Helping Couples Separate with Dignity and Grace

Sometimes there is no “happily ever after” for the couples we work with.

By the time they make it to our office, the “water under the bridge” is no longer flowing, leaving no way back to harmony and reconciliation.

Only festering wounds and growing resentments.

With that said, there is still so much a skilled couples therapist can do to help partners separate in a way that honors what they once had together, provided they are both willing.

That was true for Jane and Jack, a couple I saw recently. After several decades of marriage, there were too many unresolved hurt feelings swept under the carpet, too much conflict chronically avoided, resulting in too much emotional distance.

Intimacy had long been put to rest. They had drifted too far apart emotionally.

As is predictable with long-term conflict-avoidant couples, one partner had started an emotional affair, leaving the other feeling betrayed and enraged.

That’s understandable as no one wants to be replaced after investing a huge chunk of her/his adult life with somebody.

The challenge for me was twofold.

Getting Focused

First, I had to get clear on where each of them stood vis-a-vis their marriage.

Secondly, I had to help Jane reign in her anger and hostility and instead access and express the more vulnerable feelings underneath – her grief and loss.

Good therapy can provide an environment where couples are able to get past their defenses enough to propel them forward. It can end on a positive note if each partner accepts accountability for the breakdown and will mourn the loss of the dream they once held.

There was no taking sides or room for judgment on my part with this couple. I understood they both had contributed to this outcome and were caring about each other, despite their pain.

Containing Destructive Emotions

Jane quickly began to escalate and use her anger to name-call, blame, and hurl accusations. I had to quickly jump in and set up clear boundaries on what was and wasn’t going to transpire in the room.

While I empathized with her feelings, I told her that neither of them would be given a green light to take down the other person no matter how hurt they were.

The problem was that neither of them had the developmental capacity to discuss the grievances in their relationship long enough and calm enough to get to any resolution.

Clarifying Issues

What Jane wanted to know was how invested he was in the other woman and where he stood in terms of their marriage. Both had been avoiding this discussion.

It was impossible for her to ask him directly, because she was too fearful of the truth.

He wouldn’t initiate his position to her because he feared her wrath.

I knew that my task was to help him articulate an answer to these two questions in a clear and direct way.

After he explained his position to her, I asked if she could recap what she had heard; she summed it all up with a simple statement.

Jane: “I heard you say that you are in love with another person and don’t want to get back with me.” 

Jack: “Yes, you got that right.” 

As difficult as that was, they both finally had clarity. There was no more dancing around the truth or walking on eggshells and trying to avoid the pain of loss. It was now out in the open.

We could move forward from there.

Supporting the Grief Process

I went over the stages of couples’ relationships and reminded them that they had gotten stuck on the “dark side of a honeymoon.” I knew that each of them had done their best to create something together. I explained how that had worked for both of them for many years.

I refused to collude with how she saw herself as the victim for much of the relationship. Instead, I continued to approach it from different angles to help her see that she was making choices all along the way.

The biggest personal cost to her was that she never pursued her own interests or developed her own unique self, but instead put her energy into making him happy, believing that then she could be happy, too.

They both cried openly at the new reality of the loss of the relationship.

Each time Jane wanted to defend with anger, I gently helped her come back to her more vulnerable feelings.

With my consistent encouragement, she was able to separate herself from his actions in order to not take them personally. She was able to stay connected with him and the memory of what they had together in a way that was extremely important and very moving to be a part of.

Jack connected to his sadness and loss and was able to express and validate how much she had put up with him and how much he understood her pain. This was clearly important to her. He was able to show her that this process was not easy for him either.

Separation Reconciliation

The importance of staying in the vulnerability of grief and loss is revealed in what Jane said to Jack next.

“You have to admit we really do have something. We have loved and cared for each other from the day we met.” 

This opened a well of grief in him.

I wondered out loud if they would be able to hold onto that special something, despite walking through a difficult time separating their lives.

Friendship is one of the four main components of marriage, and that was something they had done very well.

