Eight Dates Challenge – Week Three – Sex and Intimacy

Welcome to the third week of our progress in the Gottman 8 week couples challenge!

Quick recap:  Joella and I have decided to read and participate in the activities featured in the Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by John Gottman, Julie Gottman, Doug Abrams, and Rachel Carlton Abrams and then share some of our reflections on the experience.  Last week, we addressed conflict in our intimate relationships.  This week, the topic moves on to addressing sex and intimacy.

WEEK THREE

Administratively, week three registers at twenty pages of reading.  It was very quick and got right to the point, while still making and admirable effort to be inclusive, including vignettes that represent a variety of couples.  The authors are transparent about the lack of research to support any recommendations for transgender couples and make a call for more research in this area.  About 20% of the content of this week’s chapter was dedicated to giving actual guidance and advice on how to make this date happen for couples.

REFLECTIONS

This might just be my therapist attitude toward life… but this chapter made me realize how difficult it is to write about sensitive topics.  I’m certain that I could write a book about how to cook gluten free biscuits that would be very helpful and informative for some with food sensitivities, but would infuriate a large percentage of my fellow native Carolinians (that’s not a real biscuit!!!), or might induce some to try a recipe that would be ultimately unsatisfying (if you can still ride the gluten train).

Food examples aside, I want to emphasize that this chapter and the last chapter about conflict could be distressing for some readers or couples, based on their lived experience.  Joella and I agree that these books were written for a very specific audience, namely couples who are looking to improve the quality of their relationship.  If a reader with a history of sexual trauma or intimate partner violence, or grew up in an environment where violence or control dynamics between partners was common, these topics would probably be better discussed with the guidance of a qualified, skilled and experienced therapist.  This is one of the main reasons that we insist on doing an in-person consultation before we take on couples clients.  It helps us identify whether some clients may need an opportunity to work through specific primary concerns or challenges in order to be able to safely benefit from all that couples work can offer.  This is not a criticism of the book, it is just a reflection on its targeted audience.

Most of the information shared in this chapter is similar to themes from other Gottman publications.  They encourage developing open communication around sex and intimacy,  creating rituals in the relationship that foster intimacy, highlight some of the most common “Sex and Intimacy Killers”  that invade our relationships from time to time.  They share some of the findings of their research about sex and intimacy, which has spanned nearly four decades.  For example, that married couples have sex more frequently than unmarried couples, or that couples that are able to talk openly about sex have more sex, and that the women in these relationships have more frequent orgasms.

I appreciated their efforts to normalize the individuality of our sexuality.  They define normal levels of desire for sex or intimacy as “Whatever frequency is comfortable for you…”  Not everyone is on the same page, and not everyone will be able to get on the same page.  Learning to navigate that in a open, curious and connected way is the formula for creating a more satisfying relationship.  The Gottmans and Abrams/ Carlton Abrams return to that theme again and again, whether the content of the chapter is sex, money, conflict, etc.

The  specific recommendations for the date on page 109 are highly detailed and well thought out, and I would be comfortable handing it out as a verbatim homework assignment for some of the couples that we work with.  It is a great way to close out this chapter and practice the research-based principles.  I especially like the affirmation at the end of this chapter.  These affirmations are designed to be recited together in order to cement some of the principles of connection that this work espouses.  It’s a great way to develop the habit of using rituals to enhance connection because it is something special that you only share with your partner.

We hope that the readers are finding these reflections useful and we welcome your comments and reflections of your own, whether you are reading the book, participating in the online (e-mail based) Gottman 8 week couples challenge, or just browsing the blog.  Let us know what you think or if you have any questions.

Next week the program dives into work and finances and we are eager to dive in!

 

 

 

Eight Dates Challenge – Week One – Trust and Commitment

It almost never fails that when Joella and I are introduced to new people and they find out that we are both Marriage and Family Therapists either one of two lines will follow.  Either, “You guys must have the perfect marriage… I bet you never fight.”  or “Wow, I bet you guys can really duke it out!”  This always highlights for me that we live under the impression that relationships are either “good” or “bad”.  That either partners get along, or they don’t.

I believe that this oversimplification is what keeps a lot of couples stuck in a state of continual co-isolation and distress.  Couples therapy, the way we see it, often revolves around undoing that oversimplification and helping couples see the vast array of ways that we “couple.”  And yes… I’m using couple as a verb!

Joella and I had been considering using the Eight Dates to help couples build some of the principles into their daily lives.  But over time, we’ve developed a personal and professional value that we don’t ask clients to do things that we wouldn’t do ourselves.  So we’ve decided to do the series first, blog some of our reflections on the experience.  We believe that it is certainly worth purchasing the book, so we will refrain from getting too in depth regarding the specific exercises and keep it to a summary of our own experience.

