#AskGottman: Affairs Answers

It’s possible to recover from an affair, but not every relationship can or should be saved. In a recent #AskGottman session, Master Certified Gottman Therapists Don and Carrie Cole answered 5 tough questions about affairs. Here are their responses.

It’s possible to recover from an affair, but not every relationship can or should be saved. In a recent #AskGottman session, Master Certified Gottman Therapists Don and Carrie Cole answered 5 tough questions about affairs. Here are their responses.

We hope that our responses help you to process the trauma of betrayal and begin on the path towards rebuilding trust in your relationship.

Thank you for your questions this week about affairs. Many of you have been left in pain, and for that we are both very sorry. We hope that our responses below help you to process the trauma of betrayal and begin on the path towards rebuilding trust in your relationship. As always, remember that our answers are intended to be psycho-educational. If you would like to speak with a professional trained in the Gottman Method, we encourage you consult the Gottman Referral Network.

I love this quote: “Confronting infidelity is really coping with betrayal. It’s all about holding the other person accountable for that betrayal and honoring yourself in the process.” How do I do this?

Of all the difficult situations people face in relationships, betrayal may be the worst. The person we count on the most is the one who has hurt us. The feelings of sadness, anger, shock, and helplessness grip our hearts to the point of paralysis. People that have been betrayed often feel inadequate and wonder why their partner chose someone else over them. To confront infidelity and cope with betrayal, you need to honor yourself by communicating your feelings and ensuring that those feelings are heard and validated. You need to believe that your partner is truly remorseful for the betrayal. You also need to honor yourself – and hold your partner accountable – by communicating what you need for repair.

It’s difficult to communicate your feelings after a betrayal. Even after time has passed, talking about the incident can trigger old pain. At the same time, you may feel an internal pressure to process and get things off your chest.  If you hold these feelings in too long, they could come out in unexpected and volatile ways, or they could stay locked in and lead to depression. You need to be heard. You honor yourself when you share your pain, your sadness, your fears, and even your anger. With that said, sharing your feelings is not the same thing as attacking your partner. Avoid blaming “you” statements and focus on what’s going on inside of you. Dr. Gottman suggests that couples complain without blame (“I feel…”) and state a positive need (“I need…).

In order to truly recover after a betrayal, you must be able to hear, accept, and believe that your partner truly regrets the infidelity. Hopefully your partner will be patient with the fact that you might need to hear that regret expressed many times in many different ways. Often a person who has had an affair seeks to rush ahead to talk about the deficits that were present in the relationship before the affair occurred. This can cause a lot of problems, especially at first, because the betrayed partner might very well feel that the betrayer is seeking to justify his or her actions or even to defensively blame the betrayed partner.

You need to communicate what you need to repair the relationship. That can be hard because sometimes you don’t even know yourself what you need. For most couples in this situation, transparency is a must. That means that your partner needs to be an open book about where they are, who they are with, when to expect their return, and immediate communication if there is a change in plans, or if they have had any encounter with the affair partner. It goes without saying that the affair must end and that all communication with the affair partner ceases.

The biggest issue in establishing a transparent relationship is hearing the full story of the affair.  While it is best to avoid questions regarding specific sexual behaviors, all other questions must be answered openly and honestly. The betrayer who tries to “soften the blow” by hiding details of the affair runs the risk of creating a second betrayal when their partner discovers those details that had previously been omitted. If you need to have access to your partner’s email accounts and text messages, it is okay to ask for that. You might want to write out a list of what your needs are. It is okay to have needs and to ask your partner to honor them.

What is emotional infidelity?

Emotional infidelity takes many different forms. A lot of people argue about what constitutes an emotional affair. In the Gottman Method, we believe it starts when a person gets too close to someone other than his or her relationship partner. Often these relationships begin innocently enough, but they grow into something very dangerous. The signs of emotional infidelity are: confiding in; flirting; keeping the relationship secret from the partner; and sharing details about their personal life, especially negative details about the partner and the relationship. People who get involved in emotional affairs find themselves making negative comparisons between their partner and the “friend.” They see their “friend” as being funnier, more interesting, more attractive, easier to talk to, more interested in them, and more understanding. This begins The Cheater’s Cascade.

