How to Fight with Your Partner  – Part II

post-6Guest blogger Kate Nesterwitz, LMFT. Read more about her at

According to John Gottman’s research (which spans over 40 years) crucial patterns exist that make or break relationships. Gottman identified the most common negative patterns as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Sound ominous? Well it is. Gottman’s research shows that couples who use these four tactics as a regular communication pattern are doomed for divorce. And this is not hyperbole. With a nearly unheard of 90% accuracy, he was able to predict divorce in couples who showed these patterns.

What are these Four Horsemen?

They are damaging and hurtful ways partners talk to one another. When we look closely at these behaviors, we can easily see why couples who habitually use them can’t sustain love. They are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.

(This video from The Gottman Institute sums it up most effectively. Have a look.)

1. Criticism

Criticizing your partner using “You” statements, accusations, and harsh tones that attack his/her character. This inevitably leads to the second horseman.


2. Defensiveness

A way to deny blame by playing the victim.  The likely response to an attack (criticism) is to defend oneself, which really just turns the blame back on your partner. (You can see how criticism and defensiveness play off each other without a good result.)


3. Contempt

Taking a position of superiority that looks down on your partner, using eye rolls, sarcasm, sneering, name-calling, hostility and humor that is meant to put someone down. Contempt is possibly the most dangerous of the Four Horsemen. Although we are all guilty of this behavior at times, a pattern of this is sure to destroy your relationship.


 4. Stonewalling

Withdrawing from the conversation. This can look like the silent treatment, leaving the house during a fight, or retreating to the bedroom. Stonewalling makes it look like you don’t care about what your partner has to say and that you are ignoring them. But really, it occurs when someone is actually very stressed, scared and doesn’t think saying anything will help. 


Do you recognize any of these patterns? We all do these things at times, but they are all hurtful and degrading forms of communication. So what’s the solution?


Mutual respect between partners is necessary for relationships to succeed, and the key to lasting and loving relationships. This includes respect of their humanity, emotions, experiences and pain. Here are positive alternatives to the Four Horsemen.

• The antidote to criticism was explained in my last post: the use of “I” statements. This lets you take responsibility for your own feelings and complaints without attacking the other person, or making it his/her fault. “I” statements look like this:

“I feel…about..and I need…”

The positive need allows for something to actually be done about the complaint, rather than getting stuck in a cycle of attack and defense. 


• The antidote to defensiveness is to take some responsibility, even if it’s just for one part of the problem. You can also show empathy and validate your partner’s experience in that moment, instead of going straight to defending yourself.

“I know I haven’t had a lot of patience myself lately…”

“I know you are working hard, too, and this isn’t easy for you…”


• The antidote for contempt is showing respect and refusing to attack or put down your partner, even when you are angry or hurt. Couples that can maintain a general respect and kindness towards their partner in conflict keep their friendship intact and have more success in finding solutions.


• Lastly, the antidote to stonewalling is to take a break. Review Part I of this series to refresh your memory on how to take a “time out” to calm down, let your heart rate return to normal, and then resume the conversation. 


Now, this can be easier said that done. Couples with a long history of these patterns may need professional support in order to break these habits and learn new skills. When anger, resentment and hurt have built up over many years, these methods are harder to employ. If you feel stuck in these patterns and see the toll they are taking on your relationship, do not hesitate to call us. We can help you address the underlying anger, put an end to destructive patterns, and teach you new ways to communicate instead. Please contact us with any questions. 


In Part III, we’ll discuss making effective repairs and explore the art of compromise.


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How to Fight with Your Partner – Part I

Guest blogger Kate Nesterwitz, LMFT. Read more about her at

Conflict within a committed relationship is normal. Tensions arise over big issues and tiny ones, and often have more to do with how we feel about ourselves than with what the other person is doing or saying. When we react out of fear, anger, exhaustion, frustration, defensiveness, or any other negative state, we limit the likelihood of a positive resolution because the chances are high that, when confronted in this way, our partner will respond from a similar negative state.

However, even when you find yourself in that place, you can improve the odds of a favorable outcome by implementing the highly effective strategies outlined here.

