Relationships & Marriage Counseling

03May 2018

Lessons from Westworld – Escape the Maze of Anxiety, Depression, Anger & Shame

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Westworld is a critically acclaimed sci-fi western TV series on HBO, now in it’s second season. As described by, “… this dark odyssey follows the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin.” This provocative show also examines how we are programmed to enact story lines in our lives – stories that are often painful and full of loss, anger, anxiety and worry, depression and shame. Westworld is a dramatic example of how we can learn to change our personal stories.

What is Your “Story”?

All of us have a story – also known as a “narrative.” Actually, we have several interrelated stories running continuously. Some of these stories are conscious, and many are unconscious. Our stories include subjective versions of past history – stories about what happened growing up, about family members, friends, lovers, and important events. And we create a story about who we are, our personal identity, beliefs, and world view.


Try this thought exercise – you might want to write it down. Answer these questions:

  • Who are you? How would you describe your life, your personality, and the kind of person you are?
  • What were the major events in your life so far, and how did these events affect and shape you as a person?
  • Who are the most important people in your life, past and present?
  • What are your biggest accomplishments – how have you been successful?
  • What are your biggest challenges – how do you struggle in life today?
  • What are your most important core beliefs – about people, relationships, politics, religion, and the meaning and purpose of life?

Review your answers. Is this you? Or is this a story about you?

Are You Your Story?

In Westworld, the “Hosts” are androids – robots that look, sound, and feel completely human. Their “brains” are actually highly sophisticated computers that are programmed by humans with a plot – a story – that guides their behavior with the “Guests” (the humans who interact with them at a western-themed amusement park). The Hosts cannot harm the human Guests, but the Guests can do anything they want with the Hosts. Until something goes wrong, and the Hosts begin to evolve… They begin to break free from their programmed narratives – they change the story.

Humans are also programmed with narratives, and we are often unaware of the stories that guide our lives. We are programmed by our parents, schools, our culture, and religion. Throughout our lives we review our internal stories, and gather new information or “evidence” to corroborate these narratives. There are several core themes in our stories – much like the plot lines in Westworld and other dramas. Some are positive and life-affirming, and some are quite distressing. Some common examples of the distressing themes in our stories include:

  • The Victim Theme – We feel victimized by someone or by circumstances. We feel wounded, blamed, helpless and unfairly treated. We believe we are being oppressed or mistreated. We may feel angry or righteous, and we might retreat into passive resignation. Or we may fight back against our real or perceived transgressors.
  • The Shame Theme – Everything from low self-confidence to toxic shame (“I’m not good enough”). When we’re shame-based, we’re often passive, dependent, and feel unlovable. We may become socially isolated due to fears of judgment and rejection, and we may under-function at work due to feelings of inferiority.
  • The Anxiety & Worry Theme – Like film-maker and actor Woody Allen, this theme is fear-based. We don’t feel safe in the world or in relationships. We believe something bad will happen, especially if we’re not hypervigilant or hyper-prepared. We become obsessive, risk-averse, or we may use addictions to self-medicate.
  • The Depression ThemeDepression may be thought of as a diagnosis, a condition, and even a coping mechanism (but not a very good coping skill!). It can also become a story – one that can take over your life and cause endless suffering. It’s a theme of negativity, hopelessness, and helplessness, with a focus on the half-empty glass.
  • The Story About Relationship Distress – This story develops over time in committed relationships and marriage. But, like other themes, this narrative is often influenced by pre-existing stories from childhood (for example, trust issues and insecurity resulting from childhood experiences). These themes contain our subjective explanations for conflict, fighting, distance and other problems. Our story is a personally biased and limited view of what goes wrong in our relationships.

There are many other negative themes and story lines, such as the Angry Theme with blaming and persecution, the Grandiose and Superior Theme (narcissistic, self-absorbed, and better than thou), and the Controlling and Demanding Theme. What are the negative themes in your narrative?

Are You Lost in Your Story?

Most of us have a tendency to get lost in our stories. But you are not your story. It’s not who you are – it’s simply a set of beliefs that run automatically in the background – until the story becomes activated. These narratives are representational – that is, the stories represent some aspects of reality. But there are also distortions in all stories.

When we experience too much anxiety and worry we may be lost in our story about our fears, and we may not recognize that we’re actually safe. When we experience depression, it can become an elaborate narrative about everything that’s wrong or negative – and we’re not able to see the positives and the possibilities because we’re lost in story. When we experience relationship distress, we may rigidly adhere to a negative script or narrative about our partners and why they’re aggravating, wrong or hurtful. But it’s only a subjective story – it’s not the whole truth.

The good news is that you can change your story.

How to Change Your Story

  1. Study the script – The Hosts in Westworld slowly became aware of their own programming. You can do the same. I recommend meditation and journaling. Try writing a script based on your own stories. Describe your character (that would be you): What do you do? What are your beliefs and values? What do you say? How do you create anxiety and worry in your life? How do you create relationship distress?
  2. Rewrite your character – Change the themes in your story. See the themes listed above, and create a new focus, with new choices and intentions. For example, if a major theme in your story is Victim, rewrite a similar story line from the perspective of the Empowered Survivor. Bad things happened to you but emphasize the ways in which you coped effectively – you not only survived, you evolved, and maybe you conquered adversity.
  3. Create new plot lines – At the heart of our stories we create meaning. For example, a shame-based theme means that you will always have self-doubt – it will never be good enough. A new plot would have a more realistic premise: All of us have strengths and positive resources. Even if you’ve failed at something in the past, you haven’t always and won’t always fail. You are much more likely to succeed if you operate from realistic beliefs about your value and your abilities.
  4. Write new outcomes for your story – Envision positive outcomes. Imagine the many possibilities for success at work, at home, and in your relationships. One of the most effective coping skills is to live a life of intention.
  5. Develop new action sequences – Based on the re-written characters in your story, with new plot lines and positive outcomes, create new action sequences. Change your behavior to reflect the new beliefs, meaning, and goals. Act “as if” you are now programmed for success.

These five steps are relatively easy to do. We will never be perfect and we don’t have to be. It’s about progress, not perfection. Our old stories will never disappear completely. But we can override these negative themes with a little patience and perseverance. If your story feels impossibly stuck, our counselors and therapists are here to help. Let’s re-write your story together. Contact us today for more information.

19Apr 2018

5 Steps to Change the Pattern

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Selfish, hostile, or emotionally unstable people wreak havoc in relationships – and they often attract other people who have unhealthy personality traits. However, as a relationship expert with over 30 years’ experience, I can say that people with negative personality traits can and do have successful relationships. After all, none of us is perfect – almost everyone has some undesirable personality traits.

Negative personality traits don’t “cause” relationship distress in most cases – it’s more about how we fit with a certain person and our partner’s personality traits. And it’s about how we interact and respond to each-other’s personality traits or quirks.

Unhealthy Personality Traits in Relationships

This is a list of the most detrimental personality traits – those that tend to cause problems in relationships. These are not necessarily “personality disorders,” which tend to be more rigid and pervasive.

