Couples on the Brink of Divorce: Choosing the Best Path Forward

Becky R. Davenport, Ph.D., LMFT, Certified Discernment Counselor

I’ve been a marriage and family therapist for over 15 years now, so I have lost count of the times couples’ first sessions of therapy started with a statement by one (or both) spouses that they were strongly considering ending the marriage. To be completely honest, the approaches to couples therapy (also referred to as marriage counseling) I learned in graduate school did not give me a clear understanding of what to do for these couples, besides the three options of telling them to let me know when they decide they are ready to work on the marriage, attempting to convince them that the marriage was salvageable (as if I knew at that point…), or perhaps launch into an attempt at couples therapy knowing that at least one spouse did not have their heart in it.

I quickly learned that none of these strategies were really helpful beyond potentially allowing the spouse who is wanting to end the marriage to have a level of satisfaction that they ‘tried counseling’. The couples who left these sessions and soon started a divorce process were given neither real help in knowing if they were making the right decision for themselves or their families, nor assistance in preparing for the road that lies ahead in the event of a divorce. I slowly over the years began using different approaches with these couples, usually including some individual sessions with both spouses (assuming both were willing to attend) to focus on their individual perspectives, experiences, and roles. I perceived this to be more helpful, but still wondered how helpful these sessions were. There was no clear research or literature for us about this type of couple.

I was beyond thrilled, then, a few years ago to learn about Dr. Bill Doherty’s research out of the University of Minnesota’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program focused on “Couples on the Brink”, and his subsequent development of an actual model and procedure outline for therapists working with these couples. He accurately labeled his model “Discernment Counseling”. ‘Discernment’ here essentially means to make a thoughtful decision. After completing this training and becoming a Certified Discernment Counselor, I finally feel confident that my field has a helpful therapeutic process for these “couples on the brink”. I encourage all of my colleagues who work with couples to complete at least the Basic Level of Discernment Counseling training. I also strongly encourage anyone considering a divorce to engage in at least a single session of Discernment Counseling before making a final decision. (See www.discernmentcounseling.com for training information and a referral directory.)

How is Discernment Counseling Different from Couples Therapy/Marriage Counseling?

Effective couples therapy occurs when both spouses are, at least on some level, willing to lean into a process of understanding how to create a relationship that is 1) characterized by emotional connection and intimacy and 2) maintained by vulnerable communication and intentional navigation of challenges and conflicts. Some level of vulnerability of both parties is essential to this process, as is a time commitment and willingness to be patient with the process of unpacking problems of the relationship, and understanding how to change the negative patterns that have held the relationship back in the past. When one or both spouses are strongly considering divorce, though, it generally means they don’t believe any level of vulnerability is safe (“I can’t trust him with these needs”), possible (“We can’t do that- it always ends in conflict”), or beneficial (“Telling her will make no difference”). Further, the spouse who is heavily leaning out is very prone to leaving couples therapy as soon as the problems are ‘unpacked’ because he or she feels so overwhelmed by the volume of what is there to ‘unpack’  and/or hopeless about the potential for meaningful change in the relationship. Traditional couples therapy, therefore, is often not experienced as helpful for these couples, and may in fact exacerbate conflict and expedite a divorce because it triggers so much emotional injury and/or confirms to the leaning out person that there is no chance of change.

Discernment counseling, on the other hand, does not require a time commitment beyond each individually scheduled session, nor does it require any significant vulnerability toward the other spouse. It is designed to be a short-term process, typically 1-5 sessions with each lasting 1.5-2 hours, to help clients make a decision regarding the future of their relationship. Discernment counseling is also not technically intended to change anything about the relationship, only help the partners understand the relationship with sufficient clarity and confidence that they can make a decision about its future. The Discernment process assumes there is a sense of urgency for the partners to determine where they are going with their relationship- staying in a state of ambiguity in a relationship too long is not only incredibly stressful for the individuals, but it also increases the chances of the building up of resentment and negative emotions that sometimes erupt like a volcano- and can cause a similar degree of damage. A significant benefit of Discernment Counseling is its ability to defuse these emotional build-ups and allow couples to begin down either the path of intense couple therapy or divorce prepared to bring their ‘best selves’ into either process.

Another important distinction between couples therapy and discernment counseling is how information from both parties is handled by the therapist. Most couples therapists adhere to some version of a “no secrets” policy, meaning they cannot ethically keep important information from either party. In Discernment Counseling, though, it is assumed that both parties may have a need for confidential conversations with the therapist regarding topics such as affairs, feelings about the spouse, etc. During the discernment process, the therapist should not be sharing this information between the spouses. Both spouses are given the opportunity to speak openly and freely regarding all factors that influence their decision about the relationship. Without confidence in full disclosure, the process is much less valuable.

If Discernment Counseling Isn’t Intended to Improve the Relationship, What is the Intended Outcome?

There are three primary goals of Discernment Counseling. First is a sense of clarity and confidence for both partners in their understanding about the marriage, including what has led to its current state and one’s own role in that process. The power of this aspect of Discernment Counseling is that it allows couples to make this life-changing decision about their relationship based on real information about themselves and their partner instead of emotional reactions and assumptions about their partner. Many people enter a divorce process in an intense emotional state, often very similar to fight or flight reflexes. These emotions and reactions are the fuel of ugly, hurtful, traumatizing, and expensive divorces. Pausing the process long enough to have better clarity about how the relationship got there can allow both parties to step out of a vicious cycle of blame, defense, and hurt to see other options.  More than half of the discernment cases I see transition into couples therapy- discernment counseling gave them a new and more hopeful way to see their relationship so they begin the process of rebuilding (or sometimes building for the first time). Even those who elect to divorce after Discernment Counseling are able to do so in a much more humane and non adversarial ways, stepping out of the cycles of hurt that killed the marriage.

The second goal is for both partners to have a realistic picture of the three potential paths in front of them (status quo, commit to couples therapy, or begin divorce process). Many couples in a discernment process have not previously attempted couples therapy. After learning about their relationship, a discernment counselor can talk through how a trained couples therapist would approach their situation and help them reach their goals in the relationship. Some couples have attempted therapy together before, and believe it didn’t work, which has left them hopeless. A part of discernment may be to examine what might have prevented past counseling/therapy from being helpful. Sometimes couples recognize that they weren’t working with a therapist who was skilled in couples therapy, while others recognize they did not have reasonable expectations from the process and may have quit too soon. Others couples are able to confirm together that they did, in fact, engage whole-heartedly in good couples therapy, but both arrived at an understanding that their relationship is dead and no amount of CPR will bring it back to life. Many couples are also surprised to learn about the number of alternatives to litigated divorce, such as early intervention mediation and collaborative divorce, that are appropriate for many couples who elect to divorce after a discernment process.

