How to Manage Going Home for the Holidays When You're Single

There are plenty of reasons why many of us have mixed feelings about going home for the holidays.  Sure, who doesn’t love delicious food, pumpkin and cinnamon flavored everything, catching up with family and friends, and uncomfortable conversations about politics?  And then comes the questions about your relationship status and, then the, “wait, you’re still not married?”, or “I can’t believe you’re still single, you’re so great!”, and the all-time best, “well, at least you have your cat.”  Whether you’ve been single for years or you’re recently single, and whether you’re feeling down about your singledom or you’re living your best life, it’s not your great-aunt Susan’s business how you feel about being single nor does it require an explanation.  Here are three ways to manage going home for the holidays when you’re single:

  1. Mentally prepare yourself for what questions may be asked and have a short, to-the-point answer ready.  You know your family.  You probably know ahead of time who has no self-awareness or boundaries and asks inappropriate questions, and who will support you or back you up.  Do what you can to practice self-care prior to a big family gathering. Take a walk, write in a journal, listen to a mindfulness meditation, talk to a friend or an empathetic sibling or cousin, and do what you can to be in a relaxed and present head-space.  Also, give yourself this opportunity to reflect on some possible answers to questions that may come up about your relationship status, such as, “I’m satisfied with my life right now, including my romantic life. Thank you for asking.” Or, “I’m doing my best, and I appreciate your concern.”

  2. Have an exit strategy or take a break.   As much we can try our best to plan ahead and practice mindfulness and self-care, family gatherings can be triggering for many of us.  We have a tendency to revert back to our adolescent-self and get defensive or shut-down, especially if we feel like our personal boundaries are being crossed.  If this happens, and you can feel yourself getting dysregulated (rapid heart-beat, getting hot, racing thoughts, etc.), excuse yourself and take a breather. You can always go to the bathroom and text a friend who may be in the exact same position you’re in, take 10 deep breaths, remind yourself how awesome you are and it’s absolutely OK you’re single, and you’re doing your best!  When you return the group, try redirecting the conversation by talking about that awesome new promotion you got or a new interest you just got into.

  3. Watch your alcohol intake.   It’s really tempting at holiday gatherings to numb yourself by drinking more than usual, or by using a substance to subdue your feelings and reactions.  However, when we drink too much or we’re under the influence, we’re more likely to react defensively and say something we’ll regret, or we may disclose way more than we meant to, which we may also regret.  Disclosing more than we wanted to feels icky and also like a violation of our boundaries. Prepare yourself ahead of time with how much you’re open to disclosing about your romantic life. This is something to be particularly mindful of if you’re grieving a relationship ending, and you have trouble talking about it without getting emotional.  Practice mindfulness by paying attention to your body, and if you feel yourself getting more buzzed than expected, stop drinking alcohol and stick to water or La Croix.

Break up’s. Are. Really. F-ing. Hard.  You may have taken all your energy to get yourself out of the house for the holidays, and you may not have anything left to give.  And that’s OK. It’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be devastated, and it’s OK to not want to talk about it with everyone at the Thanksgiving table. On the other hand, you may be single and loving the time to focus on yourself and your career, your interests, your friendships and all the other wonderful things you do.  Regardless of what meaning you’re giving to not being in a relationship, it doesn’t have to be a topic of conversation at a holiday meal.  If you’re going home for the holidays or to a family-centered gathering, remember to practice self-care and think ahead about what boundaries feel healthy and appropriate for you.  And maybe bring your own La Croix so your family doesn’t go through all your Pamplemousse.

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT


3 Ways to Be Mindful During Cuffing Season

Cuffing season has arrived! The season shifts away from the bustling summer months and the singles of the world start seeking a partner to cuddle up with as the cold approaches. In a nutshell, cuffing season is the time of year where singles are highly motivated to couple. Dating apps see a spike in activity while singles are rushing to find someone to binge watch Game of Thrones with. While dating and meeting new people can be exciting, it can also lead to burnout and a sense of mindlessness as we are swipe swipe swiping. And because we are so engaged with technology these days, it’d be beneficial to integrate some healthy dating practices into your day to remain true to what you are looking for and avoid dating burnout. Here are three ways to be mindful while dating during cuffing season:

  1. Designate a time of day to be present with your dating app. When we feel the mounting pressure to couple during this time of year, that may mean we find ourselves constantly checking our apps or dating sites. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider setting 30 minutes aside every day to mindfully engage with your app. By setting this boundary, you are making an active choice to be present with what you are actually looking for in a partner as opposed to mindlessly swiping as you wait in line for your coffee. By practicing this, you can stay present with yourself and the people around you during your day, instead of having your attention focused on reading another profile about how someone likes to travel, laugh and have fun. *Insert side eye.* To make this a healthy and rewarding ritual, find a comfortable space in your home, turn off all other distractions, and take your time to read profiles. Once your 30 minutes has passed (I encourage you to set a timer), put your app away until the next day. If you are feeling the pressure to chat with people throughout the day, consider setting aside time in the evening to answer messages or start conversations. Maintaining this boundary will hopefully leave you feeling more excited and present with your dating experience as opposed to overwhelmed.  

