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Ask The Expert: Mental Health & Relationships

Our Ask the Expert sessions on mental health are so popular, we invited Dr. Joshua Coleman to answer some additional questions.*

*Please note that all user participation is anonymous.

Not Feeling Appreciated

Question: I have been married to my husband for 25 years in August and I feel like he doesn’t know me or appreciate me. He never comes up with ideas on how to do or go for dates to keep our relationship exciting. There are small things that I feel he should know about me and he doesn’t i.e. favorite foods, color, or restaurant. We’ve talked about this before and no change. He has mild OCD and seems to only see what’s right in front of him at the moment and only sees “black & white” not gray or anything else. Gets very angry over what I feel is trivial and then 2 hours later acts as if nothing happened. I organize most of the home and cook all meals but don’t feel appreciated for what I do. Help please if you can.

Dr. Joshua Coleman: You might have to get stronger if you want him to shift out of what sounds like a pretty self-centered position on his part. An exercise I often give with couples in these situations is for each person to write out a list of 5-10 things that the other could do that would make them feel cared for, loved, or seen. Some examples might be:

  1. Tell me you love me
  2. Initiate more hugs or other forms of affection
  3. Plan a date night where you also plan the babysitter (post-COVID)
  4. Initiate lovemaking
  5. Tell me what you like, love or appreciate about me

Note: they have to be behavior-focused and specific. It can’t be vague things like: be nicer

One large study of divorce found a full 25% of men were completely surprised when their wives filed for divorce. You might need to tell him that you’re not willing to live like this for the rest of your life. That you insist that he do couple’s counseling (most are doing it over Zoom etc these days) and if you can afford it, that he do individual counseling as well.

Managing Anxiety and Depression

Question: My husband has lost patience with my anxiety and depression over the years. I am not coping well with being at home constantly and facilitating my two kids learning from home. One has a learning disability and that can be very challenging. How do I best support my relationships with my family when these circumstances have me feeling lower than ever?

Dr. Joshua Coleman: It’s very common for parents to feel an increase in stress, anxiety, depression, even drug and alcohol use from being locked inside, especially with children who need more time and attention than ever. It’s true that if we talk too much about our anxiety or depression that we can burn out our spouses, so you might need to work on getting support with those feelings either by talking more to your friends or a therapist. On the other hand, maybe there’s more your husband could/should be doing to help you feel less anxious and depressed. Tell him that you’re willing to work on your side of the problem, but he could help you by doing the following. Eg: asking you more about how you’re feeling even if he thinks he knows, being more affectionate, helping more with the kids, etc.

Improving Written Communication

Question: Communication can be the cause of and solution to so many relationship problems. Texting (like email or instant messaging) can leave much to interpretation and does not convey tone even with effort, so when teleworking or dating digitally, it can be onerous. On the family front, it can equally lead to misunderstanding. Apart from taking great lengths in all forms of one’s communication, what else can we do during an already difficult time to ensure that we are heard and understood and so too are the people (family, friends, or coworkers) we are interacting with and trying to maintain relationships with.

Dr. Joshua Coleman: It’s true that written forms of communication are much more subject to miscommunication than verbal or visual. And even those aren’t perfect! But when engaging in written forms review what you wrote to make sure that it can’t be misinterpreted. Emojis are actually quite useful in that regard. But sometimes it may be necessary if something sounds potentially like a complaint or criticism to clarify that you’re not doing that and you want to make sure that the other knows that. Sometimes that little extra effort goes a long way.

Expressing Feelings to Your Partner

Question: My partner has anxiety and is even worse during the COVID-19. So much so that I am feeling like I have no say when it comes to expressing my mental health. How can I express what I’m feeling?

Dr. Joshua Coleman: I don’t think your feelings should be contingent on how anxious he’s feeling. It’s his responsibility to manage his anxiety and you shouldn’t have to censor yourself because of it. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be sensitive to what he’s going through, just that you have an equal right and need for support. 

Extroverts vs. Introverts

Question: Do you have any advice for helping couples connect and communicate better when one partner is more extroverted and feeling a bit miserable being stuck at home while the other is more introverted and enjoying being at home all the time?

Dr. Joshua Coleman: The main task is to avoid what commonly happens in these dynamics which is a right/wrong, good/bad orientation to the other’s tendencies to be extroverted or introverted. The extrovert is deserving of empathy for how frustrating and isolating it can be to be stuck inside while at the same time should avoid shaming the introvert for his/her enjoying the respite.

Getting Along with Your Partner’s Family

Question: My boyfriend and I have very different relationships with each other’s families. For example, my family is very open and welcoming to my boyfriend – always asking how he is, including him in family events, etc. whereas I feel like I have difficulties connecting with his family – I don’t feel very welcomed and when I’m there, we talk about and ask the same questions and don’t have much to talk about and there’s not much effort on either end at this point. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve this relationship?

Dr. Joshua Coleman: I suspect that you have to just accept that his family culture is quite different from yours and to not take personally something which is most likely just the way that they interact.  It’s unlikely that they even see it as a problem since that’s probably how they’ve always done it. So, I say lower your expectations and that will be best for you and everyone else in the family.

Living with a Germaphobe

Question: My partner has always been more of a germaphobe than I and this pandemic is striking them with so much fear. They are lashing out with anger when the children or I laugh or breathe “too hard” near them and this is causing a great deal of stress in our house. We can’t seem to correctly gauge how close is “too close” or “too germy” despite the fact that we are quarantining together as a family anyway. We are all making good efforts at hygiene, but my partner’s excessive fear is stressing us out! Help.

Dr. Joshua Coleman: You should let your partner know privately that you’re willing to abide by the guidelines established by the scientists when you’re out but that if everyone is at home and not leaving there’s not a need to be so strict. That it is unfair to impose their standards on the rest of the family and that it’s negatively impacting your feelings about him or her. Also, that you’re more than happy to practice healthy standards but not beyond that. 

Dr. Joshua Coleman is Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families and is a psychologist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, and The BBC, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. His advice has appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London, Fortune, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Psychology Today, Parenting Magazine, and many others. Dr. Coleman has served on the clinical faculties of The University of California at San Francisco, The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology, and the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group. He is the author of four books: The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony, The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along, and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony.