Dr. Jessica interviewed Tina B. Tessina, licensed psychotherapist who has been practicing in Long Beach, CA since 1982.
What inspired you to become a therapist?
I lost my dad when I was 18 but didn’t process the emotions at that time. Then, at 27, I went to therapy because of marital problems and eventually got a divorce. When all the accumulated grief of those things began to come out, I went much deeper into therapy and began to learn about my emotional terrain.
But, on some level, I think I became a psychotherapist mostly because of my mother — she suffered from undiagnosed depression, and I wanted a way to heal her, which never happened. In the process of all this, I discovered that I had a gift, and since then, psychotherapy has been “my job on Earth” as Dr. Bernie Seigel describes a true vocation. Counseling was where my gift lay.
I’ve always been able to help people see each other’s point of view, even before I was a psychotherapist. Marriage counseling involves a lot of that. I have been counseling couples and individuals about love and life for over 35 years. I love helping people find love and happiness, correct what’s not working in their relationships and their families, and help them create the love they want. My clients get excellent results, their lives and relationships improve, and that makes me happy.
How would you say your approach differs from other therapists?
I do what Ken Wilbur calls Integral Psychology, utilizing many modalities, depending on what works best for my clients. I do a lot of depth psychology, getting to the root of whatever is causing stress, tension, or unhappiness for the client. I can work with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, Gestalt, Rogerian, Eriksonian, and other modalities. I can also talk in spiritual terms if that’s how the client approaches life. I use whatever works for each client. I keep learning and growing. My clients teach me something new every day.
How have you adapted your practice to working during COVID-19?
I counsel mostly by phone now, which has advantages. People tend to open up more on the phone, and there’s less resistance.
I see you have a lot of experience working with couples—have you noticed any new patterns or trends due to COVID-19? What are some pieces of advice you’d give couples to help them better quarantine together and deal with the pandemic?
If you and your partner are sheltering in place, and perhaps working from home or laid off, there are lots of reasons tension can grow. Too much togetherness, without the usual breaks for going out to eat, getting together with friends, taking exercise class, and otherwise breaking your routine can lead to frustration, boredom, and stress. When you are isolated together, each partner’s stress can worsen the other partner’s mood, and the tension can bounce back and forth, accelerating as it goes.
If you’re working at home, or one of you is, interruptions and noise as well as lack of privacy for business phone calls, etc. can be frustrating and irritating. My husband and I just discussed TV noise while I’m counseling people by phone. We worked out a plan. To resolve fights about working at home, first, talk calmly about the problems. Do you need uninterrupted time? Then you need to let your partner know exactly when and how long you need to be uninterrupted. Both working at home, and crowding each other’s workspace? Get creative and use an extra room if you have one, One of you can be in the bedroom, and one in the living room or office. Or, if you’re in one big loft space, erect a temporary wall of blankets or drapes to make separate spaces.
If you’re feeling irritable because you feel trapped, try taking alternate times away. You can exercise outside if you keep social distance. One of you can go grocery shopping (I recommend latex gloves and perhaps a mask) while the other cleans a closet, naps, or tidies up at home. Instead of just watching TV, try reading or listening to an eBook, or doing something creative like a painting app or crosswords. Absorbing individual activities will give you a sense of being away from each other for a while. Be extra kind and helpful to each other.
If you’re fighting about silly things that don’t matter, try getting on the phone with a friend or family member to get different input and a break from the little irritating things. If you’re irritable because you’re worried and not sleeping, try writing down all your worries. This “pins” them in place, so they don’t free-float around your mind and make you anxious. Once you have them written down, you can analyze them to see which ones are more likely to be a problem, and which ones are not serious. Then, you can have a discussion, during the day, with your partner about what you need to do.
Are you fighting about what you can or should do about the pandemic? First, go to a reputable news site, like The New York Times or The Center for Disease Control to get updated information about what to do, and use that to inform your decisions.
Here are some general things to remember:
Discontent and frustration are destructive because they give rise to hopelessness and despair. If you and your partner can’t solve problems, communicate, or get along, both of you will lose hope that you will ever be able to enjoy each other or live together. When you’re frustrated and hopeless, you lack patience and the ability to think clearly and creatively.
Don’t be cool
Today’s popular culture is cynical and ‘cool’ — expressions of love are often looked on as embarrassing and awkward. But, keeping love alive and flowing in your relationship is essential to being happy with each other. Set aside your reluctance, and let each other know when you feel loved, and appreciate (with verbal thanks, with flowers and candy, by cooking dinner, with a hug or a kiss) your spouse’s efforts to love you. No matter how awkward you feel at first, you’ll soon enjoy being in the loving atmosphere that results.
