frees you from negativity, and lets you drop those rocks out of that backpack to walk around without weight on your shoulders. Forgiveness allows you to distance yourself from negative emotion and things that hold you back. I believe that in order to effectively forgive anyone, including yourself, you have to practice that most difficult of virtues: patience. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily or quickly; you have to have patience. It’s like the metaphor of seeing the forest through the trees. You may be holding on to something that seems big right now, but overall is quite small and eventually rather inconsequential. Don’t hold on to the little things. Perhaps that is the best way to practice forgiveness: start with small things, and work your way up to bigger things. Start with forgiving yourself first to make it easier to forgive others in the future.

Basic Tips for Couples by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

There are an unlimited number of ways that you can be a better partner and have a better relationship. Learning is a lifetime process, and especially in your relationship, it should be constant. There are, however, some very specific things that you and your partner can do that will increase your relationship satisfaction, as well as help you communicate with one another in a healthier way.

1. Establish and maintain a 5 to 1 positive to negative interaction ratio. According to Dr. John Gottman, this is essential to having a healthy relationship. Negative interactions are powerful, and inevitable in normal relationships, even healthy ones. The best way to counteract the effects of negative interactions is to have as many positive interactions as possible, with a ratio of at least 5 to 1.

2. Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and know their antidotes. The toxicity of these “Four Horsemen” as Dr. Gottman calls them cannot be underestimated. Criticism, to which the antidote is complaining without blaming, contempt, to which the antidote is showing respect and trust, defensiveness, to which the antidote is taking responsibility for your part in the conflict, and stonewalling, to which the antidote is physiological self-soothing (deep breathing, slowing down your pulse, counting to ten slowly) are poison in a relationship.

3. Ask. If your feelings are being hurt, if you partner is giving you attitude, if something they’ve said has come across badly, ask them about it. Take it as an opportunity to check in with them, let them know how they are coming across and give them an opportunity to correct it. So many couples let little things evolve into big things because they misinterpreted, assumed, or mind-read. Don’t do that. Instead, ask your partner, in a kind way, what’s going on. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe it has nothing to do with you or the situation you’re in. People don’t always realize how they come across to those they love, because when we love, we let our guard down and we say things without thinking about their impact.

4. Never stop dating each other. When we first meet our partners, we present the best version of ourselves. Not that we aren’t authentic, but we tend to only show the things that make us attractive to others. Over time, we discover things about our partners that are less flattering. They don’t necessarily make us love them any less, but as the newness of a relationship wears off, the spark can, too. One way to keep the spark alive is to keep dating each other throughout your relationship. Dinner dates, movies, concerts, anything where the two of you can spend quality time together, without the interference of everyday worries and stress (including the interruptions of children, social media, and work) is helpful in keeping that spark alive.

Before Marriage by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

Marriage is such an exciting time in a couples’ life. There are so many decisions and plans to be made that often couples completely bypass some of the more important conversations that should be had before they decide to dedicate their lives to one another. I’m not talking about where they will live or with whose family they will spend the holidays. I’m talking about the stuff that has a serious impact on the rest of a couples’ life together.

For starters, do you both want children? If yes, great. If no, great. As long as you’re agreed. If you’re undecided, that’s fine too, as long as you’re both open to the other person’s influence. If, however, one of you is firmly opposed to having children, and the other has dreamed of having children their whole life, this is a core issue that must be resolved prior to engaging in lifelong commitment. If you stay together, one of you will wind up giving up something that matters to them. It is entirely possible that either way, the person who relented will grow accustomed to the situation and be perfectly fine, even happy; but it’s equally likely that they will instead become resentful, and harbor that resentment until it grows into contempt. If you make the decision to give up something that is important to you, or to take on something you never wanted, make sure you thoroughly understand your motives and that you are not engaging in quid pro quo (agreeing to do something for them in return for them doing something for you- this is also unhealthy.) How you will raise children is a big topic too, but that in itself is a whole blog.

Finances are another major topic. I worked in finance for five years before transitioning to therapy full-time, and I saw plenty of couples both in that job and this one who struggled with the language of money. Some people are great with money, some aren’t. Most couples are comprised of one of each type of person. Money is a tough subject, but it is something that must be discussed in any successful relationship. One of the keys to successful relationships is delegation. When combined with another one of the keys, communication, delegation of responsibilities within a couple based upon the individual strengths of each partner contributes to the success of that couple. Talk about money openly and admit when one of you is more responsible with it than the other. Do this before you’re married, not after. Establish good habits and patterns early, and they will serve you well.

I think one of the reasons that society balks at people who get married so soon after meeting is that it is hard to believe that people who literally just met could have possibly had all of the important conversations that need to be had prior to legally binding themselves to one another. Maybe they have a point. On the other hand, I’ve seen couples who were together for years before they got married who still didn’t have those conversations, and couples who were together for mere weeks before they got married who did. I think it’s more about quality than quantity. You can spend years with someone and barely say a word that means anything at all, or days with someone and say thousands of words that mean the world. Moral of the story: make what you do say count.

Body Positivity by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

I get asked occasionally how I came by the confidence I have about myself and my body. This kind of question is rather insulting. I’m not a small person. I am what society calls “overweight” or “fat,” and in many ways, society shames those of us with non-supermodel bodies into thinking that we don’t deserve to be confident, or feel beautiful, or really be seen at all until we “get healthy” or lose weight.

I spent the majority of the first three decades of my life trying to come to terms with my body type and failing miserably. I rarely felt attractive. I never felt confident. I felt I needed to be invisible, because I offended people with my body simply by existing. Even when I was at my smallest size or lowest weight, it wasn’t enough, because I still didn’t fit in the clothes at the stores my friends shopped. I still had to shop “plus-size” stores or be relegated to the plus-size section of department stores, which by the way, usually means matching pant and sweater sets that did not at all fit in with my age or my style.

Then there are the ways that I would shame myself. Whenever I would eat out, before I would order my food I would go through a litany of reasoning as to why it was okay for me to order what I wanted, regardless of what other people were “clearly” thinking about an overweight woman ordering a double cheeseburger. I would compare myself to my friends, who were always smaller than me, and therefore more worthy, desirable, and attractive than I could ever be. If I shopped with them, I imagined that I could feel the employees in the stores looking at me and thinking, “She doesn’t belong here, nothing will fit her.” I even went so far as to make excuses for the people I dated regarding how they treated me or what I had a right to expect from them, because they were “compromising” by being with me, an overweight person who no one could possibly want simply because I was awesome.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not sure when the switch flipped, or if there was a defining moment or a series of them, but I know several things for certain now:

1. I’m beautiful. Not beautiful “for a fat person;” just beautiful. Period.

2. I can order whatever food I damn well please, and chances are, no one really cares enough to think twice about it. And if they do, they have the problem, not me.

