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.

Emotional Sobriety: How to Work Effectively with Addicted Partners

I recently taught a class for Dr. Ellyn Bader in her online couples training program on working with alcoholic/addicts on developing their emotional sobriety. I want to share some of the highlights of that class with you here.

Addicts by nature can be described as self-absorbed and emotionally immature. Getting a clear picture of the onset of their use can tell you a lot about their emotional development.  Increasing developmental capacities for relational success will move them along the emotional sobriety continuum.

What is Emotional Sobriety? 

Most people don’t know that the term “emotional sobriety” was first coined by Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the early ’50s, after close to 20 years of working with alcoholics, he saw that like himself, many of these (mostly) men and women needed to continue their growth beyond abstinence. 

Emotional sobriety can be defined as:

“The ability to know what you are feeling. The ability to experience your feelings deeply without becoming overwhelmed by them. The ability to regulate your mood without the use of substances or unhealthy behavior.” (Tian Dayton, Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resiliency & Balance)

I also believe that the process of emotional healing from addiction is a continuum of growth that includes:

  • Living your best life
  • Being purpose-driven
  • Becoming ‘happy, joyous and free’

 

As a therapist, you can be more effective when working with addicted partners when you address the emotional areas of growth that are most prominent and necessary for emotional health.

Barriers if Partner(s) are in Active Addiction:

  1. Preoccupation(with their drug of choice): It makes focusing on the primacy of their attachment relationship with their spouse/partner unlikely if not impossible. The primary attachment is to their drug of choice.
  2. Impaired control: It’s difficult to build trust and count on a partner who has difficulty managing their own life. This unmanageability includes their emotions, their thoughts, and their behaviors.
  3. Persistent use/relapse/ uncontrollable urges: This creates a crazy-making roller-coaster ride for both partners, who hold out hope only to come crashing down with the next relapse.  Partners orientate around the addiction and walk on eggshells attempting to avoid triggering the next catastrophe.
  4. Dissatisfaction, irritability, delusional: There is generalized negativity that accompanies addiction. It is a classic glass ‘half empty’ worldview. The delusional aspect of addiction means that often the addict refuses to join in the reality of those around him or her. They hold out that ‘things aren’t that bad’ and believe that others are overreacting.

Yet, even if they have stopped, these and other underlying emotional deficits can persist.  When helping a couple to repair their relationship in the aftermath of addiction, there is much you can do to target your interventions with each partner based on knowledge of their emotional deficits.

If one or both partners are still active with their drug of choice, then it slows down the couples’ emotional growth. That’s why it’s essential to keep the issue of an untreated addiction ‘on the table’ and educate both partners about how it contributes to their lack of progress.

Interventions for Greater Emotional Sobriety:

1. Confront ‘switching’ addictions & all compulsive behaviours. 

Because addicts’ brains are wired towards seeking a ‘fix’, they tend to be compulsive in a lot of ways. Some will stop drinking, but start gambling, or stop drugging but start masturbating. Some choices, like workaholism, is often sanctioned and overlooked in our culture. Don’t be fooled – it is as big an issue as any other. Some serious behaviours are never reported to you and go under the radar. Be sure to ask the right questions because all addictions are emotionally destructive to the relationship.

One client came to therapy with a gambling addiction. He had spent money he didn’t have and borrowed from family members.  His wife gave him an ultimatum to get help or she was leaving. I later discovered that he also spent around 15-20 hours a week playing video games.  On top of that, he had a high-level job demanding 50-60 hours a week. Even though he insisted it was not a problem, I helped him understand that being a husband and father who could be relied upon, meant him being available to them, both physically and emotionally. His ‘checking out’ with video games had to stop.

2. Confront the negative projections onto their partner:

Along with an addict’s tendency to black & white thinking, his negative mindset means emotions are often “all or nothing”. An unwillingness to take ownership of painful internal states leads him to project blame onto his partner. Help him to acknowledge painful feelings, especially those connected with early life trauma.  At the same time, point out his emotional extremes as an integral part of his addiction. Working to expand his ‘window of tolerance’ means he can learn the necessary task of emotional regulation and self-soothing which brings to an end the emotional roller coaster for both partners.

