February 4, 2021

How to Emotionally Strengthen Relationships

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Dr. Kristyn Gregory, medical director of behavioral health for Blue Care Network of Michigan and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they discuss how we can strengthen our emotional relationship with others.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

    • Being emotionally available.
    • Emotional intimacy and why it’s important for relationships.
    • How to strengthen our emotional connection both virtually and in-person.

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode, 73. Coming up, we discuss how to emotionally strengthen our relationships.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. This is a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and well-being through small, healthy habits we can start implementing right now. And especially into a new year it is time to get going. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica, every other week, we’ll sit down with a certified health expert from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and do a dive into topics that cover mental health, wellbeing, and a whole lot more. And on this episode, we’re discussing the importance of maintaining our emotional relationships, and what we can do to strengthen them. With us today, Medical Director of Behavioral Health for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dr. Kristyn Gregory. Good to talk to you again.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
How are you doing today, Chuck?

Chuck Gaidica:
I’m doing well and that’s a good thing. And so we’re going to talk about being well and getting better. And I just want to let everybody know about a little bit of your background. You are the Medical Director of Behavioral Health, as I mentioned. You’ve gotten your degree from the Chicago School of Osteopathic Medicine, and you’re a board certified adult child and adolescent psychiatrist, maybe more important than all of that, you’ve got two kids you’ve got in your house, of varied ages. So we’re kind of digging in on this idea of having others in the home, whether they’re aged parents or whether they’re children, or a spouse or partner. So I want to dig into that, but here we are, I mean, it is coming up on about a year in terms of how long we’ve been navigating this pandemic. And there has been tremendous emotional fatigue across the board. For some, they have a noticed a difference in the… They’ve jumped right in to being at home, and working from home, and doing Zoom, and for others, they’re all kinds of, I guess, stressors.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah. I always wanted to work at home until I actually did.

Chuck Gaidica:
Okay. So now that’s funny because if you watch business channels in other places, they would say, “Well, no, I think this shift is permanent.” But then I’ll hear someone like you verbalize the idea, I can’t wait to get back to an office, or a building, or be with other people. Is that part of what you’re talking about?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah. I think that the idea of being able to work from home and have that freedom was appealing, until it was your future reality, and unchanging factor of that. And all the things that go along with working from home while everybody else is also working or going to school from home, was maybe not everything it was chocked up to be.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, and it’s so different for so many different families. I mean, my wife, Susan, and I have five kids and we look back and we think, well, we know he did it. I mean, they’re all adults now, but we sometimes wonder how did we even go to Disney World or something with five kids? And now I look at, for instance, my son and daughter in law with a five year old and a three year old individually, the adults are trying to do Zoom, and they’re both working. Thank goodness. And the girls are running around and one is on virtual kindergarten, and the other is a three year old, there you go. And two dogs and two cats, and holy cow. And I just look at that, I think, oh, I mean, it sounds like it’s, most of the time, it’s a blessing that you’re able to be with your kids. But like you say, these are added stressors all by themselves.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah. Every time I’m in a Zoom meeting and I see somebody’s child run in the background, or I see their dog run through, or their dog bark, I think it kind of leads to what we’re talking about today because it shows reality. It’s not somebody behind a desk. It shows the emotional and the human part of people. And I like that aspect.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. I actually, to be fair, I’ve kind of enjoyed the occasional time where I’m speaking to a stranger, a customer service rep, and you can tell they took the call at home because the dog barks or the, excuse me, wait, the baby’s crying. And you just have to be… I’m sure somebody has gotten snarky about that, but I think, well, this is just real life. I mean, cut him a break. It’s just-