Social media can play a big role in the cascade toward emotional infidelity, especially in today’s day and age. Reconnecting with old high school and college friends or sweethearts can begin with a desire to “catch up.”  Unfortunately, all too often it moves way beyond that.  It can escalate very quickly.

Emotional affairs almost always involve secret keeping. When people try to hide the extent and the content of their conversations, they are on a slippery slope toward an emotional affair. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “How would I feel if I heard my partner having this kind of conversation with someone else?” If that would hurt, then a boundary is being crossed.

Almost all betrayals begin with emotional infidelity. Even if the betrayal never moves beyond the emotional betrayal to a physical relationship, the offense can be just as devastating and recovery can be just as difficult.

My husband used to be a porn addict. He kept an online dating profile, commented on photos of other women, posted for sex, and responded to a woman to meet. While he never actually slept with anyone, I still feel cheated on – betrayed at least. I have read many articles on forgiveness and recovery, but I still don’t know how. He has an extensive history cheating on past partners. How do I recover from this? Are we doomed? I feel my inability to fully trust him is a big part of our relationship.

It makes sense that you would feel betrayed and anxious about your future.  You are right, trust is a big part of every relationship and there are serious roadblocks to trust in this situation. In addition to dealing with the betrayals that have already happened, you must consider the possibility that your partner still suffers from a sexual addiction that must be successfully treated if the relationship is ever going to feel safe. A thorough evaluation by a counselor or therapist is a good first step. You are going to need a lot of support, both individually and as a couple.

The need for total transparency is a given here. There can be no secrets.  Social media accounts and other media – email accounts and cell phones – must be an open book. You are living in a very stressful situation and it would be helpful for you to learn effective stress management techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and perhaps some form of meditation.

It might be helpful to have a “State of the Union” meeting each week. Set aside an hour to talk about how things are going. What is the state of your union? This would be a good time to share what has been helpful toward rebuilding trust, and what you still need from your partner that you may not be getting. It is important to state what you do need rather than what you don’t need. Avoid attacking and blaming your partner.

Finally, give yourself a break about forgiving your partner. In a situation like this, forgiveness is connected to feelings of safety and understanding. How can you forgive what you don’t understand? Your understanding comes from his awareness of self. You cannot feel safe until you are convinced that his behavior has ended.

As a counselor, what’s the first step in helping couples rebuild and nurture trust once they’ve agreed to work past an affair?

As Dr. Gottman explains in The Science of Trust and What Makes Love Last?, the “Gottman Trust Revival Method” after an affair has 3 phases: atone, attune, and attach. This system for healing is founded in his lab results and clinical experience, which confirm the effectiveness of the model.

As a counselor, the first step is to help couples have an atonement conversation about the affair. The betrayed partner may have a lot of questions that need to be answered. They need the whole, sordid story. The counselor’s job is to facilitate that conversation and provide safety for both partners. In effect, the therapist bridges the gap between the partners by articulating with great precision what the hurt partner is feeling and ensuring that the other fully understands.

The betrayer’s task is to be open and honest, and answer the betrayed partner’s questions in a truthful, forthright manner. It is very important the details of the affair not be glossed over or minimized, otherwise this fragile relationship will suffer another blow when more details surface at a later date. The betrayer also has the obligation to express remorse and take responsibility for what happened. Any attempts to blame the affair on the “problems in the relationship” will be heard as making excuses for their behavior, or even worse, heard as blaming their partner. That will certainly sabotage the conversation.

The betrayed partner is asked to pose whatever questions might be on their mind. The therapist might need to guide them away from asking detailed questions about sex because those answers might increase their trauma. The betrayed partner will likely want to know why it happened. The “Why?” question is an important one, but is really a Phase 2 question. The Phase 1 questions are more about getting the details of the story, such as when, where, how. The therapist should be aware that the betrayed partner is struggling with PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and triggers. It is important that the betrayed partner be able to share their feelings, but to do so without attacking their partner. Most people will find that a very difficult task, so the therapist needs to be quick to intervene if the conversation becomes critical or contemptuous. In some cases, several sessions are required to get through this atoning conversation and it’s recommended that the couple refrain from having this conversation at home.

