My Interview with the Couples Expert – Stuart Fensterheim

CC_placeholder_graphic_design_02 (Stuart Fensterheim)Stuart: Hi there! And welcome to the couples expert podcast. This is Stuart Fensterheim, the couples’ expert. And my community of listeners, welcome back to the place to learn about relationship. This is the place to learn about what to do in a relationship and more importantly what not to do in a relationship. I have with me today Doctor Carlos Todd. I know Doctor Todd since most of you are aware that I’m involved in the summit that’s coming up on August 9th on couples conflict. And I met Doctor Todd basically through the internet. That seems to be where I’m meeting most people these days. And Doctor Todd and I just got to talking and what I learned actually just recently is he first learned about me when I put on the Internet asking for some feedback on the logo for my practice.

Carlos: That’s right.

Stuart: And that was really-really cool. And it really tells you a lot about the power of the internet and how relationships get built. And that’s really what we are going to be talking a lot about today anyway. Let me tell you a little bit about him, what I’ve learned about him. Doctor Todd is a license professional counselor and holds a PhD in education. And he has both personal and professional input on the area on couples conflict and more importantly family conflict. And I’m hoping that we are going to learn a lot about that. What I know with his work putting together the conference that’s coming up – he is so passionate about helping couples, really understand what conflict is and that conflict in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. And I think a lot of people say: “Oh, we shouldn’t fight so much.” But it’s not so much about the fighting, it’s more about how you handle the conflicts that come up. So I’m really thrilled to have you here, Carlos and welcome to the Couples Expert Podcast, and I though maybe we could start with you introducing yourself a little bit and talk a little bit about your path of coming to the place where you want to work in the field of couples and conflict especially.

Carlos: Let me first thank you for bringing me on to this show, I’m an avid internet peruser. And so I learn a lot about my colleagues, I meet all kinds of new people. From being on this but especially… you know, sometime ago I saw you have a post your new logo and I don’t remember if I gave any input but I’m pretty sure that how the logo is right now it just looks great, it’s a great representation of what you are doing. And we have a kindred spirit of sorts. You know, I grew up in a faraway place, in a situation where there was conflict. There was actually a huge amount of domestic violence. And so I experienced that as a child from probably the age of 5 to about the age of 13 or 14. So this thing was protracted over a long period of time. And lucky for me I had some support systems around me. And so I was always very-very interested in not really becoming a victim, but becoming someone who understood what was going on within me and really learn it to basically help others to understand the complexity of the problems around domestic violence. I didn’t really take the track in terms of becoming a domestic violence expert, but conflict is something that I thought was broader, it connected with me. And so I think what I did was probably from 14, 15, 16, 17 I started seeking out people. You know, whether it was a pastor, whether it was a family friend. You know, trying to understand what was a healthy process. You know what good relationships look like. And so that took me through from there – kind of seeking help with friends or family. Then I went to college and got a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then I went to get a Masters in counselling. And later on I completed my PhD. Most of the time really the focus was around conflict and conflict resolution. And so that’s really how things evolved for me over time. But things have really intensified I think over the last seven years or so. Where I’ve just exclusively focused my practice, which by the way is in Charlotte, North Carolina… My wife and I actually have a practice together. We’ve been married now for about thirty years or so. And for, probably I think, five years or so, we’re together in the practice. And so the practice is really focused on anger and conflict resolution. I think probably within the last three years or so I really got interested in conflicts between couples, you know. One of the things I was thinking about earlier is that when people get married they spend, I don’t know, ten-twenty-or thirty thousand dollars on a wedding, all the esthetics. And they spend little or no time trying to figure out how you are going to merge two people with different sets of ideas into this union. It’s like, when I talk to clients I say: “Imagine United States and Mexico trying to merge. Their cultures, their languages, their all kinds of things, their systems, the judicial system, all kinds of things have to connect together.” And every individual is like individual country.

Stuart: Do you know what’s interesting about what you are saying right now – when we talk about a wedding and how much people spend on a wedding, and how much energy they spend on their relationship compared to planning the wedding. One of the things that sometimes iscome up for me is this whole concept of “should couples have to do some premarital work in order to get a marriage license?” And I’ve gotten on a soap box a few times about that, particular with some of the really painful aspects that come from unhealthy conflict. So I wonder what your position on something like that is.

