How Do I Find The Right Therapist For Me?

An article written by me for Marriage.com.  Text is reproduced below for convenience.

Finding the right therapist is not just important, it is actually the most important contributor to having a successful therapy experience. All the research I have encountered states quite clearly that the single most significant trait about the right therapist is what we call the “therapeutic alliance”, also known as “rapport” or simply how you connect with your therapist. This connection far outweighs other factors such as the level of training of the therapist or the style of therapy employed.

Finding a therapist is a lot like finding a job. You should first have an initial session, which in some ways is like an interview. You talk with the therapist, share your issues, and see how you “click” with them. Sometimes it may take a few sessions to really settle in with a new therapist, and that’s okay, but if you have an initial off-putting experience or if you don’t feel comfortable or safe talking with them, then that is your signal to consider the interview a failure and continue to look for a therapist that fits you.

Your time in the therapist’s office should be comfortable, encouraging, and above all, feel safe. If you don’t feel safe and supported, you will have difficulty sharing your inner thoughts and feelings, which is of course absolutely mandatory for successful outcomes. It is this comfort and ability to freely communicate which makes those highly compatible therapeutic alliances so successful.

For couples, this situation can be more complicated. It may be that one person feels a strong connection with a therapist, but the other partner doesn’t. Or one partner may feel like the therapist favors one person over the other, or is “on the other’s side”. Except in cases of obvious abuse or other malicious actions, that is rarely the case. Competent therapists make a concerted effort to not have favorites or pick sides. Our objectivity is one of the most valuable things we bring to the therapy experience. However, those kinds of feelings, if not handled, are likely to be fatal to any chances at success. If you feel your therapist is siding unfairly with your partner, or if you feel “ganged up on”, that is something to immediately address with the therapist. Again, any competent therapist will be able to handle that concern and hopefully demonstrate their lack of bias to everyone’s satisfaction.

Therapists vary wildly in their style, their personality, and the type of therapy they employ. This is called their “theoretical orientation”, and it simply means what theories of human psychology and behavior they embrace and tend to use with their clients. It is less common in modern times to find people who are strict adherents of a particular theory. Most therapists now use a variety of theoretical frameworks, based upon the client, their needs, and what seems to work the best. And, in most cases, you as a layman will have very little interest in that theoretical framework, you just want to find what works for you!

If you go to a therapist a few times, and you still just aren’t clicking with them, you may want to consider looking for a new one. Competent therapists recognize they won’t click with everyone, and will not take offense at you looking for someone better suited. In many cases, you can even ask your therapist for a referral. If your therapist is upset or angry that you want to seek another therapist, then that is a good indicator that you are making the right choice in leaving. For example, I pride myself on creating a strong rapport with new clients very quickly. It is, in fact, one of the things I am most frequently complimented on. However, that doesn’t mean every new client loves me. Some people just don’t click with me, and I have to be willing to understand and accept that. I always ask at the end of an initial session if the

person is comfortable talking with me, and if they are interested in coming back for another visit. I conduct my sessions in a very informal, conversational, friendly and familiar way. If a potential client has a strong preference for a formal, instructional, and sterile type of interaction, then I will not be a good fit for them, and I would encourage them to find someone more suited to their needs.

To summarize, finding the right “fit” with a therapist is the most crucial aspect of your choice to go to therapy. It doesn’t matter if the therapist is female or male, younger or older, a Masters or a Ph.D. or an M.D., in private practice or in an agency or institution. It only matters that you are comfortable with them, and that you feel that necessary link with them to where you can confidently open up and share yourself fully. THAT is the pathway to success!

Sexual Compatibility

Here is another article I was asked to write for marriage.com about sexual compatibility.

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The advice columnist and podcaster Dan Savage says "the relationship graveyard is full of tombstones that say 'everything was great... except the sex'". Finding a sexually compatible partner is in every way as important, if not more important, than the other aspects of relationship that we concentrate on. People will agonize over finding a partner that shares similar political, religious, and family viewpoints. If you absolutely want children and a potential partner absolutely does not, then that is usually a simple and guilt-free dealbreaker for most people. So why is it that if you have a high sex drive and your potential partner has a very low one, so many people are reluctant to consider that a dealbreaker as well?

