Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Uncategorized

The Truth About “Neediness” in Close Relationships

couple holding up backbend

“I don’t want to be needy,” I heard for the umpteenth time in a couples therapy session.  The reality is that sometimes we just need our partners to hold us up…and that’s actually a good thing.

At the risk of expressing an unpopular viewpoint, I think our societal views of independence often negatively impact our close intimate relationships.  Our western society highly values independence.  Independence can be practical in many contexts.  The concept of relying on others is frequently considered a weakness.  However, in intimate couple relationships, too much focus on individuality can work someone right out of a relationship, or precipitate anxious emotions, diminishing relationship happiness.

I have observed in clinical practice that many couples don’t understand that there is a concept called “effective dependence,” in which partners actually become more functional and exploratory in the world when they feel safe and secure in their close intimate relationships.  When couples don’t understand this and how it works, they often end up seeking independence at a level that paradoxically perpetuates the clingy behavior which can be smothering.

In other words, people think that if they respond to their partners’ emotional needs, then their partners will become more dependent and just want more.  Because of this fear, they push their partners away.

In fact, there is research showing just the opposite—that if a partner is responsive to dependency needs, the partner functions more autonomously likely because they feel more secure.  As human beings, we are wired to depend on one another.

Additionally, current research indicates that in the presence of a close supportive partner, the actual experience of physical pain can decrease.  Predictable support from a partner helps us regulate emotion more efficiently.

In the words of study author Brooke Feeney, “Because dependence on close relationship partners, particularly in times of need, is an intrinsic part of human nature, relationship partners who are sensitive and responsive to this behavior actually serve to promote independence and self-sufficiency, not inhibit it.” She further explains that “Attachment figures promote healthy functioning by providing a safe haven to which a relationship partner can retreat for comfort, support, reassurance, assistance, and protection, and by providing a secure base from which a relationship partner can explore the world and strive to meet his or her full potential.”

This is great news for close couple relationships, because it means there is a built-in mechanism for potentially enhancing individual well-being.  Famous psychologist and marriage expert Sue Johnson wrote, “It is easier to be completely yourself if you are securely connected to those you depend on.”  We actually individuate more readily in the environment of an accepting partner.

Couples don’t always recognize this benefit, however, and actually end up eliciting the type of anxiety associated with clingy behavior.  Some partners think they are doing their companions a favor by being completely independent without ever needing anything without realizing that “if my partner is always perfectly fine without me and needs me for nothing, it in essence means that he/she could leave me.”

Many people in relationships haven’t learned that it is beneficial to reach out overtly to a partner for support, or they haven’t learned how important their responsiveness can be.  I often spend time helping couples understand effective dependence.  There are two sides to this concept—learning to reach out to a partner and learning to show up for a partner.  Many people haven’t learned to do either one.

Sometimes when a partner has dependency needs, a spouse can even get triggered to withdraw.  They get the idea that they aren’t good at meeting those needs or they don’t know how, or they don’t recognize needs, and so they push it away, generating relationship distress.  It is very common.

In a very typical example, I recall once having a wife in therapy tell her husband that sometimes she just needed reassurance that he still loved her.  He looked at her for a moment without responding, and then turned to me and began explaining that as a surgeon, when he completed a particular procedure, that procedure was expected to stay functional for at least 15 years.  “If something goes wrong before then,” he added, “then it means I must have done something wrong.”

I remember watching him very carefully with furrowed brows, trying to discern what he was really trying to tell me by explaining this surgical procedure.  I checked in with him, “So, are you saying that if your wife has insecure moments when she needs reassurance that you still love her, it’s like saying you’re a bad husband or you aren’t doing your job of loving her correctly?” “Essentially, yes,” he fired back.

