The following is a synopsis of a weekly Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group lesson, based on the work of Marsha Linehan out of the University of Washington.

New Disclaimer: I LOVE doing this, I think it is desperately needed, and I WANT to do it. However, I have zero time to do it so, while I am committed to giving it my all, I may fall behind or skip a week or two. I apologize in advance for that, and for the fact that I will not be spell checking, fixing formatting, or doing a read through before I post. No offense, but I gotta draw the line somewhere!

What a great week this is, I LOVE doing this lesson, because there is so much offered up by the group members. This week kicked off the first lesson of the Interpersonal Skills Module, and I like to start out by asking everyone to reflect on what the definition of a “relationship” is. People come up with so much information and do such great research on the topic; googling, wiki-ing, asking loved ones, coming up with creative off the cuff descriptions, and using personal experience to formulate a response.

One of the most interesting things about this topic is the amount of overlap among people. Here are some of the key words or descriptors used among both groups:

  • Communication: This is brought up a lot, and is one of the most important components of a healthy relationship. If we stop communicating, or don’t feel safe enough with someone to have open communication, our relationships suffer greatly. This is why we spend much of this module discussing how to communicate in a healthy way.
  • Connection: Relationships form because we feel connected on some level(s). We also become connected to someone simply by being in a relationship with them (ex. My daughter forms a connection with me just by being born or sharing my DNA). Along with communication, a strong sense of connectedness has to be present in a healthy relationship, but we can be connected to many types of people (ex. when you “like” a picture on Facebook or you buy your coffee from a Barista; we may be “connected” to a person or thing, but only minimally)
  • Trust: This is the foundation of a relationship. A building has to have a foundation laid before we can erect the actual building, or the building will crumble. A relationship MUST have trust, or it will fall apart. This is especially true of a romantic one, as this is the most intimate type of relationship there is, so if there isn’t trust, we can’t have intimacy (although I would argue that the therapeutic relationship is almost as intimate as a romantic one, as we share the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves with our therapists). This is why “casual sex” is so problematic, because trust hasn’t been built, so letting ourselves be that vulnerable and exposed with a person we don’t yet trust can be extremely damaging. This is even true in the early stages of a dating relationship, when often we decide to have sex with someone before time has really passed enough to be able to trust them. While this is a “normal”  thing that happens in our culture, this too may be very damaging to our psyches.
  • Equality/Respect: Although these are different, we may FEEL like an equal if we are offered respect, even in relationships that have power differentials. For example, if a Teacher talks to a student with respect, the student will feel safer and more inclined to follow classroom rules, however the relationship is not equal, as the Teacher holds the power. MUTUAL respect is a crucial  component of a healthy relationship, but we can’t think about it as all or nothing. No one is perfect in how we treat each other. There are times I disrespect my husband or he disrespects me, either through our behaviors or our words, but overall, I still feel that we are equal partners in our marriage.

Equality is another thing people get confused about and, thinking about it in terms of absolutes. Yes we want to be treated as equals by our romantic partners. BUT, there have to be power shifts in a relationship. If I am always the dominant in my relationship or my husband is, that is NOT good. it is unrealistic then to think that neither of us will have power in any given moment. Sometimes he takes the power (and I let him) and sometimes I do. Sometimes, for example, I hold the remote control, and sometimes he does. Equality sounds good on paper, but it’s an overall concept, not something that has to be present in every moment in time.

The above are just some examples of great concepts that the group came up with and we had a very interesting discussion about what is a relationship and what is healthy, vs. unhealthy. We will be talking A LOT about this over the next couple of months. This exercise shows how incredibly complicated, and important relationships are; making them a high priority that is extremely hard to navigate.

Another thing we addressed is what kind of MYTHS we all believe about relationships. We covered myths in emotion regulation too, as societal and family myths about emotions and how to handle them often interfere with our emotional health. So what is a myth? It is a LIE that is passed down from generation to generation, because of naiveté, denial, illness, etc. It is important to expose these lies for what they are, and then to create challenges that we can remind ourselves of in order to help deprogram ourselves from years, decades, or even a lifetime full of believing wrong information. For example, is this statement true or false:

  • “If someone is upset with me, it must be because I did something wrong.”

If your first instinct was to say “true” to this belief, then you need to deprogram yourself. While most of us become very uncomfortable if someone upsets us, it does NOT always mean we did anything wrong to cause the upset. Further, while I encourage all of my patients to look at their side of the street very closely before deciding that they DIDN’T do any wrongdoing, there are many, many, MANY times in life where people will be upset with us because of our personalities, or our weaknesses, or a misperception, etc.; rather than because we did something “wrong” to them. In fact, I would argue that this is the case most of the time. But then, maybe that’s because I am a Psychologist and people are pissed at me most of the time….*Sigh* Therapy is HARD.

We need to examine our beliefs about ourselves, the world, and others, and reality test them to be sure that they make sense, even if that means going against societal norms, or the opinions of our parents, friends or loved ones.

Finally, we explored 5 barriers to interpersonal effectiveness this week. These are 5 things that get in the way of our handling conflict and navigating our precious relationships effectively. These barriers are:

  • Lack of skill: Learning DBT skills eliminates this barrier. Once we learn and master the skills of communication and conflict resolution, we will have one less thing to fight against.
  • Myths that get in our way: The myths that were discussed above have us walking around responding to lies, rather than truths. It makes sense then that we are very ineffective if we respond to things that are not healthy or true.
  • Emotion mind: Did you ever try to have a healthy discussion when you are enraged? How about when you are distraught? Or grieving? Strong emotions that are controlling us make it VERY difficult to follow through with the skills that we know are healthy and appropriate. This is why using emotion regulation skills regularly is so so important.
  • Indecision: Not sure what you want from others? Or from someone in particular? Or from someone in a specific moment? Not knowing what we want or need makes it very hard to communicate that to someone we care about. This is why mindfulness is so important….we need to be aware of our thoughts and feelings in order to help us know what we want and need.
  • Environmental constraints: The DBT worksheet outlining this talks about constraints such as power differentials, other’s feeling threatened by us, and others invalidating us if we try to use our skills. While all of these things may be valid, I caution people to honestly examine the environmental constraints that they THINK may be there. It is easy to use justifications and excuses to avoid sharing our needs with others, which will be discussed more in blogs to follow. For this category, consider:
    • Power differentials: For example, you may not want to explain your hurt feelings and needs to a police officer who pulls you over because you were speeding. It is very important that we respect authority, and recognize that authority needs to have consistent power, because that is healthy for all. This doesn’t mean that we can’t assert ourselves respectfully to authority, or that we should just submit to an abuse of power, but we need to HONESTLY evaluate what we want and need vs. what authority wants and needs from us.
    • Practical environmental interferences: You might not want to have a serious discussion about what you feel, want or need while the other person is having the worst day of his/her life. Or while he is working on a huge project with a strict deadline. Or while there are big crowds of people around. Or….Give yourself the advantage by using your interpersonal skills in the right way, at the right time, and with the right resources on your side. This will be discussed more in next week’s blog.