ERP 414: How To Increase Emotional Safety For The Whole Family When The Couple Is In Distress — An Interview With Kathryn de Bruin & Dr. Lisa Palmer-Olsen

By Posted in - Podcast March 5th, 2024 0 Comments

Navigating the challenging waters of divorce or betrayal within a relationship can be an incredibly tough journey. It’s a time when seeking support becomes crucial, and for many, individual or couples therapy becomes a lifeline. However, the impact of a couple’s distress extends far beyond the partners involved. They often overlook how their struggles reverberate throughout the entire family.

In this episode, we dive into the critical importance of considering therapy for the entire family system. This episode offers strategies for gaining a deeper understanding of how family members at various developmental stages are affected, and how to create a safe space for open communication and emotional support within the family, prioritizing the children’s development amidst distress.

Kathryn de Bruin is a Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Emotional Focused Therapy Trainer and Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist Supervisor.  She has a full-time private practice in San Diego, CA where she works with children and families.  Kathryn teaches Play Therapy at the University of California, San Diego, in the Play Therapy Program. She is a Director for the San Diego Center for EFT, and serves various EFT communities.

Lisa Palmer-Olsen, Psy.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego California. She is a Certified EFT Therapist, Trainer, and Supervisor, and is a Founder and one of the Directors of the Emotionally Focused Couples Training and Research Institute at Alliant International University. Lisa completed her dissertation research on how to train and teach Emotionally Focused Couples therapy to professionals. Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of EFT and Dr. Scott Woolley were part of her dissertation committee.

In this episode

5:02 Lisa and Kathryn’s journey into supporting couples and families.

10:00 The importance of considering the broader impact within the family system.

15:20 The growing trend of parents seeking comprehensive support.

19:40 Creating new pathways for family connection.

28:04 Creating space for dialogue within the family and seeking community resources to combat isolation.

46:43 Redefining conflict resolution in family law: The role of attachment-based mediation.

48:54 Valuable resources for individuals navigating family therapy and seeking emotional support.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Consider the entire family system in therapy, including children at different developmental stages and siblings experiencing stressors like divorce or betrayal.
  • Prioritize the children’s development and seek guidance in untangling divorce or betrayal issues to make decisions in their best interest.
  • If in distress and lacking therapist guidance on family dynamics, consider finding a therapist trained in systemic work or willing to collaborate with other clinicians for comprehensive care.
  • Engage with your community, friends, or family for additional support during challenging times, acknowledging that everyone needs backup and resourcing.
  • Encourage open discussions about struggles, even if they involve shame or embarrassment, to combat isolation and foster connection.
  • Create or join support groups with others experiencing similar challenges to share experiences and provide mutual support.
  • Consider collaborative approaches, such as mediation or therapy, alongside legal proceedings to mitigate fear and conflict escalation in divorce or custody disputes.

Mentioned

Emotionally Focused Family Therapy: Restoring Connection and Promoting Resilience (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, by Dr. Vivek Murthy

The Good Divorce (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Constance Ahrons, Ph.D.

EFT Therapist Search

ERP 175: How to Heal from an Affair – An Interview with Scott Woolley

Connect with Kathryn de Bruin & Dr. Lisa Palmer-Olsen

Websites: renovasandiego.com | kathryndebruin.com

Podcast: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-family-express

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Katherine and Lisa, I am so, so grateful that you both said yes to coming on the show and sharing your expertise with us around relationship and some of the very difficult places that we might find ourselves in. I know you do so much to support in the realm of EFT and helping couples and families. So thank you for being here.

Thanks, Jessica, for having us. Really appreciate the invite and the show that you’re doing, and the way that you’re helping the population that we really care most about. Relationship distress is what we do every day. So it’ll be exciting to chat to you about this. 

Yes, thank you for having us. We’re excited to have this conversation.

Yes. For people who don’t know you or getting acquainted with you here, would you like to say a little bit about what got you interested in supporting people, couples, families in this way?

Sure. I started my graduate program at Alliant in 1995, I believe, and got quick exposure to Sue Johnson through Dr. Scott Woolley. I was lucky to start my master’s working under the EFT lens (Emotionally Focused Therapy), and became really interested in working with couples and families. Started my practicum doing that, as well as working in juvenile probation, and continued on throughout my training to work under Dr. Scott Woolley, as well as Sue Johnson. So it just was so life-giving to me to have a map and a model in terms of how to work with families in distress. So I continued on to training other psychologists and clinicians and opened up a training clinic. That was originally the Alliant Couple and Family Clinic. Now I have opened up a training and direct service agency, nonprofit, with Kathryn de Bruin as well. I’ll give you the floor to say how you got involved with helping people.

