Stephen Crippen Therapy

A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.

Archive for the ‘Couples’ Category

What does your friend need or want?

Thursday, 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?

Take good care

Thursday, 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.

Searching for the deeper feelings

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAL_AAAAJDE0ZmI4ZGYyLTRlNTctNDRhNy05OGQ3LTAxZDU2NzNjNzBiOQLots 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.

Divorce is expensive

Saturday, 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.

Roth-ira-rules-2010Some 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!

Go micro

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Therapists typically have lots of advice for struggling and unhappy couples, and often enough couples enjoy specific, 1-2-3 suggestions, like these. But just when you think you’ve advised a couple well, they’ll come back and tell you that yeah, they thought it was a good idea, but they just didn’t have time, or they forgot about it, or … and here words may fail them. They look at you with a serious expression, fully conscious of their dilemma, and their unspoken question is, “Just how do we make our relationship better and happier? How is it even possible?”

A friend of mine also pointed out to me recently that couples with young children, and especially couples with modest incomes and young children, can’t afford “date night.” They just can’t cobble together five “magic” hours for a successful marriage.

But before we give up and accept the unacceptable idea that couples under serious time and financial pressure can’t be happy, I want to invite you to go micro.

I’ll use my relationship as an example.

I married someone who’s nearly as busy as I am, but loves to sing. As we move through our separate morning routines, I’ll catch bits of his singing from the other room, and I’ll think about him. If I’m in at least a halfway decent mood, I’ll smile. That’s not even a direct interaction, but I definitely count it as one data point in a happy marriage.

Other times we will have a short text exchange, maybe in the mid-afternoon when everyone wants a nap, and our tiny emoticon exchange brightens me up.

One time I needed him to bring me something from the house, and it was one of those “mission-critical” things. I needed it, and soon. He came by and dropped it off in a #10 envelope, and on the envelope he had drawn a tiny little heart. My introverted husband had taken a moment to draw that heart. I then took a moment to notice it, and not only appreciate it, but keep the envelope in my drawer of important things. I have it to this day, four years later.

The point here is not that these little encounters (and near-encounters) are going to make a marriage. We still need to have much more powerful interactions, and there’s no couple I know who will be happy without some quality one-on-one time together on a somewhat regular basis. If you can put together five hours a week, that’s great! But even if you can’t, don’t miss the little things. They not only add up in surprising ways, each little thing has the potential to be like that little heart was for me: a sign of true love that took him about five seconds to draw, but made my whole day.

Let’s face it, I might like one of you more than the other…

Friday, August 1st, 2014

…and other hard truths from the world of therapy.

I’m in the mood to debunk a belief about my field, probably because I encounter this belief a lot, but rarely (if ever) see it borne out in practice. You’re probably familiar with it. (You may believe it yourself.) Typically I hear it in the form of a request someone makes early in our work together: “We’re just looking for someone who can be objective.”

The belief is that therapists are objective. And here’s what I say in response: I’m not objective, but I am aware of my biases, and I use them responsibly in our work together.

Therapists can’t be objective because, well, because we (like you) are subjects. We are creatures bounded by space, time, our own upbringing, culture, language, gender, race, sexual orientation, trauma history (most everyone has been traumatized to some degree), and so on. For example, I was born into a large family and have always known what it’s like to have siblings. I’ve also had only-child clients, and couples with diverse sibling backgrounds. I might resonate with the one who had a bunch of siblings, or I might admire or get along well with the only child (the way you love to learn about someone who’s very different)… And it’s not my job to not feel these things. It’s my job to handle these biases well. They tell me a lot about how this couple works, and probably give me a good idea of how most people experience this couple.

But here’s a harder example: often enough, I will naturally like one person in a couple more than the other. Sometimes this shifts over time: person 1 is more likable at the outset, and person 2 overtakes their partner in likability as therapy moves forward. It happens in the same way people are liked more or liked less by their various friends or family members. (There are times when I suspect my family of origin likes my spouse a bit better than me… but hey, that’s my therapy.)

