Laura Heck talks to Noel Bell about couples therapy

Today I chatted with Laura Heck, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Gottman Therapist in private practice in Salt Lake City. (See below for a link to the interview). Previously  director of development at the Gottman Institute,  Laura co-developed the Gottman 7 principles programme and is also the author of the 7 principles workbook.  Laura is master trainer for the Gottman programme.

In the interview we discussed her couples work and how it differs from individual 1-1 work.  Laura explained how she initially got involved with the Gottman Institute and why she works online and why with couples amongst other topics.

See also Dr John Gottman and Nan Silver The Seven principles for making marriage work

The seven principles are:

  • Maintain a love map.
  • Foster fondness and admiration.
  • Turn toward instead of away.
  • Accept influence.
  • Solve solvable conflicts.
  • Cope with conflicts you can’t resolve.
  • Create shared meaning.

Dealing with your fear of abandonment in relationships

fear of abandonmentWe do not arrive in adulthood with a perfectly formed state of emotional well-being. Often, we carry around baggage to varying degrees of weight from our past, whether that is from our childhood, early experiences at work or from our family dynamics. Past events can impact on how we interact in the present and can influence the quality of our relationships. If we experienced some form of trauma or suffered a developmental rupture in our formative years the danger is that we may have a wound to heal. Applying a sticky plaster on a wound can sometimes be of benefit but often the wound may need greater care and attention to lighten the loud.

Parental discord and divorce can be confusing for a child and to their sense of safety and security, as they can assume it is something they have done wrong. When such adversity occurs there may have been some damage to the child’s ‘secure base’ and the emotional fall-out could be the development of a fear of abandonment. Such events can contribute to an attachment style in relationships.

The work in therapy can be about bringing awareness to your way of operating in the world and why you act the way you do. Healing your wounds can transform your relationships. See my latest article on fear of abandonment in relationships for more information.



Defining your dealbreakers in relationships

Relationship counselling LondonThe Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has published some interesting findings from six separate research studies about what makes us chose one person rather than another. The findings indicate that in practice individuals give greater importance to someone’s negative features (dealbreakers) than on their positive qualities (dealmakers). See my recent articles on defining your relationship dealbreaker and maintaining an equal balance in your relationship.

See also

Embracing your heart space to overcome fear and anxiety


“after all I’ve done for you” Co-dependency in Therapy

Co-dependence is: ‘A painful internal state of low-grade chronic depression which is literally precipitated by intense and chronic mourning for our authentic selves’

This week’s lecture (and the final one of this term) was on codependence. The lecture series has been an interesting one this term given the focus on addictions and following on from group process and the residential earlier in the year.  Rosemary Cowan previously pointed out in a Therapy Today article that the developmental model that CCPE suggested was very helpful to her.  She notes that trainees in the first year were likened to wide-eyed, enthusiastic primary school children; in the second year, like pre-teens, they gain confidence and independence but may also be ‘know-alls’ who overstretch themselves; in the third year they reach the rebellious, argumentative, difficult teenager stage; in the fourth year, with increased maturity and stability, they become more rounded, finished characters. Not sure where I fit in that model but it is an interesting view.

The greatest hallmark of codependence is that someone else decides how you feel about yourself. This perhaps accounts for the high burn-out rate for therapists when clients are used as a source of personal gratification. The challenge is how to survive using your own self-esteem and to be able to set boundaries. Boundaries in counselling and psychotherapy are critical.   Indeed, the biggest boundary in any relationship is the ability to say no. If you are codependent, then you are not independent or interdependent.  You are either a love addict or a love avoidant.

how many times have you heard someone say in an argument with their spouse “after all I’ve done for you”

As a child, the love addict might have had to give attention and love to someone in their family who needed help. The child received good feedback for this and the subsequent receipt of positive brain chemicals set off a pattern of behaviour for life.  The codependent will always be helping people irrespective of whether those people have ever asked for their help.  However, the codependent is not giving unconditionally. Rather, the codependent will be expecting something in return.  How many times have you heard someone say in an argument with their spouse “after all I’ve done for you”. Often the person in receipt won’t have asked for the codependent’s help in the first place. The codependent is addicted to giving.  Healthy giving is not expecting anything in return,

The core of co-dependence is toxic shame.  It is a dis-ease of lost self-hood. It is the addiction underlying all addictions. A dis-empowerment that creates a final alienation from all that gives life meaning.