Another client reported that after a routine fight with his partner, he couldn’t recover emotionally. He felt “hopeless…like there is no point to life anymore”.These types of responses ought to be a big red flag for therapists who can then address them as part of the bigger issue of emotional sobriety.

3. Confront oppositional behaviours that undermine the therapy.

There is a saying in the recovery community: “you can tell an alcoholic; you just can’t tell her much”. Don’t be sidelined when your client pushes away your attempts to point out how their emotional immaturity is showing up in their marriage. This denial often extends to their family of origin trauma as they cling to a fantasy of a loving childhood they never had.  As sad as that is, and as much as the healing of such trauma has to occur, communicate to them that you see through their attempts to escape the truth. 

One male client had grown up with two alcoholic parents. While having everything materially, he was not only neglected but shamed and belittled by his father. He refused to see how his upbringing was showing up in his current marriage, where he made unrealistic demands on his partner to give him the emotional validation he never received at home.

He was very angry when I said to him one day, “your father was a child abuser”.  After much back and forth, he finally let the truth sink in and it had a life-changing effect on him. He no longer needed to deny the past to tolerate the present. He no longer found it necessary to project his unresolved rage on his partner.

4. Repeatedly model and encourage compassion as the key to emotional sobriety.

Self-loathing resides at the core of the addict (and many other clients we see as well). It is the root cause behind their relapses and their lack of emotional progress in therapy. Helping them to acknowledge both the pain of their past and the pain they caused during their addiction is necessary for emotional sobriety. At the same time, they must begin to find self-forgiveness for it all. This gentle acceptance along with a commitment to being a better version of themselves is at the heart of emotional sobriety.

Conclusion:  Confrontation is Your Ally

This population of clients can be extremely challenging to work with. At the same time, they can be some of the most intelligent, accomplished and caring people you will ever meet. Our job is to keep them to task on those emotional deficits that trip them up every time – particularly when they are operating unconsciously.

While we must confront the emotional issues that keep them stuck in the cycle of addiction, it is equally important that they perceive that we care. Your relationship with them needs to be free from any collusion with their addiction or you are sunk. An addict is proficient in detecting when they are up against someone they can walk all over. They need to know you get them and will put their survival over your need to be liked by them. Show them you will continually and lovingly confront them with the truth. They will not be able to be honest with themselves if you do not model high-level honesty in your interactions with them.

I will have more to say on this topic in my next blog.

Here’s to learning and strengthening our ability to provide effective couples therapy to partners with addiction.

Respectfully,

Retreat and Refocus

Focusing on Your Aim of Life

East = Inward

A few times a year, I exit from my busy life running a therapy centre to go on meditation retreat. I’m here now studying under Kriyayoga Master, Yogi Satyam and enjoying the opportunity to look deeper within myself. The theme important to me is staying focused on my aim of life. In eastern psychology, there is a fundamental belief that we are born with innate wisdom, knowledge and all power. It is considered our true nature but it gets obscured through social conditioning. We are taught from birth to look outward to know our self and to figure out our purpose in life.

In Eastern practices, on the other hand, the focus of our attention is inward. We concentrate inside with the aim to feel the presence of the Divine energy that flows through all life. This Omnipresent Spirit is all knowing (intuition) and provides a sense of peace, all kinds of power, and bliss (ever new joy). Kriyayoga meditation is the highest form of practice to reach this aim.

West = Outward

 

So many of us in the west are overwhelmed by the constant struggles and seeming lack of meaning in life. What is the purpose of my life? What exactly am I supposed to accomplish here? If money can’t buy happiness, then what can? Is there something in the unseen realms that can help us manage the limitations of physical existence?

To cope, many of us get lost in the throes of addiction or compulsive activities, like work or exercise. Or some of us develop an unhealthy dependency on others to confirm a sense of worthiness, or to ward off loneliness. It is easy to criticize those who do so, yet it is the cultural conditioning that is at fault; that sets us all up for striving externally for a sense of contentment within.

East Meets West

In the west we value scientific discovery and “proof”. Skeptics ask, “How do we prove that this Divine wisdom underlies all of creation?” But there is proof and those who want it must be willing to do the experiment of self-realization. This experiment is the inward journey and the laboratory is your own self. And like any scientific enquiry, “If you do the experiment (of prayer & meditation), you will not be able to deny the experience”.

