Deborah Fox is a couples therapist practicing in Forest Hills and a former Murch parent, which is how I know her. We went for a walk one day and she talked about her work. I was fascinated, and thought our readers would be too. She agreed to answer my questions. – Marlene Berlin
What is your background and how did you get interested in couples therapy?I’m a clinical social worker in private practice in Northwest DC. I became interested in couples therapy very early in my career when I trained as a Certified sex therapist. My understanding quickly evolved into “whatever the problem, it’s best solved by working with the couple.” The quality of anyone’s primary relationship is central to one’s sense of happiness and fulfillment.
I’m right in line with the 75-year Harvard study that concluded, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” – from Robert Waldinger of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
What kind of special training did you get?
I trained in Imago Relationship Therapy in the mid 1990s and I would say it’s essential to have training specifically in couples therapy – it’s not individual therapy times two!
Who seeks you out? How do they find you?
Couples of all ages and stages of relationship – I’ve seen couples, young and older, who are in the process of making a long-term commitment, couples on the verge of divorce, couples who’ve been together for decades who want to improve the quality of their relationship, couples struggling with their sexual connection.
Couples find me through a referral from friends, clergy, physicians and internet searches.
Do you deal with all types of couples – straight, gay, married, unmarried?
Yes to all of the above and I would add that I see couples with different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Sometimes, it almost seems unusual to be with a couple of the same race – I guess that’s just the diversity of DC. I also see dyads of other types – parent and adult child, adult siblings, business partners.
Are there common struggles or ruts in our long-term relationships?
Yes, for sure. It’s a big transition from “me” to “us” when we commit to another person, especially in our culture in which we prize individuality. Some couples never really make the transition and this breeds lots of friction.
Many many people struggle with feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, sexually unfulfilled, judged and criticized by their partners. This usually leads to loneliness, resentment, anger, disconnection and resignation.
To me, a rut is the result of resigning yourself to being unsatisfied with some aspect of your relationship because you don’t know of any path out of it. Usually this means that it no longer feels safe to talk about the issue and you’ve given up. This is all too common.
What are the most difficult types of couples to work with?
I would say those who have hair triggers for anger and can’t contain their reactivity long enough to engage in the therapeutic process and give themselves a chance to be understood. Fortunately, I only remember one couple who could never really get started, as one or the other frequently ended up walking out in anger in the middle of a session.
Those couples who can’t give up their belief that their partners are to blame for their problems are also difficult. Couples often wait to seek help until tensions are very high or hope is at an all-time low. By this time each person has a laser focus on the faults of the other. They need to come around to seeing that they both contribute to both the problems and the solutions.
Lastly, challenging couples are ones in which one or both people are very rigid emotionally, which is often due to the lasting impact of early negative experiences in life.
What is the most rewarding in your work?
What is most rewarding is seeing couples significantly feel better, inside their own skin and in their relationships, as well as the residual impact on their children, if they have them. I’ve seen couples who are all but throwing in the towel, only to find that they can learn how to have safer and more effective conversations that lead to feeling appreciated, understood, connected and supported. This is an amazing transformation to witness.
I wish we had more “relationship education” in our culture, as this would head off a myriad of problems. So, I’m also educating couples and I love that.
Do we expect too much from marriage?
Yes and no.
Yes, if people expect that marriage easily maintains itself without working at it. Marriage doesn’t run without fuel any better than a car does.
And no, in that lifetime committed relationships can offer us so much in terms of health and happiness. If you’re willing to explore whether your way of expressing your frustrations is heard by your partner as constructive; to withhold your criticisms and judgments and find out what’s behind them; learn to accept your partners habits and traits you don’t especially like; do your own personal work in exploring how the demons of your past might be contributing to the tension, to name a few – then marriage offers what nothing else quite comes close to.
Where do friends and outside interests come into play?
Having friends and interests that your partner is not involved in can easily be part of a good relationship. all about the balance. If you’re spending time elsewhere to the exclusion of quality time with your partner, then it’s likely to lead to disconnection.
People have different needs for many things, including time together, time apart, and time alone. Understanding your needs and those of your partner is really important and working together to accommodate those needs is the road to success.
Do you have any additional suggestions that are generally applicable to couples maintaining or building a good relationship?
Yes! Being partners means that your “job” is to keep each other feeling safe and secure and I know this doesn’t occur to the majority of couples.
It’s essential to prioritize your relationship and protect it from outside influences that may threaten your bond. This also means that you’re a team in that if one person is struggling with something, then you work together to address it.
Fully listening to each other when conflict is afoot, without interrupting. Most of us have a tendency to already be preparing our rebuttal while supposedly listening.
It’s crucial to repair your fights as soon as possible, which means apologizing for your piece even if you think you only contributed two percent to the problem.
An embrace three times a day will do wonders – a fully body hug, think at least 20 seconds – in the morning when you part company, in the evening when you come home and at bedtime.
It’s important to regularly express what you appreciate about your partner – their qualities, what they’re good at, that they brought you a cup of coffee, washed the car, listened to your point of view, etc.
Read more about Deborah Fox and her practice at DebFox.com.
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