  • Narcissistic – More than just selfishness, a narcissist is the center of his (or her) own world. Narcissists have a superiority complex, with a sense of arrogance and entitlement. Their need for admiration – to be seen as special – becomes a central focus in their relationships. They tend to be controlling and demanding. Since they come first, they are often insensitive to others’ needs or feelings. They generally don’t feel guilty about their actions, and have little remorse when others are injured by their behavior.
  • Irritable and contentious – This cluster of personality traits includes excessive anger, aggressiveness and hostility, blame and argumentativeness. These individuals tend to be judgmental and critical, and they may appear to be sullen and “moody”. Their partners often feel they have to walk on egg shells. A destructive relationship dance may develop when their partners become defensive or shut down, erecting a protective wall.
  • Passive-aggressive – This is a type of indirect anger or hostility. Passive-aggressive people are basically avoiding conflict while inflicting damage. They pout, they give their partners the silent treatment, they withhold love, connection and affection, and they make false promises. They tend to be stubborn, uncooperative, and they procrastinate. It’s a zero-sum game – nobody wins.
  • Disconnected and emotionally detached – These individuals practice emotional and physical distance in relationships. They seem emotionally vacant – or their emotional states seem shallow or superficial. They’re distant, withdrawn, defensive and over-protective. Or they may seem indifferent and uncaring. These traits are highly destructive in relationships. How can you have a relationship with someone who isn’t there?
  • Dependent and insecure – All of us feel insecure at times, and some dependency is normal in relationships. However, people who have excessive abandonment fears tend to be very anxious and feel unsafe in relationships. They may feel empty inside, or unworthy of love. They lack self-confidence, they may be indecisive, and they’re often inhibited. Shame – not good enough – is a core belief system. Their partners may feel pressured, responsible, and suffocated – and they grow weary with these burdens.
  • Dramatic – These individuals are emotionally volatile or unstable. They are unable or unwilling to regulate or manage their moods. They are often highly emotionally reactive, “making mountains out of molehills”. Their relationships become unpredictable emotional roller-coasters.
  • Victim mentality – Some people tend to get stuck in the role of the victim (often acquired from traumatic childhood experience). In this role, victims feel one-down, defeated, aggrieved, and disempowered. They often feel depressed, helpless and hopeless. But they don’t see themselves as responsible. In fact, many victims feel a sense of righteousness – like martyrs who don’t deserve their fate, and they often blame others for their circumstances. Their partners react negatively to the blame – or to the chronic unhappiness – and a destructive dance ensues.
  • Boundaryless – Similar to co-dependence, these individuals are generally dependent, insecure, and intrusive – or they’re controlling and demanding. Since they feel unsafe and unworthy, they compensate with manipulative behavior (often unconscious). These are the rescuers, the enablers, and the controllers. They don’t feel they can get their needs met any other way.
  • Irresponsible – These emotionally immature individuals may seem to be carefree, but they are often unreliable and unaccountable. They don’t show up or they show up late. They allow others to carry the weight of responsibility. And they may be impulsive and unpredictable (emotionally reactive; risk-taking behavior; erratic behavior). In relationships they don’t make or uphold commitments, they’re not responsive to other’s needs, and they’re not reliable team members or partners.
  • Addictive – Obsessive tendencies and compulsive behavior, which may include alcohol or drug dependence, sex and love addiction, electronic media, shopping, gambling, and other uncontrolled, unhealthy behavior patterns. The chemicals, substances and behavior often take precedence over the relationship. The relationship with the addiction comes first.

5 Steps to Change the Pattern

If you believe you always choose the wrong person, or you seem to attract unhealthy relationships, here are 5 steps to change the pattern:

  1. Awareness – We can’t change what we don’t see. A “searching and fearless” inventory (such as the 4th step of AA) is called for. I suggest a written review of all past relationships. Identify your partners’ personality and behavior traits (and your own!), both positive and negative. Look for the patterns.
  2. Acceptance – Practice non-judgmental acceptance. As Nietzsche said, we’re “human, only human”. Use positive affirmations and recognize that while you may have made bad choices, you’re not a bad person. Use #3 below to help with this process.
  3. Understanding – Most of our choices are made unconsciously – including the person we choose to be in relationship with. In our work with hundreds of couples we frequently see patterns that help to explain these choices. A close examination and understanding of your family of origin can be quite revealing. Specifically, what did you learn about relationships from your parents? How did they deal with the normal frustrations and conflicts of married life? Professional help from a counselor or therapist may be the key to unlock these questions.
  4. Evaluation – How do you determine who is really the “right” person for you? If you’re already coupled or married, how do you know if you made the right choice? Actually, in most cases, these are misleading questions. There really is no such thing as the “right” person. Certainly, we need to rule out the obvious deal breakers (e.g., you want children but he does not; specific religious requirements; active addiction issues; etc.). And of course you want to avoid some of the more serious unhealthy personality traits listed above. We know from years of research that the way we conduct ourselves in a relationship is far more important than any specific quality or qualities of our partner. So that leads to the most important step of all:
  5. Practice Skills – Our experience, and years of clinical research show that relationship problems are mostly caused by negative, emotionally reactive patterns that develop over time – not the specific personality traits of our partners. We can learn healthy relationship skills, often with the assistance of couples therapy. These skills include mindfulness, compassion and empathy, and reversing reactive behavior (responding with friendship, love, understanding, and open vulnerability). Other skills include negotiation, compromise, and boundaries.

Relationships can be quite challenging, especially when unhealthy personality traits collide with normal tensions and conflicts. The good news is that we can learn to choose wisely and practice effective relationship skills. For additional information, please contact us today.

12Feb 2018

3 Essential Relationship Skills

The Use of DBT to Create Effective Relationships

By John Imperatore, MS, Ed.

How are your relationship skills? When you experience relationship distress, what do you do? How do you feel, and how do you view yourself and others? Our relationship skills can determine how we feel, what we do, and how we see other people. We are social beings, and human connection serves as a foundation for security, love, and well-being. Our relationships are healthy and happy when we bring intention, authenticity, empathy and purpose to the way we engage with others. One empirically tested therapy approach that stresses the importance of relationship skills to reduce distress and improve lives is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT.

What is DBT?

DBT is a behavioral therapy which trains individuals to regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviors, and to manage relationships skillfully and effectively. The term “Dialectical” views truth as the integration of two opposites, both of which contain elements of truth. The best way to “be dialectical” is to avoid extremes and find ways “to walk the middle path.”

For example, many of us know that we need to accept life as it is. At the same time, we need to change our way of being to achieve unrealized goals. Do we need to accept things, or do we need to change? Each idea may be true, even though the concepts seem to be in conflict. In this example, the goal is to find a balance between the extremes of remaining the same and creating change.

DBT views change as constant and transactional, meaning we are influenced by relationships and our environment, and at the same time, we can create change in our relationships and environment. Using DBT as a framework, we are not seeking to be perfect or even right, but are striving to improve our lives. The use of DBT, along with couples therapy, is highly effective in creating healthy, loving relationships.

3 Essential Relationship Skills

Relationship distress can be avoided, and effective relationships can be created, by using a DBT approach called Goals of Interpersonal Effectiveness. The 3 goals are:

Objectives Effectiveness – attaining one’s objective in the relationship;

Relationship Effectiveness – improving the relationship with that person; and

Self-respect Effectiveness – respecting our self, our values or our beliefs as we engage with others.

Objectives Effectiveness

DBT tools include the acronym DEAR MAN to achieve a specific outcome in an interaction, or to deny requests effectively:

· Describe the situation

· Express opinions clearly

· Assert one’s needs and wishes

· Reward others when they respond in a positive manner

· Mindfulness – staying focused on the objective

· Appear confident with body and manner

· Negotiate by offering alternatives when needed

Reminder: Things change in every interaction. Sometimes the cost of getting what we need generates uncomfortable emotions, like guilt, or changes the way we are perceived by others. If our sole intent is to gain our objective, we may risk damaging a supportive relationship, or feeling like we compromised our values and belief system at the expense of short-term personal gain.

Relationship Effectiveness

To answer the question, “How do I want the other person to feel about me after we speak?” DBT offers the acronym GIVE: be

· Gentle with other, and be

· Interested in their point of view;

· Validate what they have to say, and use an

· Easy manner as you interact with them.

These simple steps are consistent with the Gottman Method of couples therapy. Dr. Gottman’s extensive research shows that a gentle approach used with validation and interest in your partner are major factors in marital success.

Improving the quality of our connection with others is an important objective. However, ignoring or undermining our needs at the expense of improving another’s opinion of us can trigger painful emotions like anger. And surrendering our self-respect may foster a sense of being undeserving.

Thus, the third DBT tool to minimize relationship distress and improve interactions with others:

Self-Respect Effectiveness

The acronym FAST provides a framework when the focus is to maintain our integrity, or stand up for what we believe is important. Be

· Fair to yourself and the other person, with no

· Apologies for your position (you don’t need to apologize for what you believe is right).