“Oh, okay, so at those moments when she is reaching out to you for reassurance, you don’t see it as her reaching out because you are the antidote….you actually see it as her implying that you are a bad husband?”  “Yep,” he nodded.  I continued, “So it sounds like you also need some kind of reassurance from her that you are the person she wants to be with and that you actually help her in those moments…it’s important to you to feel effective?”  “Yes,” he added, “When she keeps coming back to me needing reassurance, I just end up thinking I can’t ever fix it so why does she keep coming to me?  I just want it to go away.”

This is a routine pattern in therapy, and while I observe this reaction with both genders, I actually see it more in males who have been socialized to be independent and solution-oriented, and who can actually be shamed by their wife’s emotions, because they have been socialized away from attuning to vulnerable emotions.  I can’t exaggerate how often I have seen men in very powerful career positions who are absolutely terrified of disappointing their wives and causing a perceived emotional firestorm.

It’s not uncommon for husbands to be completely freaked out by crying wives.  If their wives are crying about something they have done, they feel even more shame.  They often miss the cue that they are wanted.  They experience it as being pushed away.  It can be experienced as rejection.  They commonly withdraw in those moments when they are actually needed the most, and end up rejecting their partners in return.  They don’t realize how important their presence can be, even if negative emotion doesn’t immediately dissipate.

I once asked my own husband if he experienced my tears as shaming, because I observed it so much in therapy, and it comes up in therapist trainings.  “Absolutely!” he answered just a little too quickly, “If you are crying, then I feel like a lousy husband.”

SOOO….in light of the research indicating that we are wired to reach out to someone for support in this big bad world, and that getting comfort from a partner in a high quality relationship is actually an efficient way of regulating emotion, how do we make the most of effective dependency in a close bonded relationship?

  1. Take turns.  In a healthy partnership, couples take turns needing each other and being there for each other.  This is important, because sometimes one partner will stop withdrawing and stay more present to meet a partner’s needs, but he/she won’t reach out with their own needs because they don’t want to risk upsetting the system.  This happens a lot with men who are disconnected from any emotional need and who don’t want to exacerbate any kind of emotional response in their wives.  They will often (not always) reach out for sex because it’s a way to get both physical and emotional needs met.  It doesn’t even occur to many people (especially men) to have emotional needs, but they have them.  We all have them.  Remember the surgeon who felt like a failure when his wife was insecure about whether or not he loved her?  That implies an unspoken emotional need on his part, for example, to be enough.

 

  1. Have a conversation about what your emotional needs are. I am often trying to help couples uncover these needs, which are usually related to some form of acceptance, support, and reassurance of love.  There are many ways to language these needs.  A common one is knowing that your partner would choose you again if given the chance.

 

  1. If you don’t know how to meet the need, reassure your partner that you are trying to figure it out, but you might need help. You might also need to balance your own emotional need (e.g. to be “enough,”) with your partner’s, and have an overt conversation about it.  My husband hates feeling like a failure.  If I am crying about something and he is processing it with me and my emotion stays high, he starts feeling ineffective.  I have to sometimes reassure him that even though I’m still upset, it helps me that he’s still there with me.

 

  1. Recognize how sexuality can be entwined with emotional needs. Many people don’t know how to verbalize emotional need, either because they don’t have the awareness or language, or they are shamed by having emotional needs because they think they shouldn’t need anyone, or they fear rejection.  It’s not uncommon for sexuality to be a way to get emotional needs for love and acceptance met.  It’s often a form of, “If you’ll let me get that close to you, then I know you still want me, love me, etc.  I’m still good.”

 

  1. Realize that learning to both reach out for and to meet emotional needs can be a learned behavior. I have had lots of couples in therapy get better at this process, and as a result, grow a more secure relationship.  It’s as important to be able to take in someone’s offer of support as it is to ask or offer support oneself.  People forget this sometimes and reject the support they are actually wanting.  Accepting support matters a lot.

A.A. Milne, creator of children’s classic storybook character Winnie the Pooh, seemed to understand attachment relationships very well.  In one exchange, Pooh expresses, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” And THAT is how relationships promote independent functioning.

 

References:

The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence by Brooke C. Feeney.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92(2), 268-285.

Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat by James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson.  Psychological Science, 2006, 17(12), 1032-1039.

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by Susan M. Johnson, 2004, New York: Brunner Routledge.

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Parenting

How Marital Problems can Harm Children

couple arguing kidsWe have all experienced that awkward moment of hanging out with a couple who suddenly escalate into an argument, leaving everyone around them feeling uncomfortable.  Heck, I have even been part of that difficult duo on occasion (my apologies to those I have contaminated with my bad mood).  You can be out with another couple having a great time, when suddenly, one person does something that irritates a spouse, and you’re instantly on a battlefield ducking grenades which on impact pollute the air with the fallout of negative emotions.

Take that negative feeling you have when you are around an arguing couple, and multiply it several times over, and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like for children in a home with parents who chronically argue or ice each other out with coldness and distance.  Too many married couples expose their children to toxic negative emotion regularly without realizing the harm that it can create.  It’s more than just a matter of emotional contagion—It’s a matter of children fearing that their safety in the world will collapse.

If children perceive that marital distress might destabilize their environment (i.e. divorce), their basic emotional security is compromised.  The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (basically the diagnostic Bible for mental health clinicians) even included a new subcategory of parent-child relational problems labeled, “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress,” acknowledging that this can be harmful to children.

Children exposed to chronic marital distress are at risk for:

  1. Increased physiological arousal (placing the body in a state of stress)
  2. Decreased ability to regulate their own emotions
  3. Higher levels of depression
  4. Higher levels of child aggression, oppositional defiance or delinquent behavior
  5. Higher levels of social withdrawal
  6. Decreased academic performance
  7. Diminished interpersonal skills

Not all marital conflict is problematic.  It’s not reasonable to expect a marriage to be completely free of conflict.  The difference is that a high quality marriage exudes positive emotion over time which helps children feel safe.  A strong marriage offers protective factors from children.  Here are 7 easy ways to mitigate some of the effects of marital distress:

  1. Let your kids see you repair conflict. Children learn important lessons about conflict resolution when parents talk it out and allow children to see that they can disagree but come back together again.  This is preferable to a household in which children never see parents disagree, because often those people don’t know how to handle conflict in marriage later.
  1. Tell your child what you love about your spouse in front of your children OFTEN.  My children have no doubt that their father loves me because he is known in casual conversation to tell them what it is he loves about me regularly enough that they are sick to death of hearing it.  His ritualistic expressions, however, do engender security.
  1. Bring up a positive marital memory from the past in front of your children. My children love hearing my husband talk about the first time he met me at a dance and broke his “only dance with any girl one time all night rule,” because he just “had to dance with mom again because she was different from the rest.”  Again, it builds security.
  1. Plan an act of service for your spouse with your children. I remember once when my husband was out of town how excited my children were to help me clean his office for him.  We were all in it together, and they couldn’t wait to show him what “Mommy had done,” for him when he came home.
  1. Show positive affection in front of the children. My children see my husband and me hold hands, hug and kiss regularly.  Even though they sometimes yell, “Ewww!!! Get a room!!!”  it helps them witness our relationship as secure, and models healthy marital affection.
  1. Find a way to use humor with the kids and your spouse. Once, my 3 year-old son came running in while I was fixing dinner and exclaimed, “My dad says he’s a big muffin!”  I quizzed, “What?  Dad’s a big muffin?”  He answered, “Just a sec,” ran out and came running back in after checking in with his dad.  He corrected, “Dad says to tell you he’s a studmuffin.”  The whole exchange made me laugh out loud, and we still joke that dad’s a “big muffin.”  Humor binds a family together with memories and positive emotion, building safety.
  1. Don’t threaten divorce in front of your children. In the heat of emotional reactivity, this may seem impossible.  Don’t.  It scares children and sets them on a course for emotional dysregulation.  JUST DON’T!!!!!!