Both of them had tremendous early childhood trauma, so they had good historical reasons for wanting to stay in self-protective modes throughout their marriage. Despite this, there was the care and a commitment to one another and their children.

The Rewards of What We Do

Knowing that this marriage had ended with positive feelings as they left the office gave me a feeling of deep gratitude and satisfaction. It’s not always easy to be the container for emotions that seem overwhelming to partners.

When done effectively, it can be an act of extreme service to a couple like this. Rather than end up in the courts tearing each other apart, they can accept that there are good reasons why they started to move away from one another.

They don’t have to blame each other for where they ended up. They waited too long and it was simply time to move on.

They both agreed to leave the door open for any possibility in the future. This is the best outcome based on their commitment to walk through this time with respect and compassion for themselves and one another.

They left thanking me for the help I provided in reframing their future and setting a trajectory for them to move forward without bitterness and hatred. I had so much respect for both of them because I know this is not an easy task for anyone.

Outcomes like this make what we do as couples therapists so rewarding. We are making the world a better place, one couple at a time – whether together or apart.

Do you believe in coincidences?

These are hard times for many of us. And the worst part is – it’s been going on far too long, and we don’t know when it will be over.

It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees some days with so many of our usual comforts, rituals, and routines gone out the window.

And yet, our attitude and attention to the things that hold meaning allow us to swim rather than tread water. While we can’t always control circumstances that negatively influence our lives, like COVID-19, we can control our response to it.

We can chose to focus on our difficulties – and there are many for some of us – or we can focus on the unexpected gifts that are given to us when we least expect them.

I’d like to share a gift I received recently. It was completely unexpected and had a profound effect on me. Here is what happened:

I left my downtown office building after a long day seeing clients. I was tired and looking forward to getting home, eating my dinner, and having a quiet evening.

I took a few steps out the door and a woman approached me. She was very soft-spoken and tentatively said, “Maybe you’re somebody I could ask?”

“OK,” I said, and she began to tell me her story. She said she worked in a community office in the Downtown Eastside and that her wallet was stolen that day because someone forgot to lock the filing cabinet. I used to work in the Downtown Eastside, so it seemed plausible to me.

I asked her what she was looking for. “All I need is $3.00 to get the transit back home.” She kept talking as I removed my backpack and began to fish my purse out from it.

She went on to tell me that she had $27 in her wallet and all of her credit cards. She contacted the transit office with her card number but to no avail. She was distraught, wondering how in the world she would even get home.

As I listened, I thought to myself, “Of course I’m going to give her $3.00 – or $5.00 to make sure she has enough.”

She went on to reassure me that she wasn’t a drug addict, and she wasn’t trying to solicit money for any nefarious reasons. She didn’t really need to do that because it was evident, to me anyway, that it wasn’t the case.

By the time I took my wallet out, I’d been listening to her speak in her gentle, soft-spoken manner, and I felt compelled to help her even more.

There was no resistance in my mind whatsoever. I reached into my wallet and gave her a $20 bill, trying in some small way to make her day a little lighter.

She began to cry. She took my hands in hers (not great due to COVID, but I understand that she needed to do that) and thanked me profusely.

She said, “Now I’ll be able to buy some eggs and bread for dinner.”

We parted, going our separate ways, and I found myself moved to tears. I wondered to myself why this was happening.

You see, I don’t believe in coincidences.

She may have thought I was her angel that day, helping her out and not judging her or walking away like I didn’t have time for her. And yes, that is true.

But what she doesn’t know is that she was my angel.

She brought me a gift in that moment that was worth much more than the $20 I gave her.

She reminded me there were times when I was that woman. When I struggled to make ends meet and felt too ashamed to ask anyone for a handout. When I was alone and didn’t know how to invite anyone to help.

She reminded me that random acts of kindness can have a big effect on both parties involved.

All I did was stay open and receptive to another human being in need.

It brought into focus what brings value and meaning to my life – being of service, in whatever way that presents itself in my life.

She showed me it’s always about love.

And, we all need more of that – especially right now.

