Sep 11

“Big Little Lies” Season Two: Therapist Loses Cred

In a previous post I commented on the competence of the therapist—and how refreshing this was considering how little of this we see on TV and film—in Season One of Big Little Lies. Unfortunately, my opinion has changed after watching the most recent shows. Although Big Little Lies Season Two features the same therapist, she’s different now. I’ll try to explain. Spoilers ahead.

Big Little Lies Season One therapy: In a nutshell, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) addressed being the victim of domestic violence in her therapy with a helpful Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert). But Celeste didn’t have to decide to leave her abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) after all. As of the finale he’s dead.

Big Little Lies Season Two therapy: Each therapy scene is jarringly confrontational and off-putting, but the worst offense occurs when Dr. Reisman asks Celeste not only to focus on remembering her abuse but also to imagine her best friend, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) being abused in the same way. Sure, Reisman probably wants to turn Celeste’s empathy for others inward. But, as Julia Naftulin, Insider, points out, her approach leads to unnecessarily retraumatizing Celeste.

Indeed, one of the goals of a trauma-sensitive therapist involves trying not to trigger the painful memories and flashbacks. Purposely probing for a reenactment of the past is likely to further embed aspects of the trauma into a client’s brain.

Another problem is Reisman’s judgmental attitudes. She pushes Celeste, for instance, to see her marriage in more black-and-white terms, i.e., Perry is bad—someone to get over already. The reality is that Celeste had been in a complicated relationship with a man who yes, did awful things to her—but who was loved as well.

Therapist Kelly Scott gives Insider this sound opinion:

…Dr. Reisman’s approach ⁠— insisting that Perry was purely evil, with no positive attributes ⁠— only could have been effective if he was still alive and Celeste needed a one-dimensional view of him to leave the relationship. But now that Perry is dead, painting him as the bad guy serves no purpose for Celeste or her safety. Rather, it will likely alienate her.

Madeline and her husband Ed (Adam Scott) also sign up for Reisman therapy after Ed finds out Madeline was unfaithful. In what appears to be their very first session, Reisman badgers a confused Madeline into explaining why she cheated, then out of the blue accuses Ed of being “profoundly disengaged” and possibly as guilty as his wife for their current problems. The upshot: neither is happy with how they’re treated.

For additional info and opinions regarding the therapist in Big Little Lies Season Two, here are a few resources:

Jan 08

Couples Therapy Novel: “Listen to the Marriage”

John Jay Osborn, a seasoned writer who’s experienced four years of couples therapy himself, has new fiction out called Listen to the Marriage: A Novel. The only three characters: therapist Sandy and her 30-something clients Steve and Gretchen, a recently separated pair who address their issues, including infidelity, over the course of nine or ten months.

The point of view? The therapist’s. So, what kind of messages might be gleaned about marriage from reading this novel?

  • Publishers Weekly: “Marriage, Osborn seems to say, is uneventful, and to keep it going is even more uneventful—mostly, it takes dedication, self-reflection, and lots and lots of communication.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “…Sandy explains that she sides with the marriage, as personified by an empty green chair that doesn’t match anything else in the office.”
  • Bookpage: “…(T)he couple learns to look beyond the surface of what the other says and examine what’s really happening in their relationship. The time they spend in Sandy’s office requires Gretchen and Steve to slow down, listen to each other and listen to their marriage.”

What Osborn told Ari Shapiro, NPR, about lessons learned from his own long-term couples therapy:

So, what happens in really good marriage counseling — the marriage counseling illustrated in this book — is that by the end of the process, when you really begin to get it, when you can actually understand for the first time in your life what your partner is really saying to you, you feel like a new person. It’s as if you’ve shed everything that happened before, right? I mean, so if you’ve had an affair before, it’s as if it happened to a different person. It doesn’t count anymore. You’re new…

Other points about couples therapy from his NPR interview:

  • Things learned in the therapy “you should have learned when you were growing up — maybe by watching your parents, but your parents didn’t have it together.”
  • Practice, and lots of it, is required to make adequate change.
  • In the book the marriage itself is like “a fourth character.” Sandy wants the couple to view it “as something that they built over time that’s very important, and that’s alive in a way that’s different from each of them.”

What might an actual expert say about effective couples work? Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, lists five principles she’s ascertained from a broad-based research review. For details click on the Psychology Today link:

  1. Changes the views of the relationship.  
  2. Modifies dysfunctional behavior. 
  3. Decreases emotional avoidance.  
  4. Improves communication.  
  5. Promotes strengths. 
Sep 04

“Making Marriage Work”: John Gottman Quotes

The following quotes from relationship expert John Gottman regarding marriage are from two of his most read books:

I. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert  by John Gottman and Nan Silver (1999)

…one of the most surprising truths about marriage: Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.

Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best protection against feeling adversarial toward your spouse.

The problem is that therapy that focuses solely on active listening and conflict resolution doesn’t work. A Munich-based marital therapy study conducted by Kurt Hahlweg and associates found that even after employing active-listening techniques the typical couple was still distressed. Those few couples who did benefit relapsed within a year.

II. The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples by John Gottman, 2011

…(T)he most common research finding across labs is that the first negative attribution people start making when the relationship becomes less happy is “my partner is selfish,” a direct reflection of a decrease in the trust metric. They then start to see their partner’s momentary emotional distance and irritability as a sign of a lasting negative trait. On the other hand, in happier relationships people make lasting positive trait attributions, like “my partner is sweet,” and tend to write off their partner’s momentary emotional distance and irritability as a temporary attribution, like “my partner is stressed.”

