Couples therapy sessions last anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes. Any less than an hour isn’t enough time for themes to develop in the room and people given enough space to explore them together to a satisfying resolution. Plenty of times, an important subject isn’t raised, or sensitive button pushed, until midway through a meeting and ending on the 50 minute or hour mark feels like an abrupt and unsettling “hard stop.” More frequently than I, or other couples therapists, would like to admit or experience, even the 90 minute duration won’t end in a nice feeling of something valuable having been tied up, with the clients released back into their world carrying a helpful insight into each other or with a meaningful connection made. I think one difference between an experienced couples therapist and a newer professional is the ability to manage our own anxiety when a session ends with that unsettling static still in the air. One person may be holding back (more) tears. The other may be get up from their seat and hand you their payment in stony silence. A worry passes through the therapist’s mind, “Will they come back? Did I blow it somehow?” Well, welcome to the world of the therapist as a living, breathing person. We want to help – that’s why we’re in this business. So, you can imagine the uneasiness when a couples session ends with simmering anger and complicated feelings still spinning within and between the partners. It’s important for everyone to take a deep breath and realize that these harsh-feeling endings are not a disaster for clients or the work you are doing. Almost never will a couple feel so distressed after a session that they will decide to abandon the couples therapy altogether. In fact, oftentimes, couples return the next week and report that they found a way to work through that difficult patch and, while the therapist is all ready to continue with the theme that ended the last session, the people have come in with something entirely different to talk about. While it is important for therapists not to become anxious about unfinished endings, it is equally important for couples who emerge from such sessions to understand that it’s okay and normal in the world of couples work to periodically end on an off-note. It happens. It will be okay.
What a rough time for so many of us! This particularly true if we are newly separated. A wonderful colleague, Karen Bonnell, was recently on a local television show discussing the challenges parents face during this time. It is well worth watching, as Karen gives us, in five minutes, a set of very helpful suggestions. I’d like to highlight a couple of them and add a few thoughts of my own.
Probably the most important bit of advice is take care of yourself. The holidays are such a sad and challenging time for the newly separated. Even if this is the 2nd, 3rd or even 5th holiday after your transition out of the family you once had, you may find yourself dipping into (in Karen’s words) a “River of Grief.” Of course, this is especially true if you are not spending time with your little ones. It is a particularly important time not to be alone. Let your friends take care of you. Find your family in those who love you – even if you aren’t feeling so lovable right about now. Even if you aren’t going to be with your children on Christmas, know that they are going to be excited to have their own Christmas with you, some time after December 25th and the best thing for a kid other than having Christmas, is having two Christmases. Hannukah, of course, gives you the chance to spend a few of the 8 nights with them. While it is often too easy during this time to ruminate on the losses and sadness, it will serve you and your kids to be able to find the warmth, friendship and loving-kindness around you. If your children know that you are okay, it will free them to enjoy their holiday season. Your kids will worry about you if you aren’t happy. For sure, they’ll know it. Children have incredibly acute antennae trained on their parents’ sense of their own well-being. If mom or dad aren’t happy, children will invest plenty of energy trying to take care of you. Another interesting suggestion Karen made was that, if you are newly separated, it would be good for children if you planned to take a brief, clearly defined, period to celebrate the holiday together with your separated partner and them. While, over time, this will not be something they will need (and you most likely will not want to subject yourself to the intensely mixed feelings this will engender), for the first time after separation, it may provide them with a sense of stability that will calm them.
During the weekend of October 24-26, I attended the annual conference of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP) in Vancouver. I was fortunate to be accepted as a speaker and received a gift which upon returning home, I opened to find a talking stick. It is a beautiful piece of art with feathers tied to an end with a leather thong. For those unfamiliar with the talking stick, many indigenous American cultures use this tool when a group of people are meeting to discuss…..well, just about anything. The stick is passed around and when it is in a person’s grasp, only he or she may speak. There can be no interruptions, side-talk or other distractions. There is one person who speaks and the role of all others is to listen. This process – of providing space for people to express themselves without interruption – is essential to any dispute resolution process – be it couples therapy, divorce mediation or a larger group process. I always tell people who sit in my office – so full of anxiety about the specter of conflict that hovers in the room – that I will keep the other from interrupting so that each has a space to speak. I have not hesitated to get up in between people if the sparks start to fly. “You can do this – you have done this – quite well on your own. You don’t need to pay me to do this in my office. My role here is to keep this place safe, so if you are listening to what the other is saying and you believe it is not accurate or you need to defend yourself, please hold it and you will have your opportunity.” This rule, together with a chiding reminder that conflict is made safer and resolvable when each person talks about their own experience, helps move a process which initially may seem frightening or overwhelming to a platform of acceptance.