Stay open to the “coincidences“ that the universe is putting in your path…things you can stay open to and responsive to…

that allow you to tap into yourself in a deep and meaningful way…

that might help you feel just a little bit more positive about human kind.

Remember, Mahatma Gandhi said that “the future depends on what you do today.” Small acts of kindness add up.

They fill our bucket with good feelings and encourage positive self-esteem.

So, stay open and stay positive.

We will get through this, hopefully sooner than later.

Let’s do it with more care for ourselves and one another.

Improve Your Mental Health During this Coronavirus Pandemic

I have been thinking of you a lot as we all navigate our way through an unbelievably bizarre time. I’ve heard from some of you that there are lots of positives to “sheltering-in-place,” like not having to commute, more time with family, or just the slowed-down pace.

I’ve also heard that there are a lot of challenges, especially as the time we are restricted from doing what we normally do carries on. Many of us find ourselves on an emotional roller coaster of sorts – some days are just fine, and other days feel surreal at best and downright depressing at worst.

I’ve put together a few ideas to ensure you (and your partner) can keep your heads above water. The actions we take each day will determine how well we ride out this global pandemic. There are so many opportunities right now, if we will remember to look for them and challenge ourselves to not only get through this time, but to be our best selves when it matters the most.

Check out my guidelines for survival and take the self-care assessment here.

Confronting Angry Partners can lead to big shifts…

To confront or not confront – that is the question

I’m sure you have had those tense moments with couples when you ask yourself “should I confront this or not?” They are difficult moments and we often have a split second to decide. The truth is confrontation is essential in couples therapy. Yet, as therapists we often struggle with it, because of family and social conditioning that says confrontation is ‘rude’. Maybe you shy away from it because you fear you will scare off your clients, or because you were taught it’s therapeutically unsupportive. Or, perhaps you are afraid to confront an angry client because you had an angry parent and do all you can to avoid such interactions now. These are all real factors when it comes to helping clients get past their angry defences. What I’ve learned from studying and practicing the Developmental Model with Drs. Ellyn Bader & Peter Pearson is that confrontation is necessary to disrupt unhealthy patterns that keep couples stuck in regressed states.

My struggling couple…

The other day I was working with a couple who are struggling to navigate their way past a brief emotional affair that helped them to see that something was amiss in their lives. I did a strong confrontation with the husband at the end of the session, when his anger flared up at both me and his wife.

I saw that his anger is his way to push for a return to the symbiosis that no longer works for them as a couple.

I knew I had to say something.

And I had to say it strongly, to match his energy and get his attention.

“You have a serious anger problem and at some point, you will have to deal with this because it’s keeping you and your relationship stuck”.

My second guessing

We ended the session and I wondered if I had been too hard on him. Was my intervention effective and was the timing right? Maybe I should set up an individual session and explore it further one on one?

But before I had a chance to do anything, I received an email from him that not only touched me deeply, it confirmed how important the confrontation was in moving him forward.

It got his attention and put his focus where it needs to be – on his own growth edge.

Here’s what he said:

I do have an anger problem. I don’t want to have an anger problem. There have been times in my life where it wasn’t as much of a problem and others where it was killing me inside but it was the only way I knew how to cope. The following is my self-actualization of what I think my issue is…

I need to begin to break a pattern that has existed within me for many years and has become a fundamental, and at times automatic/thoughtless, mechanism for protecting myself from deeper more vulnerable feelings. I’m sure as I trace back, this was all learned from my father, who for almost all of childhood, into my adult life dealt with everything via anger and rage because it was an effective mechanism for control and power, when he felt powerless. 

The light bulb went on…

As I’ve done some research, it seems that, this pattern of behavior is hazardous to the closeness, harmony, and trust I am deeply craving and would have wanted with my father and mother.  

I’ve never actually thought about anger as the manifestation of feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable, etc.  But as I think about times I’ve been angry, pissed off or mad as hell, it is usually some manifestation of these above feelings that’s at the core. 

And why?  Because it felt good and addressing those underlying feelings was not within me. 