Thank you. I always wanted to be helpful in life and decided to study social work. In my social work program, there was one course on family therapy that fascinated me. So I very quickly got involved in working with children, became a play therapist. But what I’ve realized over the last 15 years of clinical service to kids, is that actually what kids need the most is healthy adults around them. So my focus has really shifted more to working with couples, working with people who are co-parenting. A lot of the way that I learned how to do that was from Lisa, who’s been my mentor for a really long time. So it’s really fun to have started a nonprofit together and to join our work and spend our days and hours working with families and couples’ industries.

Wonderful. Well, thank you for giving me a little bit of a snapshot. I know it does not do it justice. I will say, for both of you, to have such a lineage of direct contact with Scott Woolley and Sue Johnson. For people who maybe don’t know, Sue Johnson with her team, and the original research and developing the model of EFT. I mean, in my opinion, it has the most efficacy and the research to really support people in shifting out of distress or disconnect patterns. I think it’s a real treat that we have you both here. So thank you again. 

Well, where would you like to begin as we orient in talking about potentially couples or partners who are negotiating issues around betrayal, or even experiencing high levels of distress?

Well, one of the things that Lisa taught me to think about when I’m working with a couple in couples’ therapy, is who’s at home, like whose lives are the couple impacting? For many couples’ therapists, I think that you’re thinking beyond the therapy session and thinking, how are the kids doing? So we’ve learned, early on in a couples’ therapy session, to do a family session and get the kiddos in. Or ask these questions. Or then at the end of couples’ therapy, whether the couple does well and stays together in a thriving relationship, or maybe decides to go separate ways. The next natural step for us is to have a family session and consider how these decisions are impacting the larger system, including the kids. 

Yes. Lisa, did you want to add to that at all?

I think over the years, I absolutely agree with what Kathryn just said, the progression of how we ended up bringing the whole system in. I think working from this model, especially with couples that are in distress, just holding the whole system in your hands and being responsible for the whole system, I think, is really important. So bringing the children in, even if they’re at an older age. It doesn’t have to be little elementary or junior high. Even looking at 27 or 30-year-old siblings that have been through potentially a divorce, or are heading into a divorce, which can happen as well, as we know. Giving the family a safe place to talk through what their feelings are, and the distress that they are attempting to co-burden together when it comes to a divorce or a betrayal in the family system. Having that opportunity to talk through and be there for each other, even if it doesn’t end up in the way, the outcome that they were looking for in family treatment. It really gives a lot more space for people to develop resources, and not internalize and not become symptomatic after they’ve gone through such a big level of injury in the family. So it’s really important. I think just holding a systemic understanding of what’s happening when anybody comes in the door is really something that we are committed to. We look at the whole system in terms of wraparound care and what they need to best survive what they’re going through.

I think this is discussed in a greater dialogue. When a couple is thriving in more optimal functioning, secure functioning, that there’s a ripple effect. It can be there’s a whole environment, and as you’re speaking to, the whole family system that is benefiting from that. Then conversely, when there’s real distress, couples or partners are often grappling around how to get the footing and the secure relating. If they do get to some of that healthier dynamic, there’s still all the lived experience that the family is still orienting or trying to transition. So I think what you’re describing and giving voice, giving room to help metabolize, even if it’s been small relational traumas or distress that the children have failed, to give voice to. Then perhaps even, I imagine, is this part of the work, that the family perhaps can adopt some new ways of being that and incorporate more of that secure functioning? Is that right? 

Absolutely. I think we’re opening up space, at all developmental levels, for people to process and show up and be present and responsive to what the children have experienced. The issue is not that they’ve experienced that. It’s that typically, even a couple that feels they’re thriving now and have gotten through, let’s say, like an affair, and they’re in a more thriving, healthy communication pattern. They also, Kathryn can attest to this, and I’ve seen it in her work, you bring in a seven or eight-year-old, that seven or eight-year-old may say: “I feel like I’ve lost both my parents for the last 12 months while they’ve been working through whatever.” They may know nothing about the affair, but they can feel the emotional accessibility is maybe not there. So there’s still work left to be done. 

“It is a ripple effect when a family goes through anything. So it’s so important that we’re putting safety nets, emotional safety nets around the whole system.”

