What We Might Talk About, Part II (of a series)

A Brief Talk …

Here’s Part II of “What We Might Talk About”, an ongoing review of therapy-related terms that occasionally come up in the office. None of this content is linked to any expert, or research or tradition; it’s meant to be a more informal glimpse. Points are covered briefly, deliberately acknowledging that your questions are needed to see what’s really there. Relationships, emotional process and erotic/sexual issues are on tap.

relationship

Monogamy

What does it mean to you (or what did it mean?) It’s a question that most would struggle to answer. Many never thought they had to ask – almost like a ‘monogamy privilege’. The tension between being sexually or emotionally “gregarious”, and valuing the sexually exclusive “pair bond”, was usually ignored at the outset of the relationship.

narrative

The ‘parallel narrative’

Without discussing the true nature of monogamy, they have a difficult time developing an accurate perspective on it. Yet it’s an absolutely critical issue for the longevity of their union. What does monogamy mean to them and how will they address its dilemmas?

I have found that if eroticism isn’t treated as an essential “parallel narrative” (on a par with all the commitments and attachments that relationships set up) then desire problems will be a critical issue for many if not most relationships. Sometimes, partners settle for sex they report as mediocre yet mostly available, as reliable and safe as other commitments.

This “parallel narrative” is not some dreamy abstract notion. It shows up very concretely when partners experience eros/sexuality as a completely different way of relating. And necessary, if the notion of having only one sexual partner is a core value.

carving out time

Carving Out

Partners have to literally carve out time for erotic lives which want more than occasional, fatigued or unimaginative sex. With the demands of work, parenting and more, this fragile part of life seems to require a very sharp “pickaxe”, to clear away all of life’s serious commitments to make time for things such as sex dates, replete with discrete (utterly-separate-from-rest-of-life) narratives.

compassion talk therapy

Compassion

Perhaps the noblest of mutual human connections. To identify and support another’s experience and their vulnerability. To understand loss without consideration of individual fault. Error or tragedy are respected as unavoidable, often enough. And a deeper test: when the origin of the loss is mysterious, likely to repeat or rationalized as the result of past abuse.

Compassion is part of the “parallel narrative”, mentioned above in its erotic/sexual aspect. Compassion is the connection that puts all or most other commitments aside, the real world of right & wrong, and accountability. Can partners carve out a compassionate space of their own, one that operates by very different rules than those that govern the rest of their lives?

redemption

Redemption

…widely known as forgiveness, which is certainly synonymous. Redemption is more specific, and complex. It’s grace, expressed in light of everything that preceded it in the relationship. Redemption may be in acts which repair or re-establish commitment, or integrity. Accepting the other, usually with compassion and without any notion of the redeemer’s moral superiority. We all break promises, we all lie and we all want a road back to being OK.

mutuality

Mutuality

When one of your preferences blocks your partner from getting something they want, the gridlock can be painful. Partners could fear/hate the deprivation. Yet if each partner can show real knowledge of what the other(s) want, and how much they want it, they’ve made the basic steps of a mutuality process. When you choose in favor of what your partner wants, this simple mutuality process makes that decision sweeter and better understood. When you turn your partner down, going through the mutuality process will help put a hard decision in context.

 

To be continued….

Relationship & Couples Therapy: How Long Will It Take?

Couples seeking relationship and couples therapy in Seattle sometimes ask a particular question when we set up a first appointment on the phone: “How long will couples therapy take?” I’d like to discuss some common reasons for that question, and then offer a different take on it.

The Common Reasons

The usual curiosity behind that question has to do with the duration and financial cost of treatment. Those issues are also about the effectiveness and efficiency of the therapist. As the sayings go, “money does not grow on trees.” And, “time is our most valuable resource.” Yet on that first call, it’s nearly impossible to give an informed or comprehensive response to these questions. There are too many unknown factors.

Prior Therapy

A background for these questions is often the clients’ prior experience in therapy (in Seattle or elsewhere.) Prior therapies may have lost their forward drive, meandered into advice sessions, vague questions about feelings, forgettable homework, excessive therapist self-disclosure, ‘small talk’ or passive listening (the so-called therapist “blank screen.”)1 Difficulties in developing the therapeutic relationship can manifest in many ways:

Communication problems©The New Yorker, January 27, 2014. Cartoonist: Harry Bliss

No Stigma

Couples often feel badly or anxious about being in treatment. The idea of getting as little help as possible seems sensible, avoiding stigma.  I’ll often hear that:

  • the problems are “about communication”
  • the goal is to “fix” the relationship
  • the solution is receiving “tools” from the therapist.

It can sound like a car needing repair due to a constant noise. The actual relationship situation is usually a bit more dire than how it’s originally described. But beginning treatment can soon reveal the depth of the problem and what hope exists for improvement. Even the more superficial start to therapy can soon lead to greater depth and meaning.

Intense Worry, Then Relief

At the other end of the scale, I get calls from partners who are emotionally injured, alienated from each other – and actively making it worse. They wonder if help is even possible, or years might pass before they find a happier, more secure place. Sometimes, “enough” improvement arrives faster than any of us expected at first. 2 The clients sometimes terminate treatment at that point out of a sense of immediate relief, though the amount of personal & relational growth is fairly minimal.

