About this blog

I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist and my primary theoretical orientation is Narrative Therapy. I find the ideas of narrative therapy and the conversations that develop with my clients to be so rich, so life-giving, and at the same time so practical, that I wanted to find a way to share those ideas with others outside the walls of the therapy office. I hope you enjoy reading, and find some value in these posts. Please note that this blog is not intended to provide therapy nor to be a substitute for therapy.

MY NEW BOOK ... It's Your Tone: Practices to help couples to get unstuck and deepen their connection

It's been a long time coming, but I finally finished my book for couples. Below you can read the first chapter. If you find it interesting and want to read more, you can purchase the e-book here: 

Chapter 1 - Marriage Stories and Complications

Marriage can be really complicated. 

Suppose you’re at home in the evening and your wife (or husband, or partner) has been out with friends. She comes through the door. You see her from across the room and she seems distant. The distance bothers you.

Here are some of the complications of that brief moment:

First, your reading of her as “distant” is its own complicated process. 

Why “distant”? Is it a look on her face, the tone of her voice, or the way she set down her coat? Is it that she didn’t give you a kiss, or that she did kiss you but didn’t really seem to be into it? 

Why “distant” instead of angry or sad or tired? Do those apply as well?

Is your sense of her “distance” based on something that you’re experiencing in the actual moment of her walking through the door or is it more about something that occurred earlier in the evening between the two of you? Or is there a history of “distance”? 

Second, it’s complicated to think about how her “distance” affects you. 

Does it make you angry, sad, guilty, or something else? 

If you’re angry, what do you think is the proper way for her to come home after an evening spent with friends? Where did that idea come from? 

If you’re sad, is that because you were hoping for gratitude after sacrificing your evening with her? Or is it because you miss feeling the warmth and connection you used to have with her, and maybe you fear that it is slipping away? Or do you feel sad for her because she only has that “distant” look when she’s been through a difficult experience? 

If you feel guilty, have you been feeling bad that you gave her a hard time about being with her friends instead of you? Or do you feel guilty just for seeing her as “distant”?

Third, it’s complicated to figure out the meaning of her “distance.” 

Does her “distance” reveal some personality trait you see as the “real” or “authentic” her? 

Or do you chalk up her “distance” to some specific circumstances – a long day, a difficult time at work, her history with these friends, or to some other challenges she’s been experiencing?

How you respond to your wife’s “distance” has its own complications. 

Should you quietly accept the “distance”? Should you “call it out”? Should you sulk? Should you be playful or humorous about it? Or should you reach out with warmth and care? 

And it’s not hard to think of how what’s said or done next, could lead to even more complications:

You: I can’t believe you’re so distant with me after you just spent the whole evening out.

Her: Whenever I spend time with my friends, you get mad and judgmental. I can’t believe how jealous you are.

Her: Are you going to tell me why you haven’t gotten up from the couch to give me a hug?

You: I would think it’s pretty obvious when you walk through the door and look at me with such contempt. Why would I want to get closer to you when I know you’re just waiting to rip my head off?

You: (Sadly) I was really hoping that you’d come home in a different mood than how you left. I just don’t think I can take your coldness anymore. 

Her: (Sad too) I am so tired of hearing you tell me I’m cold. Can’t you tell how exhausted I am? Don’t you have any interest in knowing what I’ve been through?

Or, perhaps on a warmer note, but still with complications:

You: You look exhausted. Are you okay? Can I get you some tea? Do you want to sit down and watch a show with me?

Her: I think so. All of a sudden, I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. Some tea and a show would be perfect. Thanks.

Her: I know I must look a little strange right now. Do you mind if I take a few minutes to myself? I need to figure some stuff out.

You: Of course. Let me know if you need anything.

As a marriage therapist, people often get in touch with me after the latest of one of these complicated “distant” incidents (they also come in after incidents of “anger,” “conflict,” “broken trust,” “inability to resolve an issue,” and many other circumstances that aren’t working). The arguments or silences that ensued from the incident were too painful or showed the couple that they had come up against something that they didn’t have the skills for. Or they provided the couple with the final bit of evidence that they better fix this marriage or else. They became overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of a pattern that now seems “set in stone.” They signed up for love and warmth, and now, far too often, they’re burdened, disconnected, feel misunderstood, and experience far more loneliness, anger, and disappointment in their marriage than they could have imagined.

