Author Archives: Joanna Kraus

Individual and Couples Therapy in English (Helsinki)

Individual and Couples Therapy in English (Helsinki)

Are you and/or your partner new to Finland? Are you currently in an intercultural relationship? While all couples may face hardships such as communication difficulties, misunderstanding, lack of closeness, or even infidelity, immigrant/expat and intercultural couples often find themselves burdened with additional challenges. It is a well-known and sad fact that divorces are more common among immigrant and intercultural couples.

According to Statistics Finland, in 2018, the divorce rate for those with a foreign background was nearly double that of native Finns, and the rate for intercultural couples was as high as over four times that of homogamous Finnish couples!

Expats and immigrants try to adjust to life in a new country- often without a support network. The resulting stress and loneliness can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems, and may also cause an added strain on even otherwise healthy relationships. When one or both partners are struggling with these challenges- culture shock, integrating into a new country, finding work, learning a new language, etc., the relationship can suffer as a result. Stress levels are high, tempers flare, and patience is running low. When personal problems drain our reserves, our relationships often get neglected. When you compound this problem with feeling all alone- far away from family, and perhaps even without new friendships- the burden can become unbearable.

People in intercultural relationships also have their own unique challenges. While integrating two sets of customs, beliefs, and values is never without challenges, this is especially pronounced when the partners come from two different countries. This often becomes evident especially in parenting. While everyone in the family has the potential to benefit from the richness of multiple cultural heritages, this first requires the parents to learn to talk about, understand, accept, and even appreciate their differences, and then make necessary compromises.

Besides child-rearing practices, communication can also be more challenging in intercultural relationships. The partners often speak two separate native languages, and communicate either in one of those or a third one. Even with excellent skills in a second language, misunderstandings or frustrations can still arise.

While the statistics may seem daunting, fortunately, none of the above-mentioned issues need to continue to negatively impact your life or your relationship. Through individual and/or couples counseling, these issues can be discussed and skills for navigating them can be learned. I have traveled extensively, and lived in the US, South Korea, and Finland. I therefore have both personal experience as an expat and an immigrant, as well as professional experience working with these communities. In other words, I get it. I also truly believe that no problem is insurmountable, and no relationship is hopeless. By addressing individual concerns, practicing communication skills, increasing acceptance, learning to lean on one another rather than turning away, and negotiating differences (cultural, personal, parenting), multiculturalism can become a source of joy and pride rather than another obstacle to overcome.

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Is communication overrated?

Is communication overrated?

We’ve all heard about the importance of good communication skills in relationships. Well-meaning friends and family members, as well as many couples therapists, insist that good communication skills are the most important factor in building a healthy and happy relationship. But is this really true? While I’m sure no one would argue that good communication ISN’T important, love and  relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman argues that it’s not what differentiates good relationships from the bad ones. I tend to agree.

So if communication isn’t the (only) answer, what is? What should we work on to build, maintain, or improve our romantic relationships? I believe we should start with increasing acceptance, creating an atmosphere where good feelings outweigh the bad, and work on turning the all-too-common negative interaction cycles into positive ones instead.

In my practice, I’ve worked with numerous clients who state that their relationships are filled with negativity. They may not be able to pinpoint any one specific problem or issue- they simply feel trapped in an environment of negativity. Negativity tends to breed negativity. That is to say, when one partner approaches the other with a negative tone, the other one tends to respond in kind. This then prompts an even more negative reaction from partner number one. And so it escalates. In time we even come to expect this negativity, and may already preemptively become defensive when we see our partner approaching. Added to that is the fact that we, as humans, are biologically and evolutionarily pre-programmed to notice and respond to undesirable events.

The good ones simply don’t require our attention in the same way- there’s nothing to fix there! So unfortunately, creating a cycle of positivity requires attention and conscious effort; it isn’t as automatic. This isn’t to say that we should (or could!) aim to eliminate all negative interactions. Dr. Gottman’s research has discovered a formula for happy relationships- 5:1. This means that happy couples have an average of five positive interactions for every negative one. These positive interactions don’t have to be grand romantic gestures. In fact, it’s much more effective to have many small, nice moments, rather than a few amazing ones. A smile, a note or text, an “I love you”, an impromptu hug- these are all small everyday things we can all incorporate into our relationships to improve them. I’d suggest having a conversation with your partner to find out how you can best show your love, affection, and admiration for them. Some people might appreciate a gift, while others would much prefer you to take over a dreaded chore. The important thing is to be aware of your partner’s preferences so your show of love is actually perceived as such.

You can also increase positive interactions by practicing noticing the good things. Like I said, this is something that doesn’t tend to come naturally, but instead must be consciously decided and practiced. So spend the next week purposefully looking for things your partner is doing right- and point them out. You can also spend some time each evening telling your partner what you appreciate about them- the more specific, the better.

Another way to increase the positivity in your relationship is to approach your partner in a softer, gentler manner when you have something to discuss. As previously stated, a negative approach will almost guarantee a negative reaction. So, instead of saying “ You’re such a slob! Why do you keep leaving your dirty clothes everywhere? Do you need a map to the hamper?”, you might soften this to something more along the lines of “I know you got home late from work and were really tired, but I would love it if you’d throw your work clothes in the laundry basket”.