So … what to do? Here’s what I do, and what any responsible therapist would do:

1) I accept my personal reactions to clients as information, as data, that can inform our work together. If I like your partner better than you at this particular moment, I flag that mentally and wonder to myself what I might be missing about you, or whether I’m just buying into the “public face” of your couple (most couples present a more likable person to the world, if only for the sake of a humorous routine that puts them both at ease). I wonder whether the likability difference “works” somehow for you two, and I actively think behind the scenes to debunk it. I’ll engage both people in different ways, either by connecting more with one of you, or hanging back. I’ll work the data into my theory, and reflect internally about what it might mean for your work and your goals. And 100% of the time, I see it shifting, right before my eyes: soon enough, I click with something the less-likable (in the moment!) person is saying or doing, and the dynamic changes.

2) I accept my personal reactions to clients as information, as data, about me, both as a person and as a therapist. Sometimes I’ll notice a little theme over time: I’ll notice that I’m agitated by several clients who share a certain personality preference, let’s say, and I’ll wonder to myself what that says about my own personal and professional work. “The talkative ones are rubbing me the wrong way this week,” I might notice to myself. “And isn’t that odd! I love to talk and relish verbal back-and-forth in here. What’s up? Am I tired? Are they talking about something that touches a nerve in me?” For me to be a good therapist, I have to be conscious of all this, and on top of it.

So there you have it: therapists are biased. It’s inevitable. In fact, it’s helpful: you’re much more likely to be helped by someone who knows what it’s like to be a subjective, mistake-making, self-aware, and mortal human, rather than an automaton that receives your data like a computer and spits out a standard behavioral prescription. I’m not objective, and that’s a good thing.

Couples! Let’s get organized!

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

It’s useful to look at your relationship the way you’d look at a rose or an orchid: a living thing that requires daily, weekly, monthly, and annual maintenance. (Let me disclaim right here that I’m not a gardener, I just married one, so forgive me if my metaphor is slightly inaccurate.)

I picked rose and orchid because in my amateur observation, these are not the easiest plants to cultivate and keep happy. Without over-focusing on the plants themselves, keep them in mind as you build a rhythm of healthy interaction as a couple. You can break it down into the following pieces, like this:

Every day, as a couple…
–Practice the habit of happy reunions, with a kiss (research shows kisses longer than 6 seconds are best) and a genuine (if brief) connection when you see each other at the end of the day.
–Offer each other “stress-relieving conversations” (a John Gottman concept) in which you listen empathetically and positively to the other person’s report on their day. No criticism, no problem-solving: you’re each other’s biggest fan, here to listen to how the day went and give each other the comfort of simple companionship.

Every week…
–Plan and enjoy a date night. It’s ideal if date night is the same night each week, and that you make it a passion of yours to honor this ritual. You don’t have to go out, you don’t have to spend money: date night could be a quiet evening together watching geek TV (my favorite), or something more active and exciting. But it’s just you two. Got kids? Interview and hire sitters, and pay them well: you’ll want reliable help to make this a regular ritual.
–Hold a business meeting. That’s right—a business meeting. Call it that. I’m thinking later in the afternoon on Sunday, at the dining-room table. You review the upcoming week, talk about finances, glance at longer-term plans, and accomplish any other “staff” items you have together as a couple. It can be fun to frame it this way, and it gets tedious stuff out of the way on a regular basis.

Every month…
–Plan and enjoy a date day. This time it’s not just two or three hours in the evening, it’s a whole day when you’re together and having fun. Again, no pressure to do anything elaborate or expensive (though that can occasionally add a lot of spice to this activity). Take a ferry to Bainbridge for the day. Watch five movies in a row. Run a 5K together. It’s your day to plan and enjoy just the way you like.
–Have a “relationshippy” conversation. Set some time aside once a month to make your therapist happy and do some communication exercises, dream conversations, conflict resolution, or whatever else is important for the health of your relationship right now. That’s right: you don’t have to do this every day or even every week (provided you’re doing all the other stuff). It can be tiring work, or it can make you anxious. But if you build a monthly habit, you get used to it, and you get better at it.

