It is clear to me almost the first session which couples are going to get what they want out of couple therapy relatively quickly and who is going to be coming for a long time. It has to do with a willingness to be open to new ideas, a willingness to make changes and to learn new things, and a willingness to make the effort to have this happen.
Another huge piece is to stop blaming your partner and for what’s wrong in the relationship and look to yourself to see what you can do differently.
It takes a certain amount of strength in self, ego strength some people call it, to be able to do this without collapsing on the one hand or blowing up on the other. Good couple therapists know this and provide vehicles for the couple to build personal strength so that they can grow, as partners, in their communication and caring for one another.
Snakes live in the forest. Every day they travel over rough ground – pebbles, rocks, fallen trees with uneven bark. Every Spring they get a new skin, and it happens this way: the old skin stretches and loosens. It eventually detaches, over time, from the snakes body, and the new skin shows up underneath.
The old skin never falls off until the new skin has had the time to toughen up and manage the rough terrain the snake goes through. When It first appears, the new skin is delicate and pink, but by the time it is ready to protect the snake from it’s daily environment, it has become brown and strong.
It’s never the therapist’s job to pull he skin off a snake.
I’ve been asked how much therapists really ‘get it’ about how much they effect their clients’ daily lives with what they say and do. I say it depends on the quality of the therapist. It doesn’t hurt if the therapist has been in therapy themselves and experienced the power of transference.
Good therapists know very well how significant they are to their clients, certainly want to avoid their clients’ losing them, and pay attention to what they say and do. Good therapists put themselves into a “good parent mode” when they are working, and are careful about balancing nurturing and challenging interventions that are intended to promote growth. Even the way a phrase is delivered can make an important impression. It’s part of the therapist’s job not to be overly tired, and certainly not irritable, from their own life.
I often feel as it I have the ‘client’s life in my hands’ knowing full well how powerful my words and actions can be for them. Doing therapy is not a casual business. That’s why therapists are tired after a day of sessions. They have been working hard, mentally and emotionally, to give each client their best.
I have been asked by clients what to do with their feelings of attraction to their therapist, past or present.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling usually, and often makes a client feel one down – because an ethical therapist won’t reciprocate and the client feels alone in their attraction. The therapeutic relationship is a natural place for clients to sometimes develop romantic feelings for the therapist. After all, the client is being listened to deeply, possibly understood more fully than ever before, and hopefully truly helped.
The informed therapist doesn’t take the client’s feelings personally, and is most concerned with treating the client respectfully about their feelings, and also reassure the client that the relationship will always remain therapist/ client. It’s important for the client to know that the therapist will never take advantage of the client’s feelings and allow any other kind of relationship to develop, besides therapeutic, in session, either during therapy or afterward.
Feeling attracted to your therapist is often a part of positive transference.
The beginning of good relationships is all about finding out how similar you are and being inside each other’s pockets, or wanting to be, all the time. That’s the passion that cements you as a couple, and it’s usually a wonderful, falling in love time.
But it doesn’t last, not for any couple, and trying to hold onto it when you need to be growing to the next natural stage in couple love development only causes upset. Of course, it can feel scary and anxiety provoking: What’s changing here? Why is anything changing? We were great, and now you want to spend time with your old friends? You disagree with me… about what??
This second , natural stage of development for couples includes recognizing that you are two different people, with different interests and even emotional reactions. Often it includes wanting to be on your own more of the time. It’s a time of redefining your self-dom and when it is working well, it comes with the delight of having your partner see you as yourself, the uniques you who is not just a mirror of your partner. It includes being able to speak your different opinions describing your differing feelings and being heard and accepted as yourself. Essential too is being able to hear your partner as being different from you – listening to their perspective and their feelings and working out what needs to be agreed on, which isn’t everything.
This second stage of couple growth can be difficult to navigate particularly when one person is ready to step forward into it, and the other is not. The person who is not ready can easily feel abandoned, frightened, and try to prevent their partner from what feels like moving apart from them. This is when many people come to couple therapy, and the right therapist can be a lot of help.
Rather than being afraid, I urge you to see this as a growth step that will lead to a much deeper and closer intimacy for you and your partner.
I am in the process of gathering a few therapists for a small consultation group that will meet in my office at the Quarry Arts Building. I am keeping it small, likely 3 to 4 therapists and me, so there is ample time for everyone’s participation. The group members will bring cases they wish to discuss and get assistance about. I’ve found that to be an excellent way to learn. There will be time for additional discussion about therapy in general as regards the case presented. I will charge a nominal fee for my time, depending on how many people are involved. If you would prefer one on one consultation, that can also be arranged.
I have had 40 years of experience in private practice in Madison, and my expertise is presented in the articles and blog entries on this site. If you have questions or are interested in joining, don’t hesitate to call: 608 535 9266.
People who have had trauma in their lives dissociate in therapy sessions often, so therapists who work with trauma are quite familiar with it. The most common way to tell when someone is dissociating is by looking at their eyes, which get defocused, and seem to be “pulled inward.” Other, more extreme, examples of dissociation are: When a woman told me she saw my head off to one side of my neck, or when someone switched alters and when the first alter came back, she/he didn’t know what happened during the time the other alter was in charge of the body – which is an experience of losing time. The last example is of someone with DID, but not everyone who disassociates has DID., People who have experienced trauma often dissociate without intention and often without awareness. It’s an automatic defense that is experienced as “just happening,” and it happens when the person feels threatened or unsafe.
