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  1. How long will this take?
  2. How much will this cost? Can we afford this?
  3. What is Discernment Counselling?
  4. Where do you practice? Can you help me where I live?
  5. Is CoupleSolutions effective? What is your success rate?
  6. What is your training? What kind of therapy do you use?
  7. Can you help with other problems than our relationship?
  8. Who else could we choose for help?
  9. What should we be wary of in couples counselling?
  10. What about testimonials, reviews, and ratings on sites like Google, Yelp, etc.?
  11. Do we need couples therapy? We’re not really fighting.
  12. Do we need marriage counseling? We’re not even married.
  13. Is it too late for us? / Are we too old to change?
  14. Isn’t therapy just for people who are crazy / bad / ignorant / impossible?
  15. Is it true that marriage counseling doesn’t work, or is even bad for a relationship?
  16. Why should we pay for this? We’ll just fix it ourselves.
  17. Why should I discuss my private life with a stranger?
  18. Will you back me up? / Will you just be taking my partner’s side against me?
  19. My partner won’t come. Can I come in alone?
  20. My partner is the one with the problem, so why should I come too?
  21. Do you keep secrets/confidences from the other partner?
  22. Should we split up, or stay together? / Aren’t you pro-marriage? / What if this marriage is not best for me?
  23. What life experience have you had?
  24. What are your values?
  25. What is your background?

How long will this take?

For straightforward cases, even a single session can be beneficial. You can usually expect to see the beginnings of improvements in your relationship within four sessions. Yet, when there has been substantial damage to the relationship, such as in cases of infidelity, most couples find it helpful to attend regularly for several months, and then have occasional maintenance sessions.

We will make a plan and regularly review our progress together to determine your continuing satisfaction. You are free to discontinue the process at any time. However, it is wisest not to quit too soon, before benefits begin to be seen. Conversely, sometimes people to quit prematurely when they are encouraged by initial improvements, even though those have not set in well enough to endure when challenging times come later.

This is a multi-step process for each of you: to accept a need for change, understand your problems, discover hope and courage, learn new attitudes, and practice new behaviors till they come easily. The length of time required is more dependent on you and your situation than on us.

People sometimes get stalled temporarily or impatient along the way. But perceived progress is not linearly related to the amount of time or money spent. Think of a house under construction. The foundation alone doesn’t provide much shelter. Though the roof is on, it’s pretty cold without the windows. It might not even look liveable without the carpet. But it would be a shame to walk away when it is half-built.

We will work as quickly as you both will permit. Truthfully, though, a great risk with this kind of couples process is that the therapist moves too quickly and leaves one or the other partner behind, disenchanted, discouraged, disgruntled, resentful, or jumping ship, claiming that “It isn’t working”. Rushing through the process could be a waste of your time and money, and result in a serious setback for you or your partner.

A few practitioners may claim to make very rapid progress, but when they fail and you complain, they can always claim that “You didn’t do the work needed” or “You weren’t ready.” We prefer not to abandon or “fire the client” when their case is not easy or simple. Be assured that there are no shortcuts or miracle methods, or else they would be taken up by every therapist.

How much will this cost? Can we afford this?

You can see our fee schedule per appointment here. Also see the FAQ titled “How long will this take?” about the number of sessions needed.

Unfortunately, no responsible therapist can begin to estimate the total cost because we cannot know the intricacies of your case and how you both will respond. If you have budget concerns, we encourage you to discuss your situation with us in more depth with us so that we can jointly plan for the best value.

However, in forming your decision, you may wish to consider the value of counselling rather than the expense. A “new way to experience each other” provides much longer-lasting benefit than, say, paying for a fleeting vacation experience without addressing the problems. The life lessons provided to your children from an intact and harmonious home can be much more rewarding than, say, a school trip or private lessons. A “relationship renovation” is much cheaper than a household renovation, never mind the cost of separating and maintaining two households. Our rates are much lower than those of lawyers, and hiring a counselor tends to reduce problems, not escalate them.

What is Discernment Counselling?

Couple therapy is not meant to be painful or difficult, but it does take some dedication and effort to face what may be some unpleasant feelings, learn some uncomfortable truths, and take some responsibility for your relationship. And to do that, it takes some hope that things can be better.

When one or the other partner is running low on that hope for whatever reason, they can lose the willpower to try to work it out. This may show as reluctance to work on the relationship, hesitation about entering counselling, or both. Yet, even though they are “leaning out”, feeling more like ending the relationship than preserving it, they may not be prepared to “pull the plug”.

Meanwhile, their partner may be “leaning-in”, showing a strong desire to continue and improve the relationship. However, even if highly motivated, they usually cannot fix things on their own, and showing their frustration about this may actually make things worse. Or, their own effort or hope may be contingent on some sign of continuing commitment from the leaning-out one.

These can be normal and justifiable positions, but they leave both partners stuck in a miserable and prolonged deadlock. Even if a couple has taken steps towards breakup as a solution, it may be largely because they lack any sense of other options.

