Tag Archives: Marriage

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.

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.

Investigating identity

By Laurie Meyers November 21, 2016

“W hat are you?”

That is a question commonly asked of individuals who are multiracial. As a society, we have gotten used to checking off a metaphorical — and often literal — “box” when it comes to questions of race. We seem to expect everyone to “just pick one.”

But the population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, not just in terms of our nation’s racial makeup, but also in the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to two, three or more racial groups.

The U.S. Census Bureau first started letting respondents choose more than one racial category to describe themselves in its 2000 survey. Since then, the multiracial population (defined as individuals who have at least two different races in their backgrounds) has grown rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black Americans who identified as biracial more than doubled, and the population of Americans who identified as being of both Asian and Caucasian descent grew by 87 percent. In addition, according to information compiled from the family2010 census and the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the percentage of infants born to parents of two or more different races increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. And, of course, in 2008, in a historic event that in part reflects the nation’s growing multiracial population, Americans elected a biracial president, Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan farther and a white mother.

The Census Bureau estimates that 2.1 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. However, in 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and issued a report, “Multiracial in America,” estimating that 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. The Pew study arrived at this figure by taking into account not only how individuals describe their own racial backgrounds, but also the backgrounds of their parents and grandparents, which the U.S census does not do.

The Pew survey also found that many people with mixed racial backgrounds do not identify themselves as “multiracial.” In fact, 61 percent of such respondents identify themselves as belonging to only one race. However, the survey also discovered that individuals’ racial self-identification can change over the years. Some choose to identify with a different part of their racial background later in life or decide to begin identifying as multiracial rather than monoracial (and vice versa).

Counselors who study multiracial issues and in some cases are multiracial themselves say that this finding of shifting racial identity is indicative of one of the core issues of being from multiple races — identity and belonging.

On the outside looking in

“When I was young, I didn’t know I was different,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Leah Brew, who is half white and half Japanese. “Then we moved, and I was made fun of [at her new school] because they said I was Chinese.”

Brew didn’t know what being Chinese meant, but based on the teasing she was subjected to, she assumed it was something horrible. “So I asked my mom if I was Chinese, and she said, ‘No, you’re Japanese,’” Brew recounts. She was relieved but soon found that when she corrected her tormentors, it made no difference. Although Brew was also white, it was her Japanese appearance that mattered to her classmates.

As she grew older, Brew, a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, became interested in exploring the Japanese side of her heritage and even traveled to Japan. Although she loved experiencing the culture and the people, she didn’t feel quite at home there either. For one thing, she says, she inherited her white father’s height and towered over everyone on the street. “I thought, ‘No, that’s not it’” — where she “belonged,” Brew says.

“When I moved to California, I thought this was it” because the state has many residents from various racial backgrounds, Brew says. “But the other biracial people I encountered were very dissimilar to me and got their identities from other things, like religion.”

Today, Brew, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees a significant number of multiracial and multicultural clients in her practice. She also helped write the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, a set of professional counseling practices developed by ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network to competently and effectively attend to the diverse needs of the multiple heritage population. When it comes to her own identity and culture, Brew says she at times sees herself as mostly white and at other times mostly Japanese. She acknowledges that she is always moving back and forth between the two.

C. Peeper MacDonald, a practitioner and counselor educator whose research focuses on multiracial issues, is both white and Native American. Most people assume she’s white, however, which makes MacDonald feel that they are missing or ignoring a large part of who she is.

“I often use the opportunity [the assumption of her monoracial whiteness] to correct people and educate them about my identity,” MacDonald says. “I do, however, often get the sense that people feel that I am reaching. For example, I often hear, ‘Oh, well, everyone in the United States has Native American in them.’”

MacDonald, who teaches undergraduate psychology classes part time at Georgia Gwinnett College and is also counseling and supervising part time at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, often feels compelled to “prove” her ethnicity, she says. For instance, she will share her Cherokee name with people, which seems to satisfy them.

It was actually MacDonald’s interest in her family’s Native American heritage that led to her maternal grandfather reclaiming his history. For most of his life, MacDonald explains, her grandfather experienced severe racism because he was a Native American, so he often identified himself as Hispanic instead. MacDonald’s mother was raised by her white mother and a white stepfather and, as a result, has never really considered herself Native American, even though MacDonald says her mother does not look white. It wasn’t until MacDonald started asking as a child about the Native American side of the family that her grandfather, then in his 70s, started to embrace his heritage again.

