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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, California, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often suggests books to her clients that might lead them toward making deeper meaning of their own life experiences. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, which covers existential themes, is reviewed below.,

“If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.” -Morrie Schwartz

The symbiotic nature of the mentoring relationship through time and space is beautifully depicted in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE by Mitch Albom. Indeed, the term “mentor” is eponymous with a character in the Odyssey, who advises Telemachus, and pushes him forward in his search for his father. It is especially instructive for the student of marriage and family therapy studies to read TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE as if he were assessing both men from the psychosocial, contextual, and lifespan perspectives. From each of these vantage points, the careful reader will not only internalize Morrie’s lessons, but also become aware of changes in both men as a result of their interaction over time and space. Thus, observing both intrapersonal and interpersonal movement as well as changes one or both men make in their larger environments is cogent to the student of systems. In an effective manner, this remarkable bestseller serves as a kind of adjunct text for individual and family life cycle development students, for it will demonstrate to the budding clinician the notion that everything is connected and must, therefore, be interpreted in a contextual manner, and that when change occurs within one person, change will also become apparent in all whom he/she touches. In a Virgina Satir-like manner, the reader will be taken on a peak experience, the emotional learning experience, the real stuff of learning…the kind of teaching mold from which Morrie Schwartz emerged: the Confluent Educational Movement of the Sixties.

Clearly, Morrie, the former Brandeis, sociology professor of 37-year-old Mitch Albom, is not an ordinary man. He is an extraordinary man whom we meet as he faces his own slow but steady death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease; he is inspirational, because he exemplifies the apex of emotional maturity. It is with a sense of concomitant awe and recognition of developmental stages completed in a timely fashion that we watch him transition into this final life stage, exhibiting a joie de vivre to the end.

On the other hand, Mitch, consistent with his pattern of disconnectedness and negative feelings over his previous life cycle stages, has lost touch with his beloved professor since he graduated in ’79, despite his intention to always keep in touch. It is not surprising that he did not follow through, for in letting important relationships like the one he enjoyed with Schwartz go, we realize that he is merely following a familiar pattern of letting go all that is important to the heart. So, as might be expected, he has also lost touch with his old friend, his wife, and, ultimately, with the essence of his own personhood. In the fast-track culture in which he lives, a culture which is more egocentric and self-serving than those of other times, Mitch shows how his emotional maturity has been retarded by the interplay between family of origin issues and the materialistic values of his generation. His drive to succeed in the business world at the expense of his sense of connectedness to others suggests both a fear of intimacy and an abiding external locus of control (defining his worth in terms of society’s definition of success).

The question of individual differences in native-born resiliency should also be compared and contrasted. Morrie, who had a childhood colored by the loss of his mother, and impoverished further by a cold, distant father, apparently overcame even these attachment challenges, as can be inferred by his admirable responses to his final developmental tasks–end stage intimacy outcomes are positive and, this, in large part, results in an integrity of the life review. It is clear that Morrie displays an emotional maturity impressive to any lay person or to any clinician. Probably not lagging seriously in prior developmental milestones despite non-normative changes in earlier life, the clinician might have to consider biological, individual variants. This humanistic professor, product of the idealistic Sixties, well represents Steve Wolin’s Challenge Model of Resiliency (1991). No Damage Model was Schwartz, but rather a stellar example of initiative, humor, creativity, healthy relationship attachments, independence, insight, and morality.

Albom, a successful sportswriter and unsuccessful spouse, is lurched back in time when he mindlessly but serendipitously sees an ailing Morrie beamed into his living room from his television, which is tuned into Ted Koppel’s Nightline. He is transfixed as he hears how Morrie intends to ‘teach’ his last course to a nationally televised audience: a course on how to live even while dying. The dialectic of teaching others how to live while in the midst of facing death and even enjoying one’s last days when physical handicaps demand a return to the dependency of childhood is difficult at best (especially if one can smile despite needing someone else to ‘wipe my own ass”).

Morrie’s palpable enthusiasm to Mitch’s return to his life is illustrative of Morrie’s ability to enhance and enrich his own growth and development through connection. His manner of finding the positive in perceiving transitional challenges, thus reframing what might have once seemed overwhelming, buoys his journey, for it is all about the ability to live in the moment and in so doing, achieving a kind of freedom which subsequently empowers him to creatively move through and onward to the next milestone task in his life cycle.

