Archive | Relationships

Couples Therapy

Each one of us is involved in relationships with many people and the quality of those relationships has a tremendous impact on our physical and emotional health. Of course, we all bring to any relationship our own way of being in the world and our own self-image. Often we seek out partners in the hope, maybe even a subconscious wish, that they can “fix” us or help us to gain the confidence and self-acceptance that, in fact, we all must find as individuals. The goal of course, in a couples relationship, is to love and be loved, in whatever unique way each of us seeks that form of mutual and ideal bliss.

Whether we tend to be a bit of a loner or gravitate toward crowds, the relationship patterns we form beginning at birth affect our personal connections and, in the long-term, have a tremendous impact on our satisfaction and happiness.

When a Relationship Just Isn’t Working Anymore

It’s common to seek guidance from a mental health professional because the relationship patterns we’ve been using just don’t work anymore and frequently are causing a situation to worsen. It may seem on the surface a cruel irony that the person we want to love the most is the one that can trigger intense feelings, and not always good ones. But if we look at the wider perspective, that often annoying partner gives us a chance to learn to be a more understanding and compassionate person, and in the long run, to bring respect and joy to our most intimate relationship.

5 Good Reasons to Begin Couples Therapy

  1. The relationship is stuck in negativity – A couple may seek counseling if a long-term relationship or marriage has reached a stalemate and issues cannot be resolved, but the partners want to make a sincere effort to find a new path toward resolution. Often one partner begins going to counseling, but there’s a much more realistic chance of creating a better relationship if both people seek out the guidance of an experienced therapist.
  2. Sexual issues – A healthy relationship must have a strong physical component based on the needs and desires of each partner. For some, probably for most couples, a passionate sexual relationship is desired, but emotional experiences from the past can get in the way of trust that leads to passion. For others, it might be important to spend time sitting close together on the sofa watching movies or walking hand-in-hand. Some couples enjoy close physical time in projects, perhaps building things at home, or may prefer hiking or camping. What can often cause a problem is the difference in the physical and sexual desires of the individual partners. That’s why it’s important to find a therapist you trust and are comfortable with, to clarify each person’s hopes and needs and find a way to reach a mutually satisfying physical relationship.
  3. Preparing for marriage – Sometimes couples seek counseling before marriage and some go to counseling even if they are living together with no immediate plans to make it official. Getting a good start can build a solid relationship that endures through times when there is disagreement or trouble not of your own making, perhaps a job loss or illness in the extended family. Life’s challenges can and do happen in any family, and a couple is bound to experience some unexpected turmoil during the time they are together. Two people are never mirror images of each other and learning techniques for managing differences will enrich a relationship and give it the strength to stay afloat through tumultuous tides and calm seas.
  4. Giving it one last try – People on the verge of divorce often go to counseling as a ‘last ditch’ effort to try to make it work. Working with a therapist you trust can help each person remember the reasons they were attracted to each other in the first place. If there are truly ‘irreconcilable differences,’  a therapist can help a couple understand why the relationship doesn’t work for the long-term, and guide each of the partners to move forward with insight to make future relationships better.
  5. Family problems – Parenting conflicts can force the two people to grow farther apart, so turning first to couples therapy can help develop unified family goals and create a more peaceful home. The therapist may suggest family therapy, if it would be suitable to include the children or teenagers at some point.

The common factor in any of these, and many other issues, is that no one lives or functions alone.  In many cases, the issues can’t be resolved alone, particularly if negative interactions continue to worsen the relationship.  Emotional ‘triggers’ are frequently deeply embedded from childhood issues or other traumatic or hurtful events, leaving a person consciously unaware of why they react the way they do. Our mental health, with its strengths and knots, is intricately involved in our closest personal interactions, so this is where healing begins, in the intensity of the one-to-one relationship.

What if the other people are ‘the problem’?  

OK, we have to admit that people close to us can cause us much emotional distress, especially if they suffer from issues such as addiction, eating disorders, depression or the inability to manage anger. Just poor communication habits can lead to major disharmony. It’s also important to admit that it’s very possible that we played a role in our loved ones developing these problems. It’s our responsibility to improve and maintain our own mental health and do our part to contribute to the emotional health of the partnership, as much as is humanly possible. As part of a couple, one of our basic human instincts is compassion.

That’s why it’s critical for both members of a couple in a troubled or dysfunctional relationship to seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional and learn new ways to create positive relationship patterns.

Extensive research and ever-increasing options for couples therapy offer compassionate, results-oriented and confidential counseling that can spark breakthroughs leading to improved physical and mental health and peace of mind.

Some Options for Couples and Family Therapy

Each couple, and each partner in the couple, must be comfortable with the type of therapy chosen and find a therapist they trust in order to get the intended results – a healthier and happier relationship. Couples therapy is as much an art as a science and as such, it is important to find a therapist that you resonate with. Most therapists draw from an eclectic training background and often integrate concepts from various models, of which there are many. Here are just a few examples of the many options available in couples therapy.