Go for the fair deal
If you’re worried that your partner isn’t feeling loved or appreciated, don’t let it pass. Ask about it. Bring it up whether you think you are getting a less than fair deal, or a more than fair deal
Don’t resist, listen
We often have a knee-jerk negative response to what a mate tells us, or wants to do. Instead of replying negatively, “That won’t work…” “We can’t do that…” Try listening and thinking for a few seconds more. You may find out your initial response changes, and at any rate, listening and understanding are not the same as agreeing. When your spouse feels that you care about what he or she is saying, the nature of the communication will change for the better.
Smile in the eyes
Unless your partner is talking about something really sad (job loss, death, etc.) where a smile would be inappropriate, look him or her in the eyes, and smile while you’re listening. Your companion will automatically feel more understood and cared about, which will change the feeling level of the discussion. Don’t stare unblinkingly, just look for a few seconds at a time, to communicate your attentiveness.
Touch each other
Sit near your significant other, and gently place your hand on his or her shoulder, leg, or arm. If you’re in the car, lightly touch his or her shoulder or arm. You’ll find your conversation becomes warmer and more caring. If you’ve been struggling, or are ready to forgive each other, facing each other and holding both hands will help you feel more positively connected and reassured.
Keep sex alive
Learn the skills of keeping sex alive in the long term. Don’t expect the same breathlessness as you have early in a new relationship. Instead, make sex about enjoying each other, being close, keeping each other happy.
If something frustrating is happening, try easing the tension with a bit of humor. After a difficult interaction in a store, on the way out, you could say, “That went well.” with a touch of irony. Or, when someone drops something and makes a mess, you could say, “the gremlins are here again.” Or use comic lines like “It’s always something” or “It could happen” to change stress to silliness. Don’t poke fun at your mate, but use shared humor as a way to say “I know this is tough, but we’ll get through it.” Your mate will think of you as someone soothing and helpful to have around when problems happen.
Use pleasant surprises
Try a love note in your spouse’s work at home space, a post-it with a smiley face on the underside of the toilet seat, a flower, plant, card or balloon for no reason, or an unexpected gentle pat on the rear, a hug or a kiss to say “I’m thinking good thoughts about you, and I love you.”
Ramp up the sweetness
Married life has its unavoidable stresses and strains. To keep things in balance, we need to put a bit of energy into increasing the sweetness between us. Thoughtfulness, ‘thank you’s’, and gestures of politeness and affection are the WD-40 of your marriage. Keep things running smoothly by remembering to add a spritz of sweetness frequently. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel, and how much more responsive your partner is.
Schedule time together
No matter how crazed you are with work, kids and bills, it’s essential to put aside a regular time each week for the marriage. Have a “date night” which includes a “state of the union” discussion (as described above, but just the two of you) or take a pleasant walk or drive. Keeping connected means things don’t build up to fighting status, and you’ll remember how good you are together. Don’t forget to celebrate and appreciate each other. Motivation comes from celebration and appreciation, so when you spend a pleasant time together, you’ll both be more motivated to make your marriage as good as possible.
It’s a partnership, sweetheart!
Keep in mind that before anything else, you’re partners, so check frequently to make sure you’re not acting like competitors or avoiders. You’re in this thing together, and partnership is what it’s all about.
Reminisce about Good Times
“Remember when…” is a great beginning to a loving conversation. It creates so much good feeling to remember how you were when you were dating, when you got married, when you first bought your house, when you had your first child, when you got that promotion. Reminding yourselves of your solid history together is a way to increase your bond.
Brag to friends in your mate’s hearing
Of course, tell your mate to his or her face how much you care, but also be sure to tell your friends, while your mate is around, what a great guy or gal you married. An online video chat is great for this. “Harold is so thoughtful. Today he helped me around the house.” Or “Sue is such a great mom. She gives the kids a sense that they’re loved and she still keeps them toeing the mark.” Or, “Did you hear? Fred got a big promotion. I’m so proud of him.” Or, “I don’t know what I’d do without Judy. She’s so great with money.” Or, “Doesn’t my sweetie look great today? I’m so lucky.” Don’t worry if your partner looks embarrassed. He or she will also be pleased, and remember your brag for a long time.
It’s very easy to take your relationship and your partner for granted when things are going well. But, if you don’t make a habit of letting your partner know you care, and that you think your partner is special, eventually, the energy and fun will go out of the relationship. Don’t let work, the Internet and other distractions make you forget what’s important.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Readers can find me at tinatessina.com. There they’ll find a page where they can browse my books, a “Happiness Tips” page with hundreds of free articles that can help, how to find my blog, my social media pages, and how to contact me.
Tina is a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California, with 30 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples. She is also the author of 15 books in 17 languages, including How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together, Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance, and Independence Beyond the 12-Step Programs.