Recent Couples Counseling Posts

Do you provide couples counseling for same-sex and transgender couples?

In a word – absolutely!  I absolutely love providing couples counseling for same-sex and transgender couples.  And it surprises me how many couples therapists out there either don’t want to, or don’t feel qualified to work with the LGBT community.  One of the things I love about Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) and attachment theory (in which EFT is largely rooted), is that it provides great latitude for therapists to work with whatever unique issues a couple brings into the therapy room.  But EFT and attachment theory also recognize that the underlying causes of a couple’s distress is rooted in feeling insecurely attached to one’s partner, and that such distress manifests itself similarly regardless of the genders of the individuals.

I was very lucky that, early in my career, one of the very first couples I worked with was a lesbian couple.  I don’t know how they found me since I was not actively marketing myself yet in the LGBT community.  But for some reason they felt comfortable talking to me (a straight, 50 year old white guy!).  At that time I knew only theoretically that EFT would “work” with a lesbian couple but I was a bit nervous as to whether or not I could put that theory into practice.  Would I be distracted by their same-sexedness (I just now made up that word… look out Stephen Colbert)?  Would they be put off by my old-white-guy-ness?  I think it took me all of two minutes to confirm that the issues they were ultimately telling me about were the same as the different-sex couples I had been seeing until then.  That boosted my confidence and, since then, it barely even registers for me if I am seeing a same-sex or different-sex couple.

But it is not like I aim to treat all couples the same.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I try hard to treat each couple uniquely and to consider the specific issues they present.  What I find though – and what attachment theory and EFT teach – is that once you dig through the content of whatever a couple presents you get down to similar distresses, and those distresses really don’t relate much to the relative genders of the individuals.  Rather, they relate to the relative security each feels with themselves, with their partner, and with their relationship.

So that is same-sex couples.  What about transgender couples?  Well… my experience is almost identical.  When I began working with my first transgender couple, I had similar worries as I had had when I was seeing my first same-sex couple.  And, to my great pleasure, the same thing happened.  In a matter of a couple of minutes I had completely forgotten about my worries and I found myself just working with two individuals who were trying to find their way back to each other and feel safe and secure in their relationship.  Yes… they were presenting surface issues that were different from the cisgender couple I had seen right before them.  But that cisgender couple was presenting surface issues that were different from the couple I had seen before them too.  The differences were the same!

Now I just plow forward happily with whomever happens to be sitting in front of me.  I am not afraid to ask about gender and sex, just as I am not afraid to ask about race and religion.  And when someone’s experience is different from mine, I get curious and ask about it.  I find that people are relieved that I don’t pretend to know about their unique experience, regardless of who they are.

I am happy that I have found such comfort working in the LGBT community.  It adds a diversity to my practice that keeps me interested and interesting.  I love my work and I love working with couples.  Absolutely!

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HELP! My Husband Doesn’t Want to Have Sex

What does it mean if my husband doesn’t want to have sex?  Is there something wrong with him?  Is there something wrong with me?  The answer to both is… Probably not!  However, if you came to see me in in my couples practice, my first question would be “what do you mean when you say he doesn’t want sex?”

The Higher Desire Partner

Do you mean he doesn’t want sex as often as you do? If this is the case, it’s not surprising. Generally, in most healthy relationships, one partner is the “higher desire” partner who wants sex more often than the other. Our cultural stereotypes tell us that it is usually the man who is the higher desire partner. However, that stereotype does not hold as much as you might think. The truth is that in 40% of healthy heterosexual relationships, the woman is the higher desire partner. And when that happens, it can often feel shaming for one or both of the partners.

I am dating myself a bit here, but who remembers the classic “Analyst” scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall? In a split screen we see Woody Allen and Diane Keaton each talking separately to their respective analysts. Both analysts ask the same question: “How often do you have sex?”  Woody replies, “Almost never. I’d say three times a week.” Diane replies, “Constantly. I’d say three times a week.”  Often, the problem is about expectation.

My Husband Doesn’t Want To Have Sex—A Common Complaint

When couples come to me with this problem, the first thing I do is gauge the desire gap. That is, how much sex would each partner want to have in a perfect world?  Are we talking about one partner wanting to have sex once a month while the other partner wants to have sex every day? Depending on how big that desire gap is, there are various methods I would use to help bring couples closer together.  But I find that if couples can come closer emotionally, the desire gap often closes too.

Sometimes the problem is a little deeper though.  If he is wanting sex less than a couple of times per month (and that is not enough for you), there may be other things going on.  I have found from my work with couples in therapy that there are often very good, though not-so-obvious, reasons for low sexual desire in men. Two of the most common are performance anxiety and erectile dysfunction.