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah, it’s human.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. So while that’s something we can take into account, it’s just human, and we hope the people on the other side of this equation are extending us some grace because goodness knows I’m not the most perfect person around either. How is this time that we’re going through, and have gone through strained relationships, whether it’s because we’re all trying to work and play from home or otherwise? What are you seeing and hearing even from people you talk to professionally?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
I think it’s affecting us on a couple of different levels. The first would be that there’s a lot of togetherness. So the people outside of our home, there’s an absence in a lot of times of the physical togetherness. So we’ve had to negotiate how to gain an emotional connection with people when we can’t interact with them physically, which is what we’re used to as humans, having that physical proximity connection as well as the emotional connection. And so it’s a tie between having too much connection in some cases, in some of our relationships, and not enough in others and kind of striking that balance, which is difficult. I mean, it’s difficult for everybody, I think.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And the relationships in a household may be beyond what we would call traditional. It could be that you’ve got a grandparent that’s living with you, and you’re maybe a caregiver. Or you’ve got others that have… I know within my extended family, someone has not adopted, but sort of brought in a 14 year old girl into the mix with their own two children. Well, that’s a whole new dynamic. That child isn’t their own biologically, and yet this is now part of the universe within their household they’re having to navigate. So when we think of this emotional connection to others in your family, it may go well beyond the kids you have with you.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah. When you’re spending 24/7 with folks over a 10 month period, things get real, it’s like the real world.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. So here we are, we’ve been told over the past year or so that we need to be physically distanced from each other. It’s protecting us and giving us better health. So we practice that the way we can. And yet I think that we’re also finding a lot of folks, because of the stressors that we’ve touched on anyway so far, are now becoming emotionally unavailable. What is it to be emotionally available, whether you’re in your home, or you’re even trying to maintain a relationship from a distance, what does that mean, emotional availability.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
I’m going to go with the appropriate Google definition. So it’s being able to sit with difficult, upsetting, or challenging emotions in yourself and others, and not to run away, dismiss, or minimize. Basically being able to be with somebody that’s in pain or you being in pain, and not trying to fix it to just be present and to be available.

Chuck Gaidica:
And so if we’re emotionally unavailable, I guess in the old days, meaning a year ago, we may have just said, “Well, honey, you’re tuned out.” One of the partners or spouses would say, “I keep trying to be honest with you and dig in and you’re just tuned out.” But now it’s almost as if we’re trying to navigate this work from home component still, we’re tuning out because we have to. We have to sort of get in the office mode in our head. So we’ve got these other inputs that may be leading us down a path that have nothing to do with the fact that I don’t love that person that’s with me.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. I think it has a lot to do with, I mean, so many things have happened this year. I mean, not just the pandemic. And I think it’s led to a lot of fatigue, people are emotionally fatigued. They don’t have that availability because they’re drained. And so when you’re feeling like that, and you feel like you’ve given everything you have within you over the last 10 months, sometimes it’s difficult to sit and to be present. If you can’t run away to the office, you can bury yourself in television or a book, or just, even in your own thoughts.

Chuck Gaidica:
And what are some of the signs we should be looking for in ourselves and in our family members that show that we’re kind of creating this unavailability? What are some of the red flags?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
You might see people being less likely to make commitment to plans. Or for example, you say, “Hey, honey, let’s do this tonight.” And let me check. I have a busy work schedule. Let me get back to you. And sometimes if they do agree to do something, we might see people wanting to call the shots or one person in a relationship feeling like they’re doing all the work. That would be one of the big things. If you feel like you’re doing all the work, and you’re not growing closer, but you feel like there’s a widening gap in your relationship.

Chuck Gaidica:
And that alone can be a stressor, too. I mean can you imagine? I’m so thankful that my wife and I are navigating in the house kind of by ourselves, we’re basically empty nesters, short of when we’ve had a grandchild come over or something, that we’ve been able to help with school. But the reality is that when it’s just two of you, or maybe you’re leading this long distance relationship, the idea that you’re not being present with somebody, and you’re actually in the same house, maybe before you had an excuse, I’m at the office, I don’t know. But now you don’t really have an excuse. And if you’re unplugged from that connectivity, that can be a stressor all by itself.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. And people read into that and they see it, and it doesn’t even just have to be with your relationship. It can be with your kids too. Sometimes I’ll have to really redirect myself and almost repeat what I hear my daughter says, because maybe I’m working or I’m in the middle of something. And she has definitely talked to me, and told me what she’s doing, but it didn’t go all the way in. I heard the words, but they didn’t go into the part of my brain where they, became what’s going on. So then I have to say, “I’m sorry. Hey, could you repeat that?” And then really look at her and be present for what she’s saying.

Chuck Gaidica:
Half jokingly and half not, my wife knows I’ve told her this directly, and I think that’s part of the communication, the two way communication that when she is saying… I’ve got a floodgate in my head. And sometimes I just leave it open and stuff is flying through there. And until she said, “I need you to hear this because we’re going out to do blah, blah, blah.” And I have to close it, she’ll say, “Listen.” And I close the gate and I look right at her. And I think that’s kind of what you’re saying. I’m not being disrespectful, but I’m asking her to help me to understand. You’ve just raised this to the level of importance where I really need to know what you’re telling me, because I have to put it in the calendar on my iPhone.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Is that her trigger word for you, is I need you to hear me?

