Dr. Gregory Jantz

Tell Me All about It!

June 30, 2020

This month I have invited Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center, to write a guest blog for my website. This is the fifth in a six-part series on Relationship Communication. She will also write the sixth contribution next month on this blog. To see the other blogs in this series, visit The Center • A Place of HOPE Blog. Thanks Hannah!

For the first time in months, Kira went to sleep with what felt like optimism in her heart. 

The last year had been such a roller coaster with her husband. She dearly loved Ian, but things had begun to despair. Kira knew her heart was growing colder and harder, but she saw no way around it until a spark of hope was kindled when Ian agreed to go to counseling. She really had not expected that and it opened her to the possibility of progress.

Ian and Kira were not only married, they had been the best of friends for as long as she could remember. That all changed after the children were born. For reasons unknown to her, Ian began to isolate himself in his room most evenings. It seemed he would rather play video games than be with his family. Heartbroken, Kira finally confronted her husband and demanded change. He resisted at first, but when he overheard his youngest child tell one of her friends that her daddy did not love her anymore, he gave in and began counseling. 

The road to recovery had not been easy. Ian began the journey playing the blame game. Over time, however, he admitted his fear of failure and inadequacy as a father. Fearing shame, he had bottled up his feelings, but he soon found out Kira shared many of his same fears and it bonded them. 

Their counselor had taught them to define the real problem and how to envision the solution keeping who they were dealing with in mind. They had learned many structured and supportive communication strategies and the importance of taking the first step and not hiding behind walls of pride. Now, they were learning another letter from the DECIDE acronym – the second “D”: Debrief.

This is the skill of checking in after negotiating a plan to solve a problem. Kira and Ian had learned how “all-or-nothing” the brain could be at times and how overgeneralizing the amygdala is when safety was concerned. They realized their tendencies to assume the worst in each other when one of them did something the other did not like or expect. Instead, they needed to remember they loved each other and were on the same side rather than assume ill intent in the other.

At their most recent session, they were assigned the task of identifying a problem to solve and then debrief. Kira volunteered an idea with enthusiasm. Their bedroom had a nice en suite with a whirlpool bathtub, which they had made little use of it in recent months. It was a small request, but Kira asked if she could have forty-five minutes, two times a week to take a calming bath. Ian agreed without any negotiation at all and this provided an even greater boost to her spirits. The plan was created on Sunday night. Tuesday and Friday were the evenings chosen for her bath time. She was really looking forward to it! They would check in on Sunday night to see how it went.

The time for her first in-home spa experience came and Kira found herself giggling like a schoolgirl as she lit candles and ran a bubble bath. It was a little thing, but it had still seemed too good to be true – but there she was, listening to the sound of the running water and feeling the tension begin to slip away. Maybe this will be fine after all.

And then, her heart dropped.

Downstairs, where Ian was supposed to be watching the children while Kira luxuriated in the tub, came a loud crash and an explosion of screams and stomps. Kira tried to block out the noise as she put a foot into the steaming water, but to no avail. The noise only grew louder as the children ran up and down the stairs. With a sigh and an eye roll, Kira plopped down on the rug and began to cry. 

Kira knew that she could not talk to Ian about this yet. They had learned that new plans were not to be discussed between debriefing sessions if at all possible. This had seemed silly to her at first. When Ian did something to bother her, she wanted to tell him right away so her mind could be clear, and her anxiety reduced. She had learned, though, that constant picking at each other and pointing out flaws when the other person was not expecting it could make learning much more difficult. After shedding a few tears on the bathroom floor, disappointed, but proud of herself for following through, Kira turned off the water, ran a washcloth over her face, and went on about her regular nightly routine.

On Friday night, Kira turned the water on for a few minutes (for appearances), but rather than take her bath, she sat on the closed toilet seat and did her cross-stich project for thirty minutes. She knew the kids were safe (though it sounded like the house was falling down), but she also knew she would never be able to relax and decided not to try. She comforted herself with some mental rehearsal for the debriefing check in she knew she would come.

Debriefing is a skill most of us do not incorporate in our lives. We make our plans and simply expect them to succeed. However, that is simply not how life works. There are far too many variables to accurately guess how a plan will unfold or how something we want to do will work. This is made worse when we take the missed expectations personally. To avoid this type of scenario, consider trying the following action steps:

Institute a Protected Discussion Time

It may be true that you have fifteen things per day that you want to tell your partner to change – but the truth is, the brain does not generally tolerate that level and type of input well. That said, it is important to share our needs and wants with each other. A helpful method to accomplish this is to have pre-scheduled times to talk that are protected, meaning not changed unless absolutely necessary. If relationship breaches you want to share happen between check-ins, consider writing them down so you are less likely to forget. This way, the sense of being criticized or wrong reduces. An atmosphere of emotional safety is a far better birthplace for growth and change than a critical environment.

Debrief. Don’t Blame

During check-in times, try debriefing rather than blaming or complaining. A debrief is a recap of a situation wherein challenge areas and successes are highlighted. For the couple from the story above, a debrief may begin with Kira asking Ian how he felt about how things had gone with their plan. Imagine Ian might say that it had gone just fine! After all, he was not disturbed by the loudness of the children. Kira could enlighten him by letting him know

Typical Debrief Questions: 

  1. How do you think the process went?  
  2. What worked well?
  3. What needs to change?
  4. What got in the way? 
  5. What support do you/I/we need?
  6. What is the new plan?
  7. When will we check in again?

Manage Your Feelings Between Check-ins

The brain is an anticipation and solution engine. When we are faced with a problem, the brain will highlight it and remain stuck in “problem solve” gear until the solution is found and implemented. That is, until we learn how to table an issue in an effective manner. We often react to irritation in one of two ways: we ignore it, or we impulsively jump on it. The more helpful way is to address the issue in a structured, emotionally safe manner. Hence, the check-in. However, we want to remain true to ourselves and remember what the concerns are. Therefore, if you find yourself miffed and you’ve hours-to-days to go before check-in, write down your concerns, remind yourself change takes time, and find ways to care for yourself while you wait.

It is not a sign of weakness if something you try or want does not go according to plan. Likewise, it is not an automatic indicator that your partner does not care about you. Learning takes time, effort, patience, and practice. Create and follow a process that allows for checking in and debriefing rather than stewing and complaining and you’ll see a world of difference!

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center ● A Place of HOPE. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change.

The Center • A Place of HOPE is recognized as a Top Ten Center For Depression Treatment in the United States. Founder by Dr. Gregory Jantz over 30 years ago, it has helped thousands regain their strength and happiness through its whole person approach to care. If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, PTSD, addiction, eating disorders, or other mental health challenges, call The Center at 888.771.5166 today.