Indeed, Morrie delights in the prospect of teaching Mitch one final class: in it, he sees his opportunity to generate wisdom while completing an important task during the last life cycle stage, a life review. Through Mitch, Morrie will also re-connect with a piece of his past, tasks which are generative and are consistent with what is important to do during the eighth life stage.

Thus, in what will prove to be a mutually beneficial partnership, the young man and the old man agree to meet every Tuesday for fourteen weeks. Through deeply affecting dialogue, Morrie offers consummate love, liberally spiced with humor, aphorism, examples, reminiscences, and philosophy. Schwartz personifies successful completion of the developmental tsks of Eriksen’s seventh and eighth age life stages.

Conversely, through Mitch, the training clinician sees what it looks like to not age well…what it looks like when a man has experienced significant failure in negotiating the earlier developmental tasks of adulthood. Morrie offers a picture of intimacy instead of isolation, of generativity instead of stagnation and of ego integrity instead of despair. On the other hand, in listening to Morrie, Mitch, who feels an intensified awareness of his years of isolation and angst of emptiness, is in increasing pain and paralyzed to move forward. He can now admit his drive toward materialistic acquisition has been tragically misplaced over many years. As the sole audience for Morrie when he completed his life review, Mitch became empowered to reframe his own notion of what it meant to live and be a success.

The astute, psychologically-minded reader could handily identify points at which Albom hit developmental lags, just as Albom identified them himself as he listened to Morrie’s review of his own rich life course. Albom effectively illustrates how individuals are agents of change in one another, and then how profoundly individuals affects one another from differing generations, historical contexts, cultures and life experiences intersecting.

As a result of what had synchronistically become a highly successful theraputic alliance, Mitch begins to question his values and reorder his priorities. Most impressive to the training clinician is the fact that Morrie has moved him forward in his individual development, evidenced by his initiative in reconnecting with his brother, suffering from the same disease, from whom he had been estranged for many years. Morrie is able to go ever so ‘…gently into that good night’ (rather than railing against death, as Dylan Thomas exhorted his father to do)after completing his life review, taking joy from his own initiative in getting on Nightline, teaching a former student their mutually, most memorable class, his involvement in a book project, and organizing his own living tribute memorial.

From a holistic perspective, we see in these two men an example of the systemic concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Teacher and student are profoundly changed by and through one another. Teacher is empowered toward a more joyous letting go of mortality intersecting with his memories of his past history.

Though not free of stressors, he sees it as a life well-lived, exemplified and capped by his ability to be of benefit by connecting with a younger individual.

Conversely, instead of feeling the joys of intimacy through ties to mate, work, and larger society, Mitch suffered an emptiness borne of his compulsive need to define his success in material terms, not serving his healthy development. Mitch is a man whose psychosocial development got ‘stuck’ somewhere in time. Morrie models generativity when most people would allow the physical stagnation to spread to emotional anguish and/or stagnation, thus cutting off their life force energy in spite of the fact that they are still blessed with life.

The importance of connectedness between generations, within families, extended families, communities, career netweorks, agape friends, and between hearts and heads is repeatedly driven home throughout this spiritual book. With each metaphorical example, the reader is charged and changed. Circular causality is on bold parade as Morrie’s empending death marches toward finality before millions, and it is Mitch who, at the same time as his demise, seems to be reborn. Rippling further outward, Morrie’s exemplary way of dying is portrayed to a nation of television viewers, also affected, by witnessing Morrie’s inspirational approach up close and personal. Most saliently, Morrie offers himself to Mitch as an opportunity to develop intimacy with another human being, perhaps the crowning human achievement and one that has eluded the younger man until his professor’s death. Thus, old and young men goad one another toward increasing their respective levels of emotional connection in facing death by and through

one another. By comparing and contrasting where each of these men are when we meet them in terms of their lifespan stage and how each of them subsequently handles the respective tasks that their chronological age suggests, the student can see how feedback loops compliment the completion of milestones within a specific context.

It is difficult to say who got more out of the Tuesday meetings: Mitch or Morrie. Is there an irony to the fact that when people are dying, the living seem more able to hear what they have to say? Should an individual’s ability to reverse developmental emotional retardation as a result of their vertical communication with another be questioned? Did Mitch, in fact, change enough to donate a portion of the proceeds from his bestseller to Lou Gehrig’s Disease research” The circular causality of human interaction and the dialectic that it is possible to find joyous tranformation on the other side of painful transition, even unto death, is part and parcel of the beauty in this little book.