When someone eyes defocus, I bring their attention to what happened so they are aware of it, and help them “come back” : changing the subject that is threatening, asking them to intentionally look around the room and say out loud what they see, ask them what percentage of them is in the present, all of which increases self awareness and normalizes the experience. Sometimes when they are back I might ask if they remember what was threatening and ask them/ help them to stay present while they describe it.
When the dissociation is more extreme, I explain what is happening, or just happened, and we talk about it conversationally. The purpose is to empower the person to not feel so unable to control the dissociative experiences and to explain why it happens and assure them it is not intentional, and that sometimes they aren’t going to be able to consciously decide not to do it. Recognizing what happened, naming it and also recognizing that nothing terrible happened because of it is also reassuring.
If you are worried about maybe disassociating in a therapy session, be sure you choose a therapist who has had experience with trauma and who is someone you can rely on to help you.
Once upon a time along time ago there was a little girl who lived under a tree. That is, she lived in the big hole in the side of the tree where the ground was soft and it was dry and not too very cold even when it was cold outside. She lived there whenever her parents got too crazy with her. Sometimes they did get too crazy and they said crazy things and did crazy things and it wasn’t safe to be near them. But she could run away and be safe in her tree. Her tree loved her and it was alive!
It was very wonderful to have some thing that was alive that loved her and would not hurt her and get crazy. She brought her softest blanket there and a bottle no one would miss that had water in it. Sometimes she brought some food that she could steal from the kitchen in the big house. And -OH ! – she knew the tree was alive because it had little new shoots at the tips of the branches every spring, ever since she could remember. Nobody from the big house ever missed her or went looking for her so whenever she wanted she could go to her loving tree.
Sometimes she wondered why she ever did go back to hang around her parents in the big house. “I guess” she would say to herself, “maybe one of them would change and be loving like my tree.” But they never did.
One day there was a big storm with lots of rain and windy wind. Very windy wind. She went out to her loving tree and it was lying down with it’s roots showing instead of being in the ground. That was scarey, because it changed. Like her parents changed. That was very scarey. She found out that she could still get into the hole but it didn’t seem so good anymore because the hole was lying down too and there wasn’t as much room in there anymore. She knew she couldn’t get the tree to stand up like it used to. It was too big to even budge. Now the ground did get wet and it was colder than it used to be when it got cold outside. Besides she was getting bigger herself. There really wasn’t enough room.
So one day she sadly said goodbye to her tree and went walking down the road near by. She was very startled by a boy who she saw walking down the road too. He asked her where she was going and this she told him: “I’m going where the north wind doesn’t blow down good trees and where the people are as nice as good trees.” “Do you know where that is?” he wanted to know. “Not for sure,” she answered, “but it isn’t behind me so I figured it’s got to be up ahead somewhere. So that’s where I’m looking.” “That sounds right to me” he said, “I don’t like what’s behind me either. Can I come with you?”
” Well, yeah” she said. “But I’m not used to company.”
“Neither am I,” he answered, “but we will figure it out.”
“Hmm,” she nodded, and so they kept walking together.
Couple relationships go through growing stages, and although this is a normal and healthy development, it can be painful to experience and can sometimes make couples question if they should remain together. This is often why couples often come into therapy as they move through the stages, especially when one person is moving into a different stage than their partner is in.
Let’s look at stages of growth of all couples.
Stage 1 is called Symbiosis: This is also known as “The Honeymoon Period” – both people are swept up in the excitement of their romance. “He (or she) has so much in common with me!” “Everything seems perfect” and “We are so much alike!” Both are ecstatic with the mutuality and perfection of the other, “How could anything go wrong?” It’s important to have some time like this to establish your coupledom.
Stage 2 is called Differentiating: After a while things happen that show you are really two different people. Maybe you don’t really like watching football, and that he has no interest in riding horses. She thinks you are “too” left leaning and liberal and you’ve been proud of that. It’s disappointing and hard to take for the one who wants to feel exactly alike and perfectly suited ( the one that is still symbiotic). It may feel liberating and factual for the differentiating partner. Here indeed is trouble in paradise. As it happens, one partner starts feeling restless or smothered. It seems like hanging out with old friends would be so nice. Doing that sport, hobby (or whatever) that’s been neglected in spending so much of your time together – starts to look appealing. This is a time when couples often show up in a therapist’s office.
Stage 3 is called Practicing: This is when the couple are both “trying out” being their separate selves while still being connected as a couple. They spend time apart doing separate things. They take the risk to say they disagree and speak their differing opinions. At this time they are often dealing with the risks and struggles of dealing with each other’s different needs and preferences , and it is a time of immense personal growth.
Stage 4 is called Rapprochement: This is when the couple is comfortable going back and forth, going away and coming together, returning to each other with ease and intimacy. They come back to each other refreshed and happy to be connected deeply again. Their trust is secure in the other. The each are supporting the other’s self esteem.
Being able to see what stage your relationship is in can be reassuring and useful. Often one person is a little ahead of the other, and pulling their partner to come along with them. When going through these stages gets rough, couple therapy is often what is needed.
Good luck with each other! Love is a wonderful thing to cultivate at all it’s stages, and much too precious to neglect or loose.
Question: I have tried psychotherapy in the past without as much success as I would have liked. I would like to try again but how do I find a better therapist?
Not every therapist is right for every client so choosing the right therapist for yourself is essential. After the basic competence of the therapist, it is the relationship between the therapist and client that matters most. You need to find someone with whom you can build an effective therapeutic relationship. Fortunately there are usually enough choices, so consider several and find one that feels right to you.