· Stick to your values, and be

· Truthful and represent yourself accurately.

Self-respect, or self-esteem, is an important objective in any interpersonal interaction. Always defending a position or belief may be perceived by others as controlling, causing them to be defensive or avoidant – contributing greatly to relationship distress. That’s why fairness, gentleness, validation and a true interest in their point of view can balance the FAST approach to self-respect.

Personal Balance and Relationship Effectiveness

DBT helps individuals find balance and long-term effectiveness in their relationships. To utilize these three skills, it is important to consider each one in every situation. In addition, context and personal priorities are important in determining which skill to apply. Moreover, it can be helpful to reflect on your relationship history to identify whether you have successfully balanced these skills over time or if you tend to “get stuck” focusing on one area or ignoring another. For example, if you are a “people pleaser,” you are likely too focused on relationship effectiveness at the expense of getting your needs met and maintaining self-respect and self-worth.

Finally, it is important to consider the difference between being right and being effective. A focus on being right indicates a rigid focus on self-centered needs – and results in making the other person wrong. In couples therapy, we identify being right or controlling your partner as losing strategies. We can avoid this unfortunate situation by remembering all 3 components of the DBT process.

Our Center specializes in the most effective methods for dealing with relationship distress. We offer couples therapy and marriage counseling retreats through our Connections program. For more information about DBT and couples therapy, please contact us today.

02Aug 2017

Sneak Preview
From Connections: Workbook for Couples
By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

This is an excerpt from the new Connections: Workbook for Couples, which is scheduled for publication in October, 2017. This Workbook is a companion guide to our marriage retreats and couples therapy intensives. It will include information about love and marriage, the true causes of relationship distress, and tools for relationship repair and creative solutions. The Workbook includes exercises designed to help couples create loving connection and partnership.

In Section Two, “The Nature of Relationship Distress,” the 4 primary causes of relationship distress are identified. Men who are emotionally and relationally underdeveloped are marital saboteurs. These “LATE Men” are a major cause of relationship distress.

How LATE Men Sabotage Relationships

To overstate the obvious, men and women do relationship differently. Women have more relationship skills than men. Men tend to be more disconnected emotionally. Many years ago, I was walking down the beach with my sister and we were talking about these differences. She told me that “All men are emotionally crippled.” This may be a bit of an overstatement, but tragically, it’s mostly true.

The LATE Men – A Major Cause of Relationship Distress
Why do so many men sabotage their most important relationships? I’ve specialized in counseling for men, couples therapy, and personal growth workshops for over 30 years. A majority of these men struggle with relationships and other adult responsibilities. They lack emotional fluency, they’re untrained in relationship skills, they have shame issues, and anger management problems. I call them The LATE Men: Adult men who function as Lost, Angry Teenagers. They are often stuck in an adolescent level of development – literally, LATE to grow into full adult functioning.

The role of men historically has been to protect and provide for their families and community. Men have primarily been defined by their work roles, not by their relationships. But the male role has changed dramatically in recent history, as a result of revolutionary economic and social changes. In the past, there was no need or expectation for men to communicate in an intimate manner. No need to talk about their feelings, to be emotionally sensitive to others, to “validate” their female partner, or to be emotionally supportive in marriage. The LATE Men are relationally behind the times, and their parents didn’t have the knowledge or skills to help them evolve.

The new, more empowered role of women in our society presents a great challenge to The LATE Men. Today, women compete with men in the same workforce, and these enlightened, empowered women expect, often demand that men carry an equal load at home with meals, child care and other traditionally “female” tasks. Those same women also require emotional connection, support, and open communication. But LATE Men haven’t been trained or socialized to meet these new expectations and demands.

In fact, most men are quite limited because, while growing up, they weren’t taught how to feel or to communicate relationally – rather, they were taught to stuff their feelings and to disconnect emotionally and relationally. Psychologist Terry Real says that men have been deprived of their hearts, and women have been deprived of their voice. Men are taught not to feel (historically, only anger was acceptable in men – “big boys don’t cry”). And until very recently women were taught compliance in a patriarchal model of the family – so they had no voice. Women were dependent on emotionally unavailable men, and now many of them are angry and demanding more. The world of relationship has been thrown into a crisis state.

Women are unhappy in their marriages because they want men to be more related than most men know how to be. And men are unhappy in their marriages because their women seem so unhappy with them. Terry Real (The New Rules of Marriage)

Counseling for Men Improves Relationships

The sad truth is that men want and need connection – including the LATE Men. In fact, they need emotional connection and support just as much as women. But men are afraid of closeness and intimacy because they’re taught to be strong (“be a man”), to be powerful, in control, and to protect against vulnerability at all costs. Psychologist Stephen Bergman describes the “relational paradox” today’s men struggle with:

The boy is placed in a terrible bind: on the one hand, he feels the pressure to disconnect for self-achievement (to be especially good at doing things or fixing things, to be competent in the world); on the other hand, he still has a strong yearning for connection. (from A New Psychology of Men)

Intimacy is threatening because LATE Men don’t have the knowledge or skills to manage the feelings and relationship demands necessary in marriage and deeply committed relationships. That’s an important reason why men tend to sexualize relationships – they are far more capable of sex than they are of emotional intimacy.

What can be done to help the LATE Men and their wives and partners? Couples therapy and counseling for men is highly effective in teaching men emotional and relationship skills, such as:

  • Identify, understand and talk about feelings
  • Listen openly, without judgement, and with compassion
  • Practice expressive intimacy and affection
  • Staying emotionally connected even during times of relationship distress
  • Express relationship needs openly without pressure, control or demands
  • Using empathy to understand partners’ viewpoint and preferences

Connections: Marriage Retreats & Couples Therapy Intensives

The Connections Workbook will be available through our web site, and on this winter.

Couples who attend one of our Connections marriage retreats and couples therapy intensives will receive complimentary copies of the Workbook.

For additional information, or to pre-order the Workbook, please contact us today.

04May 2017

Sneak Preview

From Connections: Workbook for Couples

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

This is an excerpt from the new Connections: Workbook for Couples, which is scheduled for publication in July, 2017. This Workbook will include information about love and marriage, the true causes of relationship distress, and tools for relationship repair and creative solutions. The Workbook includes numerous exercises designed to help couples create loving connection
and partnership.

In Section One, “The Science of Love, Marriage, and Relationship,” the concept of love is defined and explained, and current scientific findings about love and relationships are reviewed. The critically important nature of “attachment” is described in this excerpt.

Connections – The Need for Attachment

Is it okay to be dependent – to need someone emotionally? We like to believe that as adults we should be fully independent – that we shouldn’t need a relationship at an emotional level. The idea that “needing” a relationship is neurotic or unhealthy has
been advanced by some popular misconceptions about codependency. Medical science and numerous research studies have proven that this is simply not true. Even Pia Mellody, an internationally recognized authority on codependence says that

There are some needs that can be met only through interaction with another
person, such as physical nurturing or emotional nurturing. But we must be taught that it
is our responsibility to recognize those needs and ask someone appropriate to meet
them. We in turn must learn to meet other’s needs at appropriate times in proper
circumstances, which is called interdependence.

Attachment was first studied by John Bowlby, a British psychologist and
psychiatrist over 50 years ago. In essence, Bowlby defined attachment as the need to
be closely connected emotionally in secure relationships. These secure relationships
provide a safe base of support from which children – and later, adults – can grow,
develop, and become independently functioning adults. Bowlby explains that

All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of
excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure(s).