Whether it was criticism, dismissal, or something else that made me feel invalidated, anger was a way for me to assert and protect myself from those feelings. There have been plenty of times where, now that I think back, my wife and I fought viciously and afterwards I felt like absolute shit and more miserable – only to apologize because deep down inside I knew I was wrong. However, the damage is/was done. 

Here is a quote I read that sums this up:

“A person or situation somehow makes us feel defeated or powerless, and reactively transforming these helpless feelings into anger instantly provides us with a heightened sense of control…”

“The primal fear of these individuals is that if they let their guard down and made themselves truly vulnerable—freely revealing what their heart still aches for—a disapproving or rejecting response from their mate might lead them, almost literally, to bleed to death. And so (however ultimately self-defeating) the protective role of anger in non-disclosure and distancing can feel not simply necessary but absolutely essential.

Anger, however unconsciously, can be employed in a variety of ways to regulate vulnerability in committed relationships. Not only can it be used to disengage from the other when the sought-after closeness starts to create anxiety, it can also, ironically, be a tactic for engaging the other—but at a safe distance.”

According to the author, I need to ask myself not , “What anger control skills do I need to learn?” but rather, What is my anger enabling, protecting against, or symptomatic of?”

Now while this all sounds well and good and I want to do it for myself, to be a better dad, husband and person…  putting it into practice and changing about 35 years of learned behavior is no small feat. But I guess it’s the same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. 

Taking a risk that pays off…

Wow! I’m so glad this helped him create an opening in his life to see how much his past conditioning is blocking his attempts at a better marriage. This is the kind of shift that makes therapy work so rewarding.

As the Bader-Pearson model suggests, partners will get angry or passive to maintain the symbiosis rather than get more clear and direct about what they are experiencing, what they are wanting, what their fears are and how they can be engaged with one another better.

Being able to confront the anger will help them to chose whether they are willing to do the work necessary for growth or not.

Bader-Pearson give the following recommendations to therapists around confrontation:

1.  Don’t do it when you yourself are activated.

2.  Anticipate their resistance and get buy in:

“I want to say something now – are you ready to listen to it or not?”

3.  If you go too far and they do get defensive, own it and apologize.

4.  When you have made the confrontation, ask them “What do you think?”  It helps them know you are interested and that while you have to hold the mirror up for them to see themselves clearly, you are in a collaborative  process with them.

Let me know how you are doing with confronting angry clients in your practice. What did you learn in your family of origin about anger? How direct are you with both allowing your clients to have their healthy anger and confronting it when it’s keeping them stuck? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Until next time, I wish you much success in your practice of helping couples find love and adventure in their relationships.


7 Keys to Happiness

Could you use more happiness in your life? I’m Sue Diamond Potts and I recently learned what factors are involved in the lives of the happiest people in the world. It may surprise you to find out it’s not what most people are chasing after. If you are someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or relationship distress, chances are you could benefit from knowing what things you can do to develop a happier life.

Happiness varies

My happiness has been all over the map throughout my life. I believe I was born pretty happy (but then I think most of us are, quite frankly). Due to circumstances beyond my control I had quite an unhappy childhood and adolescence. Like most kids in homes where there is addiction and/or violence, life events blew happiness out the door. I didn’t know much about having fun outside of high risk behaviour that shot my adrenaline way up.

I became a mother early in life so I had to grow up fast. I worried a lot as a young adult and often made bad decisions that led to more worry. ‘Anxious’ was my middle name as I fretted about making ends meet financially or about why the last relationship didn’t work out – again.

Eventually, I began my healing journey which, while long and arduous, resulted in my happiness factor increasing significantly. I dealt with my addiction to drugs and alcohol and went back to school so I could follow my passion and earn a decent income. Fast forward to today and all of these efforts mean that I now live a life full of purpose, contentment and yes, much happiness.

If I were to graph my happiness on a timeline – it would have started high, sunk very low for a time and then gradually increased to somewhere off the chart.