At the close of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, Morrie tells the story of a wise, little wave reminding another frightened little wave that he is ‘not part of a wave, [but]part of an ocean.’ Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom are testament to Katherine Kubler-Ross’ assertion that ‘…one of the most productive avenues of growth is found through the study and experience of death…individuals who have been fortunate enough to share in the death of someone who understood its meaning seem better able to live and grow because of the experience. Indeed it is patently clear that human beings do have the capacity to utilize an interpersonal relationship positively and move themselves forward, especially if the context is right. Morrie’s life–and death–reflect a man whose ego identity thrived as a result of the composite power and cumulative wisdom of most of his life choices. As Eriksen asserts, ‘Those who can accept [death]accept the whole [more than the sum total] of their own lives and those who get to such a point of maturity find that death loses its sting.

Morrie tells Mitch that “We have a sense that we should be like the mythical cowboy…able to take on and conquer anything and live in the world without the need for other people.” Poignantly, at the end of the book, Mitch resumes a relationship with his ailing brother, Steve, thus exhibiting hope and promise that intimacy will no longer elude him, even after Morrie is gone. And at the beginning of the book, Mitch describes Morrie as “…a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds.” It is a certainty that Mitch Albom would echo the idea that big heroes can reside in small places.

Dr. Cunningham is a relationship counseling expert. She practices couples counseling, marriage counseling and treats relationships issues of all types in San Diego, CA. She offers evening hours and a complimentary telephone consultation. You may reach her at 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist, specializes in relationship counseling for couples and individuals seeking relief from acute problems or for personal growth. She enjoys a busy couples counseling practice and offers working couples evening hours at her office in the heart of San Diego. Whether you are seeking marriage counseling, couples counseling, or individual psychotherapy, Dr. Cunningham has affordable rates and provides a safe environment to work on increasing relational health. Seeking help through counseling is a sign of courage and strength of character. It is not a sign of weakness to enlist the help of a professional in sorting out issues.

Dr. Cunningham encourages couples to continue working on increasing their emotional connection with one another. Even though each partner may think they “know” the other, over time, sometimes this perception stops couples from becoming more engaged. Taking your partner for granted makes a relationship stale. Becoming more curious about how your partner thinks about a myriad number of issues can be stimulating.

One “fun” way to accomplish this goal is to make time for weekly  “pillow talk” evenings. Take a stack of blank 3×5 cards and write a conversation starter in the form of a question on each card and place each completed card in a box. After the children have been put down for the night, or if you do not have children, after you get ready for bed, settle down with your box of 3×5 cards between you. Take turns choosing a card and each of you speak to the topic on the card. Talk, agree, disagree, laugh, and then laugh some more. Be respectful. Demonstrate active listening skills. Do not interrupt. Ask clarifying questions to show interest in hearing what your partner has to say.  See the list below for conversation starter suggestions:

If you knew you had only one week left to live, what would you do with the remaining time?

What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your life thus far? What do you hope to do that is even better?

Given the choice of anyone in the wold, alive or dead, what five people would you most like to invite to dinner? As your close friends?

Do you believe in free will or in predestination? Why?

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Can you name a challenge we faced in our relationship and describe how you were proud of how we handled it as a couple? Of how you handled yourself as an individual?

Talk about a point of pride in your own reaction to an outside challenge that you experienced this week. A regret?

How do you want people to remember you most after you are gone?

In what ways has knowing me influenced you to be a better person? How do you think that I have become a better person as a result of knowing you?

Do you believe that you have enough time? In what ways has your notion of time changed over the years?

Do we spend enough time together? If not, how could we improve our time management to make more time for one another?

Going back to earlier, important romantic relationships in your life, what did you learn about YOURSELF after time passed and you took another look at the breakup? What was YOUR part in the unraveling of that relationship?

As you can see, the list can go on and on. It is almost as much fun to come up with ideas for conversation starters as it is to actually converse about them.  Research has shown that couples who know more rather than less about one another have a more stable and fulfilling relationship. You can never stop getting to know someone better. Curiosity is a kind of aphrodisiac-showing interest in another person’s thoughts, feelings and emotions can be a turn-on!

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of relationship counseling, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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Dr. Barbara Cunningham, a licensed marriage and family therapist, practices couples counseling in the heart of San Diego. Dr. Cunningham believes that relationship counseling is not for the faint of heart–it takes courage to look within. Listed below are some of her favorite quotes on marriage and relationships.

“We just say the divorce didn’t work out.” Joe, who remarried his wife after they divorced.