Almost every couple that presents to me in my practice has some level of sexual dysfunction. I tell every couple that sex is the "canary in the coalmine" for relationships: when the sex goes bad, it is almost always a harbinger for something else going bad in the relationship. In other words, bad sex is a symptom, not the disease. And almost inevitably, when the relationship is improved the sex "magically" improves as well. But what about when the sex doesn't "go" bad, but it's always been bad?

Married couples very often divorce over sexual incompatibility. It is more polite to tell others (and survey takers) that it was over "money" or they "wanted different things" (which usually was more or better sex) or some other common trope. But in my experience I've never come across a couple that was literally divorcing over money.

So why do we not prioritize sexual compatibility? Much of it is cultural. America was founded by Puritans, and many religions still shame and stigmatize sex, both in and out of wedlock. Many parents shame children over sexual interests and masturbation. Pornography usage is often viewed as a character defect, even though the vast majority of adults use pornography from time to time, if not regularly. The current political arguments over something as straightforward as birth control shows that America struggles with being comfortable with our sexual sides. Simply saying "sex" is enough to make some grown adults blush or shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Therefore, it is not surprising that people often minimize their sexual interests and the level of their libido(i.e. how much sex you want). No one wants to appear to be a sex-craved pervert during the early stages of dating. So sex is considered a secondary or even tertiary concern, despite the fact it is among the very top reasons for marital discord and divorce.

Finding a compatible partner is complicated by other factors. Stigma and shame mean people are not always comfortable disclosing their sexual interests or level of desire. People will often go years, even decades, without disclosing a particular sexual fetish or "kink" to their spouse, and resigning themselves to a state of perpetual dissatisfaction.

Differences in level of libido are by far the most common complaint. But this is not always as simple as it seems. It is a stereotype that men are likely to always want sex, and that women are likely to be disinterested ("frigid" as it used to be called). Again, in my practice that is not accurate at all. It is very much an even split between which sex has the higher sex drive, and often the older the couple, the more likely it is to be the woman who is dissatisfied with the amount of sex the couple is having.

So what can be done if you have gotten yourself into a relationship where there is little sexual compatibility, but you don't want to end the relationship? Communication is not only key, it is foundational. You have to be willing to share your wants and desires, your kinks and your fetishes, with your partner. Period. There is no way to have a fulfilling sex life if your partner is ignorant of what you really want and crave, and you refuse to let them know. Most people in loving relationships want their partners to be fulfilled, to be happy, and to be sexually satisfied. Most fears people have over disclosing sexual information turn out to be irrational. I've watched on my couch (more than once) a person struggle to tell their partner of a sexual interest, only to have the partner emphatically tell them they would be happy to indulge that desire, but that they simply had no idea it was something that was wanted.

Have some faith in your partner. Let them know if you are dissatisfied with the amount or type of sex you are having. Yes, occasionally someone will be unmoved, and will refuse outright to open their horizons or change their sexual repertoire. But that is the rare exception, and a character trait you should want to know about your partner as soon as possible anyway.

Speak up for yourself. Express your desires. Give your partner the opportunity to meet your needs. If that doesn't work, then other alternatives can be explored. 

How to have a successful second marriage

I was asked by marriage.com to write an article about how to have a successful 2nd marriage.

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Virtually everyone says “I do” the first time with the best of intentions, and an expectation it is forever. For some of us, the “I do” turns into an “I don’t anymore”, and we find ourselves somewhere we never expected: divorced. And eventually most of us get to a place where we want to consider entering into a new relationship. That can raise an enormous amount of fear and anxiety. After all, since our first marriage failed, is a second one doomed to fail as well?

Not if we take the opportunity to LEARN from our divorce. What can we learn? Basically, we should be able to learn a tremendous amount about what we want and need in a relationship (those are two separate issues), and what a truly compatible partner would be for us.

Simply put, the key to a successful second marriage begins with partner selection. It is not possible to overstate its importance.

How do we select a truly compatible partner, especially if we already thought we did once?

I advise all of my divorced clients to make a “template” for a new partner. This is an actual list of Preferences (what we want) and Deal Breakers (what we need). Then after creating the list, go back and edit it again, then wait a few weeks and edit it yet again. This requires brutal honesty with ourselves in a way that might feel unfair or superficial, but that’s why absolute honesty is key.