ACA member Derrick Paladino, who is part Puerto Rican and part Italian American, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. When kids at school would question him about “what” he was, Paladino would simply say Italian because that seemed easier and perhaps safer.

Paladino, who also helped to develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, says he didn’t have a lot of contact with the Puerto Rican side of his extended family when he grew up, so he didn’t have much opportunity to explore the Latino part of his identity. When he ultimately decided to go to college at the University of Florida, Paladino says he was thrilled at the prospect of meeting other Latino students.

“I got my Latino Students Association card, and I was so excited,” Paladino recalls. “But I discovered that because I was not fluent or hadn’t had [what was considered] the full Latino experience, I didn’t fit in well.”

Paladino, a professor and coordinator in the graduate studies in counseling program at Rollins College in Florida, may no longer stand out like he did in the white Connecticut enclave in which he grew up, but like most people of color, he is still subject to many assumptions and microaggressions. For instance, Paladino, who co-wrote and co-edited the book Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families (published by ACA), has been asked by a cashier at a department store whether he was his son’s nanny. Recently, as he stood in line at an amusement park, he was asked to settle a bet between two people he didn’t know. The wager? Whether Paladino was Puerto Rican.

These counselors’ stories provide a glimpse of the myriad forces — societal, familial and personal — that shape and challenge the lives of multiracial individuals. Counselors can play an integral role in helping their clients navigate these forces.

Identity intervention

That sense of not quite belonging — or even being told that they don’t belong — often starts early for multiracial individuals.

As Brew notes, as early as elementary school, multiracial children can begin experiencing microaggressions such as that question: “What are you?” Or, as in Brew’s case, these children might become the targets of racist taunts based on their actual or perceived ethnic backgrounds. For that reason, it is important for the parents of multiracial children to talk to them about race and racism from an early age, she says.

“Parents, in general, are reluctant to do that, but when parents do engage in it, the children are more prepared to handle comments,” Brew says. “There was an interesting study out of [the University of Texas at Austin] where they asked participants to talk with their kids about racism. When it came down to the wire, most parents dropped out of the study. It was simply too hard.”

Because the topic is so difficult and sensitive, counselors can be a tremendous asset to these parents by helping them to have conversations about racism with their children and with each other, Brew says. “This conversation needs to be explicit and purposeful,” she says. “The parents may need to work on thinking in inclusive ways rather than judgmental ways — the way we teach our students to respect differences. It’s the seed that helps teach children about their own culture as well.”

“I think it’s important for parents to start with very small children talking about skin color and how it’s different, but to give no meaning to color,” Brew continues. “We all see differences, and that’s fine. It’s when meaning is applied that differences become a problem. For biracial children, talking about how mommy and daddy — or mommy and mommy, or daddy and daddy — are different is also important to note, although, again, not giving meaning to those differences.”

“If the child is likely to experience racism or any other type of prejudice based upon differences, then [it’s] letting kids know that some people don’t understand differences and believe that people are bad based on how they look or how they dress, etc.,” she says. “Then when it actually happens, kids can feel safe to talk with parents, who should validate the child’s experience and help them make sense of it.”

It isn’t unusual for multiracial children to grow up, like Paladino did, in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even if these children don’t encounter bullying or overt racism, being one of the few (or perhaps only) children of color in an overwhelmingly white environment can exacerbate their feelings of not belonging. Counselors can help these children cope, Paladino says.

“I would want to continually validate what they are feeling and experiencing, which may be ‘otherness’ or not fitting in,” he explains. “At a young age, it may be difficult for [children] to fully grasp why they are experiencing these feelings, so I really want to be there for them in this part of the journey and allow them to ventilate feelings, thoughts and experiences.”

“For the parents, if they are a part of counseling or a parent consult, I would talk to them about what their child is feeling,” Paladino continues. “[I would] help them to experience empathy toward their child, talk to them about how to create a safe space for their child to talk and ventilate about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing, and help them look up children’s books as a way to talk about feeling different.”

