Tag Archives: Couples

Helping clients with post-date anxiety

By Kathleen Smith October 15, 2018

As a counselor, I have a front-row seat for watching anxiety develop in new relationships. It is truly fascinating to observe how quickly two people can become emotionally stuck together. A therapy client will leave for a week and return reporting that he or she has started dating someone new. This former stranger now has the power to make my client very happy or very anxious. Thanks to their phone, my client might spend all day analyzing a text they received — or worrying about the lack of one.

Not a week goes by without me having multiple conversations with people about texting in relationships. For instance, a person is seeing someone who doesn’t quite contact them as frequently as they would like, so their brain sounds the rejection alarm. When the other person finally does text them, their anxiety level goes down. But within a day or two, they need more reassurance. They’ve surrendered their capacity to calm down to someone who was a stranger to them a week ago. And the only way they know how to get that capacity back is to end the relationship.

I don’t think that texting causes emotional dependence, but it can certainly accelerate it and reinforce it. People used to have to wait much longer to hear from a prospective romantic partner. Now people want to hit the eject button if there’s been radio silence for 24 hours. There is an expectation that someone who is interested in us must also be available to us at all times. We are in such a hurry to lock things down as a way of managing our own anxiety and insecurity.

I’m in no position to throw a stone here. After my husband and I went on our first date, he waited five days to ask me out again. Five. Days. For millennials, five days is the equivalent of somebody going off to war and coming back home. Now, of course, I know that he was a mature human being who was simply living his life at that time. But if you retrieved my phone records from that week, I bet you would see a blizzard of worried texts to friends.

When our counseling clients become more anxious in a new relationship, they don’t suddenly become more insightful. They usually just double down on whatever they’ve already been doing. That usually means anxiously focusing even more on this new person. They might stalk them on social media, or stare at their phone trying to decipher old texts. They’ll talk to all their friends about whether they should dump this person for taking so long to reply. They’ll come to a counseling session and ask me to guess what this person — whom I have never met coincidentally — is thinking.

When we feel the potential to be hurt, it makes sense that we focus more on the threat and how to avoid it. This works great if a lion is chasing us. It’s not so great for being in a relationship.

People see a lot of lions when they date, simply because dating is such an anxious endeavor. They interpret a lack of constant contact in a new partner as a sign of flakiness, disinterest or duplicity. People don’t stop to consider whether less contact might be a potential sign of maturity. This is why people tend to end up with other people who are at the same level of emotional maturity as themselves. People who have a higher degree of maturity in their family relationships are likely to seek out a partner who wants the same amount of contact.

I would never say to a someone, “Have you considered that this person is not texting you as much because they’re more mature?” Because that would be a guess based on zero facts. What I do challenge people to do, however, is to see their part in the relationship. Often, if people can stay focused on being the person they want to be rather than on trying to control this new love interest of theirs, then their anxiety will go down. And most of the time, people do not want to be the kind of person who is glued to their phone 24/7.

So, the goal isn’t for clients to change their new crush or to teach the person how to text that Goldilocks (just right) amount. The goal is to lower clients’ anxiety enough to where they can actually think objectively and decide whether a relationship is right. That decision is impossible to make when anxiety is very high, because then we interpret even the smallest behavior as a threat. People will blow up a relationship quickly in order to lower their anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t just present in romantic relationships, of course. We all want people to like us, reassure us and agree with us, but we ultimately can’t control them. People in our lives are not always going to respond as quickly as we would like. They’re not always going to RSVP to the party or share our level of enthusiasm for a television show. If clients can see how the anxiety they feel is a possible sign of emotional interdependence, they might be less likely to act immaturely or irrationally in their relationships. The rejections or silences won’t feel so threatening, and they won’t have to cancel that party out of spite or send a passive-aggressive message.

The simple truth is that we enjoy relationships more when we aren’t as anxiously focused on them. By being more of an individual, we can actually get closer to the people we love. Who doesn’t want that?

 

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Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at kathleensmith.net.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

The dismissal of divorce advice

By David L. Prucha August 2, 2018

It’s a distressing reality, but advice for the newly divorced might be as common as advice for the newly married. Advice for the newly divorced often centers around protecting any children who might be involved because although parents get divorced from each other, children become divorced from the only life they have ever known.

Parents are advised to keep the child-parent relationship as normal as possible:

  • “Don’t put your child in the middle.”
  • “Encourage your child to have a relationship with their second parent.”
  • “Don’t speak poorly of your former spouse in front of your child.”

Although this guidance seems relatively straightforward, it is difficult for many parents to follow. Why is this? Is it simply unreasonable to hope for wise parenting when anger is running high and hurt is running deep?

To understand how a counselor might help a parent follow divorce advice, let’s first explore the context in which many parents speak poorly about their former spouse with their child.

 

The background for badmouth

One common scenario that leads parents to dismiss divorce advice is when one parent becomes convinced that he or she is on the losing end of the divorce. They have lost friendships and are spending more time alone. The house feels empty.

