A Relationship Q&A with Dr. Stephanie Lesk, PhD
We recently sat down with Stephanie Lesk – an amazing, NYC-based cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. We love that Dr. Lesk specializes in millennial matters. With 25 years of experience, she uses humor, directness and warmth to champion us and push us gently outside of our comfort zones to see just how effective we can be. By teaching us to bet on ourselves, be our own best friends, and embrace where we are, Dr. Lesk is helping us live our best lives!
So we thought, who better to discuss the ins and outs of relationships … something many of us can use help with in one area or another! We took a bunch of relationship-based questions from the #sssssweats community & rounded up the most frequently asked questions so Stephanie could detail her thoughts & advice for all of you. Let’s get to it!
SIGNIFICANT OTHERS + DATING
What’s the best thing to do if you can’t stop thinking about an ex? And what could this mean, especially if you’re currently in a relationship?
Well, your ex is an ex for a reason. Hopefully you learned a lot, had some good times, and got clearer on what works for you. I wonder about the timeframe between these relationships and hope you are excited about the new one you’re in! Maybe you are, but the ex, the ex is on your mind. I am not sure if thinking of the ex means you are missing them. Anyway, let’s break it down, knowing that how the breakup went down matters. If it’s an unexpected or nasty ending, that’s a lot to deal with. Even if it ended on nicer terms, it’s still a loss. Whether you were on the receiving end adds another layer, although the ones breaking up struggle in the aftermath, too. No way around it when you had something good and shared parts of your lives. So, that you’re thinking about the ex more than you expected could just be remembering the last person you did similar things with. Without knowing the timeframe, maybe you got involved too quickly after the breakup when you needed a minute. Some find it helpful to jump right back in with someone to distract them so there’s no right or wrong really. This could simply be a normal fadeout of an ex, one you slowly wallpaper over with new experiences in time. For now, focus on, and appreciate, your new relationship. The thing is, thoughts are just that unless they stop you from giving your new other a proper shot. Either way, it may just take you a bit more time to get more available to the new person and doesn’t have to mean something is wrong or missing. Ultimately, ex thoughts happen and they either fade or are a sign to reassess where you’re at and what you’re up for.
What are some of the biggest red flags you see in relationships or dating as a therapist?
One major topic is, thinking those first few texts, dates, or brief time periods is what the relationship ultimately will be like. Once a connection is established and you spend some time, seemingly out of nowhere new things occur that make you say to yourself, ‘What…was…that’. This may be followed by panic and personalizing with self-talk of, ‘Why is he doing this (to me)’, when it’s more about ‘This is new incoming, oh right, we only just met and don’t really know each other’. I know, you feeeeel like you know them but it’s just not possible after weeks of texting or a few hangs. A second trend is all the noise from discussing dating with too many people. Maybe you’re shopping for an answer you like or feel compelled to show friends/family that you really are trying to meet someone. Keep that conversation limited to a trusted few. If you have a nice date, savor it and keep it for yourself. Sure, we need others to weigh in from time to time but make your own decisions. It is very easy to get sidetracked by others’ reactions and wants for you. Our third pressing issue is, fast and furious beginnings can lead to combustion. When someone starts talking about the ‘us’ that doesn’t exist on a second date, we are in trouble. It is so easy to mirror their enthusiasm back so enjoy yourself but remember you two don’t know one another. Yes, it’s good to like the ones that like you but be careful not to like them only because they like you. A fourth high traffic topic is learning to sit with the uncertainty that comes with dating. There is this tendency to want to drive the bus, know what will be, or control the path and timeline. Things need to unfold so writing a script or deciding you two should be in a different place blocks the flow. Force does not work. Focus on how you feel with this person, whether you like yourself when with this person. And I beg of you, forget the checklist. You know, we are told that if we plan and work hard, we reach our goals. And we can when it comes to grades, job searches, nutrition and fitness goals, etc. Measurable, tangible endeavors. When it comes to dating, though, it’s not really an effort thing. It is, though, about knowing when to pay attention to your gut and be honest about whether something is working or not, at which time you just have to pivot and course correct. Keep it simple: People fall in step together or they don’t and it’s not always about effort or a strong connection that may very well exist. It’s not always personal but both people have to be available on many levels for a relationship to roll.
What are some of the best ways to overcome the pressures of being single, especially in your 30’s?
