As a couple therapist who is also married, I occasionally receive questions about how my work impacts my own relationship. In order to explore this subject as thoroughly as possible, I decided to interview the other expert on my marriage—my husband—about what life with me is really like. Hopefully you find him enlightening, or at least amusing—I certainly do.
[Interview has been edited for content and clarity.]
Do you want me to introduce you?
You can. I am nervous.
This is Daniel, my wonderful husband. He is here to give us some fascinating insight about being married to a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). What are you nervous about?
Why would anyone want to hear what I have to say about this?
I think your perspective might be more interesting than you realize! I mean, maybe. We will see what the views are like after this is posted. What is the best part of being married to an MFT?
I learn a lot about communicating my feelings and resolving our disagreements—strategies around disengaging and returning after intense emotions have subsided.
It is cool to hear you mention disengaging and returning. That is a great tool and I refer to it often—in fact, I wrote a whole blog post last year about how to take timeouts from conflict interactions [available to read here]. Are there any particular challenges you had while mastering timeouts?
I had a hard time learning that disengaging from a conflict can be OK, and it does not mean that I am giving up on resolving it.
Yes, we had a classic pursuer/distancer cycle. I would need to exit conflicts to prevent myself from hurting you even more, but you had a hard time with that. How did you become more comfortable with my taking timeouts?
Just experience. It was something you pushed to try and over time I saw it was effective. It gave us both time to reflect on why we were reacting the way we did. And it was clear that when we took that approach, we did resolve our conflicts.
Experience is definitely the most convincing argument for timeouts. What are other strategies do you use to manage conflict in our relationship?
After we have cooled off and reflected, the next step is to be ready to seek and offer forgiveness in instances when we have hurt each other.
How do you like to offer forgiveness? And how do you like to receive forgiveness from me?
It is pretty much the same in either direction: a verbal apology, and a verbal acknowledgement of the apology, in combination with a gesture of physical affection or an act of service. I think in my case I like to receive physical affection, but I think you like to receive acts of service.
That is probably true in general—I like both though. I particularly like physical affection if I am the one that screwed up, because that makes me feel like we are on track to be OK again. For those readers who are unfamiliar, acts of service and physical affection are two of the Five Love Languages (Chapman, 1992)—another interesting resource on intimate relationships. Speaking of which, what MFT jargon have you picked up from me over the years? Do you find any of it useful in everyday life?
I think the term Family-of-Origin is very useful, especially since we live in a context when we are interacting with extended family frequently. Also, Internal Family Systems (IFS) terminology has been useful in understanding my reactions to stressful or frightening situations.
IFS terminology—like, the language of parts?
Yes, and understanding [my internal parts] as distinct voices with particular agendas or levels of maturity.
That was really well summarized, I am impressed. I should clarify for readers, the language of parts we are referring to comes from a fascinating therapy model called Internal Family Systems (IFS), created by Dr. Richard Schwartz (2001)—I highly recommend his book on the subject to anyone who wants to understand themselves better.
IFS is really helpful for understanding how I feel and behave in situations that can be frightening or jarring: because those situations draw out younger, more vulnerable parts of myself.
How have you learned to interact with those younger, more vulnerable parts?
I think knowing where they originate helps me to be patient with them; helps me to be patient with them, and helps me not to be completely overwhelmed by them—not to be completely dominated or controlled by them.
That is such an important skill. Can you name anything else I have taught you about life and/or relationships?
First, the importance of clearly expressing needs, desires, and requests in a relationship. Like, when I feel overwhelmed or tired and you ask me to do something: if I say, “can I do it later?” you are usually OK with that. And I then I do it later. But the point is I tell you I am tired and need time, instead of simply saying “OK I’ll do it” and then not doing the thing until later. I think that is a better way of managing those situations.
I agree. Partners benefit from proactively acknowledging and negotiating timing, not just the task itself, because everyone’s perception and preference vis-à-vis time is a little different. What else have you learned?
The necessity of cutting myself some slack—I think this is something we teach each other a lot. But I think you have formulated it clearly for me, and that helps me because I can present it back to you when it is something you need to hear. I think that ties into something else I have more broadly learned: in all the ways you help me—all the day to day ways you help me understand or face particular challenges—I learn from that, and that makes me better equipped to help you. Does that make sense?
Yes, I think that makes sense, and it actually speaks to an essential rule of relationships: we often mirror what we receive. So if you want to be cared for in a certain way, it helps to model that for your partner by caring for them in that way. Moving on: often my work centers on helping couples prepare for marriage; what advice would you give to a couple who is preparing to get married?
Practice making sacrifices for the other person. Look for opportunities in your everyday life to pay attention to what they need, and when the opportunity presents itself to do something that may be a little inconvenient for you, but benefits them, do it. That is an important skill to have, so it is something you should be practicing; starting on a small scale will help with the adjustment, then keep practicing until it is a habit and you can apply it on a larger scale.
That is so profound, I love it—but I probably cannot take credit for that insight (not all the credit, anyway). Is there anything about my work that you would like to understand better?
It is a little odd that I never get to see you doing your work (because of therapist-client confidentiality). That could be interesting. I am impressed by your ability to think on your feet in response to unexpected questions or challenges in any given session. I imagine that would be difficult for me.
Aw, thank you. Now, most important question of all: what is my most annoying relationship habit?
Making that clicking noise [*clicks tongue*]
That was not really what I had in mind… Also, that annoys you??! I do that all the time.
It annoys me a little.
Wow, I had no idea. Sorry. Which of my own lessons do I need to learn?
To not be so hard on yourself, and to get a good night’s sleep.
Well said. What advice would you give to the spouses of other MFTs?
Just because your spouse knows a lot about relationships does not mean they do not need help with yours.
PREACH. I certainly need lots of help. What would you say I like most about my work?
You like hearing other people’s problems. And you like asking really incisive questions, to help people better understand their lives.
I do like that. Humans are fascinating! Thanks for being part of this.
You’re welcome—I am glad I could help.
Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Bethesda office and online to those in Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Janine!