WEEK ONE

LOGISTICS:

Week one required about 37 pages of reading on the introductory principles behind the work.  This primer is very helpful and sets the tone for the rest of the book.  Like a good therapist, it explains why it is important to do the work, and fleshes out the “how” on what it actually looks like to incorporate these practices and teaches some basic communication skills.  Once you complete the intro, you move on to the Chapter One that outlines the theme of the first week’s date, which is “Trust and Commitment”.

TAKEAWAY:

The most important thing that I took away from the first week’s Trust and Commitment Topic was that creating the habit of going on dates is a practical way to incorporate the practice of commitment and trust.  In order to even go on a date, you have to block out time on the calendar in order to prioritize your relationship, you have to select a location, you prepare yourself and then you show up.  Any guesses what gets built when you repeatedly create time and space for someone, intentionally prepare and actually show up?  It’s simple… Trust!

This date gave us an opportunity to review the ways that we had learned about the meaning of commitment and trust from our families-of-origin, from our education and from our life experience.  When you create space to review things like that, you have the opportunity to ask yourselves the question, “So we learned it that way… is that working for us now?  Is that the way we want to keep doing it?”

The first date also touches on a theme that we’ve been highlighting from the very first days of our clinical training and continue to say over and over again in session after session.  Commitment is more than the words you say at a ceremony.  Commitment is something that you make  choices about every day.  Effective commitment is the process of choosing your partner every day… choosing the life that you build together.

As Gottman, Gottman, Abrams and Abrams (2018) said in the first chapter,

“We choose it even when we are tired and overworked and stressed out. We choose it no matter what attractive person crosses our path.  We choose it every time our partner makes a bid for our attention and we put down our book, or look away from the television or up from our smartphone…to acknowledge their importance in our life.”

If I had to choose a single thing to frame from this chapter it would be the previous quote.  If we were unable to choose commitment on a daily basis, regardless of circumstances, it would be very difficult, if not downright impossible to build trust, or put together any of the pieces of the relationship puzzle that the rest of the Eight Dates book covers.

Even as an experienced couples therapist, I still enjoy being reminded that many of the events and dynamics that seem to perplex us in relationships can be traced back to choices that we make on a daily basis.  Holding on to this perspective shift really puts us in the driver’s seat in our own lives and relationships.

Speaking of driver’s seats… Next week, in the disagreement chapter, I get to learn how to take ownership of the fact that I drive way too slowly and that can be stressful for my partner 😉

See you all next week!

 

Repairing a Relationship

It has been an embarrassingly long time since I have sat down to reflect and write in this space. Michael and I have been spending most of our time providing therapy to some incredible couples over the past few months. Time flies when we are working together… it is such a privilege to do this work.

Something we keep running into time and time again is the myth that when couples enter therapy the past wounds will be covered with immediate action like homework. Clients are eager to ask for the next task but the work is a little harder to spot and it certainly cannot be checked off a to do list.

The work lies often in holding both realities. The reality that the relationship is being worked on and will improve and the reality of the damage that has been done. Part of repair then is being able to sit with your partner in those tense moments when one or both of you lacks confidence in the relationship. Having compassion for one another and being able to see that the past hurt is just as real as the new future you are creating together.

The magic ingredient is not letting those moments set you back. Instead have confidence that this uncomfortable space of rehashing isn’t the past argument, it is a new conversation because it now exists in the context of working on the relationship. Rehashing for couples before therapy often happens in the context of “will we stay together” or “is this relationship healthy for me/us.”

Can you hold both the past hurt and the desired future just long enough to start to see it change?

Remember, change in humans is the same as a growing plant. It is hard to detect until you look for it.

 

Resolve

I still love New Year Resolutions. I love that there is a time of year that people feel some sense of inspiration about their future. There is a magic in the air as one year closes out and a new one begins. A magic that seems to help some people give themselves a chance to dream or reimagine themselves.

The problem comes when they wake up two weeks later in a culture that doesn’t support change and growth. We live in a time when it is easier than ever to keep the status quo, avoid personal responsibility, and busy ourselves into oblivion.

Still, I believe in people. I have the honor of seeing people change their lives all the time… not just in January. I also know that sometimes people need a few false starts. Sometimes the journey is trying out new ways of being and discarding what doesn’t work. I don’t blame people for quitting gyms after two weeks. Have you been to most gyms during January? The place is packed and its cold and flu season… gross. Maybe it will lead you to finding the right gym, the right workout community, or the right sport that keeps you fit. Sometimes we make progress in quitting.

But I digress.

I promised myself this wouldn’t be a blog of “Joella’s new year opinions.” Rather, I wanted to talk about Cascadia Family Therapy’s resolve to provide the highest quality couple and family therapy we possibly can. We are more committed than ever in 2018 to creating massive change in the lives of our clients and in our industry.