Carlos: I think it’s an absolute yes. You know, we are in a situation where every successive marriage the divorce rate was higher and higher. People are trying things, they are experimenting with things that they don’t have a full understanding of, of the dynamics and skills that they need to make this thing work. And so I think that some institutions like pastor at some churches will say: “You need to do a little of pre-marital work before we perform this surge- oh, this ceremony.

Stuart [laughs]: Surgery! That’s sort of surgery!It is a little bit of that. Surgically waving and surgically inserting yourself in someone else’s life

Carlos: Exactly.

Stuart: It really is almost like that.

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Carlos: I think,you know, some institutions are going to require this but you and I know that there’s a whole lot of research out there that tells us exactly what to do. If you do these things in this way, finally your relationship is going to work. And I think part of the problem is…. There are multiple issues but I think for some couples they want to see fireworks, they want, you know, like on TV. You know, you kiss and everything works and all comes together automatically and it does not work that way. I think recently there was an article put out regarding Ben Affleck talking about his marriage to Jennifer Garner. What is it he said? He said marriage should not require hard work. Yes, it should.

Stuart: It depends on what you define as the hard work. And I think that’s the thing that some people get sort of caught up in. The hard work shouldn’t be sort of just feeling so exhausted that you have to fit square peg in a round hole. The hard work has to be sometimes on yourself and being more aware of what’s happening to you and the impact. I’m thinking on something you said earlier about being 14-15 years old, growing up in a family where violence was part of a picture and that you were able to pull yourself out of that and that you sought out pastors and people to help you. And one of the questions that was coming up for me when you were saying that is how did you find the ability to do that? Because another road you could have taken is a whole different road.

Carlos: Oh, yeah.

Stuart: And it’s almost is to look at the draw? You know what is it? And I think that’s really the big question here that I think my community really wants to know about is what does it really take to put in that hard work – talking about the whole Ben Affleck thing – to really have a relationship where conflict isn’t destructive.

Carlos: I think one of the first things is easy. You only have to be willing to be vulnerable. You know some people may as though they don’t have the capacity, they don’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to take that risk. For me, maybe it was the luck of the draw. I always felt – you know what, there’s something better out there. And there was a part of me that also knew that I couldn’t learn those things by osmosis. I couldn’t just stand next to couples in my church and somehow the information move from their head to my head. You know there had to be some kind of active work. I read books,you know, I learned from church systems that educating yourself was really a major focus of that institution. And so from very early I was reading the books about relationships and trying to understand what was going on and how I could make it better. But I think vulnerability is one of the first things. Because to me the notion of control is not necessarily only of hitting someone, you know. I think people control or seek to control their environment because of the anxieties that they have within themselves.

Stuart: Right.

Carlos: You know, some feelings of vulnerability. But I think being vulnerable is really the first step.

Stuart: Do you think that vulnerability that you’re talking about is really about looking at your own insecurities?

Carlos: Of course.

Stuart: And how do you face those things and for me what it becomes really is for someone to sort of pull yourself out of that. That takes so much courage. It’s really about a willingness to look at yourself and say: “What do I want to be? Can I look at myself in the mirror and say I like this person, and I like how I treat others.” And if not, what are you willing to do to really change that.

Carlos: I agree with that. Vulnerable is whether we’ve downplay the idea of a culture of introspection. In some ways it seems that all we do introspect [00:48]. But maybe for different reasons other than growing relationships we introspect in terms of how can I be more successful in my career.

Stuart: Right.

Carlos: But introspection in terms of how do you grow and maintain a relationship is something that people don’t do, you kind of grow into it assuming that will work. I’ll tell you something – one of the things that bothers me a lot and I see it on a weekly basis, sometimes multiple times a week, is that I hear this thing, I hear people say it, couples say it: “He should know”, “she should know”.

Stuart: Right.

Carlos: As if somehow the information just happens to pass.

Stuart: So sorry. I’m cracking up because the image is going to my mind is… I don’t know if you remember the old Star Trek series… the Vulcan mind melt where you know, you put your hands on the person and all of sudden everything, all their knowledge ….

Carlos: Right, right.