I attended a Washington continuing legal education workshop recently to make sure I was keeping up in the newest developments in our family law. One of the most interesting sections involved a panel of very seasoned practitioners who also perform “mediation” services, discussing the implications of a recent appellate court decision called Marriage of Rockwell. The Appeals Court said, in passing, that in a marriage lasting 25 years or longer the court should seek to provide the two parties a roughly equal standard of living for the remainder of their lives. Let’s just say that lawyers aren’t real pleased with this broad rule because it both turns long running standards on their head and imposes a blanket rule that doesn’t take into consideration important nuance. (What if Husband and Wife get married when they are 20 and divorce at 45? Does the higher earner owe maintenance to the other for the next 20 years? Does this mean that the Wife’s inheritance from her parents (which is considered to be her separate property and usually awarded to her, alone, in almost any state) is now up for grabs, with her husband of 25 years getting half? What if they are married 24 years? 22?) Anyway, while the questions about the decision will continue, it is now on the books in Washington and the “mediator” panelists talked about how they would employ this new legal authority. (Note that I place the term “mediator” in quotes because the process employed by lawyers is more of a “settlement conference” which is a one shot, usually all-day, ordeal in which the two people are separated and the “mediator” goes between conference rooms and tries to move the recalcitrant parties closer – and then to binding agreement by the end of the day.) One panelists felt he was being clever when he referred to the “Rockwell whuppin’ stick” and another experienced “mediator” chimed in with reference to the use of this opinion as a “whuppin’ stick.” (As in, “If the husband is being stubborn about spousal maintenance, I can use Rockwell as a whuppin’ stick and tell him that a court could order a much greater, outrageous, term of alimony under that case.”)
What really ate at me the next day was how each of these people saw their role of getting wounded, frightened, angry, defensive and all-around emotionally challenged people to come to agreements that will impact the rest of their lives by hitting them with a “whuppin’ stick.” The absolute essential key to a solid, durable and effective agreement is that each person enter the agreement without undue resistance. Each must understand and accept what he or she relinquishes in the agreement. Equally important, each must acknowledge (to themselves at least) what he or she gained from the agreement. My strongest criticism of the conventional legal “mediation” is that at the end of the day, each person will generally feel emotionally and mentally drained with a very high degree of resentment and “woulda, shoulda coulda’s” the next morning. This risk is certainly accentuated when the settlement conference official finds a new rule of law, however flawed and criticized, to use as a “whuppin’ stick” to bring people into line and move toward settlement.
Spring is the time we talk of renewal, with buds just bursting to open to the warming weather. The denuded trees coming alive again with color and life excite the senses. The population circling Green Lake multiplies from the few stalwarts who walk the three-mile circumference rain or shine…or rain…to crowds celebrating the turn of the season. Yet, while I have come to love the renewal of Spring (having experienced little by way of seasonal shift during years in Southern California), it is Autumn that truly sets my heart alight. Professionally, the summer is a slack time. We had a chance to travel a bit – mostly locally, with one September trip to Lisbon with old friends. And now the leaves have turned and many are strewn in growing piles in our backyard. I recall when our lovely 21 year old daughter would explode with excitement as a kid at the prospect of jumping on big piles of leaves. The air smells so fresh. We are moving to a cozier time of year and as I write this the rain is falling outside, a candle is on the table and Tellemann is on Pandora. Perhaps it is because of our rhythm being dictated by school schedules, but things do seem to start up again in September after dozing during the summer. Thus, clients begin returning to the office and this work which is so fascinating and gratifying is renewed. New ideas for blog-posts start to percolate to the top of my consciousness and Autumn Resolutions get set. My book project will finally move to the place I can send the draft out to friends and colleagues for feedback. New marketing ideas come to the fore. New books to read are going to start piling up by the bed, or on my IPhone, as I am a big lover of Audible. Currently, I’m listening to and loving Flight Behavior written and read by Barbara Kingsolver and looking forward to the next one up – The Boys in the Boat, which my wife tells me is fantastic. I love reading history, and Rick Pearlstein’s book about the 60’s and 70’s, Nixonland, is a voyage back to a time I lived and have forgotten. Being in Berkeley during those years, I really wasn’t aware of how freaked out middle American was by the often violent changes occurring then. I turn 65 in a week and am finally starting to belatedly figure out what I have to do about Medicare. I am feeling quite blessed to be at this stage of life, healthy, loving my work, adoring my family and they tolerating my frequent ridiculousness. So, on to Fall, engagement and life. May you be blessed with love and the flow of your life in the coming months.