Indeed, in cases of this ambivalence, conventional couple therapy tends to be much less effective. It would be unhelpful to tag an uncertain partner as uncooperative, to pressure them to participate in whatever is needed to improve the relationship. But it will ultimately take work from both partners to make a difference.

To better help in such “mixed agenda” cases, Discernment Counselling was recently developed by Dr. William Doherty of the Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. It is different from typical marriage counseling in that the goal is not to directly or immediately improve the relationship. Instead, leaning-out partners are supported as they decide whether to try to make that effort or choose a different path. Leaning-in partners receive support to understand the dynamics and hold on in the ways that will encourage their partner to give the relationship its best chance.

After an initial conversation with both partners, the typical format of each discernment session is that each of you has a one-on-one period with the counselor while the other leaves the room. After each of these periods, the counsellor will help you share with your partner a brief summary of what you gained from that.

Note that, unlike individual counseling where only one person’s interests are explored, the discernment counsellor seeks to help both partners to arrive at greater clarity and confidence in making a decision about their future, based on a deeper understanding of the problems in the relationship, how these may have developed, and what would be required to change things for the better.

We spend time considering and discussing the options or paths that lay before the two of you, towards making a decision that has integrity for yourself and others.

Notice that Path 3 is not about staying together or avoiding divorce forever. If you choose path 3, you will each be working on yourself, with the therapist’s help, to make the relationship healthier. The therapist may be the same person who does the discernment counselling, or someone else of your choice. After those six months, you can re-evaluate where you are, based on what you have learned and what progress has been made.

Discernment counselling is typically brief, lasting between one and five sessions. You would only commit to attending one session at a time. There is no pressure or rush to make a decision about which of these paths to take. In some cases, couples decide to take a time out (Path 1) and return to the discernment process later.

Discernment counseling is not suitable when one spouse has made a final decision to divorce and wants to encourage the other spouse accept that decision, or in cases of ongoing abuse, addiction, or affairs.

If you think Discernment Counselling may be suitable for you, please ask about it.

Where do you practice? Can you help me where I live?

While I do video sessions and would like to help with relationship issues anywhere they are found, there are some limitations in my jurisdiction.

I am permitted to practice counselling and psychotherapy for residents in the province of British Columbia, and for many other residents of Canada. For insurance and jurisdictional reasons, I cannot work with residents of countries other than Canada.

Although the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Alberta have regulations or laws that restrict the provision of some types of psychological services, I am not aware that offering my marriage counselling or couples therapy services to residents of these jurisdictions is at all restricted.

Yet, it is not possible for me to determine and outline here the exact regulations or claims to exclusive rights to provision of services that may be in place for you. It is your responsibility to determine whether you wish to engage my services from your current location outside of BC.

Disclaimer: This website and service are intended for use only in jurisdictions where they may be lawfully offered for use. I do not represent that I perform any protected acts, nor use any protected terms, nor have any professional titles, in any other jurisdictions where doing so may be prohibited.

Is CoupleSolutions effective? What is your success rate?

Of course, we would not be offering this service unless we believed in our processes and abilities. We are guided by the major clinical findings in psychological science over the last few decades to use the most effective models, techniques and strategies. There is a lot of agreement among these, and when there are multiple approaches, we select and employ varieties of therapy that are most suited to your unique circumstances.

It’s good to be concerned about the skill of the person you entrust with helping your relationship. However, outside of artificially-controlled research situations, there can be no meaningful scorecard to compare couples therapists, for these reasons.

Therefore, any clinician who quotes a personal “success rate” is oversimplifying for marketing purposes, and that information would not be useful.

What is your training? What kind of therapy do you use?

I have post-graduate training and significant knowledge in many therapeutic models and strategies specific to intimate relationships, such as

Educated in the Counselling Psychology MA Program at Ateneo de Manila University, I integrate the above with aspects and techniques of person-centered, cognitive behavioral (CBT), psychodynamic, solution-focused (SFBT), narrative, and other therapies as appropriate.

(I also practice clinical hypnotherapy, with a specialized knowledge of chronic pain treatment based on the work of Dr. Mark Jensen and others.)

You can see that I like to have a large toolbox for working with relationships. I draw on this wide variety of therapeutic models as needed, in what’s called an integrative approach.

While therapeutic modalities are fascinating to me, and I enjoy discussing them, that usually won’t help people looking for a therapist. The few people who ask about this may have heard something about one of the above types of therapy, and so it seems like something to ask for. Or they might be seeking someone from what they could consider to be a “good school” — even if nothing more than the name would be familiar. Or someone who has a ton of experience… that should be a good thing, right?

These approaches seem to make sense, but they are examples of what Tversky and Nobel Prize-winner Kahneman called the availability heuristic, a normal human bias towards making a decision by referring to convenient knowledge in memory or by substituting a simpler proxy question, though it may have poor relevance or applicability.

Rather, in your understandable quest to be an informed consumer, you probably have a larger question on your mind. What you really want is to ensure that you are getting the best help available. So what does the science really say about answering that desire?