Stuart: Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But that’s really what people think. They think they should be able to read each other’s mind and know everything, and know it all, and you shouldn’t have to say it.

Carlos: What I think that, you know I was just in a session earlier this morning and one of the things that I said was that you ultimately come into that situation. Remember the analogy that I gave of United States and Mexico, that you’re speaking two entirely different languages. Even though you may be saying the same thing. You may be saying “I want this type of dinner” or “I want dinner to be prepared in a particular way.” And you are saying the same thing but the way how the message is delivered it is experienced by the other person in a totally different way. I think part of our job as professionals – weare translators. And I don’t know how you feel about that particular aspect.

Stuart: No, I absolutely agree with it. And I think when we talk about, you know… I’m actually going to Italy shortly, and I’m going to a foreign country with foreign culture. And part of what my wife and I are doing before we leave is we are reading so many books about the language, and looking up the city, and how we get around, and how you do that. We are taking hours and hours, and hours even before we get there to learn about this new culture. And I think that’s what people don’t do. They don’t take the time to learn about their partner’s culture, to learn about where they came from. And when I sit down with a couple who’s having tremendous conflict particularly around areas of sexuality or something like that I’ll say “Okay, how much did you talk about this before you got married?”

Carlos: Nothing!

Stuart: That is the answer! Almost nothing! And how do you expect that you are going to be able to relate to other human being with all the new answers and all of that… just in the English language alone without asking what do the things mean to them?

Carlos: Right. Exactly.

Stuart: That’s the different language. It really is. It’s English, but it’s not.

Carlos:  No, it is not. One of the exercises that I do with couples is I ask them to think about an apple. Right? By the power of imagination I plant this apple in their heads. Right? And I say to both of them – before outside of you explaining or defining, or describing this apple both of you have these assumptions – is it on a tree, is it on a store. Until you begin to describe it then neither other person knows exactly what their apple looks like, you know, those kinds of things. And then I say to them, I say: “Consider for a moment that I was born or raised in Barbados. And the apple that you’re thinking about – I’m pretty sure I’m making an assumption all right – the apple that you’re thinking about, I have this entirely different variety of apple I’m pretty sure that you’ve never seen. So until I define my applythen you really don’t know what I’m talking about. And this is a kind of thing that happens a lot and because we are built of secure our own cells this is what we do. We come with a list “These are the things that I want in a man”, “These are the things that I want in a woman”. But what about the things that they want in you? That kind of looking out and trying to understand the other person and their needs is something that, I think if we can begin to do those kinds of things, I think couples will have more intimate conversations. And I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about the kind of intimacy that they know one another.

Stuart: And using you apple analogy…

Carlos: Right.

Stuart: … how an apple in Barbados tastes? Maybe different than how an apple in Arizona tastes.

Carlos: Of course.

Stuart: And does that make my apple taste better than yours?

Carlos: No, no.

Stuart: Or, don’t I want to try your apple? Don’t I want to look at and hear about your apple? And really understand that that apple to you means home. And it can mean something. And don’t we have to have that conversation because if I really want to get to know who you are I better understand what’s important to you.

Carlos: So this is what I’m hearing you saying. I hear you say now that: not only do we on a cognitive level define the thing, the apple. Now, we are beginning to talk about emotional experience surrounding that thing.

Stuart: Right.

Carlos: Which is huge because if you don’t understand that emotional connection, then you can lose everything. If you don’t understand when I bite into my apple in Barbados, you know there’s a feeling that I can’t describe to you right now. You know like, there’s all the sensation going through my body when I think about that particular apple. This is what I do in terms of trying to help couples come closer to understanding the emotional content of an issue. What I do is I force them, I encourage them at least to number it. So I will say, on a scale of 1 to 10 if you’re having a discussion about, I don’t know, whatever the discussion is, 1 being “this really causes me no emotional reaction”, 10 being “this thing is so intense that it causes me these really-really intensefeelings”. So what I see is – again I had someone this morning that did it. There was an issue. And the wife said “this thing is a two for me”. And the husband said “this is a nine”.


Stuart: That’s the level of anger, the number is?

Carlos: That’s the level in emotional intensity.

Stuart: Oh, an intensity. Okay.