Think about how much effort you put into protecting your children.  Parents work hard to prevent  accidents and injuries, kidnappings, illiteracy, illness, and general distress.  As a marriage therapist, I sometimes wish more effort was put into infusing positive emotion into the marriage.  Don’t be that awkward couple making your kids feel uncomfortable.  Arm them with a shield of marital and family security.

References:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (5th edition) by the American Psychiatric Association (2013), Washington DC

Marital Conflict and Children: an Emotional Security Perspective by E. Mark Cummings and Patrick T. Davies (2011), The Guilford Press: New York.

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Money isn’t Buying Happiness

money

When my husband approached my father about marrying me, my father’s response was, “Go figure out how you’re going to pay for everything and get back to me.”  His concern was valid, considering the amount of couples who identify finances as a main source of disagreement in marriage.  My husband and I spent most of our engagement working and saving money in order to avoid debt as much as possible after we were married.  We are actually in agreement most of the time when it comes to finances, and yet, money can still occasionally create conflict.

Many couples present finances as a source of major power struggles in marriage.  It’s also not uncommon to see damaging financial dishonesty, because one person might be a spender and another might be a saver.  The tricky part about finances is that money is entwined with emotional meaning which is highly nuanced and unique to each individual.

In order for a couple to really resolve financial issues, it is helpful to understand the emotional significance behind how a partner wants to spend money.  Here are two examples from my own marriage that represent two common patterns I see:  1) A scenario in which someone wants to spend money on something they didn’t have growing up and want their children to have, and 2) A scenario in which someone wants to spend money on something they had and remember with fondness and want their children to have.  They are both attached to dreams.

Around the turn of the century, our finances suddenly became tight when the high tech company that employed my husband went out of business while the high tech industry was shrinking.  Fortunately, we tend to be savers and had enough income to last a while so we could still pay our bills, but we had no idea how long we would be out of work, so we immediately changed our spending habits.  We stopped eating out, we eliminated many of our children’s extracurricular activities, and we streamlined our budget as much as possible.  My friend who had lived with three children in expensive Boston while her husband matriculated at Harvard taught me new economizing strategies which I immediately utilized.

One of the expenses I found myself clinging to was our tradition of taking our children snow skiing.  I lied awake at night trying to figure out how to find a way to pay to take them skiing for the season.  My husband could not figure out why this was such a big deal to me.  He had grown up skiing for years, and I had grown up in Southern California where the nearest ski resort with sub-standard snow was hours away.  He was a much better skier than I was, and he seemed okay with the fact that for the first time since our oldest son was 3, we were not going to be able to ski as a family.  “Why do you even care?”  he asked, “You didn’t even ski until you were 14 and you turned out okay.”

I realized I had emotionally-laden reasons for clinging to our annual ski outings.  I first went skiing with my friend in middle school.  I assumed I would pick it right up, because I already liked to water ski and figured snow skiing couldn’t be that much harder.  I was a complete disaster, which only made me want to do it more.  I joined the high school ski club in an effort to improve, but we only skied a few times a year, and I didn’t go often enough to get much better, and I never had a formal lesson.  I continued to be a disaster.  It wasn’t until I took a ski class during my sophomore year of college that I could really comfortably ski down a slope.

I wanted my children to feel more comfortable on the slopes than I had as a teenager, so it was important to me that they learned to ski.  When my oldest son turned three, we bought him a little pair of skis and began teaching him.  We had taken all of our children skiing regularly before my husband lost his job.  Skiing had taken on a lot of emotional meaning because of my previous experiences growing up.  I didn’t want my children to struggle with skiing like I had, so I emotionally reacted when my husband suggested that we skip a year.

On the other hand, my husband was a fierce protector of his desire to have a large backyard with an acceptable basketball court, because he grew up in a home with an extra large yard, and spent hours obsessively shooting baskets.  While we were looking for homes and he rejected several because the yards weren’t big enough, I finally asked, “Why is this such a big deal?  I grew up in Southern California with a yard the size of a postage stamp, and I was outdoors all the time.”  The answer was that he had such fond memories of growing up with a large yard and basketball court that he wanted to replicate the experience for his children.  I spent years without decent furniture so he could build a court that met his standards, which I affectionately refer to as the “Ball Mahal.”  I could not care less about having a basketball court, but it was really important to him, so I compromised.