3. My body is not a compromise. My body may not be everyone’s “type,” but not everyone is my “type” either. That’s okay. I have an amazing husband who loves every curve, squishy part and fat roll that I have, unequivocally.

4. I am worthy of the same love everyone else is.

My confidence comes from somewhere deeper. It didn’t come from anyone else telling me how worthy or beautiful I am, it came from me recognizing all of the awesome things about myself that have nothing to do with my weight. I am confident because I know I am a good person. I treat others the way I want to be treated. I don’t judge people, and I have dedicated my life to helping people heal and grow. I know I’m smart: I’m resourceful, intelligent and driven to keep learning every day of my life. I’m a good friend, daughter, sister, and wife. I’m the most beautiful woman in the world to the one person whose opinion actually matters to me: my husband. I’ve learned to appreciate my body in ways I never have before, by figuring out my own sense of style, what works for me and what doesn’t, and what makes me feel good and comfortable and stylish. I’ve learned to accept not being perfect and not aspiring to be, and that no one else is perfect either. Everyone has their insecurities, no matter how they may look to the outside world. And I’ve learned to operate by this principle: “What other people think of you (and if they’re thinking of you at all) is none of your business!”

Coming Out to Family by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

I grew up in a family where we believed in the idea of unconditional love. We all messed up on occasion, but at the end of the day, family is family and we were there for each other no matter what. I had instilled in me a “no strings attached” approach to family- when your family needs something, or when there is something that you can do for them to make their lives easier, you do it- no questions asked, no strings attached. Money doesn’t matter, time doesn’t matter, even political differences and differences of opinion don’t matter, because that’s what family means.

When I hear about LGBTQ people being afraid to come out to their families, it really bothers me. “Family” and “fear” don’t go together in my book. Family should be a safe place, not one that invokes fear or makes you feel like you should have to hide anything. Of course I know that isn’t the case in many families. The thought that I could lose my family because of some aspect of me as a person that they don’t approve of would definitely make me second guess whether it was something they really needed to know about.

I’m an academic, so of course I have to ask why this is. If you love someone, why does their sexuality or their gender matter? In what way does it change who they are as a person? I’ve never heard a reasonable answer to these questions because there isn’t one. Sexuality and gender do not define a person; they are aspects of a person. They don’t make a person who they are; their personality, morals, values, beliefs, etc. do that. None of that changes when a person comes out.

I would never advise a client to come out in a situation where they don’t feel safe. I would; however, advise all families to consider the following: according to GLSEN, 30% of suicides each year are LGBTQ individuals, and greater than 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide. Much of this is due to fear of not being accepted by family, friends and peers. According to PFLAG, LGBTQ youth who experience family rejection during adolescence are three times more likely to use illegal drugs. I have counseled many LGBTQ teens and young adults, and I can honestly tell you that the ones who have supportive families are much happier and well-adjusted than those who face discrimination and judgment within their own household and family.

It comes down to this: what kind of family do you want? Adjusting to the news that someone you love identifies as LGBTQ can be difficult, but there are many ways to help that do not involve rejection, discrimination or judgment. Ask them what they need. Seek therapy as a family to figure out how to be the kind of parent or family member that they need, and how to find acceptance. Rejection is a choice, and so is acceptance.- Choose the latter for them and for you.

Common Mistakes Couples Make by Sarah Helman

As human beings, we engage in patterns. No two humans’ patterns are exactly alike, but there is a great deal of overlap and many similarities to be found, particularly in relationships. What I’ve found through much of my couples’ work is that often we perpetuate patterns that are more hurtful to our relationships than they are helpful, and many of those hurtful patterns are not exclusive to any one couple. Here are some common mistakes I see couples make, along with some helpful tips:

1. You think the goal is to win. I hate to break it to you, but you don’t get to win anymore. I tell couples that all the time: if you’re “winning” that means the person you love the most is “losing.” How exactly is that productive? I like to use my co-worker Danny Adam’s analogy for this: you’re not on opposing teams, you’re on the same team. You may have two different strategies for how to win the game, but you’re trying to win TOGETHER from the same side.

2. You aren’t touching each other enough.If you’re having constant or reoccurring conflict, I guarantee you’re not touching each other anywhere near as much as you should. Touch is something that we need as infants and children in order to feel soothed and safe; that doesn’t go away in adulthood. We need the touch of those we love to feel connected, and touch facilitates the production of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Hold hands more, kiss more, hug more, sit closer together on the couch, cuddle before you fall asleep. The conflict won’t necessarily go away, but it’s a lot harder to be mean to someone by whom you feel soothed.

3. You think your perception is the ONLY perception. Have you ever had the experience with your partner where you feel like you each remember something that happened completely differently? That’s because it you experienced it differently. Each partner filters the things that happen during a disagreement through different emotions, body sensations, timing, etc. Of course your recollections won’t be the same. But don’t get caught up in the details. It isn’t important if you were 15 minutes late or 30, or if it happened two weeks ago or three. Each person has their own version of events, and both are valid because they remember that event through their own filters. Focus on the solution, don’t get caught up in the minor details of the problem.

4. You think your partner hates/doesn’t want you because they say mean things during conflict. Sometimes, we hurt those we love to see if the hurtful things that we say and do will actually cause damage, because if those things do cause damage, that means the other person still wants and loves us and that is somehow reassuring. Human beings aren’t perfect by any means; put us in a relationship, and we’re that much more likely to be seriously flawed. Of course the mean things we say to each other hurt, they’re usually meant to. Trying to see your partner as hurt and scared rather than hateful can change the way you respond to one another.

Contempt & Disrespect by Sarah Helman

Of all of the things that couples do that are the most harmful to their relationship, showing contempt towards one another is by far the worst. Contempt can be shown in a lot of ways: rolling your eyes, making an inappropriate noise, belligerence, condescension, saying hurtful or spiteful things, attacking your partner’s character, etc. The most common theme of contempt is disrespect, and there is absolutely no room for disrespect in a relationship.

Disrespect and contempt are expressed through conveying a sense of superiority over your partner. Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute says that contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce in a relationship. It is so toxic that it can actually impact a person’s health. The number of contemptuous statements a speaker makes to their partner in a 15-minute period is directly correlated to the number of infectious illnesses the listener will suffer through the following year.