My wife had an affair. She tells me that she is no longer lying, and that at some point I have to trust her again. I find it hard to do this because she lied for over a year, and continued for some months after discovery of the affair. How can I learn to trust her again? 

This is an example of the dangers inherent in trying to cover up or minimize a betrayal. When someone lies repeatedly to their partner, he or she does damage way beyond the betrayal itself. It’s really another, separate betrayal.

Trust takes time to rebuild. There is no specific time frame for completing the process. It is important that you communicate exactly what you need from your partner in order to trust her again. This might mean a bit of trial and error. Put some focus on rebuilding the positive experiences in your relationship by developing ritual of connection activities. Take an evening walk together, sit down to dinner together, check in with each other at the end of the day to talk about stressing or interesting things that happened to each of you. Focus on tuning in daily and turning towards each other during the small, everyday moments.

Don and Carrie are Master Certified Gottman Therapists, Consultants, Trainers, and Workshop Leaders. They are the co-founders of The Center for Relationship Wellness, a private practice for therapy, consultation, and training in the Houston, Texas area.

Visit The Gottman Relationship Blog for more information on creating stronger relationships.

Do you work with some couples and wonder,“Can I help repair this damaged relationship?”

Now, for the first time ever, John and Julie Gottman invite you to learn their proven approach in a cutting-edge online course that will transform your work with couples.


Married to the military: 6 tips to support the military couples we work with

If we want to help our clients (enlisted, Guard and Reserve, vets) we should arm ourselves with some skills and resources. Here are six tips to utilize when working with these clients…

The media hums with dramatic tales of the downside of military relationships. We hear about domestic violence, substance abuse, PTSD, suicide, and infidelity. With the flurry of negative news we may marvel that any military marriages make it.

But they do. Military sociologist Jacey Eckhart studied 1,200 military couples married over 15 years and still in the service. Her findings reveal an upside to military marriages that may help us as we support these couples.

  • The long-lasting couples see their engagement with the service as a calling, not just as a job. They find this to be a meaningful role that provides financial stability and opportunities for advancement. In successful couples, the non-military spouse understands and supports that view of service.
  • The strongest couples have a non-military spouse who provides structure and normalcy at home during deployments and time apart. Deployments are expected, and the couple figures out ways to manage time away from each other.
  • Couples with the strongest relationships figure out how to pull the partner back into family life upon return from deployments. They talk openly about the challenges and how to navigate them.

If we want to help our clients (enlisted, Guard and Reserve, vets) we should arm ourselves with some skills and resources. Here are six tips to utilize when working with these clients:

  1. Learn about military culture. Speak their language. Find out what their lives are like.
  2. Provide resources for couples. A couple of good websites are militaryonesource.mil and www.military.com/spouse. There are many others worth passing on as well.
  3. Normalize their experiences, and be their cheerleader and guide them as they work through struggles. Instill optimism and hope.
  4. Arm yourself with knowledge of evidence-based treatment strategies for depression, relationship problems, nightmare and sleep disorders, PTSD and other clinical concerns of service members. Here’s just one example of a training on military family issues by PESI speaker Dr. Patrick Brady.
  5. Suggest that couples, families, and small groups take advantage of Reconnection Workshops, small group modules offered by the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. These 2 hour groups are facilitated by licensed mental health professionals and are offered at no cost and are available anywhere in the country. Topics for adults include communication, anger, stress and trauma, supporting children, and depression.
  6. Read Eckhart’s study to better understand military marriages.

By enhancing your skills in working with military couples you will be better able to help them serve our country and sustain healthy, long-term marriages.

This blog was contributed by PESI speaker Martha Teater, MA, LMFT, LCAS, LPC. She is part of the work group that developed Reconnection Workshops through the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. She is also a lead instructor for Coping with Deployments, another Red Cross military program. A prolific writer, she has published over 175 articles in newspapers and magazines, and is the coauthor of Overcoming Compassion Fatigue: A Practical Resilience Workbook. Visit her website: www.marthateater.com.