1. Introduce the discussion with a softened start-up
This refers to HOW a topic is brought up, specifically within the first 3 minutes. Start softly and kindly, perhaps first talking about a more benign topic to set a positive tone for the conversation. Complaints that are brought up with a harsh tone, hostile body language, or accusations will inevitably lead down an unproductive road.

2. Use “I” Statements
None of us likes to be accused of doing something wrong. Anytime someone comes at us with accusations (“YOU didn’t do the dishes,” “YOU screwed up again,” “I can’t stand when YOU….”) our natural response is to become defensive. We then get stuck in a debate over who did what, completely losing sight of the original complaint. When we use “I” statements to explain how we feel about a situation, we are speaking for ourselves, sharing our own truth and reality, which is not up for debate.

Try using this format:

“I feel… (followed by a feelings word) about…” (whatever the complaint may be.) “I need….” (be specific about what you need to be different.) This allows your partner to come through for you rather than just bombarding him or her with the things they are doing wrong.

3. Practice Self Soothing
This is more important than most couples realize. When we get very upset about something, we experience “flooding,” as in getting flooded with emotions. This is not merely a concept; it is a measurable biological response. The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, and we find it harder to think straight. In this state, we are all vulnerable to behaving in regrettable ways. Name calling, accusations, cursing, violence, defensiveness or saying things we don’t mean almost always happen while in a flooded state. All of these behaviors are incredibly destructive and harmful to the relationship.

So what do you do when you start to feel flooded? Take a break! Remove yourself from the situation using a cue to your partner that you are flooded. “I am going in the bedroom for 20 minutes to calm down because I’m overwhelmed and don’t want to say anything I don’t mean.”

The Gottman Method, based on the extensive research of relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, recommends taking at least a 20-minute break, but no more than 24 hours. Always promise to return to the conversation once you are calmer to avoid leaving your partner feeling abandoned or rejected when you step out. Do deep breathing, go for a walk, watch a funny show or play on your phone — any calming activity that distracts you from the topic and helps you speak from a calmer perspective.

4. Accept influence…
…aka admit when you are wrong, apologize, and be open to your partner’s input. Gottman’s research has shown time and time again that successful couples accept influence from their partners. This means they can apologize for making their partner upset when they didn’t mean to, they are open to feedback, and they can empathize with how their partner feels.

Say things like “I can see why that would bother you” or “I never thought of it that way. I’m sorry I didn’t realize” or “That seems important to you so I’m open to figuring it out.” All of those lines allow for further dialogue and show that you respect how your partner feels.

Relationships are complicated. There will always be some complaint or something that needs to be worked out. The above tools are ways for those conversations to be more productive and respectful. If this is very difficult for you, it may be beneficial to get some support from a trained Couples Therapist who can help you develop these skills. For more information, contact Carapace Counseling.

Stay tuned for Part II in which we will cover these additional aspects of successfully managing conflict with your spouse or partner:

  1. The 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse
  2. Making effective repairs
  3. Compromise
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Meet Kate Nesterwitz, MS, LMFT

post-4kate-nKate Nesterwitz has been studying relationships since she was 18 when she began her college career studying Family Science, Couple and Family Therapy and Psychology.

“Relationships are the foundation of society. People affect us all the time,” Kate explains. “Our moods, our frustrations are often connected to the people around us. From the time we are infants, we need relationships to survive.” And yet, she says, the problems we have are often attributed to other things. “You can’t medicate a bad relationship,” Kate says, but you can bring people together to address what is going on. “We all have things to work on. We can all be better. Nothing can be one person’s fault.”

People often think of therapy as a one-on-one experience, but Kate advocates bringing in other family members. “This is the quickest way to achieve results. Everyone does the work together. This gives all participants an equal opportunity to learn and grow, and lessens the chances of misunderstandings.”

This is particularly important when dealing with children or couples. “When a child is acting out, the responsibility to ‘fix it’ is too much of a load for him or her to take on alone. It is necessary for parents and other family members to understand their roles in the situation as well as all the factors that contribute to the child’s behavior.”  

Kate also recommends that anyone in a couple who is considering therapy not go alone. “Doing so leaves the partner out and can create new problems as the person in therapy begins to heal and change,” she explains. “There is power in bearing witness. When both partners go through the process together, they have the same tools, language, context and understanding.”