Carlos: Yes, emotional intensity. So she had no idea, that this thing is such an intense emotional experience for him. And he had no idea that for her it had very little impact. So that’s why we will try to begin to access that kind of emotional experience butI hear what you’re saying.

Stuart: But here’s where I think it gets sort of crazy is you have one couple that has the two, the other one says it’s a nine. Does she want to know why it’s a nine?

Carlos: Yeah.

Stuart: And this is where the whole concept of triggers come in, too. If he doesn’t think it’s important to her to understand his nine he could interpret that as that he’s not important.

Carlos: Why, of course.

Stuart: And then where do you go with that? What happens to a couple when they begin to talk about that and he’s triggered now into thinking that she doesn’t really care at all about him, and that she doesn’t love him. How could she love him if she doesn’t care about this?

Carlos: Part of that, it might be true that she doesn’t care. And you and I probably agree on the idea that “doesn’t care” may be connected with all kinds things, you know like feelings of abandonment or fear of being abandoned. I think that part of our job as professionals is to help the audience begin to understand why you may be feeling the way how you are feeling. And that kind of grows into the whole idea of attachment theory. Because if you and I, we’ve had conversations before that you can’t see the emotional experience in isolation, there’s some belief that is driving that feeling of “I don’t care what he’s saying” or “what she’s saying”. Part of what I try to do is to help the couple begin to see why you may possibly be feeling the way how you’re feeling. Before I try to coax them into “you really should care”. Obviously that’s not going to work.

Stuart: So where do you go then with couples that are in this sort of lock place? And that you have this couple having this massive difference in interpretation, insecurity, all of these… How do you get them out – from your experience – being locked into just this battle that goes back and forth between the two of them?

Carlos: Well, I think that the first thing in my opinion is that you want to help people to see that you have a system’s problem; you don’t have an individual problem. Because the tendency is to think “He is doing this to cause this thing to happen to me”, “She is doing this thing to cause this thing to me”. And so what I’ve presented, the parenting styles and let me go back for the listeners, because you probably talked about multiple times in different interviews. But basically you have those five parenting styles where the parent from birth taught the child essentially “look, you’re safe, all is well, the world loves you, you’ll always be okay”. And the tendency is for those people to grow up believing that even though problems are going to come, people may disappoint them at times, there going to be out there people who they can connect with, who love them as much as they love themselves and so on and so forth. Even if that does not happen again they are going to be okay.

Stuart: That’s the secure place, they feel very secure.

Carlos: That’s the secure place. But say for example, you have a child who every time that they go to a parent to ask for “come help me with this homework, daddy” or “come do this”. And the father doesn’t show any interest or the mother doesn’t any interest, they don’t show up for the school plays, they don’t show up for whatever activities the child is doing at school. All of a sudden – well, it’s not all of a sudden because this is a gradual process. That person can begin to develop this belief that “I’m not important. People don’t see me as important. I need to take care of me. I need to take care of my needs.” And that’s very sad. Even though we’re wired to be social, but that particular training leads us to always being more individualistic. You have the situations where there’s always going to be this conflict. So yes, I want somebody to love me, I want to be loved. But at the first sign of an interpretation that that person is going to abandon them and this abandonment can take – oh my gosh – it can be many forms. You know, “I asked for a glass of wine, you brought me a glass of water. Who do you think I am?” You know, it could take so many forms. So one of the things I do – getting back to your question – isI help them to understand that emotional, I call it the emotional sea in which you’re living. To see how they could potentially be misinterpreting the actions of their partner. And so that begins, that shifts the conversation away from accusation to more introspection. For some people it takes a long period of time to get to that place, for others… I think for most people… I have this chart in my office that I use on a consistent basis. When they see this thing they are like “Oh, my God. How? How did you know that this is me on this sheet of paper?”

Stuart: That be interesting one of the things that I do with all my podcast and just to remind my community of listeners, that I do show notes. And maybe one of the things that you could do if you’re okay with this is send me that chart, send me a copy of it and I can put it in the show notes. The other thing that I’ll be doing is I’m going to put some information on you and your practice so that people know how to get hold of you. As you’re talking though what’s coming up also from me is this whole concept of how you sort of meet someone’s emotional needs in a relationship.And that if you understand what’s happening to the person, the heeling process for people coming from bad environments or those triggers that come up when you don’t get the cup of soda you want, instead you get the glass of water. How dare you do that? Is needing to see that you matter and that your partner views you as the best thing since life spread. And you understand the importance that each of you have to the other that’s where the healing happens. Would you agree with that?