Join Martha to sharpen and enhance your ability to treat trauma with the most effective, evidence-based treatment approach. Bonus: You’ll earn up to 6 CE hours all from the comfort of your own home.


Read more from Martha!

How To: Getting Kids to Chip In Around the House

When everyone in the family contributes to the chores, you teach a valuable lesson: The family is a team. Here are some tips and tricks to getting everyone involved with household chores.

We often make the same resolutions every year: drop some weight, save more money, read more. While these are all worthy resolutions, we often abandon them just days into the new year.

What if we instead focus our effort into meaningful goals that benefit the entire household? Goals like getting everyone to help with household chores.

Rewards often don’t work for getting kids to chip in around the house. Let me ask you, do you really blame your kids for not wanting to take out the trash, set the table, sweep the floor or clean up their rooms? Do you want to do it? Does paying them work in the long term? If you’ve tried the reward system, you know that it doesn’t work forever.

Here are 4 tips to get your kids on board with helping out around the house:

1. Explain why doing the chore is necessary.

A chore that is not fun or interesting can become more meaningful if you can show your kids that it is part of the bigger picture. Explain that if each family member does one small chore each day you will have more time for the fun things your family gets to do…such as swimming or watching a movie together. You can draw pictures of each person’s contribution to show how your family operates like a machine with moving parts that helps the house run smoothly.

2. Say out loud… “Yes, I know that this chore is BORING.”

Let your kids know that you understand that cleaning their room isn’t a lot of fun. This isn’t a lecture…it is empathy.

3. Let the kids do their chores their own way. Don’t control them.

You can tell them that you want the table set, but you don’t have to micro-manage where the fork and spoon go. Let them have fun and use their creative minds while doing their chore. All that matters is that it gets completed.

4. And if all else fails, use the Tom Sawyer method.

If you remember the story, Tom is white washing the fence and he is not having fun, but then he gets an idea. He tells his friend that painting the fence is not a grim chore, rather a fantastic privilege. His friend asks to try, but Tom won’t let him, saying it is way too fun. Finally, he gets his friend to give him an apple to try painting. Soon after, more boys arrive and vie for the privilege of painting the fence. So pretend you are so enjoying washing the dishes. When you make it look fun your kids will soon be begging you to help!

When everyone in the family contributes to the chores, you teach a valuable lesson: The family is a team. I hope this positive change can help make your family’s new year a little brighter for everyone.


This blog was brought to life by PESI speaker Susan P. Epstein, LCSW. Susan is the author of the best selling books, Over 60 Techniques, Activities & Worksheets for Challenging Children & Adolescents and 55 Creative Approaches for Challenging & Resistant Children & Adolescents. She has also authored Your Out of Control Teen, The Little Book With a Lot of Attitude: A Guide to Effective Parent-Teen Communication (2009), two parenting books Are You Tired of Nagging: How to Get Cooperative Kids (2008) and The Take Back Your Parenting Powers System (2007) & and has co-authored a children’s book about death, loss and healing, The Cat Who Lost Its Meow (2008).

In addition to her clinical work, Susan is a parent coach, certified health coach, national child behavior expert, and has contributed to magazines Family, Parents, American Baby and New York. She founded Parenting Powers, a coaching company that provides parent coaching and supervision and training to professionals working with challenging kids.


3 Tips to Improve Social Anxiety in Young Children

Social anxiety in children can be rather disruptive for a family, therefore having a few cognitive-behavioral activities and resources to quickly offer a family can be of great help to a clinician or school psychologist. Here are three ideas, based in cognitive science, written as a handout for parents, so you can simply print it, discuss it and then provide more individualized strategies as well.

Social anxiety in children can be rather disruptive for a family, therefore having a few cognitive-behavioral activities and resources to quickly offer a family can be of great help to a clinician or school psychologist. Here are three ideas, based in cognitive science, written as a handout for parents, so you can simply print it, discuss it and then provide more individualized strategies as well.

My child appears to be afraid of meeting new friends, going to dance class and even playing with new kids at the park. Why is that so, and how can I help?

Children with social anxiety are uncomfortable exploring new things. Rather than becoming excited by novel opportunities, new places, people and activities, they are more likely to be scared, agitated or withdrawn.