While there is plenty of evidence that couples therapy is effective in general, the research into differentiating the efficacy of various couples therapy types is quite incomplete. This is largely because not all therapy can be easily tested by being “manualized” or turned into a rigorous program that is consistently deliverable and generally applicable across a wide range of complex clientele and circumstances. Clients, therapists, situations and approaches vary too much, and funding has been lacking.

Actually, the rather confounding fact, sometimes called “the dodo bird verdict“, is that most bona fide types of psychotherapy have been found to have very similar levels of success. There is often a lot of overlap between models anyway. Each type of therapy I employ makes a lot of sense, fits with the “common factors” or general principles of psychotherapy known to work, has its own “fan base” of proponents, and can be very effective when carried out well.

In any case, what should be important for any client is not getting the type of therapy that would be on average “the best”, but getting the sort that is optimal for them. You should not feel any burden to choose which type of therapy is most appropriate for you or your partner, much less to know which type of intervention or model is being used from moment to moment. If we do work together, I deal with all that.

(I myself would note that the blanket endorsement by anyone of any particular type of therapy as superior in all cases is a type of categorical bias that the public should be wary of. While appealing for its simplicity, this claim would ironically be an example of the rigid thinking that clients are often stuck in, a major underlying factor in various psychological problems.)

Yet there are some treatment factors that research shows to be more predictive of success in psychotherapy (while not specifically couples therapy).

One that is coming to light is called “deliberate practice“. It refers to the therapist’s intentional review of performance, seeking of feedback, continuing education, adaptability towards improvement, and so on. In short, it is the opposite of complacently “resting on your laurels” and doing the same old thing over and over. And interestingly, this research jibes with the finding that a therapist’s increasing experience in itself (such as years of practice or number of clients seen) predicts very slightly worsening outcomes.

The other factors psychotherapy research consistently show as the most important are goal consensus/collaboration, empathy, positive regard/affirmation, congruence/genuineness, and similar aspects of the alliance between the therapist and the client. This might be summed up as the extent the client feels that the therapist “gets” them. (Yes, it is very similar to the alliance felt between happily coupled romantic partners.)

In sum, rather than shopping for a type of therapy, I suggest you shop for a therapist who is diligent in pursuit of their own excellence, who you can relate to, and who you can trust to take care of you. A phone conversation is one way to begin to find that out, and I welcome talking with you before you make a booking. Often, even a first session or two may be needed to make sure your therapist is a great companion and guide for you for the journey ahead.

Can you help with other problems than our relationship?

If the primary problem is alcohol or drug use, or if there is significant violence in the relationship, or if there is significant untreated mental illness, there are better programs available in the community that more directly address these issues as a priority. In British Columbia, please try the referral service BC-211. If such problems have already been dealt with and your situation has been stable for some time, please inquire with us and we will consider your case and try to find you the best help.

If there are significant problems with children at home, we may suggest a referral to a family therapist, either instead of or in addition to couples therapy. However, children typically respond to or increase the stress for a couple. Please call to discuss your situation.

If the concern rests more with one individual than the other, but is still directly related to the relationship, such as perceived sex addiction, a history of trauma, or depression, we may arrange a program which combines couple and individual therapy, often with another therapist. Please let us know when you book your first appointment.

If the concern is another problem or life change (for example, job loss or health concerns) that indirectly affects interpersonal relationships, it is likely you will also benefit from couples counselling to deal with this stress. Please make a free call to us to discuss your situation. We may also be able to offer skills coaching, individual counselling, or a referral.

Who else could we choose for help?

For help focusing on your intimate relationship, it is best to choose a specialist in couples counseling, with a balance of relevant life experience and post-graduate training in a variety of approaches specifically for treating couples.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental illness, and that is not the situation for most couples. While some are also excellent counselors, modern psychiatry increasingly relies on medication as their sole intervention. Though talk therapy is often found to be very helpful for many mental health situations, it is not as cost-efficient or time-efficient for someone with medical training to provide, and it is not financially well-supported by our health care system.

Likewise, medical doctors of other sorts have some training in recognizing mental illness, but those in regular practice cannot be expected to have the time and training to counsel on non-medical interpersonal issues.

The medical system is based on a disease model, even though many mental health conditions still lack a clear physiological basis for diagnosis or treatment. Nevertheless, when there is a need to prescribe or manage prescription medication mental health, the help of a psychiatrist, either as a counselor or a member of a treatment team, can be very valuable — if you can access one.

Psychologists

In British Columbia, virtually all psychologists have a doctoral degree in the science of behavior and mental processes. While some psychologists are the ones to push forward the frontiers of understanding and treatment of mental health concerns, their extensive schooling or research work may concentrate on theoretical matters that do not directly contribute to skill in practice.

Clinical psychologists with specializations in diagnosable mental illness, complex comorbidities, or trauma may be particularly helpful in sorting out those issues and providing access to specific psychological treatment such as rehab, group programs, or clinical research initiatives. They may also be excellent counselors. However, the services of registered psychologists are normally substantially more expensive than those of counselors, and may be out of reach for many people with everyday “problems in living”.