With this loneliness settling in, eventually the parent is faced with a tempting situation when the child shares feelings of frustration or sadness about the other parent. In many cases, the parent mistakes the child’s complaint as validation for his or her own grievances. In the marriage, they have been on the receiving end of their former spouse’s dysfunctional behavior, and now the parent suspects those same dysfunctional behavior patterns are harming their child. The parent seizes the opportunity to teach the child about how the second parent operates. They convince themselves that they have to share their own experiences to support the child, but in reality, it has become an opening to express their own feelings of hurt. It is catharsis, but camouflaged as compassion for the child.

A second scenario that leads to dismissing divorce advice occurs when a parent suspects that his or her child is aligning against them with the second parent. They start to hear the words of their former spouse spoken through the mouth of the child. The parent believes they are being disparaged and that this is shaping the child’s view regarding who is at fault for the divorce. The parent has tried to take the high road, but the former spouse has taken the low road, and now their relationship with their child is suffering as a result.

This can lead the parent to feeling wronged again by their former partner, and they decide that they need to clear their name in the eyes of their child. They proceed to share their version of the divorce because they think they need to provide a balanced perspective. Unfortunately, this often sets off an escalating arms race between the two parents to compete for the heart and mind of their child.

With these scenarios in mind, how can a counselor help hurting parents to help their hurting child? What new understanding can parents gain that might reduce the likelihood of them oversharing with the child?

 

The child healer

In the first scenario, the parent speaks poorly about their former spouse because they mistake their child’s grievances for their own. In this case, it can be helpful for parents to learn that sometimes children overstate their concern about their second parent in an attempt to help the grieving parent.

In the child healer dynamic, the child notices that his or her parent is in pain. By exaggerating their complaints about the second parent, the child opens the door to allow the grieving parent to emote. The child creates a conversation to say to the isolated parent, “You’re not alone.” The hurting parent thinks that he or she is healing the wounds of the child by sharing their own experiences about the former spouse, but they have it backward; instead, it is the child who is attempting to heal the wounds of the hurting parent.

By inflating their concerns about their second parent, the child reassures the isolated parent that their bond is special, and this reduces the parent’s fear of losing the child to their former spouse. For the child, this has simply become a strategy to calm the parent’s anxiety and to create stability in the home.

How can counselors help parents interact with their child in moments when the child healer dynamic might be present? When the child is sharing difficult feelings about the other parent, how can parents be helpful without falling into the child’s attempt to help them?

One way to help parents is to teach them how to empathize with the emotions of their child without validating the child’s interpretation of the second parent’s motivations. Although it can be helpful for the parent to tend to the child’s emotional experience, this doesn’t require the parent to explain their own experiences with the former spouse. The parent can learn to validate the difficulty of the child’s feelings without speculating about the intentions of the former spouse. The parent can say, “It’s really hard to feel as angry as you do” without saying, “I experienced that same selfishness, and it made me angry too.”

By attending to the emotions of the child without confirming the child’s interpretation of the second parent’s motivations, the first parent avoids falling into the child healer dynamic. By refraining from sharing his or her own experiences about the former spouse, the parent keeps the focus on the emotions of the child. And in cases in which the child is expressing sincere concerns about the second parent, the first parent is still able to effectively empathize with the child’s feelings.

 

Swinging pendulums

In the second scenario, the parent doesn’t bite their tongue because they think they need to set the record straight. The former spouse is speaking poorly about them, and they think the relationship with their child is suffering as a result. The parent overshares because they want to provide a balanced perspective for the child. Essentially, the parent wants to clear his or her name.

In these circumstances, it can be helpful to remind parents that children of divorce commonly bounce from one parent to the other, and at different times, they will feel closer to one parent than the other. Children of divorce are swinging pendulums: Sometimes they swing toward the first parent, and sometimes they swing toward the second parent. The question then becomes how a parent should respond when the child is swinging away from them so that when the child is ready, he or she feels comfortable to swing back.

It is helpful to remind parents who feel distant from their child that trying to clear their name won’t increase the odds of the child swinging back to them. Parents hope that setting the record straight will return their child back into their arms, but this strategy is rarely effective. Instead, it often backfires because the child thinks that in order to swing back, he or she will have to agree with that parent’s version of the divorce. Or at least the child will have to lie and pretend to agree. This makes swinging back more complicated.

It can also be helpful to remind parents that it is better to think of the relationship with their child as a long-term endeavor and to expect changes in the relationship. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that their future relationship with their child will exactly mimic their current relationship.

When parents don’t feel that the relationship with their child has to be perfect in the present, they realize that nothing needs to be desperately forced. If normal periods of emotional distance are expected and accepted, this can remove pressure from the interactions that parents have with the child, and this mindset can create more room for calm parenting. As a result, a less complicated relationship with the child can emerge, increasing the child’s comfort in swinging back into the relationship.

