A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.
January 19th, 2017
I’m beta-testing a new intervention with couples. I’ve been trying it out with several couples recently, and early results have been positive. As we discuss their problems, and as the typical hard feelings of anger and anxiety and sadness come to the surface, I turn to one member of the couple and then the other, and I ask this question of each of them:
What does your friend need or want?
Couples forget that at one point they were friends. They dated, they fell in love, they had good times, and through all of that they were building a friendship. Sometimes couples state clearly that “I married my best friend,” and it’s even in their wedding vows. But even if their core friendship is less overt or obvious, at one point in their story, it was a powerful bond, and also a kind of ordinary bond… the bond of good friends.
To do this exercise with couples, I have to authentically convince them that I am going to work hard to help them get what they want in the conflict. No one wants to think about what somebody else needs or wants if they don’t have any hope to reach any of their own goals. And they’ve spent a lot of time feeling very unfriendly feelings about the other person, and being on the receiving end of unfriendly feelings. So sometimes I’ll begin by saying, “Let’s imagine just for the next few minutes that the person next to you on this couch is your friend.” Then I ask the question:
What does your friend need or want?
I often have to suggest things. “I wonder,” I’ll say, “if your friend needs someone to truly understand how frustrated she feels, without trying to fix it.” Or, “I wonder if your friend needs someone to show some compassion about his frustration with the kids, because when he’s mad at the kids, he feels like a failure, like a bad father.” Or, “I wonder if your friend is really scared about all the changes that have happened, and she needs someone to talk to her about what hasn’t changed, or what won’t ever change, if you can do anything about it.” Or, “I wonder if your friend is just sad right now, and needs someone to hold their hand.”
Sometimes we have to explore these things for a little while. I’ll check with the person we’re talking about to see if we’re on track, and often enough we are. Because it’s not my relationship, it’s not so hard for me to see what your friend needs or wants, because I’m not in trouble with them, and I don’t have a history with them.
Couples have said that when they talk about their issues in this way, it is inherently relaxing and encouraging. They begin to treat one another as friends again. It can also be a good homework assignment, and they’ve come back to later sessions reporting a more positive dynamic at home.
You can try this at home. If you’re upset with your partner, center yourself, breathe more deeply, and wonder about this question:
What does my friend need or want?
November 10th, 2016
I work with both individuals and couples in my practice. I also work with Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Greens. I know that I’ve had people in my office recently who supported Hillary, Bernie, and yes, even Trump.
I can’t disclose client data publicly, but I think it’s not a surprise and will reveal the identity no one in particular to say that we are all just flipping out. This is truly a traumatic time for most of us. Seriously: take my diagnostic manual off my shelf, turn to the PTSD page, and yeah, that’s us. Except it’s not even “post” trauma. The trauma is happening right now, like a live video on Facebook.
One couple felt sheepish that they were coming to work on relationship problems while the world outside my office seemed to be hurtling into apocalypse. I dispensed with that concern immediately: there is probably no better thing to do right now, for all of us, than to take good care of our personal relationships. That has to be a starting point for us. Tempers are beyond frayed; people are losing sleep (I finally got a full night of sleep last night, after laying awake the night before feeling profound anxiety about what was happening); even therapists like me are getting therapy to cope with the strain.
I also believe that what happens globally also happens locally, in the same general pattern. If you’re in a pattern of discord and chaos in your primary relationship, some of the dynamics of that problem mirror the dynamics we see in the news: you are likely interacting with unflattering caricatures of each other; you are likely making decisions from an unconscious place of emotional overstimulation; you likely have much more in common with each other than you are prepared to admit; and you likely do have authentic hope that you can somehow make your way through the mess, even though that hope proves elusive right now.
So my advice to you, and to myself is this: “take good care.” It’s how I sign off on my emails, and for me it’s more than just a nice courteous way to sign a note. I really mean it. Take good care of your relationships. Take good care of your physical bodies. Start there. You are probably being traumatized right now, and for some of you, you obviously are, and you know that. Focusing on your personal needs is not only okay to do, it is essential.
Know also that when I say “take good care” to you, I am also saying it to myself, about you. When I write it in an email, it is a wish that moves in both directions: I am gently reminding myself to take good care of you, as best I can in my role as your therapist.