A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.” Mignon McLaughlin

“I now think of marriage like I think about living in my home state of Minnesota. You move into marriage in the springtime of hope, but eventually arrive at the Minnesota winter, with its cold and darkness. Many of us are tempted to give up and move south at this point, not realizing that maybe we’ve hit a rough spot in a marriage that’s actually above average. The problem with giving up, of course, is that our next marriage will enter its own winter at some point. So do we just keep moving on, or do we make our stand now–with this person, in this season? That the moral, existential question we face when our marrige is in trouble.”  Bill Doherty

“Committing to staying calm is the first key to committing to staying married.” Hal Runkel, founder of the SCREAM FREE INSTITUTE

“The FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOLCALYPSE predict an ailing marrige: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. The worst of these is Contempt.” John Gottman 

“Love is no assignment for cowards.” Ovid

Dr. Cunningham offers affordable rates and evening hours to accommodate working couples in the heart of San Diego. You are welcome to call her to receive a complimentary phone consultation at 619 9906203. Also, pick up some free tips just for stopping by to check out her web site at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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Dr. Cunningham often hears couples come to marriage counseling and relationship counseling with issues related to anger. Each partner often begins couples counseling with a wish for the therapist to “fix” the other.  Counseling aims to help each partner increase their capacity to visualize their own part in the dance. This increased self-responsility to at once be true to expressing your feelings to your intimate other and, still, to decrease blaming him/her is an overarching goal of most psychotherapy within my model, no matter what the presenting problems.

In his book entitled TO A DANCING GOD: NOTES OF A SPIRITUAL TRAVELER, Sam Keen has a dialogue with anger (pp. 114-119).  Anger says, “If you doubt that I am the companion of love, remember the ecstasy of the reconciliation that comes after fighting. After a good expression of clean anger, lovers have established the integrity of their separateness, and they may come together without fearing that either will be eradicated by the act of love. If you can’t fight, you can’t love.”

Interestingly, this quote from Keen has been backed up by specific research in the field. John Gottman’s research disspelled a prevalent myth about marriage. He found that fighting is not predictive of divorce. If couples are engaged with one another and learn principles of “fair” fighting, learning more effective ways to resolve conflict can, in fact, lead the way to deepening relational growth. Notably, important work by John Gottman identified lethal forms of communication between partners that were predictive of divorce and he called them the four “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (stonewalling, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness). He found that these communication patterns in relationships were dangerous to holding relationships on a course of stability and longevity.

Thus, Keen’s quote is backed up by Gottman’s empirical findings.  Anger that is not expressed or held back may be classified as a kind of stonewalling. So-called happy couples may be ignoring or hiding the anger that exists within and between them. Marital partners who are more able to express anger in a timely, reflective, and respectful manner, especially with a Gottman technique that he referrs to as “soft startups,”  may be more adept at repair attempts and thus are more likely to stay together in a more fulfilling way.

Anger has to be a respected member of the partnership. If not, the couple may not be genuine with themselves or with each other. Furthermore, anger unrecognized or in disguise may be more dangerous than when it is out in the open and dischargeable. Hidden anger can lead to sudden disruptions, including failure in the marriage, a damaged sex life, domestic violence, and anxious child-rearing that may even lead to child abuse. When unconscious and unexpressed anger festers, it grows and becomes regressively more primitive.

If one considers the tasks of loving from the perspective of  Bowen Family Systems Theory, lovers must also be able to establish the integrity of their separateness if they are to remain connected as effective marital partners. If partners are fused too tightly, they will not be able to come together without fearing eradication by the other. Bowen would wholeheartedly agree with Keen that lovers who can cleanly express their anger are likely to be more engaged lovers. Lovers must have a bottom line and be differentiated enough to not “cave in” or accommodate to another just because they fear losing the relationship if they do not give in. Those who can make a move for “self” are also able to freely choose to make a move for “other” instead of just going along, with resentment following closely behind. They are able to be at choice about when they wish to be separate and when they wish to be connected while, at the same, they have a greater capacity to respect a differing need for closeness and/or distance at various times in their partner.

Makeup sex often occurs without a clear resolution to existing problems. It occurs because the couple just gets tired of fighting and feeling all the  negative energy and want to restore the illusion that they are really doing ok without necessarily doing the work to get there. In my view, an accurate description of problems brought to therapy always addresses the reciprocity between a couple and one’s ability to identify or visualize one’s own part in a dynamic. The “automatic” impulse is to focus on what is wrong with other instead of working to see what one’s own part may be and then moving toward changing it. Part of the work in “fair” fighting, from my perspective, then,  is the capacity to “step up” and see what you can do to shift the unhelpful dynamic that led to the fight. Makeup sex can feel goodin the moment, but may be a mere escape from taking responsibility on your end to make things better in the longterm. Makeup sex that does not include each partner’s effort to change can feel euphoric, but without the promise of future increased connectedness. Some people have compared the feeling to getting high on cocaine.