I recently came across a lengthy article I wrote about 20 years ago dealing with the stresses of law practice at the end of the 20th Century. It was packed with quotes from both lawyers and law professors describing how legal education, and later the practice itself, have been leeched of their humanity. I had recalled that lawyer and diplomat Sol Linowitz had made some powerful statements in his book The Betrayed Profession and sure enough I found them in my paper. While written more than 20 years ago, he and former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman identified a pervasive and enduring problem with the practice of law in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
In describing law as it was practiced in the middle of the last century, Linowitz comments,
“The satisfaction of practicing law were in the knowledge that others depended upon your judgment and loyalty and your abilities and that at the end of the day you knew that you had, in fact helped your client. In my generation, we thought of the law as a helping profession, not a continuation of war by other means.”
Kronman chimed in with these comments in his book The Lost Lawyer – Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession:
“This crisis (of morale among lawyers) has been brought about by the demise of an older set of values that until quite recently played a vital role in defining aspirations of American lawyers. At the very center of these values was the belief that the outstanding lawyer – the one who serves as a model for the rest – is not simply an accomplished technician but a person of prudence or practical wisdom as well. It is, of course, rewarding to become technically proficient in the law. But earlier generations of American lawyers conceived their highest goal to be the attainment of a wisdom that lies beyond technique – a wisdom about human beings and their tangled affairs that anyone who wishes to provide real deliberative counsel must possess.”
Much of this has been reconfirmed in an exhaustive study of lawyers and well-being recently concluded by Florida State Law Professor Lawrence Krieger and Kenneth Sheldon. They found that there is very little correlation between happiness and salary, prestige of law firm or law school or the other achievements which law students and attorneys strive so vigilantly toward. Rather, it is the degree of personal autonomy and the congruence of one’s professional life and personal values that show the highest correlation to well-being.
A good friend of mine who is a great fellow and an excellent therapist has this adage he likes to share: “When in doubt, do something” – meaning that if you are stuck, doubtful about yourself and feeling blue or down, take some action. Move. Do something. It doesn’t have to be a “big” something. It shouldn’t be a “big” something. Any move is a gift. So I had an interesting experience recently that put the proof to that statement and some may find this a helpful story.
I had been feeling down for a while and was having a hard time kicking it. My website came to the rescue….well it helped me come to my own rescue.
I really like my website. I worked hard on it and get nice complements. A great designer named Stephan Laenan who lives near Portland put it together for me. I gave him content, he designed it…but once in a while there were tweaks I wanted to make and I didn’t know the first thing about how websites are put together. It was aggravating, since I was totally dependent on someone else who rightfully charged me for his time. Last year I bought an Idiot’s book on HTML and CSS (how you create the code to make a website) and after reading it for a few weeks, I was so cross-eyed that I had to put it down – defeated. Then a month ago, a lawyer friend of mine was telling me how he created his own site and I thought, “Well, if he can do it……..” so I checked a bunch of books out of the library and suddenly had this “Ah-ha” moment and figured out how to make all the changes I wanted. I dove in and over the next week updated everything I wanted updated.
