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

No Pictures, Please

I thought I would try to have some fun taking a poke at a feature commonly found on the websites of my professional colleagues. I don’t think I am at the level of great satire here, but I try.

Target Of Satire

What features of therapist websites am I taking a poke at?:

  • overstated promises that therapy will bring great relief?
  • the profusion of specializations advertised for every conceivable problem or population?
  • the often posed question, “Are you stuck?”
  • the reminder that you must submit your own claims to your health insurance carrier?

No, friends, it is none of these. Then what, you might ask? It is images. Images! Generally lovely images of peaceful, beautiful things, illustrating worthwhile goals and desirable outcomes.

If you see a picture of a smiling person on a therapy website, then that therapist is saying that you can expect to be smiling at some point as a result of seeing that therapist or agency. If you think that there is another message there, and one that relates directly to the services being offered, please let me know via the comment window below. I might well have to concede that I have slipped into being a curmudgeon of some kind.

I am not against smiling or happiness of course, and I think humor is a big part of my style. But on this site, I am never going to infer or suggest that anyone can expect such things from therapy with me. Cosmetic dentists certainly could use images of smiling people on their websites. So could comedy writers, party clowns and wedding ring merchants.

Rebuttal

Someone could easily say, “Wait a minute, Mr. Odell. You’re just “mansplainin’” away that your site has no images. It is visually boring, with just text, text, text and a variety of earth tones that went out of fashion years – no, decades – ago! The great majority of the general public, including therapists, love visual media – and so do websites!! And, you are excluding visual learners. Life – and psychotherapy – is tough enough, so what’s with the boring “no images” policy?

The Wise Ones

On top of this retort, the business side of my life has some feedback. Wise men and women of the Internet, also known as SEO (search engine optimization) consultants, whisper in my ear that website photos are like offerings to the Google Search-God. Photos testify to the importance, richness and all-around holiness of a website. And that helps wanderers searching the internet desert find my therapy oasis more easily.

Google search page

Therapy Is Not…

All of these rebuttals and whispers are convincing enough, but I still think it’s true that psychotherapy should not be linked with images that convey::

…deep personal peace and contentment

Meditation bliss

… awesome transcendence

Awe inspiring

…relational bliss and the romantic ideal

Romantic couple

…a unity with nature at peace

babbling_brook

…or even just a nice pretty flower.

Flower

OK, So Now What?

So, what to do with my high-minded principles? Maybe I should post true-to-life-and-psychotherapy stuff like:

Arguments?

Argument

Scientific analysis of sadness?

Sadness explained

Civilization and its discontents?

Crowded street

Help!

Oh dear, what’s an honest, hard-working professional to do? Please let me know what you think.