Lastly is the goal for both parties to be able to bring their best selves into any future interactions or relationship, whether that be a divorce process, co-parenting after a divorce, or a renewed marriage together. Couples who are on the brink of divorce as almost always locked in very negative patterns of communication and action, which severely limits what they see in each other as well as they types of behaviors they elicit from each other. Bringing your best self forward means moving from a reactive understanding of the relationship (“I do this because you do that”) to a proactive understanding (When I do this, you do that). It also means having clarity about the values that guide your words, actions, and beliefs regardless of the actions of anyone else.

What Should Couples Expect in the Discernment Counseling Process?

During the initial 2-hour session for discernment counseling, partners meet for 30-40 minutes together with the therapist to provide an overview of the relationship history and answer a few specific questions together. This time together is also used to clarify the purpose and process of discernment counseling, as well as review the somewhat unique confidentiality agreement for the process (see above). The therapist then divides the remainder of the session between the spouses for individual conversation, focused on understanding their individual experiences and perceptions of the relationship and their roles in each of the potential paths forward. A brief 5-10 minute closing with the couple together includes the opportunity for each partner to share a summary of what they have learned and/or where they are in their individual discernment about the relationship, and determine if they wish to schedule another discernment session or begin the transition toward a selected path forward.

Couples on the brink of divorce are well aware they are facing a significant choice- for themselves and often for others, including children and extended family members who are impacted by a decision to divorce. Discernment counseling allows a couple to pause the process long enough to feel greater confidence in the decision made, an understanding of how the relationship has reached its current status, and clarity regarding what each path forward can look like for the relationship. Discernment counseling significantly increases the likelihood that, later down the road, regardless of the path ultimately chosen, spouses will feel more confident that the best choice was made for their relationship and both spouses are positioned to bring their best selves forward for the chosen path.

Marriage and Relationships

Grief: As A Couple

By Jennifer Soos, MA, LMFT

Grief seeps into the cracks that already exist in a relationship and has equal capacity to break it wide open or to seal and strengthen it.

We’ve all heard the hordes of experts tell us there is no “right” way to experience grief. It is not something at which you can “win” or “lose.” And when you are grieving on your own, as an individual, this truth might be a little easier to believe in. But, when you are grieving as a couple, this concept can feel more elusive. A couple who is grieving a shared loss or trauma, the death of a pet or a person close to them or even a shared child, will be very tempted to expect that their grief will look similar or march to the same timeline. But because grief tends to layer itself onto our old losses and onto our personal history, it will affect each of us differently and individual reactions can vary greatly. It can be quite challenging for a couple to seek out the commonalities and simply attempt to understand the other person’s journey, rather than focus on the differences, judge them or try to assign meaning to their behaviors.

If I could go back in time and say something to myself and my husband as we were launched on a grief journey together - something I wish we had heard from one of the therapists we met with - I think it would be this:

“As you navigate this loss together, seek UNDERSTANDING and seek CONNECTION.

Do not waste precious energy comparing yourselves, looking for solutions or even relief.”

In the months following the death of our son, I very clearly remember thinking, “He never cries. He doesn’t seem sad enough. He just went right back to work. I can’t seem to get out of bed. What’s wrong with him? Or wrong with me?.” In the years since, sitting with the newly-bereaved in my office and in support groups, I’ve heard a thousand variations on this same circumstance. It is so tempting to make our own meaning of the behavior we see in others who are sharing in or witnessing our experience, but it is rarely helpful. Over and over again I see that when couples can maintain a position of curiosity about what grief looks like for the other person, they are more likely to maintain connection and avoid feeling isolated or wrong.

When I finally spoke up and asked my husband about his own ways of coping he explained to me, “Of course I am sad. I cry in my car, alone. When I’m with you, I feel like I should be pulled together so you don’t have to be. I’m tired of feeling helpless...what happened to us feels so far out of my control. Going to work makes me feel less helpless. It makes me feel like I am doing something productive, shielding you from having to go yourself… it lets me feel like I have some control over something again. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not also very, very sad.”
I was able to tell him that I was tired of feeling so lonely in our ocean of sadness and that while I greatly appreciated everything he was doing for us - things that seemed to demonstrate his obviously-miraculous abilities - I needed to see the falling-apart parts, too.  Maybe he could save a little bit of his grief to do with me at home instead of always protecting me from it?
We discovered that even though we were walking through our loss in very different ways, we could still find places to intersect and overlap and we could seek to understand each other’s journey as a way to stay connected and a little less lonely in the maelstrom.

I listen to grieving and give permission for these kinds of things all the time:

Go back to work. Or don’t get out of bed.

Talk to everyone all the time. Or refuse to answer your phone or door.

Cry and wail and rant like it will never stop. Or take deep breaths and seem stoically resigned.

Go ahead, be angry.

Yes, be peaceful.

Submerge yourself in your faith...it’s there for you.

Turn completely away from your faith...it won’t go anywhere.

Read every book and blog you can get your hands on.

Or read absolutely nothing because it is all too sad.

Find a support group.  Or find a therapist. Or talk to your dog.

Feel grateful for your family and friends.

Or feel smothered and misunderstood by your family and friends.

Believe that in six more weeks you’ll certainly be “better.”

Believe that forever is not long enough to ever be “better.”

When I sit with couples who are grieving, I try to help maintain a focus on how understood they each feel and on how to create opportunities for increased connection and communication. We try to steer away from the tempting distractions that sound like: “How long will this last?” “When will we be back to normal?” “How can I make him less sad?” “Why can’t she just do what I do?” (For the record, the very unpopular answers to those popular questions are: “As long as you need it to.” “That old normal probably doesn’t exist anymore. You’ll have to find a new one.” “You can’t.” and “She’s doing this the way she needs to and that’s OK.”)

It is true. There is no “right” or “wrong” way... there are as many paths through grief as people who must walk them. And when you are walking alongside someone else, chances are very good their path is going to look different.

Here are some of the ways I’ve encountered over the years that couples use to increase their understanding, connection and communication:

The Grief Check-In

When grief is acute and new, this is probably a daily occurrence. (John Gottman’s research, 2000, demonstrated that a regular check-in is a fundamental presence in the healthiest relationships. When a couple is grieving its importance is even greater.) Whatever the frequency of it, it is crucial for couples to make time to communicate about how they are feeling - not just in general, but today, right now . These check-ins often sound like:

“I had a pretty good morning, but then a song came on the radio that caught me off-guard - it was pretty rough after that.” or “I didn’t think I would be able to get up this morning, but I had an unexpected call from my sister and it really lifted my spirits. I even made it to the grocery store.”