Chuck Gaidica:
Or something like that. And to me, I don’t take it as impersonal or snarky, because I’ve actually been in on the conversation to say, “You need to let me know when to close the gate. Because I’m on the laptop, I’m doing this. I’m thinking. Whatever I’m doing, I need you to help me understand that this is important to you.” So that means it really should be important to me. And it’s worked for us. I don’t know that it works for everybody, but-

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
I like that. It’s using an I word in her part. So she’s using an I statement, she’s not saying you, but she’s saying an I statement, “I need you to hear me.” And hear is different than you need to listen to me. Hear, I guess would signify to me, at least it’s more of a mutual thing as opposed to listen.

Chuck Gaidica:
I have to tell her I’m going to give her a big hug and let her know we’re doing it right.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
I’m going to steal it.

Chuck Gaidica:
All right. So if we feel like somebody in the household, and again, it could be extended family, is being emotionally unavailable, you’ve talked about some of the signs. What do we do? Do we literally say, “I need to sit down and talk to you about this.” Is that the first step to refire the connection that should be important in our lives?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah. I think you have to speak your truth of what are you feeling. And the trick though is to do it, not in a threatening manner. And that’s what I think was so great about what your wife is saying, “I need you to hear me.” So she’s using the I statements. Another example would be, “I feel lonely when you’re at work, and we’re not sharing an emotional connection.” So it’s not saying, “You’re neglecting me.” So many you statement obviously people turn off to, because then they’re feel like they’re assigned some higher degree of blame. Whereas what you’re really trying to do is work on the communication issues, because everything is about communication, emotional availability, emotional unavailability, emotional intimacy is all communication.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
And so speaking your truth in a non-threatening non-judgemental manner, it would be the first step. And then focus on being real, not right. Developing that intimacy, and that availability is about being okay to speak your feelings to somebody else. And really, it’s a very powerful thing to tell somebody your emotional state, if you don’t believe me, try it one time, to tell somebody actually how you’re feeling.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well that’s interesting because when you say that you would hope, and this probably happens by your experience, you hear about it. And then it happens by default. When you share with that other person, how you’re feeling either, they maybe didn’t know you were feeling that way. And you would hope because they’ve got some empathy you’re in the same house, probably, that now they are actually feeling like, oh my gosh, I am so sorry. I didn’t even see that. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know you felt that way. You would hope that that would be the reaction from a good number of people anyway

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. Or the reaction is that they’re feeling that way too. And then by finding that common ground, it makes it a lot easier to move forward, and to not feel so anxious about sharing that kind of information or sharing your thoughts or feelings.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, hearing you describe being real and not right, is really something that’s, it’s just turned a light bulb on in my head because I’ve never really thought about it, not talked to any professional like you about my wife saying to me, “I need you to hear me now.” If we didn’t talk about that, that could also be interpreted the wrong way. And a little story could start playing in my mind. Well, she’s using I messages, which you’re saying are healthy. And yet I could think, well, it’s all about her. It’s always an, I, I, but we have already discussed it, which took the edge off the whole conversation. So, until you verbalized it, I’ve given this any deep thought at all.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah. I just, I think it really is a great statement. Like I said, I’m going to steal it from you for sure.

