Things We Can Learn from Happy Couples

Happy couple in couples therapy

It’s all supposed to be very rosy: Two people meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. That’s what the fairy tale states…

And yet underneath the hood of every romantic relationship, we find one thing that all relationships have in common: they are all a lot of work.

The Perpetual Issues of Couples

As famous couples therapist, John Gottman, frequently says: To pick a partner is to pick a set of problems…

This does not mean that there are not plenty of moments of joy and closeness in every relationship. What it means is that we should expect that we will also be different from our partner on a number of key issues that are important to us.

Gottman calls these differences our perpetual conflicts, and every couple has them. One partner, for example, likes to travel the world and experience new things, whereas the other prefers the comforts of the known and would like to stay home more. Such an issue is not easily resolved because it is rooted in very deeply held values and personality preferences. It cannot be solved as easily as simply asking someone to take out the trash more often… To compromise on a perpetual issue often feels like giving up a valued piece of oneself…

From Gridlock to Dialogue

What is different between the couples who stay together versus the couples who eventually split up is that they accept this about their relationship. Instead of engaging in a perpetual warfare to change the other person, the successful couple finds ways to acknowledge their differences, to laugh about them, and to engage in a dialogue, not so much about the issues themselves, as about the underlying experiences that have created these personal preferences to begin with.

The perpetual difference now becomes an opportunity to understand something about your partner… The partner who does not like to travel, may be able to share the real reason behind wanting to be home-bound, and that may involve the ability to share some of the underlying fears that he or she has about the unknown and the unfamiliar. The partner who feels bored and restless when not on the go, may be able to identify what is so important about always experiencing something new, and perhaps even more so, why it is so unsettling to find interest and comfort in the familiar.

If a couple can engage each other in a conversation not just about the surface issues, but about their underlying feelings, fears, and desires, they have managed to move out of an initial gridlock on the issue and into an open a dialogue that is therapeutic for both. Maybe, with the safety of knowing that my partner understands me and cares about my position, I can feel free to venture out of my comfort zone, whatever that may be. I no longer have to feel like we are in a tug of war or that I am being asked to become another person.

The Not-so-Happy Couple

In not-so-happy couples, however, warfare on these perpetual issues has frequently resulted in the erosion of the mutual trust and safety that would allow such discussions of underlying meanings to take place.

As partners grow increasingly frustrated with each other’s differences, the consequence is often an escalation of the frequency of fights, and a tendency to fight “dirty”. Relationships may increasingly evolve into “power struggles”, where each partner fights for their own way, even if this means crushing the other person’s dreams in the process.

John Gottman’s research on couples shows that as couples grow increasingly dissatisfied with each other, they begin to attack each other’s personalities instead of addressing their mutual differences in a respectful and caring manner. By doing so, each person retreats into a defensive posture that makes it “dangerous” to share their more vulnerable side. Our partner can now become an “enemy” and “threat” to our sense of dignity and self-preservation, and a culture of contempt can develop that makes us question if we are even good friends anymore.

The Process of Couples Therapy

The first step in couples therapy is therefore often to reestablish safety and trust between partners. This means first of all stopping any additional bleeding, by stopping the vicious spiral of attack-defense. Only then can the process of healing past emotional wounds and restoring mutual trust begin. We must learn to become friends again, so we can once again share our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires without being afraid that such acts of courage will later be used against us.

The bad news is that we were never really taught how to do this. We were not provided with an instruction manual when we initially fell in love, and we never attended a “How to Make Relationships Work” class in high school. We therefore often stumble and fumble through our relationships, and unwittingly find ourselves repeating failed patterns over and over…

The good news is that an increasing body of literature on couples and couples therapy is beginning to pinpoint the skills and processes needed for couples to successfully make their relationships work. With the right knowledge in hand, couples can learn what to do and what not to do, and can begin to become more skillful at this most challenging of human tasks…

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: Rune Moelbak is an ICEEFT-certified couples therapist in Houston Texas. He has completed level-2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy and is a fully certified emotionally-focused couples therapist. He regularly works with couples who are looking to rebuild trust, friendship, and passion in their relationships. To read more about his approach to couples therapy: visit www.bettertherapy.com

If You like this article you may also like:

My free e-book with helpful tips on how to build a happy relationship from the ground up:Couples Guide> Click Here to Get Your FREE Copy!