All demands made upon the love avoidant as a child were excessive. There was emmeshment in the family of origin.  Of course it can a fluid situation when the love avoidant becomes the love addict if the love addict gets burned out. In terms of transactional analysis this is the adaptive child of “being too good”.

Outlined below are further sets of information  and resource links:

Codependents have difficulty:
1. Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem better or lesser than
2. Setting functional boundaries too vulnerable or invulnerable
3. Owning and expressing their reality bad/rebellious or good/perfect
4. Taking care of their adult needs and wants too dependent or anti-dependent
5. Experiencing and expressing their reality moderately extremely immature or over-mature which creates STRESS

This manifests in:
1. Negative Control
We give ourselves permission to determine someone else’s reality for our comfort or let someone else determine ours
2. Resentment
Need to get even or punish for perceived blows to our self-esteem that cause us shame
3. Distorted or non-existent spirituality
Difficulty experiencing connection to a Power greater than ourselves
4. Avoiding reality
We use addictions, physical or mental illness to avoid facing what is going on with us and others
5. Impaired ability to sustain intimacy
We have difficulty sharing who we are with others and hearing others without interfering with the sharing process or what they share

INAPPROPRIATE PARENTING Child abuse is anything that is less than nurturing:
PHYSICAL Not treating a child’s body respectfully – slapping, etc.
SEXUAL Physical: penetration, oral, anal, fondling, kissing, hugging inappropriately
VERBAL: no or distorted information, exposure to ‘over-sexual’ language
INTELLECTUAL Tell them that they are stupid, can’t think, their ideal are silly. Child’s ability to think is attacked
EMOTIONAL Demanding perfection, over-controlling, name calling
SPIRITUAL A major care giver demands to be a ‘higher power’ to a child

So what is love?*

Eros – a passionate physical and emotional love based on aesthetic enjoyment; stereotype of romantic love
Ludus – a love that is played as a game or sport; conquest; may have multiple partners at once
Storge – an affectionate love that slowly develops from friendship, based on similarity (kindred to Philia)
Pragma – love that is driven by the head, not the heart; undemonstrative
Mania – obsessive love; experience great emotional highs and lows; very possessive and often jealous lovers
Agape – selfless altruistic love

* Lee JA (1973). Colours of love: an exploration of the ways of loving. Toronto: New Press. ISBN 0-88770-187-6.


Am I in a codependent relationship?
John Bradshaw’s resources
Symptoms of codependency
How to raise emotionally healthy children
Psychotherapy resources and links



Why do couples seek couples therapy?


We had a fascinating lecture on couples therapy this week.  This followed our weekend on sexual abuse. The lecture addressed the issues involved when the day of reckoning came for all relationships.   The reckoning day is when the honeymoon period ends (and this can vary as a time-span from couple to couple) and when the real work starts in the relationship. The initial lust has ended and the period of really getting to know each other starts in earnest. Invariably, there is an unhealthy power balance in the relationship brought about by class, sex, money or some cultural difference. Real love is needed to overcome such power issues.

So, what is love? There was an interesting Scott Peck quote that was mentioned in the lecture: Real love is the unqualified wish to help another person to get where they want to get.  However, more often than not, relationships are a mix of co-dependence or some other form of addiction or unhealthy imbalance.

I found myself asking the following questions: Is the initial attraction located in the shadow?  Rather than initial physical attraction, do we attract people and are we attracted to people where there is an unconscious desire to address certain issues?

Your partner will invariably confront you with something you need to address when the temptation might be to run and start another relationship. However, it is possible that some people will only help you for part of your journey.  Whilst every relationship can offer a useful insight into your own processes, there are some who will only help you part of the way.

communication is a problem for couples seeking couples therapy

So why do couples seek couples therapy?  Invariably, communication is a problem for couples seeking couples therapy. There may also be intimacy problems. If there is too much parental stuff going on in the relationship the passion will suffer.  This can happen when the man is acting as the boy and wanting to be mothered in the relationship.  The partner then becomes like mommy.  There is an imbalance in the masculine and the feminine. After all, who can have sexual fantasies about their mom?   This can happen for couples irrespective of sexual orientation.

