In today’s episode I’m interviewing Dr. Jessica Higgins. Jessica is a Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a M.A. in Counseling Psychology. She is also a certified Dream Builder Coach and Life Mastery Consultant.
Jessica offers an integrative and comprehensive blend of psychology and coaching. She specializes in helping couples shift and transform their communication and ways of relating, guiding them on a path from confusion and heartache to clarity and authentic connection.
She is also the founder and creator of Connected Couple, a comprehensive, research-based, transformational, relationship program. This program helps couples at any stage in their relationship or marriage.
Today we talk about how to achieve new levels of success, meaning, and aliveness in our relationships.
From a very young age Jessica had an inclination towards people, and by the time she was in junior high she knew she wanted to become a psychologist. A few years later, after going through her own relationship struggles, she started to go deeper in her own personal journey and felt very inspired and motivated to help people have access to more relationship principles that cultivate lasting love and long-term intimacy.
Healthy Relationships Have Health Benefits
Studies show that being in a healthy relationship or having a companion in life can actually improve our longevity.
Attachment is the emotional connection that we form as infants with our main caregivers. According to this attachment theory, the healthier the bonding and relationship we had with them the better our relationships with other people will be throughout our lives.
There are also FMRI studies that show how someone holding the hand of a loved one, like a significant partner, will experience less pain, so there’s a sense of resilience when we can have that partnership. There is also evidence of better recovery rates in hospitals when people have significant partners with them. There are so many benefits physiologically and psychologically that we experience from being partnered. From cradle to grave we are wired to need this bonding. It is as necessary as breathing – we need connection.
How Relationships and Intimacy Can Trigger Past Trauma
We all have an attachment system, meaning the way that we are going to think about others in the world and how people are going to respond to us. It is affected by whether we feel safe and our needs are met. It’s intellectual, so our mental thinking and our beliefs, but it’s also physiological, like our nervous system, as well as emotional.
So, it’s really this whole triad in the working model and that gets developed at a very young age. Zero to three are the formative years and it’s the relational imprint of you. This comes through the patterning of how people responded to us, if our caregivers were responsive, if they showed up for us when we cried, if they were attuned and available, etc. Or maybe they were overwhelmed or under unfortunate circumstances if there’s been abuse in the family lineage.
So, if we fast forward, people can have insecure attachment tendencies in adulthood if they didn’t get exposure to consistent care givers in childhood. One of the ways this may show up is by being protective. They turn away from relationships, rely on themselves, and not reach out to others for help. When caregiving was inconsistent, another possibility is to be more anxious in relationships and doing more double checking for connection, such as saying “Are we still good, is everything stable, are you still with me?” That’s a hypervigilance tendency.
For both of these attachment styles, the studies and medical findings show that there’s a lot of activation. It doesn’t look like it on the outside. It can look a little indifferent, but what’s happening inside the person is the heart rates increases and all the physiological symptoms of stress. So, it doesn’t feel relaxed and calm and secure when connecting with another person.
It’s interesting to notice that these activation responses don’t occur with all relationships. It tends to occur in our most intimate relationships. The nervous system sees our close relationships as necessary for survival, so one might say the nervous system is going to respond similarly to being chased by a bear.
The nervous system might get triggered just as much if, for example, your husband is giving you a look and is upset with you and having an issue with you. So, that threat happens when we are deeply committed, and we get vulnerable, and if the stakes are higher, like having children together. Whatever it is that intensifies that connection is going to affect our nervous system and our attachment system gets more activated. That’s when those previous insecurities might emerge and we might be surprised by them.
Stages of Intimacy in a Relationship
There are various stages in the development of intimacy. The first stage is the romance stage or even referred to as the honeymoon stage, and it’s highly fueled by neurochemicals, like dopamine and oxytocin. They get us in that super excited high and we tend to over romanticize, and project and imagine who they are, but we really don’t really know them yet.
After 9 to 18 months we enter into the second stage, which is the power struggle stage. This is the place where we are like, “oh, that’s how you do that?” or feeling the upset of the differences. At this stage we’re working on how we understand each other, how we learn what we’re both feeling, and how we can work together. But oftentimes many of us don’t know how to do conflict very well. Conflict feels threatening, and all these things are emerging, and it can be difficult to sift through.
Navigating The Complexity of Conflict and Communication
One of the biggest traps we can fall into is when we might have certain expectations that aren’t being communicated clearly.