I absolutely felt a spring in my step. A big weight was lifted from my shoulders and I found that things that had been aggravating me only the week before weren’t so important. My mood absolutely shifted because….well, I did something. (And really, it’s not a big deal to learn about website coding, even for a tech dweeb like me.)
I like lawyers. Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers. It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skills to law students. Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life. This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy. Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict. Take mediation, for example. The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other. The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness. It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard. This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion. Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in dispute. This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict – how they fight at home.
One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument. Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right. So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments? When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point. It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection. I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict. The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one. How’s that for a conundrum? The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership. If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place. Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.
Back in the 1990’s a New Mexico jury awarded Stella Liebeck more than $2.8 million against McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee on her lap. This has been brought up to me many times over the years as proof of the dangers of frivolous personal injury suits. “She sues because she is burned by hot coffee? Ridiculous.” A new documentary is on Netflix called Hot Coffee which explores the case and its aftermath. I invite you to take this short quiz to see what you know about this case:
1. Stella Liebeck was: (a) A 16 year old girl (b) A 32 year old mother of 3 (c) A 79 year old widow. Answer
2. When the accident occurred, Stella was: (a) Driving (b) In the passenger seat of the moving car (c) In the passenger seat of a parked car. Answer
3. The temperature of the coffee was: (a) Over 180 degrees F. (b) Around 120 degrees F. (c) Around 150 degrees F. Answer
4. Stella Liebeck’s injuries were mainly: (a) A painful rash on her thighs which lasted for a month (b) Third degree burns on 6% of her body (c) Painful blistering on her thighs and buttocks: Answer
5. The case went to trial because: (a) McDonald’s offered to pay her medical bills, but she thought they should pay punitive damages (b) McDonald’s offered $250,000 but she wanted $1,000,000 (c) She asked for payment of her medical expenses and lost income (about $160,000) but McDonald’s offered only $800. Answer
6. Had McDonald’s been given any notice that hot coffee may be a problem? (a) About as much notice as you and I have that hot coffee is hot (b) A couple of people over the past 5 years had been burned (c) McDonald’s had received about 700 complaints of burns from excessively hot coffee. Answer
The point is: READ ON
I went out to my car last week and found the rear window smashed and two things taken from my back seat – an empty briefcase and a ratty old Jansport backpack with my gym stuff in it. “They” did it in the middle of the night. (Don’t you want to find out who “they” are?…your own personal “they’s”) Anyway, while the briefcase was well worn and nice, my biggest sense of loss came from the theft of my combination lock. I remember years ago when I opened the packaging and read that the combination was 28 -2-8. C’mon! It just can’t get any easier than that….and I loved my combination lock. I felt so lucky to have picked it out.
Martin Seligman, one of our greatest psychologists, has long studied happiness. He has been striving for years to develop an approach to mental health treatment which transcends the age-old medical model of diagnosis of a “disorder” and then working to eliminate the “disorder.” Seligman wondered why we can’t move above the baseline of functionality, into the realm of happiness and well-being. This notion has captured the enthusiasm of a large segment of the mental health community. Just note the surge of people incorporating “mindfulness” into their practices. Mindfulness is both a way to ease stress and internal pain and a path to affirmative well-being.
So what does a combination lock have to do with Seligman and positive psychology? Well, one of the most important tools for achieving well-being is appreciation. Cultivating a sense of appreciation for the good in our lives cushions us against the deeper dismay which will always accompany loss. Also, appreciation buoys our spirits in the day to day. One of Seligman’s best exercises is the “Three Blessings.” Each night before you lay down to sleep, take a notebook or piece of paper and write down three blessings of the day just ending. This will train your mind to be alert to both the big and the little things which we can appreciate in life. These little things can be a pleasant exchange with our partner or a friend; the burst of life in the leaves that are unfolding as Spring arrives; the wag of our dog’s tail because we are really, really loved; the good feeling from not eating something we know isn’t good for us; a great movie we just watched or the bike ride we completed. Nothing should be taken for granted. We live in a world which may often seem bent on eroding any sense of well-being. We can keep that force at bay when we embrace the little treasures.
I’m going to store today and will myself to pick a lock with my birthday as a combination. I’ll tell you how it goes.