And as grief becomes less acute:

“This week has been OK overall. I’m still having some trouble sleeping and I got angry over some really small things...but I think I’m mostly OK.” or “I’ve been feeling really sad again lately - her birthday is coming up and I’m anticipating how hard that is going to be.”

People often ask, “But won’t it feel weird or intrusive to ask “How are you?” when we already know they are obviously incredibly sad?” These check-ins are meant to go beyond the generic “how are you” and get to more sincere “how were you today, really ?” or “what’s been good or hard about this particular week?” Couples often make the mistake of assuming that because we already know the other person is sad, we don’t need to keep asking and learning about it. Grief is incredibly dynamic and complex. People are usually shocked at how complicated and multi-layered it can be; there is probably always some new twist to notice or talk about. It has never been too long to check in and ask the question, “What does that loss feel like now?” even after it’s been years.

Shared Action

It is very common for bereaved people to want TO DO something. Grief can propel people into action, service, and any number of memorial activities. When a couple can come up with their own way to join together in an activity that expresses their grief or helps create meaning for their experience, their connection can be immensely improved. This is sometimes a challenging endeavor, naturally, not every activity will be appealing or feel right for everyone. Not every grief-related activity we participate in must be shared, of course, but it is helpful when a couple can find at least one or two that can be. Couples who do this will nearly always report much less loneliness (which, second only to sadness, is the most commonly-reported emotion in my experience in grief support groups.)

Over the years I’ve heard so many ideas for shared grief activities: family gatherings on birthdays/deathdays, ritual visits to cemeteries, baking their loved one’s favorite dessert or meal, doing charity work/volunteer service in their loved one’s honor, a trip to Africa to dig a water well, a backyard memorial garden that is added to each year, creation of a scholarship, artwork and photo memorials, activism campaigns and legislation, annual trips or dove/butterfly/balloon/lantern releases… there are Pinterest boards full of ideas for how to connect with partners as part of a grief journey. And a side benefit for couples who create a repetitive or annual ritual is that the loss conversation doesn’t feel like it has to come to an end. This is one of the healthiest integrations of grief: the idea that we don’t have to “move on” or decide when it is “over,” but rather that it will be an on-going part of a couple’s life together.
In my own family’s experience, the differences were clear: I was much more open with our loss and would talk to nearly anyone who made the mistake of asking one too many questions. My husband, on the other hand, discussed it with virtually no one outside of family and never felt compelled to attend a group meeting. My mother cried readily and talked to friends and made a scrapbook while my father silently dug a giant hole, alone, by hand, so he could plant a tree. However, when it comes to our son’s birthday, my family is united in a whole day spent doing acts of kindness in his honor. And now, eleven years in, I feel incredibly connected every year on that day - a day that once held so much potential for disengaged isolation.

And finally, another suggestion that helps couples stay connected while they grieve is attending to self-care and supporting that of your partner. Grief takes an astonishing physical toll on most. Commonly reported symptoms are headaches, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, muscles aches and shortness of breath. Whatever self-care routines might have been in place before the loss will most certainly be put to the test and, generally, people have to expand their coping abilities and include new tools. It is recommended to take a break from the work of grief and tend to your body and your soul and help your partner tend to theirs. Everyone must find what works best for them, and ideally, some of the self-care routines can also be shared: take a walk together, exercise, get as much sleep as possible, nourish yourselves with good food, spend time with loved ones, meditate, pray, have sex, take a trip or a long drive, get lost in your favorite music, take a technology break, go dancing, have a spa day, go see a show, do yoga, sit in the sunshine in a park, help someone else, spend time with your pet…and it is important to remember that when you feel like you can laugh again, do it. It’s OK. It’s good for you.

I still remember the first time we really came up for air and did something that looked like self-care together. It was May in Seattle - and the sun was making a glorious reappearance. On a whim, we accepted an invitation to go out with another couple we hardly knew. It was such a relief to be around people who didn’t automatically think of us as the saddest people they knew. We ate at a new restaurant in the open air where the drinks had disclaimers. We saw a rowdy live band who drank Texas beer in a smoky dive. And we laughed. Real laughter. We believed, maybe for the first time, that we were going to survive this - together.

So, if John Green is right and “grief does not change you, (but rather) it reveals you” then as a grieving couple we don’t have to fear the immense damage that loss can bring. We can, in fact, find ways to use the opportunity to deepen our relationship, create new layers in our intimacy and allow the experience to strengthen our bonds. And we can do it together.

Assumptions Erode Reality

by Jessica Potter, MA, LMFT, LPC

I find myself telling the couples that come into my office that assumptions erode ones reality. They slowly breakdown what was once a strong foundation until there is nothing left to hold up a relationship. When couples talk with me about their little disagreements that eventually lead to big blow-up fights, I often hear the words, “Well I just assumed….” Within the context of a relationship, assumptions can be unspoken expectations, theories, or beliefs that one partner has about the other partner’s reality. Assumptions can even be thought of as perceptions, no matter how accurate or inaccurate those perceptions might be.

So let me ask you, how do you perceive your partner? Do you assume your partner is thinking the same way that you are? Do you automatically think that you and your partner are on the same page most of the time? Do you expect your partner to understand your point of view? Do you assume that your partner should just know what you want for your birthday or how to please you intimately? If you said yes to any of those questions, then there may have been a time in your relationship that assumptions got you into trouble. It is my personal and professional opinion that in any relationship, we sometimes let assumptions get the best of us. Assumptions can tear a relationship apart without either person ever knowing what hit them. They can sneak up on you and create gut wrenching arguments out of thin air.

So how do we fight back against the slyness of assumptions? Here are a few recommendations to consider so that you don’t let assumptions get the best of your relationship:

  1. When you are uncertain, ask for clarity. Paraphrase and ask for feedback during discussions with your partner. If you don’t fully understand where your partner is coming from, it’s okay to ask questions. When you can’t quite understand your partner’s point of view, give them the opportunity to explain themselves further. It can be a great bonding experience when you allow yourself to learn more about your partner.
  2. Even if you think you are certain, ask anyways. It never hurts to double check the lines of communication. Don’t let information get lost in translation.
  3. Don’t create a reality for your partner, only they know their own reality. You do your partner a disservice when you automatically assume you know exactly how they will respond to a specific question. If you assume you know how your partner is feeling and you never give them the opportunity to tell you or express themselves, you are essentially taking away their reality. You are basically saying, “It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, it only matters how I think you’re feeling.”
  4. Be aware. Simply being aware that there might be underlying assumptions and hidden expectations buried throughout your relationship gives you an upper hand. Awareness leads to actions. Just be on the lookout and before you know it, you will start to notice yourself asking for clarity.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily easy and definitely don’t come naturally for most people, but that doesn’t mean we should give assumptions the power to dictate our relationships. The way your partner is feeling and the things they are thinking are important. Your partner deserves the opportunity to express their reality to you and you deserve to be a part of it.

