Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Month: September 2016

WHAT IS “SMART THERAPY”?

Heart inside brain

WHAT IS “SMART THERAPY”?

It seems that people who seek out therapy are usually fairly intelligent. After all, it takes some mental effort to examine one’s life! I like to think of myself in this way as well, yet to this day I am regularly asked why I go to therapy (implying that I should be able to “figure it out” myself!) While that is often the case, there are instances when it is difficult to even know what is in the way of change! We can’t always “see” everything, because some of the obstacles in our lives put themselves in the way without even being noticed, and then continue to “hide” behind expectations, cultural trends, and family tradition. 

This dilemma fascinates me, and has led me to make it the  direction of my practice. How can we become “smarter” in our life and relationships? Read on…

The Brain
Intelligence is a double-edged sword, don’t you think? On one hand, it makes available a way of thinking that can include greater skills of critical thinking, reasoning, and insight. However, it can also lead to frustration when we have difficulty “thinking” our way out of a problem. Not all solutions in life are found in books!

Our brain does not always work in our favor. Because it has evolved over time from initially one to now three main parts, it can be thought of as a computer that uses both new AND old operating systems. What this means for us in the world is that our intuitive nature and our reason don’t always line up on the same side. For instance, we might find ourselves drawn to an ex who we know is not good for us, or we might be confused at why we stay at a job where we are treated badly. In my youth, I regularly beat myself up for choosing people and places that were not good for me! Often, I see clients who place the blame on themselves when this type of thing happens, as if they “should have known better”. Well what exactly does “knowing better” mean, and is that possible?

Smart Lives 
Shame and embarrassment tend to stop the process of reflection and insight cold. Who wants to think about change when the thinking about it makes one feel worse about themselves? In my work, I get curious about why we should know better–who would have told us the information? I notice that most people do the best they can with the limited and mostly misleading facts we are given regarding human nature, relationships, and the brain. If you are going to start making smarter decisions (intuition and reasoning line up), then you need to know what you are dealing with and how to interpret what your head is telling you. You need to know what you are doing that and whether or not that is getting you where you would like to go.

Smart Relationships 
Smart relationships come from smart choices! This means knowing what your intuition is telling you about someone (attach, attach!), and not putting meaning into that feeling that does not belong there (I’m in love!). It means paying attention to what your reasoning says (don’t get involved with an unavailable person!) and recognizing that that may go against the feeling of attraction. Smart choices come from considering all of that information, and then carefully weighing it out, over time, as you add more information to the mix. You do not need to make a decision right away, in fact, you can’t make a “smart” decision until you have more information! Along the way, you can “enjoy” the excitement of attraction while not letting that influence your decision about compatibility too heavily, too soon. Smart means recognizing that attraction is only one component of compatibility, and giving appropriate meaning to respective experiences with that person. Falling in lovemay be a romantic ideal, but it does not always lead to a smart relationship! If you are intent on running that race, I suggest you educate yourself about the sport!

Smart Therapy
My focus on Smart Therapy is a way for me to incorporate all my favorite approaches in the room: compassion for a client’s self-judgement; psycho-education and referrals for further exploration; and vigorous discussions that examine and deconstruct the stories that influence relationship decisions, with the opportunity to then choose smartly with awareness! Wouldn’t it be nice to find out that you can break painful patterns and increase the odds of reaching your goals? My focus is a way to help decrease the confusion, anger, frustration, and regret around your relationship choices. While no approach is a guarantee of a particular outcome, you can greatly increase your chances for having smarter relationships!

WHAT IS THERAPY AND WHAT IS IT NOT?

Therapist Furniture

All too often I hear from people that they don’t “need” to be in therapy because they already do yoga/exercise/journaling/meditation/etc., and these activities are “therapy” for them. While I support the positive impact of these activities in their life, I gently assert that while they may be therapeutic, they are not therapy. Why would I say this?

These days, I am pleased to notice that in Los Angeles we are, as a whole, taking better care of ourselves: eating healthy, exercising, moderate drinking, less smoking, keeping our weight down. I am in the camp that promotes these ideas and activities as contributing to a more peaceful and joyful life. As a psychotherapist, I am committed to not only the mental and emotional well-being of my clients, but also to overall well-being, and that is why I am happy to provide referrals regarding an interest in nutrition, exercise, yoga, community, and the like. I practice what I preach, striving to keep a balance on my own self-care, since I am well aware of the impact of general health on our mental and emotional states. I also engage in my own personal psychotherapy, for it provides me a service and experience that is not duplicated among any of the other self-care activities I engage in.

