Archive for the ‘Marriage Therapy’ Category

Money & Marriage: The Hard Conversations

Myth:  Couples with financial conflicts should get a divorce.

Reality:  Conflict is a part of every relationship.  The question as to staying or leaving is how a couple chooses to approach the differences.

The financial conflict conversation is rarely about money.  The true conversation is about what money means.  One description of this mental process is called the Complex Equivalent; a belief and value that are coupled with a behavior making the action a “programmed” response.  Actions with money are an example of this.

Internally the behaviors seem congruent and make perfect sense.  The response from a spouse or other outside observer is the external mirror reflecting the reality of those actions.  At times, what seems internally congruent is externally dysfunctional.

Overcoming these problems requires open communication. 

Most couples do not understand how to communicate around financial issues.  Individuals think that their internal dialogue and perception is the reality that everyone else experiences.  What they do not understand is that in any relationship, the meaning of communication is not in your intended message; it is in the response received from the behavior.  This may be approval, shock, acceptance, grief, fear or much more.

This is evident when we observe couples.  We see poorly worded comments that were received with relief and a positive acknowledgment.  We also see carefully crafted comments that elicited strong, negative responses.  Clearly, the intended message gets lost if the level of trust and acceptance is non-existent.  It becomes difficult or impossible to exchange information when there is a lack of emotional flexibility within the communication.

Per-Marital Behavior

These learned interactions go back to the time when people are dating.  When couples are caught up in the “limerence” of romance, they are not thinking clearly.  It is a bit like grocery shopping without a list while you are hungry.  Without an external objective measure, it is difficult to make an accurate assessment.

When we teach professionals about money and marriage, we talk about these early interactions.  The exploratory pre-marital conversations are important when getting to know each other.  If there is hesitation with transparency, that can be an early indication that something is wrong.

Even if you are married and find yourself in financial conflict, there is a path forward, as long as both sides are willing to be transparent and to make changes that conform to the reality of your financial world.

Eva Rosenberg offers a list of questions people that are dating can use to get to understand each other financially.  This is part of building awareness about how you each view the financial world separately and as partners.

Suggested questions to have in pre-marital conversations. 

By your direct observation, what financial habits are displayed in daily life?  What is the level of financial awareness or is there a tendency to avoid paying attention?

Is a person obsessive, controlling, or pre-occupied with money?

What attitudes do you both have toward money?  Is the behavior or belief system frugal, stingy, wasteful, or balanced?

Is there any gambling? If so, how? Is the gambling online or in casinos? Are bets made with friends?

Are there any outstanding gambling debts (or any other debts)?

How willing are you both to be accountable and to live on a budget?

What big purchases are anticipated in the next few years, and what are the plans to pay them?

Are there any child or spousal support obligations?  Are these obligations met on time?

How are the relationships with any ex and children of another relationship? How will those relationships impact the new life together, both financially and emotionally?

Is there any reason for the finances to be kept separate, at least in the beginning?

We add in a few steps we call the “romantic third date.”  These are items to be looked at if a relationship seems to be getting serious.  This involves asking the tough tax questions before you get married:

Are there outstanding IRS tax liens or unfiled tax returns?

Did the spouse-to-be comingle funds with a prior spouse without properly severing the financial relationships with that prior spouse?

Will the new relationship be impacted by old creditors?

An important early step is to share financial information that you can review independently allowing you to make independent conclusions.  Assuming you are comfortable with this person, you can jointly share your tax and credit information.  You can provide each other with Form 4506T Request for Transcript of Tax Return. This allows you to see the IRS tax information for each person over the last four years.  You can also order the credit reports from all agencies.

You are looking to see if there are tax liens, levies, a poor credit history, or anything else that would raise a flag.

What if your married and in a financial mess?

Assuming you have both been open and honest with each other, there are many financial problems that arise outside your immediate control.  Financial distress can result from a company downsizing, a medical crisis with large bills, or technology replacing the need for a human to fill a position.  When the financial crisis hits in a healthy relationship, the partners pull together.  They put up their best efforts and work to make their lives better.