Relationship ICU Part 1- The First Days and Weeks after an Affair is Disclosed or Discovered
by Becky Davenport, Ph.D., LMFT

Your marriage CAN survive an affair. No, it is not easy- quite the contrary. Yes, it will take time, maybe a long time. In this blog series, I will discuss some of the most common issues I have witnessed for couples working through an affair in therapy. Many couples not only survive, but even go on to have the strongest relationship they have ever had. Others do not. There are several key differences between what happens in couples that strongly predicts each outcome.

The first days and weeks- Relationship ICU

The phone call to me often goes one of two ways- “I made a terrible mistake and desperately want to save my marriage- please help us”, or “My life has just been turned inside out- I am furious, heartbroken, and terrified. I never thought my spouse would do this to me.” Affair, infidelity, cheating… whatever you want to call it, it is one of the most difficult, heart-wrenching things that a couple can experience. Discovering an affair is a traumatic event, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Having an affair discovered can often be traumatic in its own way- conflicted emotions, guilt, shame. During this phase, partners are experiencing very different emotions and have very different needs. Actions in the first days and weeks have a tremendous impact on the trajectory for the relationship moving forward- making the difference between the beginnings of repair and confirmation of warranted mistrust.

Below are several points for each partner to consider in the first days and weeks if you are the spouse who has been caught in or disclosed an affair. Next week, I will focus on this phase for the spouse who has discovered an affair.

  1. Your ability to be consistently emotionally responsive to your spouse in this critical time is the single biggest predictor of the outcome of your marriage. Emotionally responsive means that you not only really listen and hear what your spouse is saying and feeling, but respond in a way that reflects your love and care. If your goal is for your spouse to genuinely believe that he/she can again put their heart in your hands, you must show that your hands are not going to hurt their heart. This does not happen in one conversation- it happens over repeated conversations and interactions that all consistently point to that safety. Be patient. All spouses I see who have discovered an affair are in a form of a traumatic response in the first weeks after the discovery.
  2. Do not make excuses or blame your spouse. You can ease your spouse’s traumatic injury with your responsiveness, or you can make it dramatically deeper with defensiveness. Defensiveness is often a knife in the heart of a relationship, especially around an affair. It is important to understand the difference between defensively blaming your spouse for their role in problems in the marriage prior to the affair in order to justify your actions versus learning and processing together what happened, in the relationship and/or individually, that culminated in the affair. Affairs don’t happen in a vacuum (a topic I will address in a future post), and you may have spent a lot of time thinking about this for yourself prior to the affair being discovered. But at this point in the process your spouse will not likely be able to process this information from you as anything beyond you not taking responsibility for your actions in the affair. Be aware that the REAL process of understanding together how the affair happened will happen in the next phase of the affair recovery process- it will not happen until your spouse begins to feel safe again with you. Also, your personal understanding of the reasons behind the affair are quite likely to change over time (see #7 below).
  3. Be honest, but not ‘too honest’. A significant part of the therapy process in this phase is often spent processing information- putting all the pieces together into a coherent puzzle that allows your spouse to gain a sense of completeness (i.e., I have all of the information I need) and trustworthiness (i.e., “all of the pieces fit together to show that my spouse is being honest with me”). You will likely be asked a LOT of questions, repeatedly, and often in the context of very emotional conversations. While it can be difficult to be fully honest due to fear and shame, being dishonest at this point can be devastating to the chances of saving your marriage. Too many times I have seen couples moving positively through healing together only to be significantly set back when “the other shoe drops” after new, hurtful information is discovered. On the other hand, it is generally best to not bombard your spouse with details and information, even if they are asking or even begging, and especially when it comes to sexual details. Let me be clear- this is not an instruction to refuse to share the information, but rather a caution to consider what will be helpful versus only hurtful. It can sometimes be helpful to say something like, “I respect your right to ask for that information, and I am not opposed to telling you. I am afraid that it will hurt you right now. Can we wait and discuss this in therapy?”.
  4. Do not expect your spouse to be empathetic about your feelings for your affair person, your concern for his/her well-being. Depending on the type and duration of an extra-marital affair, the emotions and concern for the affair person can be strong due to your genuine concern for that person’s well-being. These complex emotions are not something your spouse is likely to understand or appreciate. Similarly, avoid defending the affair person to your spouse- it is a normal human emotion to feel intense anger and resentment toward the person having an affair with your spouse. Don’t expect anything else.
  5. Avoid making permanent decisions about your marriage. Many people in this situation can feel torn between the two relationships, and are very tempted to leave the marriage out of despair and hopelessness that things will recover after the affair discovery. However, the odds of a relationship with your affair person becoming a lasting, healthy relationship are not high- research shows that only 2% of these relationships last. A good therapy process will help you identify together what a path to saving the marriage will look like in comparison to the reality of ending the relationship. I have seen too many people with significant regrets after ending a relationship. Don’t make that decision in this phase.
  6. Do not tell your children about the affair. This is also strong advice for your spouse. It is very rare that a couple can really completely hide marital problems from their children. Your children know you both very well and can sense when there are problems. Instead of divulging all details to them, though, it is often sufficient to say something like, “Yes, we are having problems right now, but we are trying to work it out together” if your children ask.
  7. Brace yourself for some serious soul searching and self-reflection. Almost always, I hear the person who has had an affair describe a psychological compartmentalization process that allowed them to justify the affair to themselves. Somehow, the reality of their marriage and the alternate reality or fantasy world of the affair existed separately until the moment when this separation was no longer possible. When that division breaks down, the logic in your own mind that kept it going often no longer works. A significant part of repairing your marriage, as well as recovering from the shame and despair that can result from having an affair discovered, is looking inward and making personal changes that allow you to engage differently in your relationship going forward. Your ability to genuinely reflect and articulate this self-reflection process to your spouse will often go a long way in bringing about a new connection and trust in your relationship. A major milestone in the recovery of your relationship occurs when your spouse can see that you not only understand how the affair happened, but also take responsibility for your role in preventing yourself and/or your relationship from getting to a place again where there is vulnerability for an affair.

Above all, though, I want to stress the importance of seeking out a therapist to guide your relationship through the process. Friends and family can offer valuable support, but are not neutral. Often couples are also reluctant to share details about affairs with family and friends for a number of reasons, desiring instead to deal with it privately. Clergy and religious leaders can also play a positive role for many, especially when there is already an established connection within the religious community. However, most clergy are not trained to provide couples therapy. A good couples therapist can facilitate the healing process, sometimes preceded by a decision making process for the relationship, in a neutral and private environment. Unfortunately it can be difficult to know how to identify a good couples therapist. Look for someone with training and supervision in marriage and family therapy or relational therapy. Many mental health professionals advertise that they work with couples, and many do good work, but be aware that there is a great deal of variability in training, supervision, and experience specifically in work with couples. A good resource can be the therapist locator service through the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy ( www.aamft.org ). In the San Antonio area, you are certainly welcome to contact me or one of my colleagues at the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancment ( www.icfetx.com ). We are all licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) or licensed marriage and family therapist associates (LMFT-Associate) with extensive training and experience working with couples.