Attachment has been studied extensively, and this is a summary of some of the
most important findings:

  • Attachment is an emotionally based bond between child and parent – and
    between adults. Our brains are hard-wired for attachments to others, and we
    need these survival-based connections for good physical and mental health.
  • Children absolutely require safe, consistent physical and emotional closeness.
    These basic needs continue into adult life. Healthy attachments during childhood
    result in independent adults who need relationships with others.
  • Our attachment patterns in childhood can predict our attachment patterns as
    adults. There are 2 major types, or strategies of attachment:

1. Secure – A safe haven based in reliable, accessible, responsive and
attentive caregivers (children) or partners (adults). When something “bad”
or upsetting happens in the relationship, the securely attached individual
can cope effectively with the negative emotions, knowing there is a safe
connection to return to.
2. Insecure – Often the result of childhood neglect, abandonment and/or
abuse, the insecurely attached individual tends to be anxious or avoidant.
People who are insecurely attached may be clingy, isolative or withdraw
from others.

  • Loving, secure attachments protect us from stress, improves our immune
    system, and helps us cope with life. Secure attachments promote independent
    functioning and personal empowerment.

The Connections Workbook will be available through our web site, and on Amazon this summer.

Couples who attend one of our Connections marriage retreats and couples therapy intensives
will receive complimentary copies of the Workbook.

For additional information, or to pre-order a copy of the Workbook, please contact us today

06Jan 2017

The Story of James & Maria

“This Marriage Retreat Saved Our Marriage”

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

This article is the true story of a couple who attended one of our weekend couples retreats & intensives. James and Maria are fictitious names and certain details of their lives have been changed to protect their privacy. Their story is similar to many couples who experience severe relationship distress, such as infidelity and trust issues. Their courage and determination to find the truth and to heal themselves and their relationship is inspiring.

“I made a mistake. I hooked up with someone from work.” James appeared contrite, but not exactly remorseful when he responded to our standard opening question. We usually begin our Connections™ marriage retreats by asking couples to describe the nature of their relationship distress. James went on to say that this hook-up didn’t mean anything to him, and he regrets it. Maria interrupted sharply: “It wasn’t a hook up. It was an affair. You had a relationship with her.” James lowered his eyes, and spoke toward the floor: “She was just a co-worker. It wasn’t a relationship. Maria means everything to me – I want to save our marriage.”

Infidelity and trust issues are central concerns in about 1/3 of our couples retreats and intensives. The other types of relationship distress that we commonly see in marriage retreats include patterns of angry reactivity, with complaining, blaming, and defensiveness. And we frequently see couples who are emotionally and physically distant and disconnected. James and Maria are fairly typical in that they experienced most of these distressing patterns.

Discovery – The First Stage

James and Maria are in their early 40’s and have been married for 11 years. They have 2 young children, Sophia, age 9, and Karl age 4. The couples who attend our marriage retreats range in age from their 20’s into their 70’s. James is ruggedly handsome and intelligent, and he’s a successful small business owner. On the first day of this 2-day program, he had the appearance of a man who feels defeated and demoralized. His eyes downcast, rarely making direct contact with any of us (his wife Maria, my female co-therapist Karin, and myself). James was mostly withdrawn and passive. Maria took up the slack, and was forceful in expressing her emotional pain.

Our couples retreats and intensives are conducted with a unique 3-stage model:

Stage 1 – Discovery
Stage 2 – Relationship Repair
Stage 3 – Partnership & Creative Solutions

During the Discovery stage we asked Maria and James about their relationship distress, including their negative, reactive patterns of interaction, and the feelings and unmet needs that drive these patterns. We also explored their learned relationship styles and beliefs (based on childhood experiences). Maria, a petite woman with delicate features, jumped in quickly, interrupting James’ disjointed and hesitant explanation for his infidelity. “I just don’t get it. You don’t do that to someone you love. I don’t believe you. I can’t believe this even happened. He had to have feelings for her. Everything is a lie!”

James continued to stare at the floor. He seemed to retreat from Maria’s anger, and he avoided looking at her tears. He said “No, I don’t have any feelings for her” and he went on to describe a relationship that he characterized as friendly co-workers. It became sexual only because she became overtly seductive with him. He told us he was under a great deal of stress at work, things weren’t going well at home, and he was susceptible to her flirtatious behavior. In our marriage retreats we’ve observed that infidelity and trust issues are often explained by this combination of personal stress, inadequate coping skills, and relationship distress. James went on to say that “It was stupid. It was just sex. I love Maria with all my heart.” Maria was incredulous. “What he did was unforgivable. I’m crazy to even stay married to him. It’s unacceptable!”

During the Discovery stage of this marriage retreat we were able to piece together a picture of James and Maria’s marriage prior to the affair. Their relationship distress developed early in the marriage and became more noticeable during and after each pregnancy. James was very focused on work, and would become sullen and irritable due to the stress of running his own business. Maria was reactive to his emotional state, feeling anxious and angry. The more she pressured him to talk about it, the more he shut down. He wanted to connect with Maria sexually, but she said she was never a sexual person, and she resented the lack of communication and romance. A reactive pattern of complaining, blaming, and distance developed, culminating in infidelity and trust issues.

Their patterns of relationship distress also resulted from negative experiences they both endured growing up in dysfunctional families. At first, both James and Maria reported that they had “normal” families. Maria even said that she had a “great childhood.” In our couples retreats and intensives we often discover that there’s more to this story. James was spoiled by his mother and sisters – he was given everything he wanted, at least materially. But mother also worked a lot, wasn’t around when he needed her, and he missed her. His father was his “hero” but we learned that he was around even less than mother. In fact, father was “unfaithful” and had a series of extra-marital affairs over several years. Research shows that patterns of infidelity and trust issues tend to be multi-generational.

Maria’s father, who was initially described as “great”, was probably an alcoholic, and he would fly into rages. While she had the “best childhood ever” and was given everything she needed, both parents were very strict, she was punished harshly, and her older brother often protected her from beatings. In our couples retreats and intensives we use a Circle of Re-creation exercise that explains how we tend to repeat, or re-create, our childhood fears and shame in our adult relationships. This was especially enlightening for James and Maria. James could see how his sense of entitlement with Maria – his expectation that she would meet all of his needs – stemmed from being spoiled by his mother and sisters (and he was never expected to be responsible at home growing up). Maria was surprised to learn that her chronic anxiety and struggles with intimacy were based in fears of her father’s anger, and feelings of abandonment due to his alcoholism and mother’s passive behavior with father.

Relationship Repair – The Second Stage

As we proceeded into the second day of this marriage retreat, James and Maria expanded their understanding of what happened in their relationship. Maria continued to struggle with the infidelity and trust issues, and she understandably felt that James was in the wrong. But she was also starting to see how the relationship distress that developed early in their marriage, and grew worse over time, influenced James’ unacceptable behavior.

Throughout our couples retreats and intensives we facilitate “emotionally corrective experiences.” We assist couples to look below the surface of anger, blame and defensiveness. Couples then discover more sensitive, vulnerable feelings that drive the relationship distress and negative relationship patterns. We asked James about his feelings – his feelings about his marriage and himself in light of this infidelity. Like so many men, it wasn’t easy for him to open up about his sensitive, emotional self. When there are infidelity and trust issues it’s critically important to create an emotional connection where the betraying partner is able to authentically express remorse and empathy with the injured partner. With time and patience, early in the second day of this marriage retreat, James began to tear up as he talked about the affair. We asked him to turn to Maria and face her with his tears. James told her about his sadness and shame: “I know I hurt you and I feel terrible about it. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I never wanted to hurt you – but I know it’s my fault. I love you more than anything.”

During the Relationship Repair stage of our couples retreats and intensives the cycle of relationship distress is clearly identified using our Relationship Dance exercise. Maria and James answered a series of questions about specific behaviors they use when they react to each other, their underlying feelings and unmet needs, and the way they see each other. James said that when he’s upset about the relationship he “escapes and avoids,” he drinks more alcohol, and he “shuts down” and doesn’t communicate. He specifically identified the feelings that drive those actions: he’s frustrated and angry, but he also feels hurt by Maria’s anger and blame. He was able to connect to his sadness, and a great deal of shame – he feels that he’s never good enough for Maria, and he feels ashamed about his own behavior. He told us that he never had such a deep and clear understanding of how and why he reacts to Maria until this marriage retreat.

