Omaha Relationship Counseling Blog

Reciprocity and Intimacy in Couples Therapy

April 28, 2017

Intimacy can be defined in many different ways. One expectation that seems to often come up as couples move towards intimacy is the idea of reciprocity, that is, that if one person shares, the other has to also. An example is: if I say I love you, you should say I love you back. If I say something about how the love making we just experienced was great, you would say the same thing back. But that expectation causes problems and even often hinders intimacy. Being in a couple is a great way to develop yourself—you are forced to deal with someone else and if you don’t there are consequences. A question will get you to thinking about this issue: Can you tell your partner important information about you and that’s it? She or he doesn’t have to say anything back? Can you be ok about that, accepting that you were intimate with your partner? Conversely, can you hear an intimate statement from you partner and not just parrot something back?

Let’s look at this from a different angle. If you are compelled or feel compelled to reveal something about yourself because your partner revealed something, are you being intimate, or just compelled? Revealing that you love someone is different than saying, “I love you,” after your partner has just said it to you. It can be surprising to some clients who come to a couples therapy office when they share something important and the therapist doesn’t make sure that the partner shares something as well.

Differentiation is a term that has been used for a long time in the marital/sex therapy areas (see Schnarch, or Kerr and Bowen). It is something you want but is hard to get. It is getting your self healthier, being stronger emotionally, being able to sooth yourself. And people that are more differentiated are able to share without expecting their partner to share back. And more differentiated people don’t share back only because their partner shared with them.

So, perhaps you could challenge yourself. Make sure your partner has your attention and no one else is around, then you share something important and personal about yourself with your partner, and that’s it. You don’t expect anything in return (other than you would like him or her to hear you, but you don’t even expect that). It would be an intimate thing to do.

A Way to Think about Your Sexual Relationship

April 18, 2017

I continue to read David Schnarch, this time working on Constructing the Sexual Crucible. It was published in 1991 and is much more of a textbook for therapists than the other books I have mentioned. If you are looking for something to read about sexuality, I recommend Passionate Marriage and/or Intimacy and Desire by him rather than this work. I wanted to present to you something he wrote in this work: “Rather than divide people into categories of sexually dysfunctional and sexually blissful, we need to think of the sexually dysfunctional, the sexually functional, and the blessed few” (page 77, italics his). And from much of what he says in any of the three books mentioned above, the majority of people are in the middle group, the sexually functional group. Also, most of that group has mediocre sex at best. The good news is, there are things that can be done to make things better, to have a better sex life with your partner. There are things that can be done even though one of you is a higher desire partner (HDP) and the other a lower desire partner (LDP, his terms), that this is a normal state that happens to the majority of couples that couples therapy and sex therapy can do something about.

Back in the day when he wrote the book, and even with many therapists today, sexual relationships for couples are often seen as being either dysfunctional or else the couple is doing fine. Only you can say (and your partner can say and even say differently than you) how your relationship is doing. Do you have dysfunction? Are you rather normal and mediocre? Or are you having a rewarding sex life for both of you?

If you or your partner are not happy with the state of your relationship, there are things that can be done (often, usually) to make your sexual relationship better, moving you towards the “sexually blissful” group. It is up to you. You could read one or both of the books recommended above. You could see a good couples therapist with experience and training in sex therapy. It is up to you to bring about a change if you want it.

Working On a Better (Sexual) Relationship

April 13, 2017

Couples can have difficulties in one area of their relationship (sex, for example) that affects them in other areas (just talking to each other). The partner that has a stronger desire for sex can often feel controlled by the partner with lower desire, and the partner with stronger desire can feel controlled by the partner with less desire. This can lead to a lot of anger in the person with desire not getting something they feel they need in the relationship. The anger often spills out in other ways besides just any talk about having sex.

David Schnarch is a psychologist that has worked to combine couples therapy and sex therapy. You might benefit from looking at two of his books, Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire. He calls the partner with stronger desire the HDP (High Desire Partner) and the partner with lower desire the LDP (Low Desire Partner). As well, he writes that the LDP “controls” sex in the relationship. If you read him further, he presents how the HDP can bring about change in the couple by self-confronting, holding on to yourself, and by differentiating (getting yourself psychologically healthy).