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Kate is trained to look at the undesirable patterns that occur within the family and determine what maintains them so they can be corrected. “Relationships are cyclical rather than linear. A doesn’t cause B. Problems persist because we influence and affect one another, feeding the cycle. Couples and families that come in for therapy are stuck in a negative pattern that we know will only continue to gain momentum in a negative direction,” says Kate. “Most people aren’t able to see those aspects of their relationships clearly and objectively on their own. In therapy, we find that pattern, intervene, and reverse it.”

Kate recognizes that getting others to join someone in therapy is not always possible. In these cases, she uses similar techniques to work with individuals as she does with couples and families. “We consider all the people involved, even if the person is there alone, and practice those encounters.”

Kate is deeply committed to helping individuals with relationship issues (dating, family, co-workers, etc.), couples and families (particularly teens) resolve their issues quickly and effectively, in order to lead more satisfying and fulfilling lives.  After college, she earned her masters degree at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, where she trained at the pioneering Council for Relationships. Since moving to Colorado 2 years ago, Kate has continued to advance her skills and knowledge by pursuing training and certification in EMDR and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

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Are you dreading the holidays? Learn to set boundaries now!

post-3Another Thanksgiving has come and gone and all that remains are the leftovers… and possibly some hard feelings. If looking ahead to the next round of holiday dinners and gatherings has you particularly distressed, you are not alone. On the heels of the particularly contentious 2016 presidential election, many holiday guests may be arriving with some extra baggage and a little less holiday cheer this year. If dealing with family togetherness is already problematic, that just adds bitter icing to an already troubled cake.

Even in the best family situations, the holidays can add unnecessary stress to emotions, budgets and time commitments. Often we get caught up in maintaining a greeting card image that simply isn’t realistic, while at the same time, we hate to feel as though we are letting people down by not doing what they ask. Rather than simply gearing up for a fight or preparing to suffer in silence, there is something you can do starting now to make visits with family go a little more smoothly.

“Setting boundaries is an important skill for handling conflict,” says Kate Nesterwitz, MS, LMFT, at Carapace Counseling. “Often we harbor resentments and make choices based on what we think another person thinks. Setting boundaries is a way to start a conversation, clear the air, and, perhaps, discover that what we thought would be a problem isn’t a problem at all.”

Have you experienced any of these scenarios?

  • Your sister always sets the dollar amount for the family gift exchange at a level that is more than you can afford.
  • Your mother insists that you arrive the day before Christmas Eve and stay until the day after Christmas, but you can’t miss that much work.
  • Family members don’t respect your spouse/significant other because he or she is a different race/religion, or is your same sex partner.
  • It’s your turn to host, but your in-laws are overly critical of you, your home or your cooking.

The anticipation of these types of conflicts makes us feel even worse and for a longer period of time than the conflict itself. We dread the consequences of asserting ourselves and of not asserting ourselves. We feel manipulated by the passive aggressive behavior of others in response to our requests, or we become passive aggressive in an unsuccessful attempt to feel better in a painful or uncomfortable situation.

Take a moment now to think about the situation, demand or expectation that troubles you. Then, consider these tips on setting boundaries to free yourself from guilt, worry and stress.


  • Soften the blow.


When responding to a demand that you don’t want to or can’t fulfill, engage the person from a place of empathy rather than becoming defensive. Let her know that you understand why she is asking for this. If you don’t know, ask why it is important to her and then express your understanding of her position.

“Why is it so important that I come for Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day?”


  • Listen actively.


When asking someone why his position is important to him, pay attention to his answer rather than focusing on your next argument and don’t interrupt. When he is done speaking, let him know that you hear him by repeating it back to him and validating his position.

“I understand that you feel bad that we don’t get together as a family very often, and you miss having us close by…”


  • Put people’s emotions back on them.


Everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings. You can acknowledge the other person’s feelings and still make the choices that are best for you. The other person can choose to accept your decision and make the best of it (expressing normal disappointment accompanied by understanding), or not. You are not required to take on someone else’s anger, sadness or disappointment. Similarly, if you are in a position to compromise, it is okay to express some disappointment, followed by understanding, but not to put your negative feelings on the other person.

“I understand and I’m happy to talk to you, but I’m not going to change my plans.”

