Joy, Resilience and Gratitude

How often do you talk to your couples about joy, resilience and gratitude? Three weeks in Africa taught me that I certainly don't talk about these topics enough.

I am on a Lufthansa flight flying back to my world after deliberately removing myself from it for the last 23 days. I have not seen clients or even thought about sessions. I had no access to email or telephone. I could write to you about the adventure and drama of the wildebeest migration, or about the monogamous dik dik (Africa's smallest antelope) or the flight response of the impala when they sense danger from the nearby lion, or how the wildebeest rely on zebras to help determine safety. But above all else I was deeply touched by the resilience and spirit of the people I met, and that is what I am writing about.

After 37 hours of flying and half as much driving, Pete, Molly and I found ourselves in a forgotten city in Kenya with ten strangers on the same mission as us. We were there not to spot the elephants but to help complete an elementary school for 500 children in a refugee camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP).

Four years ago, this group of IDPs, along with 630,000 others throughout Kenya, were massively traumatized. In post-election tribal and political violence, they lost their land, homes and loved ones. They lost their schools, medical clinics and community. Since then they have been hungry, sick and suffering. They have been ignored and lied to. When they were uprooted, they lost almost all their possessions, but somehow they did not lose their hearts and their ability to give emotionally.

After years of uncertainty, the government has given them a crowded plot of land to rebuild their lives on. The lucky ones are given a tin roof that keeps the rain out. The unlucky ones crowd into leaky tents.

We laid stones for a school, poured water for the clay that serves as mortar and painted the alphabet, numbers and clocks on classroom walls (sometimes using a stick for a paintbrush). We brought quilts for the infants and soccer clothes for the kids. We painted the girls and mom’s nails with nail polish. What we gave was almost nothing compared to how massive the needs are.

But in response to what we thought was a pittance, they overwhelmingly showered us with love, appreciation and a welcome like none you would ever receive in the United States. As our van drove down their dusty road, they pulled us out to engulf us in singing, drumming, hand holding and dancing that brought tears to our eyes.

Throughout our stay, their eyes and words said thank you. Thank you for not forgetting about us. Thank you for making it possible for our children to go to school again. We know education is the only escape from poverty.

I was particularly touched by Cynthia, a 15 year old girl. She has been out of school for the last 4 years because there was no school. She was clearly bright and motivated and happy now to return to the 6th grade.

Cynthia explained that she would like to be a kidney surgeon. She described how her father had died from kidney failure just six months ago because there was not adequate medical care available in her village. She sadly showed me her last gift from him, a simple necklace she wears daily around her neck. She is now living with her mom, aunt and 11 other children in a two-room house in the IDP camp.

Despite Cynthia’s loss, you could see the enthusiasm on her face when she talked about returning to school, pursuing her dream in her father’s memory.  Thanks to the new school, she will be able to complete 8th grade. I hope to help cover her high school fees.

We camped beside the IDP camp instead of staying in a hotel. The families let us into their world and we will never be the same.

When I think about clients who are enraged by small slights from their partners or others who feel seriously victimized by criticism, I wonder, “Will I be able to teach others the resilience I witnessed over the last weeks? Will I be able to help my clients appreciate more of what they have? Will I be able to help them move beyond petty fighting to follow their own passions just like Cynthia’s dream to become a kidney surgeon?”

I was so very fortunate to share my dream with Pete and Molly. My dream of supporting education in Africa began 11 years ago when we visited a school in Zimbabwe and I saw two kids sharing every stool after they had walked three to five miles each way to school.

I realize that my dream is the luxury of one whose life is abundant and successful. I have food, shelter, loving relationships, medical care and meaningful work. But the fact remains that it took hard work, differentiation in our marriage and collaborative teamwork for Pete, Molly and me to pay to build a classroom in the school and have the most touching experience of our lives.  I hope I will have the fortitude to lead my clients there.

With joy, resilience and gratitude,


P.S.  If you are interested in my online training program, September is a great time to start it.  I currently have openings since a large core of members from last year’s group just finished. About 9 openings remain and these spaces will probably be filled before September 9th, if past years are any indication. And September 9th at 10am Pacific Time is the next live call with me.

Joining the training gives you immediate access to a wealth of information on working with couples.