Performance Anxiety

Movie sex is the bane of couples counselors. It’s full of love and passion and almost always ends with mutual orgasms. It’s spectacular and life-changing every time.  And it proves that art does NOT mirror life!

Real life sex is quite different. Studies have shown that in normal, healthy relationships, couples report that 10% of their sex is amazing and “toe-curling”; 65% of their sex is “good, but not amazing”; and a full 25% of the time, something goes wrong (he couldn’t maintain an erection, she felt pain, the phone rang and he answered it… something was not right). Men and women (but especially men) often compare themselves to the unrealistic ideal of movie sex, and when they fall short (which they always do), they put such pressure on themselves that sex becomes overwhelming. So they just shut down.

Occasionally, when a couple comes in for sex therapy, just explaining to them that they are actually normal is enough to relieve the pressure that men feel and, voila, his desire goes up.

Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile Dysfunction can also play a role in lowering a man’s sexual desire. It can be a very embarrassing and shameful thing for a man to talk about. It’s also frustrating for the woman. There is nothing more likely to prevent an erection than worrying about whether you will get one. In many relationships this is so difficult to talk about that the man will just shut himself down sexually, or turn to other things such as porn, which leaves them both to despair the lack of this very important connection.  The good news is that, if we can get them talking safely in couples therapy, there are often easy ways to address erectile dysfunction.  Sometimes you don’t even need the pills.

The EFT Approach

As a therapist specializing in emotionally focused couples therapy (EFT), I believe that good couples therapy is the best sex therapy. If we can get couples feeling safe enough to have the hard conversations (no pun intended), many times the sexual issues fade.  And the toes start to curl – well, at least 10% of the time.

zalesne - My Husband Doesn't Want To Have Sex

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Blending families: A Merger, Not a Hostile-Takeover

Blending two families can be both challenging and rewarding. You might be facing questions like, “How do I parent my new partner’s kids?” or “How do I support my children through this transition?” Here are a few strategies that have proved successful in my work with couples and families as they navigate this process.

Tread lightly when entering into a family with children.

  •  Just as a biological parenting relationship grows over time, a step-parenting relationship must grow over time as well.  Don’t try to rush it.  The more naturally you allow your relationship with your new or prospective step-children to grow, the more solid the bond will be.
  • Remember that you are stepping into the child’s life at a vulnerable moment and everyone will need time to adjust. 

Build trust and an emotional connection with a child before exercising power.

  • Developing that connection will look different depending on the age of the kids. In my experience, the older the kid the more pushback you are going to get if you try to parent without that connection.
  • Be careful of a “My way or the highway” mentality. Making statements like, “This is my house, my rules!” can feel scary to a child. Their entire world is shifting, and they need to know they can trust you.
  • Be curious about the children. What do they need from you as a step-parent? Instead of attempting to take the place of their other parent (something you should never do), try to develop your own relationship together.
  • Find activities that they enjoy and make an effort to spend time together. Let them know that you care about your relationship with them, not just your relationship with their mom or dad.

Don’t argue with your new partner about parenting in front of the children.

  • Model respect and set the tone for unity in the family by presenting a united front with your partner to the children.  This will make everyone feel more confident and safe in the new family.
  • As step-parent, you should defer to the biological parent if you disagree.

Be welcoming of your children’s other biological parent.

  • Create an environment in which your children never feel they have to develop allegiances as this causes anxiety and stress for them. It’s very reassuring for a kid to see all the important adults in their life working together. That is the best thing you can do to make them feel safe.
  • Allow and encourage the other biological parent to spend time in your house when they drop off the kids.  Let them see and spend time in the kids’ rooms.  The thought of, “My dad isn’t even welcome in my mom’s house” feels very scary for a child.

Be authentic and take ownership of your own experience. As the adults, it is your responsibility to create a safe environment for the children.

  • Try to find that delicate balance between being authentic with your children while not sharing too much. Kids are highly perceptive and when things are tense, they know. It is scary when you lie to your kid about what’s going on.
  • Don’t overwhelm your kids with details, but don’t lie about your emotions. If they notice you are sad and ask you about it, why not say something like, “I am feeling sad right now, but being sad is OK.  Everyone gets sad.  When was the last time you were sad?   Let’s go on a walk and we can talk all about it.” Modeling healthy emotional expression to your kids will give them the opportunity to deal with their own difficult emotions and will bring you closer together.
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Emotional Affairs. Everyone needs friends, right?