The difficult thing about contempt is that it comes from long-standing negative thought patterns about your partner. It stems from unresolved conflicts: those fights and disagreements that you don’t necessarily let go once they are finished, or that you never fully resolved in the first place. It can sneak up on you, to the point where you hear yourself saying things that you weren’t aware you felt. It can start with something as simple as sarcasm, which many people say is just part of their personality. This is an excuse; a shield. While some people do have a sarcastic sense of humor, there is a difference between sarcastic humor and condescendingly sarcastic remarks to your partner.

So if that’s what contempt looks like, how do you counteract it? It isn’t easy, but it is necessary in order to have a healthy relationship. The path begins by creating what Gottman calls a culture of fondness and appreciation within your relationship. Start by acknowledging contempt and disrespect when you see them, either from yourself or from your partner. When you find yourself feeling contemptuous, remember what it is that you love about your partner. See your contempt as a failure on your part to recognize and remember the good, admirable, likable qualities they have. Conflict by nature is not unhealthy; what makes it unhealthy is when it comes from a place of disrespect. If you approach your partner from a place of respect and love, they are much more likely to receive what you are saying and be able to respond appropriately. Use “I feel…” and “I want…” rather than “You are…” and “You never…” and similar statements. Every human being is deserving of respect, and by expressing contempt within your relationship, you devalue your partner as a human being deserving of the same respect you would give to others, and that you would expect to receive yourself.

Forgiving vs. Forgetting Blog by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

“The things two people do to each other they remember. If they stay together, it’s not because they forget; it’s because they forgive.” –Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal

Forgiveness is often mistaken as something you do for other people; in truth, it’s much less altruistic than that. Imagine carrying around a backpack full of all the times someone in your life had done something that required your forgiveness. Imagine that instead of forgiving them, you had held on to all of those things. The weight of all of those unforgiven actions would be unbearable, and you would crumble under that weight. When we forgive someone, we not only accept their apology and make them feel better, we unburden ourselves of the weight of the negative feelings and thoughts that came with the action.

However, Thomas Szasz once said, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” There is a major difference between forgiving someone for something they’ve done wrong, and forgetting it ever happened. That difference lies not in the way you treat the person who wronged you, but in how you carry what is left over from what happened. Forgiveness means acknowledging that people are fallible; that they make mistakes and are in no way perfect, but choosing to love them regardless. It does not mean setting aside everything they’ve done wrong and ignoring it; it means choosing not to use their past mistakes against them, but remembering things that have happened as a lesson. This may seem difficult, because often people are eager to engage in all-or-nothing thinking, meaning they either forgive and forget, or don’t do either.

Like many things, the ability to forgive and move on is a learned skill, not something you can just start doing and automatically be great at. If you’re prone to holding on to things, learning to let go of them may feel like you are betraying yourself or your feelings, but it’s really a matter of perspective. I often tell my clients that if you can change your perspective on something, you can change pretty much anything else as well- the way you feel about the situation, the way the situation effects you, your life, and your relationships, how you deal with similar situations in the future, etc. Once you’ve done it enough times, it becomes second nature and the struggle ceases.

I’m definitely not saying that everything deserves forgiveness, or even that forgiveness should be your automatic response to every wrong that is done to you. I firmly believe that ninety percent of a problem is how you react to it- forgiveness is a reaction, and while we may not always feel like it is true, we are fully capable of choosing our reaction to things that happen to us. There will always be things that we feel are unforgivable, and sometimes choosing not to forgive is about self-preservation and is necessary. Ultimately, though, it boils down to picking your battles. You get to choose the things that go inside that imaginary backpack that you carry around. Choose things that help you, not hinder you, and if all else fails, take a step back from the situation and give yourself time to decide how you want to react, and if forgiveness is a possibility.

Gay Marriage Blog by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

In early 2015, when gay marriage was finally legalized in Florida, I co-taught the workshop that couples have to take if they want to be married within 3 days of getting their marriage license. A few weeks ago, I had the honor of marrying two men who have been together for more than 28 years. With all this talk of marriage equality and the great things that are happening in our country for equality right now, I started thinking… what really changes for couples when they legalize it?

Marriage as an institution has been around longer than recorded history. In fact, it wasn’t even recognized as a religious sacrament until 1184. Even after that, churches stayed out of marriage for the most part until the 16th century, often taking the couple’s word that marriage vows had been exchanged, because marriage was considered a contract between two families, not a religious rite. It seems like lately, though, parts of society are intent on defining marriage as something that is ordained by God, defined by religion, and reserved for those who fit into the “traditional” view of marriage that much of society holds. Luckily for those of us who don’t subscribe to that view, our laws are changing to reflect a broader, more inclusive definition of what marriage is.

So what is marriage? And what makes it different for LGBT couples? As a marriage and family therapist, I work with both straight and gay couples, and I have to tell you, the problems that occur within marriages are fairly similar across the board. Couples don’t come to me when they’re at their best, they come when they have run out of options and want to make a change. Those changes range from improving communication to learning healthier conflict styles to what to do when there has been infidelity. When I look at couples who come in for counseling who are married versus ones that aren’t, the biggest difference I see is the level of commitment. There are definitely couples who aren’t married who are very committed, but those who are married have something additional to lose if it doesn’t work out. Marriage is a commitment- it is two people making vows and promises to one another that express their love, loyalty and desire to be with the other person for the rest of their lives. No one goes into marriage thinking, “If it doesn’t work out, there’s always divorce,” or at least in my experience, they don’t. Additionally, there is a legally binding contract that influences the outcome of any separation, particularly if there is a prenuptual agreement or if the couple resides in a state where “what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours.”

For many gay couples, this is a fairly new concept, at least on a legal level. Does that stop them from wanting it? Absolutely not. I asked several couples, many who have been together for 20+ years, why they would want to legalize their union with marriage. I heard that they wanted to because they want the same rights as everyone else, they had always wanted a traditional wedding, they wanted to do it for their families, but also because they wanted to pave the way for future generations to not have to feel what they felt their whole lives, that marriage was something reserved for the heterosexual, religious, or those willing to conform to someone else’s view of what marriage looks like.

Going to Therapy vs. Committing to Therapy by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

Therapy is something I would recommend to anyone who wants to make a change in their life. That change can be anything from changing jobs, getting a divorce, coping with stress, to dealing with pervasive mental illness. Regardless of the reason you’re seeking therapy, one thing remains true: going to therapy and committing to therapy are very different things.

