Why I'm A Couple Therapist

Couple therapy has been universally described as the most difficult form of counseling for therapists to do. No doubt there are many reasons for this sentiment. Often there is just so much invested on a successful outcome to therapy that emotions run deep and very raw for the couple; the therapist can’t help but be impacted by that intensity too. It’s good that therapists are impacted because experiencing those emotions with awareness keeps therapists grounded in the truths of that relationship. Those truths are often universal and the therapist can use experiences from her/his own life to remain connected with what the couple experiences.

In 2014 I decided to stop working with individuals and families and focus only on counseling couples. I could list several reasons (personal, philosophical, and practical) for why I made this decision.
Fundamentally, however, it’s because I realized just how greatly I enjoy the work and appreciate the vulnerability of my client couples. Furthermore, to continually improve my skill with couples takes time and focus. (See my continuing education hours.)

Couple therapy is different from individual and family therapy for many reasons: The unique intensity, the inherent and diverse issues of intimacy, and because two adults are simultaneously yearning for love,
confidence, and understanding. As a couple therapist, I help the individuals in the couple communicate their fears, hopes, and hurts in ways that reveal their tender hearts without attacking their partners; those are moments of deep intimacy and connection.

There are many reasons I only work with couples and here’s one other that’s more personal: Experiencing relationship as a source of joy is something I repeatedly work on in my own life. Everything I present to you in our couple sessions is something I am actively attending to. Our work together is never about unfounded theory; it reflects on my life too. --Doug

Collaborative Couple Therapy Explained

Couples counseling is the sole focus of my private practice and for some time now I’ve wanted to write a succinct description of the primary model I work from: Collaborative Couple Therapy (CCT). Recently I spoke to a group of local therapists about my work with CCT and I provided the following primer as a foundation for my talk. It may be a little wonkish but I hope it provides some helpful information.

Originated by Daniel Wile, Ph.D., Collaborative Couple Therapy suggests that most relationship problems emerge from a
loss of voice: An inability to adequately express one’s leading edge feelings, in other words, the authentic, often vulnerable, thoughts and feelings we all have from moment to moment. CCT attributes loss of voice to a lack of entitlement from freely expressing these authentic, vulnerable feelings due to self-critical beliefs. Inhibited from acknowledging uncomfortable feelings like shame, anxiety, self-doubt, or even desire during conflict, people often resort to fighting with or withdrawing from their partners.

The foundational task of CCT is to help couples have intimate conversations about their problems through relating with each other as allies and confidants. In a collaborative conversation partners talk with each other as if observing the problem from a
platform, suspended high above the fray, looking down at the situation and people with compassionate curiosity, awareness, and reflection. To facilitate these conversations, the therapist often speaks for both members of the couple at strategic moments to model and promote platform conversations within the couple and between the therapist and each individual. The method for doing this is called doubling (adapted from Jacob Moreno’s Psychodrama Therapy).

The ongoing question for the CCT therapist is, “How can I help this couple have an intimate conversation about their present dilemma?” CCT
solves the moment, rather than specific complaints, by gently returning to each individual’s expression of her leading edge feeling to her partner. Leading edge feelings are what is most “alive” or relevant for each person in the present moment. In this way, even arguments are an opportunity to deepen emotional intimacy when we permit ourselves to reveal our hidden and sometimes haunting feelings and vulnerabilities. --Doug

Solving The Moment Not The Problem

I have experience learning and applying several therapeutic models that build on my body of knowledge as a therapist. Quality models usually have commonalities. The differences are often where the therapist repeatedly places her attention.

Solution Focused Therapy (SFT) has a bias: If you remain focused on the problem, you stay stuck in the problem. SFT reminds us of a truism that is easy to forget. Focusing primarily on the problem is easy to do, however, precisely because the problem is painful, it grabs our attention, and we want it to stop.

Collaborative Couple Therapy (CCT) has its own foundational tenants. One of these is solve the moment not the problem. Solving the moment encourages us to repeatedly place attention on how we relate with our partners about the problem.