The more you love, the more susceptible you are to being hurt. When a person is hurt, the natural response is anger in some form or other. While anger is a painful emotion, it also brings wakefulness, alertness, and, if it does not burn out of control, can even lead to clearer thinking and action about one’s own functioning in relation to important others. Anger is an emotion creeping into many of our expressions. Problems are tackled, obstacles are attacked, roadblocks are smashed, fears are conquered, and skills are mastered. I believe that it is not enough to be angry about some things.  If you can be aware of your anger, express it with an eye to including in your expression what you have done to trigger such anger-provoking behavior in another, and fight fairly, then you will discover that you can love better and not be in a state of chronic festering resentment Anger needs to be expressed and recognized as an integral part of life and living. At one time or another, it  is part of being transparent to a significant other. Being emotionally “naked” with another is difficult;  the process of this effort describes the challenges in the journey toward increasing transparency. As David Schnarch noted in his book entitled PASSIONATE MARRIAGE, this capacity to increase transparency can lead to what he refers to as ” wall socket sex.”  Certainly, the expression of anger in a nonblaming manner with an eye to what one has done to trigger the other to behave in ways that inspire anger is a helpful, systemic approach to conflict resolution. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

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  In my private practice in San Diego, I work to provide quality services for marriage counseIing, relationship counseling, and individual psychotherapy. Oftentimes, I listen to young girls and women of all ages obsess about their weight, their appearance and their disappearing youth. I try to provide a safe holding environment as they work to relieve themselves of the overwhelming social pressures to be the prettiest, the skinniest, and the sexiest version of themselves they can create. I coach them to practice self care and take pride in themselves. However, I also coach them to make their life purpose revolve around what they can accomplish rather than merely upon a superficial and dangerous emphasis upon appearance and youth.

After talking at lunch with a close friend and colleague about the troubles of Demi Moore, I had a moment to reflect upon society’s demands to value appearance over substance. Magazines, movies, tv shows, and internet blogs seem to scream that “youth” trumps wisdom-that what we wear matters more than what we think. Some young women and many older women buy into this message so passionately that they kill themselves trying to meet these youthful, botoxed, skinny standards.

This week,  ABC News reported on Demi Moore’s downward spiral as reflecting her obsession with losing weight and battling against the clock as she approaches the big 5-0.  After public humiliation in the face of her estranged younger husband, Ashton Kutcher, betraying her with gorgeous, younger women, she seemingly dropped off her own psychological cliff. Demi appeared so emaciated in this week’s photos that she could have been mistaken for a cancer patient. Sad. Really sad. As she moves into a new decade, her refusal to eat seemed to say symbolically that she just could not swallow it. That she simply wants to disappear. 

Moore’s reported erratic behavior and alleged drug abuse sends a loud message to her daughters that adulthood is not fun and that aging gracefully must be for fools. She makes it appear that it is devastating to cross from youth to middle age. This woman’s daughters are learning deep lessons by watching their mother. Partying with their mother. Suffering as they watch their mother suffer. Wondering if growing older is really as devastating as Mom would have them believe. Moore reportedly gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar and said, “What scares me is that I am ultimately going to find out at the end of my life that I am not really loveable, that I’m not worthy of being loved…that there is something fundamentally wrong with me.”

When daughters watch their mothers obsess about weight, worry about their changing appearances, be more ambitious about choosing their wardrobes than they are about the enduring consequences of their life choices and try to “hang” with and/or marry much younger men in an effort to cling to their own youth, they are receiving a devastating message. As mothers, we must realize that we are always modeling something–but what? In fact, the deepest lessons our daughters learn is by watching what we do, not what we say. So what are the lessons that we teach our daughters by our own actions?