Going to therapy looks something like this: you make an appointment with a therapist, you show up on time, you talk to the therapist, you listen to the therapist, you leave, and return at a later date (a week or two, maybe month depending on your circumstances). But nothing changes. Your life stays the same. You’re regularly seeing a person who is an expert in mental health, and don’t feel any different.

Committing to therapy looks similar, but with one major difference: you take what you’ve learned in therapy and you apply it in the real world and in your everyday life. Sometimes, just talking about things with an objective third party is all a person needs. More often than not, that isn’t the case. The role of a therapist isn’t to tell you what to do to fix your problems. A therapist is there to help you identify and navigate the path to handling your problems on your own in a healthy and productive way. If you had to consult a therapist every time a problem came up, you would be spending an awful lot of time and money on therapy. But therapy does not end when you walk out of the therapist’s office. A good therapist is an educator. They teach you the tools you need to deal with your problems and help guide you when you reach snags or obstacles that come up along the way. The ultimate goal of therapy, in most cases, is to not have to go to therapy anymore (at least not regularly), but to put into practice what you’ve learned.

As therapists, we can’t control what you do once you leave our office. Your life is your own, as are the decisions and choices you make. It is a conscious choice to truly invest yourself in the therapeutic process by taking the tools you are given and using them, trying them on, seeing what works and what doesn’t for you. The most important thing to remember about the therapeutic process is that change doesn’t happen overnight; trying the tools out once or twice is not enough, you have to make them part of your everyday life in order for them to be effective. And that’s what committing to therapy really means: taking the tools you are given, using them in place of the behaviors you’re trying to change, and putting them into practice.

Let's Talk about HIV by Sarah Helman, LMHC, nCC

When it comes to HIV and AIDS, there are many misconceptions, myths, and misinformation floating around. It is a disease that we do not fully understand yet, which creates fear because we don’t have complete control over it. Knowledge is power, though, and by spreading knowledge, awareness and understanding, we can turn something that we fear into something that we can at least be fully informed about.

Let’s start with the way HIV works. It enters the bloodstream through semen, vaginal fluid, blood, or breast milk (it is not transmitted by saliva, tears, urine, or sweat). Once it is in the bloodstream, it finds particular cells, known as T-4 cells or helper cells, and creates a copy of itself within those cells. The problem is that these cells are also the ones that help fight off infections within the body. Unfortunately, the body does not recognize the HIV as an invader because it is so good at disguising itself. By the time the body realizes that the HIV is an invader, it has already created so many copies of itself that the immune system can no longer fight it off. It has, in essence, become a part of the person.

HIV can be controlled through medications and living a healthy lifestyle. The goal is to keep a person’s T-cell (or white blood cell count) high, and their viral load (the number of copies of HIV per blood cell) low. Sometimes this is a trial-and-error process, because there are so many different strains of HIV and because HIV is a smart disease that has evolved and developed immunities over time. But once it is under control, as long as the person takes their medication as prescribed, makes healthy choices (eating right, exercising, regular doctors visits, not engaging in high-risk behaviors like unprotected sex or sharing needles) the person can live a long, healthy, happy, normal life. Until we find a cure, the goal of treatment is to get and keep an HIV-positive person’s viral load at “undetectable,” meaning it is under 20 copies per cell, which is the lowest threshold we can currently test for. This does not mean the HIV is gone, nor does it mean they can’t spread it. It means that the person is less likely to spread HIV to another person, but it is still possible.

The stigma associated with HIV has a lot to do with how it has been portrayed over the years. Because HIV is still a relatively new disease to us, having only been really discovered in the 1980s, there is not a lot of widespread factual knowledge. It is not a disease that discriminates: anyone can get it. There are specific high-risk behaviors that are associated with the spread of the disease, including unprotected sex and shared needle use. But HIV is not transmitted by sharing utensils, toilet seats, or gym equipment, hugging, kissing or shaking hands, being bitten by mosquitoes or by air. Transmission of HIV is best avoided by using condoms, not sharing needles, knowing you and your partners’ sexual history, and being tested often.

Discussing HIV with Loved Ones by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

When discussing your HIV or AIDS diagnosis with your loved ones, it is important to remember that their knowledge of HIV/AIDS is probably limited. In many cases, their knowledge base may be incorrect due to the ongoing stigmatization and fear about what it is and what it means. Since its official discovery in the early 1980s, our knowledge of what HIV and AIDS are and how they’ve evolved has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, people have clung to outdated information. A lack of widespread education and awareness is largely to blame for this, so when a loved one finds out you have HIV or AIDS, they may react out of fear: fear for you and what it means for your life, fear for them and whether or not they’ve been “exposed,” and fear of the unknown- what happens next?

You can’t predict how your loved ones will react, but you can prepare by arming yourself with as much information as possible. It is important to educate yourself as thoroughly and accurately as possible. There is a lot of information on the internet, but it is best to stick to sources that are medically based, like www.aids.govor, both of which serve to educate people, not scare them. You also don’t want to overwhelm your loved ones with too much information at once, so sticking to the basics is often best.

What do the basics include? First and foremost, a positive diagnosis is not a death sentence. HIV and AIDS are not considered terminal illnesses. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS,and it is possible to live the rest of your life being HIV positive, but never progressing to AIDS. The difference is your t-cells, or white blood cell count. Because HIV compromises your immune system, it lowers the number of white blood cells in your body that fight off infections. With treatment, living a healthy lifestyle, and medical monitoring, your t-cell count can stay above 200; if it falls below 200 at any point, that is when a person is considered to have AIDS. While this irrevocably damages the immune system, it still doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy, healthy, long life. Doing that includes taking your medications consistently, eating healthy, exercising- all things you should be doing regardless. Another important basic fact is that HIV is not transmitted by things like sharing utensils, kissing, holding hands, hugging, sneezing on someone, toilet seats, handrails, or any of the ways a person may catch things like the common cold. HIV can only be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk.

Your loved ones may be overwhelmed at first, but as they become more educated and see you are taking care of yourself, it will become easier to process. Often, counseling can help with this, especially if the counselor has experience working with HIV/AIDS. An accurate understanding of what is happening to your body is important for you and those you love, but your mental health as you navigate your diagnosis is critical to how you handle it and should be a priority just as your physical health is.