It is time for the old way of therapy (you know the once a week, bill your insurance, only to get a bill months later, all the while wondering what your therapist is trying to accomplish with you kind) to get out of your way. It is time for a new way of therapy. Therapy that is transparent, empowering, and collaborative. Therapy that trusts the clients to do the work and believes in people’s resilience and possibility. 

We are here to do that work. When a couple or family is ready for change, we are here to work, support, encourage, provide skills, whatever it takes.

We believe in YOU to build the life you want. Make your resolution stick!

At The Speed of Life

Sitting down and writing about therapy is one of my favorite things to do. Being a marriage and family therapist requires a lot of reflection not just on what clients bring in but on what I am saying, doing, suggesting, inferring, the list goes on!

For me therapy is equal parts where have you been and where you are going. In fact, the best part of my craft is that I have the honor of dreaming for my clients. When hope is low and obstacles seem insurmountable, I have the freedom as an outsider and a trained professional to dream of different approaches, perspectives, or narratives. This is also part of the pleasure of running a fee for service business, clients get a therapist who makes time to reflect. But I digress….

I have felt myself having to just crank along this past week. Michael and I moved a couple miles up the road and it has felt like a sh*t storm  (yes, that is the clinical term). Boxes, chapped hands, microwave meals, and lack of sleep have all driven us into the ground. I try my best to shield my clients from these stressors and keep my office a sacred space but I know I am not perfect. I was reminded of this when I saw my last blog was so long ago. It seems the website and blogging are always the first off of my list.

All that being said, this season to me is all about reflection. With the new year approaching, the short days, and long nights, it feels like mother nature forces us all to slow down. I look forward to having some extra time  off to catch up and get back to the creative part of being a private practice. Michael and I have some massive goals for 2018 and hope to reconnect many more couples!

 

Things to ponder…..

How do you make time to reflect?

How do you reflect? Writing? Talking?

What are your intentions for 2018?

When to seek Couples Therapy:

It can be difficult to tell when you need outside help in your relationship. Relationships go through phases just like people and sometimes the stress we feel is simply a point of growth. However, when the stress or issue begins to inhibit growth and linger, it’s important to tend to the issue. Also if these behaviors or interactions occur for a long period of time or become primary ways of coping in the relationship they are red flags.

  1. You stop talking and start avoiding: Is there a topic you can no longer discuss because both of you get to mad or hurt? Is there a topic that you have discussed at great length with no resolution or understanding? When both partners begin giving up on finding understanding, it is an issue. It can be beneficial to have a professional guide you two to better understanding of one another instead of just avoiding.
  2. Withholding affection or stonewalling: when one or both partners participate in this behavior it is dooming the relationship. The good news is it’s just a coping skill, with therapy you can find more productive ways to move through issues.
  3. Keeping secrets: It doesn’t matter if they are financial, emotional, or any other type of secret, keeping secrets in a long term relationship doesn’t work.
  4. If you feel like the only problem is your partner. That isn’t how relationships work. It takes two people to build a relationship and chances are your behavior or attitude could be fueling what you don’t like in your partner. Keeping yourself stuck in the victim seat only prevents both of you from growing together building the life you do want.
  5. When one or both of you can no longer lighten up once in a while. When the topics or issues being avoided or the pattern that gets you two no where is so large you are no longer having date nights or having a good time together that’s when it is time to see a professional. Relationships need care and attention to survive.

 

Co-Couples Therapy

To be honest, I am just as surprised as you.

There is a part of me that has been trained by our society to believe that there is no way something I enjoy so much could benefit the world. Isn’t work supposed to be dull and mundane?

Long ago when I graduated with my masters degree in marriage and family therapy and Michael started his, we had hoped one day to work together. At that time, we thought working together in our own private practice built on our convictions was the dream.

Instead, over the last year we have found our calling.

Working with couples together.

I am intentional about naming it a “calling.” It isn’t niche, we didn’t build this practice with this service in mind. We have yet to discover a sustainable way to bill or market it, but it is working. We are seeing couple after couple walk away reporting a stronger more fulfilling relationship. We are helping couples identify what is working for them and the narratives or beliefs that hold them back. We are creating a space in which more perspectives equates more options. We hold space for gender roles and rules, not just from one genders perspective.

Stop in for a free 20 minute consultation to see if this is calling you too!

Call – text – connect  (541) 639-2986

 

 

The Resistance

Over the summer I have been pursuing all sorts of creative endeavors. Painting, music, videography, anything and everything that piques my interest. To me having a creative outlet is a key ingredient to self-care. And as a therapist, I am always seeking to add to my self-care repertoire.