Here are three steps to helping your anxious child.

1. Help your anxious child by previewing what is expected in a new situation. Discuss who will be there, what you will be doing, whether or not you will be at the event with your child and what will happen when the event is completed.

  • “We’ll be going to Sam’s house.”
  • “His mom, dad and brothers will be there.”
  • “We’ll have a bar-b-que and play with toys.”

2. Role-play the words and actions your child can use in a new situation. Practice with your child how to enter into the situation, and give him or her the words to feel powerful and strong.

  • “When you get to the dance class, you will go in with Miss Clara, and Mommy will watch through
    the window.”
  • “I will stay there the entire time.”
  • “You’ll be able to see me.”

3. Ask your child what she imagines will happen. Discuss what they will see, what activities may take place and allay any worries or concerns they might have. Sometimes exploration can help them feel they can manage the new situation better. Draw it out, if you wish. Have your child tell you a story as you draw the pictures of what they describe. Research also shows that when we sing a story it can be easier to tell and remember.

Using your child’s “thinker,” the part of the brain used for decision making and problem solving, will help calm anxiety.

Download the handout: Helping Anxious Children.

This blog was contributed by PESI speaker Lynne Kenney, PsyD.

Lynne Kenney, PsyD, is a mom, pediatric psychologist, international educator and co-author with Wendy Young of BLOOM: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids. Lynne integrates neuroscience, nutrition, exercise and music research to enhance brain function and learning in children. For more “Think it Out” “Walk it Out” and “Play it Out” ideas visit www.lynnekenney.com.

Joining Through the Truth: Therapeutic Coaching Tests Our Assumptions

You wouldn’t dream of telling your client, “You’re being such a witch to your spouse!” But maybe that’s just the thing they need to hear…

Most of us were trained to believe that we needed to be extremely careful when helping clients face the really difficult truths in their lives. Better to err on the side of going slow, creating safety, and remaining neutral than to come across as pushy or disrespectful. Nevertheless, my own experience as a couples therapist has taught me that we aren’t doing clients a favor by soft-pedaling difficult issues. The approach I’ve developed, Relational Life Therapy (RLT), is based on the premise that it’s disrespectful to clients not to let them in on the truth about what we witness regularly in our offices as they play out their relationships in front of us: the ways they deal with their partners are often self-centered, unfeeling, and counterproductive.

In some ways, the guiding principle of RLT is to be able to say to clients what we might otherwise say only to our colleagues in our supervision group. Instead of confiding, when they’re out of earshot, something like, “I can’t believe what a witch she is to him. He’s such a Caspar Milquetoast,” I believe that’s what you need to say–skillfully and respectfully–in the session with the couple.

Some would call this approach confrontational, but I think that term is misleadingly adversarial and addresses only half the process. I think the quality of directness I’m talking about is better described as joining through the truth. There are two parts to this approach: the first is to hold a mirror up to our clients to help them see themselves and their role in the dysfunctional dance of their relationship as accurately and fully as possible; the second, which is where the real nuance and clinical skill comes in, is to show them the difficult truths about themselves in a way that leaves them feeling not only that we’re on their side, but that we’re actually rooting for them.

RLT is an approach that stands somewhere between traditional psychotherapy, with its emphasis on creating a nonjudgmental, accepting, holding environment to bring about change, and the more rough-and-tumble, challenging, psychoeducational discipline of life coaching. For want of a better term, I’d call it therapeutic coaching.  It’s based on the idea that we can coach clients toward intimacy, teach them how to be more psychologically evolved, and mentor them into transforming their characters.

Taking Sides

I don’t believe that partners share 50-50 responsibility for all their issues with each other. Some couples issues are 70-30, some 90-10. One partner can have an untreated bipolar disorder or be an alcoholic rager, while the spouse’s major “contribution” is simply being there. An RLT therapist has no problem saying something like, “OK, Mr. Jones, you’re a nut. And Mrs. Jones, you’re an even bigger nut. Here’s why. . . .”

