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How to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

communication issues

 

One of the first questions couples counselors ask couples at the beginning of treatment is some variation of, “What issues brought you here today?” Nine out of ten couples, couples answer “communication issues!” almost in unision. Couples typically struggle much more when the couples therapist follows up by asking, “What communication issues are you experiencing?” What are communication issues? How do couples learn to communicate better in their relationships? Can you really improve communication in your relationship and learn to argue better and increase closeness?

Improving Everyday Communication in Your Relationship

It often isn’t the major fights or blowouts that leave a couple feeling detached or disconnected from each other, but a gradual decline in the quality of a couple’s ability to communicate.  As time goes on, it becomes easier and easier to pay less attention to the ways in which we communication our affection or appreciation for one another because it “should be obvious” how we feel, or because we believe the other person “should know that we love him/her.”  Problems in communication that don’t revolve around a specific conflict in the relationship can be difficult to pinpoint as the culprit of a couple’s trouble because they often aren’t easy problems to point to.  Instead, the couple in question may feel a diffused uneasiness, disinterest, or a feeling that something is “missing.”  Here are some tips that often help couples to improve their communication on an everyday basis in ways that foster connection, affection, and a feeling of closeness with one’s partner.

 

Avoid Distractions When Communicating with Your Partner

Here’s a simple exercise to illustrate the importance of avoiding distractions while communicating.  Imagine this: a friend that you haven’t seen in awhile has just asked you about what is new in your life.  As you begin to tell stories about the recent events in your life, your friend reaches into his or her pocket, pulls out a cell phone, and begins to scroll through social media.  How do you feel?  What do you do?  Typically, this sort of interaction leaves people feeling mildly hurt, offended, rejected, or otherwise upset.  The most common reaction is to feel as though what we have to say isn’t important to the person to whom we’re speaking.  Given the mild nature of this offense, we might not complain overtly, but rather are more likely to disengage or shorten the story—nobody wants to share the details of their life story to someone who isn’t paying attention.

Very often, these interactions are isolated events that are made up for by other more attentive interactions.  Over time, however, the feelings of unimportance can build if interactions are more and more distracted.  For many couples—especially those faced with the many distractions of parenthood—this can become a major obstacle to feeling heard and valued.  Putting aside the cell phone, setting down the newspaper, muting the TV, and even simply making a conscious effort to look at your significant other while they are talking can have a huge impact on that person’s experience during everyday communication.

 

Pay Attention and Praise the Good in Your Partner

Along those same lines, paying more attention to your partner instead of extraneous distractions provides opportunities for you to begin to notice and acknowledge your partner.  Communication is a two-way street, so listening is only half the battle.  Psychologist and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has described a “magic ratio” of 5 positive interactions to compensate for each negative interaction—so for every fight, argument, or criticism, a couple that flourishes has five positive interactions in which they may compliment each other, express affection for each other, or otherwise demonstrate the the other person matters.  By being intentional about paying attention to each other, you gain more opportunities to create these positive interactions.  The more specifically you’re able to compliment or acknowledge your partner, the better—sometimes “you’re so smart!” is good, but “I’m so impressed you were able to come up with that solution!  You’re so smart.  I really appreciate that,” is even better.

 

Ask Yourself: Can It Wait?

Distractions come up in many ways, and may not always be external.  Sometimes we may be looking at our partner, but our mind is elsewhere—distracted by thoughts of our to-do list or something else that happened earlier.  To this end, our partner might say something that elicits a “that reminds me” moment that derails the otherwise attentive conversation.  For example:

John: “So then what happened?”

Jane: “I had to drive all the way back to the store to return it and get the correct size!”

John: “Oh—that reminds me—did you fill up the car with gas?  I have to make an early start tomorrow.”

Jane: “I… what? No, I didn’t think to…”

John: “Jane! This always happens! Now I have to leave even earlier tomorrow to get gas before I make the long drive…”

John’s request is a reasonable one, but by shifting the conversation in accordance with his own private thought process, he missed an important opportunity for a positive interaction with Jane.  Let’s try again:

John: “So then what happened?”

Jane: “I had to drive all the way back to the store to return it and get the correct size!”