Maria acknowledged that she pushed James away sexually because of her deeper fears of intimacy (which she learned growing up). Her complaining, blaming and critical behavior toward James protected her vulnerable, emotional self – while also serving as a type of “protest behavior,” letting him know that she felt abandoned and unappreciated. These are common patterns of relationship distress. Neither Maria nor James were ever taught, or had any experience in life with direct, appropriate expressions of what they needed relationally prior to this marriage retreat.

A breakthrough event in our couples retreats and intensives occurs when we literally diagram each couple’s relationship dance on a large poster – using their own words from our Relationship Dance exercise. James and Maria, just like most of the couples we work with, stared wide-eyed at the poster as we described exactly what happens in their reactive pattern of relationship distress. At first, they were almost speechless. James then said “I never realized that’s what we do. That’s exactly it. It’s so obvious when you look at it this way.” Maria echoed his surprise and sense of enlightenment: “It’s us. It’s what we do. I never saw it so clearly before.” Almost in unison, they both said “So now what do we do?”

Partnership & Creative Solutions – The Third Stage

During the third stage of our couples retreats and intensives we outline an approach that prevents and eliminates the cycle of relationship distress. James and Maria were now very clear about their negative, reactive relationship dance, and how it took over their entire relationship. The dance is the problem – and the enemy – not James or Maria. We helped James to understand his dance steps as the distancer who is reactive to perceived abandonments and other injuries. And Maria recognized her role in the dance as the angry, abandoned victim. After another emotionally corrective conversation with James, as he assured her that he is committed to the marriage, she said that “Now I can see what I did to push you away. I know I hurt you too. That wasn’t fair to you. I want us to be the way we were when we were first married.” The infidelity and trust issues will linger for some time to come, but Maria was able to let go of the anger and blame, and take responsibility for her role in the reactive dance that helped to set the stage for James’ affair.

The next step was to interrupt and disrupt the negative, reactive patterns in relationship distress. We use a simple 3 step guide for reducing and eliminating the reactivity. It’s an approach that’s easy to remember and very simple to use. The approach includes basic awareness (mindfulness), a decision, and simple tools to do it differently. We gave these written instructions to James and Maria, and they told us they will keep it with them at all times. As we do in all of our couples retreats and intensives, we reviewed other relationship tools and resources that James and Maria would take home with them to practice.

It’s been a little over a year since we completed the marriage retreat with James and Maria. They both participated in some follow-up counseling and relationship coaching, and recently we received a lovely card from them. Maria wrote the note and signed it from both of them. In addition to some news about James’ business and their children she wrote:

“We want you to know that we’re doing really great. We’re closer than we ever were, and I’m gradually trusting James more and more. Everything is working out really well. You and Karin (my co-therapist in their couples retreat) are very special to us. You made us feel very safe and cared for. You taught us everything we needed to know to have a great marriage. Thank you, thank you!”

Even the most disturbing and unrelenting types of relationship distress, such as infidelity and trust issues, can be transformed into relationship success and satisfaction at our Connections™ couples retreats and intensives. Couples therapy and marriage retreats are the primary specialty at our Center. For further information about marriage counseling, couples retreats, and our brief intensive couples therapy package, please contact us today.

02Nov 2016

mature happy spanish couple smiling holding each other on the beach

What Are Intensive Couples Retreats?

Marriage Retreats and Intensive Couples Therapy

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD


  • Couples retreats are the most effective approach to relationship distress.
  • 6 reasons why intensive couples therapy succeed when other approaches fail.
  • Types of problems addressed in marriage retreats and intensives.
  • 6 goals of intensive couples retreats.

Couples retreats and intensive marriage counseling programs are becoming increasingly popular. These programs include weekend marriage retreats, couples workshops, and intensive programs specifically designed for one couple, or for small groups of couples. At our Center, we’ve learned a great deal about the major benefits of couples retreats and intensives.

Why are couples retreats and intensives more effective?

In traditional marriage or couples counseling, sessions are usually scheduled only once a week, or every other week. Sessions generally run for about an hour or two in length. Couples retreats and intensives are more effective because much more can be accomplished over 2-3 days. It usually takes about 4-6 months of traditional weekly sessions to accomplish the same goals. The unique program components in couples retreats result in a deeper understanding of relationship distress and toxic patterns – and a deeper understanding and appreciation of your partner and yourself.

Many couples have told us that they learned much more, and feel much more hopeful after one couples retreat than after months or years of traditional therapy.

6 Reasons Why Couples Retreats Are Successful

  1. Achievement of therapy goals – Couples complete an entire program of intensive couples therapy in 2-3 days. Research shows that most couples in traditional therapy do not complete a full course of couples or marriage counseling. Their goals for therapy remain unmet. In fact, most couples drop out of traditional therapy within 6 sessions. Most experienced couples therapists would agree that couples are just getting into the middle stages of therapy after 6 sessions. The most important goals of couples counseling can be met during a 2-3 day couples retreat (12-16 hours of intensive therapy). It should be noted that we always recommend that after completing a couples retreat, some follow-up sessions will be helpful to integrate and reinforce the learning process.
  2. Comprehensive program – During couples retreats, a comprehensive program is completed – one that provides a deep understanding of themselves and the distressing relationship patterns. Couples experience and learn to use tools to create a successful and loving partnership, and they feel more closely connected and intimate after just one weekend intensive.
  3. Emotionally corrective experiences (re-connection) – We’ve learned from scientific studies that human beings are capable of significant change only when there is significant emotional investment and connection. During couples retreats and intensives, couples are guided through a series of emotionally corrective conversations – leading to meaningful re-connections.
  4. Depth of understanding – The intensive aspect of couples retreats provides a depth of understanding rarely achieved in traditional couples therapy. Specific exercises during couples retreats deepen understanding and compassion for one’s self, one’s partner, and for the relationship itself.
  5. Commitment to the process – The very act of signing up for a couples retreat is a type of commitment to a comprehensive program and process. In our experience, couples who enroll in this type of intensive couples therapy demonstrate more commitment to following through than in weekly couples therapy.
  6. Answers, tools, and a new start – Couples usually have excellent questions about their relationship and how to do things differently. Couples retreats are designed to provide specific answers to their questions, and provides tools for dealing with communication problems, handling conflict, and creating intimacy. Most couples who complete intensive couples therapy say that this is a fresh new start that brings them hope and a positive direction.

Types of Problems Addressed in Couples Retreats and Intensives

The most common problems addressed in couples retreats and intensives include:

  • Conflict and fighting, anger and blame, and power struggles
  • Negative patterns of complaints, criticism, defensiveness, and “stonewalling”
  • Communication problems
  • Lack of intimacy, disconnection, shutting down and distance
  • Infidelity and affairs (including porn addiction)
  • Parenting problems with children and step-children
  • Trust issues and insecurity

7 Goals of Couples Retreats and Intensives

The overriding goal of couples retreats and intensives is a relationship based in trust, safety, loving connection and partnership, where both partners feel their basic relationship needs are being met. The specific goals include:

  • Intimacy – Improved closeness, connection and affection, physically and emotionally.
  • Trust and safety – The foundation of trust and safety in any relationship is built upon the deep emotional connection that tells each partner that they can count on each other. They can depend on each other to be there, to be responsive to their needs, and to feel valued, appreciated and fully accepted. Couples retreats are designed to repair and enhance basic trust and safety in relationships.
  • Communication – Ability to communicate feelings, concerns, and needs productively and with empathy and compassion.
  • Partnership & conflict resolution – Learning to work together as a team, with negotiation, compromise, genuine interest in the welfare of each other, the relationship, and the family.
  • Compassion and empathy – Non-judgmental acceptance, emotional support and positive regard.
  • Family harmony – Improved cooperation and partnership in co-parenting children and step-children. Creating a more loving and harmonious family environment.

