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Peter van Veggel, Business Manager

People often arrive at their first couple’s therapy session at a point of desperation. It is interesting how easily and quickly we take the required steps to repair or prevent damage to our vehicles, our homes or even our material possessions; yet when it comes to our relationships, we often avoid taking any sort of action until the situation has become much more serious. Maybe you’ve reached that point where you think things just can’t go on like this. And so your instinct is to get out, to leave. However, I urge you to remember that you vowed to be together “for better or for worse.” Sometimes it’s worse. But this, too, shall pass with the appropriate changes and efforts. A counseling psychologists can guide you to possibilities you may not be able to discover on your own.

Although the practice of couple’s therapy may differ depending on the psychologist’s theoretical orientation and academic training, at Dr. Eliana Cohen and associates, we believe in a multidisciplinary approach which means that we do not just follow a strict protocol to therapy, but rather that we open up our thoughts and approaches to other models. In prescribing to a multidisciplinary versus a stagnant approach, we become the facilitator of greater access to buried emotions and conflicts in each partner, rather than simply repeating a standardized set of skills or techniques. The purpose is not to think outside or inside the box of absolute approaches to couple’s therapy, but rather it is about thinking without a box so that the needs and desires of each individual couple and each individual within the relationship.

Couples at or around the 15-year mark of marriage often experience emotional distancing or find that the emotional bond between partners has been severely weakened. Emotional distance is characterized by a lack of an emotional or intellectual level connection with your partner. Examples of emotional distancing can include partners who do not communicate about their feelings and the needs that are most important to them. Another example includes individuals who also respond to their significant other’s comments or concerns by acting passive-aggressively. The examples of emotional distancing are endless. A trained psychologist can be particularly helpful in teaching couples to monitor the occurrence of emotional distance and to resolve it early. This is not to say that couples therapy cannot be effective at resolving long-standing problems that may have occurred even prior to the 15 year mark. Couples therapy may also help couples avoid a decline into emotional distancing by providing them with an awareness of the ways to early detect the signs of discord and the use of rituals proven to enhance the emotional connection of that couple.

Psychologists may lean upon the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy. This method to couples therapy was developed by Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman in the 1980s and is an evidence-based form of couples therapy based upon many, many years of research. Dr. John Gottman is a noted researcher who has over 40 years of experience exploring the details of marital interactions and the measurable differences in the interactions of happily married and unhappily married couples. It is from the data collected in these details, that the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy emerged.

As aforementioned, while we do not advocate the use of just one method, the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy is particularly useful in helping couples work through issues related to emotional distancing. Actually, the Gottman Method was designed to help emotionally distanced couples on the verge of separation, among other relationship issues. The Gottman Method can help the psychologist and couple examine the friendship, conflict regulation, meaning, trust, commitment and more that may be behind the emotional distancing. Couples therapy can help couples improve their understanding of one another and enhance the emotional connection between the individuals in the relationship.

Gottman’s research revealed that, most profoundly, a successful couple must have a deep-rooted friendship. It is believed that in order for this deep friendship to flourish and be maintained, it must naturally derive from: 1) Each partner having a solid understanding of the other; 2) A consistent culture of expressed appreciation, fondness, and respect between the two partners; and 3) Each partner understanding how the other requires and askes for their emotional needs to be met, and for the respective partner to not ignore these needs, but rather nurture them. Needless to say, for a healthy relationship to survive, both partners in the relationship need to establish a strong connection to each other, emotionally and truly value and listen to each other’s heart and mind.

Beyond the focus on cultivating friendship, The Gottman Method to Couple’s Therapy believes that couples that face no disagreements are actually not the happiest of couples. In fact, it is the opposite. The absence of conflict is largely a sign of emotional distance it precludes any friendship, and in turn, a successful relationship from sustaining. Couples who use ambiguous communication or avoid discussing issues as a way of avoiding conflict or even to avoid intimacy, set the stage for a relationship flooded with misunderstanding, frustration, stiffness and hurt.  But rather than having just any conflict in any old way, the Gottman Method aims to teach couple’s effective communication skills to help them overcome this conflict. One of the premises for sound communication skills is to avoid conversations which use the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”- four attitudes that wreak havoc in all the relationships that they encounter on their passage (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling).

