Have You Done a Relationship Check-Up Lately?

We have schedules to change the oil in our cars and the batteries in our smoke alarms, but rarely do we take the time to assess the state of our primary relationships. The start of a new year is as good a time as any to take a few minutes and check how your relationship is doing.

Start with a short quiz, adapted from the Brief Accessibility-Responsiveness-Engagement (BARE) rating scale. Rate your relationship with you partner (Almost never, Seldom, Sometimes, Often, Almost always) on the following dimensions:

1. My partner is available to me.

2. I can get my partner’s attention when I want it.

3. My partner listens when I share my deepest feelings.

4. I can reach out to my partner when I need him or her.

5. It is easy to confide in my partner.

6. I feel close and engaged with my partner.

If your answers tend toward Almost Never or Seldom, you may want to think about whether you want to keep going down the road you are on or are ready to make a change. In my practice, I offer three options for couples wanting to make a change:

1. Relationship Enhancement Workshops

These one-day workshops are designed to help all couples – from those who just want a minor “tune up” to those in serious distress – begin on a path toward greater warmth, love, and connection. Couples learn how to better understand and respond to their partners’ needs for love and support, and practice new ways of interacting with the help of trained therapists. The class is conducted in a supportive atmosphere and all exercises are practiced privately. My next couples workshop takes place on Sunday, April 2nd, in Langhorne, PA.

2. Couples Therapy

If there are

When Apologizing Isn’t Enough

All relationships have their ups and downs. Partners may hurt each other’s feelings, either unintentionally or in the heat of battle. When the injuring partner realizes what has happened, or cools down enough to regret the comment, a heartfelt apology is usually needed, and then the couple can move on.

But some wounds are so deep it’s hard to get past them. They seem to threaten the very fabric of the relationship. Even after a sincere apology, the injured partner may not be able to move on. The remorseful partner may become angry, fearful, or hopeless, not knowing what else to do or whether they will ever be forgiven.

Many couples do hard work to get to this point, and then get stuck. Not knowing what to do, they may do nothing. Or they may grow impatient and sabotage their hard work. Either way, they are unable to move ahead and the relationship itself may feel threatened.

I wrote about this topic recently as a Topic Expert for GoodTherapy.org blog. Read here about how to help yourselves through this common impasse.

Why Communication Skills Won’t Save Your Relationship

Americans spend billions of dollars every year on self-help books promising to make them happier, healthier, more successful, and better loved. During this season of giving and resolutions, books are especially flying off the shelves or onto e-readers.

But when it comes to relationships, at least, most self-help books promise much more than they can deliver. Learning skills to better communicate and resolve conflict have very limited utility in improving our most important relationships.

My recently published article explains why learning communication and conflict resolution skills is not likely to benefit your most important relationship over the long term, and what kinds of “skills” are really needed to build a loving, satisfying relationship. Read my article here.

Couples Therapy: Myths and Reality

Maintaining a positive, supportive relationship with one’s partner in the face of expected and unusual life stress is one of the biggest challenges many couples face.  Not uncommonly, instead of pulling together to face life’s difficulties, partners become disengaged or even hostile. The person you expect to always have your back begins to feel like the enemy. And sometimes it feels like the harder you try to fix the problem, the worse things get.

The good news is that a well-trained couples therapist can help most relationships that have hit a rough patch. According to recent studies, 90% of couples who see a well-trained Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist experience improvement and 70% report full repair of their relationship.

But here’s the bad news: many couples that could benefit from this therapy are reluctant to get help. Unfounded beliefs and misconceptions get in the way.

Here is the truth about six common misconceptions:

1. The therapist will take sides.

With some therapists, this in fact may happen. But an Emotionally Focused Couples (EFT) Therapist is trained to recognize how both partners contribute to their dance of anger or disconnection. Successful therapy invariably requires each partner to understand his or her role in the couple’s distress.

2. The therapist will tell us we should break up. 

Again, there are probably some therapists who would make this judgment, but the role of an EFT Therapist is to help couples understand how their relationship has gone wrong and to guide them – for as long as they are willing to try – in how to repair it. The decision of whether to stay in a relationship always belongs to the couple.

