On New Year’s Eve 2017, I asked my husband for a divorce. I was ready to close my eyes and have the world disappear, but my husband pleaded with me to at least try couples counseling before I gave up on us. We were only 3.5 years into our marriage, but we had so many struggles along the way. Eventually, I was able to take several deep breaths and recognize he was right—we deserved a shot, so I agreed to couples counseling.
It took three months, but we were finally able to get in front of a doctor. I wanted a Woman of Color therapist and had to figure out who took our insurance. It was life changing: My husband and I recently celebrated our seventh anniversary, and now I can’t imagine anything that could pull us apart. We still have regular monthly appointments to keep practicing our new and improved communication skills.
With our counselor, we’ve been discussing impending parenthood, whether it’s as foster or biological parents. The thing that couples counseling really helped me see is that every relationship, romantic or otherwise, is based on how we communicate. If we learn to be clear and communicate our actual feelings, we can build strong relationships built on a foundation of trust. And it struck me: Isn’t that what I would want to teach my children? I didn’t learn how to communicate my feelings until I was well into my 30s because none of the couples I had grown up around had set that kind of example for me.
So I sat down to speak with Latasha Matthews, a licensed professional counselor, about the connections between couples counseling and parenting. She works with couples and children and shared some really important skills we can model in our relationships that are very beneficial for children to observe and practice themselves. Here are all the tools she shared.
Growing up in a narcissistic household made me distrustful of many people. I was taught to fight dirty from a young age, with a lot of assumptions made about other people’s intentions. I was told that the world was out to get me and the only people who would ever care for me were my immediate family. Having to unlearn that has been difficult and spilled into my relationship with my husband. When we were angry, a lot of terrible things flew out of our mouths—things that are nearly impossible to take back.
Before, I would point out all the ways my husband had messed up rather than think about how we both were struggling to communicate properly. Over time, I’ve been able to pull myself back more, see all sides sooner, and de-escalate fights that used to wear us down and ruin our weeks.
Matthews pointed out that children learn their conflict resolution skills from the adults around them. If you fight fair, your kids learn to fight fair. It seems so simple, but for those of us who never learned that skill, it feels revolutionary. Arguments are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean they have to be knock-down drag-out fights. They can be as simple as letting someone know they hurt you, them communicating their own hurt, all parties taking responsibility, and then moving on. It’s still going to be uncomfortable and potentially painful, but you can navigate conflict without feeling decimated.
Practice listening to your body
When you have feelings, your body is the first to understand that. When I start to get upset, my heart starts pounding, I can hear my pulse in my ears, and my chest starts to tighten. Figuring that out was the first step to realizing that I was even upset to begin with. Before that, it felt like my moods surprised me entirely. Now, I can track them as they arise.
Because I’ve learned to spot the signs in my body, I’ve been better able to recognize the feelings in the onset, and I can change my self-talk from negative to positive. I identify the physical symptoms, take deep breaths, then am able to think more clearly so I can assess whether the situation is actually negative or if that’s just my framework.
While discussing this with Matthews, I mentioned I was worried that I didn’t know how to teach my children to have a more open and less paranoid outlook. She shared this tool: Identify out loud that your body is experiencing something and narrate your process in front of your kids. Then they can see how you make rational, thought-out decisions instead of deciding something in an emergency fight-or-flight mentality.
Have open conversations about feelings
In our couples counseling, processing feelings out loud has been an important skill my husband and I have been working on. We both struggled with acknowledging our feelings for most of our lives, so sometimes we have difficulty communicating properly. “Kiddos are like tape recorders,” Matthews said. I realized just how much I had internalized from watching the behaviors and responses from the grownups throughout my life.
When you practice processing feelings and emotions out loud, kids will still be absorbing it long after you’re done. So my husband and I have established a process of slowing down, letting each other know that our feelings are hurt, and staying open to listening to each other instead of assuming we know someone’s intentions or thoughts.
And even when the feelings don’t have to do with each other, we share them anyway! Our kids can benefit from the same exact kind of open dialogue modeling. They’ll see that you can ask for help when needed, identify feelings like worries or frustration, and work toward solutions for them.
Relationships used to feel so scary to me. They were like a big nebulous thing that felt unattainable in real life, and I had too many hopes and expectations for them to be my salvation. But the more work I do to be a good partner and better communicator, the more I see the importance of basic communication skills in relationships. If I teach my children anything, I hope it’s this: Trauma can be passed down through generations, but so can healing.