Despite how happy your relationship may currently be, or may have been in the past, there may come a time when they experience emotional distance. Rebuilding an intimate relationship takes time and effort. Couples therapy can help you work proficiently through the process. While Eliana Cohen does not counsel solely based on The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, her training in The Method, combined with her over fifteen years of clinical experience and completion of numerous intensive clinical training programs in psychodynamic, systemic psychotherapies and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, allow her to offer one of Toronto’s leading clinical counseling services to help you and your partner work through issues related to emotional distancing. Although emotional distance can be discouraging, there are ways for couples to overcome it and rebuild their relationship, and friendship.



I dare to say it, but one-size-fits-all, perfect relationships only exist in Hollywood. Disagreements happen. I believe that unless you’re involved in severe problems, you do not need to throw away a relationship just because you have hit a rough patch. Listening and researching to so many stories about why marriages fall apart over the past few years has really opened my eyes to what makes a marriage thrive and what makes it deteriorate. Seeing a psychologist should not be viewed as an admission of failure in a marriage, but rather as a tool to help you to work on your communication. Whether you’re in therapy to mend your relationship after a conflict, explore communication tools and techniques, or something in between, a multidisciplinary approach to couples therapy should be all about what you and your partner want. Your psychologist should be supportive of this. In taking an interdisciplinary approach, I do not just follow a strict protocol therapy, but rather I open the purpose of our meetings to other models which may be supportive of your goals. Like many successful psychologists, my approach to couple’s therapy does not mean thinking outside or inside the box, but about thinking without a box. In fact, we believe that properly trained psychologist in couples therapy should be multidisciplinary in setting a specific plan rather than setting an ambiguous goal, such as to “improve communication between the two of you.”

One of the largest prevailing themes I notice in couples in conflict relates to when couples get into heated discussions that ultimately give rise to anger. This particularly happens at approximately the five-year mark, where these couples do not ‘fight fair’ and anger becomes dangerous and destructive emotion for couples because it is linked to hostility and aggression. I am not saying that it is not perfectly normal for couples to express irritability and frustration at time, but we must be aware of when emotions such as these interfere with one’s marriage to the point where divorce seems to become a common discussion and/or option. In all actuality, it may even be harmful for psychologists to attempt to get couples to not show any expression of anger.

Dr. John Gottman, an expert in marital therapy and a researcher, believes that anger itself is not so bad, but that the way in which anger is expressed is crucial. In fact, Dr. Gottman ‘s research suggests that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. Furthermore, his research suggests that couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced- who would have thought!

Dr. Gottman’s marital therapy techniques aim to help couples learn to manage conflict by changing the balance between positive and negative exchanges before, during and after martial conflict. In addition, the Gottman Method Couple Therapy attempts to help couples overcome the negative influences created in the exchange of criticism, defensive behaviours and disrespect of one another. This method also helps couples manage conflict by learning that there are differences between the individuals in the relationship that will never go away and that the individuals must learn to adapt to these differences.

According to Dr. Gottman, when anger is combined with the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, the result is toxic and can escalate the negativity in your relationship. The ‘Four Horsemen’ of Gottman’s model are:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

The superior fundamentals of a relationship are communication skills, which includes conflict management skills. Conflict management is about partners learning to communicate with your spouse in ways that do not make them defensive and in ways that make you feel as if your opinion in being heard. Moreover, in couple’s therapy, it is essential that both partners are heard without inciting a powerful argument or total closure. Unique to the Gottman Method of Couple Therapy is the use of “soft startups”. The use of soft startups refers to the avoidance of using the ‘Four Horsemen’, and specifically criticism when discussing problem-solving discussions of sensitive issues, such as couple differences. The Gottman Method urges you to take responsibility for your behaviours, build a culture of appreciation and follow the aftermath with some psychological self-soothing or taking a break when needed. A therapist trained in the Gottman Method of Couple Therapy can also help you learn techniques to soothe your spouse.

Lastly, collaboratively with a trained therapist, this method can be used to help you tackle a solvable problem, by looking at the problem and then looking for common bases for agreement.