I Am the Eternal Learner by Sarah Helman, lMHC, NCC

Most people spend a majority of their lives before the age of 20 in school. We start around five years old, and continue till age 18. Some of us go to college, which is another 4 years, and some go further and complete graduate school. I’m one of those- I was in school from the time I was five years old until I was 26, with nothing more than a few months in between. I was used to working 30 hours a week, interning 25 hours a week, and taking roughly 3-9 hours of classes a week. After completing my graduate degree, there was a major adjustment period. I had a job that I worked 40 hours a week… and that was it. I had been in school for over 21 years, and suddenly there were no tests to study for, no papers to write and no projects to complete. What was I going to do with all that free time?

I became bored pretty quickly. I’m a person who NEEDS to be busy. I like down time, but I can only enjoy it if I feel like I’ve earned it. Granted, 21 years of school and work probably earned me that down time, but I felt incomplete. I’ve always been an avid reader, so I spent a lot of time reading. I enjoy reading the most when I feel like I’m learning something, which is a theme throughout my life. Nothing is interesting or stimulating to me unless I’m learning something new. Many of the jobs I’ve had I’ve left not because I had to, but because there wasn’t much else to learn and it became monotonous.

Because of this, I’ve deemed myself an “eternal learner,” which makes counseling the perfect career for me. I really do learn something new with every client; every client teaches me something. Counseling is a constantly evolving field, because psychology is still a fairly young science. There is so much that is yet undiscovered, and being part of that discovery is a huge motivator for me.

I believe that learning is what makes life worth living, which is why as a therapist, I not only counsel my clients but educate them as much as possible. I believe that in order to overcome something, you have to understand it and how it uniquely affects you. If counseling is to be truly beneficial, whatever you learn you should be able to apply to other situations that come up later on. People will always need therapists, but the goal of therapy isn’t to make you dependent upon us, it is to teach you the tools you need in order to be able to handle similar problems and situations in the future on your own. So I get the best of both worlds- I get to teach and learn all at the same time.

Mental Health Awareness by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

Because I work in the field of Mental Health, I’m constantly surrounded by people who are seeking help. Unfortunately, there are still millions of people who need help, but don’t ask for it. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults have a mental illness, but only 60% of those people seek help. Why?

As far as we’ve come as a society, we still attach a stigma not only to mental illness, but therapy in general. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say things like, “Therapy is only for people who are crazy,” or “I would never talk to a complete stranger about my problems.” We have no problem gossiping about other people’s issues and condemning them for their problems, yet we judge others for seeking help with those same things. In order to stop this from happening, we have to dispel the stigma surrounding mental health and therapy, and see it for what it really is.

So how do we change the way people see mental health? I believe it starts with changing the conversations we have about mental health. When we see a friend who eats healthy or goes to the gym regularly, we don’t judge them and say horrible things about them; we admire them for taking care of their body and often wish we had the willpower and the time to do the same. The same rule should apply for people who go to therapy- it’s like going to the gym for your brain. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand, and should be looked at the same way. When you have a cold or the flu, you see a doctor. When you are experiencing depression or anxiety, you see a therapist. Both provide you with the tools you need and the path to healing to help make the problem better. The added bonus with therapy is that those tools are reusable and often applicable across various situations.

Seeking counseling does not mean you’re “crazy.” It means you’re human, and more importantly, that you place importance on taking care of your mental health. Some people are equipped with the tools they need to be able to handle things on their own most of the time, but a lot of people need help learning and employing those tools. There is no shame in that. Not everyone was born into a family where effective problem solving and coping skills were modeled for them and not everyone has the perfect balance of chemicals in their brain that work to keep them from experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, anxiety and depression. For the millions of people who need help, and especially for those afraid to ask for it, support, awareness,and empathy are absolutely crucial. Remember, physical health and mental health are equally important: change starts with those of us willing to stand up and advocate for it.

My Coming Out Blog by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

I started volunteering at The Center when I was in my undergraduate program at UCF. I frequented local LGBTQ bars and clubs even before I had really come out. One of my first “real” dates with a girl was at Pulse. It was the first time I had ever danced at a club with another woman and not felt ogled and sexualized by straight men for just having fun. It was the first time I ever really felt safe as a bisexual woman in public, that night, dancing at Pulse.

I came out in stages, first to people I dated, then to friends, then slowly to some co-workers. But not to family. I love my family. They’re wonderful. But for the most part, they are much more conservative than I am, and while I have never really heard them say anything against the LGBTQ community, I was scared. My family is very close, my aunt and uncle are more like my second parents and my cousins are more like my siblings. The thought that I could lose them because of my sexuality, or that they would think less of me because of it terrified me, and I couldn’t handle it. So when I dated men, I brought them home and introduced them. When I dated women, I didn’t bring them home at all, or I introduced them as friends. Then I married a man, a wonderful man who knows and understands and supports me, and that was that.

And then the Pulse massacre happened.

Never have I felt more ashamed of hiding my sexuality than I did that day. I never lied about it, but there were times that I didn’t correct people when they assumed I was straight, or when my mom referred to me as a “straight ally” that I didn’t jump in to tell her that I was more than that. How could I sit in my office and encourage people to be themselves, not to hide, not to live in fear, and be doing that myself? I felt like a hypocrite. That day, when members of my community lost their lives or were horrifically injured because of that hateful act, I just couldn’t do it anymore. My mom had been texting me to check on me to see if I was okay because she knows how much this community matters to me, and to see if there was any way she could help, and I just did it. I came out. She was wonderful, supportive and loving and it changed nothing; if anything, our relationship is better. I then came out on Facebook. Most people knew, but there were some who didn’t, and the support was overwhelming. On Father’s Day, I came out to the rest of my family. Again, no one was really surprised, and there were lots of hugs and affirmations, not a word of disgust or discontent.

A few weeks after Pulse, I was talking with my mom and she referred to me as her “rainbow child.” I laughed, and she said she was serious. She said that the rainbow that had appeared over Lake Eola the night of the vigil one week after the shootings looked exactly like the one that had appeared over Orlando the day that I was born, and that she didn’t think that was a coincidence. She even told me to go look in my baby book, that she had written about that rainbow. She was right: there it was, a letter written more than thirty years ago by my mother, “The Lord gave me rainbows while we were waiting for you.”

Maybe I was always meant to do this. Maybe that rainbow was an announcement of some sort. Or maybe it was just a random rainbow in a city where it rains a lot. I don’t know. But that’s okay. Knowing that I serve a greater purpose, that I serve a community as united, strong and beautiful as ours warms my heart and gives me the strength I need to support those who need it through the days that have passed, and the days to come.