The Myth of Major Depression – Why Depression is not an Illness…

depressed person

The Rise of Major Depressive Disorder

It has become common nowadays to think of depression as a medical condition. If you visit your general health practitioner, she might ask a few questions about your energy level, appetite, sleep, and mood and, if you answer these questions in a particular way,  tell you that you have “Major Depressive Disorder”. Major Depressive Disorder, you will be told, is a real illness. And like any real illness, it even comes with its own pill prescription (SSRIs)…

This way of thinking about depression, however, is really the product of a medical discourse that has been spoken so many times that it is has begun to ring true. And yet, as a psychologist with many years of experience helping people who are depressed, I am here to tell you that the emperor has no clothes on…

The Reduction of Subjective Distress to Objective Symptoms

The talk about depression as an illness is really the result of a more overarching trend in the mental health field to reduce life to objective behaviors or symptoms. We take two individuals and observe how they act, talk, or say they feel. We extract the behavior they have in common, and bam! we have arrived at a symptom. One person’s sleepless nights, for example, are equated with another person’s sleepless nights, and what we now have is the symptom of “reduced sleep”. When we observe a collection of such abstract symptoms that appear to frequently occur together, we end up with a “syndrome”, or a certain cluster of symptoms. And when we give a name to such a cluster, by inventing nouns like “Major Depressive Disorder” or “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”, these nouns then take on the status of illnesses that appear to preexist and explain the appearance of the symptoms.

The Loss of the Subjective Meaning of Depression

So what is the problem with this way of thinking? Well, for one, we have abstracted the symptom from the life of the person, and without this person, the symptom has lost its meaning. It is for example quite different to have a sleepless night because one feels empty inside and can’t stand the stillness of the night, and to have a sleepless night because one lies awake beating oneself up about things one should have done differently during the course of the day. In the one case, the sleeplessness announces to the person that they have become too alienated from their own experience (emptiness being the result). In the other case, the sleeplessness may bear witness to a traumatic event that the person has resolved to deal with by feeling eternally guilty…

The idea of the symptom as some abstract behavior erases these differences and treats each individual’s behaviors as if they were the same. Reduced sleep thus becomes a rather hollow concept. In its abstractness, it hides more than it reveals. To say of both instances of sleepless nights that they refer to the same phenomenon is a stretch, for what looks the same on the surface, betrays significant differences when an understanding of the life of the person is taken into account.

When depression becomes a universal construct or set of behaviors, its true meaning is lost. For in reality, there can be no depression outside the concrete life of an individual. And even though we may label two people’s behaviors as depressed, the meaning of their depression can vary widely. One person may be depressed because they are faced with a life situation that demands they assert themselves, but have fears about doing so, and therefore can do nothing but admit defeat. Another may be depressed because they have cut out social contacts to deal with their social anxiety and now find themselves devoid of meaningful relationships. In short, there are as many types of depressions as there are people who are depressed. There is always a unique story to be told…

The problem with a construct like Major Depressive Disorder is that it gives us the illusion that it exists as some “thing” in itself. It conveys that the “wizard behind the curtain” is a disease process and not a person.

A Faceless Healthcare…

In line with this view, “treatment” of depression becomes a rather impersonal endeavor. One treats “symptoms” not “people”. Instead of taking time to listen and understand, to help people figure out what depression means in the context of their other life problems, one now gets prescribed an SSRI or gets education about sleep hygiene…

Constructs like Major Depressive Disorder, and the philosophical assumptions that underlie them, lead to a faceless kind of healthcare that is devoid of the subjectivity of the person. They trade an abstract category, for the real deal…

Depression is, and always will be, shorthand for a multitude of particular ways that people struggle. Only when we understand the life of each struggling person, will we succeed in understanding what depression really is, for it is many different things to different people. Depression is not a “thing”, and is not an “illness”. Instead it is a marker of a particular stuckness in a person’s life. It  acts as an invitation or perhaps a dictate to discover something deeper about ourselves…

About me: I am a clinical psychologist in Houston Texas. Visit my therapy website to read more about my treatment approach to depression.