It’s remarkable what, especially the younger kids that don’t edit that much, can let you in on to how well the family is functioning or not functioning, when you get them in the door with play therapy, post-treatment, even with a couple that’s thriving. It really opens the eyes of the partners to see as caregivers. Like, wow, we have been so caught up with our distress! Even though you’re the one that had the affair, the distress on the couple really wrapped them in tightly and they lost accessibility to their child. So it’s really helpful. I think that in and of itself is a preventative move. That anyone that is thinking about going into couples’ work, just be thinking about the whole system. But the clinicians need to do that first. They need to be the ones asking, can we assess the entire family? 

I think that some of what we’re teaching couples to do in treatment is to know themselves well, get to know the other person, and to have open communication, have vulnerable conversations, really lean on each other, be accessible, the way that Lisa is talking about. So when couples have learned how to do this with each other, the next natural step is that they come back and they want their kids to be able to communicate in these same ways. I’ve seen a very big shift culturally in California, we’re in California, over the last 10 to 12 years. Where 12 or 15 years ago, people would call and say: “My kid is having a hard time, can you fix them? I’m going to drop them off for treatment and do some shopping, and I’ll be back.” But now honestly, families are calling in and saying: we need family help. Parents are wanting to have these conversations with kids and teach them how to have emotional intelligence. It’s just very impressive, I think, how the public is starting to ask for this family type, systems type, healthy relationship work as well. 

Oh, I’m so happy to hear that, and I’m really grateful that you’re sharing that. I also started, my undergrad was in psych, but my master’s was in children and adolescents. I had ran a teen program and was doing a lot with youth, and I was coming up in the same kind of barriers or blocks that they’re going back to the same family system. They might be learning new things, but then that exposure makes it difficult to have lasting change. So I’m really grateful. Even when I think about the therapeutic lens, even as adults negotiating romantic relationship, often those early imprints of relating, from family upbringing, childhood, of feeling so alone and not understanding, and having to grapple with really big emotions without the guidance or the understanding or that responsiveness and that support. So what you’re really offering is repair before, as it’s happening, experientially.

Like, early on. Because obviously, your early on relationships with your caregivers have a lot to do with the kind of partnership you land in one day. But the other part is the relationship you have with your siblings. So many years ago, there was a Newsweek that specialized on sibling relationships, and they were talking about how these are actually meant to be the longest-lasting relationships if all goes well. Because those are the ones who go through life together, who experience the same context. If you can negotiate and have good friendship with your siblings, that really leads also into the kind of romantic partner you pick one day, how you get on with coworkers, friendships. So yes, we do the couples, we do families. But we also look at the siblings, the sibling subsystem, and how are they getting along together. Especially those siblings who are moving between households, who are in a two-home family, they get to experience that context together. 

Also, resourcing, helping them reach to each other. The siblings being able to reach to each other in high conflict situations, having somebody else that gets what they’re going through and opening up the conversation, so that they can resource and support each other.

If mom and mom or mom and dad or dad and dad are having a tough time, where are the siblings in the house, and then how do they find each other, and they go play a game or go to the trampoline? Or how do they look after each other in the light of the conflict that might be happening at home? Such a resource.

Absolutely. To your point, if they’re navigating two households, they’re having a unique experience that’s perhaps not fully visible to either of the biological parents. It’s a special unique relationship to have access to. The ability to help co-regulate and play are various ways of just being there for each other and supporting each other. 

Because sometimes that really bonds them really closely, but sometimes that really splits them if they’re identifying with different parents, I think. 

Okay, so we’re talking about the family system and the importance of really bringing the children, and even supporting the siblings and how they’re relating to one another. Help me if you agree, but it sounds as though you’re helping them create new ways of relating, so that they can create more support, and essentially have different roadmap for relating.

I do think that that happens. But I think first is opening the door to the conversation of how they’re impacted by whatever is happening. Obviously, that shifts developmentally. If you have a nine-year-old and a three-year-old, and this is where I think Kathryn’s expertise might lie, so I don’t want to take up too much time on this. But the most important thing is that we’re bringing them in the room to hear how they’re impacted by whatever the family is coming in to therapy about. That we’re not neglecting or dealing with the most distressed part of the system first, and not actually attuning to what’s happening at another part of the system. We want to have our hands around what is going on emotionally, for all family members, so that then we can develop and co-create resources and ability for them to have the conversation. Because whatever they’re going through, we can’t change. But whether or not they feel supported, cared for, and have emotional accessibility in the family system, whether that be a sibling or a caregiver, is what our eye is on, from a process perspective.