There is a lot of scientific data on the effects of meditation, especially for serious long-term meditators. But the benefits can be felt immediately with even a little regular practice. It leads to a more positive overall outlook on life; more peace and calm and less loneliness.

What gives life purpose? To sum up: it is being of service. It is a feeling that what you do matters in some small way and that you matter. In other words, the “spirit” moves us in our lives to stay active in meaningful ways. Often people believe service work means doing international charity work, but that’s not necessary. Being of service can be as simple as caring lovingly and responsibly for the plants, animals and people in your life.

The World is One Home 

Last night’s lecture was titled “The world is one home”.  We were asked to open our minds and be flexible enough to feel at home no matter where we are and no matter who we are with. Is it possible to let go just a little of our attachment to the concept and comfort of “mine”?

For those who are willing to take this journey, the rewards are immense. Meditation isn’t about a short period of time sitting on a cushion. Nor is faith just a blind belief in something unseen that we have no connection to. Instead, we must begin to live our Faith –  that guides us to align with our highest Self. Faith is belief in the Eternal Substance that was present before, is present now and will be in the future. In Kriyayoga meditation, we practice connecting with this Truth, resulting in greater health, ever new peace & joy and a sense of purpose in life.

Start Your Experiment in the Aim for Peace

 

These wonderful qualities, which are the antidote to our anxiety, depression and sense of overwhelm with life cannot be given to us by anything external. They cannot be given to you by another person, no matter how much they love you. No amount of money, property or prestige can provide it either.

These qualities can only come from within – from your ongoing commitment to cultivate a deep connection with the Source of all that is peace, power and knowledge.

Each of our paths is unique. You must find what works for you. Have you found your practice to more inner peace? If not, I hope you will consider the search worthwhile. I hope also that you will spend time in the next while in the experiment, so that you don’t miss the experience.

Wishing you peace & happiness,
 
Sue

2 Key Tactics to Keep Couples Motivated 

Are you afraid of hard work?

Not your own hard work. Your clients’.

Did you know the only way partners can expect meaningful change in their relationship is if they commit to ongoing strenuous effort?

If not, you are not alone. As crazy as it sounds, so many therapists end up working harder than their clients do.

If you want tips for keeping couples motivated, read on…as what I’m about to share will create a lot of relief for you and help you get better results.

In my last blog to you, Get Couples Therapy on Track and Moving: What most Therapists Don’t Know”, I quoted Dr. Peter Pearson. With his wealth of experience working with couples over the last 30 years, he has fine-tuned his approach and is a true Master in the field of couples therapy. He is someone I continue to learn so much from.

I emphasized the two most important messages to hit home with couples is to: a) help them learn to calm their reptilian brain (which is triggered by their partner and reacts badly; and b) to stay ‘forward focused’ in their work with you.

Those two things are hard enough to accomplish. But here’s the kicker. If clients do not know their “why”, then as Dr. Pete says, “they will inevitably lose their way”.  So you have to start here.

First Things First

The fact is this: your attempts to get couples to follow through on your interventions will fall flat, if you haven’t first established their motivation to do the hard work of change.

We’ve all been there – wanting their lives to be better more than they seem to.  The therapy stalls, you have premature dropouts, you start to feel burned out and dread sessions with them or worst of all, angry escalations targeted at you for not changing them fast enough.

Like physicians presented with symptoms, they often want the magic pill,  putting the burden of responsibility for relief square on your shoulders. That’s a recipe for disaster, if partners are ever going to move from a place of dependency and despondency to one of authority and action.  

When you insist on pushing couples to connect to, articulate and commit to their personal process of change, your authority as an effective leader will be established. You will have created the structure necessary to keep them motivated and working.

Two Key Strategies to Shift the Workload

1. Ask each partner to think deeply about their purpose for coming to see you. You are not asking for a pat answer, but a deeply meaningful one. “I want to learn how to become a man my wife can trust and count on,” verses, “To get her off my back.”  Or, “I want to learn how to treat him with respect and be more loving,” rather than, “Find a way to get him to help more with the chores.”