Not always, but often, a couple presents as one “latent” and one “blatant.” There’s one who’s in an enabling position, albeit perhaps angrily so, and another who’s more clearly and egregiously antirelational. If you’re sitting with a couple and thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I couldn’t be married to that person either!” you’re thinking about the blatant partner. The truth is that, many times, one partner (the fed-up latent) drags into therapy the other partner (the often clueless blatant) because the blatant is relationally insufferable–either withdrawn and giving too little, or abrasive and taking liberties.

Grandiosity and Leverage

Another way of saying that someone is blatant is that they stride through life feeling superior, looking down their nose at others, or ignoring the rules and feeling entitled. Grandiose clients bring to therapy the same privilege they bring into their living room and bedrooms–the privilege to blow up or flee. Encountering the threat of such volatility, we’re taught to go gingerly. Under the rubric of “forming an alliance,” or “gaining the client’s trust,” we learn, in essence, to replicate the traditional spousal role: we reason, we cajole, we seduce–we do everything except tell the truth and put our foot down.

As a result, most therapists get about as far with grandiose clients as traditional wives get with stubbornly entitled husbands. Therapists fear that if they push too hard, the client will explode or leave treatment–not unreasonable fears–so we play tough clients like fish, alternating between giving them enough line and reeling them in. Therapeutic coaching deals with this issue a little differently. It begins by removing the power of intimidation. Before I reach for an alliance with a difficult client, I know that I first must gather leverage if I’m to have any hope of bringing about positive change.

Leverage means that therapy must offer the grandiose client either the prospect of something he wants–a warmer, sexier wife, for example–or a buffer against negative consequences he distinctly doesn’t want–like losing his marriage. This is a necessary first step with entitled clients because grandiosity impairs one’s sensitivity to others and ability to assess negative consequences.

For more than 50 years, the mental health field has focused on helping people come up from the one-down position of shame. But we’ve done a poor job equipping therapists to help entitled clients come down from their one-up perch in life. Many current forms of couples therapy invite therapists to listen empathically, reflecting back what we hear, to be nondirective, to serve as a secure attachment figure, a safe holding environment. Such a nurture-based, facilitative therapy can work with a shame-based person because lack of empathy to oneself is central to the disorder. But the grandiose client has no problems being empathic toward himself. His missing trait is empathy toward others–and an appreciation of consequences.

Fellow Travelers

In our society, intimacy is considered a feminine characteristic, and most men react to the prospect of intimacy with all the enthusiasm of sitting through a chick flick.

We do to relationships what we often do to things deemed feminine: we idealize it in principle and devalue it in fact. Yet we’ve never wanted more from our long-term relationships. Today, couples want long walks on the beach holding hands, heart-to-heart talks, and great sex into their fifties, sixties, and beyond. However, our culture is built for production and consumption–not romance.

If we’re going to help people develop the skill set of knowing how to sustain connection, we need to know that struggle inside out from our own lives. We need to have mastered in our own intimate lives the same skills we ask our clients to use, and we need to be transparent about it. On the days my wife, Belinda, and I don’t use our tools, I often tell the couples I see, “We look just as unhappy as you do.” I believe in communicating to our clients that we’re in the mud with them–more like 12-Step sponsors than paragons of traditional therapeutic wisdom.

Joining through the Truth

In RLT, as soon as we’ve gained the leverage that sets the stage for therapeutic change, we form the therapeutic alliance by telling clients the difficult truths right out of the starting gate.

Sometimes the struggle to confront difficult truths may not come in the present, but in the past, where a particular relationship stance was learned. Professional life coaches aren’t trained to pursue family-of-origin or early childhood issues, but therapeutic coaches are. In contrast to current therapies, which focus on the traumatic influence of childhood experience, we stress identification and social learning. For example, we don’t see grandiosity as always a defense against traumatic shame, but simply a legacy from childhood. We don’t see tending to the wounded little person underneath the child’s grandiose attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors as enough to make these personal characteristics simply fall away when such vulnerability surfaces. Grandiosity must be dealt with per se: as it was learned, so it must be unlearned.