Every year…
–Go on an annual honeymoon. Honeymoons are wasted on newlyweds! They become more enjoyable by the year if you keep doing them. Mine back in 2003 was … okay. But now I’m a much better traveler, and I know my husband much better, so we’ll likely have a better time when we fly back east this fall. If not, there’s always next year! The annual honeymoon is a great example of something you no longer do that worked in your early days as a couple … so it’s simple: just start doing that stuff again!

This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to change it and add your own ideas. The key point is this: healthy, happy couples cultivate their relationship over time, in lots of different ways. Use this guideline to give your rhythm shape and new energy. Enjoy!

Fix it, and you can forget it

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Several years ago we had a few people over for dinner, and one of our guests said something I’ll probably never entirely forget. Typically, guests in our home sing the praises of my spouse, who is a great cook. For the most part, I enjoy this dynamic: I love my spouse, I love his cooking, and I love how, as an introvert, he shines in a way that is subtle and generous and delicious. And when he cooks dinner, I do what I do best—iron the napkins, set a nice table, talk to our guests, and brew some decaf.

But at this particular dinner, one of the guests praised my spouse and the fruits of his hard work, then turned to me, and in a tone that seemed at least a little unkind, gave me this wisecrack: “So what if anything do you do around here??”

“Uh…” I stammered, momentarily flummoxed by her forwardness. “I guess I fold t-shirts.” And then everyone laughed, including me.

Most of my friends could snark with me in this way and I’d think nothing of it. After all, I dish it out myself. But this guest was not as well known to us, and had a personality that could be a little nasty when she wanted to be. I’m pretty sure I’m not thin-skinned, but for these reasons—and maybe also because I was having a tiring day—the comment stung a bit.

(Can you hear that tiny violin playing?)

I bring this up because it’s a good example of the Zeigarnik effect. (Go here if you want more on the psychologist who lent her name to the concept.) The Zeigarnik effect works like this: at a restaurant, if a server takes your order without writing it down, he won’t forget it until he enters it into the system and it goes to the chef. But once the order is placed, he’ll forget almost perfectly what you ordered. It’s just gone. Our brains work this way: if we have information that’s connected to something undone or unresolved, we will retain that information. Once we fix the issue, the information is forgotten.

This is why, when couples make genuine repairs after an argument, they’ll hardly remember what they were arguing about. Or they’ll have a general idea—we were fighting about sex, or money—but they won’t retain the specifics. With the issue fully repaired and both partners nurtured and respected, the details fade.

Back to my example of the dinner guest: if I had repaired the issue, I wouldn’t remember what she said. I could have easily done this. I could have playfully (with a dash of seriousness) said, “Ouch…?!” and smiled, at which point she would have said something diffusing like “Oh I was just teasing, silly!” And then I would have said something lightly self-deprecating like, “Oh I know, and you have a point, next to him I’m just a busboy, haha…” and we would have gone on with our evening. And now, years later, I wouldn’t even recall the exchange, or if I did, I would remember it fondly.

But I didn’t do that quick fix. So the information is still lurking around in the back of my mind. It has maybe 0.0000000001% of an impact on my emotional state today—I mean come on, this is nothing!–but it’s in there, rattling around like a little pebble. If I’m having a bad day, or having a fight with my spouse, I might flash back to this memory and sulk for an extra ten seconds, huffing that “I don’t get no respect.” (Sigh, so human.)

So the simple moral of the story is this: fix it, and you can forget it. Good repairs are followed by your brain putting the event into its RAM, and letting it pass from your consciousness.

Nice, huh?

“Stop interrupting me!! Whose side are you on?!”