  2. Focus on one love prospect at a time. I get it. There are so many options out there!  It’s easy to develop dating “FOMO” and feel reluctant to focus on one person. When you are engaging with one person at a time, as opposed to 10 at a time (we’ve all been there) it can help you focus on how you actually feel around someone. With this in practice, you are going on one date a week, deciding whether or not you want to see that person again, and then moving forward with a second date or moving on to another potential partner (and no ghosting)! By integrating this, you will be able to focus on what kind of partner you are seeking while staying present with the person who is also setting aside their time to meet with you.

  3. Get offline and be mindful with your surroundings. This. Is. Big. It’s super easy to get caught up in the convenience of the dating supermarket you have in your pocket. Stop swiping while you wait in line at Trader Joes while there are literally single people within feet of where you are standing! So, what would it be like to make an active decision to put your phone back in your pocket and engage with the world around you? Go ahead and make some eye contact. Maybe even spark up a conversation with the barista. You know, practice your human skills. And don’t stop there! There are endless ways to engage with the world that do not require your cell phone. Taking the class you’ve been meaning to sign up for, joining an intramural sports league or hosting a board game night are just a few of the ways to do something different and meaningful with your time. Connecting to your interests and engaging in the world in an active and mindful way means you are putting yourself in situations with likeminded people. This sets you up not only to meet potential love interests, but also new friends. All while doing something you enjoy and have actively chosen to be present in.

These are just a few of the countless ways to stay mindful with your dating experience. By implementing these boundaries into your love life, I’m confident your connection to dating can change in a positive and meaningful way.   

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

3 Ways Toxic Masculinity Could Be Hurting Your Relationship

The term “toxic masculinity” has been getting a lot of attention from the media lately.  Toxic masculinity is a term to describe dominant and stereotypical gender roles that are often culturally assigned to men that promote aggressive behavior, avoidance of vulnerability and emotion, and may include a dominant presence and personality.  Toxic masculinity is a systemic and cultural norm that is taught to boys in their childhood and adolescence by their parents, teachers, peers, and society. They are given the messages, “boys don’t cry,” “boys will be boys,” and taught that vulnerability and emotions are weak and “feminine.”  

When we teach boys not to process their emotions and give them the message that vulnerability is a weakness, then the only difficult emotion that is socially acceptable for them to show is anger. Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy and author of Hold Me Tight, explains that often anger may be the outward and immediate emotion.  When time has been given for reflection, anger is often on the surface with sadness, fear, or shame as the primary emotion underneath.  If our culture is teaching men to use anger when they’re feeling sad, fearful, or ashamed, we are doing them a giant disservice in how they communicate and relate to others, especially in their intimate relationships.  

Toxic masculinity can be damaging in close relationships, especially in romantic relationships.  It can interfere with how you relate to your partner, how you express your emotions to your partner, and whether or not you even allow yourself to feel a certain emotion.  This emotional disconnect between yourself and others can impact not only communication and conflict resolution, but also your physical intimacy. Here are three ways in which toxic masculinity could be hurting your relationship:

  1. Communication, especially during an argument.  Effective communication between couples requires active listening, expressing understanding, providing empathy, and learning the skills to articulate how you’re feeling.  Most of us aren’t taught these skills from our parents or from society, and from my work with heterosexual couples, I notice it can be difficult for some men to identify what their partner is feeling and ask about the feelings as opposed to become defensive or angry.  On the other hand, a man may have his feelings hurt by something that happened, and he may struggle with how to express himself without coming across as angry, aggressive or avoidant. By not teaching boys and men how to communicate when they’re hurt or upset, we are hurting them in their communication and how they connect in their intimate relationships.  

  2. Physical Intimacy.  The same way society puts unrealistic expectations and pressure on women about their sexuality and libido, we also place a great deal of pressure on men.  Men are often labelled as “sex fiends” or needing to have an insatiable sexual appetite, or there must be something wrong with them. Men are taught that they must easily and quickly have and maintain an erection, or they’re a failure in the bedroom.  These pressures coupled with no emotional outlet to discuss stress and anxiety can often cause erectile dysfunction and anxiety related to sex and other physical intimacy. Such pressures can place further strain on the relationship causing partners to become emotionally and physically distant.

  3. Expressing vulnerability.  Being able to express vulnerability in your romantic relationship is a key factor in building trust, maintaining security, and feeling emotionally and physically connected.  Vulnerability can show up in all types of ways in your relationship, and often, we don’t see it as a missing piece after an argument or when something is feeling off. To take accountability for your actions and offer a genuine apology is extremely vulnerable because you have to admit to yourself and your partner, “I messed up” or “I hurt you.”  Vulnerability also plays a major role in connecting physically. If you see being vulnerable equated to being weak or something to stay far away from, you may be inadvertently sabotaging your relationship.