3. We are too far gone; the situation is hopeless.

Many couples worry that their problems

The Gift of Time

It should surprise no one that a near-constant lament I hear in my office is how little time couples and families have for each other. When I ask, “How was your week?” family members often look at each other quizzically, trying to remember when, exactly, they had time to connect, reflect, or even fight with each other. The reasons are well known: the economic necessity of two earner families, the expansion of work hours, the increased time kids spend on homework and structured activities, the proliferation of screens eating away at our face to face time with each other.

Occasionally people find creative ways to stay connected while leading their hectic lives – like the couple with young children who has made a ritual of talking on their cell phones each morning while they commute in opposite directions. But often, family members just drift further and further apart, even, ironically, turning to their online networks to satisfy a craving for connection they’re missing at home.

And of course it only gets worse around the holidays. When you add shopping, baking, decorating, and out of town visitors to our already full plates, it’s no wonder many people find the holidays the most stressful time of the year.

For so many of us, the holidays are a huge opportunity missed. Freed from the daily grind of work, school, and activities, we fill our time with more tasks, plans, and activities. We don’t stop to consider that maybe what our children, our parents, our partners, and our friends most want from us is not a perfect gift, a beautifully decorated home, or a flawless meal, but our time – the kind of focused, loving attention that says, “You are so

Strengthening Relationships with the New Science of Love

My last blog post gave an overview of how recent research in neuroscience and attachment has created a new science of love. Today I focus on the practical implications of this research: helping couples understand why love relationships so frequently get derailed, and how to get these distressed relationships back on track.

Many people wonder why the one person in the world who reliably makes them feel enraged, miserable, or distraught, is the partner who vowed to love and cherish them for life. They may mistakenly conclude that they and their partner don’t love each other, or are too poorly matched to stay together. But the new science of love tells a very different story.

We have learned that the need for a secure attachment – someone who can be a safe haven in times of distress – is biologically hardwired from birth. How we cope with this need, indeed whether we are even aware of it, is influenced both by our temperaments and by our early experiences in our first families.

When we feel upset or overwhelmed, we have a natural tendency to want our significant other to soothe and comfort us. If we perceive this person as uncaring or unavailable, our brain reacts as if our physical survival is at stake: a hardwired fight/flight/freeze response mobilizes us to fight or flee from the “danger” of feeling so alone. Adrenaline flows, our hearts pound, and our higher order thinking is temporarily shut down so that we can react immediately to the perceived “threat.” Some of us react to this hyperarousal with angry attempts to engage our partner; others cope by shutting down and emotionally withdrawing.

The cruel irony is that either reaction – angry engagement or emotional

Making Sense of Love

Practitioners of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy know how research on attachment and neuroscience has dovetailed to create a new science of love.  This science explains why the need to be seen, understood, and securely connected to loved ones is such a powerful and universal motivator. The science of love has also explained how and why love can be so easily derailed, and has provided therapists with a road map for repairing distressed relationships.

Now Sue Johnson, originator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, has written Love Sense, a book that introduces these concepts to the general public. You can hear her discussing her book on HuffPost Live:


As Sue explains, our need to keep loved ones close to us is an ancient survival code, wired into our brains. It is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe and the food we eat. In fact, being able to reach for the person we love, and feel that person’s comfort and support, has greater health benefits than healthy eating or exercise. It calms our heart rate, boosts our immune system, and increases our longevity.

And when someone we love rejects us, the hurt registers in the same part of our brain as physical pain. The emotional pain of rejection literally mirrors the physical pain of a wound.

The new science of love explodes many myths about love and about healthy development. Love is not mysterious or inexplicable; it has universal characteristics that make sense and it can be shaped and strengthened. Relying on someone else does not make us weak; the interdependence characteristic of healthy love makes us stronger. Happy long-term relationships don’t just happen when two people are right for each other; they take time, commitment, and

Enhancing Couple Relationships

Last week, my colleague Nancy Logue, PhD and I brought 11 couples together for a workshop designed to strengthen participants’ relationships. Through teaching about the importance of attachment needs in adult relationships, and leading exercises adapted from The Hold Me Tight workshop by Sue Johnson (the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy), we helped couples better understand how and why their most important relationships get derailed so easily.