For example, a middle-aged man I counseled married a woman that he stated had an enormous list of positives such as intelligence, drive, sense of humor, attractiveness, etc. He was very highly touch oriented; he needed lots of hand-holding, hugs, kisses, and other forms of non-sexual intimacy. The woman he married was clear that those things were not important to her, and she expressed little interest in his viewpoint. Throughout their marriage the issue continued to arise: he would ask for more touch and more intimacy, she continued to express it was not important to her, and she saw no reason to modify her behavior, and did not consider his need for touch to be important.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to determine what happened. After many years of marriage the rift became unmanageable, and the couple divorced. Afterwards in his grief the man did what so many of us do, he declared that she had been “perfect” when he married her and that there were no warning signs and no way to predict this outcome of divorce. But with some excavation of the past, and discussion about the beginning of the relationship, this key incompatibility was revealed early on, and he did what humans are exceptionally good at, he rationalized this away because “she checked so many boxes” and seemed great, but with this glaring incompatibility.

It is almost never the case that we didn’t see these things coming, it is that we see “red flags” and dismiss them because they run counter to what we want at the time. That’s why forming this template before entering into new romances is so important. We can compromise on Preferences, but we cannot compromise on absolute needs (our Deal Breakers).

A divorce should encourage us to critically examine our wants and needs, and to form that template for what a good partner would be for us. And if someone violates the template, we have to have the maturity and the self-respect to be our own advocate and not pursue a relationship with someone who is waving these giant red flags, regardless of our level of attraction to them, or how many “boxes” they check.

What if you are already in a relationship and considering marriage? Then again, it requires brutal honesty about if this person truly is compatible with you, or if you are willfully overlooking incompatibilities because of other traits you desire. Maybe she is a strong financial provider, but she doesn’t make herself emotionally available. Maybe he is great “father material”, but is disinterested in sex or romance. Calling off a serious dating relationship is difficult, of course, but as those who are divorced should now know, it is exponentially better than terminating a marriage.

The key again is proper partner selection. Don’t handicap your second marriage the way you perhaps did your first. Learn from your divorce, and make better choices. Future you, and your future spouse, will thank you!

You're not angry, you're hurt.

One of my professors used to say "dodge the anger and get to the tears". We therapists sometimes describe anger as a "secondary emotion", one that comes about due to a primary emotion, usually pain or sometimes fear. You can on occasion have "pure" anger, like someone steals your parking spot, but those moments are fleeting and disappear almost as soon as they appear (and if they don't, we need to talk).

To have the kind of long-lasting and resentment-fueled anger that arises in relationships, it almost always is masking a hurt; a pain or disappointment that is difficult to address directly. The problem is the anger often leads to conflict, and hinders our ability to resolve the hurt and get what we really want.

For example, it is very easy to get angry that your partner forgot to get something important you need for a project. "You're so inconsiderate and self-centered" will lead to an argument, not a resolution. Defensiveness and traded accusations will easily manifest. But it is much easier than saying "it really hurts my feelings when you don't prioritize things that I need, it makes me feel unimportant and like I don't matter". That is something important to say, and truly the cause of your pain(and hence anger), but it makes us very vulnerable. However, this conversation will go very differently, and will create different reactions in both parties. It also can be resolved: apologies can be made, reassurances uttered, and pledges made to do better. 

All those things offer opportunity for healing and improvement, and not just another argument. 

So the next time you feel angry, pause a moment and think about WHY you're angry. Odds are you will in truth be hurt by something, and that pain is what needs to be discussed and resolved with the one who hurt you.  

Getting your needs met...

Oh, to have a perfectly intuitive partner, one that just instantly knows what we need and want, and is able to deliver them magically to us. That is great for young protagonists in Victorian romance novels, but in the real world, it rarely works that way. 

The way adults get their needs met in relationships is to ASK. 

This seems entirely more controversial than it should be to some people. Over and over again I have heard from clients "well my partner should just KNOW...". This is a recipe for at the best disappointment, and at the worst severe emotional upheaval. 

For example, it may be very important for a wife if her husband accompany her to Sunday dinner with her family. Over time, perhaps the husband has not attended a few dinners, and comes to believe it is not that important, since his wife hasn't said anything. Meanwhile the wife becomes increasingly frustrated and resentful because "he should just know" that she wants him at dinner. So this resentment bubbles to the top and creates other conflicts that have nothing to do with dinner with the in-laws. Arguments spring from nowhere and intimacy suffers, because she is not getting her needs met, which would frustrate any of us. 

