The Discovery That Turned My Practice Around

When I got out of graduate school, I had taken one and only one course in couple therapy. I was lucky to have a very gifted teacher, and I loved the class and learned a lot. But in my internship, I was faced with some extremely challenging couple clientssome of the most challenging clients I have ever had. This trend continued into my residency.  I was struggling, and I felt stuck. I realized I needed to learn a lot very quickly if I were to work successfully with couples.

I began a quest for boots-on-the-ground strategies for working with the toughest couples. I needed a way to understand why they were so stuck, and how to help. I researched theories, I tried a broad variety of interventions, and I developed some strategies that helped a lot.

As I learned more, I became convinced that at the root of the matter was differentiation of self, which is the ability to know yourself, tell someone else about your preferences and desires without freaking out, and stay grounded when they return the favor. Nonetheless, I found precious little focus on differentiation of self among couple therapy theory. I took every seminar I could find, and I still couldn’t figure out how to be as effective as I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure the training I needed even existed.

Finally, I stumbled upon a free webinar presented by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson of the Couples Institute. It was a revelation. Their Developmental Model of Couple Therapy combines aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience, and frames stages of couple relationships in a way that normalizes and creates context for the struggles we all experience in relationships. It was the missing piece in my practice that I had been seeking.

I listened to Ellyn and Pete’s talk four times, and took 5 pages of notes. I wanted their exact words, which seemed magical in their ability to shift an entire dynamic. I applied the intervention I learned in their webinar that very same week. I felt the shift right away; I finally felt like I was in control of each session, and had a plan. I have been using these interventions ever since, with every single couple. That was a turning point in my career.

I felt excited about couple therapy again. The Developmental Model meshed exactly with the things I had developed that worked, and also went SO MUCH FURTHER! I was elated! I stopped feeling like I had to re-invent the wheel, breathed a sigh of relief, and began to train in the Developmental Model.

Currently, I’m starting my fourth year of training with Ellyn, and my third year being mentored by Ellyn and Pete. In the mentoring group, I get to spend time in person with these master therapists and ask them for clinical advice whenever I want to; what an honor!  And this duo gives away a ton of excellent information. Everything they produce contains another nugget I can use immediately.

Learning about the Developmental Model was the turning point in my therapy practice. Maybe it can make a difference for you, too. If you’re curious about how it works, check out this interview Ellyn gave at the Gottman Institute. It’s a great overview of the philosophy that underlies the Developmental Model.

I’ve written about differentiation of self on this blog before. You can learn more about differentiation in the context of sex with my post When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned, or read about how our cultural ideal of a perfect relationship inhibits differentiation of self in my post Better Than Better Half.

Better than “Better Half”

Have you ever heard the phrase “better half”?

Our culture is rife with this idea–that two partners are two halves of a whole. Lovers tell one another “you complete me.” In marriage ceremonies, we talk about two becoming one. Even the term “soulmate” refers to an Ancient Greek idea that true lovers were two halves of a whole body, split in two by the wrath of the gods and desperately seeking to rejoin.

These ideas are poetic, and it’s easy to see why they appeal. But there’s a darker side to them. What does this idea imply for single people? No one should have to feel like they’re incomplete without a partner. Yet many people do feel this way, and our cultural ideas about love don’t help.

This idea of the “better half” can create disturbing dynamics in relationships, too. If you feel like you’re not whole without your partner, a threat to the relationship becomes a threat to your very being.

When you feel like your relationship and your SELF is threatened, you are more likely to put up with treatment you wouldn’t otherwise endure, because anything is better than the relationship ending. Or, out of fear, you may attempt to control your partner, because you think that if they leave you will be diminished.

This also plays out in more subtle ways. In an attempt to be the perfect match for your partner, you may let entire parts of your self drop away, until you don’t even quite remember who you are. In the early days of a new relationship, this is part of the bonding process, but over time it might turn into resentment–even if your partner never asked you to sacrifice anything.

People just don’t fit into each other like two halves of a broken plate. We have all kinds of jagged projections and weird, nubbly edges. Your jagged edges will never perfectly match your partner’s, and if you try to force it, you’ll just end up scratching each other.

Loving someone isn’t about losing yourself in them, melting seamlessly into one whole. It’s about discovering a singular, separate soul, and being discovered in turn. If you squash your true opinions, desires, and preferences in an attempt to have a frictionless relationship, you deny your partner the opportunity to truly know you as a being like no other. Opening up in that way can be truly frightening. What if you expose your true self, and your partner rejects you? But consider: what if you expose your true self and your partner loves you, whole and entire?

Nuances of Consent: The Therapist’s Side

Recently, I wrote a blog post about consent, and discussed how the most common kinds of consent violations are much more subtle and insidious than those we see discussed in the media.

Today I want to discuss a related question: as a therapist, how might you see this showing up in your therapy room, and how can you help?

First, we have to acknowledge that subtle forms of internal and external pressure around sex are so common as to be completely expectable, and as such, nearly invisible in intimate relationships. Yet this seemingly benign dynamic can wreak havoc in a couple’s sex life.

One example is with the development of an aversion to sex, touch, or physical intimacy. This can range from quite mild to a full on “Ewww” response, complete with a visceral shudder. This is understandably distressing to all involved, and it may not be at all obvious how it developed. Whenever I encounter this in therapy, I look for a very subtle consent violation.

When one partner initiates sexual or intimate touch, are they both willing? And if one is not entirely willing, are they able to say that to their partner? What happens next for the partner, and the interaction between them?

Very often there are hurt feelings and painful meaning-making on one or both sides.  Maybe one hides their lack of willingness to avoid hurting the other. Maybe one partner broadcasts hurt feelings and frustration, thereby reinforcing the less-willing partner’s decision to “ just do it anyway”. Sex shifts from being a pleasurable, connecting experience to being an emotionally painful one. And very often, a slight aversion develops in one partner or the other.

Let me be clear; neither of these partners is an abuser, or a victim, except insofar as ALL of us are abusers and victims. This dynamic is so understandable from both perspectives; who would want to experience their spouse shuddering at their touch? Who would want to feel pressured to have sex or to feel like they are failing as a partner? This couple needs your help to become better able to look inside themselves and figure out what they think, feel, believe, and prefer and then to express that to their partner. They need to get good at holding steady when their partner is expressing something important but stressful.

Start by normalizing communication about sex. While you’re at it, normalize saying (and hearing!)  “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” without making a lot of problematic meaning about yourself, your partner, and your relationship.

Every lover wants to feel like a good lover. Getting and giving guidance sexually should be greeted as a roadmap to a positive, connecting interaction, rather than a threat to one’s self worth.

If you haven’t heard about “Will Lily”, my brief assessment tool, check it out! It is designed to help you identify subtle issues like this early on, so you can be an effective helper right from the start.