2. Next, ask each partner to describe what it will require of them to bring that change about.  Again, you are not settling for a superficial response about some insignificant action they can take, like “I’ll come home on time for dinner each night”. That probably won’t cut it. It might sound more like, “I need to figure out why I lie to him and cause him so much pain. It will mean me healing the damage of my past.”

Once you have clearly established each partners purpose or deep desire and what exactly they are working on as their growth edge, then ask them to describe the benefits that will result – for themselves and their partner.

Spend time here.  Get them to list as many as they can and add a few yourself that they may have forgotten. This is where the Developmental Model incorporates neuroscience findings. This is the way you anchor it in memory and help them to create new neural pathways.

Have them imagine themselves already there. How do they see themselves reacting, how does it feel, what happens for their partner when they act from their highest self? Have them ascribe a word or phrase to this state and write this down on an index card. Ask that they can carry it with them as a reminder of how they aspire to be when they are triggered by their partner.

Forward Focused

Let them know you will support them to maintain this goal by stepping in each and every time they lose sight of or connection to their personal goal.

You will offer them developmental assists and teach them the necessary skills to stay committed to their ‘why’ – so they won’t lose their way. 

You are modelling the futility of rehashing the past and instead replacing it with the personal gift of showing up as their best self.

By following this formula, you will accomplish what many couples therapist fail to do – place the onus of hard work and perseverance squarely where it needs to be – on those that need to change.

 

All the best,

What Most Therapists Don’t Know

Get Couples Therapy on Track and Moving:  What most Therapists Don’t Know

I love working with high distressed couples because it challenges me as a therapist to grow and learn.  I’m not saying it’s easy – it’s anything but.  A lot of therapists flat out refuse to do it. But, the rewards are immense when you know where to put your focus – to be a good leader while keeping couples focused on their developmental growth edges.

I recently had the wonderful privilege of spending time with my mentors, Dr.’s Ellyn Bader & Pete Pearson.  In one of our clinical training sessions, Dr. Pete helped us understand why so many therapists like me and you, get stalled with couples who are entrenched in patterns of conflict avoidance or hostile angry clashes.

Trying to solve their problems is quite simply, putting the cart before the horse. It will never end in real and permanent change in their attachment system, nor their level of differentiation. Instead, there are two important shifts you must make to increase your effectiveness.

1. Teach them about the ‘primitive brain’ and how important it is for them to take responsibility to regulate it under stress.

Neuroscience is rapidly inserting itself into the field of psychotherapy. We now know that the fight/flight/freeze instinct hijacks relationships. It interprets a partner’s behavior as a threat to survival, demanding self-protection rather than openness and connection.

We all bring our baggage to our marriages.  We might not open the bags right away, but eventually, we will begin to repeat, reenact and re-traumatize with seemingly no awareness of why. The sad reality is that couples will let this go on for years, seeking therapy only after a well-entrenched destructive pattern is leading them to the brink of divorce.

Helping each partner understand their “triggers” is a first step. By learning to calm the distress within themselves, they can begin to untangle their past “memory” of threat from their current reality.  They can free up energy in the thinking, decision-making parts of their brain, to help them interrupt negative knee-jerk responses.

2. Show them how to keep their eyes and their behavior forward focused.

Creating safety in a relationship allows each partner to risk being vulnerable.  Safety comes when each person is accountable for how they aspire to be, especially under stress.  This takes ongoing effort, something that many therapists fail to impart to couples. If you feel at times that you are working harder than your couples, then that’s a red flag that you have gotten off track.

Avoid the retelling of the horrible ways they treat one another. That wastes valuable time looking backwards, that you could spend having them rehearse being a better version of themselves.

The forward focus is about getting each person to define and commit to their “ideal self” as a partner. Having them practice being that way in your office allows them to transfer this ability to stressful situations that arise in their lives.

With your consistent help, partners will integrate these two skills, making your job easier and more enjoyable. More importantly, couples experience warmth, love and connection with one another, which is what they are longing for.

 

All the best,

P.S. If you would like to learn more about how to apply these and other developmental approaches to couples therapy, consider joining my Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of Couples Therapy Level 1 training class beginning January 29, 2018. I would love to meet and work with you. To find out more, click here.