School counselors — indeed all school faculty members — also play a critical role in helping multiracial children cope with racism and the struggle to feel included, says Taryne Michelle Mingo, an ACA member and former school counselor whose research focuses on marginalized populations. “I would [as a school counselor] develop a trusting relationship with the children and let them know that I can be a support system,” she says. For instance, she explains, if a child is being taunted or verbally abused, it is important for the child to view the school counselor as a safe person whom he or she can trust and feel comfortable going to for help.

One of the primary tasks for school counselors, Mingo says, is to get to know their students and make sure that everyone feels included. During her time as a school counselor, Mingo, who is African American, worked at a majority white school where only a small number of students were African American. Children of color aren’t typically used to seeing themselves reflected or represented in school materials, Mingo says, so she was careful about making sure there were dolls and books in her office that included children of multiple races. “Make sure that [these children] know they are visible,” she urges. “[That as counselors you are saying], ‘We know you are here.’”

When children who were feeling excluded showed up in her office, Mingo, who is now an assistant professor in the Counseling, Leadership and Special Education Department at Missouri State University, would engage them by asking them what they thought about themselves aside from what anyone else thought about them. She would have them describe themselves and ask them to draw a self-portrait. She would then go on to ask them what they liked to do and who their friends were.

If during the course of the conversation Mingo discovered that the child was feeling harassed or hearing negative comments, she would inquire where the child was and what was happening when he or she heard such comments. Mingo then asked what the child said or would have liked to say in response to those comments. Finally, she and the child would practice responding.

Mingo would also bring in the child’s teachers to make them aware of what was happening. When possible, she also liked to bring in the child’s parents or parent so that she and the parents could work together to more effectively support the child as a team.

Family tensions

In some cases, a child’s feelings of exclusion might be emanating from within the family itself. Not necessarily within the immediate family, but more often from the extended family, which might not have approved of the multiracial relationship in the first place, Paladino says. He notes that it was only in 1967 that it became legal to marry outside of one’s own race throughout the United States. That’s when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Loving v. Virginia case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Brew has worked with multiracial couples and families facing the disapproval of extended family. “In terms of working with extended family racism, I first provide empathy to both partners,” she says. “Then I provide psychoeducation about the damage to self-esteem on children who listen to that type of talk. The biggest challenge is that so many minority families are hierarchical, so the adult child may not feel comfortable initiating these kinds of conversations. When it’s a Caucasian family member, then the relationship can often be less hierarchical, so the biggest challenge is just getting that partner to buy in and set limits with family members.”

“I haven’t had experiences with needing to cut off family members,” Brew continues. “[I] try to avoid that unless abuse is part of the picture. So, I help the clients manage their feelings about their own family members’ disapproval and try to offer support so that they eventually have the courage to confront their families. If they choose to confront, of course we practice that many times and prepare them for the worst possible outcome so they feel more confident.”

But even when there is no racial tension in the family, a multiracial person’s parents and other monoracial family members can never truly understand what it is like to be multiracial or multiethnic, Paladino says. “Validation is huge for this population,” he says. “They need support to figure out what they are, to allow them to be angry at family, angry at friends.”

MacDonald agrees. “My father, who is white, never understood why it was important for me to identify as biracial,” she says. “He views me as white and thinks I should identify as white. In a way, my white dad has always been a symbol for me of white culture because he also holds beliefs that don’t acknowledge institutionalized oppression and a belief that because we live in America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed — beliefs in which I do not share. Even as adults to this day, we do not speak of race, politics or privilege.”

Identity and acceptance

Ultimately, it is up to the multiracial individual to determine how he or she wants to self-identify. “A lot of clinical work is to help my clients articulate and identify what is from what culture so that they can make choices,” Brew says. “What feels right in different situations? Who am I, and what’s the right way to be?”

Counselors can play an important role by helping multiracial clients sift through all of their experiences and beliefs in the search for identity, says Mark Kenney, who helped write the multiracial counseling competencies and co-founded ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. He advises counselors to start by validating a client’s personal experiences and creating a safe environment for self-disclosure.

In some cases, counselors may need to help clients find resources, such as social groups or books, to explore their heritage because these clients didn’t have full access to part of their heritage growing up, Kenney says. He uses Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents, as an example. “His white family can’t tell him about being African American, and his father is Kenyan, so he can’t impart the African American experience,” Kenney notes.