History is full of dreadful stories of political and social upheaval, violence, trauma, and terror. We are moving through that right now. Will we survive? Yes and no. We are a resilient species, and we have many gifts and skills. We are also deeply fallible and universally mortal. At some point, none of us will be here to see how things turned out.
In the meantime, take good care, and know that you are not alone.
June 22nd, 2016
Lots of couples come to counseling because they’re pissed off. The anger often seems to be about a lot of things, a thousand paper cuts, the rough edges and strains of life. But it typically runs deeper, and is closer to rage than it is to irritation or frustration.
My job is to go down into that rage with my couples. And then my job is to go even deeper.
When I was a kid, the swimming pool at the Y had a deep-end depth of nine terrifying feet. I remember the scare and the thrill of plunging deep enough to touch my feet on the bottom, and then the desperate desire to swim back up to the surface as fast as I could. The water was a deeper blue down at that end, and the bottom was as far away from the safe, ordinary confines of my childhood life as anything I could imagine.
Now that I’m an adult working with adults on their relationships, I think about that pool. It’s a metaphor for the depth of their emotional life with one another. My job is to fearlessly plunge into that pool, and to take them with me, into the rage below the surface, and beneath that rage to the bottom of the pool, the quiet, blue waters of sadness and fear that are really what their conflict is all about.
One assumption I make—it’s an assumption that has served me well—is that most people are sad and scared. Sad about the loss and abandonment and rejection they have suffered, scared that they will never be able to connect with their beloved and get what they truly want and need.
I welcome their anger: it is valid and understandable and important. And there are times in therapy when someone has risen up in might to express their anger in a way that revolutionized their marriage, for the good. But that rarely happens if no one is aware of and responsive to the sadness and fear that lurks beneath that anger, in the cold, quiet, blue waters in the depths of their hearts.
Couples therapy requires “adulting” from all of us: from you, the client, who will be exploring the depths of your feelings, desires, and dreams; and from me, the therapist, who can’t help you if I stay safe and secure in the shallow end.
If you are sad and scared, I can go there with you—with both of you—and we can find our way through those waters.
April 21st, 2016
I’m on a short break, but will return to the office on May 2nd. If you are a potential new client, know that I have a couple of openings and will respond to your inquiry when I return. Meanwhile, the office (and the tropical fish, a favorite of many clients!) will be well cared for by another tenant in the building. See you all soon!
March 19th, 2016
I often counsel my couples that divorce is not always the worst outcome. “The worst outcome,” I like to say, “is living miserably ever after.” Having said that, most couples are avoidant of divorce, almost instinctively opposed to it, and in my experience this isn’t about morality or custom as much as a reasonable belief that divorce would be a big, sad, frustrating, traumatizing mess.
Some marriages are a bigger mess than divorce would be; many aren’t. And I was taught (by John and Julie Gottman, whose therapy methods I include in my practice) that the simple presence of a couple on the therapy couch is a sign of hope. If you come to me with a troubled marriage, I’ll try to help you save it, even if you yourself are feeling really ambivalent about it. I’ll also normalize your feelings of ambivalence and talk openly with you about your many options. I stand by my “living miserably ever after” speech, but I do have a bias toward reconciliation. I love happy endings, and if the happiest ending involves saving the marriage, so much the better.
Here’s one big reason why. Divorce can be harrowingly expensive, particularly for women. And while we live in a dominant U.S. culture that prizes romance and emotional attachment in marriage, the truth is, marriage has historically also been a form of economic organization. It has been a way for a couple, family, and village to solve serious economic problems. It’s not cold or clinical to take this into account if your marriage is in trouble and you don’t know if you want to work on it.
When we meet for couples therapy, we weigh all the options. I resist any situation that offers only one or two options. We think expansively and work hard to find the best solution for both of you. Sometimes divorce is a part of that solution. Often it’s not. Let’s be sure we think it all through, and include a discussion of the serious practical consequences of ending your marriage. Therapy itself is costly, but it’s far cheaper than divorce!
October 14th, 2015
I know when: a little over a year ago.
I confess, I’m firmly identified now on social media as one of those people who checks in at the gym. And I’m a pretty serious repeat offender: I go on average about four times a week, and I check in every. time. And I have a running app too, and it’s linked up to let the whole world know I just ran a few miles. I am one of those people.
I could just write myself off (and sometimes do) as a garden variety, tedious narcissist. But there’s more to this practice than vanity. There’s something therapeutic about it, something related to life goals and identity, something connected to my work as a therapist, something worth exploring.