Converting a complaint into a positive need requires a mental transformation from what is wrong with one’s partner to what one’s partner can do that would work. It may be helpful here to review my belief that within every negative feeling there is a longing, a wish, and, because of that, there is a recipe for success. It is the speaker’s job to discover that recipe. The speaker is really saying “Here’s what I feel, and here’s what I need from you.” Or, in processing a negative event that has already happened, the speaker is saying, “Here’s what I felt, and here’s what I needed from you.”

Most couples are willing to spend an hour a week talking about their relationship. I suggest that emotional attunement can take place (at a minimum) in that weekly “state of the union” meeting. That means that at least an hour a week is devoted to the relationship and the processing of negative emotions. Couples can count on this as a time to attune. Later, after the skill of attunement is mastered, they can process negative emotions more quickly and efficiently as they occur. If the couple is willing, they take turns as speaker and listener. They get two clipboards, yellow pads, and pens for jotting down their ideas when they become a speaker, and for taking notes when they become a listener. It’s not a very high-tech solution, but the process of taking notes also helps people stay out of the flooded state. I suggest that at the start of the state of the union meeting, before beginning processing a negative event, each person talks about what is going right in the relationship, followed by giving at least five appreciations for positive things their partner has done that week. The meeting then continues by each partner talking about an issue in the relationship. If there is an issue they can use attunement to fully process the issue.

Nov 13

“The One I Love”: A Strange Kind of Couples Retreat

At the start of The One I Love, now available on DVD, a couple with issues goes to therapy—-and things get really weird.

The Trailer

The Plot

David Edelstein, Vulture, briefly summarizes:

In the funny-strange sci-fi psychodrama The One I Love, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a foundering couple, Ethan and Sophie, whose attempt to recover the happiness in their marriage takes them—on the advice of a therapist played by Ted Danson—to an isolated country estate where they meet … themselves. Or, rather, each of them meets someone who looks exactly like the other but is warmer and more attentive. Is it a dream? A shared psychosis? A portal to another dimension? (The couple ruminate on all these possibilities themselves.) The more urgent question is: What do you do when your mate is clearly falling for the person you were rather than the person you are?

The Therapist

Matthew Kassel, New York Observer: “He makes them play random notes on an in-office piano—a bogus indication that their marriage is out of sync—and then recommends they get away to a rural retreat to ‘reset the reset button.'”

The Therapist-Recommended Retreat

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “The ‘retreat’ is a weekend alone in a big old house on a large property, complete with a pool and guest house. There are no other guests. There is no guru leading them through trust exercises. There is no Steve Carell in ‘Hope Springs.’ It is just Ethan and Sophie, hanging out, exploring the grounds.”

The Couple (the only characters besides the briefly portrayed shrink)

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “We’re presented with a couple that is beyond listening to each other. They no longer seem to believe in the other person’s virtue or specialness. And every positive association they have about each other is related to some past memory, when everything was new and they were both on their best behavior. So should they stay together? And if they do, what can they still expect to find?”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “It’s not just familiarity that has bred contempt between them: Ethan was unfaithful once, and Sophie has yet to forgive him. At the same time, she has habits and walls of her own, so she’s hardly blameless for their current malaise.”

More About the Ensuing Plot and Developments

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:

…(W)hat they open themselves to is a Hall of Mirrors, increasingly disturbing, and the secrets start to pile up again, casually at first, and then consciously and deliberately…The two actors create a very real relationship, with a sense of shared joy in one another’s company, and myriad problems threatening to derail the entire thing. We can see how bored they are with life, with themselves, and with each other. To Ethan, trying something new means ‘going horseback riding with a satchel of wine.’ Ethan and Sophie are not extraordinary characters. But the situation in which they find themselves in is.

Nov 13

“After the Affair”: Infidelity, Forgiveness, and Recovery

In the mid-90’s psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., along with husband Michael Spring, wrote what may be the best book for couples, gay and straight, trying to recover from one partner’s affair. After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful now has a revised edition, with a new section regarding cyber-affairs.

A review of After the Affair by Samantha Smithstein, another psychologist, describes the stages of recovery outlined in this book:

In the first stage, Reacting to the Affair, she empathizes with the likely feelings of the ‘hurt partner’ and the ‘unfaithful partner’ (her language), giving language to, and normalizing, their experiences. In the second stage, Deciding Whether or Recommit or Quit, she helps both members of the couple confront their ambivalence about the relationship and make a thoughtful decision about whether or not to stay. In the third stage, Rebuilding Your Relationship, she reviews strategies and tools to help the couple rebuild trust, intimacy, and get to forgiveness.

What about the issue of whether or not to confess an affair to begin with? From an interview with Spring in the New York Times

Some experts say you absolutely must reveal it in order to rebuild your relationship. When you reveal your affair, it deconstructs your relationship and allows for a new level of honesty.

Other experts say you absolutely must not reveal it. When you do, you destroy the spirit of the hurt partner. They never recover. Keep it to yourself.

I have found that people go on to build better bonds, better marriages, after telling and after not telling. What is essential is to understand the meaning of the affair, why they had the affair and to address those issues.

One of the dangers of not telling is that people give up the lover, return to the marriage, but they never face the problem and so they live in a prison. They come back to something stale or damaged and they never work to reinvent their relationship. That’s not good for anyone.

Let’s say confession has occurred, recovery has begun, but forgiveness is a sticking point. If so, she has another excellent resource, How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To (2004). Like After the Affair, this book presents original ideas that came from her many years of clinical experience. 

Not for issues of infidelity only, this book advises that you may or may not decide forgiveness is the choice for you.

As stated in the book description, Spring “…proposes a radical, life-affirming alternative that lets us overcome the corrosive effects of hate and get on with our lives—without forgiving. She also offers a powerful and unconventional model for genuine forgiveness—one that asks as much of the offender as it does of us.”