In this situation, everyone would be far better off if the wife stated her needs directly. "Honey, I am not sure if you realize how important Sunday dinner is with my parents. I really need you to come with me so I can feel like part of a connected family". This will most likely spark a very different conversation than "you should KNOW I want you at Sunday dinner!" and will give the husband an opportunity to meet this need. A good person in a healthy relationship wants to please their partner. 

All of this holds true regardless if it is about household chores, financial concerns, sex, or anything else that could concern a couple.  While the other person "just knowing" may have a certain romantic swoon-inducing quality, in the real world we look for solutions.

Ask for what you need. I would be delighted to help you and your partner learn to do this effortlessly and automatically. 

How to give an effective apology.

Do you know how to really apologize? How to apologize freely and fully? Odds are you don't, because few people are taught how. In fact, American society often teaches the opposite, that apologies should be given only begrudgingly and without taking much responsibility. The famous "mistakes were made" apologies of politicians comes to mind.

Half-hearted apologies do nothing towards mending relationships with those we love. These are the steps I have found that can help you offer an apology someone will actually want:

  1. LISTEN. The first step is not talking at all, it is listening. Listen closely to your partner and allow them to tell you what they are upset about, without interruption, without judgement, and without DEFENSIVENESS. You can't really apologize if you don't actually know what they are upset about. 
  2. SAY YOU'RE SORRY. This seems simple but is the place where most people fail. Say that you're sorry... then STOP. If you say "I'm sorry but..." or "You shouldn't be upset because..." or "I didn't mean to..."  or anything else, you are no longer apologizing, you are explaining, rationalizing, or even attempting to excuse. You have to say you are sorry, and mean it, unconditionally. You should be sorry your partner is hurt, even if you did it unintentionally.
  3. EMPATHIZE. Tell your partner you can understand why they would feel the way they do, and that from their point of view you would be hurt too. If you can't say this, if you really don't understand, then ask your partner to explain. Note this step comes AFTER you say you're sorry! Your understanding is not necessary to express regret that you hurt someone you care about.
  4. REMEDY. Ask what you can do to make amends. Ask for forgiveness. Ask how you can avoid this happening again in the future. Express real remorse for your actions, again, even if they were unintentional.

Let's look at a possible real-world example: your partner may ask you to pick up milk on the way home, and they may become very upset that you didn't. This can seem trite and unreasonable, and you may react badly to them being upset with you. Or, you may offer an immediate but insincere apology, or even mock them ("yes I'm the worst person ever because I forgot milk!)  But when you allow them to tell you why they are upset, without defensiveness, it may turn out it's not about the milk at all, but about your partner feeling devalued or that they or their wishes are not important. This of course is probably not what you intended.

Here comes the most critical juncture: you can turn this into an argument by defending your actions and placing blame back on the other person for reacting as they did, or you can offer sincere regret, since you would never want your partner to feel devalued. So you apologize, unconditionally. You tell them that you can understand from their point of view how it could have come off that way, and that you don't want to make them feel that way again, so what could be done to avoid this in the future?

That allows problem solving. Maybe you ask for a text reminder, or maybe to be told before the drive home so you can prepare, or whatever. But now you're talking, not arguing, and you're mending a needless sore spot in the relationship.

The goal is to mend the relationship. The goal is not to make yourself look as good as possible for some "imaginary jury" somewhere. The only people suffering are you, and your partner. Why would you be stingy with your efforts to set things right?

Speaking Without Consequence

One of the things I encourage couples to do, from the first time I meet them, is allow their partner to "speak without consequence". What that means is giving your partner an opportunity to convey their thoughts, complaints, concerns, fears, whatever it may be, without immediately giving a rebuttal or any sort of emotional response. The only response is to acknowledge whether or not you UNDERSTAND their statement.

So often, when our partner is talking about something important, we immediately begin drafting our response in our head, so we don't always hear what they are saying, or are able to listen to see what they are ACTUALLY asking for. Too often, we make a snap judgement, craft our response, and then simply wait until we have a chance to speak.

"Speaking without consequence" is the exact opposite of that. Since you are not responding, you are giving your full attention to the speaker. The benefits of this are immediate: you actually hear your partner and are better able to understand what they want, and the speaker feels valued and validated because their concerns are truly listened to.

This is not the same as agreeing with everything your partner says, but as you probably have experienced, a great deal of the frustration and conflict in a relationship arises because one person doesn't feel like they are being heard or listened to. 

I would be happy to help teach you and your partner how to do this. It really is a game-changer.