So, for instance, say there’s a heated discussion. Partner A grew up in a family where there was a sense of connection. During a disagreement, it might get a little charged or people might yell but they all know they love each other so they’re going to repair to get to a better place. Then there is Partner B, whose family is a group where they’re not going to say anything hurtful and they’re not going to speak in any tone that has any ounce of upset. They might pause before talking to be more regulated, or sometimes maybe they don’t come back, and they don’t talk about things at all.
We have to recognize these very different orientations to know how to address a conflict. There are 7 to 8 irreconcilable differences that every couple has. That could be ‘the spender’ and ‘the saver’, ‘the planner’ and ‘the spontaneous one’, it could be ‘the social one’ and ‘the introvert’, or it could be ‘the one that’s on time’ and ‘the one that’s always late’. We have to be able to see all these differences when we’re living life together and be willing to works towards communicating our needs and trust our partner will do the same.
How to Be More Curious When Conflict Feels Like Criticism
The core of most disagreements is that people don’t feel heard, and then they aren’t feeling like they’re able to collaborate and work together for a win-win.
It is very common for us to describe the thing that we do not like and hope that our partner will be able to interpret and understand what we are feeling and needing. But that’s a lot of decoding that most of us do not know how to do. If it’s not a clear signal most people are not going to give what you’re asking of them.
It’s not an easy thing to access, but if we can slow down and say “I wonder what he/she is feeling” or “I wonder what he/she needs right now?” because it’s not about him/her criticizing me, it’s about there’s something happening for him/her that he/she wants and I’m not actually hearing it. So, we could prompt our partner to uncover what might really be at the core of it with questions like, “Well what’s this about?” or “Can you tell me about what you’re wanting?” or “How does this have value for you?” and then hopefully this will reveal the real feeling underneath the perceived criticism.
When we express the feeling that is driving our usual first commentary, our partner – if they are the right partner — will want to show up for that. No one is interested in showing up for a negative critique, but if we can understand what the other person needs, we can then pivot towards that. That’s where the win-win starts to come in, but that’s hard to get at when we don’t slow down and identify and reveal, and then start to work with those deeper layers.
Regulating Your Body Can Have a Huge Impact on Having Regulated Relationships
If we can support the nervous system to feel more regulated, then we can have access to have more productive conversations.
Also, if there’s past experiences or trauma and we haven’t experienced safety in these types of conversations, then it makes perfect sense that there’s going to be a lot of activation around perceived conflict.
There’s a concept in psychology and neuroscience where our nervous systems are constantly harmonizing and picking up information from the people around us. So, if the tone of voice changes or the facial expressions and nonverbals being perceived, we might not know why, but we’ll feel the agitation of that before we have an intellectual understanding of why. We could just start to feel things ratcheting up and we might not even have a real awareness around what’s really happening. That’s where the importance of slowing down comes in, even to allow the nervous system to get regulated before we get into those conversations.
How to Deescalate Conflict and Find Clarity
Jessica finds it is helpful to create a new cycle together because that’s going to create more safety and more connection in the communication. Oftentimes we’re aware of the secondary emotions, the tendencies of how we might perceive our partner, but that doesn’t get at the deeper layer of what is actually happening and the core of why we reacted that way. And so, we really have to work on slowing down to get to understand the deeper layer.
When we can get to a place to just say “Oh, I’m acting this way because I feel nervous or scared” and here’s what I’m thinking, here’s where I want to go, or here’s what’s happening internally for me.
Historically, couples wait too long to access therapy as support. But you don’t have to start there. If the conflict is at a low level, if the charge on a scale from 1 to 10 is like a 3 or 4, start with journaling to unpack these difficult emotions. Keep digging deeper. The first layer will most likely be writing about why you believe you are in the right, but then you should keep writing. Why did it make you feel like that? Did it remind you of something else? If you would like to get a good journal and start doing this this you can find one here.
Often times even just by having this unfiltered space where no one else but us can dictate what is going on, we can start to soften. This is because we are making ourselves feel heard and starting to come closer to the truth of why we are reacting in a certain way. And once you get closer and practice more with peeling back those layers and getting to that vulnerability that you were hiding, you can see yourself more clearly, and that maybe you were acting out of fear. Then the next step is learning to share that vulnerability with your partner.
When your partner responds kindly and openly to your vulnerability is when real intimacy can be built. If the charge is higher on the scale, and there is also a backlog of problems, that’s when it’s probably time to seek additional support.