If trust is destroyed by poor financial behavior, this is most often a terminal issue for the marriage.  At least one partner concludes that anything is better than the current situation.  The pain of separation becomes the more attractive option.

Conflict carries choices.  Conflict can result in growth when two people participate in the resolution or conflict can lead to destruction when people become positional, secretive, and unwilling to work towards a resolution.

Not All Marriages Can or Should Be Saved

But When Is It Really Over?

At Oak Tree Mediation, our One Last Look™ program helps couples see what divorce is about.  They gain clarity and confidence in their options.  That may be reconciliation, it may be divorce, or some other path forward.

One of our first questions to couples looking at divorce is simple and clear.  “How did divorce become your option for this marriage?”  The response is revealing.  When people indicate mutual participation in the decline in marital satisfaction, there are many more options open to them in their path forward.  When the conversation focuses on the other person, there is little hope for flexibility moving forward.

Looking at the research of John Gottman, this cascade toward divorce is evident when a couple has difficulties starting a conversation without a harsh beginning.  Those conversations continue with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and avoidance tactics (Dr. Gottman refers to this as stonewalling).  The result of this emotional pressure is to become flooded which is a physiological condition of a pounding heart rate over 100 beats per minute, sweating – all the indicators of internal distress.

Next is a body language of withdrawal.  Openness fails as does any attempt at repair.  The result is to rewrite history, focus on bad memories, compound every small issue into larger ones, and finally eliminate the other person from the emotional bookshelf.

John Gottman notes that “In general, the brain stores two kinds of memories, explicit and implicit. The former are conscious remembrances: your grandmother gave you a doll for your sixth birthday, the Red Sox won the World Series (and it wasn’t a dream). But implicit memories may not be completely conscious. Instead, the brain responds with a sort of intuition, extracting rules that fit the circumstances. When the traffic light turns red, you remember to brake— you don’t need to think it through. But when the brain confronts two opposite realities at the same time— what’s called cognitive dissonance— it rewrites your history so that it makes sense and is easier to remember. If you once had fond remembrances of your wedding but now consider your partner a self-centered boor, your implicit memory shifts. The brain spins the past, extracting new rules that fit current circumstances. Now, when you think of your wedding day, what first comes to mind is your new husband’s failure to tell you how beautiful you looked. Whether a relationship is over or just ailing depends on how pervasively negative its history, as the couple tells it.”

This final stage, when history is re-written, is when at least one person starts to focus on the thought that anything is better than this.  As Caryl Rusbult describes it as the comparison level alternative; the desire for something better that ends the current pain.

Couples Are Not the Only Ones Affected

At this stage, when both sides see that the marriage is over, it is time to look at a new relationship – what we refer to as Family Re-Formation.

The process of reforming the family is critical for children.  Research shows that children of divorce, are impacted more by the fighting and negative interaction.  Based on the Gottman’s research in emotionally intelligent children and adults, it becomes clear that when parents are content in their relationships, the children are able to live in an atmosphere of emotional security.  From that platform, they are able to experience the world in a secure way.

I sometimes comment that people should raise a puppy that is fully socialized before getting married.  The process of socialization requires that the puppy is given a positive environment that encourages it to explore and trust that the world around it is full of interesting things.  The other part of good socialization is that the trainer only has the first 12 to 14 weeks in which to do this.  It is a true learning experience that helps people see relationships from a very different perspective.

When considering family changes, the new structures can be as varied as there are families.  But the reality is that couples will not end their interaction with a divorce.  In fact, the level of interaction will become more complex and possibly more frequent than when they were married.

Recognizing this reality can lead to growth or war.  Will this be a step forward into growth or a continuation of hostility?  That is a choice facing couples at the end of a marriage.