Carlos: I totally agree with that. I think that in some ways, weakness catch partners at different stages of their emotional development. Unfortunately, some people are stuck in that 12 year old, 13 year old even 6 or 7 year old phase, where they are still yearning to feel loved. They still have this belief in the back of their mind: even though I know that I’m wired to feel loved, I don’t really feel loved. And so they are trying to grab over that until their partner understands that particular piece. There’s no way that they can begin to meet that need. I’ll tell you this, one of the things that I’ve seen is that when those conversations become open and each person begins to see that this stuff really has nothing critical to do with the other person then I begin to really see healing. And in the offer setting people can actually say things that may be painful to hear, but they can hold it. I don’t know, maybe we need to talk to the viewers a little bit of wat holding means. But this idea that they can receive that information, kind of take it in, process it and not feel attacked.

Stuart: And I think part of what you’re saying in all of this is having a different kind of experience with their partner, that’s different from what they’ve had before. So that if someone truly can be present and be there for them, and here their message, and make it important to really understand them, that experience of finally having someone in their life who they can say “this person is going to show up to the play. This person would do that. Yes, it would have been nice if my parents would have done that, if my dad would have done that, but maybe my partner, my husband, my wife they’ll show up for me”. That can make the difference.

Carlos: Right, and I think for the viewers to understand that when this thing happens, I think the most powerful things that occurs after is that you really begin to see that person flourish. And the good aspects, you know, you see the good in them and you see the not so good in them. But they are in their safe emotional place. I think, for your viewers to understand… sorry, your listeners to understand.

Stuart: I know, you keep saying viewers.

Carlos: I know.

Stuart: Just to share why that’s happening – we’re recording this on skype in the video, and I’m just going to do the audio, so I think the viewers is … do you know what? I can hear it and I can see it in my head. It’s the viewers, that’s fine.

Carlos: I think it’s important for listeners to understand that once you’ve gotten to that place, my God, there is so much to the other person, that you will see flourish, that you will see grow. I think that we enter the relationships, and what I’ve seen… maybe, it’s somewhat because of my own past, I partake to some of these problematic behaviors, you’re going to the marriage. If you grew up and there were no dishes in the sink, there should be no dishes in the sink ….

Stuart: You talk like my mom.

Carlos: Exactly. But as we go into that, what I see is that you go into that situation that this control, but I think you and I may agree that that’s just anxiety. If things are not the way how I want them to be then I get too anxious, so I tend to keep, I want to keep things tampered up. But the problem is this, people are going to react in a couple of ways. Your partner is either going to buff you like “Who the hell do you think you are?” or “These dishes are going to stay in the sink till whenever I wash them”. They are going to become a clone of you: “Whatever you say, honey. I’ll do it”. But the problem there, and then there are some people who will do it and either they have an entirely different life outside of you, or they secretly loan for an entirely different life outside of you. Who wants that, huh?

Stuart: Right. And what do you do with all of that? That I think is the thing when both of the people begin to recognize that in a lot of ways they want the same thing: they want to feel secure, they want to feel loved. And I think the interpretation that’s get made “If you don’t do the dishes like my family did, it must mean that you don’t care about me”. When you could have the right dialogue which is what does that mean, and be open and vulnerable with that, and then learn that your partner does love you, does want to please you, then you begin to change your perspective on your partner. And to me that’s what sort of protects people from really going overboard with some of the conflict, is how valuable do you see your partner.

Carlos: You know, I tell folks that. You really want to see conflict as an opportunity for growth, as a marker in your relationship that says “you know what, we are ready for something new”. But the tendency is not to see if that way. The tendency is, I think basically the tendency is what folks think about, what’s in it for me. And things need to be done on my terms. And unfortunately, if you think that that’s the way how things work, they don’t work that way.

Stuart: So what you are really saying, it’s all about the healing.

Carlos: Of course.

