Success of Relationships

Was asked recently by a student, “How long do you think a couple should be together before they get married?”  There’s no way to give a full answer to this in a blog, but think it important, and would like to put out some fundamental ideas that I don’t think we can ignore.  Seems to me that this is not only about “knowing” when, or even the success of a romantic relationship- would suggest that some of these ideas are about all relationships.  What follows is my response:

Would offer that it’s not a question of how long.  The reason we think in terms of time, is because something is supposed to happen during that period, but we never say what it is!

Oversimplifying, first and foremost, my philosophy is that both persons should be self-supporting mentally, emotionally, physically, and “spiritually” (not necessarily religious, but not necessarily excluding it).  They should be able to see, and assess these things about one another.  It’s much deeper than it seems- mentally: responsible for one’s own critical thinking, memory, organization, prioritization, intellectual curiosity.  Emotionally: responsible not only for one’s own happiness, but one’s own sorrows and fears and shames and hurts as well (even if caused by others- this is really important).  Physically: responsible at least for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, diet/sleep/exercise.  “Spiritually”: responsible for one’s own connection to one or more communities, also for one’s own sense of place and purpose.  Short of that, the relationship becomes responsible for one or more of these things missing, and is diminished.

In more detail, any of these things absent weighs on the relationship.  One partner inevitably becomes resentful at having to “pick up the slack” for one or more of these things absent, or tries to get the other person to take up their responsibility, or withdraws, etc.  This shows up a lot for instance, in these examples:

One person bears on the other due to “insecurity”/low self esteem.  (emotional, “spiritual”)

One person struggles with providing their own needs for food/clothing/shelter/medical care etc.  (physical)

One person depends on the other as their sole source for community or purpose (sometimes, simply by providing community when the other doesn’t have it).  (“spiritual”)

One person expects or needs the other for reminders of appointments, choicemaking about how to spend money, interests about the world.  (mental)

Am sure everyone can come up with many more.

It takes varying amounts of time to know if someone is able to do these things, because it takes varying kinds of circumstances to have them come up.  Even discussed in a “principled” way as I’ve tried to above, there’s a lot of things to be considered.  When someone dies, does the person “deal” with it gracefully (grieves), or do they get intoxicated or treat others poorly?  When they get sick, do they have the means and do they do the work to do some of the effort to care for themselves?  Does this person avoid talking about feelings in general, or have a maladaptive way of dealing with them?  Do they have hobbies, interests, and do they occasionally get new ones?  Do they provide for themselves long-term?  Do they maintain relationships long-term?  How do they handle their successes?  These are all circumstances that often take a protracted amount of time to show up.

These things are also not simple for individuals.  As such, would argue that without having/knowing these things about ourselves, these qualities are difficult to identify in other people.  It takes a chunk of time, usually beyond adulthood, to really have a method and examination of knowing these things.

“Show Your Work!”

When “solving problems” in addition to good “issue identification”, “diagnosis” (or whatever), it’s really important to examine methods/means to diminish or solve these problems, and have those methods be principled.  As Huxley opined:

“We are so anxious to achieve some particular end that we never pay attention to the psycho-physical means whereby that end is to be gained. So far as we are concerned, any old means is good enough. But the nature of the universe is such that ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.”

But even principled means don’t go far enough.  I have been discussing with a couple of clients and friends in the last week about getting from “point A” to “point B” as relates to The Work.  With these discussions in my head, have also come across a couple of psychology related blogs addressing resolution of specific problems.  What these conversations and blogs have in common, is my friends/clients complaining that when they’ve mentioned a problem to someone (anxiety, impulse control issues, depression, for example), and when given advice by some folk about how to resolve them, we have found essentially that at worst the suggestion amounted to “stop being __________ (anxious, impulsive, depressed)”, or simply suggesting that the opposite behavior/idea be employed.  Even from professionals.

Of course, the “middle part” here is really important.  There should be attention to the steps taken in the middle.  Those steps should specifically address the issue at hand, not simply be something rationalized as “good” or needed or healthy.  As some of my heroes have suggested, these ideas often amount to “activity instead of action”.

For instance, exercise arguably helps depression, anxiety and the like, but seems that in many cases does not specifically address the concerns identified that might be causing such in the first place (loss, abuse, etc).  In addition to that, the steps taken from anxiety to “calm” or “groundedness”, sadness/depression to happiness/serenity/gratitude (or somesuch) etc should be principled.  Meaning, they should be rooted in ideas that are repeatable, work for different kinds of problems, and preferably don’t create new ones in their wake.