Polyamory by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

If you would have told me when I was in graduate school that I was going to wind up working with polyamorous relationships as a specialty, I would have laughed in disbelief. I didn’t know much about polyamory back then, or even until the last year or two. They don’t exactly teach you in graduate school how to work with polyamory. I learned how to work with these clients in two ways: the first was trial by fire. They showed up on my couch and needed help. I don’t turn anyone away simply because their relationship structure differs from the societally programmed structure to which I was taught to apply my graduate school knowledge. For the most part, the same rules, tools, and theories apply. When they don’t, that’s when the second way of learning comes in: I let my clients teach me. They gave me books to read, websites to peruse, articles to research, etc. They were more than willing to answer my questions. They appreciated having a therapist who was not judgmental about their lifestyle, willing to admit that she didn’t know much about it, but eager to learn and ask questions in order to better help them.

Polyamory is defined as the “non-possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously” (Franklin Veaux). For those of us who have only ever really been exposed to monogamy, this can sound foreign, complicated and exotic. And it is certainly not for the faint of heart. Polyamory is based in the idea of compersion, which is defined as “the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that your beloveds are expressing their love for one another” (Franklin Veaux). As a couples’ counselor, I see it like this: in order to achieve true compersion, you have to be capable of a level of emotional maturity that many human beings have never achieved. I wouldn’t call that a fault; I would call it a preference. Franklin Veaux, co-author of “More than Two” and a well-known polyamory expert says that “Polyamory doesn’t mean an inability to commit. We are often taught to view commitment through the lens of sexual exclusivity, but a more nuanced view of commitment to building lasting relationships that meet the needs of the people involved. If those needs don’t include monogamy, then commitment doesn’t have to be tied to exclusivity.” In order to do this, one has to let go of possessiveness, ownership, and for the most part jealousy. There can be no double standards, honesty is key, and transparency is a must. Some experts would say rules and boundaries are absolutely necessary, others would say not at all. I say each relationship is different, and you have to decide what’s right for you and your partner, often through trial and error. Seeking counseling to help you navigate that path is never a bad idea; I’ve helped several couples who decided to give polyamory a try and needed help figuring out what that looked like for them, and it’s never the same for any two couples. There is no shame in exploring something new, as long as it is mutually consensual and it enhances your relationship.

Relationship Red Flags by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

We’ve all done it. Met someone, established a relationship and developed feelings for them, only to find out that they’re “the same as all the others.” We don’t often stop to question why every person we fall for winds up having the same and/or similar faults and problems as the last person.

It’s a combination of two things: what we’re putting out there that we want, and what we’re attracted to. Often, what we’re attracted to isn’t what we think. We go for the same types of people repeatedly because the qualities that we think we find attractive in another person are actually red flags for exactly the kind of person we say we don’t want. But we’re programmed to look for those things. As human beings, we crave balance. We often look for things in others that we lack in ourselves, because we think that by being around them, we will naturally become more like them. For example, maybe you’re shy and a little introverted, you like being around people but you’re more of an observer than a participant. The people you’re attracted to are generally outgoing, social butterflies. They exude a confidence that you wish you had. Over time, however, that confidence becomes arrogance, and a tendency to only ever talk about themselves, that social butterfly is suddenly out every night- without you. They have excuses for all of it, but eventually, you realize you’ve been here before with other people in previous relationships,and you don’t like it.

Craving that balance is perfectly natural thing. But sometimes we tend to look for people who have an overabundance of those things we’d like to be ourselves, rather than just a healthy amount. The overabundance is a red flag. Too much of a good thing is rarely actually a good thing; it’s a sign that something isn’t right. But because we’re programed to be attracted to that overabundance, we find ourselves repeating the same patterns in our relationships.

So how do we break the pattern? How do we see those red flags for what they really are, instead of what we’d like them to be? That’s where the other part of the combination comes in we have to change what we’re putting out there. The people that have those red flags are programed to look for people who are attracted to those red flags; people who will put up with their potentially negative attributes because we think that’s what we want. And by the time we realize it isn’t, we’re already in over our heads and they’re getting exactly what they want. To change what we’re putting out there, we have to break out of our boxes. Rather than looking to others to provide us with the balance we crave, start creating balance for ourselves. Be the things we look for in others. Two people are not two halves of a whole; they are two whole people, and in order to be in a healthy, happy relationship, we have to first become that whole person on our own. Otherwise we will always be searching for someone to fill a void that can only be filled by first being happy and comfortable with who we are.

Religion in Therapy by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

I had a conversation with my father the other day where he asked me about alternatives to therapy for those who would prefer a more religious route. This question confused me, as I don’t believe that religion and therapy are mutually exclusive, any more than I believe that one is necessary for the other.

As a former practicing Catholic, I understand the desire to engage in a faith-based approach to healing; faith is often what keeps a person grounded and gives them hope for better things and that they serve a great purpose and/or entity. Many therapists practice faith-based therapy, and intertwine their personal religious beliefs into their work with clients. Many clients seek out therapists whose religious beliefs and/or practice coincide with their own. When the clinician and the client are on the same page, it works. When they are not, it doesn’t go so well.

I have had many clients over the years tell me that they’ve had therapists in the past who have tried to push a religious approach when it was not welcome. My stance as a therapist when it comes to things like this is based in the teaching of Carl Rogers. He said that there are three attributes needed to form a healthy therapeutic alliance. The first is congruence, which necessitates that the therapist be authentic with their clients by letting them see that although they are an expert in their field, they are human and have struggled, too. This facilitates the second, which is accurate empathy, or the ability to sense and understand the client’s world and their experiences in it, while refraining from judgement. That lack of judgment leads to the third principle, which is unconditional positive regard. It is not the therapist’s job to approve or disapprove of the client or their choices, and by expressing unconditional positive regard, the therapist expresses a complete lack of judgement and creates an environment of acceptance.

In my experience, those who advocate religion to others sometimes do so because they feel that religion will provide some moral compass that they believe the other person lacks, which is based in judgment. That’s not the only reason, but even when that’s not the intention, it is often the received message. But that’s not our role as therapists. If you are not interested in faith-based therapy, most therapists (whether they specialize in faith-based counseling or not) will do one of two things: proceed with the type of therapy best suited to your needs or refer you to someone who can. Same goes if you’re looking for faith-based therapy.

My personal practice in regards to religion in therapy is this: I don’t bring up religion until my client does. I don’t advocate my personal views to the client. If they express that they believe something particular, I ask about it. If it is a religion I’m unfamiliar with, I learn about it. Even if it is one I feel well-versed in, I do my best to learn from my client what their beliefs are and work within those. Often, religion never comes up at all. And although I personally do not currently ascribe to any particular religion, I govern my life and my practice by this simple rule: let he among us without sin be the first to condemn.