It is crucial you see the emphasis in the above paragraph: first, that the person with higher desire (HDP) can cause change to happen in the relationship (even though that person often feels like it is impossible to get change) and, second, that the change start by that person confronting him/herself, by holding on to him/herself (rather than not doing so by falling apart, blaming, yelling), and working on his or her own stuff and getting more healthy psychologically (he calls that differentiation; I call it “getting healthy”).

The most important issue mentioned here is a very difficult one for most couples to do, that is, to stop blaming their significant other and to confront you, yourself. What do you need? Do you say that through blaming or as a statement about you? So if you are the HDP and want sex, do you talk about your partner (and not yourself), make fun of your partner, tear your partner down? These activities, for some strange reason, always seem to push the partner away and reduce sexual contact, hence the need for the HDP (the apparently “hornier” partner) needing to do some self-confronting. It will also be important for the LDP, the one with less obvious desire (which doesn’t necessarily mean that partner does not have desire), self-confront about what they are doing to stop the couple from having sex.

If you are beginning to move towards thinking about what you are doing/thinking/feeling/saying that is getting in the way of sex in your relationship, you are on a path that leads to a potentially happier sex life. I could also say the same thing without the word sex in the sentence: If you are beginning to move towards thinking about what you are doing/thinking/feeling/saying that is getting in the way in your relationship, you are on a path that leads to a potentially happier life.

More About Crucible in Couples and Marriage Therapy

April 3, 2017

In continuing to read some of the works of David Schnarch I can easily recommend them to you (previously I commented from Passionate Marriage and am currently reading Intimacy and Desire). He says a lot of important things about marriage, couples, sex, intimacy, and a lot of other issues that effect relationships. Previously, I had written about the couple as a crucible from reading Passionate Marriage, but as I read more it seemed clear that he was talking about each of us having our own crucible (which could be defined as a severe trial leading to change) to go through and when we do that together we are building the relationship. (I had thought he was writing about the couple as the crucible.) With further reading, it makes even more sense: change is within, and we have to go through our own crucible process for the couple to change.

In couples therapy, when a couple comes in to work on their relationship, they often spend significant time pointing the finger at their partner for something that is a real problem. And it is almost always the case that the partner has an equal pointing back, and an equally strong issue, too, that counters the first’s complaint. But it is also true that couples get locked into that pattern and don’t know how to get out of it. Sometimes they come to relationship therapy to help, and that is often a good thing to do because they have, quite possibly, tried everything they can think of to fix their problem. It often takes a couples therapist to get them to move beyond their entanglement. (Dr. Schnarch would say this entanglement is a natural path in a couple’s relationship which he calls “gridlock.”)

Couples counseling is about, when it is good, helping a couple unravel their way of doing what they are doing, and changing a pattern that is locking them up. A key is often to help each partner look inside and say more clearly what they are needing to say. Another key is to help each partner see what he or she needs to take on for change to happen. So bring in your entanglements, bring in your concerns about your spouse, that is what couples do, that is what needs to be worked on and gotten through. Couples therapy will address that. And realize that couples therapy may also make you, besides looking at your significant other, look at who you are.

Crucible and Couples Therapy

March 20, 2017

Crucible” is a term that is not used so much currently. It means (from a search on line) either “a container where substances are melted together to form a new substance” or “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.” Sounds powerful. But so are relationships with even a bit of commitment and any intimacy.

As a therapist that works with relationships, that was an interesting definition. A definition that could be used for what marriage or a committed is, a definition for what couples counseling is or hopes to be.

So often couples come to therapy and see the problem as being in the other person (their spouse, their significant other). And it seems like all of the time, if the couple is to change and grow, each of the two has to move to see what they are doing and to change what they need to change to make the couple grow. “Differentiate” is the term David Schnarch uses for this aspect of growth. He says, in Passionate Marriage, “Spouses’ interlocking crucibles are an inherent part of the system that is marriage” (page 150, italacs are his). I read that to mean the their ways of interacting lock into a new system that we call marriage. He also talks about how couples often head into a gridlock that is usually seen as a bad thing, but really is the way that they will be pushed by the relationship to grow individually so the relationship can grow. I call that, “to become a couple.” A lot of couples are rather independent of one another rather than go through the “severe trial” of really becoming something new, something different that what was before the relationship began.

