Therapythoughts: “It’s Frustrating”

Well, if I had a nickel for every time I have asked a client how they were feeling and their response was “frustrated,” I ‘d be able to purchase the naming rights for the Mariners’ home field and change the name from T-Mobile Park to Mediation and Counseling Offices of Joseph Shaub Stadium.

I practice Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and as the first word would suggest, we are always exploring for the feelings that lie under the initial (and understandable) flash of anger when one feels unimportant, ignored, judged or criticized by their partner.  So often, though – it’s almost universal – the reply comes back that the person is “frustrated.”  For years, I have thought of this as the first step to exploring one’s emotion.  Hanging out with those feelings will often bring us to something a step deeper, like “fear,” or “sadness/grief,” or “shame.”  Those are heavy and we don’t show our emotional underbelly unless we know we are safe.  We’d be kind of nuts not to.  So we start with the safest, closest disclosure: Frustrated.  So, when I hear that, I have been inclined to dig deeper.  I still am inclined to do that, but…..

Something happened not long ago in a session that really shifted the way I think about that word.  Here is the thinking that followed:

What is “frustrated,” after all?  It is the desire to reach a goal and to somehow be thwarted.  I once wanted to open a door and for some reason, the handle wasn’t working.  I tried a few times to solve the problem in the most intuitive way and it just didn’t work.  I wanted to achieve a goal (open the door), but I was being frustrated in the attempt.  When I considered the word in that light, I began to wonder, “What is the goal you want to reach but feel you can’t?”  That answer, with the emphasis on the goal and the de-emphasis on what they believe their partner is doing to keep them from the goal, has been a real help in figuring out what’s bugging people in their relationship sometimes.  What I like about that exploration is that it often results in a healing message to our partner, which is the goal, I think.

Hitting 20

Bev and I celebrated our 20th anniversary last year.  I’ve got to admit, I feel pride in saying that.  I have said for a long time that I don’t like it when people say that “Marriage takes work.”  That sounds daunting and not so much the case, I think.  I do believe that marriage takes attention,  though.   Both to our partner’s needs and to ourselves.

One of the many things I’ve learned doing couples therapy and being part of a couple is that there are things our partner does that is definitely going to annoy us.  More than annoy us, though, we may experience our partner not just pushing our buttons but stomping on them.  Here’s an example I had to work out.  Bev is careful.  She’s one of those people who checks the stove to make sure it’s off before she leaves the house.  There’s a certain way she likes things and if they are like that, she relaxes and is happy.  However….I have a sensitive place in me that responds strongly to messages that I am incompetent.  That’s a message I received like a continued battery of canon shots when I was young.  Unlearning that training and embracing my own competence was quite a task and I have spent a lot of time working on that.  (Yay Therapy!)  However, there are times when my wife’s need to double check what I have just done (to calm herself – which is a good thing) may smack me across the chops with a loud “You can’t do this right.”  There was a time I would get so hurt and angry when this would happen.   But somehow, over the years (and thanks to my work with couples and seeing this play out many times) when she acts in a certain way, it’s not about me, it’s about her.  When I realized that my wife’s personal foibles were about her and not me, I was able to settle down and the emotional climate of our home became much calmer.

My parents were married for 56 years and I don’t know that I ever saw them happy together.  In later years, they just went to their own rooms and did their thing.  That was the model I saw of marriage and for that and a variety of other reasons, I never thought I would have a long term, solid bond.  So, I’m kind of amazed that I have a 20 year long marriage that remains happy.  I do think that the lessons I learned in studying Emotionally Focused Therapy have helped enormously.  On some level, though, I think we need to make a decision that we want to turn to our relationship – actively support it.  Give it the attention it needs…..and have a loving partner who makes the same commitment.  That I have!  I write this as a lucky guy.


I’m sorry.  I just don’t get it.  Why would any human being purposefully not wear a mask?

Homo Sapiens have been a around for thousands of years and during that time, our species has done a good job of conqueri

ng the Earth.  We are incredibly successful.  We have moved into almost every nook and cranny of living space.  We have exploited natural resources for shelter, food, clothing and convenience.  We no longer have natural predators….almost.

The saber-tooth tiger?  History!  Bears, wolves, wild cats haven’t been threats for a few thousand years.

Yet one predator remains – and it is nasty.  Microbes have devastated Homo Sapiens throughout recorded history.  Until the discovery of penicillin, we were helpless against bacteria.  It wasn’t so very long ago – in Earth time – that the Black Death swept across the known world, wiping out entire villages and decimating cities.  People didn’t know what caused it.  The greatest doctors in Paris had only supernatural causes.  God’s judgment was the prevailing theory.  Fear resided in every home.  Epidemics like cholera killed large swaths of the population in the early years of this country’s history.  Typhoid killed Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie.  People didn’t know what caused it and they didn’t know what to do about it.  The helplessness against these constant threats have receded into the past and are forgotten.

Microbes, like viruses, are the perfect predator of our kind.  They are invisible.  They enter our bodies and set up shop in our cells.  They turn our cells into little manufacturing plants and because they exist in numbers that are too vast for us to comprehend and they replicate so quickly, they are uniquely able to mutate into other forms that can attack us in new, previously unimagined and very efficient ways.