Neal and Susanna were one such couple who came to me with the hope of finding alternatives to the frustrating ways they had been relating to one another for a while (Neal and Susanna aren't real, but they do reflect the struggles, challenges, thoughts, emotions, hopes and dreams of many couples I’ve worked with through the years). They had been married for 21 years and had two kids in high school. When they first showed up in my office, what stood out was their high level of reactivity to one another. It seemed like neither one could get out a sentence without the other jumping in to challenge the accuracy of what was being said or blaming the other for having been so hurtful and critical to begin with. Early in our work together they told me about an incident that lasted only about two minutes, but painfully illustrated how stuck their marriage had become. We came to know it as the Dirty Dishes episode. 

It started with Susanna walking into the kitchen on a Monday evening to begin cooking dinner (her responsibility on Mondays). She stopped short when she noticed that the sink was full of dishes that were Neal’s to clean. This was not the first time this had happened, and Susanna experienced a kind of electric intensity as several things happened in her body and mind at once (as diagrammed below).

She had a strong sense of exasperation; she felt a sense of urgency to get dinner going, and felt guilty for not having done so already; the dishes in the sink were an impediment, and she was reminded that this wasn’t the first time this had happened with Neal; this brought to mind their arguments from the past; she also felt that uneasiness she always felt in arguments with anyone; she recalled times when the kitchen was pristine and organized, where everything was in its place, and wished that it could be that way again; an image crossed her mind of how well her parents worked together to keep things tidy, which didn’t help her mood; it seemed to her that this undone-dishes-kind-of-thing was happening more and more, and she felt a sense of dread about the future; she regretted not having opted for takeout for dinner that night; she wished that none of this mattered so much to her; her body felt weighed down, heavy, like she was being crushed under something she couldn’t escape; she was overcome by a sense of the unfairness of it all, with Neal looking like someone who was not pulling his weight, again! 

Neal had his own electrical jolt when he heard Susanna “yelling” at him about the dishes (Susanna said she didn’t yell). He was sitting in the family room, trying to review his daughter’s Chemistry grade by looking at the school’s online grades site. When he heard Susanna yelling at him to get in the kitchen and do the dishes, he “bristled at her tone,” and he was already frustrated by the school’s website and worn out by his day at work.

Neal got up and headed into the kitchen. The “pissed off” look on Susanna’s face told him everything. Immediately, several things were happening in his body and mind. He cringed; he had a strong sense of frustration; he knew immediately that this was about the dishes; simultaneously he felt guilty, and like he couldn’t ever get a break; he already had a day in which he felt uncomfortable at work, like he couldn’t settle in, and now he felt the same way at home; he saw himself as a thoughtful, considerate husband, but wondered if that was really true; “do other men even care about this kind of thing?” he wondered; he worried that Susanna was less able to “let things go” than she used to be, and feared that she was becoming more like her mom; he wondered why it felt like they were always playing “catch-up,” had they taken on too much? Susanna’s tone felt so disrespectful, he thought he should “draw a line”; he felt so weighed down, like he could barely move; he thought, “I just can’t go through this again! Is this what the future looks like?”

And now, with all that immediate experience happening for both Susanna and Neal, they’re in the kitchen together and they’re going to interact – will it be a fight, will they silently seethe in anger and frustration, will hopelessness overtake them both, or will someone make a joke or say something warm or otherwise lighten the mood? 

For Neal and Susanna, we know it turned into a heated argument that ultimately led them to therapy. But did it have to be that way? And, perhaps even more importantly, since these heated arguments are really taking a toll, and Neal and Susanna want them to stop, what can they do to deal with the next Dirty-Dishes-like moment in a more satisfying way?

As a marriage therapist I’m curious about several things from the Dirty Dishes incident, but I’m most interested in how Neal and Susanna each understand or “make sense” of this experience. What does the Dirty Dishes incident mean to them? And the question in my head that gets at these “understandings” or “meanings” or ways of “making sense” of such moments is, what are their stories? 