So we bring these families into a family session, and we often have like an hour or an hour and a half, and we just sit together. Lisa, you can speak to this too. But I often don’t really know what’s going to come up. But that’s not the point, we’re just creating space. We’re giving people just an opportunity to talk about what’s it like to be a part of this family, what’s one word to describe your experience in this family, which also lets them know that each of them has a unique voice, and it’s important to hear from each of them. Then the conversation just takes off by itself. Often, parents are very surprised; they don’t know what’s underground. I have a family as well; I have three kids of my own. As much as I try to have them have healthy conversations, we often sit down as a family and need these sort of family come-together moments. Because there’s always stuff rumbling under the surface, and the kids get into sibling rivalry and tension. So we have one of these heart-to-hearts, like once a month or every six weeks, and all this stuff comes to the surface. But you need space and you need time, and you need that invitation, like Lisa was saying, to bring this up. 

Free Smiling Couple Sitting by Table in Forest Stock Photo

“If you’re a family or a parent out there listening, and you don’t have access to family treatment, just consider sitting as a family and starting to open up these conversations around your dining room table. All kinds of things come up.”

Yeah, no kidding! I’m aware, as you’re talking, couples, partners in relationship often are aware that their children are witnessing or hearing, or if it happens in the car, an argument, or even an escalated fight. Being in a vehicle, that’s intense to be experiencing, often for some, or just even in the home. I think partners are aware, the couple is aware that their children are witness to it to some extent. But often, I don’t know if it’s more of a western mindset of feeling like need to problem-solve, or figure out how to fix it or what to do about it. I mean, if they’re, like you said, so concentrated trying to preserve or save or help their marriage or their relationship, but then how to help their children, I think people potentially get stuck around what to do. I think the thing that you’re both speaking to is just creating the space to come together, the opportunity to hear. That in and of itself creates something really important that can’t be overlooked, and to your point, that we need to slow down here and really emphasize that.

As Kathryn was talking, I was thinking to myself, wow, I remember those days. But I have an 18 and a 16-year-old now, and offering that invitation and having them sit down, and lean into what’s rumbling underneath the scenes that she says, is a little bit more of a challenge, especially as a single parent. While I give the invitation, that invitation, for them as a teenager, the way it looks is me sitting and waiting and hoping they’ll come to me. It’s so different, especially being a therapist. As Kathryn was talking, I was thinking: Oh yeah, I have to pay for that now. Because I want my kids to go to therapy and be safe to talk. So me being a non-neutral person, even though I’m an expert in this area, I still can’t do it myself. So I absolutely believe that if you can’t pull it off at home, if your reserves are just down, get that support. Even a neighbor, a family friend, a cousin, somebody who can give them the space, I think that is where the mission is. 

Obviously, we want the caregivers to be able to do that, and that’s the most important thing. That when we’re sitting in those assessments, lots of different things come up. At the same time, we’re talking about, but can you talk to your parent about this? Are you able to bring up what’s happening at school with the bully that’s really causing you lots of distress? That is something that typically the parent is like, I never even knew that you were getting bullied at school. There’s an issue, there’s a block there, that’s not having the child naturally go to their caregiver. Even if you advance that up to a 30-year-old that’s thinking about divorce not coming to their caregiver, just to say like: “Hey, I’m in distress, I don’t know, if I want to stay married anymore.” We still want those access points. It looks different for a 35-year-old than it would look for a three-year-old. The caregiver needs to lead the way, and then hopefully, through the system, that can get blocked sometimes. Sometimes the couple’s distress is so overwhelming, you literally don’t have the reserves to offer up that space. I think this is where, as clinicians, we need to keep our eye on the whole system, and not get caught up in the weeds and the couple’s distress. But think big picture and look at resources for families that are going through this. People need to know that they’re out there, and they can be affordable as well. 

Well, I just think it’s super important, and I think you’re both really giving an example that you’re bringing in the assessment in the beginning, you’re using the language that helps even the caregivers or parents. It’s just held a little bit more, rather than so focused on the couple.

If I’m a partner and a couple right now, and I’m listening to this podcast, one of the things I’m thinking about is: “Has my couples’ therapist or my therapist invited my family system in? have they considered how, if I have children, or if I have siblings or a parent in my space, am I reaching out to the people that I’ve been the closest with?” Maybe I’m not. Maybe I don’t have those connections in my family. Maybe I’m an individual person that feels very isolated. Even then, we’re still trying to increase systemic support somehow. That’s a matter of looking. 