If you were to tell the ancient (and not-so-ancient) people that in the future, people would know what caused these plagues and knew how to halt or slow its spread, they would say, “Give me some of that!”  We live in a fortunate age in the history of man and woman-kind – to have tools to protect ourselves from these invisible predators.  Yet, somehow, millions of people act as if this history never occurred – as if microbes haven’t killed us for thousands of years and don’t have the capacity to do it all over again.

These tiniest of tiny creatures float in the air, pushed out by the exhalations of their hosts.  We breathe them in and they are able to set up shop again, in us!  How do we protect ourselves from this unseen predator that wants to take over our bodies for their own purposes (leaving hundreds of thousands dying as they gasp for breath and even more struggling with the aftermath of the infection that doesn’t kill them)?

Masks.  They prevent the infected from blowing the invisible killers into the air and the uninfected from breathing in these agents of sickness and death.  Those who reject masks are acting like we don’t have thousands of years of history marked by periods of terror as sickness killed, frightened and overwhelmed us.  The ancients would be shaking their heads in utter disbelief at the madness of those who reject the mask.  Come to think of it, I’m shaking my head today in utter disbelief.

Exercise care!  Stay safe!  Protect your health and the health of those around you.


Those Papers

I turned 70 last November…..and we’re moving.  Change is in the air.  I feel it in October every year.  Deep Fall colors and the vitality in the crispness.  We will be out of our home of 23 years and it’s time to coalesce and discard.

I have boxes full of photocopied law review articles.  I haven’t counted them, but I’d guess they total more than 100.  They cover topics like mediation, ethics, lawyers’ well being, legal history and similar articles.  I’m going to get it all recycled.  I have no further need for them…yet, to cut them loose feels significant to me.   Those topics have been so important to me over the years.  I wrote about lawyers’ well-being for years in a column in the King County Bar Journal.  I developed and taught the first few years of a class on starting and maintaining your own law practice at U.W. Law School.  Those articles partly informed those endeavors, as well as the book I wrote, Divorce or Not: A Guide.  I guess I have held onto all those (often wonderfully written) pieces because I might write a book or article about some of those topics in the future.

But hey!  Did I say I turned 70 last November?  It has been a trip to move into this decade.  One piece of it is that I’m starting to come to terms with the reality that there are some things I’ll never do in this life. I don’t have the interest in it that I once did.  Plus, I envy the energy possessed by youth.  People have asked if I’m “retiring” and I’m bemused by that notion.  If you are lucky enough to love what you do that generates income for you, then why stop doing it?  Maybe do it less but continue the privilege of sharing part of people’s journey with them.

One of my oldest, closest friends (I met him in the 10th grade) told me that his therapist told him once, “I hold your story.”  I love that.

So….if anybody wants 100 photocopied articles on mediation, ethics, lawyers’ well being, legal history and the like, shoot me an email by September 30

and they’re yours.

Have Mercy

Now is a time that we need to look within the stillness of our hearts and find the mercy that resides there.  Since biblical times, we human beings have convinced ourselves that we can exercise our dominion over the earth – over nature.  And countless times we have been harshly, frighteningly rebuked.  Be it from volcanic explosions, storms, droughts, conflagrations of all sorts.  Life is fragile.  We are now experiencing another of mankind’s many plagues.  If we have a God, we are asking that God for mercy.  As well we should.  We all need mercy.  But if we can’t give each other mercy, how can we expect a divine force to give it?

The same is true in our most intimate relationships.  Just this past week, I heard how a couple tore each other to shreds  because they disagreed about the way to get their daughter home from college.  I heard how she needed her partner’s care because she was so scared and I heard how he needed to feel heard and not dictated to by her and not to feel erased.  I suggested the underlying pain – and need – to each of them, but they are very early in this work and it is hard, yet, to not feel frightened and defended.  They cannot gift the other with mercy, because it is such a leap – such a risk.  Each needs that from the other so wrenchingly.

Maybe this time can be a gift.  The mercy we beseech from our own almighty, we can offer our partner…and ourselves.

This is a frightening time and here in Seattle/Bellevue the losses are starting and will likely grow.  The next month or two will be unlike any of us have ever conceived of, much less experienced.  However, mankind has experienced deep loss and has recovered….with mercy.

My deepest wishes to anyone who reads this blogpost for safety, health and love in this unsettling time.  Love is the only thing that eventually saves us.

Returning to the Blog

This blog has been a real story for me.  i enjoyed blogging for a few years and, for a while, I didn’t bother to look at the Comments.  Then, one night a long time age, I decided to check out the Comments.  They were stupendous!  I had never ever imagined the kinds things people were saying to me about my work.  “Wonderful blog!  I have learned very much from your offerings!”  “Excellent.  I will return to you blog in the future.”  “Etc.”

I ran to my wife and dragged her to my computer – “You have GOT to see this!”  After she read three or four comments, she was equally impressed.  It’s nice to have your partner impressed by something you’ve done.  (That’s a pretty universal sentiment right there, I’d think.)