Say It, Mean It, Do It by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

One of the things I often discuss in couples counseling is love languages, which comes from Dr. Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages. The main concept behind love languages is that everyone has a primary love language that they speak (there are five all together- Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts), meaning that they tend to give and receive love in that language. Imagine you’re in a relationship with someone who speaks Words of Affirmation, but your language is Acts of Service. This is like being in a relationship with someone who speaks Portuguese when you speak English- if you receive love only in the language that you give it, you may not appreciate love when it is given to you.

Words of Affirmation and Acts of Service are the two love languages that I see at odds most frequently, which is why I am introducing the idea of “say it, mean it, do it.” Words of Affirmation (“saying it”) places value on compliments, verbal acknowledgement, etc. Acts of Service (“doing it”) places value on actions, specifically things that are done for them that make their lives easier or without having to remind their partner to do them. Someone who speaks Acts of Services is less likely to put worth on promises and verbal commitments unless they are followed through on. Someone who speaks Words of Affirmation is less likely to notice and put worth on the things their partner does for them without them having to ask. Both people are showing love to the other person, but in the language that they themselves want to receive love in, not necessarily in the language their partner wants receive love in.

If you have two people who speak such different love languages, how do you get them to recognize and appreciate the love that is being given to them? For someone who speaks Acts of Service, the words (“saying it”) are fine as long as they are followed by corresponding actions (“doing it.”) That’s where intention (“meaning it”) comes in. If your words and intentions are good, that’s awesome- but unless you follow through, they mean very little to someone who speaks Acts of Service. In a relationship, if a Words of Affirmation person says the words and has the intentions, but does not follow through consistently and reliably, the Acts of Service person will likely feel wronged and disappointed. If an Acts of Service person does nice things for their partner that they would appreciate themselves, their actions and intentions are fine, but the words aren’t there, which for a Words of Affirmation person is often the more important part.

The solution to this is simple- follow the pattern of “say it, mean it, do it,” regardless of your personal love language. Make your words match your intentions and follow through with actions. If you’re able to commit to all three parts, it is very likely that both you and your partner will be pleased with the outcome.

Texting: The De-Evolution of Human Communication by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

With many of the couples that I work with, one of the primary themes is miscommunication. Couples will often come to therapy for that very purpose: to learn how to better communicate. And while I definitely have some higher-level tricks up my sleeve to deal with conflict, decision making, and parenting (among other things) there is one very basic rule that I often ask couples to start using: stop having important conversations via text. In fact, stop using texting to do anything more than the simplest of things: last minute grocery items, checking in during the day, the occasional dirty text to keep the flame alive- you get my drift.

So many of the essential pieces of human communication are completely lost in text. Tone, intonation, emphasis, and often little mistakes (like grammar or punctuation errors) can change the entire message behind a text. For example, you could interpret the following sentence seven different ways depending on which word you emphasize:

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.

I don’t know about your phone, but as smart as my phone is, it still can’t underline, italicize or embolden my texts, and if it could… well, that sounds like a lot of work, and still misses the point. If one brief sentence can be interpreted seven different ways, imagine how much room for misinterpretation there is in all of the texts we send each other on a daily basis. Many of the arguments I hear couples get into involve at least one or more misinterpreted text messages. This goes back to a topic I’ve discussed in my earlier blogs: assumption and ascribing intention. If you shouldn’t make assumptions about your partner’s feelings or intentions from what they say verbally, then you absolutely should not be doing it with what they say in text.

I’m guessing that each of us can probably think of at least one (or many) time(s) when something that we have said in text has been taken completely differently from how we intended it, and we had no idea how that happened. And I bet that at least a few times, that’s led to an argument- probably not about the thing we were actually texting about, but about our “attitude” or “tone.” Some of my more high-conflict couples will actually whip out their phones in session to prove to their partner (or to me, but this is rather irrelevant and will result in me redirecting the conversation) what was said. When it’s in text, all bets are off; you don’t get to win an argument based on your assumption of what was meant in a text message that to anyone else in the world might look completely benign.

I understand that texting is a convenient and quick way to communicate with one another, but we live in a society where texting has replaced the art of verbal human conversation, and that’s a problem, especially in long-term relationships where there are more important things going on that deserve more time and energy than texting. Take the time to have those important conversations in person. Agree as a couple what issues should never be discussed via text, and if you’re in a particularly rocky place in your relationship, maybe take texting off the table altogether for a while. Focus on rebuilding communication through genuine human connection, rather than technology.

And no, just because you use emojis doesn’t mean you are conveying your message effectively.

The Reality of Bisexuality by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

Bisexuality is a taboo topic, in both the gay and straight worlds. It’s one I love to talk about, because as a bisexual woman, I run into more people who don’t “get it” than people who do. Often, people who identify as bisexual are not accepted in either community and experience discrimination from both. Many people don’t believe it even exists; that bisexuality is just a phase, or a stop on the way to determining whether someone is actually gay or straight, because you have to be one or the other. Or do you?

Bisexual as a label is confusing- how could one person be attracted to two different sexes? The differences between male and female are obvious in many cases, but just like any one person can be attracted to two people of the same sex who are vastly different, the same is true for two people of opposite sexes. The attraction has little to do with body parts, and more to do with connection and chemistry.

Alfred Kinsey, a biologist and sexologist who studied human behavior and sexuality back in the 1940s and 50s, determined that a larger percentage of people fall somewhere between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual. He developed the Kinsey Scale, which is a way of representing where someone falls on a scale of 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual) and said, “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.” Kinsey disapproved of the term “bisexual,” but emphasized that very few people fall exclusively on either end of what should be seen as a spectrum.

Scientifically, it makes perfect sense; however, the social aspect seems to be what is confusing for people. There are many myths about bisexuality- bisexuals are promiscuous, they can’t be in monogamous relationships, they can’t make up their minds and want the best of both worlds, etc. None of that is true. As bisexual activist Robyn Ochs said, bisexuality is “the potential to be attracted- romantically and/or sexually- to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

So what does that mean? If someone who is bisexual is married or in a relationship, that does not mean that they have “chosen” to be straight or gay. It means they found a person they are attracted to and who fulfills their needs, just like when a straight or gay person meets someone. Just because you’re attracted to people with different hair colors doesn’t mean you need one in each color to feel satisfied, does it? Bisexuality doesn’t mean that either. Bisexuality doesn’t disappear in a monogamous relationship, but it doesn’t force someone to look outside that relationship either. Relationship structure (monogamy, polyamory, etc.) is not the same as sexuality (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.) and more often than not, they aren’t at all related.