Narrative Therapy: This method seeks to understand the stories or themes that shape a person’s life. The essence of narrative therapy could be, “The person is never the problem – the problem is the problem.” This therapy endeavors to uncover personal intentions, values and dreams and to recall and emphasize positive instances of those experiences. Discussing the mental health issues as a “story” helps externalize the problems, takes away some of the negative charge and allows the person to gain new perspective. For couples, narrative therapy helps eliminate blame by externalizing the source of conflict. For example, where partners feel annoyed with each other, they can view “annoyance” as an external problem to be examined and resolved, with guidance from the therapist, rather than blaming each other as the personal source of annoyance.

Imago Relationship Therapy:  Detailed in the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, originally published in 1988, Imago therapy is based on the theory that we tend to choose a partner who brings to the surface the emotional issues we need to heal in ourselves. The concept is that we are wounded in some ways as children and the goal of the partnership or marriage is to heal the unfinished business of childhood. While that may seem a recipe for tension, the long-term goal of Imago therapy is to understand the differences we have with our mate, why our partner may have developed what we may view as an annoying habit or perspective, accept it, and from there develop true compassion and patterns that create a respectful and mutually nurturing relationship. To put it simply, Imago is based on the theory that we instinctively choose, not someone who is a reflection of ourselves, but a “complementary” partner who will help us become an emotionally richer, more compassionate and more fulfilled human being.

Gottman Method: This therapy, based on 40 years of research by psychologists John and Julie Gottman, focuses on the couple creating shared fondness and admiration for each other. Couples learn to replace negative conflict patterns with positive interactions and to repair past hurts. Interventions are designed to increase closeness and intimacy and are used to improve friendship, deepen emotional connection, and create changes that strengthen the couple’s shared goals. This method works to reinforce trust and commitment to a lifelong relationship.

Duration and Goals of Couples Therapy

Experienced therapists often use a combination of techniques geared to the unique needs of the individuals to help the couple reach the goal of a healthy, well-functioning and more joyful relationship. Therapy can evolve with the couple as the relationship changes and improves. Each person may meet with a therapist individually at times, and at other times meet as a couple. There may be weekend opportunities that allow the couple time to be away from daily responsibilities and focus on each other. The couple will determine the type and duration of therapy in collaboration with a trusted therapist.


American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “What is Marriage and Family Therapy?” Alexandria, Va., 2017

Imago Relationships International, “What is Imago?”

Gottman, John and Julie, “Gottman Method Couples Therapy,” The Gottman Institute, 2017

Sween, Erik, “The One-Minute Question: What Is Narrative Therapy?” Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide, Australia, 1988

Cotter, Lucy, “Narrative Couples Therapy: The Power of Externalization,”, Dec. 2, 2009

Keys to Keeping Love and Delight Alive

Love at First Sight

Two people fall in love and want to live together. They may have fallen in love at first sight or been pulled along by the current of “chemistry.” Sometimes friends and family try to convince the lovers that this kind of rather unrealistic, illogical love won’t last.

Love as a Meeting of Minds

For others, love might be a meeting of minds or hearts, or even cultures or religion. Two people just get along so well that it’s a supportive and practical love, a relationship of best friends, with the addition of romance. It’s the kind of love many people think is a good foundation for a lasting relationship, one that can get through the trials and tribulations of life.

No matter how the couple relationship begins, there often comes a time when the honeymoon is over, the flame has flickered or the responsibilities and troubles of daily life have made the joy of being together evaporate, or even turn to anger or hate.

Two Key Questions About Relationships

That’s a time to ask the questions posed by renowned marriage counselor John Gottman in his article “The Science of Togetherness” in Psychotherapy Networker. Gottman says we have to answer two key questions about relationships.

Question #1: What causes trouble between people?

Question #2: What helps two people not merely survive together, but actually rekindle love and delight?

Turning Toward or Away from Love

To find these answers Gottman points to insights about relationships discovered in the “Love Lab,” an “apartment laboratory” with cameras that helped newlyweds discover their negative and positive patterns of relationship.

Let’s say Mary, for example, would go to the window and say, ”Oh it’s so pretty out there. There’s a beautiful boat.” Then John might say, “Oh, yes it is.” Gottman describes John’s positive response as “turning toward” the relationship.

But if the partner has no response, Gottman calls that “turning away.”

These tendencies “toward” and “away” are often intensified in a long-term relationship.

Research in this lab showed that newlyweds who “turned toward” each other for more than 80 percent of their interactions were still together six years later. Those who “turned away” for about one-third of their interactions were divorced in six years.

This recognition of the partner’s presence, the respect and acknowledgement of the partner’s thoughts or comments is a key element in keeping the flame of love at a healthy simmer.

Building Trust

Trust is a necessary foundation for a healthy and deepening relationship. Gottman’s research showed that one important ingredient that builds trust is “attunement.” That’s when one partner listens compassionately and nondefensively when their partner expresses a negative emotion.