It is difficult, the severe trial of really building a marriage. But it leads to emotional and relational riches, growth, and love.

Experienced Marriage and Relationship Counselor

March 13, 2017

Sometimes I struggle with what it means to be an experienced marriage counselor or an expreienced relationship counselor. I will go out on the internet and see who is saying what about him or herself. Anyone can say that they are a marriage counselor or a relationship counselor, but that doesn’t mean that they have a license from the state to practice counseling of any kind. Being licensed is a good idea, showing that you have appropriate training and have to act appropriately or you lose that license. And most therapists have had training to deal with relationship issues, but how much?

But I always wonder about the quantity of time therapists or counselors have put into actually doing marital and/or relationship counseling with individuals and couples. And I wonder how much training many of the folks on the internet have in the marital, couples, sex, relationship counseling. And I wonder if they have any sense, if they are insightful, if they are caring.

This is who I am: I have been working with couples and helping couples and individuals with relationships for over forty years, as a psychologist for over thirty years. I have attended numerous workshops, dozens of seminars, was trained with experts on a year long intership that focused on many issues but also focused on marital, relationship, and sex therapy. I have had a great deal of experience because hundreds of couples have come to see me and work with me. I have had days when I have seen eight couples in a row. I have days where I work with couples two or three hours in a row, and sometimes more than once in a day. I know that there are a lot of therapists and counselors out there that can be helpful, and I know that many of them have only seen couples for one or two sessions each week.

Marital, couples, relationship therapy and counseling is my focus, my passion.

My belief is that you want and need a therapist that his highly trained, highly experienced, caring, motivated, insightful. There is a much smaller percent of the couples counselors in the area that meet all those criteria.

I believe I meet all those criteria and that I can help you.

Opposites, Attraction, Making it Work in Couples Counseling

March 6, 2017

The exact name of the article that ran in the Omaha World Herald was, “Opposites may attract, but the happily-ever-after takes work”. It talks about a couple that had love at first sight, and how the couple had some differences in their personalities as well as their backgrounds. And they began to “bump heads.” An important line in the article: “the more important a value is to someone, the more it is that his or her partner shares that value.” And I also agree with the statement: “They need to discuss their differences to find a solution that works…” (The article ran on 2/7/2017.)

So how important is it that couples be alike? That is a difficult question to answer, and the best answer probably is something like, “It depends on the couple.” There are many couples that are very different in some ways, yet they work it out. And there are couples who are alike who don’t. Perhaps what is most important is how they make room for the other’s ideas and values, and how they are able to maintain their own sense of values while working through issues that come up for each other.

I felt that I personally learned that being alike or different may not be the most important factor in making a relationship work when I was in graduate school and was in a testing course. We looked at a couple who were the same on an inventory, and who also were divorcing. As I recall it, the instructor mentioned that he and his spouse were opposites on the same inventory, and they, too, were divorcing. You need to be careful about generalizing from one example (two in this case), but throughout my career it has seemed that the issue of how alike a couple is to one another is not the crucial factor when working on the relationship, or when working in couples therapy. It is how much they can work out their issues in ways that works for both of them, and how much they are able to work to become a couple (a system that works for both of them).

In summary, accepting of self and other is crucial, as is the ability to work to becoming a mutually satisfying couple. Accepting self, accepting other, and changing to become a mutually satisfying couple are the keys to a lasting relationship.

Couples Therapy and Lying

February 27, 2017

Best I can tell, lying has been around a long time. And its many forms have been around for a long time as well. The many forms I am referring to include covering up, making up, omitting, white lies, etc. Realize that experts (see Pamela Meyer at a TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_meyer_how_to_spot_a_liar) will let you know that we all lie. Many times the lying is not so very bad in nature, but there are also many times when it causes significant problems. When a person asks his or her spouse how they look, the response on some occassions has embellishments. We don’t always know how truthful we should be when answering a question about how someone looks. Realize that there are lies that are intentional, when you say something that is not true (lies of commission) and lies that are also intentional, but when you don’t say something that might cause you a problem (lies of omission).