The ability to find love and connection with another human being is something to be treasured, regardless of the label it comes with. The reality of bisexuality is this- no one likes being put into a box. Having someone else define you is something to be avoided, not sought after. The focus should be on love, not labels.

Trust by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

As a couples’ counselor, trust is a topic that comes up daily in my world. Often, the subject of trust is brought up in response to a betrayal in the current relationship,and sometimes it’s an unresolved issue left over from a previous relationship. Regardless, trusting one’s partner is imperative to a healthy relationship.

When you’re in an intimate relationship with someone, in order for love to grow, trust has to grow as well. The trust that you have in the beginning of a relationship is different from the trust that you have after ten or twenty years. The relationship evolves and grows and so does the trust. In the beginning, trust is a choice: you choose to trust the other person because you want to build something with them. They haven’t done anything to show you that your trust is misplaced. But no one is perfect and it is inevitable that at some point, someone will do something that causes their partner to feel betrayed in some way. Sometimes it’s small betrayals over time, like a partner who often says they are going to do things but doesn’t follow through. Others, it’s one big event, like infidelity, that calls everything you believed to be true about your relationship into question. How can you possibly trust someone who has gone back on their word to such an extent?

Couples come to therapy because the efforts they’ve made to rebuild trust aren’t working,and they need help getting back on track. Zack Brittle, LMHC and Certified Gottman Therapist says that it’s very difficult to establish trust on a conditional basis. The best example of this that I can give you is one that I’ve seen over and over again: there is an affair. The betrayed partner chooses to forgive the other partner, but only on the condition that the partner who cheated makes their phone, email and social networking available to the betrayed partner for monitoring for the foreseeable future. Trust cannot possibly thrive in these circumstances.

The answer to how to rebuild trust is simple: you do it all day every day in every action that promotes connection and understanding in your relationship. According to John Gottman, trust is built in small incremental moments over time. It really boils down to whether or not you believe your partner is there for you,and vice versa. Choosing to give them your attention when it’s clear they need it, acting in the best interest of your partner rather than choosing self-interest, putting their bad day ahead of your own, etc. Gottman calls this “turning toward,” and says that trust is an action, not an idea or belief. We trust our partners because of what they do, not what they say, thus enforcing the idea, “Actions speak louder than words.” When you sacrifice your wants or needs to focus on theirs, you promote trust and they in turn can do the same.

Who Wears the Pants? by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

I’ve never really been a “traditional gender roles” person. My father raised my brother and I on his own from the time I was 13. I was taught from a very young age how to run a household, manage a budget and hold a job simultaneously. The 1950’s housewife persona has never appealed to me; I’ve always known that I’m a career woman and the person that I marry will have to accept that I’m never going to be a stay at home mom or actually learn how to iron.

In a society where gender roles are becoming more fluid, people are having to adjust what they may have previously known or believed. Particularly within the LGBTQ community- how can you have “traditional gender roles” when both members of the couple are the same gender? Which begs the question, in a same-sex couple… who wears the pants?

There’s a saying out there that in successful relationships, no one wears the pants. I disagree. As a couples therapist, I believe that in successful relationships, you share the pants. That is to say, there is a healthy balance of power and control; no one person has more than the other, decisions are made jointly and no one feels bombarded or railroaded. One person may make more money than the other, one person may be more of a stay at home parent, but in healthy relationships neither of those things are held over the other person’s head because each person is contributing in their own way. It is normal in any relationship for one person to be better with money and budgeting, or at household chores, or at getting the day to day things done around the house. If one person works more hours or works later, it makes sense that the other one makes dinner most nights or takes on a few extra things around the house. That balance is not difficult to achieve, but it does involve having discussions with your partner about what expectations there are,and what each person is comfortable taking on.

I personally think that same-sex couples have an advantage over heterosexual couples in this regard: they’re already familiar with defying some of the standard hetero-normative stereotypes. It can be difficult to achieve the balance I mentioned earlier in any relationship, but I believe that in same-sex relationships, that balance comes more naturally because there aren’t any expectations set in advance about who does what. As we get further and further away from what used to be “traditional gender roles,” we open ourselves and our families up to a new kind of tradition- one that includes teaching our children that there doesn’t have to be a division between male and female, that gender isn’t necessarily binary, and that they don’t have to exist within a box created by someone else. So share the pants. Talk about the balance in your relationship, look for ways to improve that balance and work every day to maintain it.

Writing a Letter You'll Never Send by Sarah Helman, LMHC, NCC

In the age of email, texting, Facebook and Twitter, letter writing in the traditional sense has fallen to the wayside. Writing a letter used to be a major form of communication; long distance phone calls cost a lot of money, whereas a stamp was less than fifty cents. Writing a letter gave you time to think about what you were going to say, how you were going to say it and who you were going to say it to.

Nowadays, its so easy to pick up your smart phone and send a quick text, most of the time knowing that you’ll get a response back in a few moments. But what about the times where there are things you want to say, but don’t feel comfortable saying them? Or when the person you want to say them to is no longer around. How do you get that need to say what you need to say to them out of you?

Writing a journal is an excellent means of getting things out of your mind and off your chest. But sometimes, the things you want to say are directed at someone in particular; for example, an ex partner, a deceased parent, a friend you lost along the way due to too many differences. Some therapists use what we call the Empty Chair Technique, where you air your grievances and feelings, good or bad, to an empty chair where you imagine your particular audience member to be sitting. While often an effective form of therapy, it can feel awkward and unfulfilling to some.

When the Empty Chair Technique isn’t quite your speed, writing a letter that you will never send is another way to unburden your thoughts. Letter writing is private, intimate, and allows you time to think about what you’re going to say before putting it down on paper; or for some, to just let the words flow out of you until you feel purged of the negativity you’ve been carrying around. You can say whatever you want without fearing repercussions or painful exchanges between you and the person you’re writing to. While most therapists will advocate dealing with your problems as directly as possible, sometimes airing your concerns directly to that other person isn’t an option, yet you still feel the need to get those feelings out. In circumstances like this, writing a letter, or even a series of letters can be cathartic and can help give you that sense of unburdening that you may be craving.

Some people choose to burn the letters after they are written, as another form of purging. Some put them away in a box; some keep journals specifically for those letters. Whatever you find works best for you, do that. And in the event that the person you are writing the letter to is someone that you may have an opportunity to approach directly one day, writing them a letter now may help to organize your thoughts and feelings to help you approach them later on.

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