Then what is the difference between all these activities and therapy? I see psychotherapy as less an activity and more of a relationship. It is through the relationship between the therapist and the client that healing and change can occur. This relationship is specific and intentionally limited in scope; it differentiates itself from “friendship” by being less of a two-way street, and more centered on the client. Regardless of the modality of the therapy, the key to the work is in the empathy and compassion displayed by the therapist toward the client, and the client’s experience of being heard in a non-judging manner. I remember how one time I visited my therapist and I was sharing with her how disappointed I was at myself for being so angry that day. When I confessed my anger to loved ones in the world, I was usually met by either a story of their own (sometimes helpful) or an admonishment that I should know better (not helpful). But on this day my therapist said something to me that had never been said to me before. After I told her how angry I was and at how upset I was at myself, she replied, “How could you NOT be angry, given what happened to you?”

Nobody had ever said that to me before. Nobody. THAT was therapy.

Her question “made room” for my authentic feelings, whether they were appropriate or not. Before I could explore what was going on with me, I had to be able to see it without shame, and it was helpful to have her as a collaborative witness to my exploration, discovery, and ultimate decision of how to respond differently. I felt seen and heard in a way I had never felt seen and heard before. I felt that I was given permission to be angry, even if I DID know better! I felt like it was okay  for me to have this very human emotion, and that I had a right to be upset about some of the things that had happened to me. I had a right to be angry, sad, upset, and hurt. Within the therapeutic relationship, there was space for me to feel all of these things, fully. That is where healing occurs. This is not the only way to heal or change, but it is specific to psychotherapy. This is a different benefit than one gained from yoga, meditation, exercise, friendship, or dancing. Those are therapeutic, but they are not therapy.

When I initially speak with a client, it is important for me to understand what they are seeking, and what they hope to gain from that effort. It is important to find out if therapy, and specifically therapy with me, is going to be the right approach for them. This is why I like to clarify what therapy is, and what it is not. It is not friendship, it is not advice, it is not me telling someone what to do, and it is not coaching. It is a unique collaboration where change and healing can occur. It is a place where creativity and insight can bloom. It is a place where the unspeakable can be spoken, and where shame can be exposed and weakened. It is where caring comes from compassion rather than agenda, and where it is perfectly, perfectly okay for you to talk all about yourself! It is two sets of eyes when one set is unable to see clearly, it is two beating hearts when one is breaking. It is two minds working against the problem; it is two imaginations writing a new story.

That is what therapy is.

WHAT IS TRUST?

TRUST

TRUST is a word that comes up often in couples work.  In fact, it usually comes up the first time I speak to prospective clients on the phone.  Why is this such a loaded word? Well, perhaps that is because so much weight is put on trust in relationships.  But what is trust?  Everyone has their definition, but my favorite is that trust is a belief.  It is the belief that your partner is on your side, they have your back, they are going to be honest with you and hold the relationship as lovingly as you do.  But how do we arrive at this trust? And what validates it?  Why is it so often weakened?

Initially, it seems that trust is established by whatever first attracted one to another: physical attraction, shared interests, common friends, shared profession, shared experiences, etc.  Early on, we “decide” that we are safe in this person’s company, and we often come to that decision without having very much information at all.  We base our decision on a “feeling” about this person, and that feeling can be based on simple attraction but often includes one’s behavior and response-ability.  We “trust” that this person wants to be with us as much as we want to be with them, is attracted to us as much as we are to them.  We want to believe this, sometimes we need to believe this. But what happens after the initial infatuation has passed and we find ourselves with someone who may, in reality, have a little tarnish on their armor?  Conflict can set in. Vulnerability gets withdrawn, Lies can develop and the relationship “team” can split.

With gay couples, there is often the added factor of competition that can have an effect on two men or two women acting together as a team.  And with gay men, you cannot discount the continuing influence of a freer sexual environment and its effect on a couples’ desire to be monogamous.  If the couple is not monogamous, by choice, then trust has a whole new list of potential obstacles.