“I’m sorry that you won’t be able to join us for dinner, but I look forward to seeing you for brunch the next day.”


  • Resist creating a “court of law” setting.


Everyone has a right to set their own boundaries and expectations for how they can be spoken to, and a simple, straightforward statement, such as, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” may be all that is necessary. However, when two sides are arguing for their “truth,” the result is often greater division. In the case of someone who is disrespectful, inappropriate or hurtful, calling that person out may only cause him or her to dig in deeper.  Instead, find a way to move to a more united conversation where people are interested in understanding each other. 

“I can respect your differences in views, but I will not accept hateful behavior.”

“If you’d like to know more about [my views, my partner’s views, our history, why we feel this way, etc.), I would be happy to share. But I will not continue this conversation if the goal is to judge, look down upon, or try to ‘convince’ each other.”

“I’m happy to share where I’m coming from about this, but I will not let this become a debate. That won’t be good for any of us.”


  • Don’t wait.


The longer you wait to resolve an issue, the more you prolong your own suffering. Dealing with the situation up front or as soon as possible may keep it from worsening.  In addition, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that the other person is not holding as tightly to her position as you imagined, or she may even be thinking something entirely different.

Setting boundaries offers several benefits including reducing anxiety, making the world more manageable, and strengthening relationships. When everyone knows where you stand, there are no unpleasant surprises and no one is caught off guard. If you struggle with these skills, therapy can help.  For more information, contact Carapace Counseling.

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Helping Special Kids through a Special Kind of Play: AutPlay® Therapy

AutPlay® is a unique therapy specifically for children with a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, Down syndrome or ADHD. AutPlay® combines the benefits of play therapy with behavioral therapy. Traditional play therapy is typically directed by the child.  Games and creative play create a safe environment in which the child will naturally open up and talk about an issue. AutPlay® is directed by the therapist. Each session is carefully planned to tackle a particular skill or emotional need.  

AutPlay® has two main goals for the children who participate:  

1. Emotional regulation.

  • develop skills to calm themselves when they are dysregulated
  • develop the ability to recognize when they are upset (what that feeling is and how to cope with it)
  • learn what to do when others around them are upset
  • learn to understand their feelings and how to work through them

2. Social skills and emotional connection.

In addition, AutPlay® addresses relationship development and connection; anxiety reduction; sensory processing; concentration, focus and attention; behavior modification and parenting skills.

The process begins with an in depth screening to determine what the child does well and what he or she needs help with. AutPlay® works with kids regardless of their skill level, whether they are verbal or nonverbal, and wherever they are on the spectrum.  

Typically the program includes a play therapy session with the child, and a session with the parent. The parent learns the same skills the child is learning, so they can work on deficits together at home. The parent also gains skills to connect with the child, and gets help with parenting or school issues.  

Most often, the parent and child meet with the therapist separately. In this way, the child gets the full benefit of the session and the parent has an opportunity to discuss sensitive issues privately.  

AutPlay® Therapy was developed by Dr. Robert Jason Grant, who now offers certification in this important technique. We are fortunate to have Amanda Knoll, MA, LPC and Level II AutPlay® provider in our practice.

“The mental health and disability worlds, two areas I am passionate about, don’t always mesh. AutPlay® does brings them together in an effective and powerful way,” says Amanda.

For more information on AutPlay® Therapy, contact Amanda here.

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Meet Amanda Knoll, MA, LPC, Level II Autplay® provider

amanda-knoll-256x300Amanda found her life’s calling early, somewhat by accident (or one might say, serendipity).  At 14, she volunteered at the Easter Seals camp because it was something to do and a chance to spend time in the mountains. She enjoyed it, and that experience led to another opportunity.  

“Two summers later, my mom said I needed a job.  She knew Maren [Schreiber, special populations coordinator at Evergreen Parks and Rec] from exercise class,” Amanda recalls.  “My mother mentioned my earlier experience working with kids with disabilities and asked if there was something I could do at the Rec Center.”  Maren hired her and they not only worked together, they became close friends.  Amanda enjoyed the work so much, in her 20s she went to work at a residential camp in Iowa.