Much of this is intuitive, but what keeps coming to me about these ideas is when observing “problem solving” from the outside, it’s often difficult to point to the work that is done.  Just like we’re encouraged in most math classes, we should be able to “show our work”.  When dealing with issues/problems/concerns, problem identification is really important.  So are means of problem solving- but what seems a good test of the effectiveness or value of such is the ability to point at the work done that specifically addresses the problem at hand.

As a simple example… telling someone to “calm down” rarely helps them behave differently, let alone feel differently.  There’s no steps to show, it’s difficult to see any principles this idea of “calming down” is based on.  While problem-solving emotional or relationship problems and the like it’s tempting to simply give advice and/or lean on philosophy, but there’s a lot of value in making such practical- something we can “point at”.

In our martial arts training group, if one of us has or is taught an idea/principle, we test that idea out in real time with a resisting opponent.  We also try to “break the idea”- see what conditions or problems it will not work with.  In some circles this is referred to as “pressure-testing the material”.  The same ideas might apply when solving other real world problems.  Clearly identifying the issue/context, having a principled means of intervention or “problem solving”, having a practical (empirical) means of determining the usefulness of the idea… showing our work and evaluating its utility.

Am advocating here for critical thinking when it comes to the utility of tools or ideas for problem-solving.  It seems that one of the places this utility is revealed is in whether or not we can show our work- make use of an idea in a way that is repeatable and observable (what we say/don’t say, do/don’t do).  As a therapist, I really endeavor (and hope other professionals) to give ideas that can be used by anyone, ideas that are practical enough to show the work that specifically addresses an identified problem, not something that simply gives us the feeling that we are doing something.

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Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

You can find out more about Petar at:

Recognition for Partners in Recovery

Last Monday (9-26-11), Judy McGehee MFT, Melissa Lamoureux MS, Erika Gayoso MA, Ted Aaselund PsyD, Michael Cardenas, Jeffrey Craig, Jessica Wilson, Elvia Cortes MA and myself were recognized by the board of the Glendora Unified School District at their monthly meeting.  Formally, the agency is called “Partners in Recovery”, a nonprofit organization of clinicians providing services in Glendora and surrounding communities.

Judy, and I have been providing clinical supervision (a necessary component for grads and soon-to-be grads to get their “hours of experience” to sit for licensure as therapists or social workers) for the above mentioned interns and trainees.  Trainees are obtaining hours to graduate with their Masters degrees, interns are working on their hours (3000 hours of service over 104 weeks) to sit for the licensing examination with the Board of Behavioral Sciences.  In turn, the supervisees (the ones above and others from previous years) have provided thousands of hours of free services to the Glendora Unified School district, from elementary thru high school.  The supervisees from Partners have been assisting with issues of depression, abuse, family discord, eating disorders, suicide, addiction, grief and loss, bullying, self esteem, anxiety problems and more.

The program has been running since 2009 with Judy at the helm, and will continue at least through this year.  Judy, Ted, and the interns/trainees are all highly skilled clinicians.  It is a fantastic way for people to get services that might not have otherwise.  Nicely done everybody.

Therapy is Not the Answer

This is sort of a PSA for clients and therapists alike.  Therapy is not the answer to our problems of relationships, depression, grief/loss, addiction, taking food from others, communication, our sense of broken-ness/low self worth/shame, loneliness, etc.  Therapy isn’t just a way of being either.  It’s probably a way of being that solves these problems, and can prevent many in the future as a result.  The only exception, if seen in a particular light, might be around issues of safety that require immediate intervention.

Therapy should be a space where we work through the feelings we’re carrying with us that prevent us from coming to these answers on our own.  It’s an activity that should prompt us to be without our defenses and distractions as much as is possible, with a guide that has done enough of their own work that we can be taught how to live gracefully with these feelings, let go of them/transform them, and provide us principles and ideas that will help us not make some of these mistakes in the future.

We certainly should be giving direction about how to handle some circumstances, communicate more effectively, learning parenting and relationship skills, symptom management, relapse prevention and etc.  There should be an organized body of material to assist with these things.  They will all be rendered useless though, in absence of a principled way of operating, and or in the presence of enough emotional intensity that the tools cannot be used or we cannot see “answers” clearly or the simple consequences of not having these feelings gracefully end up exacerbating problems.

So, a suggestion.  Learn some survival skills that lend themselves to our ability to get some new ways of operating.  Have enough support from family, friends, and professionals that will enable surviving the process.  Deal with the feelings that come up, then set about “solving” things.


So, we can’t heal what we can’t feel.  If we’re really trying to transform “depression” (not a feeling, but a diagnosis), “anxiety” (another non-feeling), grief and loss, abuse, abandonment and neglect etc- we have to “let go of some old ideas” about how we perceive and experience these circumstances, and the attendant e-motions (emotions, energy in motion).