Little girls learn at an early age if Mom is more concerned with style over substance. Sadly, Rumor, Scout and Talullah may have learned that their mother believes that her greatest value is in her appearance–that her validity as a human being is wrapped up in what she weighs, how she looks, and whether she is still “hot.” In a mad effort to deny her own mortality, she hangs with young people and seemingly tries to deny she is turning fifty with erratic behavior and recreational drugs. If Demi’s daughters are fortunate, they will look at life and their own intrinsic value differently than their mother. They will try to make meaning out of their life in a way that honors experience and wisdom over youth and appearance. Instead of survival of the prettiest, they will see their survival as being rooted in resilience-in the lessons they can discover that are present, but must be uncovered, in each of their life challenges.  Hopefully, Ms. Moore will benefit from professional help so that she can turn her life around. As a woman and as a mother who is facing myriad challenges, she now has an opportunity to teach her children more about the meaning of life by giving new meaning to her own. She has the opportunity to show that there is no shame in stumbling if one picks themselves up from the fall. She can model the joy of recovery from all of the Sturm and Drang so publically displayed. She has the opportunity to review and perhaps modify her values that have privileged vanity over inner substance gained from a life well lived. She has the opportunity to bounce forward, not just back-because of, not in spite of, her recent adversities.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s strength-based practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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As a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, I practice couples therapy and individual therapy using an intergenerational perspective. I specialize in helping couples and individuals live more meaningfully in their most important relationships. Relationship counseling and individual counseling is better to seek sooner rather than later when one experiences chronic challenges in relational functioning. Research has shown that couples typically wait 6 years before seeking couples counseling. It is wiser to get help earlier and before problems fester, causing resentments to harden and become more resistant to treatment.

Dr. Murray Bowen was a pioneer of marriage and family therapy.   He believed that human beings live in interdependent emotional systems. His insights are profound. I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. James Framo, another early MFT leader, observed that clinically, Bowen’s ideas address the basic question of how one can deal with one’s family’s nuttiness without cutting off from the family. Just as Socrates urged people, “Know thyself,” Dr. Bowen encouraged people to “Know your family.”  Such an effort can enhance one’s ability to live in a more fulfilled way in one’s current relationships. Below are *five quotes that typify Bowen’s deep and unique  level of understanding of the human condition:

“Schizophrenia is made up of the essence of human experience  many times distilled. With our incapacity to look at ourselves, we have much to learn about ourselves by studying the least mature among us.” -M. Bowen

“One of the most important aspects of family dysfunction is an equal degree of overfunction in another part of the family system. It is factual that dysfunctioning and overfunctioning exist together.” -M. Bowen

“The overall goal [of counseling] is to help family members become ‘systems experts’ who could know [their] family system so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an expert.” -M. Bowen

“The basic building block of any emotional system is the triangle.” -M. Bowen

“The ‘Emotional Shock Wave’ is a network of underground ‘aftershocks’ of serious life events that can occur anywhere in the extended family system in the months or years following serious emotional events in the family.” -M. Bowen

Dr. Cunningham specializes in seeing couples and individuals in her office in the heart of San Diego. To learn more about her insight-based, intergenerational model of practice and get some tips just for stopping by, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

You may also receive a complimentary telephone consultation by calling her at 619 9906203.

*Five quotes from Dr. Murray Bowen are cited within a book entitled FAMILY THERAPY IN CLINICAL PRACTICE (1978) by Murray Bowen (Jason Aronson: Northvale, NJ).

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In my San Diego marriage counseling and couples counseling practice, I have learned that our “automatic” response in the face of anxiety is to make the problem all about what our partner is doing wrong. Such a blaming attitude rarely moves a relationship forward. As a family systems specialist and relationship counselor, I encourage couples to focus on their own part in an unhelpful dynamic. In order to help them do so, I ask them to become a researcher on their own multigenerational context. Questions asked may, in part, answer “Who am I in the context of my relationship functioning and how did I get this way? What shaped me to be who I am as a husband, wife, or significant other?” This cognitive or “researcher” attitude inherently calms people down and decreases the anxious focus on symptoms or presenting issues. As each person calms down while doing research on their own family of origin, the couple can move into the next phase of directly engaging with problems that are present in the here and know.  The research on one’s own family engages the cognitive brain and cools down the emotional brain–emotionality usually dominates thoughtfulness and any effort to shift the balance can be helpful in moving forward in a more positive way in the couples’ challenges.

In an article entitled “Family Systems with Alcoholism, A Case Study,” Ann McKnight (1998) underlines the notion that information is power. She suggests several questions one might ask important members of one’s family of origin, some of which are listed below:

Can the family shift from viewing [an impairment or symptom] as an individual problem to viewing the [impairment or symptom] as a family problem?

Can the family come to view the [impairment or symptom] as a disguised opporunity to allow members to understand their relationship system rather than as a disease to be cured in an individual?

How do people in the family hold on to their personal boundaries?

How do family members manage to stay connected?

Are there many examples of emotional cutoffs between family members?