Although identity is a pressing issue for many multiracial individuals, so is the question of feeling accepted or belonging. Kenney returns to the example of President Obama. Because of his phenotype, or physical appearance, most people automatically view Obama as African

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

American, and physical appearance is often an important factor that influences how multiracial individuals ultimately choose to identify themselves, Kenney explains. Given his lineage, Obama could have decided to identify himself as white, Kenney says, but because of the way he looks, society at large wouldn’t see or “accept” him that way, especially in our current racial climate. At the same time, Kenney continues, because Obama’s father was black but not African American (and because his mother was white), other people may not embrace Obama fully as being African American.

MacDonald says she sometimes struggles with feeling that she is a legitimate member of the multiracial community. “I am often viewed as white and, as a result, receive white privilege,” she explains. “So in many ways, I am an outsider to the multiracial community because I still receive privilege versus minority status.”

Again, counselors can help multiracial individuals reconcile these factors, but the process may not be smooth or easy. “Helping the person sort through their particular journey and come to their own decision about how they want to identify may put them in conflict with their family and their community,” Kenney notes.

With multiracial clients, Kenney likes to use solution-focused and narrative therapy. With narrative therapy in particular, clients can write a new story of their identity, he says. Kenney also stresses the importance of counselors familiarizing themselves with multiracial identity models so they are aware of all the factors involved in a person choosing an identity.

Because individuals who are multiracial might not be or feel fully accepted by any of their racial groups, counselors should help them seek out individuals who possess similar backgrounds, Kenney says. If organizations for multiracial individuals aren’t readily available in their communities, counselors might consider forming groups — perhaps using the group therapy model, but for social rather than therapeutic purposes, Kenney says.

Kenney and Paladino also recommend bibliotherapy as an effective intervention with multiracial clients who are struggling with their identity or sense of belonging. Paladino says he personally found Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, edited by Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn, very helpful in his journey.

No assumptions

All of the counselors interviewed for this article caution against assuming that individuals who are multiracial have come to counseling because of their multiracial status. At the same time, Brew and MacDonald say it is important not to automatically assume that no connection exists between the person’s presenting problem and his or her multiracial status. After all, being multiracial does exert influence on clients’ lives, just as do other factors bound up in identity, such as being female, having a disability or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Catherine Chang, an ACA member whose research specializes in multicultural issues, believes that society needs to change how it identifies people. Counselors can help, she says, starting with their intake forms and how they designate racial background.

“We force people to check a box,” Chang says. “I’m 100 percent Asian and married to a Caucasian man. My children have to check two separate boxes — white, Asian. They can’t check multiracial or biracial.”

Chang urges counselors to offer an option for multiracial individuals on intake forms and to also leave space for clients to fill in what they feel their background is. Paladino agrees, noting that check boxes don’t encompass multiple heritages such as being black and also being Jewish.

Finally, Chang says that it is important for counselors to examine their own heritage and how that background affects who they are and how they interact with individuals from other groups and races.

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s online article about transracial adoption, “Adopting across racial lines” wp.me/p2BxKN-4xn

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, take advantage of the following resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

ACA Interest Networks and Divisions

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families, written and edited by Richard C. Henriksen Jr. and Derrick A. Paladino
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latina/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook
  • Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker

Podcasts (counseling.org/continuing-education/podcasts)

  • “Queer People of Color” with Adrienne N. Erby and Christian D. Chan
  • “Microcounseling, Multiculturalism, Social Justice and the Brain” with Allen Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does it Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas

  • “The Invisible Client: Ramifications of Neglecting the Impact of Race and Culture in Professional Counseling” by Issac Burt, Valerie E.D. Russell and Michael Brooks
  • “Appreciating the Complexities of Race and Culture” by Ria Echteld Baker
  • “Counselors’ Multicultural Competencies: Race, Training, Ethnic Identity and Color-Blind Racial Attitudes” by Ruth Chao
  • “Enhancing Multicultural Empathy in the Classroom and Beyond: A Proposed Model for Training Beginner Counselors” by Jorge Garcia, Gerta Bardhoshi, Matthew Siblo, Sam Steen and Eileen Haase
  • “Ethnic Minority Clients’ Perceptions of Racism-Related Stress in Presenting Problems”
    by Ruth Chao
  • “Interracial Adoption and the Development of Cultural Identity” by Kimberly Kathryn Thompson

Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II and David G. Zelaya

 

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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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.