You can immediately listen to case discussions on:

  • Increasing Differentiation and Overcoming Conflict Avoidance in the Aftermath of an Affair
  • Getting Off to a Strong Start with Angry Couples
  • Using the Initiator-Inquirer Process for Trauma Resolution

Or listen to me discuss some conflictual issues in infidelity work with Janis Spring, Esther Perel, and other experts.
Some thorny problems addressed in the ongoing training are:

  • Neither partner wants to be accountable for their part in the conflicts.
  • There is unequal motivation to resolve any given problem.
  • One or the other might have a personality disorder.
  • Trauma from their family of origin gets triggered.
  • Partners inflict trauma on each other.
  • They say they want to be closer but defend against it.
  • They don’t listen to each other or to you when the arguing gets going.
  • They don’t do homework assignments.
  • They blame you (directly or indirectly) for not helping them.
  • They have lost emotional trust in each other.
  • One or the other doesn’t follow through with agreements.
  • Their values collide intensely when teamwork is required, for example in parenting.
  • They woefully underestimate their problems by saying, “We can’t communicate.”

In addition to the prepared lessons, some areas of focus this coming year will be:

  • Preparing Couples for More Effective Collaboration and Teamwork
  • Couples and Addiction
  • Developing more Effective Confrontation skills
  • Supporting Joy, Resilience and Gratitude
  • Using Developmental Assists in your work and Building Progressive Developmental Change

For more information or to register go to Or call Michelle at 650-327-5915 if you have questions.

(Thirty-six CE credits available for healthcare professionals. Accreditation statements, learning objectives, and disclosures may be found online at the link above. Please check this prior to registering.)

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J. Mayer
J. Mayer


As a new participant in your training program, this email both challenged and thrilled me. I, too, find it challenging to bring my global consciousness (albeit limited I suspect)into the micro setting of my therapy office. I look forward to learning from you.

Safe travels.

Jane Mayer

Elisa Linscott
Elisa Linscott

I have thought about this issue often and reflect on my own life when thinking about it. The more comfortable our lives are, the more we pick at the “little” things as being uncomfortable. When our lives are full of suffering (I use this term in the existential sense), we appreciate the “little” things so much more. To have a pedicure when your life is so full of suffering, it is a huge, joyful experience. But when your lifestyle permits you to have pedicures every 2 to 4 wks, its no big deal. You lose your lust for life or as you describe, joy, resilience, and gratitude. I teach my clients about this, and lately, the ones I will call “existentially depressed,” I have been teaching them about the opposing forces and finding balance. You can’t experience joy without suffering. They think they are suffering all the time. But getting out of bed or off the couch to do your chores, exercise, look for a job and other things that are not so pleasurable will make the laying on the couch or sleeping late so much more enjoyable. We’ll see what they do with this.
Thanks for sharing. Always a pleasure to hear what you have been thinking about lately.
Regards, Elisa Linscott

Sue Diamond Potts
Sue Diamond Potts

Hi Ellyn,

What a beautiful story that has moved me deeply. Thank you for sharing and for being a person who can make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. You inspire me to think bigger and to be better. Sue

Elizabeth Bonet
Elizabeth Bonet

Thank you for this post! I visited Kenya about 20 years ago and my mother was just in the Congo two weeks ago. You never forget the poverty nor the gratefulness for any kind of help you can offer. Your post is a good reminder of that and of working towards love and appreciation in relationships/couples therapy as well.


Elisa, Sue, Jane and Elizabeth-
Thanks so much. I’m glad to have some kindred spirits out there. And you will hear more, because I intend to stay involved and continue making a difference in this small part of the world where my small contributions(financially and practically) go a long way!

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Thank you for sharing your inspiring experience. Upon reading it, I thought about how resilience can be cultivated. Cythia’s touching story reminded me of Victor Frankl who wrote that he had survived the concentration camp through finding out / constructing meaning in his suffering. Actively looking for higher meanings and interpretations for a given life situation is one of the factors to enhance our resilience. Similarly, Baumeister points out, in Meanings of Life, the necessity to plan for an entire life so as to construct a coherent life story to transcend the immediate situation. To adapt it to couples therapy, our vision of our ideal marriage and of ourselves as ideal partners (which you taught us to talk with clients initially as part of goal setting) will encourage our building up resilience when facing the inevitable disappointments in relationships.

Michela Rosati
Michela Rosati

Dear Ellyn,
I have just joined the training (2 days ago) and, to be honest, I decided to do it after reading your beautiful words, so true and so touching. Thanks so much for sharing your experience: it would be nice if you could could keep us informed about how your project is going on.
Thanks again for giving me inspired and motivated me to do my job better, anywhere in the world.
Best wishes to all participants.

Reply to  Michela Rosati

Michela-Thank you so much. I do intend to stay very involved with the African people and project. I will keep you informed. It is amazing how far a small amount of American money can go to make a difference in alot of people’s lives.
A warm welcome to you-

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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