It can be easy for individuals to find themselves with disagreements that lead to arguments and/or conflict. Communication challenges often lead to relationship troubles. Resentments and hostility can turn into anger, and anger can be a very dangerous feeling. Learning to neutralize anger with compassion for your partner can help work towards forgiveness. However, forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting, and the conflict usually still must be dealt with. Partaking in couples counseling services can help couples proactively end conflict avoidance, by empowering them with the skills needed to build pro-relationship language and thoughts to assist them in inevitable disputes. A multidisciplinary psychologist can help explore the reasons why communication issues occur and assist in working through any difficulty that occurs as a result of frequent communication issues. Counselling services can also help you identify the ‘Four Horsemen’ you may unknowingly engage with. The goal of using the Gottman Method in this way is to cultivate a greater understanding of the conflict process, while paying close attention to the common barriers to communication and their antidotes, such as the ‘Four Horsemen’.

Depending on one’s specific situation, those in need of professional support, from a psychologist who specializes in marriage guidance, can benefit from couple’s therapy where a trained couple’s therapist can help individuals examine communication strategies and encourage conflict management skills. Couple’s therapy can facilitate the improvement of communication and conflict management skills, leading to more successful conflict-resolution in relationships. This can be very helpful in dealing with resolvable conflict, whereby you can learn how to efficiently compromise. Marriage guidance can also help give the term forgiveness a new meaning and change your life. In working with a psychologist trained in the Gottman Method of Couple Therapy and other psychotherapy techniques, you can learn how to work towards practicing forgiveness so that it leads to a long-lasting healthy relationship.



Eric Berne once said, “Love is nature’s psychotherapy”, yet couples often seek assistance from counseling psychologists to enrich their relationships. With the high divorce rate, many couples may feel disheartened and without hope for a successful marriage. However, this is not the case. Couple’s therapy can help restore a better level of functioning and move couples from conflict to resolution in couples who experience relationship distress.

Couples therapy can include many different goals, outcomes and differing techniques. As psychologists, I believe that we must not only intervene effectively but in multidisciplinary ways in which we do not just follow a strict protocol therapy and instead consider other models to best meet our clients’ needs. In fact, I believe in the motto: it is about not thinking outside or inside the box, but about thinking without a box. In my many years of practice, I have seen the tremendous potential couple’s therapy has to help couples understand each other better and create positive changes in their relationship.

One of the most popular approaches to couple’s therapy comes from Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman is a marital therapy researcher of over 25 years and a key leader in the field. Based upon years of research findings, Dr. Gottman’s approach encourages learning and developing relationship-skills which are relatively easy to learn and while not explicit, provides a clear and flexible model to couple’s therapy that integrates Mindfulness, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) and Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
Based on his research Dr. Gottman has created a theory of all the behaviors successful couples engage in. Today, this has become known as “The Sound Relationship House”. The Sound is now called the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling or Couples Therapy.

This multidisciplinary model and method is based upon following concepts:

  1. Know each other.
  2. Focus on each other’s positive qualities, affirmative feelings for each other, and the good memories and experiences you have shared with each other.
  3. Interact frequently and in numerous little ways, such as by telling each other about your respective days.
  4. “Let your partner influence you.”
  5. “Solve your solvable problems” by communicating respectfully, without criticizing your partner, knowing when to take a break when you are getting too upset, and compromise effectively.
  6. Learn to understand your partner’s underlying feelings which may be preventing the successful resolution any conflict you are facing
  7. “Create shared meaning”, which can translate to shared values, attitudes, interests, traditions between individuals.

A couple’s therapist can help you develop constructive plans to help you target each of those aforementioned concepts. For example, counseling services can help you work towards a richly detailed love map that includes the major events in each other’s history and evolves as your partner’s world alters. This technique can help you better get to know one another. Another established successful technique a psychologist can help you work towards is learning to turn toward is the basis of emotional connection, romance and passion in your relationship.

As couples begin to use skills taught in couple’s therapy, which support the friendship, trust, warmth and caring which all couples yearn for, the hatred, resentment and aggression dissolve. Misconceptions about what couple’s therapy is and its purpose can also prevent couples from seeking the help of a psychologist. Very few realize that couple’s therapy actually focuses on the positives in the relationship, in order to improve the friendship between couples and not just the conflict at hand. In fact, having a deep friendship is the foundational level of Dr. Gottman’s Sound Relationship House Theory of happy couples. In his research, Dr. Gottman discovered three core elements of lasting relationships:

  1. They have a strong friendship
  2. They know how to manage their conflicts effectively
  3. They genuinely support each other’s dreams and hopes for the future