Positive psychology and your happiness

Recently I heard some research in the positive psychology field shared by neuroscientist Susan Pierce Thompson. This data is from studies with what are considered the happiest people in the world. It confirms that my current state of happiness is because I’m doing a lot of things right. As I studied these factors, I also saw that there were ways I could improve my life and set better goals for even more happiness.

It became clear to me that all of us can make better choices that lead us towards what some people boldly state is our purpose in life: to be happy!

Here are the 7 keys to happiness found by researchers in the positive psychology field

1.  Meditation which activates the left pre-frontal cortex (PFC) of the brain, where positive emotions live. Depressed people have over activation in the right PFC- where negative emotions live.


2.  Human Connection:  it’s the biggest lever-mover – marriage, friendships, playtime.  In fact, married people have an initial spike in their happiness and afterwards reset their baseline at a higher level of happiness.




3.  Touch: close intimate connection to others is the #1 predictor of wellbeing. (In a study of baby monkeys who were given the choice to have access to milk from a wire mother monkey or no milk but a furry mother monkey, they overwhelmingly forfeited their food for the comfort of a furry snuggle.) Nurturing touch soothes us to our core and helps us know we are not alone.

4.  Health promoting habits:  Yes, indeed, if you are eating well, getting some exercise, are sleeping enough as well as resting when needed, you are much happier.  It seems simple but many of us struggle with attending adequately to these basic physiological needs.
5.  Meaningful work:  This occurs in the place where your skills & talents overlap with your passion and interests. I believe the important ingredient in this formula is also the sense of being of service in what you do.  Our passion ought to make us feel like we are giving to our communities in a way that makes a positive difference, whether that’s in the field of finance, social work, or law enforcement, etc.


6.  Spirituality: which is not religion – in fact, it can even be, although it doesn’t have to be, the opposite of religion.  It has more to do with a feeling of being a part of the greater whole – that is both intelligent and compassionate. When you feel a part of the omniscient power that flows through all of life, then you are never completely alone – and always connected (see #2).


7.  Ambition:  it turns out that striving makes some people happy.  It is a personality trait called ‘achievement orientation’ and involves hobbies, intellectual growth, etc. If this applies to you then “excellence’ matters and you have a drive to continually challenge yourself.  The Latin term for this is “meliora”, which means, ‘ever-better’. 





Your happiness strengths

As you read this list, what do you resonate with the most?  In other words, what are you already doing that is making you a happier person?  Is there a way you might increase the frequency and/or intensity of those items for greater effect? For example, I am a very ambitious person so I was thrilled to find that item on the list. It validated something important and provided permission to expand this aspect of my life, knowing it rewarded me in a very positive and fundamental way.

Your happiness deficits

There may be items on the list that you don’t do or that you used to do but don’t anymore and you can recognize the difference it makes in your life. Noticing what is missing from your life might hold the key to your next level of wellbeing?

Some of you may feel stuck in unfulfilling jobs, driven by the fear that something terrible will happen if you reach for more meaningful work. Others of you will find that your close, personal relationships need fortifying or revamping. And others of you will have learned early in life that human touch was hurtful or even dangerous and you haven’t been able to break the bondage of those experiences in order to be nurtured by others.

Whatever your missing link is, ask yourself if you are willing to risk adding one more ingredient to your daily routine in the service of greater happiness.

Focus & resilience

It turns out that people who set goals tend to be more successful in their endeavours. It’s because it requires both focus and resilience and these attributes help us in so many ways.

You have the main part to play in your own happiness. Sure, trauma and tragedy impacts us and yet, if we decide to move through it and beyond, happiness is waiting for us on the other side.

Please feel free to share your insights below  – I’d love to hear what you think of the list and what is next for you.


p.s. – Your happiness is important for more than one reason. You matter – we all matter. As each of us becomes the change we want to see in the world, the world becomes a brighter, better place to be. Make the commitment today to do one thing to increase your happiness.  

If you or someone you know or love is struggling with addiction, trauma or relationship problems don’t hesitate to contact us.  We are here for you.