The Phenomenology of Flirting

The first three Saturday’s in January, Dr. Kevin Boileau from The Existential Psychoanalytic Institute & Society (EPIS) will interview me about my dissertation research on flirting.

As part of my doctoral degree in psychology, I conducted a phenomenological study of people’s experiences of flirting. The goal was to discover more about the things people experience, think, and do when they flirt and to find out exactly what makes an interpersonal encounter a flirtatious one. What I discovered might surprise you…

We will also get to talk more about the phenomenological perspective on psychotherapy in general as well as other existential and psychodynamic themes. So listen in: January 4/ 11/ 18, 3:30 PM, Mountain Standard Time. Click Here to Listen: EPIS-Radio: Radio for the Thinking Person

The McDonald’s Approach to Therapy: Why Empirically Supported Treatments are Not the Way to Go…

Let’s take a rich experience of a real world therapy interaction, considered by both therapist and client to have meaning, intensity, and benefit.

The client is free to go where he or she may, to enter into new territory of emotion and thought, and to follow new leads and surprises uncovered through the therapeutic interaction…

The therapist is free to learn from a multitude of signs emitted by the client – consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally – indicating where the client might need to venture next, where the pain might be, and where truth has yet to emerge…

The course of therapy is free to be determined by the mutual input from both client and therapist and to take situational factors into account such as timing and the presence and absence of a variety of factors in the present moment, informing an organic intuition of where to go next…

Now compare this to a therapy where the client is given instructions of what to talk about and how to talk about it in a way that that has been determined in advance, and where the same instructions are being applied uniformly to each and every client regardless of specific circumstances and needs.

…to a therapy where the therapist is not free to follow his or her moment-to-moment intuitions or to adjust interventions on the basis of attunements to the importance of the timing and context of the situation.

…to a therapy where the course of therapy is determined not by client and therapist, but by a schedule that specifies what conversations or activities need to take place, when and for how long they need to be done, and in what order they must be accomplished.

The latter form of therapy, which I would call “therapy as technology” or “therapy as mass production”, has one benefit which the richer, more organic, and more tailored therapy does not: It is simplistic and rigid enough to lend itself well to the requirements of a scientific study that demands that an inflexible set of interventions be “administered” uniformly to a large number of clients that have been grouped in advance into uniform “categories”.

It is this set of restrictions, imposed on an otherwise rich, complex, and organic process, that is needed in order to prove what specific interventions can be said to be effective for which specific “type of problem” or which specific “category of client”.  If an effect is found that is greater than the effect of a chance encounter, as evaluated by some yard stick that is uniformly assumed to represent a good outcome, then the therapy in question is deemed to be “empirically supported” (EST) and to have earned the stamp of scientific proof.

Some therapists treat people as if they were “categories of problems” rather than unique individuals

The problem, as you can see, is that to get the stamp of approval, a series of operations had to be performed intended to simplify the richness of an actual flexible, organic, and complex therapy interaction. The intensity and meaningfulness of an experience evolving gradually between therapist and client had to be straight-jacketed and turned into a “technology” (a predefined set of procedures). Therapy had to become a machine-like process, the therapists had to become machine-operators, and clients, well… they had to be treated with the uniformity of “stock”, losing their individuality and autonomy completely in the process.

So let’s dispel the myth that empirically supported treatments are in fact superior forms of treatment. Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that scientific proof is always the hallmark of the gold standard of treatment.