Relationship ICU Part 2- I Just Found Out My Spouse Had an Affair
by Becky Davenport, Ph.D., LMFT

Your marriage CAN survive an affair. No, it is not easy- quite the contrary. Yes, it will take time, maybe a long time. In this blog series, I will discuss some of the most common issues I have witnessed for couples working through an affair in therapy. Many couples not only survive, but even go on to have the strongest relationship they have ever had. Others do not. There are several key differences between what happens in couples that strongly predicts each outcome.

The phone call to me often goes one of two ways- “I made a terrible mistake and desperately want to save my marriage- please help us”, or “My life has just been turned inside out- I am furious, heartbroken, and terrified. I never thought my spouse would do this to me.” Affair, infidelity, cheating… whatever you want to call it, it is one of the most difficult, heart-wrenching things that a couple can experience. Discovering an affair is a traumatic event, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Having an affair discovered can often be traumatic in its own way- conflicted emotions, guilt, shame. During this phase, partners are experiencing very different emotions and have very different needs. Actions in the first days and weeks have a tremendous impact on the trajectory for the relationship moving forward- making the difference between the beginnings of repair and confirmation of warranted mistrust.

Last week, I wrote about several important points for the person whose affair has been discovered or disclosed. This week, I am addressing the injured spouse. Whether your spouse disclosed the affair unprompted (which rarely occurs) or you discovered it another way, you are likely feeling very overwhelmed with emotions and conflicting thoughts. Though the circumstances in each couple’s situation can be very different, there are a few relatively universal recommendations that I give clients in your position during my first meeting with them. The first meeting often occurs within a week or two of the discovery (but not always).

  1. Do not expect yourself to function like a rational person. This is a trauma and your body will respond accordingly. Many people struggle to eat or sleep, and MANY report having wild swinging moods. “I go from furious to devastating sadness and hurt to numb, and then back to furious- all within about 5 minutes” is not an uncommon description of this emotional roller coaster. I have lost count of the number of spouses who have told me they feel like they have gone crazy in the first few weeks after discovering an affair. Depending on many factors, most importantly how your spouse responds to you during the first few weeks, the “I feel crazy” phase typically begins to subside after 3-4 weeks. During this time, take advantage of some sick days at work, ask a friend to babysit and give you some time alone- don’t expect yourself to be able to do all that you would normally do in a day, as so much physical and emotional energy gets drained by processing the trauma of this injury to your sense of identity and security.
  2. Do not make any permanent decisions about your marriage. While it is understandable that anyone would want to keep their options open after discovering infidelity, I often see people regret leaving the relationship immediately after the discovery without trying to save the marriage. Give yourself the gift of some time, even getting through the first 4-6 weeks, before making any permanent decisions. Certainly there are exceptions to this recommendation, though, especially if you are concerned for your personal safety.
  3. Do not tell your children about the affair, at least not yet . Your children know you well, and will see that you are hurting and likely not acting like yourself. You may be distracted, crying, more irritable, or all of the above- all changes that often lead children to ask what is wrong. They love you and are concerned about you, but they are also dependent on you for their own sense of security and predictability. Resist the temptation to say anything that will sound to your children like, “Your mother/father did this- it’s their fault”. This information causes tremendous stress for children. You can say something more like, “Yes, I am feeling sad right now” to validate their perception of your emotions. If they have overheard or been exposed to conflict, you can say “Your father/mother and I are having some challenges right now, but we are trying to work it out”. Do everything you can, though, to protect them from any conflict between you and your spouse or any negative comments about your spouse-you will thank yourself one day when you look back on these days.
  4. Think carefully before you tell your family of origin. This one is tricky because many people’s first instinct, and strong desire, after discovering an affair is to call a parent or family member with whom they have a close relationship. I suggest caution here, at least early in the process, because a family member’s first instinct is almost always to be protective of their own in this situation. Ask yourself honestly if your parent or family member is likely to be able to genuinely forgive your spouse and support your marriage if you choose to stay. If you do confide in a family member, it will be important for your spouse to repair their relationship with your family separately from the repair of your marriage. In many ways, these are separate injuries. Healing one relationship doesn’t automatically repair the other.
  5. Talk to SOMEONE. A very easy way to make yourself go crazy is to try to deal with this completely on your own. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member- trusted not only in their ability to honor your privacy and keep you from inflicting bodily injury on anyone (hopefully- see #8), but also trusted enough as a friend of your marriage that their first advice is not going to be to leave solely because they don’t want to see you hurting now.
  6. Ask questions slowly . One of the most common themes I see for anyone trying to wrap their minds around their spouse’s affair is the barrage of questions that flood their minds. “Where did he meet her?”, “Did you tell him you loved him?”, and “How many times were they together?” are just a few of the questions that are often asked. These questions come from a strong desire to fit all the pieces together in order to see a coherent puzzle picture. None of us can make sense of anything with incomplete or conflicting information. An event as traumatic as an affair is certainly something that your mind and heart will want to make sense of. But know that this ‘coherent puzzle’ will not come from a 24 hour marathon of questions. If your mind is racing with questions, write them all down. Often, though, the underlying questions that you want answered most desperately are fairly few, “Are you someone I should ever trust again?” and “Is the affair a reflection of your true character or a mistake you made because of an area of weakness that can be fixed?”. These are questions that are only answered over time with actions.
  7. Do not assume the affair is your fault, or necessarily a reflection of a broken marriage. So often the assumption is that an affair is a ‘symptom’ of a bad relationship. I honestly don’t believe this is necessarily true, or at minimum is too shallow of an explanation. The vast majority of affairs that I see in my office are much more complicated than that. Yes, the marriage likely wasn’t at its high point when the affair started. But no marriage stays at that high place constantly, especially through career challenges, parenting struggles, deaths of loved ones, financial hardships, moves, promotions, or any of the multitude of challenges that we face in relationships over a lifetime.
    Instead, when we really dig deeper to understand how an affair happened, almost always what is present in some form for a variety of reasons is the inability of the person who had the affair, at least in the current phase of life, to directly name their deep emotional needs with enough vulnerability for their spouse to hear it and respond in a way that allows for a continued connection in the relationship. Addressing these reasons together, over time as security and trust begin to be reestablished, can possibly build a marriage that is stronger than it has ever been before.
  8. Do not confront the affair person. This is a very common fantasy- telling him or her off, defending your relationship, protecting your family from a threat, and/or seeking vengeance against this person you see as responsible for your pain. The reality, though, is that the vast majority of times these confrontations will not result in anything that will be helpful for your healing, either personally or for your relationship. Play out the fantasy in your mind- that can be helpful. But don’t act on it.