From Therapy to Therapeutic Coaching

Some clinicians resonate easily with this way of working–being themselves, telling the truth as they see it, sharing experiences they’ve had in their own lives, being direct. In fact, they may say that they’re already doing many of these things by the seat of their pants. For others, this way of working may make sense, but it requires an expressive style that’s too foreign to their temperament or clinical belief system. More than adopting any particular methodology of change, therapeutic coaching is founded on the belief that we can be far more direct and challenging to the clients who come to us than we’ve previously acknowledged. I operate with the assumption that, by and large, people are neither fragile nor stupid. If you show them how they’re getting in their own way and what behaving more skillfully looks like, they’ll be grateful. Rather than the expectation that telling tough truths will send clients out of the room screaming, I’ve seen over and over that, if done with love, grace, skill, and even an occasional dose of real wisdom, therapeutic coaching brings clients back for more.

To be sure, the approach I’m describing requires therapists to move beyond their comfort zone and step out from behind a veneer of calm neutrality. But I believe that in order to teach our clients how to be authentic and connected, we must be real with them ourselves. If our work with troubled couples is to move to a new level of effectiveness, we need to consider how well our traditional assumptions about relationship, change, and our own roles are serving us and our clients. I’ve found that the couples I see are ready to meet the challenge of examining themselves, of becoming explorers in what is, for them, uncharted territory. The question for the field of psychotherapy is whether we’re ready to meet that challenge ourselves.

Terry Real, LICSW, is an Internationally Recognized Family Therapist, Speaker and Author. A family therapist and teacher for more than 25 years, Terry is the best-selling author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (Scribner, 1997), the straight-talking How Can I Get Through to You? Reconnecting Men and Women (Scribner, 2002), and most recently The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work (Random House). Terry knows how to lead couples on a step-by-step journey to greater intimacy – and greater personal fulfillment.

This post is based on an article originally brought to life by our partner, Psychotherapy Networker.

The full article, “Joining Through the Truth: Therapeutic Coaching Tests Our Assumptions,” written by Terry Real, LICSW, appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

Psychotherapy deal4

TWO Prime Guidelines for Integrated Eroticism

One of the most fascinating aspects of sexuality is the differences in what people find erotic. Download the “Creating Erotic Scenarios” worksheet, and have your clients try the exercise with their partner to explore turn-ons.

Eroticism is the most controversial dimension of the desire/pleasure/eroticism/satisfaction mantra. Both in the media and among professionals, eroticism has a kinky/porn/lustful/socially unacceptable connotation. This has caused intimacy-based couple therapists to not just be wary of eroticism, but to take an anti-eroticism stance. It is true that eroticism can be misused by individuals—especially men who compulsively use online porn which subverts couple sexuality. However, the great majority of men, women, and couples recognize that erotic scenarios and techniques are an integral component of individual and couple sexuality. Eroticism involves subjective and objective arousal in the 6-10 range. Pleasuring and eroticism are different dimensions, but not incompatible or adversarial. The pleasuring/eroticism process facilitates desire, orgasm, and satisfaction.

There are two prime guidelines for integrated eroticism. First, it is not at the expense of the partner or the relationship. Second, there is a clear understanding that erotic fantasy is a totally different dimension than real life couple sexuality. Erotic fantasies and erotic materials function as a super-charged “sixth gear”—they provide a bridge to sexual desire or a bridge to orgasm. Confusing the role of erotic fantasy/materials and real life sexual behavior is the problem. Integrated eroticism promotes each partner having her unique erotic voice which reinforces couple sexuality. Integrated eroticism energizes couple sexuality. The core of integrated eroticism is to energize the couple bond, promote mystery and creativity, enjoy unpredictable and non-politically correct sexual scenarios, and provide vitality to the sexual relationship.

Integrated eroticism is a key factor in promoting orgasm and satisfaction. Eroticism has a unique role in resolving female orgasmic dysfunction, male ejaculatory inhibition, and premature ejaculation. Eroticism has a positive, integral role in individual and couple sexuality.

One of the most fascinating aspects of sexuality is the differences in what people find erotic. Have your clients try this exercise with their partner to create erotic scenarios and explore turn-ons.