These creative endeavors lead me to the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  I have not been able to put this book down! The concept is that art is a part of our souls and often a higher calling but it is commonly met with different forms of resistance. From alcohol to love to procrastination, Pressfield describes in detail the many faces of resistance.

In reading these descriptions of resistance, I couldn’t help but think of therapy. Therapy is often an artistic endeavor where my professional expertise meets the wide variety of human experience and together we create a new paradigm for the future. When I reflect on it that way, I can’t help but ponder how the resistance may show up for my clients.

  • Dreading sessions perhaps?
  • Too afraid to pick up the phone to even schedule a session?
  • Perhaps beating yourself up for even feeling as though you need a therapist?
  • Ignoring the issue hoping it magically disappears?
  • Trying once again to solve it all yourself?
  • Too stuck to even find a therapist?

Resistance is a powerful force that often prevents us from moving forward. But as Pressfield articulates, “the greater the resistance, the more important the work.”

Unified Couples

“One of the largest, strongest horses in the world is the Belgian draft horse. Competitions are held to see which horse can pull the most, and one Belgian can pull eight thousand pounds. The weird thing is if you put two Belgian horses in the harness who are strangers to each other, together they can pull twenty to twenty four thousand pounds. Two can pull not twice as much as one but three times as much as one. This example represents the power of synergy. However, if the two horses are raised and trained together they can learn to pull and think as one. The trained, and therefore unified, pair can pull not only twenty four thousand pounds but will hit thirty to thirty-two thousand pounds. The unified pair can pull an extra eight thousand pounds simply by being unified.” – Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership

Early on in my career as a Marriage and Family Therapist I could sense the power of  working with couples. For many therapists and counselors it is fear inducing to be in a room with two people who are so in sync. However, I have always found it intriguing. Couples who are committed to one another and share a future, are powerful both in their relationship and individually. There is a synergy that gets created between two people. And when couples are unified, nearly every area of their life is impacted with that power.

At the same time, that same energy can also tear couples apart. And it can happen quickly. Like I shared in a previous blog, 3 Reasons Couples Therapy is so Important, when couples face issues it can feel terribly isolating. On top of that, it is common for partners to begin to build elaborate stories about the hows, whats, and whys their partner is hurting them. Assumptions start to compound the issues and suddenly a miscommunication feels like a free fall into the abyss for both partners.

I always remind couples that their job is to work together and put me out of work. It seems couples therapy is always more work up front than people anticipate and at the same time, when communication and connection starts to improve the synergy snaps back much faster than they anticipated.

Cultivate and nurture that synergy. It makes a couple a force to be reckoned with!

 

 

 

 

 

Questions to ask your Therapist

Important Reminder: You are in charge of your mental and emotional health. No one should tell you what your experience is and mental health concerns are not a reason to feel disempowered and/or helpless. Your therapist/doctor/counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist should be able to clearly articulate risks and benefits of the treatment they are suggesting. It is my opinion, after 7 years of training and practice in this field that medication should always be approach as an absolute last resort and never a first response to mental health concerns. In addition, a diagnosis (such as bi-polar or depression) is not a treatment plan. 

When looking for a therapist, it is important to know a few important but simple questions to ask to ensure you get the best therapist for your situation.

  1. Where & when did you attend school? If the school doesn’t sound relatively familiar, look it up. Make sure that live supervision and an internship were part of the program, especially if you are working with an intern. If the clinician is fully licensed, you know they have had three years of supervision in Oregon.
  2. How long have you been practicing and what is your license in? It doesn’t matter whether the therapist has been in practice for 9 months or 29 years, neither guarantees a good therapeutic fit. What you are looking for in this question is for a confident response. If you get a shaking, “only a few months” or a cocky, “too long!” it’s a red flag. You want a clinician who is hungry to learn but confident in their skills. It’s a delicate balance!
  3. How do you believe change occurs? Some clinicians believe change occurs when brain chemicals are altered, others believe it happens over a period of time when you gain more coping skills, others believe change happens in the moment in therapy. It is important to know how your therapist believes change happens. For example, I believe that change occurs when the habits/patterns change whether it is emotional, behavioral, or interactional (between two people) patterns. Therefore it would not be a good fit for me to work with a therapist who believed that my emotional state would improve by changing chemicals in my brain.
  4. What is the average amount of sessions you work with clients? The answer to this comes down to preference and what you believe change looks like. I typically work with clients for 12 session. I believe clients should pay me only for the sessions they need and as they begin to experience change and healing we should start spacing out sessions. Clients can always come back if they need more support and I never want to foster dependence or send a message that a client needs me. Other therapists have a more long term approach, I can’t speak to that because I wasn’t trained in it, so it comes down to what you believe.
  5. What is your treatment plan?  Of course you may have to attend a couple sessions to get the answer to this question, but a good therapist can always articulate how they are seeing the problem and how they seek to help you with it.