Chuck Gaidica:
Okay, good. You can have it, you can have it. Emotional intimacy. That’s something that we can talk about because here we are, and again, let’s just conjure up a typical household right now. Somebody may be sitting at the dining room table working, whether it’s Zoom or otherwise, you may have some headphones or air buds or whatever, you’re plugged in. And maybe you’re not even plugged in. How could you not have emotional intimacy with somebody who’s standing 15 feet away in the kitchen and somebody at the dining room table, and yet we know it’s breaking down for some people.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
I think it relates back to that fatigue that people are feeling, and what you have to give at that time. So somebody can be there physically, even in your kitchen, but that doesn’t make both of you present.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
So, being present is being open and available emotionally to build that connection. People can not do a million things at once. I think we could probably only do one, maybe two. I can’t even walk and chew gum. So being focused on what is going on at the moment and really working on that mindfulness and being present and being empathetic on how somebody might feel, or why somebody might feel that way. Instead of focused in your own thoughts, which is hard now because there’s a lot of emotional fatigue and people are focused in their own thoughts a lot.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, in a lot of these episodes, we talk about quick ideas or hacks, shortcuts to doing something. When it comes to emotional intimacy, do you have any specific suggestions? If you’re both working from home, is lunchtime a time to sit down and actually connect and just unplug? Or should I sit down… And it kind of leads into mindfulness, that I’m being present with myself, but I should be present with my spouse or somebody in the family that’s in the house, or even on a Zoom call. What are some of the tricks that we can build emotional intimacy, even in a typical day?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
I think setting time is important. It doesn’t necessarily need to be lunch. It doesn’t necessarily need to be an hour at a time, but setting aside time for the person where we are present, we’re present emotionally, even if we’re not present physically. And that means looking at somebody and hearing what they have to say without thinking of what our response is going to be, or the 800 things that we have to do for work, to really be present in that connection and in that interchange. And sometimes it means repeating back to somebody, what you heard them say, so they know that you’re present. And when they know you’re present, then they’re more likely to feel that emotional connectedness, which goes both ways.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
You have to have it on one side to get it back on the other. And then it kind grows. If you can’t be present physically, emojis are great. I don’t know about you, but if I get an emoji, let’s say from my boyfriend, it’s like the little smiley face with a kiss. He’s not there, he didn’t really say that much. But what he did say in that text is, “I’m thinking about you right now.” And I think that can be powerful too.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. No, that’s a great idea. And yeah, it does signal so much, doesn’t it, in just that little emoji?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you can see that while you’re working, in essence. I mean, it’s really, you’re saying there’s only so much multitasking we can all do, but when you see ding or even if there is no ding, you’ve muted it. That’s really cool to think about that. That alone is kind of like sending the dozen roses without the flowers.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. I try to do that with my kids too. Even throughout the day, my daughter’s here at school, but I will send her a text a couple of times a day. So I’m not disturbing her when she’s trying to learn in school, but it’ll be like a heart, or I love you, or I’ll do a funny dog picture, because she likes dogs, and she does it back. So then we’re getting that connection. So I think that that’s one of the ways we can do it virtually.

Chuck Gaidica:
And I have discovered, and I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I’m sure there are a lot of people that are listening and you see this too in your practice and otherwise, asking my wife, “What can I do to help you?” You’ve never… I shouldn’t say you. I’ve never thought that some of the things that she does I can be helpful with. And now that we’re both working closer together more often, I found that by asking her, well, whether it’s heavy lifting or other, “What can I do to help you?” And that alone has helped us with this emotional intimacy because there’s a give and take now, and I’m starting to understand better where she needs some help. So now it’s just second nature. I just do it. I mean, it’s just been a really great way for us anyway, to strengthen something that may have been a breaking point before.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. And instead of having a honey do list and looking at it negatively, you’re looking at what you can do to help her, like you said, just do it.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Now throughout this conversation, we’ve had a couple of threads. Maybe it’s just one thread, stress and strain. That in this time for many people, this has led to issues with relationships, and those who may live in the house or maybe be at a distance, what can we be doing to cut back on stress and strain so it opens us up or gives us more capacity to be emotionally present and available?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. So the strain that it can cause on relationships sometimes can be difficult because we have all this stuff going on in our head. And so being in your own head and not letting others know what’s going on, can be detrimental. So communicating, this is what’s going on and I’m not meaning to do this. However, and really taking a responsibility for you and working towards a more positive outcome the next time. Maybe it means that you have to go out and take a walk, or walk the dog, or do 10 jumping jacks. Usually that’s my silly thing that I do when I start getting-