In solving the moment we share our feelings about the problem with our mate (i.e., our hopes, confusion, sadness) and do our best to compassionately acknowledge each other’s perspectives. We fold the problem into the relationship as something to relate with together, as collaborative confidants, rather than using the problem against each other. Through sharing and receiving each other’s hearts in this way, our problems can become vehicles for deeper intimacy.

“But what about the problem?”, you might ask. “Don’t we want to solve it?” Of course . . . and solutions come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps we will just get more relaxed about disagreeing. Or, perhaps someone will feel moved by the vulnerable heart of her lover and adjust her perspective. Solving the moment trusts that solutions reveal themselves when we can safely reveal our inner turmoils, and our deepest desires, with the one we love. --Doug

Intimacy: The Alchemy Of Fear

What a privilege it is to witness the hearts and minds of the couples I see in my therapy practice. It’s humbling to be in the presence of two people sincerely plumbing the depths of human experience: How to see and be seen, how to understand and be understood, and how to love and be loved? Our hearts are eminently delicate even when they appear calloused and hardened, and so all the more delicate. When I experience two hearts/minds struggling to both give and receive, my heart opens and my humanity is replenished.

Couples therapist Dr. David Schnarch writes, “Intimacy is not for the faint of heart” and yet I also believe that deep intimacy takes courage; courage that always contains fear. Fear is intrinsic to human experience (
and essential to human survival) and is the very expression of our fragile and vulnerable hearts (also the root of our anger and defensiveness). When we acknowledge and accept our vulnerabilities as human beings, tenderness and compassion naturally arise and fear need not confound us. Just being human is a profound experience itself. What a blessing to be reminded of all this through the people who reveal their lives to me every day. --Doug

Ties That Bind

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Shortly after my last blog entry my father became ill and then died on December 1st, 2014. Since November my practice has been all but closed due to my need to repeatedly travel between Portland and Rockville, Maryland where dad lived. I am very slowly returning to full-time practice as I write this. As many of you already understand, my experience is a journey of both beauty and pain as I attend to the life and the legacy of my father. He is my first parent to die.

Dad’s life and death are relevant to my practice with couples in many respects. Perhaps I’ll write more about this in the future. Here are a few particulars that stand out now.

To begin with, my father,
H.D. Johns, was also a therapist and he is my original mentor in the art of psychotherapy. The tributes I’ve heard these last few months to dad’s skill as a therapist, from former students and clients alike, are stunning. A few comments were nearly word for word identical in their praise for his uncanny ability to understand someone’s experience. One of dad’s colleagues said to me, “Your father was a natural therapist. He was the best I’ve ever seen.”

Many years ago, when I was first embarking on my career, dad told me a story about his early days studying therapy at the Menninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas. Like a lot of young therapists he was working hard to help people change problematic behaviors. Before particularly difficult sessions dad would sometimes pray, “God, please help me change this person.”

Anxious about his abilities at first, something eventually shifted inside my father and his prayer changed: “God, please help me
understand this person.” Placing understanding as the foundation of his therapeutic work made all the difference; clients naturally began to make decisions to improve their lives the more clearly dad could express accurate understanding for their unique experiences. Dad also strove to never “contest” a person’s subjective experience; he validated clients’ experiences as relevant.

Collaborative Couple Therapy is a refreshing fit for me. Its originator,
Dan Wile, Ph. D., has created a therapeutic model that inherently deepens a therapist’s understanding of each individual within the couple relationship while simultaneously strengthening intimacy within the couple. Dan’s respect for individual experience, intentionally exemplified by not “rebuking” clients in even the smallest ways, echoes my father’s intention to never contest a person’s subjective experience. When I ‘double’ for clients they sometimes respond with, “I never realized I felt that way until you spoke for me.”

Understanding your partner and being understood, through collaborative and intimate conversation, is a powerful map for couples to heal their relationships and for individuals to grow and thrive. That is a thing of beauty! —Doug