Armand & Robbin D’Alo

The Myth of Anger & Divorce

When we tell couples that anger and frustration are a normal part of a relationship, they are typically surprised.  Research has shown that anger, by itself, is not a predictor of relationship trouble.  Anger is not good or bad; it is simply a fact of life.  This goes along with being irritable, sad, worried or disappointed.  In the Gottman’s research, they found that in every relationship people retaliate with anger when met with anger.  That includes happy stable relationships.  In fact, anger is one way that partners tell each other to pay attention to what is happening.

The Consistent Predictor of Divorce

When anger is coupled with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling there is a strong prediction for divorce.  This is not to say that happy couples never fall into these traps, but how they move forward with repairing the relationship is the telling difference.

In arguments when blame is put on the other partner the typical response is for that person to become defensive.  The net result is that no one takes any responsibility for the situation.  Over time one or both may display a superior attitude towards their spouse.  This attitude of contempt pushes their partner to retaliate in some form, the most common of which is to simply shut down and withdraw.  This attitude of stonewalling leads to emotional separation from their spouse.

The result is, as Dr. Gottman calls it, a distance and isolation cascade.

Is there a path back from this brink?  That depends on the couple.  Those that keep their relationships in place build an atmosphere of richness where repair is possible.  Soft openings in heated situations as well as taking responsibility for part of the situation makes for an atmosphere for productive discussions.

As odd as it sounds, positive comments in an argument are one of the big differences in successful relationships and those that are troubled.  When we say that, couples think we are asking them to give high praise in the middle of a painful situation.  Actually positive comments are things like, “You may have a point,” or “I’m hurt and I think you can help me.”  These are compliments in a softened conversation.

To illustrate these points, we had the opportunity to share with Dr. Gottman our version of the Sound Relationship House – the Unsound Relationship House.













Looking at the cascade, let’s look a few key aspects in more detail.

Problems Are Seen as Too Severe

As problems mount, couples avoid discussions for resolution.  The partners become hostile towards each other.  The result is that they avoid interacting in meaningful ways.  The attitude toward the relationship is that the situation is helpless and hopeless.  This defines how the partners look at each other.  They no longer see each other as a person they can rely on.  The entire relationship reorganizes toward separation, compartmentalization and loneliness.

“We” Becomes “Yours” and “Mine”

In several research studies, couples who eventually divorced showed little fondness, had high negativity, did not consider themselves as “we.”  Their relationship was in a state of high chaos and high in disappointment with the relationship.

The result is that people separated emotionally first.  Then came the physical separation.  Couples refused to look at their partners as an ally or a source of support.  Problems were no longer shared and partners no longer asked for the opinions of their mate.  The only topics that were safe to share were the most mundane.  The relationship quickly devolved to the status of being roommates.  Outside opinions become more important than the ideas of their spouse.

Parallel Lives

The ending leads to couples leading parallel lives.  They are married in name only and proceed on separate tracks.  Contact with each other is reduced to a minimum.  People start to work late and work to get away from each other.  Time is generously distributed to events and obligations that are outside of the relationship.

All this leads to a sense of solitude.  This is probably the most devastating issue the leads to a final separation.  The feeling of being abandoned within the relationship is a haunting issue for couples in unhappy relationships.

Is there an option to come back?  Yes, but it takes commitment to each other, the recognition that both are responsible for the problem they are facing and accept the agenda that can bring a couple back from the brink.  The bottom line question for each couple is to ask, “Is it worth it?”  Do not get this wrong, some events are beyond repair.  Abuse and other negative behavior are violations of marital boundaries for safety.  Safety first.  But if this is about differences in attitudes and behavior in the relationship, repair is an option.

Make Communication Work With F-A-C-C-T

The third letter in our F-A- C-C- T overview is Communication. Sadly, when a couple is considering divorce, this is a time when they need to communicate with precision. However, for them there are feelings of emotional and economic betrayal, loss of trust, dependability, and honesty that all factor into this communication. As Caryl Rusbult labeled it, at least one person is at the point of the “Comparison Level for Alternatives.” They are done and for that person, anything is better than where they are.