A uniformly produced McDonald’s hamburger, mass produced and mass-consumed, may have been found to be effective at reducing hunger, but it is not a superior hamburger of that accord. It cannot compete with a hand-crafted premium burger tailored exactly to the needs of each client.

I am not against scientific proof, but when we have to distort reality to make it conform to the needs of our scientific methods, we are committing tomfoolery in the guise of science and are contributing to a lowering of our standards rather than a bettering of our collective destiny.

Therapy is a complex relationship, not a science-based technology, and no scientific study will ever be able to question that fact…

What is a Psychologist? Or… The Meaning of Life

When we meet new people, we often wonder about their professions and might ask question such as “What is a psychologist?… Environmental engineer?… Key account manager?… etc… etc…”. The temptation when this kind of question is posed is to simply list what we do. A psychologist, for example, is someone who diagnoses and treats mental health problems. However, this really doesn’t answer the question, for we did not ask: “What does a psychologist do?” But: “What is a psychologist?”

So let me try again: A psychologist is someone who through a commitment to a particular professional path, has chosen to be addressed by certain questions about life, such as the the question of the meaning and role of suffering, the question of what makes life worth living, and the question of how or why people should change. These questions are not easy to grapple with, but to “be” a psychologist is to adopt a stance towards them, whether one wants to or not. They get answered in every little task a psychologist does, from how a psychologist talks to a client to how a psychologist works with people’s experiences and defines their problems.

There is always a set of questions that animate a given profession and demand that we as the professionals inhabit the place of the answer.  To be a lawyer is to be addressed by questions of justice and to take a stance toward those questions in and through one’s work, and to be a medical doctor is to be addressed by questions of the preservation of life and the forces that impinge on it. Every profession addresses us in this way, and compels us to embody a response in the way we carry out that particular profession.

Good professionals are people who are conscious of the questions being addressed through the work they do. They are not the mechanics of the profession, who live away from these questions in the comfort of the rote application of techniques they were taught in school. They are the one’s who wake up each morning acutely aware of the impact their approach to these questions can have, and who understand that to “be” a profession and to “do” a profession are quite different things. One question asks for “me”; the other asks for my productivity…

The European existentialist philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was very aware of the importance of that little word “is”. To “be” rather than to “do” is a uniquely human task. We can’t avoid it, whatever we do. We have to embody a response to the questions posed by our life, our activities, and our chosen professions.  We have to “be”. And yet, in modern life, we are very good at evading the question of our being. We tend to get lost in the mere busy-work of our day to day activities, and to confuse the activity for the end goal itself. Even after a day’s hard work, we will not feel accomplished if we do not understand how it is that that activity itself helps us “be”.  Being is the ultimate goal, and we cannot escape it nor avoid it without forfeiting our existence and living away from ourselves.

So ask yourself: how are you “being” a lawyer, a father, a daughter? How do you embody an answer to the questions evoked by your job, your commitments, your roles is life? How are you “being” you?

If you would like to learn more about how I approach “being” a psychologist, visit my website. Here I address some of the ways in which I have been called into a particular  approach to my work in and through a dialogue with the questions my work has raised for me. http://www.bettertherapy.com/therapy.html

 

Welcome!

I have finally decided to join the blogosphere. In the coming  years I would like this blog to become a forum for people interested in delving deeper into topics related to life as an existential journey of love and pain, beauty and tragedy, laughter and struggle…

I plan to post on topics that people will find relevant to living life more fully or that will inspire greater insight about themselves. I will be writing from the perspective of a psychologist who spends his working life on journeys with people who show me what life really looks like underneath the surface of pretense and show. I will also be writing as a “thinker” who has published many journal articles in my field and who has made it part of his career to challenge the common sense of his profession and unsettle  the quick and easy understandings we are offered at the cultural surface. In sum, my audience is not the person looking for a quick psychological fix, but the person who is a critical consumer of therapy, and knows not to mistake the menu of cultural ideals for the meal that is life. So welcome, and please check back soon…

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A Blog for the Critical Consumer of Psychotherapy

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