How Can We Change Patterns Individually to Get Unstuck Together
If we realize we want to make a change in our own lives, but we shy away from that change or delay on these types of conversations, while it might feel less conflictual in the moment, it can cause more difficulty in the long term.
There’s a term in psychology called differentiating in which we can hold on to ourselves when our partner is doing something different or even disagrees with what we’re doing, and we can tolerate some of that discomfort and it can actually be highly attractive. So, we should look at change as something that has the potential to be very positive not just for the individual, but for the relationship as well.
When you are hiding yourself for the perceived continuation of the relationship, that can start to resemble something closer to enmeshment or codependence. In healthy interdependence, we do rely on each other, but we can also nurture and listen to our own development and our growth.
If we can do a little preparation before these conversations that we know might cause some defensiveness or tension, and if we can understand what we’re needing or what that deeper request is or desire or what’s not working, then we will most likely have much more productive and understanding conversations with our partners.
If we can make a reveal of vulnerability and/or a request in a vulnerable way, those conversations are going to happen in a much more productive and efficient way.
The Importance of Unconditional Positive Regard for Yourself
Our attachments exist on a spectrum. We are not purely anxious or avoidant. So, it can take time and difficulties in relationships before we are ready and have the history to see where we need healing.
As you start to get more curious about yourself, you can start to accept what your own patterns are. As you practice this more, you can realize when you are starting to act on a recurring pattern and choose to change it. That decision to change is a scary step into vulnerability, and what you have to remind yourself in those moments, is that no matter what happens with this person, you will always have your own back.
Even if that person doesn’t choose you after you show them vulnerability, that’s okay because you are showing up for that part of yourself that’s scared and feeling anxious about being rejected or abandoned. You can say to yourself “I hear you, I see you, I got you.”
You will know you are with the right person if these signals or bids of vulnerability are met with a softening and a reciprocal tenderness.
Vulnerability is a Risk, But the Reward Can be Beautiful
If you are parenting and you are taking the opportunity to work on these tough and sometimes scary emotions, you will be modeling these steps that are critical for authentic connection and bonds. Children in turn get to see that and it can shift their future relationships and their experience as a human.
Being vulnerable is the same as being brave, and can have a ripple effect into future generations, positively affecting the way people build relationships in the future.
In neuropsychology there’s this idea that we have to ‘name it to tame it’, so even just recognizing the intensity of the emotion and giving space for it (even if it’s not resolved right at that moment) will help us start to regulate, and then we’re in a much better position to deal with it. But if we’re not willing to name it, a lot of things can happen and we will do all types of things to hide, to avoid, and to suppress.
A lot of injuries happen in relationships and so when we have the tools for healing, it has profound impact on cultivating repair and resilience and health and all the good things.
If you want to reach out to Dr. Jessica and learn more about how she can help you, please make sure to check out her website. She is also on social media as @drjessicahiggins (Instagram) and @EmpoweredRelationship (Facebook). You can also check out her Empowered Relationship Podcast or download her Free Guide Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.
If you want to learn more about how stress and trauma affect us, and how to heal so that you can be better and more present in your relationships, you may want to read my book Master Your Stress Reset Your Health.
In the book, I describe what I refer to as SelfC.A.R.E. based on your Stress Type. C stands for Clean Eating, A for adequate sleep, R for recovery activities, and E for exercise. I share the research behind how C.A.R.E. works in a daily routine to help us process stress and overcome trauma.
To know your Stress Type, which is your unique cortisol and adrenaline levels based on how stresses have affected your adrenal function, you can take the quiz I developed. You can find the Stress Type® Quiz in the book and on my website.
TAKE THE FREE STRESS QUIZ TO FIND OUT YOUR STRESS TYPE:
Then, if you’re ready to start rebalancing your cortisol and neurotransmitters, to help your adrenals reset after stress exposure, you can start by ordering this home test kit. And you can also sign up for my Stress Warrior Online Program to guide you here.
If you’re interested in a safe and effective body, mind and spirit detoxification that will actually make you feel better and that you can do without affecting your daily routine, you can check out my New 14-Day Detox Program here. In the Detox Program I teach you to connect with yourself, and use mind-body tools, such as biofeedback, to process emotions.
For the most comprehensive support, even with the most difficult health issues (physical or mental), it is best to meet with me one-on-one, which is available to you no matter where you are in the world (via phone or zoom). You can set up a one-on-one appointment with me here.
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