I teach marriage and family therapy graduate students at Northwestern University, and I start my course with a 10,000-foot overview of the history and study of intimate relationships. Year after year, I am struck by the aliveness of love. While the desire to love and to be loved is woven into our DNA, our intimate relationships—the crucibles within which love is created and maintained—are embedded within our larger social and cultural contexts.
Inclusion in tribes was a condition of survival in earlier eras of human history. As a result, our ancestors grew extremely sensitive to the threat of rejection from the group, and we retain sensitivity to social exclusion to this day. But most of us no longer have strong group bonds akin to those that exist in tribes, and we are also potentially able to be in contact with cast numbers of other humans. Thus each and every individual we encounter can represent either a source of great comfort and safety or a looming threat of social exclusion.
What does it mean to work with couples in open marriages? Not all therapists personally agree with the concept of open marriage. However, you don’t have to change your values to treat couples who have chosen a lifestyle that doesn’t align with your own. It’s important to be aware of the myriad of possible non-traditional relationships you might encounter in your practice. Here are some examples:
TN: Why did you choose to write a book about your personal experiences with opening your marriage?
GX: As a society, we need more conversation about sex and relationships. My book is an intimate, funny ride about making choices outside of the acceptable “marriage box.” I think many of us don’t fit perfectly in the “box,” and we need more possibility and flexibility in our marriages.
Clients who feel worthless are chronically unhappy. They might find some solace by throwing themselves into work or by being an incredibly kind and caring friend. But underneath it all, they have a nagging sense that they don’t matter. In therapy, they might express their emotions and dutifully complete their homework assignments, but it is all just to be cooperative and avoid rejection. So, the therapy remains stuck.
Clients who have ongoing problems in key relationships—with family, friends, coworkers, or a combination—can create frustration for the therapist and hinder any therapeutic progress, especially when the same maladaptive patterns are repeated.
Many couple therapists intervene too soon, before discovering what is actually going on and before understanding the couple’s arousal capacities and deficits. Couples are allowed to be noisy, loud, vulgar, obnoxious, childish, boring, and so on. They are not allowed to be physically violent. Know your couple: if they have a history of physical violence, consider referring them to an appropriate resource (e.g., anger management or a spousal abuse group).
Clients who are frequently self-critical view themselves as flawed, so they are quick to highlight what they perceive as their negative aspects and minimize their positive traits and behaviors, and their strengths. They also struggle in their relationships, feeling that they need to perform well in some way in order for others to accept and value them.
Popular myths about love set us up for a struggle with real life. The inconvenient truth is there's no such thing as a perfect partner, all couples fight, and feelings of love come and go like the weather. But that doesn't mean you can't have a joyful and romantic relationship. Through a simple program based on the revolutionary new mindfulness-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), you can learn to handle painful thoughts and feelings more effectively and engage fully in the process of living and loving together.