Going through a divorce can be one of the greatest challenges of a lifetime, and it’s made even harder when a child is involved. It is not realistic to expect that parents will hold their tongue every time they should, but perhaps teaching parents about the dynamics of divorce will create a moment of hesitation where once there was only the urge to overshare. In this window of hesitation, there might be enough room for parental wisdom to grow. Hopefully this new wisdom will contribute to the healing of divorced parents and the healing of their children.

 

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David L. Prucha is an adjunct professor of counseling psychology at Johnson and Wales University in Denver. He is also a licensed professional counselor who maintains an independent practice that specializes in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders. Contact him at contact@pruchacounseling.com.

 

More from this author, from the Counseling Today archives: The wise support system in domestic violence rescue efforts

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Behind closed doors

By Zachary David Bloom May 7, 2018

Few topics are more controversial or downright uncomfortable to talk about than sex and sexuality. It seems we could examine any period of time in human history and find a number of social values and ideas related to sexual behavior, all of which might be discussed with some nuanced language or slang of the time. More often than not, we would find some positive messages about sex but also a fair share of messages that promote — intentionally or not — feelings of guilt and shame. Even with the timeless double binds that accompany messages around sex and sexuality, it is important to recognize that sex remains an important part of our storied history. After all, without sex, we wouldn’t even be here to have this conversation.

When we talk about sex, we are talking about something loaded with assumptions and values. Sex does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is woven into our personal identities. It is with that idea that I want to encourage sensitivity and tolerance for a topic that has been dressed up and dressed down: pornography.

Sex and pornography in the 21st century

When considering key markers of sex and sexuality that exemplify the zeitgeist of today’s technological era, one might think of pornography, an industry that pulls in billions of dollars each year. Access to pornography has only increased with widespread use of the internet and the diverse number of gadgets available to connect to it. As such, it makes sense that counselors report working with more and more clients who have issues related to their pornography use.

Researchers have attempted to establish correlations between pornography use and a number of other issues of clinical concern (e.g., depression, anxiety), but it has been difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. However, we do know that clients are presenting to counseling for issues in their romantic relationships related to pornography use (e.g., fighting about how much or how often it should be viewed, if at all), for issues that mirror symptoms of addiction related to their pornography use and for a variety of other issues that can be traced back to their pornography use.

Some of the more nuanced issues related to pornography use include clients reporting decreased sexual satisfaction in their primary relationship or even an inability to perform sexually because of a desensitization to sexual stimuli. Some clients report experiencing anxiety and distress about expectations — either self-imposed or solicited by a partner — to replicate acts depicted in pornography that contrast with the client’s value system. Similarly, some clients report experiencing distress connected to feelings of inadequacy that result from comparing themselves with the actors and actresses in the pornography industry.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I believe it speaks to what has been identified in the counseling literature and what counselors have anecdotally reported seeing in their practices, which parallels what I have seen in my own clinical practice. It is also worth noting that clients are more likely to come to counseling with presenting issues that appear not to connect to their pornography use. Most often, this is because the presenting issue simply has no connection to their pornography use. Other times, it is because clients have not yet gained awareness of how their presenting issue relates to their pornography use or, commonly, do not yet feel safe enough in the therapeutic relationship to talk about their pornography use. Yet the question remains: Why are clients now coming to counseling for issues related to pornography?

Accessing pornography

Imagine a child on a school playground in Anywhere, America, playing with their friends when they hear a sexual word or phrase that they’ve never heard before. Maybe they don’t even know that the word has anything to do with sex or sexuality. Now imagine that the child is too embarrassed to ask their friends about it, so the child either types the word into an internet browser on their smartphone or waits until they get home to Google it. In a matter of seconds, the child is confronted with definitions that might go beyond their scope of understanding or is seeing a sexual act, either via high-definition images or video.

Although this example doesn’t fit as well for older age groups, it is representative of how the cultural narrative around pornography has changed from previous decades. You can imagine that the same child in the 1970s or 1980s would not have had easy access to that kind of content. Instead, the child would have needed to ask a friend or relative to explain the concept or term. Even if this person felt uncomfortable with the question or was not the ideal person to ask, there still would have been a connection between the two people. In other words, the child would not have been left to wrestle with this concept in isolation.

In previous decades, if minors wanted to access pornography, they had to find it, borrow it or steal it. Adults needed to show an ID to purchase it. Today, the only thing required to access pornography is a technological device. Even devices with software blocking services work inconsistently at best. Consequently, we are simultaneously more connected and more isolated than we have ever been in human history.

When we think about the dynamic and contrasting messages that society promotes about sex and sexuality and place that in conjunction with sexuality being tied into a person’s identity and valuation of themselves and others, it makes sense that we are seeing an increase in problems related to client pornography use.

Discomfort with sexuality

One could make the argument that most clinical issues might increase or decrease along with the availability of and accessibility to: fill in the blank. For example, a couple might argue more when they reach retirement and spend more time together (i.e., an increase of minutes together). The issue of pornography, however, is more dynamic than its presence or absence because it is a piece of the larger puzzle of sexuality. As readers are likely aware, there is often a significant amount of shame and guilt tied to issues of sexuality — for clients and counselors alike.