Social workers and clinical counselors

These practitioners usually have master’s degrees in psychology, and often significant post-graduate training in various specialties. Some have doctorates in other fields, perhaps related. Even so, they do not necessarily have much or any specific training in couples therapy. They may be skilled and experienced in helping with a wide variety of problems, or they may have certain specialties that are quite narrow.

Others

Relationship coaches, inexperienced or lay counselors without university training, all-purpose counsellors who mostly work with individuals, or pastoral or spiritually-based counselors are more likely to be limited in their techniques and perspectives. Keep in mind that prominence in the media is also no guarantee of skill, as the most well-known are often those with the loudest voices or most outrageous approaches.

What should we be wary of in couples counselling?

If your counselor relies on any of the following, you may wish to find another who is more resourceful at couples work.

Common-sense solutions, like “Why don’t you just…?”

As shown in the classic Bob Newhart skit, these are suggestions that seem obvious, and in fact have probably already been thought of by the couple, and perhaps even tried. However, such plans often fail because they are only resident in the mind on a cognitive level, which is not readily accessible by people when they are triggered and thus reliant on their automatic impulses.

Experienced couple counsellors know not to follow their clients into the rabbit hole of the content of an argument, but to help them focus on the process of how they deal with each other. That is, the real anxiety of the relationship is not about how the toothpaste tube is squeezed, but about the attachment concerns or identity issues or other deeper meaning that underlies the interaction. Without following the process, solving surface problems is a “whack-a-mole” game where another problem inevitably pops up.

There is a time for basic problem-solving, but most often we would spend time considering the underlying significance of situations and problems from a psychodynamic perspective. Once people feel heard and understood – and understand themselves better – they are more ready to accept, devise, implement, and practice solutions rather than remaining stuck in adversarial positions.

An inexperienced counsellor may project their personal frustration or their own anxiety about their job performance onto the couple’s conflict and push for a premature solution. Gottman often cites that 2/3 of marital conflicts will never really be resolved, and this is something that a good couples counsellor will help couples come to terms with.

But even with solvable problems, allowing the couple to move too quickly towards a solution can also prematurely derail their own personal development. Sometimes, due to a power imbalance or a dependency, one partner is too ready to cave in to protect themselves or the relationship, while another may put on pressure for a quick solution favorable to themselves.

Instead, encouraging each partner to tolerate the tension of differentiation while they elicit and respect the position of the other helps them be able to find their way together in this and in future scenarios. Actually, the deferment of a solution is a great opportunity for growth in self-regulation and empathy.

Enforcing compromise

Learning to compromise is not a bad thing for couples. However, a counselor simply pushing toward this will face several problems.

First of all, it’s not an appropriate role for the counsellor to direct the outcome like some sort of judge or referee. That would merely reflect the counsellor’s biases, and not respect the priorities of the couple.

Then, there are too many times when the middle ground is not an optimal outcome, and each partner giving in halfway will not be a lasting solution. If each forced to give up something vital, they may feel the loss of some essential value or dream, and will remain unsatisfied in the long run, as well as losing trust in the counsellor and the process.

Occasionally, highly polarized clients who pick up on a repeated use of compromise may “game the system” by staking extreme positions in order to gain more at the bargaining table. Meeting such demands halfway would not be sensible or fair. Extreme positioning may arise from various individual factors that require special handling. A good therapist is able to notice symptoms of addiction, personality disorders, mania, depression, or other psychiatric disorders that interfere with abilities to interact, forestalling abuse.

Providing platitudes, like “You just need to communicate better”

While this is often true in a very general sense, it is not just that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, where different languages are used. Different sexes, or partners from different families or backgrounds not only use different wording, but they have differing values and expectations.

Problems in interpersonal relations are not usually due to the poor transfer of information. Rather, it is often in the lack of acknowledgement and appreciation of the emotional import of that information. We use particular but counterintuitive approaches to keep a connection between clients during anxious stages of differentiation.

Focusing on naïve or magical solutions, like “Love is the answer”, or “What about your commitment to each other?”

We take the approach that feelings of affection, desire and commitment are often the product or result of a good relationship, not the basis or cause of one. That is, over the long term, what you experience with your partner, what they say and do around you, is the key to how they “make” you feel, and thus how you feel about them. This starts with basic behavioral psychology, including the Gottman methods of ratios of interaction, turning towards bids, awareness and avoidance of “four horsemen” behaviors, and so on. In specific cases, we will harness the emotional energy by putting people in touch with their own attachment styles and needs, using techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy.

Moral judgements, like forbidding or shaming certain behavior or  feelings

This rejection either pushes the chastised individual away from the process of therapy, or else dissociates (splits) the person into a “proper” outer shell who tries to do what is expected, and an unsatisfied inner self who remains defiant in the face of unrecognized and unmet needs or desires. Rather than being told what to do, a more effective and durable intervention for most people is to be put in touch with their existing core values so they can guide themselves towards the person they wish to be.

That is, we begin from the “person-centered” or humanistic principle that people are inherently good, and each person makes the best choice they can at any given moment. Our role is to help each person discover the broader context of their choices, and help them expand those so that they can act in a way that integrates their highest and best selves with the entire person.