A systemic perspective for working with same-sex parents

By Amanda C. DeDiego September 28, 2016

According to census data, there were roughly 125,000 same-sex couples raising approximately 220,000 children in the United States in 2010. Since that time, increasing numbers of same-sex couples have declared committed partnerships, capturing the attention of policymakers and bringing the issue of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships to the forefront of politics.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges and ultimately declared it unconstitutional for any state to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In doing so, the Supreme Court said that rights historically awarded to married partners, including adoption rights, must be extended to same-sex couples. Although state legislation traditionally branding-images_twodadsdetermines specific limitations to adoption rights awarded to married couples, under Obergefell v. Hodges, said spousal rights must apply to all couples equally.

This past summer, a federal court judge ruled adoption by same-sex couples legal in all 50 states. However, judges who make decisions to award parental rights can still create more stringent guidelines or additional hurdles for same-sex couples. So although this ruling is monumental in taking strides toward equality, it does not eliminate subtle discrimination experienced by same-sex couples seeking adoption rights.

As institutional and legal barriers to same-sex marriage and parenthood continue to diminish, counselors are increasingly called on to provide support for same-sex couples who are establishing legally recognized families. CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) accreditation standards require programs to provide counseling students with training for supporting various issues in diverse relationships and families. However, more training and awareness are needed to properly prepare counselors to offer support specifically for same-sex couples and families.

For many years, same-sex couples could not find appropriately trained counselors to provide family and couples therapy. Now same-sex couples feel welcomed and have more referral options for counseling, but counselors still often lack specific training in best practices for supporting these couples and families headed by same-sex parents. Considering the systemic influences that affect same-sex couples, a counseling approach that also considers the systemic context is ideal.

Structural family therapy

Structural family therapy (SFT), developed by Salvador Minuchin, offers a means for counselors to address systemic issues in various contexts. The SFT approach is empirically validated and offers a map for counselors to conceptualize a family system on the basis of the roles the family members play. In addition to examining the family as a system, SFT takes into account the greater societal contexts that have an impact on the family.

Minuchin based his theory on the assumption that each family member plays a role within the family. Using Minuchin’s therapeutic approach, a counselor observes patterns in the family’s interactions to determine the hierarchy within the family system. Subsystems such as spousal, parental and sibling may also be present within the family. Any imbalance in the power, boundaries or roles within the family represents dysfunction in the system.

The goal of SFT is to adapt the structure of the family to the needs of its members to improve the function of the family system. This goal is accomplished in three phases:

1) Joining with the family

2) Enacting interactions within the therapy environment to observe family member roles

3) Creating unbalance to expand current roles, introduce boundaries and accommodate the needs of the family members in the system

As part of the SFT process, the counselor “joins” the family system to correct dysfunction. Minuchin described “joining” as the process of the counselor being accepted by the family to create a therapeutic bond. The trust gained in the joining process creates a therapeutic system that lasts the duration of the counseling relationship. The counselor works to help the family establish clear roles, while deconstructing power within the family system and subsystems. The goal is to create a functional hierarchy that meets the needs of family members.

One advantage to using SFT with same-sex parents is that this approach considers larger systemic influences on the family. Counselors working with same-sex couples may need to address unique systemic challenges. Thus, it is important to raise awareness in the counseling community about such issues so that we can address biases, practice awareness of issues facing the population and have a broad societal view of the family system and societal challenges impacting families with same-sex parents.

The road to parenthood

Traditional conception of children is not an option for same-sex couples. Thus, the road to parenthood for these couples is often emotional, complicated and challenging.

Some of these couples may already have children from previous relationships. SFT provides guidelines for work with blended families, but in many respects, same-sex couples have unique challenges in establishing family systems. In the past, many states would not recognize the adoption of children within same-sex partnerships. For same-sex partners with children from previous relationships, this meant that only the biological parent was able to serve as the legal guardian of these children. This created stress and conflict within relationships because the biological parent’s current partner was left without any legal rights as a parent. Not having legal guardianship of a child can cause same-sex partners to feel unclear about their parental identities. In turn, this may result in conflict within the partnership or struggles to establish a parenting relationship with children.