Sexuality is described as being part of the human experience, and the helping professions’ various accrediting bodies recognize it as such. However, human sexuality is not a standard and mandated part of counselors’ training. In fact, the general sex education that a counselor receives as a child and adolescent in elementary, middle and high school varies in depth and breadth — if it’s covered at all. Consequently, counselors experience a wide spectrum of comfort levels when it comes to discussing issues of sexuality in general. In addition, counselors’ comfort with sexuality influences their propensity to assess and treat clients for sexual issues.

Perhaps because of their lack of formal or meaningful sex education, some people — including counselors — have reported turning to pornography to learn about sexuality. The concern about this is that pornography is not considered to be a realistic portrayal of sex or intimate relationships. Thus, it might lead individuals to form unrealistic expectations about what happens in a sexual encounter and to pursue sexual activities that could interfere with fostering a successful or satisfying sexual experience. At the same time, counselors might be impaired to provide helpful or accurate psychoeducation to their clients related to sexuality if they do not have a more reliable source of information than pornography.

Taking down barriers

The best way to position yourself to meet your clients’ needs when it comes to working with issues of sexuality or pornography is to know yourself. These are controversial topics, and the first step in being available to your clients is to take ownership of your own beliefs, values and attitudes about sex, sexuality and sexual behaviors. As a starting point, ask yourself how comfortable you feel when thinking about working with a client who reports wanting to reduce their pornography use or who says their pornography use is interfering with their romantic relationship. If you notice discomfort or an aversion to working with a client on those issues, it might be a good time to seek consultation or supervision concerning the source of your discomfort.

In my experience with counselors-in-training and counselors I have met at various conferences, the discomfort tends to stem from one of three things:

1) Religious or spiritual values that make it difficult to maintain a stance of unconditional positive regard

2) Previous experiences of trauma that make it difficult to stay present when delving into discussions of sexuality

3) Feelings of incompetence when it comes to forming or maintaining healthy sexual relationships

For issues of personal values and beliefs — whether stemming from religious/spiritual foundations or not — I think it can be beneficial to pursue counseling services to explore those feelings of discomfort. Counseling can be an effective way to question and deconstruct beliefs that might be interfering with the formation or maintenance of a therapeutic relationship with a client who is wrestling with any of these issues. I find it helpful to allow myself to maintain my belief system and simultaneously place brackets on that belief system so that I can join a client or couple without my lens impeding on their experience. Sometimes I find that working with a client or a couple might remind me of an old belief or value that I once held. I can recognize that the belief is no longer serving me and that I am ready to discard it.

As this discussion relates to previous experiences of trauma, we understand that healing is an ongoing process. Sometimes we might believe that we are healed until we are confronted by our own limitations. We then recognize that it is time to delve further into healing from the past so that we can stay in the present. This, of course, extends beyond issues related to sexuality; it applies anywhere in the counseling relationship in which we find ourselves bumping up against our own walls.

As it concerns feelings of incompetence, counselors’ training in treating issues of human sexuality and their general exposure to sex education vary. I suggest that counselors ask themselves three things: What do I know? What do I want to know? Do I feel confident to relay this information?

To address any deficit in knowledge or any identified room to grow or learn more, I recommend that counselors prepare themselves to work with clients by finding educational resources on sex and sexuality. I also encourage counselors to pursue additional training or workshops through their professional memberships and state and regional conferences. Through identifying our areas of discomfort and our learning curve for the future, we prepare ourselves to best meet the needs of our clients. Of course, we need to be aware throughout the entire process of what our limitations are and when it is time to refer out to another helping professional and possibly even to a certified sex therapist.

In addition to preparing ourselves for working with clients through their sexual issues or regarding their pornography use, we need to provide a space for clients to address these issues. Counselors who report working with clients for issues related to their sexuality or pornography use also often report that they did not ask their clients about these issues. I believe that by soliciting that information early in the counseling relationship — through an intake questionnaire or intake interview — we implicitly state to our clients, “I am willing to discuss this issue, and this is something you can talk about here.” Again, because of the amount of guilt and shame our clients can feel around issues of sexuality, it becomes that much more important to ensure that we are maintaining a safe, supportive and confidential professional relationship.

In my clinical practice, my intake questionnaire includes a space for clients to report on areas in which they have concerns (or in which a family member or friend has raised concerns about them). These areas include gaming, eating, gambling, shopping, sexual activity and pornography use. Only rarely do clients circle “yes” to sexual activity or pornography use. More fruitfully, however, when reviewing the intake packet with clients in session, I ask, “Would this be a place where you might feel comfortable enough to talk about any issues related to sexual activity or pornography use if it came up?” Even if clients state that they do not have a problem in those areas, by having that conversation early on, the implicit message I send is that they can address any concerns related to sexuality or pornography should they ever want or need to.