In the summer of 2014, I bought a few personal training sessions at my gym. For the first month or so, I met with the trainer but didn’t do much else, coming in only once or twice to half-heartedly do a portion of his suggested workout. Finally I said this to him: “This isn’t working. I’m not getting anywhere, but now I have a professional on board, so it’s actually more depressing than before I hired you.” “What do you want to do about it?” he asked, and I admired his skillful yet friendly return of the ball to where it belongs—in my hands. And I knew, instantly, what I needed: “I want to email you every time I come to the gym, and (I might have blushed a little here) have you respond back with encouragement. Pat me on the head. Tell me I’m awesome.” He said, “Sure, be happy to!”
So I started doing that, knowing that if I didn’t work out, I couldn’t email him, and if I didn’t email him (I reasoned to myself) he would be disappointed in me. (Therapist alert! Isn’t this unhealthy??) Yes and no: I learn socially, and I motivate socially. I’m an extravert. I’m also not above giving others a little power to validate me. Some of the self-help books would scold me for having a “reflected sense of self,” for allowing my neighbor to determine how I feel about myself. And yes, I can see the danger there. But I also think that life should include some of this: we should build each other up. Encouragement from others is okay. It can’t replace a solid sense of self, but it can be a healthy motivator. Bottom line, I knew that my trainer’s opinion of me really didn’t matter, not even to me, because in the end my fitness work is mine alone, and only I will know truly whether I have accomplished something real, something valuable. And yet … yeah, he’s a professional, he’s helping me out, sure, I care what he thinks.
But the trainer emails, as useful as they were, turned out not to be the whole solution. I simultaneously started checking in on Facebook whenever I went to the gym. I’d try to keep it funny, to make it less irritating, less of an unattractive brag, by posting photos like this in the check-in, of another therapist who was famous for her workout routines (and her love of chocolate sundaes):
And I then chose a close friend to consult every once in a while to get feedback about my social-media presence. “Are the gym check-ins annoying?” I’d ask her (once again seeking validation from another person—yes, I know). “Um, well yeah,” she’d say, “but remember that that’s information about me, not you.” She knows that anyone’s emotional response to another person’s behavior is really just information about themselves. And sure enough, for every person who rolled his eyes at my gym check-ins, another person would message me saying that my fitness work motivated them, encouraged them to go to the gym more often, or walk more, or work on their knee pain so they could be more flexible and active.
And that, naturally, was all I needed to hear. I love to motivate others with my own achievements—yep, I’m a Three on the Enneagram—and the reverse is true too: your achievements motivate me. Sometimes I get small and anxiously competitive, but at my best I engage friendships as a way to motivate both of us to make the changes we want in our lives. I like it when we build each other up.
Don’t even get me started on the joys of Fitbit.
Now that I’m more than a year into my new life of fitness, having finished a half marathon and nearly finished a couple of 12-week courses of weight training, I feel like I’m ready to settle into a new—now not so new—lifestyle of general fitness and strength, an integrated rhythm that comes naturally, a habit that becomes an integral part of a new way or Rule of life. Injuries or illness may throw me off course, but that’s already happened a couple of times, and I feel fairly prepared to handle that, with the help and encouragement of others.
I keep trying to notice the shadow, the dark side, of all this, which is just base vanity and self-centeredness. I won’t pretend I don’t indulge in that. And I may at some point let go of the check-in routine, but not the gym routine. But I’ll probably do so only when I’ve found a better way to share motivation with my neighbor to work for the health and strength of our best selves.
Another person who likes to motivate others by sharing her own story. 😉
October 7th, 2015
I’ve never been to Burning Man, and as someone who’s not a huge fan of desert environments, I’ve never felt a strong urge to go. (I know, I’m probably missing out on a lot.) But this year I saw a sculpture featured there, and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind or heart. Here it is. It’s called “Love,” and was sculpted by Alexander Milov:
You can Google it to see more images taken at various times of day. I don’t want to over-interpret this art, and can only describe my own response to it, not only as a couples therapist but as a human being with a marriage and many other powerful relationships in my life. When I look at these images, I feel empathy for all four figures, the two adults and the two children. I suspect the adults know what the children are doing, and while the children extend their hands so simply, the adults are working out their ambivalent feelings of longing, resentment, hope, fear, regret, and love. And I notice that the children are not quite touching.