“The motto of high-trust couples seems to be, ‘Baby, when you’re upset, the world stops and I listen’,” said Gottman.  Trust deepens when one partner listens, even if that person is the target of a complaint or criticism.

One partner might say, for example, “I’m angry because you’re on your cell phone at dinner, instead of spending time with me. I want us to spend that time being really together.”

A partner who knows how to build trust would say, “O.K. That makes sense. I’m listening. What do you need? What would you prefer that I do?”

A divorce may be in the future if the partner answers, ”Well, you aren’t so perfect either. You bounced that check last week.”

Gottman’s research found that this essential element of trust is created when each partner comes from a point of mutual interest, rather than self-interest. This helps keep the relationship tipped in a positive direction.

Conflicts are bound to arise in any relationship. It’s important to stay away from the attack-and-defend pattern. That leaves a negative shadow over the relationship.

The key is to begin a conversation about a conflict gently and for each partner to take responsibility for at least part of the problem, according to Gottman.

The long-term wisdom from the research is that minimizing blame during any conflict and being able to come to an understanding and move forward maintains a sense of love that can create delight in just being together.



Gottman, John, “The Science of Togethness: Making Couples Therapy More Effective,” Psychology Networker, September/October 2017

It’s Not Just About Sex: Reaching for Soul Deep Intimacy

Mark and Stacey found themselves, after just two years of marriage, facing an all-too-common issue – a difference in sexual desire that created confusion and resentment.

Therapist Richard Schwartz said in counseling this couple, as with all couples, it’s important to take a few steps back and reflect on the bigger picture – how the two people relate to each other. Schwartz said couples therapy can be most successful when reaching toward the true goal of intimacy. A healthy sexual relationship is a powerful pathway to that goal.  But the steps on path have to begin with partners knowing themselves, and understanding the other person, so the sexual relationship can be not only passionate, but compassionate.

The Connection Between Intimacy and Sex

“No other area of a couple’s life holds as much promise for achieving intimacy as sex,” says Schwartz in an article “Helping Struggling Couples Get to the Root of Intimacy Problems” in Psychotherapy Networker. “Indeed, the promise of intimacy may be as important as lust for drawing human beings toward sex in the first place. My goal now is to help partners reach the kind of soul-deep connectedness in their sexual encounters that can transform their lives and their relationship with each other.”

Negative Responses Compound Sexual Issues

When couples struggle with a lack of harmony in their sexual relationship, an ongoing pattern of desire and rejection can dig the couple into negative patterns that worsen the sexual relationship, as well as the broader emotional relationship.

Schwartz found this negative pattern creating disharmony between Mark and Stacey.

“Now, not only do I not get my sexual needs met, but I feel rejected because most of the time I get shot down when I initiate,” Mark told the therapist.

At the same time, Stacey told the therapist she hungered for more emotional connection in their sexual relationship.

“For me to want to make love, I have to feel emotionally connected to him and, to be honest, most of the time, I just don’t,” said Stacey. “It’s gotten to the point where any time he touches me I freeze up. I’m afraid to respond even affectionately because if I do, he thinks it’s an invitation to sex.”

Uncovering the Innocent Physical Self

During individual counseling sessions with Schwartz, Stacey recalled a time when she was six-years-old and her father was getting her ready for a bath. She sensed, in an instinctive, childlike way that there was something wrong – and bad – about the way he looked at her. Although nothing happened, the feeling of distrust and fear stayed with her when she felt physically vulnerable as an adult. She also recalled her mother making distasteful comments about sex and even though Stacey was too young to understand, the feeling stayed with her.

Mark, in private counseling sessions with Schwartz, recalled a time when he was 13 and other boys made fun of him in the locker room. That’s when he began to develop his “macho” persona that he felt he needed to rise above the teasing.

Once they recalled their negative associations with sex in the comfort of private sessions, Schwartz began specific therapeutic techniques to help them replace the negative memories with more positive images. That helped both of them release the negative patterns that had created obstacles in their sexual relationship.

Healing the Physical and Emotional Connections

“When I brought them together for a joint session, I told Mark and Stacey, ‘No wonder you feel so hopeless. You never had a chance for real intimacy. As you heal these parts we’ve found, you’ll finally have a chance’,” said Schwartz.

Describing the new, clearer relationship as a “self-to-self” connection, Schwartz said many positive developments occurred during a year of couples counseling.

“Mark and Stacey reported continuing changes in their sexual and nonsexual lives together.  Each was becoming a different person with the other. In fact, they were becoming a lot of different people with each other in ways that increasingly energized, touched and delighted them both.”

When a couple can have honest and satisfying sexual experiences, the physical intimacy becomes a backdrop for a safe and wonderful relationship on many levels, said Schwartz.

When each person in the couple understands how to build authentic “self-to-self moments,” one-upon-another, said Schwartz, “… the storms of life cannot interrupt a deeper, more enduring current flowing between them.”



Schwartz, Richard, “Helping Struggling Couples Get to the Root of Intimacy Problems,” Psychotherapy Networker, Sept. 28, 2017.

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