The work

Beyond knowing ourselves and our own limitations — including when to seek counseling ourselves and when to refer out — there are a handful of recommendations for working with clients regarding sexual issues or pornography use. First, it is necessary to co-create a working definition with the client regarding the presenting issue and any important terms being discussed. In the case of pornography, I recommend asking clients how they define what pornography is. Across the counseling literature, definitions of pornography vary, but what is most important is that you and your client are speaking the same language. So, from the client’s perspective, does something qualify as pornography only if explicit sexual acts are involved, or is it anything that includes nudity? Does sexually provocative material count, even if it does not include nudity?

It is necessary to create this shared definition so that you don’t accidentally dismiss a client’s use of “pornography” as not warranting attention when it is something that is causing the client distress. For example, if a client experiences feelings of guilt for viewing images of clothed people in sexually provocative positions, we want to validate the client’s experience of guilt, even if it might not intuitively resonate with the way that we personally define pornography.

In the same vein, we want to ensure we have a shared definition so that we do not miss opportunities to assist our clients in meeting their clinical goals. For example, I once worked with a man who wished to abstain from pornography use and masturbation for religious and spiritual reasons, and he seemed to be making progress. However, I came to realize that although he was abstaining from traditional pornography use and masturbation, he had begun to engage in more frequent promiscuous sexual behavior. After finding out more about his promiscuous behavior, we were better able to define the “spirit” of his counseling goal, which was to gain greater control over his sexual activity — including abstaining from anonymous sex.

Both in co-creating definitions of pornography with our clients and in the clinical work we do with them, it is also necessary that we model appropriate language. There are compelling reasons to believe that pornography use might promote sexist or harmful beliefs about women resulting from how they are portrayed in pornography. As social justice advocates, it is our job as counselors to balance the deconstruction of sexist or misogynistic ideas without alienating our clients by using overly clinical language or shaming them.

In practice, this means finding a way to ask clients to clarify what they mean when they use a certain term. Similarly, when we use a sexual term, we want to make sure we are using language that the client understands that is also as free of negative associations as possible. In my experience working with clients, depending on the length and strength of our therapeutic relationship, I will typically begin by using the client’s language — asking for clarification when I hear a new term with which I am unfamiliar — and gradually introducing more neutral language to replace the previously value-laden language. As I do this, sometimes the client will follow my lead and it becomes a trend that continues until we are using more value-neutral language throughout all of our sessions.

Other times, I might find a way to introduce a moment of psychoeducation in which I clarify my change in language with the client. I then ask the client to try changing their language too as an experiment to see if they notice any differences in the way they are thinking or feeling. Usually, I can find a way to do this that supports the presenting clinical concern. For example, with a client who presents for counseling for symptoms of depression resulting from the termination of a romantic relationship, I might be able to make a connection between “power” in a relationship and the importance of “respect” in a relationship. We can then discuss how altering our language is a concrete step we can take toward facilitating the change of finding more respect and more even distributions of power in a relationship.

Beyond taking general steps to prepare yourself for working with issues related to sexuality and pornography use, it is also important to be able to provide specific psychoeducation to clients regarding their presenting issue. This is not something that is achieved and completed but rather an ongoing component of being a counselor. Sexuality is diverse, and we need to have sound sources of information not only for ourselves but also for our clients.

Typically, I find in my work that a client’s presenting issue includes myths or deficits in knowledge about sex and sexuality. With younger clients, I find that the deficit in knowledge is often related to safe sex practices. Therefore, I recommend familiarizing yourself with books that you can feel comfortable promoting and sharing with your clients, and internet videos or links that are not pornographic in nature that can serve as educational resources.

Individuals and couples I have seen in counseling for issues related to sexuality or pornography use tend to have one thing in common: They want to have a fulfilling sex life. Consistent with findings in the counseling literature, I emphasize to my clients that a fulfilling sex life comes from a sexual relationship that is founded on trust and vulnerability. In line with that, for some individuals and for some couples, pornography use can be a barrier toward open, honest and vulnerable sexual expression, especially when their sexuality is framed by messages of expectation. Instead, I promote mindfulness practices, sensate focus activities and building on previous experiences of success. Overall, I find that clients make the most progress when they understand that the sexual fulfillment they are seeking is with their actual partner and not with an imagined conceptualization of their partner or a different and more ideal partner.

As part of counselors’ work of addressing issues of sexuality and pornography use, we need to be prepared for clients to ask us about our own sexual experiences and whether we use pornography. I don’t know how often clients actually raise questions along those lines, but I think that we need to be prepared for such instances. As with most topics, I encourage counselors to explore their own levels of comfort with disclosure and to assess whether their disclosure is for their clients or for themselves. Some disclosures are more or less appropriate with certain clients but not others. However, the entire topic of disclosure becomes especially complicated and potentially harmful when discussing sexuality and pornography. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I would encourage you to err on the side of caution when making any disclosures with clients about your own experiences, and I would also encourage you to be prepared with a statement so that you are not caught off guard by a client’s questions.