Whoever decided that 30 was the number to have it together was mistaken. Much of this comes from your own beliefs and the vibe you send out about your single status, which is not the problem others may have you think. Meaning, if you believe it is a catastrophe, that will come through and others will feel compelled to offer…let’s call them…suggestions. Some may say you’re not trying or too picky and I always wonder if that means that they were not picky. Own it proudly, you just haven’t met that person yet, the one who makes you feel a certain way. Maybe you were in a long term relationship or spent extended time in school or had a relentless job or family situation that demanded your attention and energy. There is no expiration date when it comes to love. So, you have to teach people how to treat you, again. If you’re asked a loaded question about it, keep your response breezy and shift the topic. Those in relationships do not know what is best for you just because they have one. Remember, it is your life, not theirs. I know, it gets exhausting, all the celebrations for others around this time of life. Ditch the comparisons or tendency to glamorizing others’ situations. As someone in my HS yearbook quoted, “The grass is always greener on the other side until you hop the fence and find out it’s astroturf”. Take your time, discover new interests, and enjoy your life where it is now. Trust that your relationship is on the way…if you don’t think positively about it, why would others? What I’m saying is, be your own best friend. We wouldn’t think or say half of what we say to ourselves to another person. So, spend time with those who make you feel good – coupled up or single – ones who don’t view you as less than because they met someone and you have not…yet. As with all of our covered topics, nothing in your life is happening to you; our lives are a reflection of our thoughts, feelings, and actions so start designing the life you want. It’s an exciting pursuit and need not be experienced as a burden in the least. Where you are is a perfect place to be so get comfortable with it; deciding otherwise only creates needless stress and delays. And don’t forget, those who love you really just want you to be happy (even if they pressure you); the beautiful part is, you get to decide what your happiness looks like.
What does it mean if you find yourself always snapping at your partner?
My sense is that you’re either with someone who doesn’t bring out your best or is possibly…annoying. (Again, I don’t know specifics so this is a general chat). If you are truly happy with him/her, the alternative is you may have always been snappy and need to work on this part of yourself. Maybe others at some point were ok with it and this one is not. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t feel good to them or you, for that matter, to be on them and reacting so. Some, though, find snappiness familiar if they grew up with it as a love language in their own family. That you’re asking this question, though, suggests you’re not pleased with how you’re handling things. Time to find new ways to interpret his/her behaviors so that you don’t go to an annoyed place and feel the need to snap is an ideal start point. And if this is the first time you’re doing this with a partner, then it’s time to consider whether you’re the right fit for one another. One thing I ask of people is to take the others’ perspective, imagine what it would be like to be spoken to the way you are addressing him/her. When we discuss issues like these in therapy, you never know what message will click for someone. That is why I often suggest trying something else when what you’re doing is not working or serving you.
FRIENDS + FAMILY
What if you don’t like a friend’s significant other?
On the contrary, what if your friends don’t like your significant other?
What’s the best way to approach a friend who’s constantly choosing guys over you?
Great questions, a few themes. First, as you move away from the college years and into adulthood, the pack mentality slowly decreases. Constant togetherness becomes less sustainable. This is inevitable and not a bad thing, different as it may be. So, if a great friend does not like your significant other, or vice versa, let’s toss around some reasons. Sometimes, friends tend to share their dating frustrations, only to get back on track soon after, which leaves you scratching your head; ask about positives so you get a fuller picture next time they rant. At other times, friends feel left behind by their friend’s relationship. This is an opportunity to figure out what you want your life to look like. It might feel like they are blowing you off but really they are just in a different, not better, place. Now, if a friend’s other has been harmful, different story and speaking up is a must. But if you just don’t vibe with them, that has to be ok. This is where expectation management comes in: Want your friend to be happy more than you need to love their person. See, we need to allow space for each other to do our own things, try people on, and learn what works for them. Fun fact: Friends we made at age 15 are different people at age 25, then 30 and so on. So, when you see sides of them you never saw before, many times they are simply becoming their adult selves. And when friends have less time for any reason – work, school, a relationship – support them, assuming they take some degree of care of the friendship. Change can be experienced as stressful but it also creates opportunities to explore new interests and friendships. And, if a friend is consumed by a random guy/girl of the day, every day, and you want to focus on other things, maybe you’ve outgrown him/her and a new normal needs to happen in the friendship.
Do you have any suggestions for maintaining strong friendships but not over-packing your schedule to the point where you feel overwhelmed? Especially for introverts.
Major topic. When your start working, you try to maintain each friendship. Then, you start to see friends’ interests go in different directions. Some entrench in the music world, others become foodies, some work until 10pm, athletics and fitness for others still, a few are on the party circuit. I always suggest trying to find balance in a way that works for you. Introvert or not, there’s really no right or wrong (unless you’re going broke, exhausted, or not restoring yourself somehow). Some people need more sleep and downtime to regroup, none of which says a thing about who you are. Whichever way you fall on this, try and keep a night or two off limits for plans, of course staying flexible when events come up. If you’ve had enough dinners out, maybe have a few friends over to cook/order in if that’s your speed. Or do yoga with a friend and grab a smoothie/mani/pedi/misc. Start a book club or join a bowling league so you see several friends at once that is more connected than being in a loud bar. Just make sure that you’re not telling yourself that you’re wrong to have quiet nights. We can put a lot of pressure on others and ourselves to decide that others are doing all this better. Time to focus on quality, not quantity. Do what you actually want to do and rest easy in your choices.