I understand that finances can be complex.  Some people may be lacking in a fundamental understanding of financial principles.  Some people medicate uncomfortable emotions with spending.  However, regardless of the specific struggles, increasing deeper dialogue about the related emotions is usually helpful.

If you are having financial arguments repeatedly with your spouse, ask yourself if you really understand the emotional importance behind how your spouse wants to spend money.  Try to reflect back what you hear until your spouse is satisfied that you really understand the meaning behind it.  Financial decisions aren’t black and white.  They are choices made according to value systems and emotions.  When couples take the time to understand each other better, they are more likely to compromise and unite in decision-making…and they might end up buying themselves a little happiness in the process.

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 

References:

An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Race for your Marriage: Everything I Needed to Know About Marriage I Learned in Cross Country

running

Note:  I acknowledge that there are unhealthy marriages which shouldn’t remain stable, particularly in cases of ongoing abuse of any kind (I always think this should be assumed, but someone usually manages to respond to my posts by pointing this out—as someone who has worked with both domestic violence victims and perpetrators as a group, I wholeheartedly agree).

This is the time of year that I typically help my youngest daughter train for a few 5K races as part of her gymnastics physical fitness regimen.  As I was out running this morning, I was thinking about how prolific long distance racing has become, with specialty themes like “Krispy Kreme Challenge,” “The Color Run,” and “Twinkie run.”  I have often thought it would be fun to have a “Race for your Marriage,” event because long distance running is such a great metaphor for long-term marriage.   I usually resist writing anything using running metaphors because they always seem so….well…obvious!  I’m breaking my rule here because 1) Anyone who reads my blog knows I’m not above using journalistic-type clichés (see previous sentence and title), and 2) Almost every time I go running, this theme ricochets around inside my head, so I’m hoping to put it to rest by articulating my random thoughts on paper.

I joined the high school cross country team as a freshman, when my best friend wanted me to join with her.  I had always enjoyed sports and routinely rotated through powder puff football, basketball, softball and volleyball.  My favorite events were definitely in track and field because I had been a fairly strong sprinter and jumper (probably because of years of gymnastics).  My older brother had recently set several high school records in sprinting and jumping events, and I think that made me want to participate in track and field even more.  Even though I had never run more than two miles at a time, I was confident that I wouldn’t come in last in cross country races.

I learned lessons from cross country that have always stayed with me, which weren’t reinforced as well anywhere else.  I don’t consider myself a great long-distance runner.  You could probably outrun me in a race.  My greatest strength is probably consistency.  I think it’s almost always painful and difficult, and yet if I am driving and a runner crosses my path, I experience a kind of microjolt in my brain and it makes me want to go running.  As creepy as it sounds, I still hear my high school coach’s voice in my head as part of my running self -talk.  Many of the lessons can be applied to my marriage, as listed below:

  1. It’s important to set your pace. Even though this seems obvious, I’m still surprised by how many people start a race too fast only to burn out partway through.  In marriage, sometimes people come out of the gate strong, but crumble at the first sign of disillusionment (which will happen for every marriage).  Expect to have to set a pace.
  2. There is going to be pain. Despite the runner’s high talk, I think running is enjoyable but also painful.  When I was competing, I definitely experienced a lot of pain.  In marriage, there will be pain, plain and simple.  Don’t be surprised that it hurts.
  3. You will get better with consistent practice. The more I ran, the faster I got.  I read everything I could about running technique.  I practiced particular breathing strategies.  I ran intervals to get faster.  In marriage, couples almost always get better the more they work at it.
  4. Adding extra challenges makes the easy times easier. My high school cross country team came in first place at the district and regional level year after year.  One of our coach’s secret weapons was sand.  About ½ mile of our course was through soft, deep sand at the bottom of a concrete riverbed.  When runners from other high schools came and ran on our course, they often slowed down in the sand.  By comparison, every other course I ran was easier.  I hated that sand.  It was awkward for running.  However, it made me a stronger runner.  Challenges in marriage (like unemployment, raising children, financial stress, marital disconnection) can be like the sand which slows couples down temporarily but makes them stronger in the long run.
  5. Know your strengths. My coach gave me an assessment of my specific strengths early on.  He said, “You’ve got speed and you’ve got endurance, and you’ve got a great kick at the end; so, what I want you to do is find your pace and settle in behind someone who is barely faster and let them break the wind for you (yes, I know how that sounds–I have five sons).  Then, at the end, sprint past as many people as you can.”  It worked like a charm.  Similarly, every marriage has strengths.  Some couples don’t have high conflict, so they are able to discuss things without fighting.  Some couples may have conflict, but they are passionate and continue trying even when it’s hard.  Assess your unique strengths.
  6. Don’t stop while you can still keep going. I have a vivid memory early in my cross country season of being in so much pain during practice that I stopped and started walking.  Seconds later, my coach rounded the street corner and started screaming at least 50 yards behind me, “Don’t you stop, Cluff! DON’T! YOU! STOP!!!  Start running right now!”  He caught up to me and said, “I don’t care how slow you are going, but I don’t ever want to see you stop and walk again.  Slow down to a slower jogging pace, but don’t stop.”  He wanted us to persist in running to become better.  In marriage, couples slowly drift apart because other things occupy their time and they stop working on the marriage.  Continuing to put forth effort is key.
  7. People usually perform better with a cheerleader. I remember many times near the end of the race, I would hear my coach yell out, “OK Cluff, baby, kick it in right now.”  As soon as I would start to gain on the next runner, he would yell, “OK, you’ve got her.  Move to the next one.”  Because he believed in me, I’m sure I passed many more people than I would have otherwise.  In marriage, when couples hear what they are doing well from their partners, they are more motivated.
  8. Sometimes you might take your situation for granted. I turned out to be a better runner than I thought I would be.  At our first race of the season, I came in third for our whole team and ended up being the only freshman on varsity for the season.  As a confession, I was incredibly lazy.  I often cut my workouts short.  I saw a lot of teammates work harder than I did, and I knew I was taking advantage of some natural ability.  I see marriages in which some partners are hyper-critical of their spouses, who are really trying very hard to be kind and committed.  Sometimes I want to tell them they don’t know how good they have it, and they are taking their situations for granted.
  9. Sometimes you will lose. I had such a habit of sprinting past several people at the end of a race that I expected to pass anyone I could approach at the end.  I distinctly remember one time when I approached a runner from behind and she sped up with me, which made me speed up faster because I was determined that I was going to pass her.  I didn’t.  I couldn’t catch her because she out-sprinted me, even if only by a hair.  I was humbled by losing to her.  In marriage, people have differences of opinion.  You have to be willing to lose sometimes to be in the race.  People who want to win every disagreement will end up losing the marriage.
  10. No one can make you do something you really don’t want to do. After my first year of cross country and track, I wanted to try out for the tennis team because my good friend was ranked 8th in the state of California for her age group and said she would teach me.  My cross country coach really wanted me to keep running.  I didn’t want to, because I wanted to join the tennis team, even if it meant I would be playing junior varsity.  My coach badgered me constantly and finally called my father to try to convince him that I should keep running.  My father entered my room and said, “Lori, your cross country coach says you have a lot of natural ability for running and if you keep running, he thinks he can get you a college scholarship.”  Without even looking up, I said, “I want to play tennis and I don’t need a running scholarship because I’m getting an academic scholarship.” As a result of my father scouring my academic schedule to make sure I was always taking the hardest math and science classes possible, I was setting the curve in my chemistry class and actively participating on math competition teams for my school, so I was confident that I didn’t need to run to go to college.  I just didn’t want to.  My father stood there for a minute watching me and then said, “OK,” and left.  He could not have made me run if I didn’t want to.  Similarly, nobody can make you stay really engaged or present in a marriage if you don’t want to be there.  It’s something you have to want for yourself.
  11. Enjoy the changing landscape. Sometimes when I run, I forget to enjoy the beautiful scenery because I’m so focused on finishing.  We do that in our relationships all the time.  Slowing down and appreciating the small moments really makes a difference.
  12. Lastly, you decide if you are too injured to finish the race. I still run even though I have had back surgery.  However, almost everyone I know who has had the same surgery doesn’t run anymore.  It’s too painful.  I feel blessed that my pain is mild enough that I can keep running, but I know it’s worse for others.  Sometimes marriage is too abusive, broken or painful for people to continue.  I particularly believe that an enduring loss of human dignity is no way to live.  I would not do it, but nobody else can tell me what I can and cannot endure.  Only I know, just like individuals in painful marriages have to be the ones to decide if it’s too painful to go on or not.