In the classroom, in session and at various counseling conferences, I have been asked about my personal stance on pornography use. The response that resonates most for me is to remind my clients that what might be right or wrong for me might not be right or wrong for them. In addition, I would not want to influence their choice or decision beyond assisting them in identifying their beliefs about sexuality and helping them to live congruently within their value system.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Zachary David Bloom is an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University. He is also a licensed clinical professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. He specializes in working with couples and with individual clients with trauma. His research interests include the influence of technology on romantic relationships. Contact him at zacharydbloom@gmail.com.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Entering the danger zone

The absence of formal and accurate sexual education is a particularly American problem that may find its way into the offices of professional counselors. wp.me/p2BxKN-3JE

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The wise support system in domestic violence rescue efforts

By David L. Prucha April 9, 2018

A lot has been written about domestic violence, the cycles that keep people in violent relationships and how to get out of them. The commentary focuses on the role of substance abuse, the role of personality disorders and a cycle of conflict that ends with the exchange of a “never again” promise. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Although I believe these are relevant factors in violent relationships, a dynamic often emerges between the victim and her concerned loved ones, and this dynamic might play a role in keeping the violent relationship intact. It is of course sensible to think about the relationship between the abuser and the victim, but what else can we learn by looking at the relationship between the victim and her potential safety net?

If you are a family member looking from the outside in on a violent relationship, things look pretty black and white. The abuser is a bad guy. In fact, it’s probably better to use the word “evil.” He is taking advantage of someone smaller than him, he’s probably done this in previous relationships, and his promise to change can’t be trusted. He is one-dimensional: bad. The hottest place in hell is reserved for men of his ilk.

For those on the outside looking in, this is terrifying. Their loved one is in danger, she is captive, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she seems ambivalent about her chains. This leads family and friends to express their hatred for the abuser, but in their desperation, they might also express their frustration with the victim: “You’re smarter than this. I can’t believe you got yourself into this.” For those in the victim’s support system, a life might be hanging in the balance, so this seems no time to mince words.

If you are on the inside of the relationship looking outward, however, the picture can appear very different. Although the victim can certainly recognize her partner’s shortcomings, she cannot quite see what her support system sees. She doesn’t see a one-dimensional evil man.

Instead, she sees someone who is conflicted, someone who hates himself, someone who can’t get a grip on his emotions. Because she knows the “inner him,” she struggles to reconcile the blunt feedback from her family with the person she loves. The two pictures just don’t add up.

Could her partner really be as manipulative and cold as they say? Surely not. His regret and anguish are sincere. She has witnessed him cry out of self-hatred, and evil men don’t do that. He is broken but not bad. He wants to change, and she can’t imagine leaving because she doesn’t want to be like everyone else who has left him in the past.

 

A disciplined rescue

Before people are open to receiving help, they have to trust that the complexity of their problem is well-understood. When families characterize their loved one’s abuser as pure evil, a demonic caricature with cloven hoof, it delegitimizes their feedback, because for the victim, this evil cartoon character is nowhere to be found. In fact, the blunt feedback often has the opposite effect — it reinforces for the victim that the goodness of her partner isn’t being taken into account. This hardens her conviction that she is alone in understanding the situation, and this has the unintended consequence of further isolating her.

Given that explanation, what can be done? One way to intervene is to help the victim understand that there is a difference between evil people and destructive people, but both types of people can do the same amount of damage. In making this distinction, it validates that her partner is not a one-dimensional monster without dismissing the fact that a destructive reality still exists that needs to be addressed. This approach doesn’t isolate the victim from her support system. It also helps her understand why her situation feels so gut-wrenching: She has to leave someone who is partly good.

But partly good is not good enough. When we offer the truth that people are never entirely good or entirely evil, we offer an alternative worldview that enables victims to refine their partner-selection process in the future.

No longer should they reassure themselves if a destructive person shows goodness, because displays of goodness are no longer sufficient criteria for choosing a partner. Instead, the criteria become more nuanced. Despite the display of goodness, is this person also destructive? Victims learn that the presence of goodness and vulnerability are not the only variables to consider.

A second way to help is to teach victims that empathy is a morally neutral disposition: It can lead to both health and destruction. After all, the best predators use empathy to scan for the psychological vulnerabilities of other people. This maximizes predators’ ability to exploit.

In the cases of victims of domestic violence, their empathy is doing them harm. They are spending too much time thinking about how leaving the relationship would impact their partner and not enough time thinking about how they are themselves being harmed. Their high capacity for empathy has led them to walk around in the mind of their abuser for far too long, thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. The victim is not in her situation because she is foolish but because she has not learned how to manage her empathic impulses. Learning how to power down her empathy is vital, and she can do this by learning how to reprioritize her own needs.

Reprioritizing her needs can lead to feelings of guilt, and this comes from a sense that she is being selfish. The victim is in the habit of giving 100 apples to her partner without taking one for herself, so now taking 50 apples feels incredibly wrong. However, with the right help, she can learn that meeting her own needs is not selfish but is instead necessary to be truly generous.