Free Couple having an Argument Stock Photo

“The isolation is what really sends people over the edge. Being emotionally isolated and feeling like you’re going through a major, major trauma or loss, being alone in that is where the darkness comes.”

So be thinking about that. Is your clinician holding a systemic frame for what you’re going through? Even increasing friendships or social activities, that’s also a big thing. That’s how you hold that systems frame, increase the connections. Un-isolate the person, that’s very important. We’re doing that in a sense when we’re bringing the whole family, and we’re un-isolating a child that may be internalizing grief because their parents are going through a divorce. We’re giving them the space.

Even to be able to have the awareness to ask the questions around how do we get creative if we don’t have the external family network or resources? How do we start to put together more support, more connection that helps combat some of this isolation? 

Okay. Well, as we’re discussing, and the importance of the family and looking at the distressed couple, I can also imagine, perhaps for the listeners that have experienced distress, maybe are in distress and haven’t had this conversation around the family system, what might you recommend if they’re already in distress and don’t have the therapist that’s asking about the family system? Perhaps they’re overwhelmed with the intensity of a betrayal or something. Is there anything you want to say here about how to guide? Is it to get a therapist that does have this perspective?

I think, again, just open up the conversation with your clinician. Most clinicians, if they’re working in couples’ therapy, have been trained systemically. So bringing this thought into the therapy process, like: “Hey, I’d really like to see if you could check in on my children. Or if you have a referral for me, for them to get some support, and maybe you could collaborate with that clinician.” Just opening up the conversation. Obviously, if your clinician is like: No, I don’t do systems work. If they say that and they’re working with you in a couple situation, I’d be alarmed. A couples’ therapist, they should be trained in systems work. But maybe they’re not comfortable meeting with small children. That’s okay, too. It’s just a matter of like opening the frame a bit more, and seeing what’s available. Typically, clinicians are going to be responsive to what their clients need. They want to give the best care possible, and it’s just a matter of helping that person who’s in distress navigate where the best resources are. It could be an ESS program after school, a counselor that decides to spend more time, or that is alerted that your child is in distress because dad has been deployed or mom has been deployed. It’s just a matter of increasing the resources outside of the distressed caregiver, just being present and having that child have space to be able to talk openly. Then obviously, we want to move that back to the caregiver once they have stabilized. But sometimes we don’t have that ability, so the therapist can be that person initially. 

So I’d just bring it up if that’s something that you’re interested in, or this feels like an area you’d like to check in with your kids. Or like Kathryn said, you can have call your own family meeting and say: “Hey, I know a lot is going on right now for us. I’m imagining you’re all feeling it. You may not know exactly what’s going on.” They may not even be developmentally of age to know. But just saying: “Hey, we know there’s a lot happening right now, we want to check in with you.” There’s lots of different ways to check in with kids on their feelings, or even adults. “I know you’re 35, you have your own relationship now. But your father and I are struggling, and we know this is having an impact on the whole family.” Can we talk about it?

Oh, that’s really lovely, Lisa. You were also reminding me about the research done by Colbeck, I think, who said: If there was one thing that you could do to help a family out, it would be to resource the caregiver. So every parent just needs someone to tap out to, they need a backup, they need someone to vent to, because you can’t really be online all the time. So if there was only one thing we could do, it would be resourcing these families top-down, and making sure that parents just have some support. So find a parent in your life, support them, encourage them, find some resources for them.

Don’t do it alone. One of the things, as you’re talking, that it feels as though it potentially challenges listeners that might be in need of support. That they look around to their community, and it seems like, well, they’re dealing with that, or they’re dealing with that. They don’t want to be a burden or feel that somehow it’s a weakness to be asking: “Hey, do you mind if we do an extra few playdates?” Or asking auntie or uncle or whomever to show up a little bit more. It’s a little bit of a paradigm shift, I think, in this more Western thought.

Absolutely. I think also, if you look at couples that are dealing with betrayals, there’s a lot of shame involved. Like: “Hey, my wife has been cheating on me for the last year, and we’re in therapy.” You tend to hear people saying surface-level things, like: Oh, we’re in couples’ therapy. But what’s really happening is, there’s been a major, major betrayal, and they are encapsulating the relationship and getting support from therapy once a week. But the rest of the six days, and the rest of that day that they’re in therapy, the couple is coming back to the home. That one or an hour or hour and a half is not enough to regulate initially and stabilize the system, just because it’s like a bomb that’s blown off. And the whole family is impacted when there’s been a betrayal, any kind of betrayal of trust between a couple that felt safe and secure. It’s embarrassing to share with your community that your partner has done something that is so disloyal and deceptive. 