How do people play out underfunctioning and overfunctioning reciprocal positions in the family?

What is the maturity level of each person? Of the family? (Define emotional maturity as a combination of impulse control and whether a person can function in a hostile relationship environment whether at work or at school)

Look at the functioning of people in both work and in relationships. How many times were parents, aunts and uncles married? What did people do for a living?

How do certain family-of-origin patterns repeat themselves in subsequent generations, including in your nuclear family today?

How did people in the family-of-origin bind anxiety?

Can you identify any multigenerational patterns of strength in your multigenerational legacy?

Many other questions can be generated in order to become a scholar on oneself. In relationship counseling contexts, it is always helpful to learn more about one’s origins before focusing on what one’s part is in an unhelpful relationship dynamic. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com/ or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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Relationship counseling
can be an avenue of personal growth in the service of improving the connection with your partner. In my model of couples counseling, partners become increasingly aware that being in an intimate relationship over the long haul calls upon both partners to self-regulate their  reactivity to one another at various times. It also requires that partners or spouses preserve their connection with the important other without sacrificing themselves: it necessitates that each partner has the capacity to hold onto their core values, principles, and non-negotiable bottom lines. This may mean that one may, at times, have to say difficult things despite risking disapproval. Similarly, if one hears difficult material from one’s partner, there is an opportunity to reinforce growth behavior in other by affirming the openness instead of clobbering one’s mate for being transparent just because what they had to say made us feel uncomfortable. Thus, it is in the context of relationship functioning that one can transcend self and move onto a path of personal growth. In his 1996  article entitled “Affect and the redefinition of intimacy” (In: Knowing, Feeling, Affect, Script and Psychotherapy, ed. D. Nathanson, New York: Norton, pp. 55-104), V. Kelly makes some important observations about relationships. What follows below is a direct quote of this material (and reflects my thinking on part of  what the the work should entail in relationship counseling):

“All close relationships require proximity that causes us to step on each other’s toes. If, for whatever reason, one does not say ‘ouch’ and communicate the distress experienced as a result of the other’s actions, a complex dilemma is created. The need to disguise the distress causes the inmost self to be hidden from the other. The distress, if unrelieved, eventually triggers anger and resentment that must also be hidden. This causes further withdrawal and hiding of the inmost self. The other, perhaps not even aware of the offense, experiences feeling of rejection triggered by the withdrawal, without information adequate to allow reestablishment of the intimate bond. Now hurt, this other may also resort to withdrawal, thus setting in motion a recursive loop of rejection and hurt” [pp. 87-88].

Understanding that the withholding of important emotions can be just as damaging to a relationship as perpetual nagging about intense emotions is only part of what one has to “get” in therapy. It is the co-determined nature of this dance that is also important. How often are our responses simply reactivity in response to our partner and how often are our responses truly reflective? This ability to know the difference between reactivity and reflectivity is part of  the art of living in relationships in a fulfilling way. On one hand, to be able to identify within ourselves when we are being reactive and when we are being reflective takes skill and sometimes patience (sometimes we just have to “buy time” and calm down before taking any action or saying something about a sensitive subject). Knowing how to stay connected to one’s partner while still preserving some separateness takes effort, emotional ambition, and continued practice. It is important to appreciate that the expression of one’s emotions is primarily relational. At Affordable Relationship Counseling, work is focused upon helping each partner identify and then modify their part in the relational dance to increase mutual satisfaction. Such an effort often results in personal growth as a result of learning new principles to address challenges one may have in remaining in a relationship.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of marriage counseling, couples counseling and individual counseling, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation .

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At her Affordable Relationship Counseling practice in Mission Valley, San Diego’s Dr. Barbara Cunningham encourages couples and spouses to make time for a weekly date night. Below are some ideas for romantic date nights in San Diego:

Go to La Shores and walk around. Build a bonfire. View the sunset. Or take a bike and then have a picnic on the grass.

Watch the fireworks from Sea World–enjoy an awesome evening under the stars after a glass of wine at sunset on Mission Bay.

Take a sunset or winetasting cruise through the waters of Coronado Island. Cruising through the water in a gondola–can you think of anything more romantic?

Take a horse drawn carriage ride through Balboa Park or ride along the coast in your Cinderella carriage.

Go to a drive-in movie (South Bay Drive-In Theatre, 2170 Coronado Ave, San Diego, CA 92154)

Have dinner and hear live music at Anthropology (1337 India Street, San Diego, CA 92101)–very intimate setting!