Above all, though, I want to stress the importance of seeking out a therapist to guide your relationship through the process. Friends and family can offer valuable support, but are not neutral. Often couples are also reluctant to share details about affairs with family and friends for a number of reasons, desiring instead to deal with it privately. Clergy and religious leaders can also play a positive role for many, especially when there is already an established connection within the religious community. However, most clergy are not trained to provide couples therapy. A good couples therapist can facilitate the healing process, sometimes preceded by a decision making process for the relationship, in a neutral and private environment. Unfortunately it can be difficult to know how to identify a good couples therapist. Look for someone with training and supervision in marriage and family therapy or relational therapy. Many mental health professionals advertise that they work with couples, and many do good work, but be aware that there is a great deal of variability in training, supervision, and experience specifically in work with couples. A good resource can be the therapist locator service through the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy ( www.aamft.org ). In the San Antonio area, you are certainly welcome to contact me or one of my colleagues at the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancment ( www.icfetx.com ). We are all licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) or licensed marriage and family therapist associates (LMFT-Associate) with extensive training and experience working with couples.


How do we teach our sons consent?

Becky Davenport, Ph.D., LMFT

Several news stories recently (eg, Standford conviction and Baylor University controversies around sexual assault by athletes) have led many to be talking about the role parents play in shaping our sons’ characters and choices, especially regarding sexual consent. As a parent and therapist, I see several significant opportunities for parents to deeply influence their sons, in spite of any external social messages that we can’t control. The biggest themes at any age are genuine empathy for others and personal accountability for one’s own actions and the effects of those actions on others. This is not just a single conversation for parents to have with an adolescent boy, especially if our goal as parents is not just to avoid having a son who is a convicted rapist. The much deeper, and MUCH more important goal is actually raising sons who view all others, including all women (regardless of dress, physical characteristics, level of attraction, or even level of intoxication) as human beings who are inherently worthy of a basic level of kindness and respect.

  1. From a very early age, consistently reinforce respect for body boundaries (their own and those of others) and the expectation that one must listen to both the actual words of others and their nonverbal cues to know what is ok with another person. For example, when I taught preschool aged children, we coached them to ask, “May I have that toy when you are finished?” instead of simply taking it out of the hands of another. There are many opportunities during the toddler and preschool years to discuss when it is and is not ok to touch another person (as well as when another person is allowed to touch the child). You can also use a hula hoop as a visual representation of ‘personal space’- we must have permission from the other person to be inside their personal space. Parents with more than one child have an endless supply of opportunities to talk about respecting boundaries- “knock before you enter another person’s room”, “I just heard your sister say she didn’t want you to touch her art project- that means it is not your choice to hold it in your hands.” Awareness of one’s physical presence and respect for the physical space of others is taught through hundreds of interactions and conversations across childhood and adolescence.
  2. You made the choices, you experience the consequence- regardless of the role others played in the activity. I don’t care who said what, and influenced your actions (from taking an extra cookie for dessert, to watching off-limits programing on YouTube, to smoking pot). If it was a choice you made, there are consequences for it that will not be softened just because someone else was doing it too, or somehow influenced you. When this personal accountability message is internalized at the same level as gravity (meaning, it is just a given in one’s experience of reality), it then makes conversations about personal responsibility regardless of what a girl might be wearing, saying, or drinking much easier. Emphasis in our discipline conversations on choices and consequences of one’s actions on others also makes it easier for us as parents to stay connected with our children and not be the ‘mean parent’- “When you chose to push your sister, you chose to not watch TV the rest of the day. I know you really want to watch your favorite show, but you made the choice. I hope you make a better choice tomorrow so we can watch it together.”
  3. Learning how to manage his own physical power . In many ways, I want my son to see females as equally powerful and capable, even knowing that girls can be better and smarter than him. However, it is quite likely that he will be physically stronger than many women in his life. This power advantage therefore makes him even MORE responsible. In my house, this is an easy area to address, because my son has a younger sister- there are frequent conversations about recognizing that she is younger and not as strong, and being more responsible during play because he is stronger. Whether parents have the benefit of a sibling relationship for this emphasis or not, the combination of learning through experience and verbal dialogue is important. Experience is how we make it a memory in our bodies because we’ve actually experienced what it feels like to stop or redirect physical power. Dialogue gives this experience language and meaning.
  4. Related to self-control of physical power is the difference between using that power in competitive sports and the rest of life . In football, basketball, soccer and many other sports, the message is to take what you want by force. He who wants it most gets it.  While there are many valuable life lessons that come from sports participation, there is also a need to help our sons recognize the differences in how those rules apply in life versus on the field.
  5. Empathetic perspective taking , I believe, is the single most important skill we can teach our children. Unfortunately, there is a much stronger cultural emphasis for girls in this area than for boys. Watch an afternoon of children’s programming on Netflix or Disney channel, for example, and you will see an endless line of programming for girls that included heavy themes of friendship, fair play, and empathy. This emphasis is largely absent in boys’ programming (with some notable exceptions- I love Thomas the Train for preschool boys for this reason).  Empathy is not just about understanding how others might feel- it is about a deeper connection to the emotional experience of others. Can he look in the eyes of the other and see what they feel? During toddler and preschool years, these types of opportunities occur daily- “your friend is sad because you took the toy he was playing with- Look at his eyes, do you see how he feels?” There are temperamental differences in kids that make empathy easier to teach to some children than others; however, if you have a naturally less empathic son, then it is even MORE important to consistently focus on this skill and theme in parenting. Every major religious tradition has some version of the Golden Rule- the purpose of which is to humanize others and teach empathy.
  6. For many reasons, helping kids process social messages is important because it fosters critical thinking. For example, parents can talk to children as young as 3 or 4 years old about commercials being played on TV to get you to spend money. Sometimes what is claimed in commercials isn’t true! In the same way, we can help our son’s critically process social messages about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality that are covert within school dress codes, movies and TV, books, video games, etc.
  7. One of the strongest places we have influence over our children’s expectations about relationships and sexuality is in our own relationships. When we are consistently modeling respect, mutuality, and shared influence in our own romantic relationships, as well as in our relationships with our sons, their assumptions about the “way things just are” will include these principles.
  8. And finally, the part most parents dread- actual conversations during and after puberty and beginning dating . How do you know a girl likes you? How should you handle it if a girl doesn’t want to be your girlfriend? Under what circumstances is it ok to take pictures? When is it permissible to share a picture of a girl on social media? How do you know a girl wants you to kiss her? What kind of conversation should actually take place before you have sex? Most parents, including myself, would rather go back and watch a few episodes of Thomas the Train instead of having these conversations. However, these conversations are critical for the relational health of our sons, both during adolescence and into their adult relationships.