General listening and empathizing skills to support individuals in sorting out their own problems

This is often a very valuable part of individual therapy, and definitely has a place in couples work. However, non-directive “Rogerian” empathizing alone must be used very carefully when working with couples who are already far apart. It requires a very delicate combination of validating each one with subtle reframing so as not to alienate the other, in order to avoid “triangulation” or the appearance of favoritism.

Inexperienced individual counsellors, while maintaining the therapeutic alliance with “unconditional positive regard”, may fall into being seen as validating any blaming. Or, they may just resort to a simpler view of the couple as a set of two incompatible individuals who just do not “belong together”, rather than a relationship system that is interdependent, interactive, and amenable to change.

Indeed, when a client is also working with an individual counsellor, a good couple’s counsellor recognizes if their emphasis on individual development and personal growth may work at cross purposes to the progress of the relationship.

What about testimonials, reviews, and ratings on sites like Google, Yelp, etc.?

It sounds like it would be great to get opinions from others when looking for a therapist, but there are a multitude of problems with using reviews and ratings on the internet.

A great many are fake. These could be fake negative reviews, from competitors, random trolls, or disgruntled personal contacts, or fake positive reviews put up by well-meaning but less-informed clients, or black-hat SEO contractors. The public seldom knows anything about the honesty and motivation of the reviewer.

Clients posting reviews are risking the inadvertent revelation of confidential information about themselves, or even the therapist, so great caution is required. If clients mention specifics of their treatment, a reader may assume that would also be the way the therapist would (or should) work with them, and that may be quite mistaken because of variance between the cases.

In the mental health field, in addition to helping everyday people with everyday problems, we inevitably deal with all kinds of troubled individuals with all sorts of unfortunate history in very difficult situations. Obviously, we cannot guarantee ideal outcomes for all of them. As you might imagine, it is quite unrealistic to expect all clients to have the perspective to give unbiased reviews. In fact, the more challenging the clientele a therapist willingly takes on, the more likely they will not be satisfied. Thus, reviews will tend to penalize those therapists who work with those in greatest need.

Therapists are responsible for advocating for their clients’ best interests, building up their adaptive behavior, constructive thoughts, and helpful feelings through a secure therapeutic relationship. We ask our clients for private feedback on an ongoing basis. If a client is dissatisfied with a therapist, even if their sense of that seems quite unjustified and distorted, we have a duty to support that client with their feelings and help them work through and learn from them, as part of the private therapy. Simply rebutting a client’s views, especially in public, could be very damaging to the therapeutic relationship and is not ethical, even if the client has betrayed or hurt the therapist.

On top of all this, clients have a paramount right to confidentiality from their therapists. Responding to the particulars of any public complaint is almost impossible without revealing personal details that the client may feel incredibly sensitive about, even if their identity remains anonymous.

Review sites do not give businesses the choice to remove some reviews and not others, since obviously that could be easily abused by the business. However, review sites also will not take responsibility to adjudicate disputes. Therefore, for a business to challenge a review would only give a sense to the public that there are differing but equally valid points of view, and this would very often be incorrect.

All this severely limits our ability to respond to any unfair negative reviews.

The recommended way for a business to combat negative reviews is to seek enough positive reviews to compensate for or overwhelm them. (This advice of course suits the sites publishing reviews, since it works to increase their market power.)

Yet, it is considered unethical for therapists to solicit reviews or testimonials from clients, since clients may feel pressured to provide a good review, feeling it could affect how they are treated by the therapist in future.

In the end, clients of course remain free to post reviews wherever they like. We thank anyone for their positive review, and regret we cannot respond publicly to any negative review, though we would very much like to hear from dissatisfied clients directly. We caution those looking at reviews not to assume that they are reliable indicators of a therapist’s quality of service.

Do we need couples therapy? We’re not really fighting.

Relationship styles vary widely. Some people are able to keep very engaged and loving, even if it means they openly clash once in a while. Others never really dare to enjoy the intimacy or become comfortable with the wrangling, and are willing to settle for less connection if it means less trouble. My own father, a decent and hardy man born to a tough pioneer life, once defined happiness as “the absence of pain.” He preferred to keep things quiet and simple. And my mother, a vibrant woman from the sophiscated old world, never understood or forgave that of him.

Today, smart couples recognize that some amount of difficulty or conflict is inevitable in relationships. In fact, sometimes a lack of “fighting” is a warning sign that one or both partners are avoiding important concerns that can later surface in a more damaging way. We help couples learn how to identify and negotiate looming issues, communicate without ignoring or escalating, and problem-solve on their own.

But more than any specific issues, the “content” of arguments, a major cause of discord in relationships is the mismatch itself between those who are avoidant of conflict and those who are anxious about the relationship. We specialize in helping with this fundamental concern that couples find difficult to identify or address on their own.

Even if your relationship is not at immediate risk of breaking up, and you can tolerate any disharmony or coolness, those around you do notice. Your family life is the “school of relationships” for your children. They implicitly absorb the home atmosphere and their parents’ manner of relationship as their model of “normal”. If there is any doubt about whether seeing a counselor is necessary, ask yourself whether you would be satisfied if your children had a relationship like yours, or whether it would be worthwhile giving both them and yourselves a happier life. Show them how to do it right.

