The first thing you might want to know about me is that I love practicing couples therapy. It is, far and away, the most fascinating and rewarding professional work I have ever done. Let me try, here, to give you an idea of how I think and work. The greatest influence on my approach as a couples therapist is Emotionally Focused Therapy, which is now widely recognized as one of the most effective and theoretically sound relationship therapies being practiced today. I have engaged in specialized training in EFT and much of what you will read, below, reflects this focus. My thinking is also influenced by the insights of John Gottman, Ph.D. and the family systems theory that was the foundation of my education and early training.
The Key: A Safe Place
When people feel alienated and estranged in their intimate relationships, each comes into the counselor's office wondering, "Will I be understood? Will I be accepted?" In my experience, both partners begin therapy feeling blamed by the other - and fearful that the therapist will blame them, as well. Whether you believe your spouse or partner says you are "angry," "emotionally dead," "selfish," "vindictive," "narcissistic," "controlling," "crazy" or any number of other accusations, both people enter couples therapy feeling deeply misunderstood and, often, pretty hopeless. Sadly, many people abandon couples counseling because they feel the process becomes unsafe - that the counselor is siding with their partner. This will not happen in my office. In my work, both people - with their needs, frustrations and fears - will be heard and valued. Nobody is blamed in my office. Nobody is judged. After all, what is there to judge? Time and again, I observe that both people have tried their best to fix their problem, but those solutions haven't worked. You go from trying to get the relationship to work to protecting yourself within a painful stalemate. I believe that people in troubled relationships (even trained therapists), if left to their own devices, will end up frustrated and alienated from each other. What can't be done alone, can be accomplished with the help of a trained and accepting professional. It is my very strong belief that, unless both of you can feel safe from judgment, you will not achieve what you came in for. After a meeting or two, you will both know if you have come to that safe place. My hope is that a tour through my website will give you a better sense of whether my office might be that place. Understanding and supporting each of you within the pain of your estrangement is my first, very important, goal of therapy.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
Emotionally Focused Couple's Therapy is a powerful, healing approach to supporting couples in distress. We work together to slow down and change the cycle of conflict and misunderstanding you have felt locked into for so long. It is a dance that exhausts and discourages you. I know that each of you has tried many ways to get your partner to understand your distress and none have seemed to work. In fact, what you usually experience is that when you have really, really tried to express what pains you, your partner responds with anger and defensiveness. You state that you have "communication issues" because whenever either of you opens up about your pain or frustration or needs, a fight ensues. John Gottman (who has studied intimate relationships for more than 40 years) has found that, on average, couples begin therapy after they have been experiencing serious problems in their relationship for six years. So when we sit down together for the first time, I'm pretty confident I will be with two people who feel emotionally exhausted and even hopeless. For sure, there are couples who are basically doing okay and are coming in to work through a discrete issue, but that's pretty rare in my experience.
It's About Adult Attachment
We have understood for many years that adults have a need - a drive that is actually hard-wired into our brains - for deep interpersonal connection. This connection is known as "Attachment." A secure attachment with a loved one permits us to feel safe and strong: It is a home base from which we can go out into our world and make whatever mark we are destined to make. It is the place we turn when we need comfort, support or a calming of our fears. It's the place we turn so that we can be assured, fundamentally, that we are all right. When this attachment with our intimate partner is threatened, we all become anxious. This anxiety may express itself various ways, from anger to disengagement. So many times, people have entered my office in deepest distress, struggling with their current reality that this once safe and loving partner is now unremittingly critical or emotionally/physically shut down and distant.
I believe that when we discover - or re-discover - the safety in our partner's love, many of the issues that have caused conflict and distress find their path to resolution. I do not believe that healing in couples therapy is about learning how to negotiate with each other or for each person to accept their blame for the problems you are experiencing. I do not believe that "If John will do these three things to be closer to Mary and Mary does these other three things to be closer to John, then you will become closer." I think that's a fallacy in the way many couples therapists work. This usually results in more proof that the other person doesn't care when they don't completely follow through (which is almost always the case). This kind of approach does not lead to safety. Safe and lasting intimate connection is about discovering that voice inside each of you that longs for a safe haven from an often challenging world in each other's mind and heart. It is also about building a secure base, together, which gives each of you the strength and courage to live a rich, rewarding and happy life in that outer world. We work together to turn your home from a distracting place of friction to a sanctuary.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is one of the most rigorously studied approaches to couples therapy in the world. Research has shown that from 70-75% of couples who have experienced this approach have shifted from being distressed to recovery and over 90% show significant improvements. Follow-up research showed these improvements to be stable two years after counseling ended.
Major goals of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy are to:
Expand and re-organize key emotional responses–the music of the attachment dance.
Create a shift in partners' interactional positions and initiate new cycles of interaction.
Foster the creation of a secure bond between partners.
This process, generally, takes between 5 and 20 sessions, but may take longer, depending on your needs and concerns. For an excellent description of how Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy works, here's a very informative explanation which is found on the website of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. This page also contains links to a number of informative and brief videos of Dr. Sue Johnson discussing EFT. Another helpful resource is the Seattle Community for Emotionally Focused Therapy .
Thinking About Systems
My initial education and training was in family systems. This means I immersed myself in the study of couples and families - people who loved and related together. A couple’s therapist trained in family systems has an eye for how people in conflict or stress react emotionally to one another. “React” is a very important word, here. Many times one person will say “I do this because you do that,” while the other might say, “I do that because you do this.” It can be a very painful dance and it feels automatic. A third person, with an eye for the most common steps, coupled with compassion for each person and their struggle, can help a couple disengage from these kinds of hurtful interactions. Being able to understand the steps of your own particular dance and how, in a flash, you can both snap into it when you are hurt, angry or distressed, will help you start to get control of the dance and to change the steps. In the words of Sue Johnson, who has strongly influenced my work, the dance becomes the enemy, rather than your partner.
John Gottman’s Insights
I was first introduced to U.W.'s Professor John Gottman at a two-day therapists' training in 2005. To say I was bowled over is like saying Seattle's Winters can get a little gloomy. Gottman has studied intimate couples - both those who are in conflict and those who are well-bonded - and his observations and insights are endlessly fascinating. His approach is more educational than therapeutic. That's why I am so deeply immersed in the approach of Emotionally Focused Therapy. However, there are many great Gottman "tidbits" I love to share with clients. Perhaps my favorite is his observation that of all the conflicts experienced by intimate couples (from the just married to those who celebrate 60 great years together) fully 69% of these are perpetual and will never be resolved. People can continue to bang their heads against the wall in a frustrating (and alienating) effort to get their partner to move closer to their point of view, or they can understand that this is just not going to happen, but there are many valuable (and healing) ways to deal with the conflicts this might inspire (like attachment-based Emotionally Focused Therapy). I find his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work an extremely valuable resource and recommend that, along with Dr. Sue Johnson's classic Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love .
Finally, I invite you to visit my blog where I periodically post my current thoughts on couples therapy.