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Sharing Inspiration from my Volunteer Work

  There’s a scene in The Little Mermaid after Ariel trades her voice for legs and makes it to land to have dinner in Eric’s palace. New to the human world, she picks up a fork – and starts brushing her hair with it at the table. The audience laughs, knowing surely this is not what a fork is for! This whimsical and lighthearted scene may seem fit for just Disney movie fantasy, but I can tell you it also rings true for a group of kids in Africa. Over the last 8 years, I’ve been working in resettled refugee communities in Kenya. With the organization Village Impact [formerly called World Teacher Aid], Pete and I and our daughter Molly have helped build 14 schools including 120 classrooms and helped educate over 5,000 students. … Read more...

Building a Foundation for Working with Highly Distressed Couples

When working with a couple that’s in deep distress, it can be a challenge to get each partner to look at his or her own role in the problems. More often than not, both partners blame and try to make the case that the other is at fault. What neither partner wants is for you to expose their vulnerability. I have an example from nature that illustrates what this looks like in couples’ therapy. It’s about the killdeer – a bird that lays its eggs on the ground. When a fox or a predator gets close to the nest, the momma bird jumps up and spreads her wings wide to attract attention. Then the bird drops one of its wings to the ground as though injured.… Read more...

Working with Partners Who Aren’t Equally Committed to Their Relationship

In a recent blog post I outlined some of the ways I work with couples who are caught in patterns of externalization and blame in their relationships. If you missed it, you can check it out here. In that blog post I presented some ideas for pushing the growth edge in these partners. I ended with the question, “But what if you’re beginning to sense that one of the partners isn’t as invested in this process as the other?” If you’ve been working with couples for any length of time, you’ve likely seen instances where one partner doesn’t seem as invested in the relationship as the other. For example, let’s say that you’ve been working with a couple and given them an assignment to come up with a plan for spending more time together.… Read more...

Intimacy Avoidance Comes with Externalization and Blame

  In spring of 2018 I wrote a blog post about the cycle of externalization and blame. This dynamic is a familiar one for couples therapists because so many of the couples who come to see us organize their relationship issues around external symptoms or problems. How many times have you heard complaints like these? “He drinks too much.” “She spends too much money.” “He never makes time for me and the kids.” “She treats her parents like royalty and me like dirt.” For people in discomfort about their relationship, it’s much easier to deflect responsibility and attention from themselves and blame their partner than it is to self-reflect.… Read more...

6 Steps to Developing Leadership in Couples Therapy

If I could recommend just one skill for you to develop to become a successful couples therapist, it would be leadership. Leadership is the number one skill that gets your work off to a strong start and allows you to manage almost anything in your office. However, you can’t be a strong leader if you don’t know where you are going, and you are just reacting to your clients. There are so many things that can go haywire with two clients in the room and so much damage that can be done if things go badly. Couples therapy requires a different level of leadership than individual therapy so I thought I’d share with you the 6 primary characteristics that the Developmental Model recommends for your leadership right from the beginning.… Read more...

Quotable Moments From Recent Conferences

This spring I presented keynotes and workshops at The Couples Conference in Oakland and at a UCLA conference called Relationships and the Health-Promoting Power of Connection Across the Lifespan. Both events featured faculty that trained, enlightened and entertained participants. I’m still reviewing in my mind some of the great things I heard there. And I thought I’d share a few quotable moments. It’s impossible to paint a complete picture using just snippets, but I think you’ll agree that these are some memorable ideas and turns of phrase. I hope you enjoy them – and remember them when they might be helpful!… Read more...

When Circumstances Complicate Developmental Stages

A trainee in my Developmental Model training class asked me the following question: “Can you speak a little bit about the nature of the stages of development? Do you think of them as true stages? For example, can one regress to an earlier stage?” That’s a great question. When couples come in, usually the developmental energy of each partner is primarily invested in one stage and that’s why I talk about and focus my assessment and interventions based on the primary stage. However, of course there is going to be some fluidity. For example, it’s very common during the grief following the death of a parent for one partner to long for symbiosis.… Read more...

Becoming Savannah: One Man’s Transgender Journey

I am sharing the story of Julie, a friend of mine. Daniel, her husband and the father of their daughter, transitioned two years ago to become a woman named Savannah. Australian TV produced a 2-part special on their story. It is a story of love and loss, of pain and freedom. I admire their ability to open themselves to sharing their story as a family with the world.   Part 1 runs 14 minutes and Part 2 runs just over 7 minutes. Of course I hope that seeing these videos will help you with any transitioning partners in your practice. But equally importantly, I share them with you because I believe that compassion and understanding helps the world in everyday life as much as in the therapy office.… Read more...

10 Skills for Early Sessions

Each year I mentor a small group of therapists to help them set goals for their business and clinical skills. I often ask them to assess themselves by being brutally honest about their ability on a variety of criteria that I believe make for strength and effectiveness as a couples therapist. I am including some of these here so you too can assess yourself. Couples Therapist Self­-Assessment First, read the following statements and respond with a simple yes or no. Later, come back and use a 1­-7 on a continuum from very strong to very weak. Early Sessions with Couples: __ I have a plan when I talk to potential clients on the telephone.… Read more...

How to Get the Most from Our Work Together

Couples are often uncertain what to expect from the process of couples therapy. They are not sure of what to expect of the therapist or even if the therapist has any expectations of them.   I have found most couples approach therapy with the notion that each person will describe their distress and somehow the therapist will assist them to create a happier, more functional, relationship. They expect to learn some new or better skills. However, most people hope their partner will do most of the learning in problem areas. After 30 years of clinical experience and specializing in working with thousands of couples, I have arrived at some guidelines that can make our work more effective.… Read more...
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