Do we need marriage counseling? We’re not even married.

There can be many benefits to counseling for unmarried couples who are living together, or even just seriously dating. For those who are early in their relationship, premarital or other preventative counseling fosters good relationship habits and nips minor issues before they grow. There is nothing to fear about looking at your relationship in a pro-active way.

Preemptive

Being engaged and wedding planning can be a very stressful time for couples, introducing a variety of financial, family, and values issues for the first time, while expectations are at a peak! Getting premarital counseling gives a couple an outlet for working through those, and valuable lessons in how to get along.

And it’s not just a focus on problems. We encourage and facilitate your positive interaction to strengthen your relationship.

Cohabiting

There are many everyday stresses in cohabitation that are no different than those of marriage. Perhaps there are even more, when living together without a formal and defined commitment.

Often when a couple is unsure about their compatibility, that doubt itself is gnawing and unhelpful. Are these red flags, or surmountable problems?

Expectations for committed relationships such as marriages have never been greater, as people stay single longer and look for a complete partnership with a spouse. At the same time, divorce and infidelity are rampant, or at least dissatisfaction seems to be the norm, and no one wants the fate of a stagnant or empty marriage. When there is a question about whether to commit more seriously, and the stakes are high, we can help focus the discussion in a productive way.

Is it too late for us? / Are we too old to change?

If you have been together for a long time, congratulations! It sounds like your commitment has seen you through many tough periods.

But, is it that you have little need to change in your relationship, little motivation or energy at this point, or little reason to hope for better?

Lifelong habits are harder to break, but people can certainly change at any age. If you are going to stay together, why not make your remaining years together the most pleasant possible? If argument and pressure have not made things better, perhaps you would both like to try some other strategies. We can help you with those.

Isn’t therapy just for people who are crazy / bad / ignorant / impossible?

Some people might still have an impression that those who go for counseling or therapy are inferior or deficient in some way, maybe lacking in love, or decency, or even common sense.

The truth is, there is virtually no one (even among therapists) who does not benefit from talking over thoughts and feelings privately, getting a dispassionate perspective when sorting through complicated situations, having a sympathetic ear for a rant or a sounding board, learning new skills for relating from an expert, and so on.

The tide has turned on such stigma, with many of the most affluent and visible Hollywood couples (if that is where you take your advice) publicizing their use of couple counseling, even when their relationships are going well. Ironically, this might instead make counseling appear to be an exclusive luxury or a high-status activity!

In fact, relationship counselling is for everyone, not as a correction or punishment, but a chance to learn and practice ways to get along that are actually not intuitive. We believe that this important information and skill set should be taught in every school, as part of a foundational course in the science of human nature. This would transform all sorts of relationships in our society and our world.

You and your partner are human, having different histories, values, emotions and foibles. None of us can be smart enough, loving enough, reasonable enough, nice enough, sensible enough, or good enough to avoid relationship problems entirely. It is what you do in the moment of encountering differences that determines how happily you experience life together.

Going for counseling demonstrates self-awareness, self-discipline, commitment to the relationship, and a growth attitude that are very desirable qualities in every partner and every person. You can be proud of using counseling to make your relationship the best possible.

Is it true that marriage counseling doesn’t work, or is even bad for a relationship?

If you have heard a story or two like that, such anecdotes are few, in opposition to a wealth of evidence about the benefits for diverse types of therapy and populations. In general, it is found that most relationships improve at least somewhat in response to counselling. Like any field that has a scientific basis but involves human variability, such as medicine, some cases improve tremendously, while others don’t change much, and some deteriorate. Of those relationships that do not survive, most would probably not make it anyway.

Aside from the normal variety of personal experience, these may be some reasons for those reports.

Couples therapy methods have improved over the decades, based on a combination of resarch and clinical expertise. Unlike 50 years ago, couples are no longer urged to vent their resentments by hitting each other with foam bats. There is always some research in any field that has poor outcomes, but that often means that the modality under study is not so generalizable, not that it is ineffective for all.

A few critics who have a strong religious or political disposition in favor of marriage have complained that counselors are too tolerant, or even encouraging of decisions to split up. For such hard-liners, any breakup of a marriage under any circumstances is a bad outcome, not an option best left to the individual participants. The basis of our work is to help couples want to stay together, but counseling may sometimes lead participants to believe they are better off apart.

One prolific and unscrupulous internet advertiser (under a fake name similar to a renowned thinker in the field) has even unethically “exposed” and distorted critical reflections of another highly respected couples therapist, in order to promote an overpriced copycat e-book as an alternative! When he is called out on it, he swamps web search results for his fake name and the word “scam”, by publishing his own laudatory articles on numerous shill web sites.

Last but not least, any field of course has questionable practitioners who may have their own agendas, are not suitable for your needs, or are just incompetent. They might not be of great help, or might even give you biased advice when you are confused and vulnerable. For example, there has been some complaint that individually-oriented therapists are often not competent in couples counseling, due to inadequate training in that specialty, or may prioritize individual needs that are not likely met within the relationship.