Chuck Gaidica:
Is it really? Yeah.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Yeah, I do jumping jacks. It looks silly, but it really… When you’re jumping up and down like that, it really takes that whole tension that you have in your face, and your arms, and your shoulders. And you can’t really concentrate on anything, but making your body work that way.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And it can be so different for every person. I remember, I don’t remember which podcast, what is it, we’re up to 73 episodes now, but on one of the previous podcasts, somebody said they get tense before they walk into a meeting at work. This is well before the pandemic. And they said, literally I just duck into, it could be the broom closet. Doesn’t matter. I duck into a place. I just breathe deeply, they’re getting mindful. It takes me about 30 seconds. And then I come out, I walk into the meeting and I’m like a different person. So for each of us, there can be a different version of jumping jacks, And that’s okay.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Exactly. Yeah. Whatever works. And to get you in that right mind space is what you should do. And if the first thing you try doesn’t work, try something else.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Well, we’ve got time. I mean, that’s one thing that I know, clock is moving, but we do have time to experiment a little bit and in a virtual world now, where we may be working, through a laptop or other device, let’s talk more specifically about relationships through a device. And I’ll use one of my members of my own family. One of my daughters lives in New York City, Manhattan, and has a boyfriend just on the other side of town. Well, they’re not even getting together. So now it’s not just like somebody’s here and somebody’s in California. In Michigan to California, you’re talking about you’re in the same city and you may still have to be leading part of your life virtually. What are the ways to make this connection emotionally, short of the obvious, which is you go on FaceTime or something and you see the person, but do you have any other suggestions of what works that way?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Just little communications throughout the day. Like I said, even with the text messages that you might send to somebody. Ways you can indicate that you’re thinking of someone. I’ve sent people lunch, I’ve had lunch GrubHub to their house and it kind of says, “Hey, I want you to have this break. I know that you need to eat and nourish yourself.” And it’s kind of a surprise. I’ve even done it for my parents. And taking time, if you want to build a relationship, and maybe you have to schedule it in. Maybe you have to schedule in a reminder to text or to call, or to send somebody a funny video, or a meme, or do something special for them, or have something special sent to them.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, that’s good. And I guess that I also have a default because I spent a lifetime, not just working in radio and now podcasts, which were both audio oriented, but also visual through television. So when I see calls, Zoom calls or otherwise, it astounds me that we still haven’t figured out that we need to practice some of the same things we do when we’re in person. Like if I lean in on a call, on a Zoom call where I’m there on video and I hold my head in my hands and I listen, that visible signal is sending to somebody on the other side, well, I’m present.

Chuck Gaidica:
Because I’ve also been with people who I’m talking to, even if it’s just chatter about family, or just busy stuff and they’re typing and they’re like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh (affirmative).” Well, you know you’re not emotionally connected. I mean, you think you’re listening, but you’re sending visible signals that you’re not really with me. And I think it’s important that we all remember that maybe we need to let the other stuff go and let the dog run around for a minute. And just, this person took time to connect with us, to be connected visibly because you’re sending signals that you don’t really think about.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Right. Yeah. It’s our nonverbal language.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
And you’re right, the nonverbal language matters whether it’s virtual or not virtual.

Chuck Gaidica:
So as we kind of wrap up here, what are some of the key takeaways as we’ve had this discussion and even things we haven’t discussed that you would suggest to all of us to build this emotional availability and connection, intimacy with others, either in our home or away from our house where we’re having to stay connected virtually?

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
The main part to it is realizing that it is difficult, because we’re so fatigued in other parts of our life, and a lot of times feel like we’re emotionally zapped. So it’s not just you, your spouse or significant other might say, “It’s just you, you can’t emotionally connect.” But I don’t think that it’s just one person. It’s a majority of us now. And there’s a reason for that. But there are things that we can do to make it easier and to make ourselves more emotionally available.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
And that would be things like you said, being present. So if it’s virtual, being present and showing that body language, that indicates that you’re interested. Just taking five minutes, if it’s 10 minutes to be available to connect with somebody, to continue to build that focus on being real, not right. If you want to be heard, maybe you need to say, “I need you to hear me. I know you’re really busy and you have a lot of stuff going on. I was hoping we could not be distracted for the next five minutes and really connect so you can hear what I’m going to say, because it’s important.”

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
And continue to practice mindfulness, be empathetic, look at how other people might feel. I think empathy is such an important thing. It kind of amazes me that it’s not something that we teach in school. There’s not a class on empathy. There is reading, writing, but should be. Because I think that that is the bottom line language that we connect as humans.

Chuck Gaidica:
That’s interesting. Yeah. And not everybody’s wired for it. I don’t mean kids that have a lifetime to learn it. But even as adults, you know it, you come across people, they just are not wired to be empathetic. They’re all about business or however we describe them. So that’s good to take some time to practice that. And I hate to wrap this up, but I have to share this with you. You’ll find it funny, right here, like a second ago, I got a message on my watch that said, “Time to stand and get moving.” And I thought that’s going to be jumping jacks today. I’m just telling you. I just got it on my watch. So there you go. Dr. Gregory, it’s always a joy to talk to you. Thanks for your input and your help today.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory:
Thank you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Dr. Kristyn Gregory with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan joining us today. And we want to thank you for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like our show, you want to know more. You can check it out online AHealthierMichigan.org/podcast, or you can leave us a review or rating on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. You can get new episodes, all the old episodes as well on your smartphone or tablet. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don’t forget, you can take us with you when you go for your power walks, or I guess even if you’re doing your jumping jacks, you can have this episode and all the others with you all the time. Stay well. I’m Chuck Gaidica.