From Russia With Love

I am writing this month's newsletter as I fly home from two weeks in Russia. What an adventure! I went with my good friend Ruth McClendon to teach Couples and Family Therapy in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It was such a rich cultural experience that it will take many months to digest all of it.

After a delayed 20 hour trip, we landed in Moscow and assumed that getting to our hotel would take just a short while longer. But even with a very savvy Moscow driver, it took almost another 3 hours. Traffic is a constant challenge in Moscow.

We ate in Russian homes, stayed in Russian apartments and saw no Americans during our stay. We learned to navigate the Metro with no English in the stations and without help from our Russian hosts. It was like matching puzzle pieces.

There was no trash in the subway or on the streets. It seemed surreal. Where do they put the trash from 9 million people? It was amazing to see subways, parks, and streets without McDonald's cups or straws. Here in the US, we sure could take lessons from their Czar of trash! I especially enjoyed the generosity of the Russian people and have enormous respect for the Russian therapists. They are eager and have a high desire to learn and do couples therapy in a culture that has a very high divorce rate and yet is not very accepting of both partners attending therapy together. I was often asked, “How do I get the husband to come?”

One of the most challenging aspects of the trip was doing therapy demonstrations, both role plays and with real couples, via translator and teaching many therapists who had not yet seen a couple in their offices. I almost fell off the stage on the first day when I asked how many had ever seen an angry, fighting couple for therapy and not one single hand went up.

I had an immediate immersion into one significant cultural difference when I demonstrated the Paper Exercise with a couple on the first day of the first workshop. No words were exchanged and the husband pulled the paper away from his wife. They both smiled and eagerly reported how good they felt about the outcome!

Two other significant differences surfaced. Most of the therapists we met had been exposed to a lot of experiential therapy, but did not have a cognitive framework for understanding couple and family problems. They were grateful for tools we provided to help them determine how to intervene. Also, the child therapists we met were not used to talking to children. They had a lot of exposure to play therapy, but did not know you could ask kids about their emotions or their perceptions. They really appreciated a role play Ruth did demonstrating how to involve kids in family therapy.

Now that I'm home I'm looking at my life and my couples through a new lens and many of these observations are probably relevant for you, too:

  • Don't take anything for granted. Whether it's a latte or a wealth of training opportunities, notice and appreciate them.
  • The ability to communicate is the foundation of all relationships. When we give couples better tools for communication, we improve more than their marriage.
  • Cultural differences can be subtle but they're always powerful. As more international and bi-cultural couples come into therapy, we'll need to help them appreciate rather than fight about their differences.
  • Be flexible! I've always taught that couples therapy is a blend of art and science. Having a really thorough, solid understanding of theory and interventions allows us to be flexible, blending that science and art. And we can face whatever is presented.

And finally, while I was there, I read The Last Station. This is Jay Parini's rendition of the end of Leo Tolstoy's life. He uses diary excerpts from Leo, his wife Sonya, and many Tolstoyians. The book is jam packed with couples' and family dynamics. I highly recommend it.

By next month my jet lag will be gone and I'll be back to you with a more clinical newsletter.

Warm summer wishes,


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Alice Locke Chezar
Alice Locke Chezar

Hi Ellyn,

I’m seeing a couple (for about 3 wks) who have been married for 10 years. They married young. They had a short courtship, married and moved here from another country. The wife is more tied to their former culture, the husband see’s nothing good about where they came from.

They have come to me to see if their marriage can be salvaged. They have 2 young children. The husband is a very successful, high achiever who is driven to “excellence”(his words) in all he does. He doesn’t tolerate less from others. Until recently he was not very emotionally aware, available or tolerant of his wife’s ideas and choices, always encouraging her to do more, read more. She is a stay at home mom, caring for a special needs child and a very demanding younger child. She doesn’t share her husbands intellectual pursuits and at this time is not sure what she would like to pursue. Money is not an issue. After years of feeling “not good enough” she began to emotionally leave the marriage.
She has stated to me and him in the past that she could easily leave the relationship.

Both are saying they would like to try to save their marriage although each is skeptical about the others ability to change or if indeed the other has what each would like in a spouse now. Recently the husband said in therapy “If we do all this to bring her back to the relationship, what happens if my needs are still not satisfied? referring to perhaps their basic differences. There is also a lack of desire for sex on the part of the wife.
I have given them an assignment to list 10 things that each feels would help them feel loved,then choose 2 from each others list and do them for one week. This to help them to begin to engage positively with each other, give to each other. I’ve also given them the form you sent to fill out at home. They are also going to do a date night 1x per week.
Any other suggestions, thougts?

Andreea Teusdea
Andreea Teusdea

Alice- I would say that they are a symbiotic couple and that she starts to differentiate. I would like to see from where does it come his need for being the best. Maybe it is something about his childhood. I really liked what you asked them to do. (the list )

Ellyn – I saw the movie Last station twice. Great one! I am looking forward to read the book as well.


I thought the book was fascinating!
Tolstoy is so revered.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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