John: “You drove all the way to the mall and back twice in one day?  Wow.  I bet that was annoying.  I really appreciate you doing that though—that really saves me so much time.”

John is going to have to put gas in the car tomorrow, and may still feel the need to ask Jane not to bring the car home empty, but it can wait—it doesn’t need to be said right away, much less right in the middle of Jane’s story.  By letting go of this opportunity, he allows for this positive interaction to occur between them in which he acknowledges Jane’s hard work and expresses gratitude for her efforts instead of criticizing her behavior.  This also allows him to address the problem later, when he isn’t as frustrated and can more calmly think about how he wants to present and address the problem.

 

No One Can Read Your Mind. Ask for What You Need.

As I have said above, communication is a two-way street.  Sometimes we aren’t immediately equipped to communicate in a way that our loved one might need, so we must learn how to do so.  Very often, one or both partners may make sincere efforts to improve communication, but may not have a clear understanding of exactly how to do so.  To this end, it can often be helpful for partners to express to each other what did or did not work.  In the example above, Jane might express frustration or hurt at her story being derailed by criticism, or she might express gratitude for John noticing her hard work.  She might offer feedback by saying “It really hurt my feelings when you jumped my case during that story.  I know it’s an inconvenience for you to fill up the car on your way out of town, and I’m sorry, but I felt like we could have waited until afterward to discuss that.”  This is the beginning of a larger conversation, but this feedback alone provides important information about how John’s communication affects Jane, which John can then use to inform his approach to fostering connection between them.

Sometimes, this isn’t clear.  We may not know what we need, but rather may only know that something isn’t working.  To this end, meeting with a couples counselor can help to not only improve communication, but otherwise note the cyclical patterns in play that can be addressed and adjusted in order to improve a couple’s day-to-day. Bergen Counseling Center is one resource for couples counseling in Chicago where communication skills are just one of the many areas of focus, and where many couples begin to feel change takes place.  If you’re interested in learning more, use the contact box on this page to reach out to a therapist for more information.

How to Overcome Relationship Problems After Having a Baby

relationship issues after baby

 

The most commonly quoted statistics on marital satisfaction put it bluntly: marital satisfaction decreases after the first child is born.  The birth of your first child is major milestone in many relationships, and the built-up anticipation of the moment can make it all the more exciting when the baby is finally born.  And indeed, the experience is a uniquely memorable one; having a child changes one’s identity by creating an entirely new dimension to who they are and the roles they hold as an individual, a partner, and now, a parent. Adopting this new role means facing new challenges, some we expect, but it can be surprising how many relationship problems arise after having a baby.  Parenting causes an increase in conflict simply because there are now hundreds of decisions almost daily which are mutual and involve compromise and negotiation between partners. Both partners are highly emotionally invested in their little bundle of joy and balancing the demands of work, family, and life all while functioning on minimal sleep. It’s easy to understand how things can go bad fast in a relationship under these conditions. How can so much joy bring so much conflict? Well, because…

Parenting is Hard

Becoming a parent means facing a whole new series of hurdles—some of which are common to any new child, but many of which may be unexpected.  Dealing with the challenges that come up only gets easier when you can approach them as a team.  Communication about the division of labor is crucial to setting your team up for success. Make no assumptions about who will get up in the middle of the night when the little one wakes up at 4:00 a.m., or who will take off work for that upcoming doctor’s appointment.  Having an open dialogue about the allocation of responsibilities can not only ease the friction that this added stress can bring, but on some level, can even bring the couple closer by encouraging collaboration and reinforcing of being mindful of not only the child’s needs, but each other’s.

Tend to Your Foundation as a Couple

Communication about responsibilities and the “divide and conquer” conversation of who will tend to what responsibility is important, but even more important is remembering to make time to have other conversations.  Given the time and resolve required to tend to the many needs and obligations of parenthood, it’s easy to approach the work with a business-like efficiency.  Playful conversations over dinner become checking off to-do lists, and questions about each other’s day become questions about this or that task was completed.  Remember that you relationship with your partner existed before you were parents, and while your relationship is changing (and will continue to evolve), the foundation of your partnership is still very much there.  So much in the same way that children need care and attention, this foundation must be nurtured in order to continue to grow and thrive. Gestures of affection and gratitude go a long way to preserving and enhancing happiness in relationships.  Indeed, it’s often these smaller gestures of appreciation that can make more of a difference than large romantic displays.  