Friday, February 14th, 2014

That’s what I suspect many of my couple clients think at certain times in our work together. When they’re really going after their partner in a way that is only making things worse, I stop them with something like this:

“Hold on. Let’s try this again. For her to hear what you’re saying, you need to say it without accusing her.”

When I do this, there are two dangers:

First, my clients may think I don’t respect their position, that I’m taking the other person’s side. That’s a common and understandable fear in couples therapy. So I quickly say that I want him to be heard by the other person, and for that to happen, he has to step back from harsh criticism, or frantic defensiveness.

But there’s another danger, too: that my clients will go away thinking that their most powerful feelings are not valid, and should not be expressed. Therapy in popular culture sounds so, well let’s just call it what it is: it sounds so sappy and fakey and wishy washy. And that won’t help my clients, all of whom feel towering anger, or profound sorrow, at some point in their (usually fairly healthy!) relationships. So I quickly tell them another thing: that their feelings are valid and need to be expressed, but without going on the attack, either as offense or defense.

Here’s one example:

How not to do it: “Screw you! You just did it again. You don’t care about me, and you never have. You’re so selfish!!”

How to do it: “Sometimes I just hate you because you don’t seem to care how I feel. I know that sometimes you care, or at least you used to, but you need to hear this. You make me furious. You look at me that way and I just want to come out of my own skin. I need you to know that. Do you get that??”

The value of the second option is that the other person can hear how you feel without having to muster an immediate defense. Don’t downgrade your feelings! Your passionate feelings are not only valid, they are essential for any relationship to be truly happy. But don’t attack the other person with your nuclear weapons. The reason for this is not that the other person doesn’t deserve it, or you’re wrong, or strong feelings are bad. The reason is that if you go on the attack, you won’t get what you really want. You won’t be heard. And the other person won’t respond in a way that does you justice.

So if I see you heading in that direction, yeah, I’ll interrupt you. I’m willing to have you feel irritated with me if it helps you get what you really want.

Free to follow

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Often when I work with couples, I get a sense that people have adopted the following idea: “In this relationship, I am trapped/stuck/powerless, and if I were out of this relationship, I would have true freedom.”

Or to drill down a little on that idea: “Freedom is about doing whatever I want. It’s not about restraint.”

So I was delighted to run across this article today. It’s a little egghead-y, but accessible to you and me and not too long. It tackles the idea of “free will” from the perspective of a social psychologist.

And here’s what I think is relevant for the work I do with my clients:

“Freedom” in the context of relationships (if you ask me) is the freedom to choose restraints and boundaries that make one happier over time … and the happiness is deep and satisfying. Here are some specific bullets that riff on this idea:

  • If my spouse is free to leave me at all times (which he is), then the fact that he freely chooses to stay at my side is a precious gift. He’s not obligated by a contract (even though we have a document on file at the King County Records Office). He is here because he wants to be. That alone gives me a happy feeling.
  • I also am free to leave my spouse at all times, in ways big and small, and free to return. If I’m having a bad day, I might betray my spouse in one of the thousands of tiny ways all humans betray the people they love: a harsh thought, or a thoughtless remark, or a defensive attitude. But when my emotional and rational minds come back on line, I can freely choose to repair the damage with my spouse, to return to his side. And that choice—a choice that flows from my freedom of choice—is a gift that can make my spouse deeply glad.
  • When we freely choose to be together, and build a culture of affection and respect together, what we thought were “restraints” become bulwarks for a happy relationship, and also a strong relationship that empowers us to fix things when we become unhappy. Our freedom includes at its center the freedom to choose restraint, the freedom to yield control, the freedom to cooperate with another person. And in that restraint, we discover we are not alone, we do not have to do everything ourselves, and we are lovable not because of someone else’s feelings of obligation, but because they are free to choose to love us.

Notice that I’m not painting an idyllic picture here. All couples have rough patches, even moments of deep crisis. And all couples have stretches of time when they feel “blah, meh, whatever” about their union. But our species has the ability to freely choose restraints and boundaries that turn us back toward one another, day by day, and lead to deep gladness for both.


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