Oh, how I want those children to be able to touch hands, and embrace. I want this for all four of them. I want to help them.
This is my life’s work.
July 28th, 2015
An article in the New York Times today is one of those articles that can be hard for therapists to read. It’s just one person’s account of her experience in couples therapy, but it’s pretty damning of my industry and craft. She offers cringe-inducing anecdotal reports from 30 years (off and on) of seeing couples therapists, who too often sound, well, like idiots.
But what bothered me the most about the therapists she described wasn’t the corny one-liners and trite advice they gave. It was the way they all seemed to be doing whatever they thought was the right thing to do, apparently without any set of guidelines or standards that all couples therapists follow. This can be messy work, and sometimes we don’t know if it was effective until we follow up with clients long after therapy has ended, but come on, really? Can’t we have some kind of assurance that every couples therapist will do (or not do) certain specific things, and with some reliable amount of quality control?
That’s why I’m in the certification track for Gottman Method therapy, and why, month by month, I work with a therapist supervisor one on one. I tell clients that our agenda matters a great deal to me, and I don’t want to do even one session with a couple without discerning clearly and thoroughly what we’re working on, how they’re doing, and what the specific next steps are. I also keep reading and integrating theoretical perspectives into my core approach.
Having said all that, I also know that there are moments in the room with couples when I need to follow my instincts and take the session in a direction that isn’t predicted or controlled by the various models and regimens I typically use. Sometimes I have an out-of-nowhere question for the couple that radically shifts the direction of our work.
So … how do I know that’s effective?
Well, sometimes it’s not. Other times—and this is true more often than not—it can be a breakthrough moment for the couple. One couple I worked with some time ago was coming to me with a lot of anger, particularly from the direction of one person in the couple, who seemed almost consistently irritated with our whole process. My approach was to ask about deep fears they both had, and how they were suppressing those fears in a way that fueled their pattern of anger and bickering. (That’s a fairly standard tack.) But my question didn’t come out of a textbook. It wasn’t vetted by a well-researched theoretical approach. It was something like, “You two sound pretty freaked out. Are you scared about your kids?”
And off we went in a new direction. Thankfully, I was right. It could have been a false move. In that case, I would have thought quickly on my feet and pivoted us back on our previous course. But it’s tricky, this work. It can sometimes fall flat, or backfire. But when it works, it can truly change the life of a couple.
Mt. Hood, as seen from Larch Mountain, 4056 feet. I climbed Larch the other week, perhaps in search of the big picture that I and my clients both need. 😉
March 25th, 2015
So—I did it. I ran 13.1 miles in the 2015 Mercer Island Half Marathon, a race that raises funds to fight colon cancer. I personally also raised funds to support two other causes. In the course of all this, I learned a lot about myself, my body, and what I want to do—how I want to live—in the here-and-now of my forty-something life.
I’ve said to clients that I fly a chair every day in my work, so I need to play in a way that takes my body to the limit. Back in September 2014, I started working out in earnest, and by December I had a wild idea: what if I signed up for a race? I had been using the row machine at the gym, and it felt unsatisfying expending all that energy going nowhere. I started running on the treadmill, and soon recalled the thrill of running—really, it’s just the thrill of high-impact cardio work—when I was 17 years old, back in the 20th century. My 17-year-old self got in shape much faster (and could eat all the cookies he wanted), but even now I can readily see and feel the results of hard exercise. I’m hooked.
Then, in late January, I injured myself. I got ‘Pes Anserine Bursitis’ in my right knee, the result of poor running form in which I radiated my right foot (and knee) outward each time I took a step. It was painful, but the worst part was its persistence: I didn’t start to feel even a little better until mid-February, after a scary three weeks of physical therapy, acupuncture, and a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be able to finish the race, or even compete: at its worst, I couldn’t run an eighth of a mile without severe pain.
But then that lifted, and I was back on my training schedule. I ran seven miles, then ten, then twelve, with alternating short runs in between. I learned that long runs (for me) are little spiritual exercises in persistence and patience. I learned to find the balance between taking care of myself and pushing harder. I’d be in the middle of mile eight, say, and feel utterly fatigued … and I’d keep going.
