Why Helping Your Clients Find the Joy is a Crucial Part of Couples Therapy

It is tempting to spend a lot of time in therapy working on making the things that are going wrong in relationships go better. But what exactly is that effort supporting, if the partners don’t connect, are constantly at odds, and becoming fatigued by all the conflict?

In my opinion, at least half of therapy must be about creating, improving and multiplying positive interactions. If your clients don’t feel like their relationship is worth the effort, of they don’t get joy out of each other’s company, hopelessness will win in the end.

Therapy is hard, because working as a team in an intimate relationship involves becoming more curious and less reactive. Nobody is going to work hard to modify their automatic responses in a marriage where fun has become extinct.

There are a number of ways you can help your clients rediscover the joy in their relationships. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Help your clients remember positive interactions. Consider: What made them positive? How can the mood of those past interactions be re-created in current circumstances?
  • Create a positive interaction in your therapy room. I start most sessions by asking each partner to express appreciation or gratitude to their partner for something fairly specific they did or said recently that made a difference, and why. (A tip of my hat to the Developmental Model, once again!)
  • Remind your clients that positive aspects of their relationship continue to exist even when they’re not agreeing about something. Help them pay attention to those aspects of the relationship that are really working, and develop a practice of noticing and appreciating those moments.
  • Help clients create a daily positive interaction habit. Many clients already have at least one positive interaction each day, in which case it can be expanded to more, longer, or more meaningful. However, some clients many need to start small. Small or large,  being able to deliberately create a positive interaction is an indispensable skill for a strong relationship. It requires self-control, compartmentalization, making a clear choice, emotional regulation, motivation…all the skills couples need in order to function as a team.

As clients become better able to deliberately choose, create, and change the tone or atmosphere of an interaction, it becomes increasingly possible to help them have more productive conversations about tough topics. Helping each partner focus on their own individual interactional goals (for instance, responding with curiosity rather than defensiveness) will help them experience one another differently when they discuss their differences–as teammates and collaborators rather than adversaries. Creating positive experiences builds positive regard as well as goodwill and motivation. In the end, the couple will find themselves with the opportunity to build something MUCH better than either has ever imagined.

Sex and Differentiation of Self

This is the first post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships.

Sex is perhaps the area of human experience in which we feel the most vulnerable. In sex, we are exposed, naked before another human being, both literally and figuratively. With vulnerability often comes anxiety: how will my partner react to my body, my sexual preferences, my fantasies? How will they react to my discomfort, awkwardness and uncertainty? What if I don’t get hard or stay hard? Will I be able to figure out how to please them? What if they don’t reach orgasm, or if I don’t? What if I suggest something they think is gross?

Sex is a place where our deepest sense of desire and our deepest vulnerabilities meet. In this tender intersection, it can feel like the future of the relationship rests on whether our partner is pleased by us or, heaven forbid, turned off by us. We look for any sign of the latter so we can adapt, and quickly. “Oh, did you think I said vibrator? I didn’t say that, I would never say that! I absolutely agree with you, vibrators are gross!” or “Yeah, that was DEFINITELY an orgasm. Absolutely. Awesome.” There is a whole lot of nonverbal communication going on, as well as people working hard to accommodate one another before there is even a sign of distress. Before you know it, you have an entire narrative about who you and your partner are together sexually that is based on, in part, false assumptions and kindly-meant untruths.

Where did the connection go, to say nothing of the pleasure? How did sex become a performance, frequently ending in hurt feelings or tears? Why isn’t sex spontaneous any more? What happened to all that super hot desire?

Let’s just pause there for a minute; think about those questions. What is your theory about what happened? And how might you approach that as a relational therapist?

Helping couples work with questions such as these used to be VERY difficult for me, because the level of distress the partners were experiencing was hard to handle in therapy. How directive should I be? How can I join with everyone? How can I shift unrealistic expectations effectively? Also, what expectations were realistic? Where does psychoeducation fit in? And certainly, how can I get the partners to calm down sufficiently to hear one another, and me? Improving communication is a great goal, but not if nobody can hear.