It’s often what you see with couples that are dealing with affairs, for example, to use that as something that we’re kind of talking about. The person who has been not having the affair really isolates and absolutely shuts down and doesn’t want to tell anybody in the community, even other caregivers that they’ve known for years, like in elementary school, for example. They don’t say anything till years later, like: Oh, that’s what was going on for me. Because there’s shame. So at any point, offering space for your friends to say what’s really going on. Like, “I don’t want you to be embarrassed, it’s okay. We all have things we don’t want to talk about. But I want to be here for you.” Being able to move in those ways. 

Free Close-up Photo of Affectionate Gay Couple Stock Photo

“If you see somebody suffering or in distress, really think about un-isolating that person. Doesn’t mean they have to tell me everything that’s going on. But I can see that they are really suffering, and I just want you to know I’m here.”

Maybe let me pick up the kids today or this week, so you have some time to rest and do some self-care. They still may not tell you anything. 

I remember when I was going through my divorce, Kathryn knows this, because I think she wanted to be in the group, but she didn’t qualify. I opened up a group for women who were suffering from divorce. Divorce in and of itself is embarrassing. So as a young parent, I guess I wasn’t a young parent. But as a parent going through divorce, it felt like my kids were the only ones that were dealing with two homes and having to switch between both caregivers. Plus, I’m in the field, so I’m working with couples, and I’m like: “Oh my gosh, I can’t make my own work, even though I gave it my all.” I opened up the door to that. I also started talking about it in my trainings. And people started to come up to me in droves, like: “Oh my gosh, I’ve been through a divorce. I’m so glad that you’ve brought this up. Or it was so isolating, especially as a clinician, because people question you. Like, are you still married?” I may not still be married. But I understand what it’s like to be in the trenches and fight and leave everything on the table to try to make it work, and the distress you go under and what it’s like for the kids to go through. So I’m probably an expert at helping people climb out of that. If they end up not making it work, that’s okay. But the process of getting out of that as a couple, I know how to do and I’ve been through. 

But I opened that up just on a community level, and I had multiple people call me and say: “I need this support. Please, please have these meetings.” This had nothing to do with my clinical career. It was about just I needed to know were there other women dealing with what I’m dealing with here. I have established this group of women that I continuously rely on now for years, and we come to the table with our worst struggles. We came to the table with: “This is what’s going on, this is the truth of what’s going on, and this is why I’m going through divorce.” That group has been such a source of love, resource, and comfort for me, and each for each other. Several of the members, two of the members have said, this group saved my life. So I thought to myself, what is this that’s going on? This is just about un-isolating someone in moments of suffering. It’s not what you went through that’s the thing that causes the traumas, it’s whether or not you were alone in it. I believe that’s the Vander Kolk comment, I don’t want to create it as if it’s mine. But it’s whether or not somebody can show up for you in that space. 

This is really what Kathryn and I anchor our work in. We’re making sure that we’re not leaving anybody behind in the treatment. Even if the couple is so chaotic and distressed and just a complete mess, we are still bringing in siblings, we’re still bringing in adult family members, we’re still checking to see how is this impacting everybody. And we’ve done this work for a long time now, and the benefits of bringing in the whole family at some point, we have gotten in the way of people taking their own lives. Because no one would have ever brought in this 14-year-old. This is a story that Kathryn knows. We brought him in because his mother was dying of cancer and his dad was totally distressed, and he had been left behind. So can we bring him in? He said: “I’ve been planning my own death for the last two months, because I’ve lost both parents. My mom is going to die anyway.” Got him in the hospital, and he’s now thriving and doing fine, and mom is actually in remission. But at that point in his life, no one was able to pay attention. Parents were in survival mode, truly survival mode, and he was left to his own devices. If we had not just had that systemic frame, we might not have him here today. So it just is something that really our work is anchored in, and it feels important to both of us on so many levels. So we just really are committed to that. We hope that the message gets through to anybody that’s in therapy or is doing therapy, that they can really hold that systemic frame. 

Yes. It sounds as though you’re acknowledging the shame and the isolation, and that to have these present moments of being available and listening and making space and being responsive is in some ways an anecdote. 