Intimacy is Critical to a Happy Partnership

Another big change comes in intimacy and in sexual satisfaction.  The spontaneous passion that might have existed between partners before children became part of the picture may not be feasible or realistic anymore.    You’re both tired; by the time the little one falls asleep, both partners are often so tired that “going to bed” means falling asleep before heads hit pillows.  The hours spent lying in bed together become abbreviated, as time is precious—time for sleeping, doubly so.  Because of this, it becomes all the more important to appreciate the little moments that the two of you do have.  Being mindful and intentional about squeezing in a hug or a kiss before work may not be the same as spending an evening together, but the act (and the sentiment behind it) can go a long way between date nights. Flirtatious text messages or a written note slipped into a briefcase before work can help to inspire and retain some of the same playfulness that it can be so easy to lose.

That being said, date nights should be prioritized.  The social pressure on new parents to display or demonstrate their competency or investment in their children can often give rise to the idea that sacrificing everything for one’s children is a good thing, when in fact, this poses a number of threats to our own mental health as parents.  It may feel forced or ritualistic or even like another obligation on the long list of things to do, but getting into the habit of regularly allocating one evening or afternoon or even one morning every 2-3 weeks or even a month as time exclusively for you and your significant other can not only help prioritize and maintain romance and intimacy in your relationship, but can give the two of you something to look forward to.

Exercise Your Right to Say “No”

Another effect of this social pressure on new parents is that parents often feel compelled to take very active roles in all aspects of their child’s life—the pressure is high (whether perceived pressure from other parents or pressure that we put on ourselves) to volunteer to bring snacks to school or to help organize this or that after school event.  This issue comes up often with kids who are very involved in sports—many parents may want to attend our child’s games and support them by watching and cheering them on.  The research says this is good—kids like it when parents attend their games.  However, when we begin to feel compelled to attend these games or events, or guilty when we can’t, it’s time to cut ourselves some slack.  It’s great to attend events when possible, but missing these things here and there is not only OK and understandable, but it’s highly likely.  Perfect attendance is the exception, not the rule.  And while kids do tend enjoy having their parents in attendance, this is also not always the case; in some instances, children may begin to feel as though they are playing for their parents rather than for themselves.

Engage in Self-Care &  Support Your Partner’s Self-Care Needs

Relationships do change when kids become a part of the picture—there’s no way around that.  The joy and excitement that comes with being a new parent typically outweighs the frustration or disappointment.  However, the relationship tension that often comes up under this added stress cannot be ignored.  Similarly, the focus on the newest member of the family should add and not detract from the partnership that preceded it; nurturing the new child is critically important, but it isn’t selfish to tend to your own needs, too.  Good parents aren’t necessarily the ones that sacrifice themselves entirely for their child, but rather the ones that know they can’t pour from an empty cup, and as such, work to balance their own needs with that of their child in order to provide the very best for their little one.

If you are experiencing damaging conflict or distance in your relationship after having children, couples therapy may be a beneficial option. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have extensive training and expertise helping couples communicate, maintain or regain intimacy, and grow together after having children. Call or fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more or schedule an appointment.

In the Media: 6 Ways Your Relationship with Your Parents Affects Your Love-Life

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Do Your Parents Affect Your Adult Relationships?

Bergen Counseling Center co-owner, Dr. Rebecca Bergen, was recently interviewed by www.mydomaine.com for an article series on relationships. The premise of the article asks the question, “How does our childhood relationship with our parents affect our romantic relationships as adults?” Dr. Bergen breaks down how our parents become models for our adult relationships in both healthy and unhealthy ways. In the interview, she explains the influences that our parents relationship with us as children and with each other as parents contributes to our expectations, communication patterns, conflict-styles, and expressions of affection in our adult romantic relationships.

From the article:

“MyDomaine: Is there one parent who impacts this experience more than the other? For example, I read that the relationship you have with your opposite-sex parent predicts the kind of relationships you’ll have with boyfriends or girlfriends in adulthood. Can you explain/elaborate on this idea?