Dr. Gottman’s goals of marital therapy are to first help couples rebuild and strengthen their martial friendship, to help them learn to manage their disagreements and help them build a sense of shared meaning in their relationship. Aligned with Dr. Gottman’s findings, it is only when couples have a strong friendship as their base that is there enough love in their relationship to make them endure the disagreements and difficult times that are bound to happen over time. One of the ways in which a psychologist can help increase a couple’s marital friendship is by beginning to change the balance from negative sentiments to positive sentiments. This can be accomplished by reducing the number of negative behaviours and increasing the number of positive behaviours. Although doing so may seem like long term work, it is not; rather developing a marital friendship and increasing the positive interactions between two individuals in a relationship does take consistent practice.

In spite of the fact that myself and my associates do not follow one strict philosophy or method, in our approach to our couple’s therapy services, we cannot dispute the success and research behind Gottman’s point. It is without a doubt that it is imperative that strengthening the friendship between couples is at the heart of any successful, healthy relationship. Becoming a better friend to your partner can help you as you continue to navigate any inevitable difficult times that you experience in your relationship, in a much easier and beneficial manner. Marriage guidance or couples counseling can help bolster the bond that you have with your loved one and learn how to continue to solidify your friendship with each other through your passion, love, support and effective conflict resolution.

Couples therapy is a valuable way to obtain some guidance for any kind of relationship: straight, gay, mixed-race, young, old, dating, cohabitating, friends, engaged or married. In working together with a psychologist who specializes in marriage guidance and psychotherapy, and who is trained in the Gottman Couples Therapy method, your relationship can continue to flourish. Couples therapy can be used to help resolve a present-day problem, avoid an exacerbation of existing problems or even provide an opportunity for discussion and learning of skills to content couples that are experiencing a period of transition or increased stress that is impacting their marital friendships or their individual lives. 



Attunement

Attunement is the process of focusing our attention on the other and making the other feel “felt”, “seen” and “heard”. We take the other’s essence and internal states into our inner world.  Much of what we communicate is nonverbal, and we take in through our senses and not thru words. A posture, facial expressions, tones of voice, the rate of speech can communicate energy and information.

To be truly attuned and open to another person’s signals, we need to move toward an open state of presence rather than being biased by our past experiences and restrictive expectations. Put simply; attunement requires a complete surrendering of judgment.

Attunement is necessary for interpersonal attachment, which is vital for our sense of well-being and resilience.

The first phase of attunement is Simulation: The focus of attention on the signals from another. The neurons in our brain are fired and relayed downwards to stimulate changes in our bodies.

The second phase is Interoception: The shifts in our subcortical bodily states are relayed upward back to the brain to shape our states of reactivity or receptivity. We perceive the interior sensations of our body.

This metarepresentation of our body in our mind allows us to regulate our bodily states, consciously, and allocate our attention and regulate our emotion.

Our awareness of our body’s state influences how we organize our lives. As we attune to another person, we focus on their signals and use this information to shape our own subcortical states and internal world. Unknowingly, when we attune, we “sync” our heart rate to the heart rate of the other. This has been demonstrated to happen between therapists and patients (Siegel, 2010) and in sports psychology between elite horseback riders and their horses (Baltzell, 2016).

- The key to attunement is to be willing to say, “I don’t know” and “tell me more”. There is a common misconception that we “know” what the other is thinking but inevitably when you invite open exploration without judgment, the person reveals aspects of their inner world that were previously suppressed.

Mindsight skills, therefore, require monitoring both our own and another individual’s internal states and modifying this internal flow of energy and information.

The feeling of needing a connection but not receiving such attunement from another creates a state of shame and withdrawal.  This is why attunement is crucial for interpersonal relationships. There is evidence that mothers who did not receive good parenting from their parents, can be “present” for their children, which can lead to the creation of secure attachments if the mother has “made sense” of their childhood. These attachments in childhood later shape your romantic attachments. On the other hand, if the primary caregiver had a traumatic childhood and did not “make sense of it” then he/she will not be “present”. Instead, that adult will be acting under the influence of his/her past and will likely recreate the unstable attachment that they experienced in their childhood.