Stuart: What I was going to say is that, you know, what I’m hearing and what you’re saying is that conflict is sort of that energy that could really bring a relationship into such a positive place. But what happens is people don’t talk about and aren’t vulnerable enough to it, they don’t really talk about what things mean to them. So that the opportunity isn’t there to really move the relationship in such a healthier or more loving place where both people define the relationship as just incredibly powerful.

Carlos: I agree with you. I think they were talking about two things also: access and express. Let me share with you what I mean. I think this is particularly more a problem for the male listeners. I think we as a society we do not teach folks how to access their emotions. We share with people how to think. You know, this is the way how you do this. But to access… you know, I use this example a lot where I will say, you know there’s a difference between if you feel tired and if you feel drained, right? You have to be able to access that emotion to understand first that there’s a difference between me feeling a little tired and quite drained. So the problem one is accessing it and two – expressing it. If the individual can access the fact that they feel disappointed their partner. Or they feel somehow surprised or somehow, I don’t know, disappointed, they can’t express it. So if there’s no access, there’s no expression. As a part of … with some clients I actually, I have this reservoir, and this might be a little corky thing and every couple can’t do this. But I have this reservoir of 3000 feeling words. You know, and sometimes I will actually give them in session and outside of session like you start with this, right?

Stuart: Right.

Carlos: And you circle actually these words that connect with you as an individual. So that your partner can begin to have a fuller understanding of who you are, I feel wanted, you know, those kinds of things. Again, access and express.

Stuart: Do you know what… going back to what you were saying earlier about speaking another language or being from another… almost like you’re from another country.This is giving the partner the language.

Carlos: Yes.

Stuart: We’re almost out of time for today and I really want to thank you so much for coming on here. I think my community is really getting a lot from you, but I don’t want before we end to not talk about the Global Summit that you’re involved with. And that there’s something for my listeners and for the community that really get to have a lot of knowledge about all of this. Would you share that?

Carlos: So, sometime ago I thought to myself there are conflicts in different dimensions. And the reality is that I don’t know everything about conflict. I wish I did, but I don’t. So, what I thought was “Let me bring together 10 – 12 people who… somebody would know something about conflict and money, some other knows more of a conflict and the military, the military couples, conflict around… when you have your first child.” I set up this forum on Couplesconflicts.com and I’ve been doing these series of interviews that I’m going to be making available on August 9th through 12th for free that…

Stuart: Wow, wow, wow. Did you say for free?

Carlos: I did.

Stuart: Now, that’s really a new concept.

Carlos: Exactly. And you consider that between the two of us and among the other participants. You are talking about thousands of dollars in terms of knowledge. To access that information and begin to hear… you know, if I have a money conflict, this is what I can do. Couplesconflicts.com is where the some of these hosted. It is virtual. You don’t have to go anywhere, you just need to go on to Couplesconflicts.com, give us a little bit of information, essentially your name and e-mail address and on August 9th you get access to essentially about 10 hours of solid content around couples conflict. And what we’ve talked about today is really a snippet of the information that you are going to be getting….

Stuart: What are some topics that you’re going to be covering? I know there’s something on military families and parenting. What are some of the other ones?

Carlos: There’s military families, there’s parenting, there is couples and money, how to connect, after you’ve had a conflict, you know for some…

Stuart: That’s the whole healing thing that we were talking about.

Carlos: Yeah, the healing thing.One of the participants, Rebecca Wong. She talks a lot about play. A lot of couples can use play in connecting, and I think it’s a wonderful thing – connecting in spite of the fighting that [—16:05] yourself, blended families and conflict…

Stuart: So it’s really a whole wide range of things. And I encourage everyone to go to the website which again is www.couplesconflicts.com.

Carlos: That’s right.

Stuart: Because I think this is up now. So everyone can see all the topics and who’s going to be talking. Do you have a schedule yet put together or is that still coming?

Carlos: No, that’s still coming.

Stuart: Okay. All right. Well again, let me just thank you, Carlos, for coming on and really sharing about yourself and sort of your expertise and passion for helping couples with dealing, with having a very healthy happy relationship, and conflict just being part of life. And it’s really about how we handle it, not whether we have it. Thank you again. All right. And we’ll see you all next week. Bye bye.

Carlos: Bye bye.

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