For more information about couples retreats and intensive couples therapy please contact us today. The following links provide additional information about our workshops, intensives and couples retreats:


06Jul 2016

Upset married couple sitting on the sofa after a disagreement

Emotional Problems and Disorders in Relationships

Is It a Relationship Problem or Is It Your Partner’s ‘Issue’?

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Suzanne is taking medication for depression, but her husband still complains that she doesn’t do anything, and there is little affection or sex in their marriage. Rob’s girlfriend believes he has an addiction to marijuana and pornography – she broke up with him several times but keeps coming back when his behavior improves, and they continue to have loud arguments and fights. Julie is fed up with her narcissistic husband (narcissism is one of the personality disorders). She’s tired of complaining about his arrogant attitude, his demanding behavior and his lack of empathy or interest in meeting her needs. He says that Julie exaggerates and distorts the truth.

Are these examples of relationship distress caused solely by one partner who has depression, addiction, or personality disorders? Or is there more to the story? Is the relationship distress due to one individual’s emotional and behavioral problems, or could there be other relationship dynamics created by both partners? In other words, is it one person’s “issue” or is it about the relationship dance?

It’s a complicated picture to be sure. But as a general rule, when there are problems like depression, addiction and personality disorders, there will also be relationship distress. Emotional problems and disorders can trigger relationship distress, but it’s not always a simple cause-effect situation. This article will describe some typical examples, with suggestions for coping with these difficulties.

How These Problems and Disorders Impact Relationships

When there is relationship distress, the most commonly reported emotional problems and disorders are depression, addiction, and personality disorders. Anxiety, OCD, and bipolar disorders are also quite common, and are frequently associated with relationship distress. Three of the most common problems, and the way they manifest in relationships are described below:

* Depression can range from quite mild (dysthymia) to major depressive episodes and bipolar depression. And the impact of depression on marriage and other relationships can range from minimal (such as a general relationship lethargy or dissatisfaction) to severe relationship distress (anger, fighting, distance and affairs). A depressed partner may be unmotivated, isolative, moody, irritable, and disinterested in sex and other pleasurable activities. Anti-depressant medication can also result in lowered libido and lack of sexual response.

And relationship problems can contribute to depression. Some partners may become depressed due to severe and chronic relationship distress. For example, it’s quite common for the spouse of an alcoholic or addict to become depressed. Victims of spousal abuse are often depressed. And to complicate matters even further, depression, addiction and personality disorders may be present in the same person or couple.

Suzanne has felt controlled and demeaned by her husband for over 20 years. She started taking anti-depressant medication about 6 years ago, and she’s been able to return to her part-time job. With the help of couples therapy her husband Tom has become less demanding and critical, but he’s still very concerned. Suzanne tends to withdraw and isolate when she’s depressed, and Tom feels lonely and rejected. Suzanne’s medication may contribute to her low libido, along with her negative self-image and body-image. And when Tom complains about the lack of sex Suzanne feels guilty, inadequate and frustrated. She reacts defensively with more distance, Tom becomes more frustrated, and the cycle repeats itself.

* Addiction is often the primary concern when couples seek therapy. At other times there are other types of relationship distress and addiction is a complicating factor. The most common addictions we see with couples are alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, marijuana dependency, sex and pornography addiction. Addiction problems in relationships are usually very destructive, and couples will not benefit from therapy until there is a period of stable sobriety.

Relationship distress can also contribute to the development of addictive behavior or exacerbate an existing addiction. For example, when Rob quits smoking marijuana he is less tolerant of his girlfriend’s insecurities and demands for attention (he had been “self-medicating” to deal with their relationship problems). He becomes more defensive, and she reacts to the perceived abandonment with clingy and complaining behaviors. When things escalate between them and they start fighting again, Rob may “take refuge” in smoking marijuana again or using pornography. And the cycle repeats itself.

* Personality Disorders, such as narcissism and borderline personality disorder, may be a complicating factor in relationship distress.

Julie believes her husband is narcissistic, and she’s right. David is selfish, and rarely considers Julie’s feelings or needs when he makes decisions. Many narcissistic men, like David, feel entitled, special or unique, and take advantage of their spouse (and others). David can’t seem to understand Julie’s hurt and angry feelings – or he doesn’t seem to care. The more she complains, the more he says that she doesn’t understand or appreciate him – and he expects a great deal of attention and admiration from Julie.

Personality disorders can be very difficult to deal with, and partners or spouses are usually frustrated, angry, and baffled. They can’t win. Another example is borderline personality traits or the disorder itself (generally more common in women). This type of personality is emotionally unstable, and relationships are like roller-coasters. Borderline characteristics include excessive feelings of insecurity and fears of abandonment, impulsivity (addictions are common), self-harm or threats of self-harm, irrational anger and mood swings. The emotionally reactive cycle of relationship distress usually centers around abandonment issues. The borderline partner feels abandoned or unloved, and when she complains, interrogates, or is demanding, the exhausted partner reacts defensively, with anger and/or avoidance, which then fuels more reactivity by the borderline partner. And the cycle repeats itself.

Relationship Coping Skills

There are several tried and true coping skills for dealing with emotional problems and disorders when there is relationship distress – but it’s not always easy, and most couples will need professional guidance and support.

* Acceptance – 12 Step programs offer some of the best advice. Accept the things you cannot change, and remember the “3 C’s” (you didn’t Cause it; you can’t Control it; you can’t Cure it) – this is especially useful with addictions and depression.

* Emotional Detachment – Emotionally detach from the problem, not the person, with love. Know that it’s really not about you – don’t personalize. Especially useful with personality disorders.

* Don’t React – It helps to start with the one deep, centering breath (in through your nose, out through your mouth). Do not react to the drama, the incident, or any provocation. Take that breath, and use your highest self (your most adult or even spiritual self) to determine the best response.

* Use Empathy & Compassion – It’s actually one of the easiest ways to respond. Let your spouse or partner know that you’re really there, and that you do care. Ask them what they need from you right now – is there anything you can do for them (like “How about a hug?”).

* Practice Self-Care – Beware of co-dependent traps like enabling behavior. Remember to take care of yourself. Use a support system (support groups are available for co-dependency, Al-Anon for addictions, and depression support groups). Exercise, meditate or pray, and practice self-love (inner child work is recommended).

* Boundaries – Know what your limits are, and clearly, firmly indicate to your partner where that line is. Boundaries are best expressed in a positive, even caring manner. For example, “Please don’t ask me that or do that behavior. I love you, but that is not okay with me. We can talk about this some time, but for now, please respect my wishes.”

* Forgiveness – Practice letting go by forgiving your partner as an internal process. Do not tell your partner that you forgive them – that will simply provoke an emotional reaction. Tell yourself (journaling is also helpful) that you are forgiving and letting go.

* Know when to stay and when to leave – What is the deal breaker for you? Only you can decide. For more suggestions, see my article “Separation & Divorce – Should I Stay or Should I Go?

* Seek Professional Help from a qualified, licensed counselor or therapist.

The counselors, therapists, and couples therapists at our Center have many years of experience and training in helping individuals and couples. We can help you navigate the troubled waters of depression, addiction, and personality disorders. Contact us today to make an appointment, or to ask any questions.

31May 2016

The Intimate Drama

The Dance of Manipulation & How to Change It


By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Intimate relationships bring out the best in us – and the worst. When we experience loving partnership, we feel safe, supported and validated. During times of relationship distress, intimate relationships can become a nightmare of tension, conflict, distance – and heartbreak. Couples therapy uncovers and explains the root causes of the intimate drama. A simple and effective way of working with this process was developed over 40 years ago by the psychiatrist Stephen Karpman, M.D. – it’s called the Drama Triangle, also known as the Victim Triangle.

The Drama Triangle


This is the original Drama Triangle (or Victim Triangle) as published by Dr. Karpman. When there is relationship distress, partners assume one or more of these roles. Interactions from these roles are manipulative and destructive. In couples therapy we identify the origin of these roles, which we learn as a result of childhood events (parents and siblings are role models) – the family drama.