Dr. Bergen: I believe they affect us in different ways. Same-sex parents serve as a model for our own behavior and opposite sex parents are projected into potential partners. This also works in reverse, in the sense that we may search for the opposite of a father who was stoic and uninvolved. Another example, a person may be hyper vigilant to criticism and argue frequently with partners because their same-sex parent had difficulty advocating for themselves and became a “doormat” in the relationship. We tend to want to emulate our parent’s relationship when it is perceived as healthy and positive.

Read the full article on www.mydomaine.com to learn more about how childhood relationships with our parents influence our adult relationships and even how we pass along those patterns to our own children. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have experience and training to provide couples counseling in Chicago and are also skilled in exploring family of origin issues. If you are interested in learning more about how we can help, complete the contact form below and one of our therapists will reach out to you personally.

5 Ways to Conquer Conflict in Your Relationship

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When we see people at our offices in Chicago for couples counseling, they often report at least one of three major problems. 1.) “We argue too frequently and explosively” 2.) “We don’t talk enough and feel distant” 3.) Or the catchall: “We have communication issues.” Throughout the course of couples counseling, we uncover the relationship between arguments and emotional distance is determined by how couples experience conflict in their relationships. Partners entering couples counseling for the first major problem listed above tend to be in the most acutedistress. Conflict is oftentimes painful and unsettling, and unresolved conflict is a primary source of resentment in relationships.

For many, the word “conflict” brings up negative connotations of insidious issues that come between two loving partners. However, conflict is an inevitable part of a healthy, intimate relationship.  More than this, conflict can be a powerful impetus for growth, understanding, and can even be an opportunity to become closer and experience increased intimacy with your loved one.  Despite this, we may find ourselves repeatedly feeling at odds with our significant other when our relationship becomes fraught with arguments or disagreements.  Conflict is an opportunity for growth, but we often walk away feeling dejected or discouraged.  If you find that you and your significant other have developed a tendency for repeated, routine arguments and conflicts that generally don’t end well, it might be time to change your habits and try something new.  Here are some ideas for reshaping the dynamics that characterize your arguments, and finally conquer conflict not by avoiding disagreements but by arguing in a healthier way.

1. Pause

That’s right—the first thing to do is to do nothing at all. When conflict arises, we often spring into action quickly. Instead, try pausing for a moment and actually noticing what is happening. How are you talking to your partner? What are you feeling? Conflicts (especially the ones that become sore spots for a couple) often occur in patterns, and the sooner that the couple is able to recognize these patterns, the sooner that they can begin to implement some changes. Repeated arguments can make for unpleasant routines, so noticing the patterns or the contributing factors to an argument can be a good place to start. When do you argue most often? Where? Over what types of subjects? Do you find yourself more prone to arguments when you’re hungry? Sleepy? Similarly, when are you most agreeable? What sorts of settings contribute to less arguments? What makes those conversations different?

2. Focus on changeable problems

Conflict resolution is a process by which the disruptive cycle of communication or behavior in a relationship is changed, adjusted, or otherwise reshaped to make for a more harmonious relationship. In short, this means change. Spending time and energy arguing over irreconcilable differences does not benefit either member of the partnership, but can rather exacerbate the feeling of “spinning your wheels” that often develops from repeated arguments over the same issue. Unsolvable problems require acceptance; only changeable problems can be resolved.

3. Be a team

All too often, we forget that the goal of an argument is not about showing that you are right while the other is wrong, but rather to find a place of understanding and resolution for the both of us. When conflicts occur, its crucial that we don’t fall into the trap of playing “the blame game”. This means that we have to strip our arguments of those things that don’t help us or aren’t constructive—things like speaking in generalities (“You always do this,” or “I have never done that!”), bringing up unrelated issues or past arguments (“This is just like the time you…” or “You’re wrong about this just like you’re wrong about…”), or name-calling and other forms of derision (“You’re such a jerk,” or “We wouldn’t have to argue about this if you would just man up and deal with it.”). Oftentimes, these phrases are said in the heat of an escalating argument, when we are starting to become upset and overly stimulated. If that happens, it’s ok to take a break and return to the discussion when you or your partner has calmed down some. In fact, a 20 minute break in the middle of an argument can often reset the runaway train and lead to a productive conclusion to an otherwise chaotic conflict.