Egg donation and surrogacy: Not all couples have biological children from previous relationships, but the issue of legal co-guardianship is persistent regardless of how same-sex partners become parents. Same-sex couples may choose to pursue parenthood through surrogacy or through in vitro fertilization using a sperm or egg donor. In both cases, couples must choose which partner will be allowed to have the biological identity as the child’s parent. Because state laws have not always recognized the adoption rights of same-sex couples, the biological parent of the child often maintains all legal rights of guardianship.

Considering recent court rulings, the nonbiological parent may now seek status as a legal guardian. However, this parent may have experienced a lack of power in the family for some time because he or she was previously unable to identify as either a biological or legal parent.

Additionally, decisions must be made regarding the degree to which surrogates or sperm/egg donors will be included in and involved with the family. Thus, these family systems will potentially have multiple layers and subsystems, meaning that the same-sex partners may experience additional stress as they navigate choices concerning the level of connection to donors and surrogates.

Traditional adoption: The Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges acknowledged the possibility of same-sex couples facing continued institutional barriers, specifically naming instances of adoption agencies affiliated with religious organizations denying child placements for these couples. This past summer, a federal judge ruled a state ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, thus eliminating some systemic barriers to parenthood. Although overt discrimination in denying same-sex couples opportunities for adoption was eliminated, subtle discrimination that reinforces heterosexist standards of parenthood can still force same-sex couples to face stigma and additional stress during the adoption process. Same-sex couples have traditionally encountered legal obstacles, high standards for approval and long waiting periods to become adoptive parents. Historically, these institutional barriers have been substantial, causing many same-sex couples to turn to the foster care system in their pursuit of parenthood.

Foster to adopt: Foster care agencies often permitted same-sex couples to serve as foster parents, but there was always the question of whether the court system would subsequently deny these couples the option to legally adopt. This was often confusing and emotionally distressing for couples hoping to start families and gain the identity of parents. The Supreme Court has addressed these legal barriers, but it is unclear at this point what institutional and social barriers will remain for same-sex foster parents seeking legal adoption.

Additionally, same-sex couple foster parents may experience a lack of institutional support in preparing foster children for placement with a gay or lesbian couple. Thus, the adjustment to the placement can be more stressful for both the couple and the child. Couples may also experience subtle discrimination and a lack of sensitivity regarding pronoun use in record-keeping (for example, suggesting a father and mother caring for children, as opposed to two mothers or two fathers).

Systemic challenges

In addition to the typical stresses associated with blended families or adoptive parenting relationships, same-sex couples often feel that they must fight to gain recognition in their identities as parents, both legally and socially. This can create high levels of stress within these partnerships.

In 1979, Urie Bronfenbrenner discussed various social and political systems that influence individuals as members of society, including those individuals navigating marriage and parenthood. In addition to considering the legal and institutional challenges faced by same-sex couples in gaining identity as parents, counselors using SFT must consider the influences of the societal systems to which these clients belong. Unfortunately, discrimination and systemic challenges are still present after same-sex couples become parents, and counselors may need to help families navigate additional systemic challenges in raising children.

Institutional and legal challenges: Same-sex couples have long faced institutional barriers in gaining validation and recognition of their partnerships and marriages. Obergefell v. Hodges awarded the right to marry to same-sex couples and extended historically implied rights to same-sex couples who marry. However, states reserve the ultimate power to choose which rights to award (and to what degree) to married couples, including taxation, sharing of property and legal adoption. These discriminatory barriers exist beyond the courts. Among the institutional challenges that present struggles for same-sex couples attempting to establish family systems are division of work, parental leave and guardianship rights in caring for children.

Same-sex couples may experience challenges in deciding how to adapt their work schedules when raising children because of less employer flexibility, especially in the case of gay men. Thus, one partner may become the “breadwinner,” establishing greater financial power within the relationship. Given that legal adoption is not always permitted for nonbiological parents in a same-sex partnership, gaining access to a child’s medical or school records may also be a challenge.

In addition, same-sex couples often face challenges simply in finding a residence for their families. Research shows that landlords have traditionally assumed that same-sex couples will be troublesome tenants. Given limited choices for renting property, one partner may then become the legal owner of the couple’s purchased property. Particularly if this partner is already identified as the breadwinner of the family or the biological parent of the couple’s child, this situation can create a further imbalance of power within the parental subsystem.