We discussed a communication exercise whereby couples are asked to sit with each other for 30 minutes each day.  It might be indicative of their willingness to work things out if couples can’t find 30 minutes to do this. The exercise involves one person talking about the issues they have with the other. After 10 minutes the listener repeats back what they heard and can be corrected.  This is then repeated with the roles reversed.  Often we do things that annoy others but if the error of our ways is pointed out to us the unconscious mind can do most of the work in correcting areas of tension. Most people do not set out on their day to upset others.

This communication exercise needs to become a habit, perhaps like the practice of meditation, to be truly effective.  It needs to be daily.  That is perhaps what it means to be  faithful. The fidelity of the practice can bring reward. The aim of the daily practice would be that couples reduce their baggage between each other to 24 hours worth of issues rather than a lifetime of resentments and petty squabbles.

Is the secret to not need anything from your partner?

What is a healthy relationship? Is the secret to not need anything from your partner.  That sounds very Buddhist, I know. Can you give without wishing anything in return?  Are you capable of standing on your own two feet? Perhaps a healthy relationship is when two people, relatively independent, come together to run a better show as a couple than they would on their own.   Such a relationship is not based on an unhealthy need which can lead to co-dependence. “Need” is often the breeding ground for addiction.

Guidelines for working with couples:

  • Anything talked about should be with both partners present.  One party in the relationship not discuss anything with the therapist unless the other is present.
  • Don’t let one of the parties run the show.
  • Ask them at the start do they wish to stay together or do they wish to successfully end the relationship.  Ending the relationship successfully is far better if children are involved.
  • Watch if one speaks for the other.  That might indicate a power dynamic in the union.
  • Are the children the priority?  There might be some Electra/oedipal complex going on.

on-line affairs are likely to feel as much a betrayal as a real life affair

Has the internet and on-line affairs increased the number of break ups? It is not the internet that is to blame for the rise in break-ups and relationship problems caused by on-line affairs. As adults we have choices. Whether to engage in what technology has to offer, or not to engage. Technology can offer greater access to affordable and anonymous liaisons but that doesn’t mean that it will reduce the trauma of a partner discovering your affair. They are likely to feel as much a betrayal as a real life affair.

Perhaps the best relationships are those where each person sees the other as their best friend. Is the initial attraction located in the shadow?  Perhaps it is, as we live out myths in in our lives until we work more deeply on ourselves in therapy. Do we unconsciously pick people that remind us of our parents?  That’s a question for another day…..


NHS couples therapy video by Denise Knowles Experienced couples counsellor Denise Knowles talks about couples therapy
Psychology Today 5 Principles of Effective Couples Therapy
Relate: the relationship people
Find out more about training to become a Relate counsellor, including course dates and venues, at the Relate Institute website.
The Evidence Base of Systemic Family and Couples Therapies
The Association for Family Therapy & Systemic Practice


Different initiations in a relationship

The different initiations in a relationship was part of the alchemy of relationships weekend.  What happens when you first fall in love?  You see something of the ideal or you project your ideal. So what is the ideal, what are you projecting?  Your own higher self is being projected onto that person. You are idolising them.

You can see love in all figures but this doesn’t mean that you have to marry everyone.  We become loving as we grow older and wiser. By implication we have more capacity to love many people. It becomes easier and easier to fall in love but we don’t have to act it out. Through wisdom we can see what is happening within ourselves.

The shadow has a place.  Without the shadow there could be no discrimination.  The only way you get to see different shading is because of the shadow.  In art the strongest line is black.  We can recognise differences.  Little children who are innocent, have no recognition of the shadow.  They can be so easily manipulated or hurt very easily. As they grow up they become aware of the shadow by being trained to not do this or that or not to speak to this or that person. It is through the shadow we grow and by being conscious of it we discover what it is to be human.

A lot of religions and spiritual movements make the mistake of believing we are all ultimately good.  Yes, we are all ultimately good but our actions belie their truth. The flower children movement of the 1960s failed because it didn’t recognise the shadow. The transpersonal approach is all about maintaining balance. The challenge of a relationship is unconditional love. The mistake of society is that it only sees the shadow and it becomes very controlling. We are protected from dark forces and dangerous people. The balance is to be able to see the shadow and the light.

Why are some people always falling for the bad boy?  They are seeking badness so they want to become aware of the badness. This is their way of accessing the shadow.