4. Ask questions, and listen

When an argument begins to escalate, we often stop doing two very necessary things—asking questions, and actually listening to what the other person is saying. We become upset or anxious or angry and begin to act without pausing to recognize the way the argument has become a runaway train (which is one reason that tip #1 above can be so useful). The next time you find yourself embroiled in a disagreement, try this: pause (or agree to take a break for a few minutes before returning), and then simply say “Ok. I feel like I’m not really listening to you and I want to hear what you have to say. What do you need me to hear?” Then, in the conversation that follows, notice your desire to interject—to justify, defend, or explain away the problem—and hold back. Instead, try listening to what is being said, understanding, and offering a validating response. Consider the following exchange:

Jane: “I’m upset because you didn’t even consider how your decision to work late was going to affect me!”
Joe: “I did consider it though! Don’t you understand? I worked late tonight so that I could leave the office early on Friday.”
Jane: “You’re not listening! You didn’t think about how this would affect me at all.”
Joe: “You’re being ridiculous! I get off early on Friday and now we get to spend time together then!”
Jane: “I’m being ridiculous? Really? I just wanted to spend time with you tonight and instead I had wait for you to come home because you decided to work late without telling me.”
Joe: “But I did it so we could spend time together Friday!”

See the cyclical nature of this particular argument? Joe thinks that he had a good reason for doing what he did, but in jumping to justify his behavior, he isn’t hearing or understanding Jane’s message. He might have more success with the following approach:

Jane: “I’m upset because you didn’t even consider how your decision to work late was going to affect me!”
Joe: “Oh, wow—maybe I didn’t fully understand the consequences of that decision. How did it affect you?”
Jane: “You obviously didn’t understand! I was looking forward to spending the evening with you and then you just text me to say you aren’t coming home for another few hours? That really sucks for me.”
Joe: “You must have felt like I hadn’t thought about you at all. That would really upset me too.”
Jane: “It was like you forgot about me.”
Joe: “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it. I actually was thinking about you—I thought that by working late I could come home early on Friday so we could spend more time together. But it sounds like not talking to you about that decision really upset you so maybe I can do a better job of discussing these things with you next time.”

By not jumping straight into defending or justifying his behavior, and instead, validating Jane’s feelings and experience, Joe not only helped defuse a high-stress conversation, but was able to reach an easy resolution that suited both members of the relationship.

5. Consider couples counseling

Sometimes we get so entrenched in the patterns and routines of our conflicts that it can become difficult to get out of the dynamics that developed over time. In these instances, it can be useful to see a professional—an impartial third party whose goal is to help couples break their bad habits while also learning new skills for negotiating conflict and, in turn, repairing and revitalizing the relationship as a whole. The Bergen Counseling Center are trained offers couples counseling at two locations in Chicago. Fill out the contact form on this page to learn more.

 

 

Daniel White, MS, LPC

Daniel White, MS, LPC

Blog Contributor, Therapist

About the Author: Daniel graduated from Roosevelt with his masters in clinical psychology in 2016 and has practiced as a therapist under supervision for over a year. He has been writing for Bergen Counseling Center since 2016, and his areas of special interest include intimate and familial relationships, trauma, shame, grief and loss, and issues related to individuation and identity development.

Have You Fallen Out of Love or Just Out of Sync?

What makes you feel the most loved? How do you communicate your love to your loved ones? When we have strong, loving feelings for those in our lives, we may convey them through a variety of methods depending on our personality and style of communication. Unfortunately, communication issues can undermine feelings of intimacy and connection with another, even in our closest relationships. At the most extreme, it’s almost like speaking convey an idea in an entirely different language—the idea may be clear and strong in our own minds, but if we are unable to communicate it in a way that another understands, then there is much that is lost in the process.

Imagine the following couple: Jerry and Elaine, who have been married for five years now, decide to attend counseling together after frequently falling into arguments about what they describe as a “distance” that has grown between them.  As they explore this in their first session, Elaine voices discontent, explaining that she rarely feels as though Jerry still loves her.  Jerry becomes frustrated and says “I don’t understand how you can feel that way when I work so hard to show you how important you are to me!  I clean every Friday so you can come home to a clean house after work and relax! I run errands on Saturday morning so you can sleep in! And just last week, I agree to work an extra shift at work so that we have a day off for this appointment!  What more can I do to show you I care?”  Elaine begins to cry as she replies, “I know! And you’re right. You work really hard. But I miss you. We don’t talk anymore! When we’re together you’re never really there. You’re responding to emails or working on the house. It’s like you don’t want to spend time with me anymore.”