Marriage is a type of long-term endurance race.  Some finish and some can’t, for many reasons.  As long as you are still in the race, however, it makes sense to try.

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

How to Choose a Marital or Couples Therapist

marriage therapy

People routinely contact me for recommendations for marriage or couples therapists.  I have discovered that the large majority of the population has absolutely no idea how to discern the differences among mental health professionals, so I’m hoping to shed some light on the topic of choosing a marriage or relational counselor.

Couples therapy is difficult.  In my experiences both as a therapist and as a therapist supervisor, the cases that are regularly the most challenging are those involving the couple unit.  I recall the cover of a popular periodical publication for therapists from a few years ago with the question, “Who’s Afraid of Couples Therapy?” emblazoned across the cover, alluding to the common knowledge that couples generate a tremendous amount  of emotional complexity in therapy (you can access the reference here: http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/recentissues/2011-novdec).

The pace in couples therapy can be rapid and potentially shiftier than individual therapy, or even family therapy.  The structure with three people in the room creates a potential triangulation of relationships if not constantly managed.  The emotional intensity in the room generally potentially exceeds any individual therapy sessions.

Couples come with history and read each other instantly in ways that may leave the therapist confused or a step behind.  Therapists are perhaps never required to think on their feet more than when dealing with couples, requiring relentless improvisation in managing the dynamics while staying on task.  One reason I enjoy couples therapy so much is that it is never boring.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I have devoted much of the last three decades to investigating and practicing couples therapy, and have had ample opportunity to work with couples professionally and to practice therapeutic principles in my own almost three-decade long marriage.  My ongoing clinical supervision of students and therapists exposes me additionally to an increased variety of couple cases.  I have strong opinions about how I would personally choose a marriage therapist.  Even in the very best case scenarios, marital therapy is incredibly challenging and predicting outcome is impossible because the two members of the couple impact outcome to such a large degree.

Following are some things I would do were I to choose my own couples counselor:

  1. Ask how much of this therapist’s practice represents marital or couples cases. Specialization makes a difference in the mental health profession, just like it does in the medical profession.  The reality is that the more time you spend on perfecting your skills with particular cases, the better you become at treating those cases.  I would want my counselor to be seeing couples on an ongoing basis.
  2. Inquire about this therapist’s specific training and experience in working with couples. Please do not be afraid to ask this question.  There are no laws preventing licensed mental health professionals from calling themselves “marriage counselors,” as long as they meet the state guidelines for their professional licenses.  Specialties are mostly self-monitored.  One of my former professors completed a study comparing family therapy educational and clinical work hours requirements across professions (accessed here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01926187.2010.513895#) and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT) generally have several times the amount of education and experience in working with marriages and families.  That being said, any professional can specialize in relationship therapy through continuing education opportunities, so you cannot just assume someone’s training or competency based solely on their professional degree or license.  I know professionals who are LMFTs to whom I would not refer couples, and I know psychologists and social workers to whom I would refer couples.  Ask your counselor exactly what specific training and experience they have had in working with couples.
  3. Ask where the therapist was originally trained and look up the training requirements for that facility. The important thing to know here is that some training programs monitor and view student therapy more carefully than others.  Some programs require sessions to be videotaped and/or provide two-way mirrors to therapy rooms so students therapists can be watched live.  Some programs don’t require any of this, and in those cases, it is more difficult to discern therapeutic skill.  When I am supervising students or associates, the ones that are not afraid to bring me videotape or have the capability to be viewed live are getting better supervision by far.
  4. Ask how long this therapist has been specialized in couples therapy. Length of time practicing doesn’t always equal better couples therapy.  Some more experienced therapists stop studying, learning and perfecting their clinical skills and may be performing outdated therapies.  I have seen some marriage and family therapy students exhibit more skill at couples therapy than some seasoned professionals.  At the same time, becoming a skilled couples therapist does require experience, so this is just one factor to consider along with the others listed here.
  5. Ask about the therapist’s preferred model of couples therapy. If the therapist doesn’t operate from some kind of theoretical model, that can be a problem.  For example, some models of therapy see emotion as salient while others may ignore emotion.  Some models of therapy are empirically validated while others are theoretically informed but not validated.  Some models are harder to perfect.  If the therapist calls him- or herself “integrative,” or “eclectic,” meaning that they might combine models, don’t be afraid to ask more about their interventions and how they think change occurs in marriages.  If they can’t articulate this, it may be a warning sign.  I would personally want my marital therapist to be able to articulate and defend their theory and practice of change.
  6. Ask how trained the therapist is in their preferred model of treatment. Some models have a track for specialized certification.  While this doesn’t guarantee competency, it can mean that the therapist has had more training and may be more skilled in that model.  Some models require more intensive supervision than other models, so this is a factor as well.  Certification in one model may be more meaningful than in another model.
  7. Ask if this therapist is licensed and check the licensing board website. This seems obvious, but we live in a day and age of a proliferation of “relationship coaches,” who some clients assume are licensed therapists when they are not.  Some of these coaches may help people, but it is not a profession which is regulated.  I have personally witnessed extremely unethical behavior by some “coaches,” for which licensed therapists would lose their licenses.  However, in an unregulated profession, there is no recourse.  I have had many clients assume that a “coach,” was a licensed therapist, and they are actually quite different.

Finding a competent marriage or couples therapist with whom you resonate can be a challenge.  Don’t be afraid to call several therapists.  Be wary of therapists who oversell themselves or of those who can’t articulate hope for the marriage.  I had a couple once tell me they went to a marriage therapist who told them they had a “10% chance of success,” and it left them feeling hopeless.  This is simply inaccurate (and not extremely strategic on the part of the therapist), since there is no algorithm for accurately predicting outcome.  Client variables represent too much of the equation to be able to accurately predict success.  Overwhelmed therapists who don’t know how to skillfully handle couples can unwittingly send a message that the couple needs to divorce prematurely.  Therapist hopelessness or lack of confidence can be an indicator that the clients are simply overwhelming the skill level of the therapist.

I once had a potential client call me and ask about my model of therapy, and I was absolutely thrilled to tell him what model I use and why, based on my experience and education as both a therapist and supervisor.  He threw a few names out of other therapists and asked me to tell him why he should come to me and not them.  I told him that I couldn’t tell him to come to me instead of them because I wasn’t privy to what they actually do in their marital sessions, and that they might actually be more appealing to him, since therapy is such an interpersonal and unique experience for everyone.  I told him that I could only accurately talk about what I do, and that maybe he could call the other professionals and just decide for himself after talking to all of us.  I never know how I’m going to be perceived by any client.

Above all, if you are wanting professional help for the most important relationship in your life, I would suggest that you do at least as much research in finding one as you would in purchasing a new vehicle.  Therapists are all very different and it’s worth doing your homework.