Can you talk a bit about setting boundaries with family members, and how you can handle this if it’s not received well by them?
That’s the thing about boundaries, we create them when someone is crossing a line so usually the other person does not receive them well. Think about it: You are asking someone you love, essentially, to stop doing what they are doing because it doesn’t make you feel good. Sounds like you’ve tried to create space but nothing changed. If your words do not register, behavioral change is next. Now, setting up effective guardrails does not involve agreement from them. Without an example to work from, I often see young adults starting to stand on their own, only to have one parent calling and texting countless times a day. These are not, ‘I have something funny to tell you!’ calls, they are, ‘I need to know you remembered to eat, sleep, and wear a jacket (translated: I sort of hope you are able to function without me but run everything past me just to be sure!) calls. This unintentionally creates doubt about your ability to negotiate life on your own, a time when you need to develop critical thought and make decisions for yourself. Rather than telling people you’re an adult, show them. It’s a difficult transition for parents to appreciate that you’re in a different phase of life, for all of you to appreciate the real value in creating healthy space. To that end, maybe cut down on the frequency if especially high and do so with care. If you see five missed calls after a movie, text back, Loved the movie, now at dinner, speak in morning! Boundaries do not mean you vanish or become unfriendly. Another scenario I often see is parents getting overly involved in your dating, career, or friendships. It would be terrific if everyone involved realized that room to breathe is an asset. I am not advising that you stop sharing with your family! Just use discretion so if you have a date coming up, for instance, tell two people. That way, your phone doesn’t blow up the next day about a date that wasn’t for you…at all. And if you have a few dates with someone lovely, then you can share some so you do not spin out based on feedback. Boundaries are meant to protect and enhance relationships, even when it might not feel that way to some.
If you’ve identified that a friend has become toxic, what’s the best way to go about addressing it & distancing yourself kindly, but also with boundaries?
This question shows that you’re ahead of the game by knowing said friend is toxic. We sometimes think that trying and trying can make everything better. It just can’t and our efforts need to instead be redirected. I try to think of it like this: If life is good and someone comes along and repeatedly poses challenges, time to rethink the whatevership. We want to be around those who lift us up so if this friendship leaves you drained and you have not discussed it directly, get to it. I would imagine that you had some talks before this point of wanting distance. If your friend knows your concerns and cannot hear you or do better, then you can slowly pull back and see how you feel. Many come in with variations of this, examples being at the end of a chronically challenged friendship or a drawn out breakup: “That’s it, I’m going to tell my ex that I’m not speaking to him anymore”. My response: “How about you just do it without announcing it or involving him.” Point is, we get so used to others telling us who we are, how we are doing and that has to start coming from within. Some decisions are not jointly made, especially with the one person from whom you’d like space! Note: When one person pulls back or sets boundaries, the other may push to keep things as is because it’s familiar more than healthy. As with anything, come from a place of love (even if it’s to demote), do your best, and handle with care.
How can you balance being roommates with a close friend?
Living with close friends can be the best thing ever or a ride you want off of asap. As with anything, expectation management is key: You both may have thought it would be great all the time and now there are daily realities to contend with. Sharing responsibilities, priorities are not always in synch, neat-messy differences…the list is endless. Sometimes it helps to remember the basics: You chose to live with this person because you love them and had every reason to believe you’d get along. The hope here is, there’s enough trust for you to each be able to do your own thing sometimes and come back to an awesome home base. Whatever occurred to make you ask this question, you have an opportunity to learn to negotiate relationships and express yourself with care. You teach each other how to treat one another (I say this a lot, I know) so know when it’s time to be flexible or stand your ground. Stay connected with traditions or have a night just the two of you. If one has a boyfriend who stays over every night, their silence may not mean they love this setup; this is a call for sensitivity and situational awareness. When (not if) things come up, you can really share your thoughts kindly and productively and stay amazing friends. Many times, people say they do not like confrontation but talking need not be aggressive at all. Some stay silent and wait for things to bubble, at which time they freak out. There is so much middle ground to work with and nobody is a mind reader. People are just being themselves so be careful not to decide they are ‘doing’ something to you. Instead of expecting that we do things a certain way, and deciding any other way is terrible, try different approaches to achieve the harmony and friendship you’re after. (I strayed a bit just to add perspectives for roommates who are not close from the start).
We hope you enjoyed this informative relationship Q&A!