How do people in this state of mind proceed? First, there is the acknowledgement that this is happening, it is happening in their marriage and they must deal with it. That is a hard task when a person is presented with divorce and they were unaware that anything was, in their view, wrong.

Acknowledgement leads to education about options. The more a person understands, the more prepared they will be for what is ahead. People that have been through a divorce are calmer and more connected to the process. They tend to get down to the business of what’s ahead. Those that have never been through this tend to take their time and weigh each step carefully.

Men and Money - Divorce - Oak Tree Mediation

In either case, it helps to recognize that while these two people perceive that they are trying to get away from each other that is generally a false notion. They state that divorce is their goal, but it is not the reality of the divorce.

The fact is that as long there is a settlement agreement that can carry various types of obligations (support, long-term property issues, etc.) or if there are children involved, there is still a connection with each other. That can create tremendous friction during this process, even if the couple is emotionally glued together. This can sometimes be a painful reality for couples in divorce – the fact that they remain connected and dependent on each other for something in their agreement.

This also plays into the divorce narrative that there is right and a wrong. This drives the idea and concept that there is something in the divorce that each side “deserves.” When there is belief of entitlement, whether stated or not and is based on legal terms or moral beliefs, that can lead to contention. If there is resistance from the other side, this can also lead to resentment. There is a sense of something being extracted rather than negotiated. As lines are drawn, legal counsel takes the position that they are there to defend their client’s legal rights vigorously. The tools of negotiation are then expanded to include threats of going court. That threat may come in the form of a court date to which each side must respond.

Women and Money - Divorce - Oak Tree Mediation

On the other side, when the couple looks at issues, such as the division of assets, as a business negotiation, they are more inclined to settle their differences with an agreement that they craft.

This is the choice – fight for possession or work out an agreement.

We recently had a case that involved a disputed piece of property. The couple finally decided to take the matter to court. After several rounds with attorneys on each side, they settled the matter. But not until they had spent almost 25% of the value of the asset they were fighting over.

The best path is to work through the anger with a good therapist. This is far less expensive than complaining to the attorney at $300 to $400 an hour. Then, as that process is moved forward with this emotional support, they can take an inventory of all things that are owned and all that is owed.

While this can be helpful in deciding how to proceed, it is also a legal requirement. All assets MUST be disclosed. Nothing can be hidden without severe penalties being imposed on the dishonest person.

With a good list of assets and debts, coupled with a good income and expense worksheet, you are ready to work through the difficult aspects of property and income settlements.


Armand and Robbin D’Alo

In Divorce Can You Still “Create” Intimacy?

Couples in pain are generally in a cycle of interaction that spirals out of control and can lead to personal withdrawal, separation and possibly divorce. John Gottman notes these as the four horsemen of the apocalypse and identifies the elements as criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal or stonewalling and contempt.

This is a powerful cocktail of emotion and behavior that renders the participants with a sense of being helpless and out of control. The emotional sense is that there is one way to resolve this – getting out of the relationship.

In our divorce mediation practice we approach couples with an important initial question: Are you ready for divorce or is there another option? While this may seem like a halting question at such a painful time in life, there are studies that indicate that even perfect strangers can build intimacy if they are mutually willing to be vulnerable to each other.

A study published in 1997 by Arthur Aron, Edward Meliant, Elaine Aron, Robert Vallone and Renee Bator took people – strangers – and paired them with the instructions that they were to interact for 45 minutes by asking 36 questions. At the end of that interaction they were to stare into each other’s eye for four minutes. This process was initially developed to include four key elements:

(a) gradually escalating reciprocal self-disclosure and intimacy-related behaviors,
(b) matching by non-disagreement on important attitude issues,
(c) expectations of mutual liking, and
(d) making closeness an explicit task

This fourth element was a key to the process – making closeness an explicit task.