While I believe that positivity is the lifeblood of a thriving relationship, another thing to practice in order to improve your connection is acceptance. You will never find a flawless partner. None of us are. In fact, those leaving a relationship due to their partner’s irritating habits often find themselves with a new partner whose flaws make them even crazier! In other words, the grass might be greener on the other side- but you may instead discover a leaky roof! The trick is to learn how to live with each other’s flaws and foibles rather than continually fighting them. Dr. Gottman likens these sorts of problems to a physical ailment like having a bad back- you learn to avoid things that exacerbate the pain, and when the pain does flare up, you manage it with a heating pad or pain medicine.

One effective “medicine” to alleviate relationship pains is the use of humor. Don’t take yourself or each other too seriously. Using affection and laughter is a great way to reduce tension caused by two people with their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and pasts trying to do life together. Also, be willing to consider that your partner might actually have some valid points in their arguments. Just like the saying goes- would you rather be right or happy? We very easily become so entrenched in our own positions, we refuse to budge even a little. This makes it nearly impossible that we would see- much less accept- that our partner’s viewpoint may be just as valid as our own. Relationships don’t need to be a zero-sum game.

So is communication overrated? I would argue that, while important, it pales in comparison to acceptance and overall positivity. Relationships filled with friendship, kindness, appreciation, acceptance, and laughter are well equipped to withstand the occasional storm and come out stronger on the other side. The good news is, with a little bit of practice, these new skills can  ecome habits that will carry your relationship through the toughest of times.

References
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York,
NY: Harmony Books.

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Is Rekindling a Burned-Out Romantic Fire Possible?

Is Rekindling a Burned-Out Romantic Fire Possible?

What do you do if your relationship is just ok?
That is, nothing is horribly wrong, but it’s also not great. Is this an inevitability in every long-term relationship? Are we all eventually doomed to this ho-hum existence?

Fact is, the initial passion that is present in (at least most) brand-new relationships does tend to fade. Kids, careers, illnesses, financial stresses, life just get in the way. Also, the intense emotions we initially experience aren’t sustainable (or even desirable) indefinitely from a biological standpoint either.

So does all this mean that, yes, all relationships are eventually doomed to become lackluster and boring? Absolutely not.
While relationships will inevitably wax and wane, and change through time, it doesn’t mean that couples can’t sustain continued love, passion, and romance. In fact, all of that is entirely possible- it just requires time and effort. Relationships are like many other things in life- the more you nourish them, the more they flourish. On the contrary, neglected relationships do tend to wither and die. One of the biggest enemies of happy relationships, then, is complacency. As soon as we feel confident and comfortable in our relationships, we often turn our focus to other areas of our lives, assuming that our partner will always just be there. Before we know it, we no longer know each other, and we end up as roommates, co-parents, or just two people leading parallel lives under one roof.

So how do we maintain the new relationship shine? Or is it possible to find it again once it’s been lost? While maintaining something is generally easier than, in essence, starting over, it is most definitely possible for couples to rediscover the passion and intimacy of their early days together. Here are five suggestions to try, for anyone who’s looking to reconnect to their partner or just ensure that their connection stays strong.

1. Spend time (alone) together

This one is crucial. We can’t feel close to someone emotionally if we are never physically near one another (and the rest of these steps would become much more difficult to accomplish). So go on dates. They don’t need to be elaborate or fancy- just a way to spend time together and show each other that you still matter. Bonus points for doing something new and/or slightly frightening during these times- these can increase feelings of closeness even more.

2. Ask each other questions

And listen to the answers! Remember, in the beginning, how you couldn’t get enough of each other, and you wanted to learn every little thing about each other? At some point, we start feeling like we know each other. And then we often stop asking questions. However, everyone is always growing, learning, and changing. Once we stop talking to each other about (and asking each other about) our hopes, fears, goals, preferences and the like, we may find that we no longer know the person we’re with. We know only the person they used to be, and find that we’re now in a relationship with a virtual stranger.

3. Do nice things for each other

Again, remember the days when you were “wooing” your partner? You made sure to bring out your best side, you let the little things go, and you went out of your way to do things to let the other person know you care. Eventually we tend to stop this. Again, blame it on complacency. So fill up the car, bring the coffee to bed, or write your spouse a love note. Stop thinking about what you want (and perhaps feel you aren’t getting) from the relationship, and start thinking about what you can BRING to the relationship.

4. Reminisce about the old days

One of the things that sustains a relationship through tough times are the joint memories of good times and a life shared. Talk about them. Look at photos. Tell stories. Your first date, your wedding, a trip you’ve taken, the births of your children- relive those times. Also, the more you follow #1, the more stories you’ll have for this step!

5. Touch each other

For many couples, when the relationship starts to sour, physical touch is the first thing to go. In fact, often couples in distressed relationships go out of their way to avoid accidentally touching each other. Try, instead, to consciously find ways to touch- hold hands, give a shoulder rub, hug… A good start for couples for whom touching has become unfamiliar is to hug twice a day, at least eight seconds each time. You’d be surprised at what a difference this can make! So for anyone who is currently in a relationship, whether it’s still good and you want to maintain it, or it’s already become strained and you’d like to find your way back to each other, follow these tips. Even start with just one (any one) and give it a try. Then add in others as you grow comfortable with the previous one- just continue to do that one as well!

Relationships do take work, but it’s worth it. You truly do reap what you sow here as well. Happy connecting!

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