DOWNLOAD: Creating Erotic Scenarios Worksheet


This post is an excerpt from the book Sex Made Simple, Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy by Barry McCarthy, PhD. McCarthy is a board-certified clinical psychologist, diplomat in sex therapy, certified marriage and family therapist, and a tenured professor of psychology at American University.

He has published 105 professional articles, 27 book chapters, and co-authored 15 trade books. Barry’s clinical expertise is in sexuality, especially issues of sexual desire, sexual function and dysfunction, relapse prevention, and prevention of sexual problems. He has presented over 350 workshops in the United States and internationally.

Should be on the bookshelf of any couples therapist
– Terry Real, LICSW

Offers a clear path to sexual fulfillment
– Sue Johnson, EdD

Become sex positive with the latest in sex therapy
– Joe Kort, PhD, LMSW

Therapy Tools for the Advanced Practitioner

There’s a nasty little secret in the therapy field: Couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy, and most therapists (even advanced practitioners) aren’t good at it.

There’s a nasty little secret in the therapy field: Couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy, and most therapists (even advanced practitioners) aren’t good at it. Most advanced therapists can manage sessions with challenging couples well, but they make subtler mistakes compared to new clinicians. These mistakes often go unnoticed by themselves and their clients.

Advanced practitioners’ mistakes are more about strategy than technique, more about missing the context than specific relational dynamics, and more about unacknowledged values than lack of knowledge. There are two areas of poor couples therapy by experienced therapists that stand out: working with remarried couples and working with couples deciding to work on their marriage or divorce.

Mistake #1 – Thinking All Couples are Equal

Remarried couples with stepchildren are a minefield, even for experienced therapists, because the partners almost always come with parenting issues, not just couples problems, and because many therapists miss the nuances of stepfamily dynamics. Therapists who specialize in adult relational work but aren’t skilled at parent-child therapy will fail with these families. Experienced therapists who treat remarried couples like first-marrieds usually manage the individual sessions well, but use the wrong overall strategy.

Stepfamilies are a different species, and couples in these families have to be treated with different approaches. Many experienced couples therapists still don’t know this-or even if they do know it, still lack a viable treatment model.

Beyond coparenting leadership issues, couples in stepfamilies swim in a sea of divided loyalties, which even experienced therapists sometimes miss.

Mistake #2 – Not Standing by Marriage

Experienced therapists sometimes give up on couples because of the values they hold about commitment in a troubled marriage. Some experienced therapists believe they aren’t there to save marriages, they are there to help people. No one wants to save a marriage at the cost of great damage to a spouse or the children. But the statement reflects a troubling—and usually unacknowledged—tendency to value a client’s current happiness over everything else.

One highly regarded therapist describes his approach to working with couples in this way: “I tell them that the point is to have a good life together. If they think they can have a good life together, then let’s give it a try. But if they conclude that they can’t have a good life together, then I tell them maybe they should move on.”

The ethics of market capitalism can invade the consulting room without anyone’s seeing it. Do what works for you as an autonomous individual as long as it meets your needs, and be prepared to cut your losses if the futures market in your marriage looks grim.

The Myth of Therapist Neutrality

The biggest problem in couples therapy is the myth of therapist neutrality, which keeps us from talking about our values with one another and our clients. If you think you’re neutral, you can’t frame clinical decisions in moral terms, let alone make your values known to your clients. Fragile couples are caught in a moral crucible, trying to discern whether their personal suffering is enough to cancel their lifetime commitment, and whether their dreams for a better life outweigh their children’s needs for a stable family.

A wise therapist is able to see the whole context of people’s lives, and can reflect openly and deeply on values and broader social forces influencing the profession. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntrye wrote:

In a world that seduces professionals into seeing their work as the delivery of technical services stripped of larger social context and moral meaning, the hallmark of a true profession is a never-ending argument about whether it’s being true to its fundamental values, principles, and practices.

In other words, becoming a competent couples therapist is just the first step to becoming a good one.

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Fine tune your couples therapy skills with The Neglected Craft of Couples Therapy: How to Manage Couples Sessions featuring William Doherty.

This post is based on an article originally brought to life by our partner, Psychotherapy Networker.

Click to read the full article, “Bad Couples Therapy,” written by William Doherty, Ph.D.

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