In later chapters we’ll look at some of the practices that grow out of a story perspective that can help your marriage when it’s feeling stuck. But let’s lay the groundwork for those practices by further exploring the idea of “stories,” and getting a richer understanding of how they work in marriages and intimate relationships.

Try the following exercise to see how easily stories can be set in motion: Take a quick look around you right now; notice the objects near you and see if your brain offers you one or more stories.

If I do that exercise from where I’m sitting right now, in my living room, I see a plant, a leather chair, a sleeping Golden Retriever, and some massive 1960’s era stereo speakers. My brain supplies stories and meanings for all these things, while I’m doing nothing more than looking and paying attention. 

When I see the Golden Retriever, for example, I think of my daughter who is his rightful owner, but who is away at school, which means he’s primarily my responsibility for now. I think of what it means to me to be a dad and the kinds of responsibilities I’m willing to take on for my kids. I think of the meaning of a Golden Retriever as a breed – regal, athletic, enthusiastic, playful, and gentle. The fact that he’s sleeping now evokes a story of peace for me, a sense that all is well, and reminds me of all of the frustrations I’ve had trying to train him – a story about my failure as a dog trainer. I realize that, despite his exuberance, he’s become calmer and more responsive over the months, and I feel a sense that it’s been worth it – stories about hard work paying off, or the value of persistence. Just by noticing our dog, my brain supplies these several stories, with almost no effort on my part (my brain is putting forth effort, of course, but I’m not consciously or intentionally expending mental energy, other than noticing what my brain has produced). 

When I look at those 60-year-old speakers, I think of how they were purchased new, in Japan, by my father-in-law, and how well they’ve stood the test of time. They evoke a story about quality, and the value of well-made things. They have me thinking about my father-in-law, and how so much of his life was about quality and well-made things; and about music. They evoke a story of pride as I recall how I learned to repair the speakers’ damaged cones. They make me aware of another story about the tension between the old and the new, and the pleasure I experience when the old is less expensive and performs better than the new. And I can picture times in this room, as a family, and hear the music we listened to on those speakers. Again, just by looking at the speakers, the stories and meanings come to me with almost no effort at all. 

In your own exercise, do you find that stories show up without much effort? If you take a moment to reflect on your surroundings, is there at least one story already present that tells you what’s going on?

Whenever I slow down and notice the stories that show up, I’m impressed with how effective the brain is at supplying them. It takes very little data or information for my brain to have a story or explanation to make sense of what I’m observing. And then, if I deliberately think about the situation, I’m able to add more stories and meanings, and more nuance and details to the ones my brain has already supplied. Like with our Golden Retriever, I can intentionally think through recent experiences with him and reflect more closely on what I’ve noticed about his playfulness. I can think about why it feels so peaceful to have a sleeping dog near me – perhaps it’s just nice to have a break from his exuberance; perhaps it’s an iconic image that comes from a variety of sources and conveys the message that all is well; perhaps it conveys a sense of being unburdened by the cares of the world, safe and completely at rest; perhaps I’m envious. 

These same story processes occur in your marriage or intimate relationship. One glimpse of your wife, husband, or partner, and your brain has already started to “make sense” of what’s going on with her or him. Just like with the Golden Retriever and the old speakers, your brain immediately and automatically provides you with a “coherent account” or story that informs you of the meaning of your partner’s facial expression, or body posture, or movements, or the clothing they’re wearing – that story can range from something that evokes strong emotions, to one that says, “nothing going on here … all is as expected.” And, of course, whatever that story is, it may or may not be a good match with your partner’s experience of that moment. 

At times, your brain may not readily provide you with a story that fits or makes sense, so you may have to apply more intentional thought to come up with a “coherent account.” For example, you thought he was upset, but now he’s looking at you with an expression that reads as warmth. At such moments, your brain actively works to make sense of the moment by doing things like searching your memory for something you may have forgotten, looking for other clues to help you understand what’s going on with your partner, or “prompting” you to ask direct questions – “I thought you were upset, but now you look happy. What’s up?” 