All of these factors, and more, must be taken into consideration in any work involving gay couples and trust.  On an encouraging note, I have found that gay couples are often more forgiving around trust violations than heterosexual couples, and they also better recognize the fluidity of sex, relationship, and love. With this in mind, I like to look for ways in which the couple is already successfully challenging cultural obstacles, and then we can explore if those same strategies could work with inter-personal struggles.  Trust is sometimes easier to re-establish with gay couples because the framework around it is looser–though this does not lessen its importance.

I like to approach trust from a teamwork perspective.  It can be thought of this way:  if two people are on a rowboat, they can either both row in the same direction, or they can row against each other.  Discussions around the issue of trust often result in two people rowing in the same direction again, recognizing that they both would like to arrive at the same destination.  Trust is the belief that this destination is in the best interests of both the relationship and the individuals involved in the relationship. Without it, you are worse off than if you had no paddle at all.  With it, you can often get anywhere you want to go.

THE LAW OF ATTRACTION: SOMETIMES IT’S CHEMISTRY

Chemistry of Love

There are some laws that require a closer evaluation from time to time, because laws in general are not irrefutable and often have to be adjusted. However, there is one law that we rarely examine, despite so many instances of misuse, and this would be the Law of Attraction. I often get the sense that this is a law that is frequently applied yet seldom understood, and as anyone can tell you, if you don’t read the signs before parking, you are asking for trouble!

I am not sure how you would define it for yourself, but I tend to split the law into two areas: physical attraction; and emotional compatibility. This makes it easier for me to point out where we “break the law” so often, and why we should not be surprised at ourselves when this happens. Everyone understands physical attraction because there are bodily sensations that usually go along with it: heart rate increases, skin flushes, stomach butterflies, etc.  And perhaps it is also easy to understand emotional compatibility for its benchmarks: shared values, common interests, mutual respect, attunement, feeling safe.  Where we get into trouble is when we lump the two areas together and allow a “Yes” vote in one area to influence or even override the voting procedure in the other.  For example, it is very easy to assume emotional compatibility because we find ourselves attracted physically to someone.  Some of it may just be wishful thinking, but it can really get us into trouble if we stop the evaluation process right there.

We all know people who drink Diet Coke, and then think that this action alone will help them lose weight without changing any of their other habits.  This is similar to the way most people approach finding a mate, thinking that physical attraction is enough to bring about a resulting “good” relationship. And yet we all know that in addition to drinking low calorie drinks, losing weight also requires healthy eating and exercise.  Comparatively, when looking for a partner, you don’t have to throw out physical attraction—instead just add to the process.  Maybe this is why it is referred to as “chemistry”, since it is a process of combined elements!

Like many people, I have made the “mistake” of deciding on someone’s compatibility without a more thorough evaluation period.  I suspect that the necessity of an “evaluation period” is one of the main reasons we lean more on physical attraction—it takes less time!  Determining emotional compatibility requires repeated exposure to the other to allow attunement to build, trust to develop, and vulnerability to rise.  All of these ingredients are important keys to compatibility, and though some might argue that something like “trust” is a decision, I would contribute that it is a decision we make based on supportive evidence.  We decide we can trust someone because we have a history of trusting experiences with them; we allow ourselves to be vulnerable because we have a history of feeling safe around them; and attunement builds through prolonged closeness and intimacy.  The common denominator in all of these?  Time.  This is quite different from physical attraction, which can often show itself in a matter of seconds—sometimes the actual person does not even need to be present!

To sum up, it helps to think of the whole process like a recipe.  There are certain ingredients that are required, and the others can be altered or replaced.  Unlike baking, which is often extremely precise, your dating recipe can change with the mood—add a little more fun activities here, a little less making out in the car there.  Throw in a dash of trying something new together, stir, and bake.  We all know what happens when we leave out key ingredients in our recipe—the result exposes shortcuts that were taken, and we are suddenly not so hungry anymore!  Resist taking shortcuts with the processes involved in determining emotional compatibility and you have a better chance of ending up with a result you can enjoy.  As everyone always says about a great dish: “It was worth all the time that went into it”!

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