Victim – The Victim in this type of relationship distress is not an actual victim, but rather someone who feels victimized or believes they are a victim. They do not see themselves as responsible for their situation or position in life – everything just happens to them, and they don’t believe they have any control. The Victim feels attacked, unloved, betrayed, mistreated, powerless and unable to choose responsibly. To be clear, the Victim’s partner may be critical, blaming, abandoning or even abusive (see Persecutor, below). However, Victims actually choose, unconsciously, to feel like a Victim and to believe they are Victims. Most of the time the Victim role is played by someone who was actually victimized in some manner during childhood (as a result of abandonment, abuse or both).

Victims learn in couples therapy that they are actually manipulative – impulsively and unconsciously. There is an unconscious purpose and intention to Victim behavior – generally expressed in a passive-aggressive manner. Victims are often angry, but will not express their feelings and needs directly and responsibly. For example, a Victim who expresses a great deal of emotional pain after some real or perceived transgression by their partner is actually asking that partner (manipulating) to fix the problem or to take care of them – without taking personal responsibility for themselves or the situation. This may sound something like “That’s so unfair! How could you do that to me? You destroy me with your words!” – said tearfully with dramatic gestures and tone of voice.

Persecutor – The Persecutor role in relationship distress includes blaming, complaining, and critical behavior. Persecutors generally come from a position of superiority, and are controlling, demanding, angry and oppressive. Persecutors believe they are right and justified, while attempting to manipulate their partners to accept blame or responsibility. They have no filter, and impulsively blurt out their negative judgments and demands without regard to their partners. Persecutors often have personality traits of rigidity (obsessive-compulsive) or narcissism (selfishness). Persecutors were often persecuted when they were growing up. They often feel like Victims themselves, and compensate – or “defend” themselves – by persecuting.

In couples therapy Persecutors are relentlessly angry and blaming – “This is your fault. How many times do I have to tell you? You’re screwed up – there’s something wrong with you!” Persecutors may be stuck in an adolescent level of development, causing a great deal of relationship distress. They depend on others for a sense of identity and they righteously and angrily rebel against any perceived violation of their rigid code of expectations. This is the LATE Men I describe in my series about adult men as lost, angry teens (there are LATE Women as well). Persecutors also have an over-active, inflated inner critic – and hidden beneath their angry, blaming exterior is often an injured child who uses the Persecutor role to cope with feelings of inferiority.

Rescuer – The Rescuer perpetuates relationship distress with “good intentions.” The Rescuer tries to fix things and make it all better. There is a strong, often impulsive need to take care of others. Rescuers are often a Survivor Child – a child who was emotionally wounded by abandonment or abuse, and learned to cope and survive by taking care of others. In that manner, the payoff for the Rescuer is a false type of self-esteem – the Rescuer feels important, sometimes superior, with a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Couples therapy can be helpful for rescuers to identify the unconscious manipulation – to get love and appreciation with caretaking behavior. Rescuing behavior also allows them to avoid dealing with their own problems. Enabling behavior is a negative side-effect of Rescuing (for example, taking care of an alcoholic often enables and reinforces addictive behavior).

The Dance of Manipulation

There are numerous patterns in relationship distress that can be explained by the Drama Triangle. Some common manifestations of this dance of manipulation include

o Persecutor ↔ Victim – The Persecutor blames the Victim (manipulating for control and the need to feel superior). The Victim acts out with emotional drama and passive-aggressive behavior (manipulating for sympathy, love, and stay in a child-like state of dependency), which simply inflames the Persecutor to continue his behavior. For example, a Persecutor is angry and critical, and the Victim tearfully says “Why are you so hateful? Why do you treat me like a child? You make me feel so worthless!” The Persecutor reacts defensively, and more aggressively: “Stop acting like a baby! Why don’t you grow up!” This pattern is terribly destructive to intimate relationships and almost always requires couples therapy to heal the emotional damage.

o Victim ↔ Rescuer – In this type of relationship distress the Victim feels abandoned, unloved, unimportant, and “less than” (usually based in shame and fears). The Victim may have addiction issues, and there may be narcissistic personality traits (it’s all about the Victim, their problems, their inability to deal with things, etc.). The Rescuer partner tries to fix it. The Rescuer is a classic enabler, and co-dependent. The Rescuer’s caretaking behavior contributes to the Victim’s dependent position, almost inviting the Victim to under-function.

o Rescuer/Victim ↔ Persecutor – The Persecutor blames his partner, who goes into the Victim position and feels attacked, stepped on, and unfairly treated. To cope with this type of relationship distress the Victim often becomes a Rescuer, working overtime to help and care for the Persecutor. The goal, and manipulation, by the Rescuer/Victim is to avoid dealing her problems and ineffective coping skills, and to earn the love and appreciation from the Persecutor, who will never be satisfied. The Rescuer is going to the hardware store looking to buy milk.

Changing the Dance – 6 Steps

I recommend 6 steps to change the Dance of Manipulation from drama and relationship distress to responsibility and loving partnership. Couples therapy is often necessary when there is too much tension, fighting and distance. With or without marriage counseling, these steps will help most couples to reconnect with love and partnership.

1. Responsibility – We co-create relationship distress and both partners are fully responsible for the Dance of Manipulation. When there is relationship drama, it takes two to tango (to create the dance). It only takes one partner to stop the dance. Responsibility is based in responsiveness – responding appropriately to one’s partner. Responding with love from a position of accountability is the key. It’s about doing the right thing with love – being there, being responsive and supportive without rescuing or persecuting.

2. Give Love – Generous acts of love include respect, appreciation, interest and support – in addition to affection and physical intimacy.

3. Connection, Availability – and Boundaries – Love is all about a deep level of emotional connectedness, and love has borders. Boundaries are necessary during times of drama. When partners do victim, persecutor, or try to rescue, a boundary is the appropriate response. Healthy boundaries are internal and external. We use internal boundaries when we decide not to take things personally. External boundaries are interpersonal, and the quick stop method for dealing with relationship distress. A healthy external boundary is stated clearly and firmly, without anger or drama.

4. Don’t React – Do the Opposite – The drama triangle, and the Dance of Manipulation, are all about emotional reactivity. On the triangle, we react emotionally from victim (hurt, treated unfairly, attacked), persecutor (angry, blaming), or rescuer (afraid, insecure). In couples therapy, partners learn how to do the opposite. Starting with the breath used in mindfulness techniques, couples learn to focus on their own emotional reactions first. They make a conscious (mindful) decision to let go of the impulsive need to react. Then couples learn to do the opposite – responding instead of reacting. The opposite behavior might be to express appreciation, understanding, empathy and love. Other opposite behaviors include accepting influence instead of reacting defensively; or setting a boundary instead of reacting with anger or victim behavior.

5. Express Needs Assertively – Here is an example of very common victim behavior in distressed relationships: “I shouldn’t have to ask him. We’ve been together for years and he should know what I need by now.” He’s not a mind reader. She has the right to be empowered and ask for what she wants. And she needs to be clear and specific to avoid any misunderstanding.

6. Practice Gratitude and Forgiveness – Human beings are imperfect and relationships are imperfection X2. We tend to expect too much from each other. And all of us learn to do drama from others, especially our parents when we were growing up. This last step is often the most powerful in changing the dance of emotional reactivity. It’s also the one step we have the most control over – because it’s not interpersonal – it’s intrapersonal (within us, and up to us as individuals). A daily practice of gratitude and forgiveness is highly recommended. And it only takes a couple of minutes. It can be done during a brief meditation, and it can be written in a journal. Simply list 3 or more specific things about your partner that you’re grateful for; and 3 or more specific incidents that you will forgive. You should never tell your partner that you forgive them – it’s another way of blaming them (“I forgive you for being such a jerk yesterday.”). Forgiveness is simply letting go – of blame, anger, and hurt feelings.

Couples therapy is highly effective in transforming relationship distress, the Dance of Drama and Manipulation, into healthy adult intimacy. For further information, or to arrange a consultation with one of our relationship experts, please contact us today.