When I meet with couples for the first time, most of them tell me that they have “a communication problem.” I stop myself from saying “of course you do,” and I think about how hard it is to communicate about something as complex, and invisible (air-like) as stories, and about how hard it can be to find the right words to capture what is being experienced at the kinds of moments we’ve been looking at here. How do we give words to something that can be so automatic and immediate? For most of us, in most situations, our brain is NOT saying to us, “Hey, I’m putting together an interpretation of what’s going on, for you to consider.” Instead, we experience something that just feels like the truth or reality. If that truth or reality is a good match with what your partner sees as true and real, then communication is likely to be fairly easy. But if you and your partner have different experiences of the situation – of what is true or real – how do you communicate about that? And how do you talk about something like your partner’s “truth” or “reality,” that seems to you to be so obviously wrong?

It’s not usually the case that the couples I meet with aren’t communicating at all about their experiences – there are usually a lot of words and gestures being exchanged, both when they’re at home and in my office – but the communications are not leading either of them to feel better understood or helping them find a way through their complicated moments of feeling stuck. The work of couples therapy is often about helping the couple to see and understand complicated stories so that they can find “language” for those stories, to speak of them and listen to one another, and allow their relationship to be informed by those stories. If couples can find a way of understanding the complicated stories that show up in their lives, they have a good chance of finding their way through their times of stuckness and moving on to more satisfying interactions. But how do we develop such understandings that provide us with language to use? Consider the following scenario and the challenge of understanding – or sharing an understanding – of even a simple gesture:

A husband and wife have finished their errands and stopped to sit on a bench on the main street of a small town, in the warmth of the early evening. They’ve been sitting side-by-side for a few minutes, talking a bit, but nothing serious, and then he uncrosses his arms, reaches behind her, and rests his hand on her back. As you picture that scene, see if you can imagine that the following feelings might come over her:

She’s comforted or pleased by having his hand on her back.

She’s uncomfortable or bothered by having his hand on her back.

She’s confused or feels mixed about having his hand on her back.

She’s not feeling anything in particular about his hand on her back.

If you can imagine her having these different responses, see if you can “fill in the blanks” to come up with a “story” about what might be going on for her such that she feels these things. Why would she be feeling comforted or pleased, uncomfortable or bothered, confused or mixed, or nothing in particular? 

What scenarios or “stories” have you imagined that help you make sense of these responses? Here are some of the stories I could imagine:

She feels comforted or pleased … because she always enjoys his gentle touch and the sense of connection it offers.

She feels uncomfortable or bothered … because they’ve been arguing and she’s not very receptive to his overtures when there’s tension between them.

She feels confused or mixed … because it’s not typical for him to reach out and touch her like this, especially in public; partially she likes it, but since she can’t “read” him very well right now, she’s not sure it’s a loving gesture.

She doesn’t feel anything in particular (doesn’t really notice that he’s put his hand on her back) … because touch is such a regular part of their interactions, any particular touch can go unnoticed.

Does it make sense to you that his touch, his hand on her back, may not always have the same effect on her, that its effects can change through time, or from one circumstance to the next, or even that it could mean more than one of these things to her at the same time? The meanings of gestures are highly dependent on context and history, and on the somewhat mysterious ways our brains reach conclusions, often without our even being conscious that this meaning- and story-making process is happening. But even though we might not be aware that it’s happening, these meanings and stories can still have profound effects on the relationship. These effects can be quite different: The wife on the bench might flinch or shudder when her husband touches her back, resulting in her husband quickly pulling his hand back; or the wife might noticeably relax, and put her head on his shoulder, resulting in him pulling her closer and leaning his head against hers.

In therapy, couples often express their stuckness, the pain of their marriages, by recalling such seemingly small moments as: “The time on the bench when she shuddered at my touch”; or, “I can’t count on him to do the dishes.” 

It is my conversations with couples about these kinds of moments that have given rise to this book: An event, even a “small” one, has yielded a huge, painful, stuck interaction, and has unleashed something that seems to have a life of its own. When they come to therapy, couples seek help with the fallout from such oft-repeated moments. They seek relief from a relationship atmosphere that has made it hard to breathe. They seek stories that work better for them than the ones that now seem to predominate. To help us find these better-working stories, let’s take a look at where stories come from.

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