In relationships that are headed toward divorce, closeness had been lost. In some instances, one person may have forfeited the right to closeness based on acts of violence or a violation of intimate trust. Those are elements that may not be resolved and require definitive action. But most relationships do not fall into those categories. Most couples find themselves drifting apart or feeling out of touch. They may not even be able to explain it other than to say they “fell out of love.”

In Dr. Gottman’s research part of building and rekindling the feelings of love involve discovery of each other all over again which is an explicit process. In Arthur Aron’s

study 36 questions were designed to open these channels by offering a path toward the sharing of more intimate information in a comfortable progression.

Those 36 questions were broken into three groups as follows:

Set I

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?

7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?

8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.

9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.

12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything

else, what would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most treasured memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?

22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


25. Make three true “” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room

feeling … ”

26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … ”

27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.

28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.

30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?

34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?

36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Once done, you would then stare into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.

The results for the participants is that they felt close to each other and, in some cases, even went on to get married.

What this seems to show is that the direction of relationship choices can be a conscious effort that arrests negative behavior and moves people back onto a path of healthy intimacy. But is also is a message that if divorce is the option selected by a couple, that path does not have to be destructive. The relationship can be driven in a direction of a conscious parting with mutual respect and best wishes for a better life.

We have seen it happen and we know this is achievable for couples in mediation, should they choose to make their lives positive in the face of divorce.


Armand and Robbin D’Alo

The Power of a Good Marriage Therapist

Before divorce there may be a way to re-build lost love … and should divorce be the path you are on, intervention is still a wise investment. Our guest blogger is Meg Flemming, a licensed couples therapist in Escondido, CA. She provides some insight into what can be one of the most critical choices you may make on this journey. Meg writes…

Finally! You two have decided to go to marriage counseling. It’s about time. Researcher John Gottman has found that after couples have begun to have serious problems they wait, on average, six years longer than they should to go to couples therapy. Come on now, that doesn’t make it easy for us to help you out of the marriage muck that has been created over that period of time. But let’s let that go and start the work. First, understanding that you have a lot to untangle, you need to know how to choose a relationship therapist.

It may seem obvious, but just in case get a therapist who is licensed. Asking your neighbor Bob to perform angioplasty on your artery is probably not the right choice for your physical health. Likewise, you don’t want an amateur or general practitioner as your couples or marriage therapist either. You want someone who is licensed and experienced in working for the health of your relationship. There are many mental health practitioners and each is qualified in his/her own field. Knowing this, you do want someone who has gone to school and has been evaluated by your state licensing board.

There are several licenses to consider: licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), licensed social workers (LCSW), licensed psychologists, licensed professional counselors (LPC), and licensed psychiatrists (M.D.). This is the name of their license and relays the focus of the school program they attended. THIS IS THEIR LICENSE NOT THEIR SPECIALTY. That is tremendously important. The sort of license that the counselor has is not as critical as their specialty. Many therapists out there see whoever walks through the door. However a psychotherapist who has spent the majority of their time, energy, and training focusing on couples is going to serve you better than someone who is a jack-of-all-trades. A good question to ask the therapist you are interviewing is what the percentage of their clients that they see are couples. You are looking for more than half.

The other important consideration is the comfort level that you both have with your couples therapist. Researchers have found that much of the success of psychotherapy rests on the relationship between client and therapist. So feeling like you can truly be real with your marriage or couples counselor is a very important factor in your choice.

I know that finances play a part in this. Insurance is a consideration. I put this last because if you can have all the above and they are also covered by your insurance, you are golden. If therapy is not covered sometimes couples therapists charge lowered fees for out of pocket clients. Be sure and talk about this if your budget is an issue. Couples may find that you are not paying much more than the insurance copay would be. So if possible do not let insurance be the first consideration. Many couples do have the need to pay attention to their resources but having a skilled marriage therapist should be where the main scrutiny is. It’s been said many times and it is worth saying again:

“Divorce will certainly cost you far more than a good couples therapist.”


By: Meg Flemming