Shame exercise

  • The following exercise of mindsight training focuses on times when a lack of interpersonal communication in a relationship may have limited your ability to regulate your internal state
  1. Write down what you feel your greatest fears may be of connecting with another person
  2. Write down times I your life when communication with another person in your personal life was challenging. What was going on for you? What signals from the other did you find most distressing? How did this difficult connection make you feel?
  3. Consider a time when someone had significant difficulty attuning to you. What was that like? What led to it and what was the outcome like for you? What did it feel like to be ignored, dismissed, or misunderstood? What did you notice were the possible reasons the other person was unable to attune to your internal state of mind?
  4. This feeling of needing connection but not receiving that attunement through interpersonal connection can create a state of shame. See if you can locate where in your body this feeling of shame may reside: sensations in your chest, eyes, or stomach? Take these images, sensations, feelings, and recollections and put them aside for a moment.
  5. Now imagine a peaceful scene (park, ocean, forest, a special room in your home). Let this peaceful image intensify in your mind. Notice the sensations in your body and mind. This is your home base – a deep, calm, grounded place of tranquility that is always available to you.
  6. Knowing that you are able to build this internal source of strength, you can practice just sensing your breath or imagining your peaceful place each day.

(Siegel, D. J. 2012, p 47-49)

Resonance

Resonance occurs when two independent entities form a functional whole, where the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.  For people to resonate with one another, it requires not just understanding the other person, but to become engaged with them.

  • When the observed takes in the observer having taken them in, the two become joined. This is how we feel “felt” and how two individuals become “we”.

There is physical evidence showing that two states (people) can become one:

  • There is evidence of synced heartbeats and breathing between two resonating beings.

There are also subjective findings that show people having sad emotions while listening to another persons’ upsetting story. This is an example of how resonance enables us to feel others’ feelings.

An important aspect of a person’s resonance capability lies in childhood attachment.

If a parent has made sense (created a narrative) of their own early life history, their child is more likely to have a secure attachment to them.  If a parent hasn’t made sense of their early life history, their child is more likely to have an insecure attachment to them.

  • Resonance is easier for those who have a secure attachment to their parental figures and harder for those who have an insecure attachment to their parental figures.

Those who have insecure attachments growing up can move to a secure attachment style as an adult if they take the time to make sense of their childhood.

  • It is necessary to put words to an emotional experience à creating a narrative

Making sense of our past frees us to be present in our lives and to become a creative and active author of our own unfolding life story.

Reflecting on and understanding your attachment history is a crucially important way to understand your mind and have the ability to modify it toward security.

If you are to look into your past childhood traumas, you can learn to make sense of the times that resonance wasn’t there.  If there was trauma, survival was the only option.  By creating a narrative and understanding that trauma, you no longer just have to survive, but you can now thrive.

Secure attachment and mindfulness traits are remarkably consistent with one another.

Training 

Mindsight Skills

Neuroplasticity refers to our ability to create, strengthen, and modify synaptic connections

Neurons that fire together wire together

  • When synapses between neurons occur repeatedly, this increases the myelin sheath around the interconnected neurons
    • Myelin increases conduction speeds by 100 times
  • When you practice mindsight over and over, these same neurons keep firing and this builds strength in that connection

When you face an obstacle, constant practice, instead of avoidance, allows for the development of that skill and promotes the wrapping and maintenance of myelin sheaths around those connected neurons

By trying hard to do things you can barely do, in deep practice, then, your skill circuits will respond by getting faster and more accurate

  • This effort is essential to developing the skill of mindsight
  • Deep practice in mindsight skill training involves moving into these distinct minute by minute steps movement by movement, but then also seeing the larger picture overall

The whole idea of mindsight is to approach your mistakes, rather than avoid them

The process of mindsight training involves stabilizing our mind with openness, observation, and objectivity; making sure to track when our attention wanders, then redirect our attention and attunement with kindness and understanding to achieve a state of openness

Awareness enables us to intentionally focus our attention to activate specific neuronal circuits and change their connections so that they integrate the brain

Throughout mindsight skill training, we are training nine specific functions of our brain: regulating the body, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear modulation, insight, empathy, morality, and intuition

  • With deep practice across these nine aspects, we can harness the power of careful attention to let the mind promote the neuroplasticity that can integrate the brain and transform our lives
  • This is mindsight’s power to move our lives toward health 

Reference 

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration. New York: W.W. Norton & Company