In these situations, the problem may simply be that the couple in question isn’t communicating their love in a way that is readily understood by the other person.  In other words, the couple may not be speaking the same Love Language.  In his book, The 5 Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman describes five main “languages” that we use to express our love to those to whom we are closest: words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, quality time, and the giving/receiving of gifts.  He explains that every individual uses each of the “languages” or modes of communication to varying degrees, and that many have a primary language that they tend to favor over others.  A good understanding of both you and your partner’s language “profile,” or the degree to which each method of expression feels particularly significant for you can allow you to begin looking at the areas where there may be a mismatch.

For Jerry and Elaine, above, their issue involves such a mismatch.  Jerry’s primary method of expressing his love for Elaine involves acts of service, as evidenced by how hard he works to perform tasks that he feels might make her life easier.  Elaine, however, seems to value quality time more.  Because of this mismatch, Elaine may feel dismissed or unimportant when unable to spend quality time with Jerry, and Jerry may feel taken for granted, as though Elaine doesn’t appreciate all of his hard work.

These mismatches in love languages are bound to happen, but it doesn’t need to spell disaster for the couple.  There is good news: you can learn to communicate your love in a way that can recharge the feelings of attachment in your relationship.  Here’s where to start:

  • Understanding your own love language profile.

A good understanding of the love language that most resonates helps you understand not only the ways that you are most likely to express your love for another, but can also increase your awareness of the ways those ways that may lead to feelings of disconnectedness from a loved one.  For example, if your primary love language is words of affirmation, then going without words of encouragement or support from your partner may be difficult.  Additionally, insults, criticisms, or perceived rejections from your partner may cut especially deep.  Knowing those things that most make you feel loved can help you communicate your needs to your partner in such a way that can bolster feelings of intimacy and connectedness.

  • Understanding your partner’s love language profile.

Similarly, a good understanding of your partner’s love language can help you to accept the ways in which they are showing their love for you.  An individual whose primary language is physical touch may be saying “I love you” when they reach over to squeeze your hand while on the train, or when they pat you on the arm when passing you in the house.  These little gestures that may otherwise go somewhat unnoticed can take on a more significant meaning when this love language is better understood.  Furthermore, understanding your partner’s love language can help you communicate your own feelings in a way that may be more easily understood by them.  Say your partner’s love language is quality time; what does that mean to them?  What aspects of having quality time together do they most appreciate?  Do they enjoy engaging in activities with you and completing projects?  Or would they rather spend time with your undivided attention?

  • Communicate about where your styles for expressing love match up, and where they don’t.

When feelings of disconnectedness arise in your intimate relationship, pay attention to the times when you feel most loved by your partner, and consider how this plays into your love language profile.  Ask your partner about when they feel closest to you, and when they feel most distant. When expressing your feelings, focus on making “I” statements.  Mismatches in love languages are exceedingly common, but by understanding the ways that we communicate, we can begin to make changes to allow us to communicate in ways that our partners better understand.  Learning to communicate in your partner’s love language isn’t always easy, and may feel forced or disingenuous at first, but will feel more natural the more you practice.

  • View mismatches as opportunities for growth.

Jerry and Elaine, our hypothetical couple above, are both understandably frustrated and discouraged because of the way communication barriers have made it difficult for them to maintain the intimacy and connectedness that they both desire.  By recognizing these barriers for what they are, Jerry and Elaine can begin to explore other avenues by which they may express their love for each other, recharging their relationship by growing closer than before.

Ready to learn more about your Love Language profile?  Take the free online quiz on Dr. Gary Chapman’s site here.

About the Author: Daniel graduated from Roosevelt with his masters in clinical psychology in 2016 and has practiced as a therapist under supervision for over a year. He has been writing for Bergen Counseling Center since 2016, and his areas of special interest include intimate and familial relationships, trauma, shame, grief and loss, and issues related to individuation and identity development.