The same is true in relationships.  Everything is great and harmonious until we discover a bad habit  in our partner.  The ideal gives way to reality.  Why do couples break up? How many times have we heard people say You are not the person I feel in love with?  In a relationship you are being callenged to engage in unconditional love. Couples mainly break up through lack of communication, messiness, lack of intimacy etc. The ideal gives way to reality, which can be more self centred and defensive.

Different initiations in a relationship:

1. Commitment:  No-one is absolutely safe to commit to.  It is an act of faith to commit to a relationship. The ego is surrendering, otherwise there is a conditional relationship.

2. Being tested in relationships: Patience, tolerance, fidelity and truth.  We can fail but we can make reparations.  However, you break up if you keep failing. Testing is a ritual.

3. Empathise/understand each other as we both are: Assimilate each other, create a bond. Helps the two of you to get through difficult things in life.

4. Begin to see the ideal in the other:  Not in mind but in heart.  You are seeing the ideal.  Some see this as the vision of the soul or essence.

5.  Take responsibility for reminding partner of their quality: “active vision”. The building of the ideal must be mutual.

6. Seeing the ideal (the 4th stage of love): Mirroring back to each other. Spiritual realisation.

Related post The Alchemy of Relationships

Additional resources
Anima and Animus
10 signs you are falling in love
The science of love
Falling in Love
Falling in love can take a fifth of a second


The alchemy of Relationships

Are you in a balanced relationship?  Attraction between two people can be seen through the lens of the elements (air, fire, water and earth) although the shadow can emerge following the get together (which emerges around our limitations).  For instance, you might be a balanced fire type, in that you are confident and direct but perhaps get attracted to a balanced earth type. Your impulsive and potentially destructive qualities are seeking a bond with a big hearted and noble type.  The bonding in a healthy relationship is when you develop the qualities of your partner (the blending of the chemical reactions).  It is these qualities that you are attracted to in the first place.

The ideas and qualities for an ideal relationship:

Air: Listening, explaining, facilitating decisions. The basis of anger is fear.  if anger is met with anger then primitive fears kick in and conflict takes place.  Therefore, it is advisable to give space and slow down.

Fire: Keeping you from getting too serious.  Keeping spirits up, helping with career/goal, maintaining ideals, supporting ideals.

Water: Co-creating family life. Source of love and hugs.  Tune into your emotions.  Appreciating talents. Realise your patience.

Earth: Provides security, sense of belonging, always being there, keeping aligned with purpose.

It is important to remember that all elements exist within us all, but some can be unconscious.  It is from the experiences of entering into relationships that we come to be aware of the unconscious elements within us.  We may project things onto our partners or get irritated by these reactions.

Different stages of love: in terms of experience.  As we mature something within our psychology allows for a greater understanding of love. Love begins in a physical way but can end up in a very sublime (spiritual) love. Carl Jung referred to the anima and animus.   Jung recognised in his clients that all men had an inner female (anima) figure in their dreams and this seemed an important aspect of their psyche and how he related to the feminine.  Jung postulated that the feminine figure in a male represents his soul, not the ultimate representation but a state of a man’s soul.  For women he found that there was a male figure that wished to get expressed in every day life (animus).

Was this a dated idea given the conjugal roles that existed in the 1920s? Perhaps. But Jung came up with some intriguing insights.  Anima and animus are to do with love.  Anima and animus can evolve through four stages, regardless of one’s gender or gender orientation.

Exemplars can come out in dreams as archetypes.  That tells us where we are with our feelings.

1. Passion: You might attract that part of you that you are not in touch with. We project onto other people that particular stage of love.  Tarzan and Jane could be exemplars. This is fiery. If you are out of touch with that part within you the more it regresses. Someone that is very intellectual could fall for a very physical person.  The famous German film Blue Angel demonstrates this when a professor falls for a nightclub hostess.

2. Romantic: This is when emotions start to get involved.  We project romantic feelings onto people.  Cleopatra was a classical exemplar, as was Helen of Troy.  Harrison Ford would be a male version. Love becomes affectionate.

3. Admiration: Standing up for the weak. The ideal transcends their personality and its this that endures.  Exemplars would be MLK, Nelson Mandela and Ghandi. We project outside onto another, we don’t realise its within ourselves.

4. Angelic: To glorify and worship someone. The Goddess within. The Goddess of wisdom.  Two become one.  There is no going back.  Christ, Buddha, Mohamed etc. The culmination of the spiritual path.

What happens when we fall in love?  More soon ………..