Lois Zsarnay
LMFT, BCPC, RD

Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling

One of my favorite types of clients to work with are couples. These can be married couples or couples who are dating. We work to identify what is working in the relationship and what is not. One of the key basic principles of couples therapy is that people need to arrive at some radical acceptance that they are not in a relationship with themselves, the other person is not going to think, feel, act, or believe like them. Their partners are not a miniature or mirrored versions of themselves.

If they can accept that the other person in their relationship is different than they are, if they can embrace those differences and come to an understanding or acceptance of the other person, then there is a good chance of making the relationship work.

Problems can be created in relationships when either one, or both, individuals habitually have thoughts such as "They should think like this", or "They should do something like this". Often times people will say things to their partner such as "What were you thinking when you did that?!" These kinds of things are going to create problems because each person is different and they're going to think in their own different ways. Radical acceptance of other people is a key component to having healthy and happy relationships.

In order to have an amazing long term relationship with another person we have to first look inward. The other person is not capable of making us happy! No one can "make" us happy except ourselves! So first, we decide to be happy. We make that choice every single day. Now that doesn't mean we are constantly positive or up beat or optimistic, etc. What that means is that we may be having a tough day or a tough time, however, above and beyond that we are generally content with ourselves. We choose to go back to the place of gratitude - grateful for what we already have, for the positives. A dear old friend of mine once told me, in relationships we are always looking for either the good things or the bad things and whichever we are looking for is surely what we will find! Another pearl of wisdom an amazing woman once told me is that every day she tells the important people in her life, "I choose you," to remind herself that each and every day she makes the choice of showing gratitude for the wonderful people in her life. Gratitude is another key component to having healthy and happy relationships.

Keys to a successful relationship

If you observe people who have been married for a long term or been in a successful relationship for many years you'll notice that the real key to a long term relationship is that each partner understands the other. These people will say things about their partner such as "Well, you know, that's the way he is" or "Well, it really bothers her when somebody does that". There is an understanding and an acceptance of that person whether its sympathizing with a pet peeve or an understanding that the other person behaves a certain way. There will often be some concession on the part of either individual that if they are aware of certain things that bother their mate then they're going to need to make an effort to not do those things.

For example, I'll often tell people "If it's important to your partner then you need to make it at least a little important to you, and if it's important to you then they need to make it at least a little important to them." This is important because what happens from the perspective of a person within the relationship can be summed up to the effect of "If you tell me this is really important to you and I ignore that, then when I don't do it - and it's important to you - the message I'm sending to you is 'I don't care about you' or 'you're not important to me'. So, if it's important to you then I need to be aware of that and make some efforts towards that. That says to you that 'you're important to me.'"

Another key to having a successful relationship with anyone is to get out of our "self point of view." We need to make an effort to see things from the other person's point of view. Seeing their point of view does NOT mean we agree with them or think they are "right." It means we can acknowledge that we heard them and can understand their thoughts or feelings. After all, everyone wants to be heard and acknowledged so give them the gift of validating that they have been heard.

Underlying Messages

Perhaps you've heard stories to the effect of "They divorced because he left the cap off the tooth paste" or "She left him because he didn't put his dishes in the sink". In these cases, these people aren't literally divorcing over toothpaste or dirty dishes, they're divorcing because they're not having a good relationship because one or both individuals are experiencing feelings such as "When I say it's important to me that you put your dishes in the sink and you don't do that then you saying that I'm not important to you." It's the underlying message that can cause problems in the relationship or get people into trouble.

Techniques

I use several different techniques to help them understand those underlying messages. I recommend and draw from 'Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work' by John Gottman, Ph.D. I also like the Imago Relationship Therapy developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix because I find that really gets down to what the underneath message is that is coming across. I use those techniques as well as modeling and reflecting communication skills in session with the clients then sending them home with skills to practice between sessions. It takes time and practice to change patterns of relating to people.

Baggage

It is important for us to have empathy and understanding of people. Sometimes we have to realize that when we enter a relationship we bring baggage with us. There is a good book called "The Crowded Bed" by Mary Cavanagh and it's all about "If I bring into the relationship a pillow, and throw it on the bed, for everything that I've had in relationships in the past with - my father, my sister, my mother, my friends, my previous spouses - whatever that is and you do the same thing . . . then that is going to be a pretty crowded bed since we all have our baggage that we bring forward." I apply these principles when I work with couples whether they are already married, thinking about getting married, engaged to be married, or in a long term relationship.

Additional Counseling

I've worked with a lot of mothers with adult daughters, fathers with adult sons, or parents with their adult children who are now married with kids. In some cases things that may have happened when they were younger are being repeated and that may not be the kind of relationship they want to have with the people that are important to them or family members that they love. People often seek my help because they want to resolve issues such as these (in some cases, especially as they begin to age or get older).

I greatly enjoy working with these kinds of people. I find that it is lots of fun and many great feelings arise among family members as they begin to make realizations about themselves or each other.