A few days later, I decided to read more comments to get my ego up.  I mean, there were 360 of them.  (It had been a long time that I hadn’t even thought of looking at Comments.)  Down around the 10th one, I noticed the second Comment that said, “Wonderful blog!  I have learned very much from your offerings!”  Hmm.  Not such a great sign.  So I did a search for the phrase “Wonderful blog!” and something like 25 of the Comments were identical.  Then I started searching other phrases.  Every time I got a handful (or a basket-full) of the same phrase (mostly from businesses who were trying to manufacture traffic, I deleted the Comments.  At the end, I was left with exactly zero original replies to my comments.  Zero.  My wife and I laughed about that for a long time.  Oh well, lessons learned.

But, I began to wonder if anyone read my blogs and if nobody did, I figured I’d put my energy into other stuff.  (Plus, in the very beginning, I had used a photo of a golf ball going into the cup to illustrate one blog post and 5 years later I got a letter from a law firm saying I had violated somebody’s copyright and, of course I had, without thinking about it, and suddenly I was paying a few hundred dollars I hadn’t anticipated.  Thus does the world of blogging erect hazards to the unsuspecting.)  But, back to the Comments – I eased off on my posts – my practice was doing fine and generating Google traffic with “new content” didn’t seem worth the effort for the reward achieved.  I seem to be doing fine without having people see me on Page One of a Google search of, say, “Bellevue Mediators” or “Couples Therapist” or “Joe Shaub.”

But then in the last month or two, I’ve had some people who come in to my office, comment (or should I say Comment) that they had read my website and blog and my brain said, “WHAT?? Someone is reading my blog?”  So, with renewed belief that maybe one person is reading this, I think I’ll start tapping these out again.  What’s the worst thing that can happen?  Maybe I’ll generate 20,000 Comments from Russian bots in the next 9 months.

The Constitutional Convention and Mediation

This will probably end up being the first of a bunch of posts on the United States Constitution.

About two years ago, I was struck by how much people were talking about The Constitution.  I have always been a sucker for U.S. History and I realized that I really didn’t know anything about those four months in the Summer of 1787 and a whole lot of people were going on about Constitution this and Constitution that.  While I had taken a Con Law class as both an undergraduate and a law student, my interest has been more personal than academic.

In October, 2017, I was lucky enough to come across Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men (I brought an arm-load of books on the convention home from the library and Beeman’s book grabbed me from the first paragraph).  I was so taken by his beautiful prose and great skill as a story teller that I tried to find him on the web.  I wanted to send him an email thanking him.  Sadly, I learned that he had died after a long struggle with ALS in 2016.  I was more saddened by the death of someone I hadn’t even known about than I ever had been before.

My first impression upon reading Beeman’s account of the Federal Convention (as it was known then) was that the 55 men who came to Philadelphia represented people who had radical and conflicting beliefs and visions for the United States.  As the convention progressed, I became ever more aware of the skills and processes employed by mediators, today – without which, a compact would never have emerged in September.  I was so taken by this realization that I prepared a talk on Mediation Skills Used by the Framers.  The accompanying paper is a reflection of my thinking on the subject.  You can access my paper on Mediation and the Constitutional Convention, here.

A 3-hour CLE Program has been approved on this topic and will be provided in Bellevue on Monday, August 26, 2019.  You may access the registration page here.

Well, that’s enough for a first post on a pretty big subject!

The Great Debate

Anybody who does something long enough will draw their own conclusions – make their own connections between events & experiences.  No description of the therapy experience could be more apt.  Nothing could be a better example of this series of observations than The Great Debate that enters my office over and again.  So many times, I have sat with two people who seek help with “communication issues” and when I have a chance to experience these frustrating communication conundrums (bet you didn’t think you’d read that  phrase today!) I so often see people descending into their Great Debate.  One person has something they want to get across and after he has laid it out, he will sit back with the hope and expectation that his partner will get it.  Yet, what does she do?  Almost invariably she will respond with her position, hoping that she will be able to communicate  her point of view.  My early trainers and teachers in Emotionally Focused Therapy would continually admonish us not to “go down the content tube.”  With every issue that confronts a couple (sharing housework, dealing with money, struggling over parenting issues, where to go for vacation, etc. etc.) there is his side and her side (or her side and her side or his side and his side).  When people bring these struggles into my office I am shown The Great Debate and invariably (I mean invariably), each person gives up, exhausted and deflated.  As well they would be!!!  

So here’s the way out of this frustrating circle.  Realize that the chances of convincing the other person that you are right and they are wrong will be very slim.  The second step, that is so crucial, is to understand and appreciate that there is something else that feels vital that underlays The Great Debate.  It may be about having a crucial emotional need recognized. It may be about being seen and valued by your partner.  Usually, these needs (which are what the Debate is about on the most fundamental level) are outside of our awareness, yet they spark our intensity.  Needless to say, this devolution into Debate, is a particular interpersonal hazard for those trained in law.  The mistake is to seek to persuade the other.  This will almost always spark the Debate and steer us away from understanding and ultimate agreement – in whatever form that may take.