When is a friend not just a friend? When can a “friendship” be threatening to a marriage? Most people think of an affair as having sex with someone outside of your marriage. More and more attention, however, is now being paid to “emotional affairs” that are not overtly sexual, but are still potentially damaging to your marriage.

What is An “Emotional Affair?”

Defining an emotional affair can be tricky. Here are some indicators that your “friendship” might not be as innocent as you think.

  • Do you keep the details of your friendship secret from your partner? Maybe you’ve told your partner nothing about your friend. Maybe you’ve shared just enough with your partner so that he or she won’t feel threatened. Secrets are relationship killers. If there are aspects of your friendship that you feel you need to keep secret, this is a big red flag.
  • Do you feel freer to talk about certain aspects of your life with your friend than you do with your partner? If you feel that conversation and intimacy are easier with your friend than your partner, it’s an indication that there are problems in your relationship, and that your friend is fulfilling needs that are more appropriately filled by your partner.
  • If your partner knew all the details of your relationship with this friend, would he or she feel threatened?
  • Is there sexual chemistry? Do you feel that spark of interest and curiosity, and do you get the sense that your friend does as well? Do you find yourself wishing that you could feel that same spark with your partner? I hope it is pretty obvious why this is dangerous!
  • Do you prefer to spend time with your friend instead of your partner? Do you find your thoughts drifting to your friend when you are with your partner? These are indicators that the friendship is in competition with your relationship.
  • Is your friend a “friend of your marriage?” Is your friend supportive of your marriage? Would it be awkward to be with your partner and your friend together? Would it be awkward for your friend and your partner to have lunch together without you there? These are all questions that go the heart of whether your friendship would feel threatening to your partner.
  • Do you complain to your friend about your relationship and/or your partner? Sometimes this can happen in very innocent and platonic friendships. Women especially — though not exclusively! — often confide in a best friend and talk about problems they are having with their partner. By itself, this behavior might not be troubling (though it could be) but, combined with any of the other situations listed here, this can be a major red flag.

How Do Emotional Affairs Start?

Emotional affairs often start off innocently. A lunch with a coworker to discuss business turns into a few lunches that are MOSTLY business, but hey… let me tell you about my kids. Soon you’re looking forward to those lunches because you really enjoy each others company and you find yourselves talking about more personal and intimate things. What do you do if you find yourself in this situation?

How Do Emotional Affairs Stop?

If you believe your friendship is potentially threatening to your relationship, but your partner has not yet become aware of it, full confession might not be the best answer. However, if your partner confronts you, lying and half truths will decrease the likelihood that you will be able to restore trust in your relationship. Regardless, the single most important thing you can do is end the friendship.

Talk to your friend and be frank about your situation. Be honest. Tell your friend that your friendship is a threat to your relationship, and state clearly and emphatically that your relationship is what you value most. Set strict boundaries with your friend and limit your interactions with him or her to only those that are absolutely necessary (for business reasons, for example). Then, talk to your partner about what’s missing in your relationship. Sometimes it’s best to do this in counseling, as these conversations can be hurtful.

Emotional affairs have the potential to be very damaging to a relationship. They can also be windows into issues about which you were not previously aware. Addressing those issues can often lead to a stronger, more resilient bond between you and the person to whom you have committed yourself for life.

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Should you Stay Together for the Kids?

This question’s almost guaranteed to be pondered by every parent with children who is contemplating divorce.  Don’t think that just because you try to “stick it out” for the kids that they will be happier.  If you can’t figure out how to have a happy house, it’s not best for anybody.  Kids know and feel the energy around them.  Even if you aren’t fighting, your child can feel the tension.

What messes kids up is not feeling safe with their parents, not having a sense of security — in or out of the context of marriage.  When parents aren’t being honest about what’s going on, kids get scared.  They can’t trust your answers or their gut.  Hence, they don’t feel safe or secure in their most important environment, the family unit.

Children of divorced parents have to learn to move between two worlds.  They now have two houses, two bedrooms and may also have new people in their lives.  It’s hard for kids to create boundaries and figure out what the rules are in these two different settings, and moreover, it’s not their job to do so.  They may have two parents living in two separate houses, but they are still one family.

Parents often put their kids in the middle without realizing how it affects the kid.  This isn’t just about fighting over them.  Putting children in the middle also means asking children to keep secrets from their other parent, or questioning them about the other parent’s new life.

Kids should never have to worry about keeping things separate between the two households.  Parents often make the mistake of telling their children, “You have two families now.”  How is a 5-year-old supposed to handle that?   They only have one family — the same parents and same siblings.  This statement only increases their insecurity and threatens their sense of stability.