In fact, when we compulsively engage with something that damages our well-being, it is not generosity — it is addiction. The person with alcoholism no longer enjoys the drink, and the person addicted to empathy no longer enjoys giving. Instead, they both feel bound to their habits. It’s not that virtue motivates the victim to give away the 100 apples; it’s that she doesn’t know how to give less than 100 apples away.

When victims learn that empathy has become a force for harm in their lives and that true generosity can’t flow forth from inner compulsion, the sense of virtue that they previously associated with staying in the relationship is tarnished. It isn’t that the abuser is without a gradient of goodness; it’s that he is still profoundly dangerous. It’s not that she is motivated by virtue; it’s that her empathy has kept her from seeing that her needs for safety and love should be more important to her than his need to avoid anxiety or sadness.

The hope is that thinking about how support systems can unintentionally create defensiveness and isolation in victims of domestic violence will lead to better rescue strategies. Although it feels repugnant for support systems to acknowledge the goodness in the victimizer, in some cases this might allow the victim to see more clearly the destructiveness of her partner. If members of the support system are able to stop themselves from accusing the perpetrator of simply being evil, this might lead the victim to feel powerfully understood. Perhaps the intimacy of feeling understood will increase the victim’s trust in the bridge away from her relationship and into the arms of those who love her.

 

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David L. Prucha is an adjunct professor of psychology at Johnson and Wales University in Denver, Colorado. He is also a licensed professional counselor who maintains an independent practice that specializes in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders. Email him at contact@pruchacounseling.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Keeping the focus

By Traci Pulliam Collins August 7, 2017

During the counseling process, most clients will describe some form of interpersonal or relational trouble. This trouble might be identified as relationship dissatisfaction, conflict in a marriage or partnership, or even the absence of relationship (loneliness).

One theoretical approach — emotionally focused therapy (EFT) — works well in individual, family or couple counseling. EFT for couples is a well-researched, evidence-based treatment with a systematic approach of steps and stages. Although the theory and working model are easy to understand, application of the model can be quite challenging. This steep learning curve may discourage counselors from implementing the model to its full potential.

Experience lends a few recommendations that may help counselors persevere through the learning curve on their way to becoming effective EFT counselors.

Back in the July 2012 issue of Counseling Today, Stacy Notaras Murphy addressed the question, “What’s on the radar of today’s counselor?” The American Counseling Association members surveyed for this article provided a wide range of responses, but a few topics were repeated across the group, including EFT for couples.

New professionals may hope to add EFT to their tool belts and develop a range of competencies. Midcareer professionals and seasoned counselors may desire to diversify their tools for couple therapy or to jump on board with this innovative approach. No matter the reason for the interest, counselors want an approach that is grounded in theory and is supported by empirical evidence. In addition, professional development can be costly and time precious; therefore, it is important to seek training that will pay off in effectiveness and ease of application.

EFT has solid empirical support for effectiveness, but the application may troublesome. Counselors may become impatient when learning new skills or techniques that do not fit neatly into or integrate with their current style of practice. EFT requires a paradigm shift for most counselors who learn the model.

 

EFT overview

EFT is a brief model rooted in attachment theory with humanistic and systemic influences. Counselors assist couples by using EFT to create a more secure attachment style between partners while also using experiential techniques. Les Greenberg and Sue Johnson formulated EFT in the early 1980s, and Johnson developed a systematic outline of steps and stages for clinicians to follow when helping couples move toward secure attachment and greater connection.

In 2004, Johnson published the second edition of The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection, which is the go-to source for understanding the theoretical and practical application of the EFT framework. Johnson has studied the dynamic attachment dance between partners, providing a road map for creating a secure bond that is divided into three stages:

1) De-escalation

2) Restructuring interactions

3) Consolidation

De-escalation, consists of a series of steps aimed at identifying the negative cycle the couple find themselves in — ultimately leading to disconnection. Identifying their attachment needs and discovering their distressing interactions reframed in the attachment language and cycle moves couples toward de-escalation.

Normalizing their interactions as a distressing dance that many couples find themselves engaged in helps the couple try to connect. This also provides an opportunity to briefly educate clients on the EFT model, its treatment protocol and the implications of research findings. Taking this action can provide couples with reasons to more deeply engage in the therapeutic process.

Restructuring interactions is the working stage in which interpersonal interactions shift from the original cycle to a new pattern of emotional attunement and secure connection. This is the place where the withdrawers re-engage and the blamers soften if the partners explore and share their attachment vulnerabilities and relationship needs.

Finally, in consolidation, couples apply the improved relationship functioning and more secure attachment bond to the problems that arise in day-to-day life.

 

Development of an EFT counselor

The EFT model reframes the counselor’s conceptualization perspective toward looking at couples through an attachment lens. This lens shapes the counselor’s understanding of human experience and strengthens the empathic attunement abilities, preparing the EFT counselor to frame even the most hurtful behaviors of a partner into the need for attachment and connection.