Some days felt like a win, others most definitely felt like a loss. I researched couple therapy in every way I could. I knew I needed to get much more effective. I borrowed some ideas and techniques from others, and I developed some of my own. I knew deep down that differentiation of self had to be at the root of the solution, but most couple therapy modalities focused on attachment to the exclusion of differentiation.

That’s when I discovered the Developmental Model. The DM incorporates aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience. Not two opposing camps but one cohesive whole, informed by science. What’s not to love? I looked deeper. I took webinars and then training from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson the developers of the model. I took every opportunity to learn from them, and I took pages of notes. I replayed webinars again and again. I memorized. I took very specific interventions to my clients, and right away, my life got easier. I collected those interventions like precious stones. The more I had, the better things got. Naturally, I applied what I learned to my own clientele, and noticed the difference in progress. Of course I wanted to train with Ellyn and Pete.

As I learned more about the Developmental Model, I came to understand that relationships progress through stages. There is a connection between getting stuck in a developmental stage and experiencing relational problems. This provided a road map of sorts for therapy, and a non-pathologizing one at that. As a relationship develops, the couple’s experience of sex changes, too–providing an opportunity for relational and personal growth.

So how can you or your clients build a healthy sexual relationship that doesn’t suffer when the new relationship energy dissipates?  In my next post, I’ll discuss the early, symbiotic phase of the relationship, and I’ll share some tips for setting up an easier transition into the differentiation phase.

Click here for the second post in this three-part series. 

Reader Question: What Do You Do When There’s Love But No Lust?

What do you do when you have a couple with love, but no lust? Where one (or both) partners feels a deep affection for and connection with the other, but no physical attraction?

This is such a great question, because this situation occurs very often, and many people, therapists and couples alike, think of this as being “broken” or “abnormal”. Sometimes lust is absent for at least one partner right from the start of a relationship, and many times the “super hot sex” part of a relationship changes or diminishes quite a bit over the span of the relationship. We really cannot see this as an “abnormal” thing, or a “problem”, except in that it can cause quite a bit of distress.

A lot of the work I do as a sex therapist is about un-scripting relationships. Every relationship is an intersection of unique human beings, each with a singular set of life experiences, fears, and fantasies, not to mention physiology. Yet we often approach relationships with one-size-fits-all expectations–about sex, children, living arrangements, number of partners, etc. These assumptions make it harder for couples to negotiate the parameters of their own unique partnership.

There is really no reason any more to think that a relationship that is decades long will “normally” remain hot for both partners. First there are physiologic changes over the life-span that play a part in desire levels. For many people, the novelty of the sex diminishes, having kids and career take up a lot of time and energy, and the emotional relationship can also go a little flat as we assume we know what there is to know about one another and stop having juicy dinner table conversations and fun dates. I’m sure you can see several entry points to working with this kind of issue, including normalizing it. Desire issues can be complicated, and they often CAN shift; having the desire and motivation to create the shift is an important part of the equation.

If you use my brief assessment tool, you know that if there is any sense of guilt, pressure, subtle coercion, or sex pain you can expect desire to diminish, and often develop into aversion.

Another common situation is that the relationship never or only very briefly was super hot for one or both partners. Here I urge you to consider that there might be great reasons to be in a relationship OTHER than hot sex. Really good reasons. Deep love and ability to work as a team, common values and goals, and the ability of a strong relationship to be much greater than the sum of its parts are very good reasons to be together.

It is also possible that part of the issue is that the sex could be improved by, for example, an anatomy lesson and some frank conversation between partners about what they might like sexually. Sometimes there can be unresolved disillusionment about sex, either in this relationship or previously. Sometimes there can be conflicted thoughts/feelings/belief systems about sex that cause internal confusion.

Remember too that being willing to have sex is sufficient for a positive sexual interaction. There are lots of reasons a partner might feel willing to have sex without feeling a lot of desire, or even any. Assuming that the lower desire partner is able to say no and there is no hint of subtle coercion, a couple with either desire discrepancy or lust discrepancy can still have great sexual experiences, and many do. For more on this idea, check out my blog post on Asexuality.