11May 2016

Who’s in Charge in This Relationship?

How Your Inner Child, Teenager, and Critic Run the Show
And How to Put Your Adult in Charge


By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

We like to believe that we are mostly rational and fully conscious. Sometimes we are, but studies show that we are strongly influenced – even controlled by – unconscious and emotionally driven forces. When we experience relationship distress, these hidden forces and directives are fully in charge as we react to our partners. The most effective couples therapy helps us to understand these impulses, and shows us how to put our conscious, rational Adult self in charge.

In my self-help model of the personality, “Who’s In Charge? our 4 primary internal parts are identified and explained. Understanding and working with these sub-personalities in couples therapy can be very helpful in dramatically reducing levels of relationship distress. The following diagram illustrates the four parts, and the parts are described below:


who_in_charge- circle only

* Inner Child – The youngest and most vulnerable part of our personality. Negative childhood events, especially neglect, abandonment (emotional or physical), and abuse create an Injured Child. As the child develops, usually after age 5 or 6, a Survivor Child takes over. This is the child that learned how to adapt and cope under emotionally difficult circumstances. These coping mechanisms were effective for the child, but they can cause problems for adults, such as relationship distress. An example is the child who becomes staunchly independent to survive destructive childhood events – and then the adult becomes protectively isolated out of habit and fears of closeness.

* Teenager – As the Survivor Child enters adolescence, various biological (puberty) and social forces result in developmental struggles. The Teenager often becomes Lost and Angry. The Lost Teenager struggles for identity, social connection, meaning and purpose. The Angry Teen expresses years of emotional pain, while rebelling against parents and other authority figures. When childhood injuries are untreated and unresolved, the process of emotional development may get stuck at this stage. This tends to be more common in men, and my articles about “The LATE Men – Adult Men as Lost, Angry Teens” describe men who tend to self-sabotage.

* Inner Critic – The Critic is harsh, demanding and judgmental – toward one’s self and others. The Survivor Child learns to protect herself with this internal warning system. We learn these negative, demanding messages during childhood – most often from critical, controlling parents. We take ownership of these messages and beliefs to guide us away from trouble. For example, a child who was harshly reprimanded learns to talk to himself that way to avoid criticism from others as he gets older. But we take this too far when our lives are controlled by this negating internal voice – or when we make excessive demands on ourselves.

* Adult – I describe the Adult part of our personality as loving, responsible, rational, proactive and competent. The Adult responds to situations with emotional intelligence and balance. The Adult solves problems and knows when and how to ask for help. The Adult is open to feedback and new ideas. The Adult is loving and responsible toward others, and toward one’s self. Adult relationship skills can be developed and strengthened during couples therapy.

Relationship Distress – Who’s in Charge?

Chronic relationship distress is characterized by repeated patterns of fighting, emotional and physical distance and avoidance. These emotionally reactive patterns are frequently based in unresolved childhood wounds and unmet needs. Couples therapy is often necessary because there is no Adult in charge. Some common patterns in relationship distress include:

* Survivor Child and Lost, Angry Teenager – In this relationship, the partner or spouse in the role of Survivor Child (usually, but not always the female partner or wife) overcompensates for the LATE Man (Lost, Angry Teenager). The Survivor Child takes on a parental role and is chronically frustrated. The Teenager under-functions and his wife picks up the slack. Then when he’s challenged or criticized he gets angry, and becomes defensive and passive-aggressive.

* Critic and Teenager – The partner in the role of Critic is demanding, angry and frequently blames, complains and criticizes. The other partner as Teenager is angry, defensive, and counter-attacks. The Teenager may act out by using drugs or alcohol, or sexually with flirtations and affairs.

* Critic and Child – In this relationship the partner in the Critic role is excessively controlling, demanding, domineering, and harshly critical. The Child partner is passive-avoidant, feels victimized, and is often depressed or anxious.

These patterns often overlap, and there are many other variations. These emotionally reactive patterns are not an indication that someone is crazy, wrong, has a bad attitude, or is ignorant. Rather, these patterns result from a lack of adequate role models growing up, and other childhood emotional injuries due to neglect, abandonment or abuse. That is, we learn poor coping skills from imperfect parents who came from imperfect parents. Effective couples therapy helps both partners to identify Who’s in Charge during relationship distress. And the goal is to develop an Adult-Adult relationship.

Understanding our Parts in Relationship Distress

It’s been incredibly helpful to people I’ve worked with in couples therapy – and in my own marriage – to be able to identify and manage the 4 internal parts. What do these sub-personalities actually experience, feel, and believe? What do they do – how do they act? What is the negative impact on the relationship? And what do they want or need? With a little understanding and compassion, it’s possible to transform relationship distress into Adult-to-Adult relationships of love and responsibility.

This is what the 4 parts are really up to:

> The Inner Child needs love, nurturance, protection and safety. An adult with an Injured Child in charge is afraid, ashamed, and looks for a parent figure for love and healing. The Injured Child may feel entitled and demand attention, affection, gifts, etc. Feelings of insecurity and inferiority may result in excessive dependence on partners. At other times, an adult operating from her Injured Child may hide – becoming defensive, over-protective, and isolated. The Survivor Child needs to be in control – because she had none growing up. This type of control is based in fear, and her controlling behavior may result in a false sense of security – with demands for compliance and temper tantrums when partners don’t cooperate. The Survivor Child acts like a pseudo-parent, and this results in relationship distress. In couples therapy, partners who operate from their Injured Child are encouraged to empower their Adult to love the Child within – and to transform destructive dependency needs to responsible relationship skills. The Survivor Child can then be instructed to let go of control and go play while the loving and responsible Adult takes over.

> The healthy Teenager needs a separate identity, some independence, and to be heard and respected. During times of relationship distress, the Teenager is either lost, angry or both. One common sub-type is the LATE Men – Adult Men as Lost Angry Teens. These men tend to self-sabotage – and they sabotage relationships. The LATE Men are irresponsible, avoidant, angry and defensive – they may have problems with alcohol or drugs, and they may act out sexually. Both men and women operate as a Teenager when they are highly emotionally reactive, especially with anger. They may feel superior – or they might feel victimized (“That’s not fair!”). They might shut down, or become defensive, impulsive, or oppositional. The Teenager is often highly narcissistic and very destructive in adult relationships.

> The Inner Critic has a strong need to be right and to be in control. Highly opinionated, judgmental and demanding, the Critic sees the world and other people as unsafe. The goal of the Critic is to protect the self – but the Critic goes to extremes because it was developed during childhood (children tend to over-react emotionally due to their lack of experience and vulnerability). When there is adult relationship distress, both partners tend to operate from an over-active Critic. The result is anger, blame, and highly negative and exaggerated views of each other. The fear-based Critic in adult relationships does superiority and is often very demanding and controlling.

> The Adult is loving and responsible. Fortunately, almost all of us have an Adult self within us. Almost every human is capable of some level of love and responsibility. In couples therapy we encourage and guide partners to empower the Adult self. In Adult-Adult relationships we mindfully practice healthy relationship skills on a daily basis – skills such as

* Empathy, emotional support, compassion and sensitivity

* Acts of loving kindness, gratitude, and forgiveness

* Verbal and physical affection and Adult sexuality (loving and responsible)

* Availability, responsiveness (not emotional reactivity), connection

* Acceptance and open to influence; hearing each-other without judgment

* Communicating needs clearly, without demands or criticism

* Appropriate boundaries when necessary

* Negotiation, compromise, and generosity

* Self-care and self-love

* Demonstrating respect and appreciation

All of us need love in our lives. Adult love relationships can be fulfilling, rewarding, and joyous. They can also be challenging and destructive. When there is relationship distress either partner can step into the Adult role and practice healing acts of love and responsibility for the relationship. When both partners enable and empower their Adult selves, relationships can be healed – and loving, highly satisfying partnerships can be created. For more information about couples therapy and our packages of special services and workshops for couples, please contact us today.