No parent wants to believe they are raising a rapist. However, the number of adolescent girls and young women I’ve heard describe sexual coercion (which ends with the girl saying yes or at least not actively protesting, but not genuinely meaning it) and sexual assault in therapy suggests that too many parents are in fact raising rapists. For the sake of both our daughters AND our sons, we must start having more of these conversations with our sons.

Being the Boss of Your Brain
Becky Davenport, Ph.D., LMFT

My son, Thomas, came home a few weeks ago telling us about the new word he learned at school- metacognition. After getting over the shock of the fact that my 3rd grader was taught a vocabulary word that I didn’t know before graduate school, I was so excited!

For anyone who is reaching for the dictionary (or, more likely opening a new page to Google metacognition), metacognition means ‘thinking about or having an awareness of one’s thoughts’. This is a skill that I talk about daily with clients of all ages, not just children, often in the context of how one’s thoughts and emotions are contributing to one’s behaviors toward significant others (peers, coworkers, children, spouse, other family members). The beauty of being able to think about your own thoughts is that this means that you can have awareness and control over your thoughts too. With children, I talk about this as being the ‘boss’ of your brain. With adults, I talk about learning to argue with ourselves (or at least the part of ourselves that thinks thoughts that are unhelpful), recognizing with one’s thoughts are moving in an unhelpful direction and consciously turn things around. People often don’t initially have an awareness of their abilities to consciously take control of their own thoughts- but once they begin practicing (yes, it takes practice, just like any other skill!) they are often amazed at the impact on their emotional and psychological well being, as well as on their significant relationships.

A few examples hopefully will be helpful. First, I will tell on myself a bit... Yesterday morning I went to my car in the garage to retrieve my checkbook (another school fundraiser...). In the process I stubbed my toe REALLY hard on my bicycle tire. It hurt VERY bad. Immediately, I started to think (please keep in mind this was before I had my coffee)- “this is not a good way to start the day”... “this is going to be a bad day”... “do I have time to go back to bed?”. The speed at which the human brain can go to that place is truly amazing! Then, I caught myself. Working to be the boss of my brain, I told myself to take some deep breaths, shake it off, and go back in the house. “The day will only get better from here” was now what I chose to tell myself. I also remembered a youth pastor long ago telling me to thank God in those moments because you have a toe to hurt in the first place. What is amazing is that in these moments whatever we believe to be ‘true’ - “this means it is going to be a bad day” OR “the day will only get better from here” - is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For another example, I will tell on my son. He became very upset about a week ago after going to bed, and it took a little while to get him to explain what he was crying about. Finally, he tells me that when he closed his eyes to go to sleep, he had remembered that he left his favorite Pokemon toy outside. He had then convinced himself that the dog had already destroyed it, and when he yelled out to me, I told him I would be there after I finished tucking in his sister (not fast enough for him, given the level of disaster that he had convinced himself had occurred). Great opportunity to capitalize on his new vocabulary word!! So after he calmed down and we recovered poor Oshawott from the backyard (fully intact, thankfully), I talked with Thomas about how this situation connected to his new word. We traced through his thought process from when he first remembered that the toy was outside to what he was thinking when I found him crying. He was then able to see that he had largely created the disaster in his own mind. We then talked about what he could THINK and DO differently next time to avoid the degree of drama...

An important thing to emphasize in this discussion, though, is that being the boss of your brain should not just be a solitary activity. We all need help sometimes, like my son did last week, to get our minds under control sometimes. We as humans are social creatures that depend on others - we also have an amazing ability to influence the way others think and feel by the way we act toward them and the language we use when we talk with them. Often being able to say out loud what we are thinking and feeling to another person who is genuinely interested in hearing and understanding (this is a vital part of the puzzle), helps us to recognize the pieces of our internal messages that are flawed, wrong, or damaging.

If you need learning more about using these skills for yourself, within your relationship, or with your children, you can contact the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement (in San Antonio area) at 210-496-0100 or www.icfetx.com . Outside of San Antonio, you can find a qualified professional through www.therapistlocator.net .


The Inside Out of Divorce
Becky Davenport, Ph.D., LMFT

I joined the scores of parents this weekend taking our children to see Disney/Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out. Honestly, I didn’t have high expectations, despite the positive reviews I had read- just another summer activity. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the movie address children’s emotions with powerful metaphorical characters and images. I have already seen and shared several excellent articles for parents about how to use the movie to discuss emotions with their children. I expect that many more articles and blogs on this general topic will come, and likely even some therapeutic activities developed for children based on the movie characters. (I have a few in mind myself!) What came to mind most for me, though, were several of my child clients whose parents are either currently in a divorce process or have recently divorced. The movie isn't specifically about divorce, but instead about 11-year-old Riley’s feelings around relocating from Minnesota to California. I have no doubt, though, that as my child clients who are experiencing parental divorce watch this movie, they will first and foremost see themselves in the character of Riley in the context of their parents’ divorces. This makes the movie a prime opportunity for divorced or divorcing parents to both personally reflect and talk with their children about divorce, emotions, and, most importantly, relationships. Here are a few suggestions. (Warning- I will include some spoilers. I am writing this with the assumption that readers have seen the movie.)

Words for Feelings - Naming emotions is vitally important for us as humans- language organizes our experiences, relationships, and identities. The movie is a great opportunity to help your children understand different emotions, how we physically experience those emotions, and what those emotions might tell us to do. The five emotions in the movie- Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear- each serve needed roles for Riley, as they do for all of us. The movie emphasizes that ALL of these emotions (brought to life in the movie) care about Riley and play a role in protecting her. There are no “bad” feelings- this is an important point for all kids, and certainly during and after a divorce. However, when Joy and Sadness are no longer present in Headquarters, how Riley acts and feels begins to change dramatically. Conversation starters with kids can include discussions about what they know about each of these emotions, times they have felt each, other emotions that they know and have felt. Don’t necessarily start the conversation specifically about divorce- start more broadly. Then as discussion is flowing, you can ask how those emotions have been felt in relation to the divorce process. It can be powerful for your kids to hear your own emotions, too. Hearing you acknowledge, ‘yes, I am sad about the divorce, too’ can be very validating for your children as long as they don’t then feel responsible for making you feel better by masking their own emotions.