Absolutely. I mean, this isn’t new material, either. I mean, AA has been doing this for years. Group work. Yalom has been saying: “To be seen by another who’s struggling in the same way that you are, how valuable that is for your view of self.” That’s just 100% true. 

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“The more eyes you can get on suffering, the more relatedness, the more validation, the more that someone can feel seen and held and understood – in a moment of trauma, suffering, or grief, loss, any of that – the more likely they’re going to be able to get through it.”

You’re saying it’s not new, and yet, sometimes in modern living, AA lives in a certain place, or the collective consciousness around what one needs to present and be in a certain way, or to have these pieces to really bring it in. Even the couples’ work, to have the children and the family be held in the work, it seems like it’s obvious, but it’s not necessarily fully integrated or a part of the bigger awareness.

I think in a lot of ways, it is countercultural to be thinking about attachment and about relationships, especially in a Western individualistic culture. But I think that’s what puts so much pressure then on the relationships and on couples, is that they are generally isolated in terms of lack of community. So then you put so much on that one person to meet all needs, that it really is sometimes unrealistic. So this is really a whole worldview philosophy that we’re advocating: we all need people, and we all need to belong in order to become the best that we’re going to be.

Yes, it reminds me of Vivek Murthy, he’s a former Surgeon General, he wrote a book.

Yeah, about the loneliness.

Lonely Togetherness is what he called it, yeah. It’s very true. I mean, just the fabric of our more Western living, that it’s so steeped to this individuation or this self-functioning, and to not rely and be in a place of belonging. I know one of the things we wanted to touch on is, in the circumstance where a couple or partners make a decision to separate or get a divorce, how to even negotiate co-parenting when they decided to separate. I think a lot of people feel really lost when we’re not talking about how to make space, how to open up these dialogues, how to show up, when it maybe feels messy. A: we’re isolated. B: we’re doing it alone, isolation. But we’re also not necessarily feeling like there’s a lot to draw on for resource from people who can give us a little bit more. Like, here’s what worked for me, or here’s some skills, or here’s an idea. That’s one of the benefits of having more belonging and connections.

Yeah, talking to each other and learning from each other anecdotally. I think there are just more and more divorced families. So at least now when couples are going through divorce, their kids at school know multiple other kiddos who have got divorced parents as well. That just really helps normalize things, brings it out into the open a little bit more. 

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“If your couples’ relationship is dying, it doesn’t mean that the parenting relationship needs to. In fact, it really needs to be vibrant for the sake of the children.”

Sometimes it’s hard to maintain that dynamic and keeping it positively focused on attending to the children when you’re in such distress. I think that’s where we see couples that are coming in. Kathryn and I have said this probably 10 times in the last six months, like I wish we could have gotten to this family earlier. Because we’re dealing with the consequences of not addressing or having those conversations pre-divorce. Then as people lawyer up, especially if there’s been a betrayal of trust, the communication is less than less, and it’s driven by attorneys, and the fear is greater. Then people are being stripped of their family homes, of their routine, of their extended families, of their time with their children. Everybody is on high alert, and the fear is running the show. The other person starts to be narrated in a way that may not be accurate, but is based on fear, and also on the injury. 

So Kathryn and I have done a couple of things. I think the one we did, Kathryn, where we brought in the partner of the gentleman that had had an affair, we brought in the “affairee” to the room with the original couple. Because the distress was so extreme at the top because of the injury, and the two women had been friends. So when she ended up having an affair with her husband, obviously there was a betrayal of friendship in a moment when she probably needed her husband the most, and then also betrayal from her husband. Now this woman was actually co-parenting her seven-year-old. So we were like, let’s just bring them all in the room. Both of us kind of looked at each other, like, are we really going to do this? Like, this could go really poorly. I think we actually have it on film, we need to go back and grab that session. But I was terrified, so we had to first get ourselves co-regulated. Because I’m like, this could really go badly. But we stayed focused on what our goal was, which was, can they communicate and disarm some of the fear that’s running the distress at the top, and is there a way to repair the injury in service of this child’s well-being and his development? Like, are we far enough away from the injury that we can say: Okay, the way we’re going now, the way we’re moving with each other with our son, the two parents, is damaging to his self-esteem, to his development, his brain functioning, all of this? Would they be willing to commit to a different process together? They may never forgive each other for what happened. But educating the parents who are in massive conflict on the impact this has on the child.