Unlike many self-improvement programs, the goal was not to teach and practice the skills used by “successful” people, but to help participants see that, beneath their repetitive disagreements about the kids, money, chores, or leisure time, are the universal desire to be heard, understood, and valued.   Once they saw their struggles in this new light, we helped them recognize how their typical reactions, while understandable, often increase frustration and disconnection. Finally, we assisted them in talking to their partners in more honest and open ways that were likely to bring their partners closer instead of pushing them away.

The couples participating in the workshop were a diverse group. Some had been married for many years while others were just beginning to establish a committed relationship.  Some were there to enhance a relationship with a solid foundation, while others were trying to save a relationship in crisis after years of conflict and disconnection.  Some were currently or formerly in couples therapy, while others had never been to a therapist for themselves or their relationship. Some left satisfied with the progress they had made and ready to continue on their own, while others recognized they needed the ongoing help of a skilled couples therapist. Yet all 11 couples felt they had learned something important and practiced new ways of relating

Choosing the Right Therapist

When you feel you need help, whether for yourself or for a relationship, the prospect of selecting the right therapist can be so daunting that sometimes it’s hard to take the first step. The Internet opens up a world of possibilities, but so many choices can be confusing.  Of course you want a therapist with knowledge and experience related to your problem, but is this all you need to look for?

Decades of research have demonstrated that the quality of the relationship between therapist and client is just as important for successful treatment as the specific skills and treatment method of the therapist.  John C. Norcross, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of Psychotherapy Relationships that Work: Evidence-Based Responsiveness (2nd ed., 2011), led a task force for the American Psychological Association to identify characteristics of the therapy relationship that promote positive change.

The APA task force commissioned a series of meta-analyses (studies of studies which use sophisticated statistical analyses to combine results from individual studies) to determine what characteristics of the therapeutic relationship contribute to positive change, and how much these characteristics matter.

The full results of the task force can be found online at:


A brief, selective summary follows.

Regardless of the therapist’s skills or theoretical orientation, a positive therapeutic alliance is crucial to the success of treatment. This alliance can be defined in different ways but generally depends on a positive emotional bond between therapist and client, an agreement between therapist and client on the goals of treatment, and consensus about the approach and tasks of treatment.

When working with children and adolescents, the alliance with both the youth and the parents significantly predicts treatment outcome. Given that youth and parents

Problem-Solving: The Limits of Common Sense

I recently read an article in The New York Times Magazine (April 28, 2013) entitled “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.”  Its startling premise – that the huge increase in breast cancer awareness, coupled with routine mammography for the vast majority of American women over age 40, has not decreased the death rate from breast cancer – was all the more compelling because it was written by Peggy Orenstein, a breast cancer survivor who previously credited early detection through mammography with saving her life.

As outrageous as it appears at first blush, science does not support this common sense approach to saving lives.  In fact, the well-meaning supporters of education and early detection may actually be doing women harm, both by exposing them to unnecessary risks of radiation and unneeded surgical procedures, and by diverting money from potentially life-saving research on identifying and treating the most aggressive forms of breast cancer rarely caught by mammography before they metastasize.

How many other common sense approaches to solving problems are leading us astray?  If you or your child feel intense anxiety or panic in a certain situation, avoid the situation and then the bad feelings will subside, right?  Actually, probably not.  Avoidance tends to increase anxiety and panic in the long run and may even lead to anxiety spreading to new situations.  If your child is disobeying you and not being deterred by reasonable consequences, make those consequences harsher, right?  Not necessarily.  You and your child might get locked into a spiraling negative cycle of punishment, anger, and defiance, which only gets worse as you raise the stakes.  It might be time to try a different tack.

Common sense is of course invaluable.  We wouldn’t get through the day