With couples, they all have to work out the truth/lies issue with each other and they all do it in their own ways. Sometimes we don’t want to know the truth and so we ignore aspects of another’s behavior. And at other times we want to know the truth and we go after it. Couples will bring to therapy how they have suspected an affair for years but never talked about it until they saw a text proving it—in a way, they may not have wanted to know the truth. There are also the cases the come to counseling where once the secret is out, the offended party looks everywhere and wants to know everything about the lie.

What does this mean for you, your other half, and lying? You two have your relationship at stake and how you choose to live your life and how you choose to lie and tell the truth will determine the fate of your relationship. One of the most difficult issues that comes up in couples counseling is not just an affair, but the lying and feelings of betrayal that are felt when the secret(s) come out. It is worth your time to work on, as a couple, how truthful you are being with each other.

Arguing Simply: A Lesson for a Couples Therapy Session

January 26, 2017

I continue to learn about how to work with relationships as I do it. I hope this shows that I am progressing, getting better at the craft of helping a couple change. I learned a lesson in “arguing simply” today as I got in the middle of a couple’s argument and took it apart. I really did this by doing a few different things that might instruct you on how you could change your arguing and get better at it. First, I made them stop the activity they were doing, that is, arguing in their old way (which included talking at the same time, pushing too hard with their thoughts, giving all kinds of reasons that they were right–these were just a few of the patterns they were caught in), their same old pattern.

Stop doing the same thing that doesn’t work.

Next I took one piece of what they were talking about and got them to focus on that. I used yes/no questions, I kept stopping them from telling me why their side of the argument was so right and got each partner to answer the yes or no question, building a resolution to their problem.

Stick to one piece at a time. Get down to the basics of what makes up that piece.

Then I moved toward how close together or far apart they were from each other on the issue. In this case, it was amazing (but not that uncommon) that they actually agreed on the issue (the number of times they could each take a short vacation each year), but they still wanted to argue about it. But they were much less argumentative as things got narrowed down. And when I showed them that they actually agreed, they stopped arguing.

If you agree, stop arguing about it; if you don’t realize that you agree, make sure you don’t agree by clarifying each side.

If they had not agreed, I would have worked towards a compromise, learning about them in the process. Almost all the time there is a disagreement, couples can get to agreement (sometimes that is a compromise, sometimes it is not) if I keep them working on one idea at a time. But we also often, at this point, move to how one or the other feels about the issue or a solution or agreement. This (feelings about it) also is crucial to getting a couple to work together about an issue. If one or the other agrees, but with resentment, we have to address the resentment if we are goint to make things work.

If there is resentment, then you don’t have a very good agreement that will probably fail (unless the couple have a power differential, which brings up different issues).

In this particular case, I kept working the other pieces of their perceived differences about the topic (travel, in this case). After getting the first agreement, it was much easier to complete the other aspects of the topic (longer vacations, overnights, travel together). They felt that we had accomplished something, and they had–they had resolved something that they had fought about for a long time. And that is a skill worth improving in any relationship.

Couples and Feeling Statements

January 16, 2017

Over the course of time and working with couples, I have seen statements being made that are often misunderstood by the spouse or significant other. Given that I am sitting back a bit from the argument, I can see it more easily. I have named this particular kind of statement a feeling statement. Feeling statements are ones that are made, often in an argument, and they are often strong, generalizing, and, most importantly, are true in some ways but not others. “You always put me down,” would be a good example. As a fact, it is probably never completely true. As a feeling expressing the pain of feeling the put down coming from a significant other, it is accurate. When one person of a couple makes a feeling statement, the other often denies it, argues it, gives examples of how it is not true, which usually makes the first person even more upset because he/she is not being heard. But the first person, the person making the feeling statement, also is communicating in a way that can be taken the wrong way and often is. How to deal with feeling statements?

The person is wanting to be heard about an important issue. Can you do that? Can you just listen to what the person is feeling strongly? Second, as alluded to above, it is best not to counter it in any way, at least not in the moment. Can you just hear her/him out? Even if you feel what is being said is wrong or incorrect?

I find that the second person, the one receiving the feeling statement often feels a burning desire to correct the (perceived) misstatement, but the first person is believing (and feeling) it when such a statement is made. It is not a misstatement and it certainly feels like the truth. I push for the couple to let the feeling statements to be made, and the receiver take it an hear it for what it is—a strong statement of feelings. This can be a crucial part of moving communication forward.

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