Different Strokes For…

So, I take a different approach to the question of “how long will therapy take?”

My practice experience reveals that the shape of the relationship I build with relationship clients differs according to several factors. Each committed relationship has its own set of stories of personal development. It’s also a story of relational development. Where and how I fit into an improvement in each partner’s functioning is different, even when the presenting issues are familiar to me.

Putting Out “Fires”

Some clients want me to “put out fires.”  They begin treatment, leave when they feel better and achieve some new sense of security. They might return when the next “fire” is burning.  That fire might look different to them, even when I can link the nature of the crises fairly closely.

Long Term Role

Some clients seek a longer term relationship. I occupy a position where I provide a range of interventions. We work together to find linkages between different “issues.” Time is spent with each partner’s personal development, as well as keeping pace with whether, or how, they can raise their level of differentiation.3 The longer term presence of the professional can bring about a gradual but durable change in the interaction between partners. I believe this observation to be mostly true, and, one of the less well understood phenomena in this work.

How Often?

The question “How long will it take?” doesn’t take into consideration “how often?” Typically, I work more frequently with clients early on in the relationship, and less frequently as the relationship develops. But there’s no single pattern: I’ve worked monthly with some couples, or every two weeks, for anywhere between three months and ten years.

Individual/Relational

The duration or frequency of therapy is not the only criterion. Sometimes it’s about the (flexible) structure of how the therapist will influence the client.

Some relationship clients want a therapist that they can work with individually as well as relationally. To my thinking, this requires the most skill and experience that a therapist can bring to the office. Most couples therapists have been taught that they should never give partners confidentiality from one another, or only see them together.4 The fear is that keeping a secret will over-identify the therapist with that client, as well as risk a mistaken disclosure of the secret.

Your ‘Private Space’

The approach that has developed allows for each individual to have their private ‘space’ in therapy. This privacy links to the individuality that partners rightfully retain in a relationship. This way of working is often useful with couples who have lost sexual desire for one another. It can heighten their differentiation, which allows for two secure adults to actually become far closer while being more self-disclosing.

A Helpful Preview?

I hope this provides a helpful preview to people seeking relationship therapy. I mean to address all types of relationships, from 30 year long monogamies to 6 month-old polyamories.  It’s not easy to know ahead of time how our relationship(s) should be structured, much less how long they might last. Yet if you can settle into a form that makes sense to you, it should deepen our common purpose, provide a useful orientation and a clearer contract for seeking and receiving help.

 

 

  1. Clients usually tell me that they did not disclose to another therapist the reasons they suddenly stopped seeing him/her.
  2. Never underestimate the value of a really strong complaint.
  3. an idiosyncratic weblink that fairly deftly positions classic Bowen theory with the advances brought about by Schnarch.
  4. the primary exception is using individual interviews to assess domestic violence

Seattle Relationship & Couples Therapy: Marriage Friendly

Do Couples Therapists Support Marriage?marriage

Couples therapy is facing questions as to whether it is “pro marriage” or “marriage friendly.” Couples seeking treatment are evidently anxious that therapists might misunderstand what the partners want in marriages that look badly damaged & discouraging. There may be two partners who are in fact determined to stay married.

 

A True Advocate

marriage friendlyWouldn’t such clients want a therapist who passionately advocates for marriage itself, and committed enough to publicly say so? The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists seeks “…therapists who see themselves as supporting couples’ original commitment to their marriage unless there is a compelling reason not to.”

What’s the Couples Therapy Agreement?

marriage problemTherapists and clients could easily differ over what is a “compelling reason not to.” But really, this should be about the psychotherapy treatment contract. If two people come into my office and say they have the same therapeutic goal, then provided there’s no threat to health or safety, that’s the goal I begin to support. I cannot imagine being so jaded or discouraged about marriage that I would renege on this basic understanding with my clients.

Crucible Of Personal Development

My own “marriage friendliness” is based on the belief that personal development and growth occurs very profoundly when the decision to focus love, attach deeply and differentiate with integrity – with one or more ‘others’. Sometimes monogamy is several different relationships with the same person.

Beliefs About Marriage

I believe in marriage as the primary engine of personal growth. Monogamy sets up powerful dynamics for personal growth; Polyamory sets them up too and adds more complexity. It requires great thoughtfulness in order to succeed. Both require high integrity and self-calming during self-disclosure. Because I am primarily interested in people developing and growing, I have a personal stake in supporting marriages of either kind, and the people within them.

What Kind Of Marriage?

With any new client, I ask whether both partners are choosing to stay together. Although they might answer “Yes!”, they may also understand the terms of marriage very differently. The real question is not so much whether, but how the couple wants to be married.  And that’s the work of therapy.

A Famous Therapist’s Position

Interestingly, one of the most articulate theorists about couples with different agendas and levels of marital commitment is Bill Doherty, Ph.D. He’s a spokesperson for the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists. He has created the term “mixed agenda” couples (with great respect and understanding). The therapy approach that reveals these differences is called “Discernment Therapy” (as in, discerning different partner goals and purposes.)

I agree with the Registry when they advise couples therapists to concentrate their post-graduate professional training. They are concerned that lots of therapy fails because too many therapists lack that training. For that reason, I post my updated training summary here.