I started doing simple math on runs, which became a form of meditation. Every five minutes, the runkeeper app on my phone would tell me how I was doing, and I’d crunch the numbers while I ran: “I’m 6/16ths done now … so that’s 3/8ths … almost half …” Then, one fine day, the app malfunctioned and I didn’t get the updates. I ran in silence. I noticed that without the jabbering of the 5-minute updates, I could focus better, notice what was going on with more intention, and run more efficiently. In running, as in so many things, less is more.
On race day, last Sunday, March 22, I felt excited but not particularly nervous. I knew by then that I’d make it, and it was just a matter of doing it. I was more nervous about all the other runners and the unfamiliarity of the event: this was my first race, except for a little run I halfheartedly did about a dozen years ago, which was so halfhearted I don’t think it counts. My goals were to finish, and to not walk at any point on the course. Done, and done. The eighth mile was once again one of the biggest challenges: my right foot started to hurt, and it was hard to shake the thought that I had several miles to go. I said a little prayer to my higher power and punched through it.
Then there was the twelfth mile: brutal, because on this course most of the twelfth mile is a long, steeper-than-it-looks incline. I refused to walk it. I was slow, just chugging along, but I made it. A nice guy ran alongside me and encouraged me. Runners are kind to each other in these races, I learned.
It felt so good to finish. I felt alive, awake, alert. And of course, I thought, “Yeah, I want to do this again.” I don’t know if I’m up for a full marathon, which is a different race entirely, requiring more than twice as much training as the Half. The Half is challenging enough, I think. But my next goal is going to be about strength: I’ll keep running, but focus more on muscle development and physical strength.
I love to encourage clients to live life fully, so in a real sense this whole project has been a part of my job, even a part of my business plan. It’s important that I live what I suggest, to put my running shoes where my mouth is. And it’s a gift not only to myself, but to my family and friends too: when I’m in good physical shape, I’m in great emotional and mental shape. I’m a better friend, a better husband, a better neighbor.
I didn’t do it all perfectly. The injury taught me that. But I did it thoroughly, I scared myself with a daunting challenge, and I enjoyed my life while I did it … and that’s all I wanted.
Is it time for you to scare yourself?
February 12th, 2015
Maybe it’s the name. “Marathon.” That word can freak people out. I’m thinking about other ways to label this form of therapy, but for now, let’s go with “marathon,” and I’ll just ask you to hang in there with me on this. It can be a powerful, profoundly helpful experience for a couple.
Here’s how it’s done: three days of therapy, five hours a day, for a total of 15 hours. We begin at 10:30 each day, take a lunch break at 1:00, and are done at 4:30. Ideally you make an additional investment of renting a hotel room so that you can truly get away from your lives for this time. (You will be tired! And it’s good to stay focused on your relationship, to keep it front and center.)
You can expect to make progress, relapse, enjoy a powerful breakthrough, relapse again, and so on. By day three, you will start to integrate our work, and you’ll finish up with a very clear idea of what you want to do, how you want to relate, and what your future holds as a couple. You will have specific “takeaways,” including both practical tools and deeper insights. You will go home feeling like you truly worked on—and greatly improved—your relationship.
Of course, there are no hard and fast guarantees. And there will be moments in the marathon when you feel hopeless. But like actual (running) marathons, the whole experience can end in an exhilarating finish.
Most people, when they contemplate couples counseling, imagine a half dozen or more sessions spread out over weeks or months. They try to fit the sessions into their busy lives, and the biggest barriers to success are low intensity, multiple distractions, and the sense that each time we meet, we have to “start the engine cold” once again. I make that format helpful, too, and pay close attention to the need to keep intensity high and generate strong momentum. But in the marathon, we don’t have to worry about that. We can go deep, and stay there until we make real progress … all in one weekend.
The cost? I charge $1800 for the 15-hour session, plus $29 for an online assessment that you can take beforehand. That works out to $120/hour, which is my standard fee in traditional couples therapy.
Lots of people find the idea of marathon couples therapy daunting, but I encourage you to think about it—and feel about it—for a while, and take it seriously as a real option for your relationship. Have you ever been to a couples weekend or pre-marital workshop? This is like that, except it is all for you. No classroom filled with other couples. No general lectures or activities that everyone learns together. Just you two. Imagine how healthy and invigorating this could be for your relationship!
The author, age 17, running in Cross Country.
P.S. I’m training for a half marathon this spring (the running kind). Since my job has me sitting down all day, it’s my way to stay fit, clear my mind, and build spiritual strength. 🙂