Take a blanket, a picnic, and people watch in Balboa Park after choosing one of many museums to explore. Then go to Screen on the Green (1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101)

Date nights that occur weekly build the connection between you. Do not let other things knock this important time off the calendar. Find a good babysitter. Make your time together each week sacred. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s model of practice, visit her web site at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary consultation.

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An enduring and fulfilling marriage reflects emotional maturity and mastery on the part of both partners. Is it healthy to express anger in your marriage? In TO A DANCING GOD, Sam Keen says “Yes.” He has a dialogue with anger (pp. 114-119). Writing in the persona of anger, he says, “If you doubt that I am the companion of love, remember the ecstasy of the reconciliation that comes after fighting. After a good expression of clean anger, lovers have established the integrity of their separateness, and they may come together without fearing that either will be eradicated by the act of love. If you can’t fight, you can’t love.”  I do not completely completely agree with Keen in his connecting the expression of anger with healthy partnership. I believe it IS important to hold onto oneself in a partnership. There are contexts in which it is perfectly valid to be angry at another. At other times, one is merely “spewing” one’s own anxiety about self onto other and/or one has an “agenda” to get the other person to change-to “fix” what is wrong with THEM. Good couples therapy assists each partner in their effort to identify and then change their part in an unhelpful dynamic.

In other places on my blog, I have emphasized that two strong “I’s make the most enduring and stable “we.” Whether the anger is really reactivity aimed at manipulating or changing another to suit you is the question one needs to ask oneself when angry. While a lot of people will swear to the heightened pleasure they feel from “make up sex,” this pleasure may be had without any real effort to arrive at increased mutual understanding and compassion for what each other may be up against. It may be based upon coming together after fearing the growing distance between you. It may be less about the healthiness of a clean expression of anger and more about soothing anxiety after the distance from a fight. The couple come back together and enjoy the momentary warm and fuzzy return to closeness. However, the intimacy is illusory and not based on resolution of any  of the issues that created an impasse and led to the explosive argument. In fact, nothing has been addressed and resolved. Is your anger  valid ?  Or is it an attempt to make the other person change instead of owning up to what YOU need to do to make things better in the relationship?

Reactivity in any form, including anger, may or may not be a reliable indicator of one’s true position after calming down and really thinking through what is going on between you. The propensity to blame another for the situation ignores the systemic and co-determined nature of troublesome dynamics.

Make no mistake.  Anger is real. It is powerful. A good rule of thumb:  Do not act upon it until you buy some time.  Take time to cool down. Self-soothe. Think. Reconsider. Then reconsider again. Try to see your own part in the dynamic. Take on these challenges. Then revisit the problem.

I agree with marriage and family pioneers, Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen. In their classic work entitled FAMILY EVALUATION (1988), the reader is called upon to consider the uses of anger in a close relationship. Is someone “angry” because they are merely emotionally reactive to another or are they taking a reflectively determined posture for self? As Kerr and Bowen (1988) assert, “Everybody proclaims the importance of being a self, but much of what is done under that rubric is selfish and fails to respect others. Many so-called ‘I’ positions are really attempts to get others to change or are attempts to pry oneself loose from emotionally intense situations” (p. 108). Such efforts may reflect an inability to see one’s own part in the problem or an unwillingness to take responsiblity for one’s own contribution to a reactive dynamic.  Anxiety that gathers steam between two people often produces polarizing postures that are critical and blaming (or even revert to contempt) of one another. This propensity toward blame is a red flag for people who are getting stuck in the mire of relationship trouble. They are unable to see their contribution to the co-determined dysfunctional dynamic.

An effort toward differentiation of self puts no pressure on others to change. There is a realization that the more one pressures another to change, the more that person will “push back” and remain the same. Most importantly, being a principle-driven self is not conditional–it does not require the other person’s cooperation. It is not about, “Well, if only HE would begin to (fill in the blank), then I COULD (fill in the blank).  It is key to realize that differentiated positions are not fueled by anger or righteous postures. As Kerr and Bowen insightfully point out (p. 108), “Anger can sometimes be a stimulus to clarify one’s thinking, but it is not a reliable guide for action. When someone angrily and dogmatically claims to be a ‘self,’ he is usually unsure of his position and is blaming others for his plight in life….Differentiation is a product of a way of thinking that translates into a way of being. It is not a therapeutic technique. Techniques are borne out of efforts to change others.” Amen.

Dr. Cunningham practices in the heart of Mission Valley and offers evening hours and a complimentary phone consultation. To get more information, call her at 619 9906203 or visit her at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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