Some of these ideas we have to let go of are:

1.  That we can turn our feelings on/off.
Stimulus/response (to steal loosely from Gary Larsen and others).  All we perceive has a stimulus and response attached to it.  It both amazes and saddens me that despite such a fundamental law of physics we behave as if we can somehow do something (or not) that will allow us to not have a response to a stimulus about what someone says or does.  Some basic “untruths”: “I need to not take _____ personally, give _____ power over me/allow them to ‘get to me’, it’s water under the bridge, it’s all in the past…” etc ad nauseum.

2.  That we can decide how intense a feeling we are having/going to have.
Back to physics- we can’t decide or influence how much of a stimulus we take in.  Save with the use of drugs or alcohol, even despite attention- we experience what we experience.

3.  That we can decide what type of feelings we’re going to have in response to some experience.
Sometimes we feel sad about something, only to have a similar experience later and feel hurt instead.  If this were true- why couldn’t we simply “decide” to feel joyful, grateful, happy, etc about a thing?

There’s more, but these are a fairly good starting list.  If we’re going to transform our feelings (or help others to do so), we have to change our philosophy, our relationship to our emotional condition.  Some of the most frequent problems I run into both personally and professionally around this are around the kinds of beliefs above.

Beyond this, we do things that prevent us from being fully in touch with our emotions.  As Sheldon Kopp has famously (or not so famously) said, paraphrasing: “When we stop trying to overcome anxiety, avoid depression etc, we can experience how sad and scared and hurt we sometimes truly feel.”  I would argue that one of our most basic problems as humans is that we do things that put distance between us and us, us and others, us and the “universe” or “God” as we MISunderstand he/she/them and/or it.  The list of the things that we do that result in these effects, is the list of things we have to stop doing to have access to how we feel, and transform it.

On a professional level, I have been struggling deeply with how far away we’ve gotten from doing “depth work”, processing, “uncovering, discovering, discarding”, “naming it, claiming it, and dumping it” (or whatever euphemism one prefers) for dealing with the likes of grief, loss, addiction, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and etc.  “Outcome measures”, insurance companies etc do not support this process.  There are sociopolitical (or as I prefer, “sociopolytrickal” as in “many tricks”) forces that diminish both focus and support on these types of services.  The hows and whys of this are beyond the scope of what I’m getting at here.

My tactic for dealing with issues are (hopefully) pretty simple and direct.

1.  Take the list of things we do that put distance between us and us/others/the “universe” and/or “God” if one prefers, and stop doing those things.  If it’s hard to stop doing them, try doing these things.

2.  Take steps to survive not doing those things.  This may take therapy, a support group, a church, support group, or whatever.

3.  What will most definitely take therapy: process what comes up.

Even if one does need medical intervention with psychopharmaceuticals, has a medical condition that might prompt difficult feelings/behaviors etc, getting therapy can only support this process, and arguably in some cases, is insufficient without it.  These three simple ideas above support all the ideas about “processing” (like the “uncover, discover, discard” etc above).  Hopefully we will get past the era of simply thinking that we all only need to act better, or otherwise “get over it”.

Lastly, need to make mention that this is of course not this simple, and would encourage more work around these things to be “happy”, free of depression, anxiety, addiction, etc.  A “resource group” of supportive people is necessary.  An organized set of principles to deal with new issues is significant.  Would also say that it’s important to have principles that allow us to grow as people- doing the work to transform and/or let go of these issues are the bare essentials for us to get to these things… and are totally possible.

You Can’t Heal What You Can’t Feel

We constantly “do” things- behaviors and thinking, that put distance between us and us, us and “others”, us and ‘god’ or the ‘universe’ as we MISunderstand s/he/them and/or it.  Food, sex, TV, gambling, relationships, rationalizing, avoiding, intellectualizing, alcohol, money, property, prestige, drugs, toys/devices (cell phones, computers, etc), fixing other people, “acting out” etc.  Overstating, when it comes to distance between us and us, we’re talking about putting distance between us and our emotional condition.  Simply using a lot of words (Lao Tzu has famously said, paraphrasing, that “many words lead one nowhere”) and even certain types of words can put distance between us and our feelings.

To simplify getting in touch with and processing our feelings about things, I encourage using what are sometimes referred to as the “Six Basic Feelings”.  These are mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt.  Certainly, we can have one or more of them at any given time, even about the same issue.  I really resist other words if at all possible, for reasons too long to go into here.

If we’re engaged in the aforementioned behaviors, we are often mood-altering, and/or simply less or unable to be in touch with our emotional condition (and as a result, others and the rest of the “universe”).  If our feelings are indicators of possible realities, if these are altered or stunted, we may not have all the information about a given circumstance.  The idea we’re going for is to talk about them in a way that transforms them, and or helps us clarify different circumstances.