It is a good idea to take care in who you select for help, and not to allow any counselor or therapist to make your most important decisions for you. Ask your counselor for a statement of their values to know where they stand. Shop around and interview several to find one who fits your style. But don’t let a concern about being taken advantage of stop you from getting help from a qualified professional.

Why should we pay for this? We’ll just fix it ourselves.

Most people are never formally taught relationship skills, and end up mirroring their parents or falling back on their natural reactions that got them into trouble in the first place.

Still, anyone can go to countless books or websites and get tips and information about improving relationships. It’s not a bad idea! You can certainly pick up a lot that way – but perhaps you have already found that hasn’t worked well enough.

You may not have the time to sort through vast amounts of information when your relationship needs immediate help. You might have trouble distinguishing the valid and reputable professional approaches from the simplistic advice given by popular gurus, the quick-fix listicles, or edicts from moralistic sources that may be useless or downright wrong

You might have trouble recognizing your exact situation from the general cases presented, seeing the interpersonal patterns, and realizing the hidden motivations. You may not be able to sort out or identify the underlying issues, since they are usually masked by a morass of “maladaptive coping techniques” (cold-shouldering, nastiness, drinking, affairs, or what-have-you).

An even more significant barrier to DIY is the emotional involvement that each person inevitably carries. Partners in conflict are typically not able to allow each other (or even themselves) safe and complete access to their feelings without being swept into a vortex of negative reactivity.

It is very difficult for a couple to consistently and evenhandedly apply what they have read to their own behavior in the heat of the moment. (You might be thinking it’s much easier to apply it to your partner  – but that’s what they are thinking too!) Yes, you might need help in hearing or accepting how your partner perceives the situation. Or your partner might not be able to keep up with you, and you might have trouble putting solutions into place because you are not seen by your partner as neutral.

Even if you can think clearly enough during an emotional storm, it can feel very strange and unnatural, even threatening, to interrupt your existing patterns of interaction, and practice the new methods of communication.

You see, the situation is not like learning to fix your own car. It is more like performing a surgical procedure upon yourself. It is much better to consult a professional who can observe and assess the situation impartially, safely and carefully open up the issues, and help you heal into a much healthier relationship.

Just like surgeons do not operate on themselves, counselling professionals also routinely consult other therapists when we have personal difficulties, to support us, help us see and accept what we can’t see ourselves, and hold us accountable. (Yes, we are human, and problems in life and relationships are inevitable!)

This is where our service makes all the difference. We provide a personalized framework for accomplishing those things that keeps your process of relationship improvement on track, and guides, supports and encourages you when you have doubts or confusion or anxiety about it. We give you the exact tools you need to change your interactions, and monitor, assist and encourage your progress. You get clarity, and a set of customized interventions that incorporate the latest and most sound research from the psychology of interpersonal relationships.

Why should I discuss my private life with a stranger?

There are some things that are hard to discuss with anyone, but there are times we all need the help of another. Are you ready to reveal the most personal and important aspects of your relationship to a close friend, a family member, or a clergyman? Maybe that is an alternative for you. However, a professional counselor:

If you give us a chance, you will find that we are trustworthy and capable of providing you with a safe environment to contain and work through your problems.

Will you back me up? / Will you just be taking my partner’s side against me?

In couples therapy, we seek to serve both partners. How is that possible? We assume you both want the relationship to succeed, and we help you both to do what’s best for that to happen.

We do not take sides, or act as a judge.

One reason is that, most frequently, there is no absolutely right or wrong position. By finding shared values and expanded vision, there can be many ways for couples to get along.

Another reason is that blaming or chastising, either by a therapist or by the partner, is usually counter-productive. The target person may lash out in angry reprisal, or withdraw in shame or self-protective resentment. Punishment does not work to motivate good behavior, it just motivates retaliation.

Instead, we assume that people usually have good reasons (or at least somewhat understandable reasons) even when they do bad things (meaning things that hurt others, and hurt themselves in the long run). We credit people with having done the best they could in any given situation. We can then help them cope, learn, grow, and do better, if that is their choice.

At times, we find it helpful to point out when we can see that someone might be unmindful of acting or speaking in ways that are not in their long-term best interest. However, it is our goal to move out of that role as quickly as possible so that couples learn to regulate their own emotions and behavior without our presence.

We do have a few basic rules to prevent abuse and loss of control in a session. Rarely, it may be necessary for us to help a partner protect themselves against aggression or abuse, while avoiding deliberate antagonizing or escalation. In rare cases, if we determine couples therapy cannot safely proceed, we must refer individuals for specialized help.

My partner won’t come. Can I come in alone?

Yes, we meet individuals alone to work on relationships. Sometimes people need to figure out what they want for themselves, or sometimes they are clear that they want to improve their relationship.

Often, changes one partner makes will produce beneficial changes in another partner’s reactions to them. When they see this happening, they may be encouraged to begin attending.