Social challenges: Beyond institutional challenges, same-sex parents also experience subtle discrimination in social groups. Same-sex parents may not feel that they fit within traditional parenting roles and thus may not feel as accepted in social groups with heterosexual parents. Socially, same-sex parents can be the targets of hypercriticism for their parenting decisions by heterosexual parents.

Criticism and rejection are not isolated only to social groups. Families of origin may also express disapproval of same-sex couples becoming parents. Ultimately, same-sex couples may feel like outsiders in both social and familial groups, thus creating another source of conflict within the partnership.

Given that they are raising children in a heterosexual-centered society, same-sex parents may lack role models for navigating decisions as parents. When combined with social invalidation, this can leave same-sex parents feeling alone and lost.

Finding social support provides comfort for parents and children who are experiencing hyperawareness of the dominant heterosexual culture. Thus, same-sex parents often seek to create a new “family of choice” for social support. Same-sex parents often worry that their children will be subjected to heteronormative standards and social expectations in school. Children who have same-sex parents may experience discrimination or bias in social groups. Having the social support of other same-sex couples makes it easier for parents and their children to cope with discrimination and heterosexual norms.

Considerations for practice

Under SFT, the counselor joins with the family, becoming a part of the system instead of being a bystander to the process. Once this happens, the counselor will address issues of power, hierarchy, boundaries among family members and rules within the family system. The focus on family roles allows the counselor to adapt to the family system beyond traditional gender roles, which makes SFT ideal for work with same-sex couples and their families. Same-sex couples lack the traditional “mother” and “father” role within the family, so couples establish parenting identities based on their unique family system.

To determine the structure of the family system, a counselor must observe patterns of behavior among family members. In many cases, the lack of traditional gender roles among same-sex couples creates opportunities for greater balance in home and work responsibilities and egalitarian roles in parenting. Same-sex couples often experience greater fluidity and equality in parenting responsibilities than do heterosexual couples. Thus, decision-making in distribution of power within the partnership becomes more intentional.

The more gender-fluid roles of parents in same-sex families may challenge a counselor’s fundamental views of family. Thus, a counselor working with a same-sex couple must be aware of personal biases, or else the counselor may project gender labels onto family members. In addition, in recognizing one parent as more nurturing, it would be important not to automatically project onto the other parent the label of disciplinarian, especially considering the complementary function of parents under SFT. Instead, realize that gender fluidity in parenting roles means that same-sex parents may be sharing aspects of roles as both nurturer and disciplinarian.

In part because families with same-sex parents may not always receive support from biological family members, it is common for these parents to include neighbors or other social supports in their definition of the family system. The SFT approach allows for a more flexible definition of family. Thus, same-sex parents can invite social supports beyond the biological family to participate in family therapy. A large piece of SFT involves examining the authority exercised with children. This provides the counselor with insight regarding the hierarchy within the family system. Remembering that social supports may become an influential part of same-sex families, the counselor should remain open to considering the authority of nonparental figures within the family system.

Counselors must practice awareness of societal influences on families because these challenges often affect the balance of power within the family. Although societal issues may not be the presenting issue within the family, the influence of societal systems is always present. Additionally, counselors must practice ongoing reflection to be aware of biases in their work with this population. Working to eliminate subtle discrimination in the counseling environment — for instance, by creating gender-neutral intake forms — can create a welcoming environment for same-sex couples and their families.

Conclusion

SFT provides a framework to conduct counseling that considers systemic influences on families with same-sex parents. Recognizing the systemic and social barriers that same-sex parents face is a huge first step. Counselors must be aware of their own biases regarding their views of families when working with same-sex parents. In joining with the family system, counselors should be cautious not to assign gender roles to family members. Counselors also must be open to including social supports outside of the immediate family in the counseling relationship.

By practicing awareness of systemic barriers facing same-sex couples and being open to unique family systems, counselors can provide much-needed services to these now legally recognized partners who are navigating the road to parenthood and parenting in a heteronormative world.

 

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

Amanda C. DeDiego is an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Wyoming. She is a national certified counselor and has clinical experience in school, grant program, community and private practice settings with diverse client populations. Contact her at adediego@uwyo.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.