So, my suggestion to get in touch with and begin transforming these is this: know the things we do that are mood-altering, let go of those behaviors (a whole other note all together), and as our feelings come up, say the facts of the circumstance, and one or more of the six basic feelings.  For instance, “When my mom (or whoever) said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do __________, I felt __________.”  That’s all.  Trying to avoid inferences, interpretations, assessments, judgments, manipulation, controlling, etc., certainly avoiding behaviors we do that ignore or diminish our ability to be in touch with how we feel.

It’s been said too that we can’t heal what we can’t feel.  So the process I’m encouraging is identifying what we do to not feel, letting go of those so that we can feel all of our feelings (“all” meaning each one, in all circumstances, and with 100% of the intensity we’re experiencing them…), naming them simply, communicating them in a way that helps us stay in touch with/get help/transform them, then finding ways to live our lives gracefully through what comes up as we process them.  This is a process I encourage with therapists, relationships, as many places as is possible.

It’s really important to point out that I’m not advocating for this process to change anyone else’s behavior or perspective.  This is not an idea about right and wrong, certainly not about comparing the relevance of our feelings to others.  It’s simply a way of getting in touch with what we feel, so that we can change it.  We often say to one another that we should “let go” of things- but you can’t let go of feelings you don’t totally have.

Utility of Sadness

We do some *ahem* interesting things with sadness.

Often, people ask us how we are.  I think the real question is about how we feel, but we will oft answer “good” or “bad” or “not so good”.  All judgments about how we feel.  Most of us would argue that “sad” is a “bad” feeling.  If we can get past that, we may use another euphemism: “depressed”.  Our relationship to this thing is often not great.

When I left my office this morning (my second office at the Life Fitness Center, a group that provides a more holistic set of services), I was sad myself.  I’d spent several hours with people who were in horrible circumstances, and had already been suffering.  Mightily, and understandably, I might add.  When I got to the light, I noticed a gentleman, probably 7ish, walking through the crosswalk with his mom.  One of my licensures is in developmental disabilities and other related problems, and I noted his cerebral palsy right away.  They were holding hands, and though his body was having a hard time- his soul certainly wasn’t.  He appeared really happy.

Behind my wheel though, I was pretty sad.  For my clients this AM, and for him (though he was probably fine).  Most of the time when we get sad, we find some way to resist it.  We push it away with our minds, set our attention elsewhere, numb it with all kinds of different behaviors, even shame ourselves for having such feelings in the first place.

Would argue though, that my sadness, has great utility.  Not only is it the most effective way to heal my losses, it certainly makes me useful to other people.  Exactly how it heals grief and loss is not quite the gist of this missive, and takes time with a therapist/counselor/life coach to know how to do effectively and gracefully.  Am certain that my sadness today assisted me in being kind and present for my clients, and likely would keep me “softer” when dealing with folk like the gentleman in the crosswalk.

My hope is that I never lose this.  As long as I am sad about the suffering of humans, I have business doing the work that I do.  The point of this though is that this is true not just in terms of my relationship to my clients or other folk in the world, but all of us in relationship to ourselves and one another in general.  Honoring our sadness does more to “cure” “anxiety” (sorry for the consecutive quotes), relieve “depression”, and make us available for intimacy than most any other thing I can think of.

Reconciling ourselves with sadness, and finding some “grace” in how we live with it, if the above is true, surely presents some great reasons we should stop treating our sadness as something repugnant.

On a different note: as a reminder, Judy McGehee and I will be on the radio/live stream/podcasting at the link below tomorrow from 1130AM until noon on the “Project Get Well America” show with Dr. Mark.  The link for the show is here.

Feelings Aren’t Necessarily Facts.

Because it’s been coming up recently, and because it’s a fundamental principle of what I do in terms of therapy:

Feelings aren’t necessarily facts.  They are just indicators of possible realities.  Of course this doesn’t mean they’re not facts- but that’s beyond the scope of a blog.  They give us information about our environment that might not otherwise be discernable or supported by our other senses.  They do much more than this, but that too is too long for a blog.

Unless we have a relationship with our own emotional condition that is healthy, I’d argue that we will have a difficult time “seeing” things clearly (circumstances, other relationships, etc.), and making choices about how to handle things.  This is true even in absence of grief and loss, depression, relationship problems, abuse, addiction and etc., and is certainly made worse by the presence of these issues.

Processing feelings (emotions as some call them, or as I often do, e-motions), transforming them, reconciling with them, how to identify them and what to do about our sense of things in light of our feelings is of course what counseling, therapy, and life coaching are all about.  At least seeing this idea as a principle, even in absence of those things can help us tell real alarms from false ones, provide some simple relief in some circumstances, give us an opportunity to be kinder to ourselves, and an opportunity to be kinder to others and more..

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