Toxic masculinity can be harmful to yourself and to your relationships; however, it can be improved upon and changed with intentional self-reflection, work, and time.  Toxic masculinity can be combated by examining messages you’ve received about what it means to be a “man” from your family, your cultural background, your religion, and so forth, and by reflecting on what is helpful and relevant to who you are today and what isn’t helpful or what is an outdated message.  Many of the cultural and societal messages we give to men about what it means to be “masculine” or a “real man” can be harmful and can cause men to feel disconnected and confused as to how to handle difficult emotions in intimate relationships. If you are struggling with how to combat toxic masculinity individually or in your relationship, I challenge you to take action. Finding a therapist for yourself or for your relationship, joining a men’s support group or simply starting to open up to loved ones are good starting points in experiencing deeper intimacy in your relationships.

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT

Low Libido Blues

One of the most common sexual issues couples experience is desire discrepancy. And when I say common, I mean almost ALL couples experience this issue at one point (or multiple) throughout the course of their relationship. So, what is desire discrepancy? In a nutshell, it means that one partner wants to have sex more than the other. But what are the causes of desire discrepancy and why is it so common? Let’s break it down.

There is always a low desire partner and a high desire partner (Schnarch, 2010). You are two different people which means your sexual desires will not be in sync 100% of the time. The low desire partner is the deciding factor as to whether or not sex is going to happen. The feeling of not having control can deeply frustrate the high desire partner, especially having experienced rejection over and over again. For the low desire partner, pressure to perform can be a big issue, and may contribute to their lack of motivation to have sex. Do you see that pattern? And because we are rarely educated about effective partner communication, let alone sexual communication, couples can get into some deeply hurtful arguments, leaving both partners feeling lonely, sad and confused.

Here’s the reality. Mismatched desires can stem from a number of emotional, psychological or physical issues in a relationship. And reasons for mismatched desires will vary by couple. An important factor to consider, and something I tell clients every day, is that context matters! (We can thank the brilliant Emily Nagoski, PhD for writing an entire chapter in her book, Come As You Are, just on this topic). What does that mean, you ask? It means that when intimacy is initiated (usually by the high desire partner), your environment, mood, energy level, to-do list (I can keep going) all matter! Are the kids in bed? Did the trash get taken out? I’m still pissed at you from our fight yesterday. See what I mean? All of these things matter when it comes to shutting off your distractions and focusing on getting physical.

What’s a couple to do? If efforts to communicate about this issue have not helped, considering an investment in sex and relationship therapy is a great start. Especially if you are both feeling confused about how to handle such a sensitive topic. We sex therapists know a thing or two about desire discrepant couples. We understand that barriers to intimacy are real and need to be handled effectively with empathy and understanding. Integrating intimacy building interventions (both emotional and physical) are staples to this process. And while being caught in a relational dynamic that’s impacting the quality of your sex life can be frustrating, it’s absolutely possible to improve your dynamic if both partners are willing to show up, look at their contributions to the problem, and make appropriate changes.

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

 

Schnarch, D. M. (2010). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your marriage. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

On Being a Sex Therapist

I was recently at an event in Chicago where I was mingling and meeting new folks while taking in the city views. In the typical back and forth of new people conversation, an inquiry of what I do for a living came up. This is where the conversation can get interesting. You see, I’m a Certified Sex Therapist. I work with people in the greater Chicago area who are struggling in their emotional and physical relationships. Pretty normal stuff for someone like me. Not so normal for someone who has never met a sex therapist or even heard about sex therapy before. Once that cat is out of the bag, I typically experience the conversation going one of two ways. While some people might be a little intimated by what that means (which I totally respect and understand), others are naturally curious and will start asking a lot of questions. And I get really excited when people ask questions.

So why do I tell complete strangers what I do for a living? Because I understand that at some point, they may need a therapist like me. A specialist who can work with their deeply personal issues in an informed and non-judgmental space. Someone who has the specific qualifications to work with them so they can feel confident and fulfilled again.

Here’s the thing, relationships are hard work. They demand consistent efforts towards intimacy building, self-awareness and vulnerability. And when people run into issues in their relationships, they typically experience issues with their sex lives. For a lot of people, sexual intimacy problems can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and a whole lot of other stuff. So, when I tell people about my job, I want them to know that this kind of resource is available to them, if and when it’s ever a need.

There are multiple reasons why someone may seek sex therapy. The most common issues I see in my practice are mismatched desires between partners (i.e. one partner wants to have more sex than the other), sexual dysfunction, low sexual self-awareness and sex after trauma or illness. Other issues range from sexual communication issues to painful intercourse. I love educating people about their sexualities, breaking down not-so-correct social constructs and creating a space for a new and healthy narrative. I value my job and the people I work with.  Every day, I am impressed by the work my clients undertake to improve their lives. I will continue to spread the word about sex therapy because there’s no other profession I’d rather be in. 

~ Michelle Herzog, LMFT, CST

Sex therapists are trained to work with a variety of relationship configurations and sexuality preferences and problems. There are a number of wonderful helping professionals out there in the sex therapy community. If you are looking for a qualified professional in your area, please visit the professional directory page at the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).