For the sake of their children, regardless of how they now feel about each other, divorced parents need to remain civil in the presence of their kids and share in their new life.  Talk with each other; share your child’s activities.  Show your kid by your actions that they still have one family and can move easily between households, with no boundaries, secrets or separate rules.

All too often, a parent will drop a kid off and never walk into the other parent’s new house, or even speak to their ex-partner.  Your kid has two bedrooms now, and you’re only going to see one of them?   Go inside your ex-spouse’s home with your child and see their new room.  Be excited!

If there are new people living in your child’s other house, meet them too.  Stepsiblings and stepparents are going to be prominent relationships in your child’s life, and it’s important for you to know them and share that connection as well.

Once you and your ex split, the tension is gone and the kids can breathe again. Living in two different houses with parents who are friendly or at least civil to each other is much easier on a child than living under one roof with parents who are constantly at each other’s throats.

Kids will appreciate two homes where Mommy and Daddy are separately happy, over one home where Mommy and Daddy are hurling insults at each other and using them as pawns in their mind games.

By divorcing from an unhappy marriage, you’re showing that you deserve to be in a supportive relationship and that’s the best thing you can model for your little ones.

Disclaimer:  This advice does not apply if violence or sexual abuse issues are involved.  Then the rules are different!

If you have any questions or comments on this topic, please feel free to add them below.

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Choosing a Marriage Counselor: Top Guidelines

zalesne - choosing a marriage counselor denverChoosing a marriage counselor who is right for you and your partner is the first critical step in resolving issues within your relationship.   The best way to start is by interviewing therapists who have the potential to be a good fit.  Always interview first, before beginning a therapeutic relationship.  If the counselor you contact does not consent to an interview, consider that a red flag!  You might have to pay for it, but schedule this first session and then decide later whether or not to continue.  Do both you and your partner like the therapist as a person?  If not, chances are you’re not a good match and won’t be able to work well together.  Likewise, do you think your therapist likes you?   If not, that’s a problem too.

Choosing a Marriage Counselor Who Doesn’t Take Sides

It’s also important to be aware that your marriage counselor should not like one of you better than the other, and should not take sides on differing issues.  If your counselor picks a favorite, he or she is too involved in the content of your fight.  It’s a bad sign if your therapist is refereeing your arguments, trying to decide who is right or wrong.  This counselor may be able to help you with short-term peace (although probably not) but certainly won’t be able to help you build stronger bonds to deal with the rest of your relationship.  If they do resolve one fight, are you counting on your therapist to mediate every argument you and your partner have?  Your counselor is not smarter than you; you can learn to negotiate your own peace.  Plus, that would be quite a pricy expenditure, considering the frequency of differing opinions.  In fact, it is a bad sign if your marriage counselor lets you fight in the therapy room.  In my counseling practice, I tell clients, “You can fight for free at home; we’re going to do something different here.”  Your therapist should always be in control of these situations.

Does the counselor you are considering have training experience with couples?  What is the therapist’s therapeutic model?  Couples work is very different from working with individuals and involves very different training.  Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), which I utilize in my private practice, is the only couple’s therapeutic model with research proof that it works.  Make sure the therapist you choose specializes in the area that meets your needs.

In addition to experience, does your therapist get regular supervision?  Counselors are ethically obligated to discuss their cases with a supervisor or colleague, someone who can offer expert opinions and/or point out mistakes.  Good therapists at least participate in peer reviews, if not meeting regularly with a paid professional.

During your counselor/client interview, consider asking this question:  “Will you tell us if we should be together?”   Speaking for myself as a therapist, if I reply affirmatively, (assuming there are no violence or sexual abuse issues) don’t use me!   Your relationship as a couple is my client and my role is to help you improve your relationship.

In an example from my own private practice, I couldn’t understand why one client couple was even together.  They always seemed to be fighting and didn’t appear to like each other, and frankly I didn’t like them much either!   But in the lull between arguments, I saw evidence (if brief) to the contrary and suddenly realized that they loved each other.

My job as a marriage counselor is to help them find a way back to love, to find that path back together.  If I told you not to try anymore, I wouldn’t be doing my job.  I don’t practice lazy therapy.  If you tell your counselor that you want to stay together and they don’t think it’s a good idea, find another therapist.  (Here again, I make my disclaimer:  This advice does not apply to violent or abusive relationship issues.)

Do you have thoughts or experiences about choosing a marriage counselor, or anything else you would like to share on this subject?   Please feel free to add your comments below.

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