Protecting Core Memories - Riley has a small number of “core memories” that Joy works to protect throughout the movie- protecting them from being forgotten and from being touched by sadness, and therefore changed forever. Divorcing parents can consider what their children’s core memories are likely to be, and how to protect them from being ‘touched’ by the sadness of divorce. Further, keep in mind that the divorce process itself will become a “core memory”- parents play a huge role in what color it will become. Older children may be able to articulate needs and ideas of how parents can do this. For example, I recently heard a child request for his parents to sit together at his graduation ceremony. Although this request did not come in relation to the movie, this child intuitively seemed to understand what he needed from his recently divorced parents in order to protect his memory of the graduation ceremony. Thankfully for him, his parents were able honor this request and make his special day into a positive memory despite their own emotions. Younger children, unable to articulate these needs, will need parents to view events from their immature perspective in order to consider how best to protect their core memories.

Not all Ideas are Good Ideas - When Joy and Sadness are lost, Anger (with assistance from Fear and Disgust) gave Riley a ‘bright idea’ to run away and go back to Minnesota. This is an excellent opportunity to talk about the fact that, although all emotions are good and play helpful roles in our lives, sometimes these big emotions that don’t feel good can lead us to do things that aren’t really getting us what we need or want. And sometimes the ‘bright ideas’ we get from Anger and Fear are more closely related to Sadness.

Permission to Grieve What Is Lost - Despite the “bright idea” to run away, Riley couldn’t really go back to the life in Minnesota that she remembered- that life was forever changed when her parents decided to move. Their home was sold, the hockey team was formed without her, and her friends’ lives were also moving forward. Her parents had reasons for moving that Riley didn’t understand- reasons they couldn’t really explain to her because she was too young. This part of the movie plot can powerfully connect with kids who feel so powerless about their parents’ divorce. Just telling Riley’s story after watching the movie and verbalizing how hard it was for her not to be part of the decisions her parents made can be powerful for your kids, even if you don’t directly point out the parallels with their lives. Sometimes kids can learn more through these kinds of metaphors than if we say it directly about their own lives, (which is also what can make play therapy so powerful for children- they play out the metaphors more than the real stories…).

Islands - Riley’s sense of identity is represented in the movie by ‘islands’. Each of these go dark, and some even crumble after her family moves and Joy is not able to be at the control panel. What are your child’s islands? How can you work together to protect them or even make them stronger? Keep in mind, too, that Riley’s islands came back after she had Joy in Headquarters again.

Sadness to Connection - One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when Joy realizes the role that Sadness played in shaping some of Riley’s Joyful core memories. Sadness leads Riley to tell her parents how she feels, and they respond with love and support, which leads to Riley feeling happy again and adjusting to the transition that she initially is resisting. Sadness, not Anger or Fear or Disgust, is the emotion that most often draws a connect with those we love. Riley’s parents didn’t initially respond to her Sadness about the move in a way that allowed her to admit feeling it- they pressured her to be happy, to keep seeing the bright side of being in a new home, new school, new team. Their own Sadness and Fear likely told them that was the best thing to do- but it didn’t work. It wasn’t what Riley needed. Divorcing parents often share with me how overwhelmed they are with their own emotions, and how much that makes them struggle to know how best to respond to their kids. Inside Out gives us such a powerful metaphor for connection in parent-child relationships. When we respond to Sadness with connection and comfort, we allow Joy to return to Headquarters.

General Mental Health

Sadness versus Depression: Knowing the Difference
by Ashley Wilkens, MA, LMFT, LPC

After interviewing and counseling with hundreds of clients and their families over the last 15 years, one of the most common questions that I have received concerns confusion about the difference between sadness and depression. My experience has been that Clinical Depression (sometimes called Major Depression) and other forms of depression are widely misunderstood, even in a modern age where mental health treatment is slowly becoming more accepted. It’s difficult for many people who have not experienced depression to understand that the feelings of sadness that we all experience at various points in our lives as human beings are not necessarily the same as a person with clinical depression. We will all feel “sad” at one point in our life or another, but most of us will not experience “clinical depression.”

So how do we know the difference? The best example that has always come to mind for me is Charlie Brown in The Peanuts cartoons. I remember when I was watching the Charlie Brown Christmas episode with my children, after not seeing it since childhood, and realizing, “Charlie Brown is clinically depressed!!” He speaks numerous times during the show about wanting to kill himself and always seems to have a dark cloud raining on him even when it is sunny out for everyone else. After meeting with many clients about their experiences of depression, the image of having a dark cloud following you around on what should and would be a beautiful sunny day is exactly what I envision when I think of what depression is like.

Sadness is more fleeting and when a situation in a person’s life gets better, or as time passes, the person begins feeling better. With depression, even when an individual's situation begins to improve (if there even is a stressor at all), he or she still may not begin to feel better. In fact, they typically feel worse and worse over time despite any improvements in their lives. Major Depression as defined by the DSM-5 (the manual used by doctors and mental health professional to diagnoses mental health disorders) as a person having 5 of the following symptoms for at least 2 weeks “nearly every day.” The symptoms include feeling depressed, having loss of interest/motivation, decrease or increase in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, loss of energy, feeling restless or slowed down, feelings of worthless or guilt, difficulty concentrating, recurring thoughts of death –either wishing to die, fear of dying, or passive or active suicidal thoughts. Along with at least 5 of the above symptoms, they must also have significant impairment or decrease in functioning in one or more areas of their life and the mood should not be caused by substance abuse, medications, general medical conditions, or grief less than 2 months old.
One of the most difficult things to understand about depression is that there also does not necessarily have to be a stressful event or trigger at all for someone with clinical depression to feel depressed. I have had countless clients tell me that they have no reason to be “depressed” and yet they still are.

This is still more evidence that depression most certainly has a true biological root with the specific chemicals that regulate our mood internally. Maybe this is why depression is so hard to wrap our minds around, because unlike a physical cut that we can see and put a band-aid on to heal instantly, most people can not “see” depression because the wound is internal and may come out in unpredictable emotions, not in a blood test or in an x-ray. Persons with depression also often become very skilled at masking how they are really feeling around others so they may not often appear outwardly depressed to others, even those closest to them.

So then when do you know when to get help? Well, certainly all situations that may be causing discomfort whether they involve grief or another loss, various life transitions, marital issues, conflicts with families or other loved ones, and more, then counseling can be effective and beneficial. However, when your mood begins affecting your ability to function well in your life, whether at work or home, then intervention is most definitely needed. If diagnosed with some form of depression, medication and/or counseling may be recommended by your doctor. For moderate to severe depression, medication treatments in addition to counseling have been consistently proven to be the most effective combination.

The bottom line is that we all need to pay attention to our own body’s signals. If you don’t feel like yourself and are having difficulty functioning in some way or another then please do not ignore it. Depression as well as a variety of mental health diagnoses such as Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders, just to name a few, are highly treatable and the vast majority of people can live happy, healthy, and productive lives.

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