However, while it is not so difficult to transition from joint to individual therapy, or to arrange both types of sessions from the start, it is more difficult to move from individual to joint therapy. This is because, after you start on your own, your partner may be more resistant to your attempts to include them, thinking the therapist will be “taking your side.” It is much better to make every effort to include your partner from the start. (The two of you may also later begin couples therapy with a new therapist.)

You will have a better chance if you carefully and thoughtfully approach and encourage your partner to attend. See my blog post “How to Invite Your Partner to Couple Counselling” for helpful suggestions on how to approach and present this to your partner.

My partner is the one with the problem, so why should I come too?

A relationship is more than the sum of its partners. It operates as a system. Each person affects the other in complex ways.

If your partner comes alone, the dynamic between the two of you will change anyway, so your best chance to get what you want is  by participating. Ignoring your partner’s immediate “problem” and your contribution to the overall situation is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory relationship for you.

The need to “fix” one person implies a judgment as to what is correct or proper, and we do not provide that. In fact, very often that sort of judgment itself is at the heart of the relationship problem. Our view is that there can be many ways for couples to get along, and we help negotiate a viable relationship for both of you.

We hold to these principles about couples therapy: (Margolin, 1982)

Do you keep secrets/confidences from the other partner?

We often suggest solo sessions with individual partners to assess and develop their desire and ability to optimize their relationship. Either member of the couple may also request and receive such a solo session, providing that the other member is informed in advance.

If an individual privately discloses secret facts or behaviors and explicitly requests that we keep that secret from their partner in joint sessions, we will not reveal them. However, we may, at our discretion, take any of several courses, from urging disclosure, changing the format to individual counseling, or withdrawing completely. Please see our Client Service Agreement for a more complete discussion of this.

Should we split up, or stay together? / Aren’t you pro-marriage? / What if this marriage is not best for me?

When one or both members of the couple have serious misgivings about the relationship continuing and whether couple therapy can help, we offer a process called Discernment Counselling (developed at the University of Minnesota by Dr. William Doherty) to help you determine your future.

Even so, we refrain from advising couples whether or not to split up. Each partner has a responsibility to make that decision for themselves and the family. Oftentimes, it can work either way, as people may turn things around within their marriage, or find relief by parting ways.

We do not promote pairing up or breaking up as a means to meet individual goals. Yet, in some sense, being in a couple is a lifestyle choice, to play as a team rather than solo. In addition to living better materially, research shows that people are generally happier and healthier when in a couple. However, these benefits come only through a sensing of intimacy, support and security. These feelings are built on an ability to trust in a mutual commitment to shared goals, and sustained effort to meet each other’s needs and expectations. Not everyone can or wants to do that. But most of the time, people just don’t quite know how.

While we encourage people to get in touch with their feelings, we are careful to neither minimize nor magnify discontent. Many times, people have a short-term outlook, and powerful feelings will rule the moment. When their partner is also acting or reacting in a heated moment, the future of the relationship can seem bleak.

At no time is it our role to instruct anyone on their moral obligations, shame them to hold to their vows, or uphold the institution of marriage. However, we can usually offer hope. We assume that people who come to us are looking for ways to remain together, and we urge a long-term view. There is almost always some progress that can be made. Divorce is seldom a balm for unhappiness, and it typically has its own major negative consequences.

On the other hand, longevity is not always a good measure of a successful relationship. Therefore, success in couples therapy should not be defined as preserving a union at any cost. When problems remain significant and insurmountable, it is sometimes helpful to explore all options. If one or both partners come to a firm conclusion that preserving the relationship is not in their best interest, we believe it is not a therapist’s right to persuade them otherwise (even if that were possible). Keeping hold of an ever-reluctant or punishing partner will not make for a happy partnership. In those cases, we work toward the best level of communication and accord possible between the partners as they navigate the process of parting.

What life experience have you had?

It may be reassuring for you to know something of my own life experience. I have dealt with many issues for myself or someone close to me: adverse childhood experiences, infertility, miscarriage, parenting challenges, ADHD, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, PMDD, Alzheimer’s, sex-and-gender-variance, various sexual health concerns, long-term marriage, infidelity, divorce, family court proceedings, mature dating, open relationships, remarriage, mid-life crisis, and career change.

This is not to say I am expert in these issues or naive about others, nor am I necessarily victim or villain. I do not cast anyone that way. We are all human, with strengths and challenges, and an acceptance of that will be a helpful starting point for all of us.

As a client, it is unlikely that you will hear much in particular about my personal experiences or lack thereof, for our dealings will properly remain about you.

What are your values?

My philosophical and ethical stance is that of secular humanism, which in the words of Wikipedia “emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition.” This emphasis on compassion, hope, and reason underlies the science-based approach to my discipline, my moral code of dignity and respect for others, and my desire to improve lives and society.

I am certified as an Officiant for life ceremonies with the British Columbia Humanist Association.

What is your background?

I grew up in the culture of western Canada. For many years I had a successful career doing technical and artistic work in the television and film industry in Toronto, as well as several years residing in Europe and in Asia. I also had my own software development business for a time. I recently moved to the Vancouver area where my family has lived for some time.