This process can be challenging for a counselor, requiring intentionality and constant emotional engagement (a leaning in if you will) with clients. The counselor’s leaning in creates moments of vulnerability and welcomes clients out into the open. Proper application of EFT is counseling at its best; it is draining and invigorating at the same time.

After spending years learning this model and interacting with folks across the developmental spectrum of EFT counselors, several important themes come to mind for me:

  1. a) Experiencing tough moments of feeling lost
  2. b) Being confused
  3. c) Having memorable and highly purposeful moments
  4. d) Realizing I am in a constant state of learning

It seems likely that I will never arrive at perfection, and the learning curve is continuous.

Perhaps the EFT counselor continues this difficult learning curve because of the successful moments. Witnessing couples creating connections and more secure attachments is a deeply moving, powerful and, at times, sacred experience.

Although those moments may cause some EFT counselors to desire more, it seems that counselors can benefit from acknowledging and preparing for the learning curve and managing the developmental process. The following section contains suggestions that may enhance mastery of the learning curve

 

Anchor yourself with the empirical evidence

The EFT clinician–researcher partnership is an important component of the following the model principle. Clinicians can glean confidence by utilizing the EFT research evidence to enhance their learning curve. This involves familiarizing oneself with the professional literature sources and staying current with EFT research findings.

The EFT model has grown in popularity, and a body of research has evolved. In 2016, Stephanie Wiebe and Sue Johnson published a review of EFT research, building on a previous meta-analysis in which a large effect size of 1.3 and a 70-73 percent recovery rate were found. The more recent review presented an examination of applying the EFT model to specific issues facing couples (e.g., depression, trauma, attachment injuries such as an infidelity), pointing out how EFT research findings have surpassed the standards for being perceived as an evidence-based approach for couples.

The strength of empirical evidence places EFT for couples on the radar for counselors as an approach that clinicians can feel good about using. Couples can benefit from learning that the EFT approach is organized and well-researched, and that the research findings indicate effectiveness for couple therapy.

 

Trust the model

When beginning a session, remember what the EFT counselors and researchers before you have experienced and contributed. The research evidence provides a secure base. Much like the theoretical roots in attachment theory, counselors must stay grounded and rooted in the evidence of sound research and design.

Integrating other techniques or frameworks is a deviation from the model and may bring more confusion than comfort. Remember, this model works, and it works powerfully. Trust the model and stay the course, even when things get tough.

 

Avoid getting caught up in the details

The presenting issues that couples will voice may seem endless. Before realizing it, you can begin wondering whether one partner should just help more with the dishes and things might be all better.

In that moment, you have moved away from the influence of empirical evidence and training — the steadfast counseling seat — and shifted to the couch with the couple. At this point, the room can quickly be filled with shared frustration and hopelessness.

The details are so important to the clients, because these details represent something much greater (i.e., loneliness, abandonment, feeling inadequate). On one hand, the details do not hold the solution, but they do provide hints toward the couple’s particular pattern, or the dance.

 

Refresh and reflect

The EFT model is organized and simplified into steps and stages. Yet application of the theory is not so simple. It is important to revisit your materials and ground yourself in the steps and stages, skills and interventions. Consider a refresher course or spend time reviewing your training materials to bring you back to the model in the purest sense.

Observe another EFT counselor in action, such as the “EFT in Action” live couples counseling observation by Lorrie Brubacher, certified EFT therapist and supervisor, at the Carolina Center for EFT. This live demonstration offers a reminder of the core interventions that can help regenerate your work.

Even better, watch your couples counseling taped sessions to observe your process, finding moments of strength and instability to inform your practice. All of these steps will support a deeper understanding of EFT in action.

 

Seek a learning community

EFT counselors guide couples to greater awareness, vulnerability, connection and effective dependency in their relationships. In 2003, Johnson described the significance of dependency in relationships in a chapter of Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy. She provides a powerful paradigm shift from partners being overly dependent or independent to effectively or ineffectively dependent.

Correspondingly, EFT therapists should embrace the effective dependency of the EFT learning community. Beyond the referral networks, EFT communities can provide feedback, encouragement and connectivity. An EFT support system makes the EFT learning curve journey more meaningful and enjoyable.

 

Final thoughts

The EFT model indicates several parallel lessons for EFT counselors in training. Remembering the successes provides a touching motivation to help more couples find connection by using the powerful EFT model.

The developmental process for EFT counselors can be very demanding, and the learning curve can be tough for even seasoned couples counselors. Yet, somehow, having a hand in or orchestrating the dance between partners is so rewarding that it provides motivation to keep going.

In the EFT process, you may observe one partner painfully waiting on the edge of his or her seat, session after session, for the other partner to show up and be emotionally responsive. Then when it happens, the emotional relief is so overwhelmingly wonderful that the couple leap across the room to embrace in a tearful hug.

 

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Traci Pulliam Collins is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor. She works as a professional counselor in Greensboro, North Carolina. Currently, she is pursuing her doctoral degree at North Carolina State University. Contact her at tpcolli2@ncsu.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.