“Those early experiences made me passionate about working closely with people, and getting to know individuals — and their families — in meaningful ways, beyond their disabilities or how they immediately present in the world,” Amanda says.   She went on to receive her Masters degree in transpersonal counseling psychology from Naropa University. She chose this program because of its emphasis on mindfulness and a holistic approach to counseling.  “Considering the whole person, which includes a broad range of factors such as spirituality, culture, trauma, etc., helps determine how someone heals,” Amanda explains.  

After graduating she worked in community mental health, serving children of all ages and their families. She was trained in play therapy and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, and got broad experience working with many clients facing diverse challenges. She is delighted to bring that experience to private practice, where she continues to work with children and teens, as well as adults.

Amanda uses play therapy to help kids process trauma, depression and difficult life transitions.  “In this kind of therapy, the child is in charge and controls the session,” says Amanda.  “They bring me into their world.  During the game, they will bring up the issue themselves.”  From there, she helps them come through it and get back to where they were before the trauma.

Amanda is also excited to return to her roots, working with children with developmental disabilities through another type of play therapy called AutPlay®. AutPlay® can be used for children with any neurological or developmental disability, such as autism, Down syndrome or ADHD.  AutPlay® is directed by the therapist and each session is carefully planned to work on a specific skill or need.  Parents are also taught skills to help them work with their child and receive help with parenting or school issues.

[Read more on AutPlay® here.]

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The Importance of Play for All ages


Summer is coming and if, like parents everywhere, you are busy planning your kids’ summer activities, be sure to allow for plenty of unstructured time. Experts agree that for children, adolescents and teens play is not merely idle time; it is necessary for healthy development. While you are playing with your kids you experience the same benefits as them. Play your summer away!

Play develops healthy brains.

Seventy percent of brain development occurs after birth up until the early 20s. Initially, play creates connections between the brain and nerve cells, which helps children develop gross motor skills (walking, running, jumping) and fine motor skills (writing, manipulating small tools, detailed hand work). Those connections continue to develop into adulthood, affecting the part of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making.

Play – particularly make believe – also develops the brain’s executive function, our ability to manage time and attention, to plan and organize, to remember details, to decide what is an appropriate response (incorporating self-control and discipline), to make sense of our emotions and to apply past experiences to the present. These are the skills that enable kids to do well in school, get along well with others, and make good decisions.

Imaginative play helps kids develop empathy and compassion. By trying on different roles, kids gain understanding of other perspectives. (Hartwell-Walker, 2015)

Play spurs creativity 

Adults often get stymied when asked to be creative. Our need to be right, to appear smart, and to avoid embarrassment or shame makes it extremely difficult to express ideas that aren’t fully formed and to try things outside our comfort zones. Children, on the other hand, don’t automatically have these constraints and are not limited by the thought that something is not possible. Play helps children maintain creative, innovative thinking into adulthood, not just in the arts, but in all aspects of work and life as well. (Hartwell-Walker, 2015)

Play is therapeutic

Play is a necessary opportunity for children to take control of their world. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), without enough time devoted to free play, kids can begin to show symptoms of anxiety, including:

  • Avoiding other people
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nervousness
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Depression

Anyone who has ever tried to have a toddler in an adult situation, such as a fancy restaurant or an office setting, for any length of time has likely had a taste of this.   For children who have little or no playtime, the impact can be great. “It’s true that school work and schedules teach important life skills. But most experts agree that children’s health and everyday progress stand to suffer when scheduled activities leave no room for ‘free’ playtime,” the APA website reports.

Play is essential for both physical and emotional healing, says Amy Wortham, a child life specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Wortham explains that play allows children to feel “normal” at a time or in a place when their situation disrupts their regular life and makes them feel different from their peers. “Playing is the way that kids learn about their world. It helps them process and experience it on their own terms,” she says. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015)

Play can sometimes be frustrating for busy, tired parents, but because expressing oneself through play makes perfect sense to kids, play therapy is a useful tool for children dealing with complex emotional issues. At Carapace Counseling, we use play therapy to help children process anxiety, trauma (including abuse), anger, grief, and loss. Sand tray therapy, a form of play therapy we use, works well for adults, too.

Hartwell-Walker, M. (2015). The Benefits of Play. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2016, from
American Academy of Pediatrics (2015). Caution! Children at Play! Retrieved on on May 19, 2016, from


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