This is where you see Constance Ahron’s research, which she’s probably my favorite family system person of all time, who has since passed. But she spoke about bi-nuclear families, and if you allow the distress at the top to continue, it’s not the divorce that causes the trauma and the long-term psychological damage. It’s the distress at the top that causes kids to have major psychological issues. She did a 30-year study, I think. So if you look at that, then that means we have to as clinicians, we have to as families who might be going through divorce or in therapy for divorce or betrayal, we have to be thinking about, can we put the children and their development first? Or do we have enough resources to say: “Yes, I feel like I would like to get into a fistfight with this woman who took my husband from me.” That may be this person’s perspective. But can I put my seven-year-old’s development, long-term development, ahead of my own needs in that space? So getting that couple, the original couple, into a place that they were willing to bring in now his new wife, and sit down and have this conversation, you have to get buy-in. They have to feel safe, and they have to feel like we are the stronger wiser other that can guide them through untangling this process, so that they can see clearly what’s the best move for their son. Versus just react because they’re mad at each other.

It’s not to say that the trauma didn’t occur or that you should feel great about it. It’s like, yes, I’m so very deeply pained and upset. And it’s also true that I’m putting my child’s development first and foremost. That this also still is painful, but this is what I’m focused on. 

Yeah, and you don’t see mediation or law firms running an attachment-based mediation format. You see some that are savvy, some attorneys that are very clear: “If I increase the fear in this system, I’m going to get paid longer, and I’m going to be in court longer, and I’m going to be able to support my client getting what they need. I’m going to win more.” It’s so corrupt on some level, I hate to say this. But there are some attorneys that are like, I’m committed to mediating this. Part of that is mediating the process between them; they need us for that. So us working alongside a mediator is amazing. Plus, with the child therapy expertise we have in our agency, we’re flooded with high-conflict court referrals. People that have had 73 evaluations, they’ve had major, major divorce process, and they still can’t get on the same page. That’s because they have two attorneys talking for them. You get them even in separate Zoom rooms and start disarming some of the fear, they may make different decisions about the well-being of their child or custody or their ability to connect with both caregivers. But until you address it from that perspective, they’re going to be in court for a long time.

These are cases where it’s way too far gone for a family to be able to do that by themselves between the original couple, that then an agency like ours and others who do this work can hold that entire system. We can have multiple therapists meet with different parts of the family, until it feels safer for them to come in together. But important for someone to be seeing the entire system and have a goal of decreasing the tension and conflict in the system. 

Even the potential authority that’s given to attorneys, I’m imagining there’s a lot of well-meaning attorneys that perhaps get caught into their focus of whatever the things that they’re aiming for, maybe aren’t as capable of holding these pieces. That maybe they would like to, they just maybe don’t have the ways of how to do that. So to have that collaboration seems incredibly important. 

Well, I know we’re winding down in our time. I can just tell there’s just so much here. So for people that are negotiating some of this terrain, it sounds like you have the nonprofit. Where would you like to start around where to point people towards?

The nonprofit is called Renova San Diego; you can find us at RenovaSanDiego.com. You can also find out more about Lisa and my training schedules; we mostly train clinicians. My trainings are listed at my name, KathrynDeBruin.com. Then I also have a family podcast called The Family Express, which is for any therapists who are doing family work, but also, parents might enjoy listening to that.

And what might people find on the website?

What I think you’ll find when you move to the website will be a place where you can get trained if you’re a clinician, and a list of all those resources if you’re interested in doing this type of work, like holding the systemic frame, including the whole family. You can look at all the places where our trainings are being held across the country and across the next year. Then also, if you’re looking for direct services or a clinician that is actually holding this framework using Emotionally Focused Therapy for families, you’ll be able to see we have quite a big, very well-seasoned staff, diverse staff, that can come and is trained in these types of areas. 

Obviously, if you’re in California, we can work with you directly. If you’re not, we can refer you to somebody who’s holding this kind of frame and is maybe closer in your area, through the ICEEFT website, which is ICEEFT.com. That’s the International Centre for EFT. You can literally type in your zip code and find someone who’s trained in EFT for families. Right now, there is quite a few trainers that are doing trainings all over the country for the EFT for family work. It’s really an exciting time. Because the book was launched I think last year, Kathryn, or two years ago, I can’t remember. Authored by Jim Furrow, Sue Johnson, Gail Palmer, George Fowler, and myself. So there’s lots of resources. Obviously, you can call or email either one of us, we’re happy to help direct you to what you’re looking for. 

Wonderful. Well, I’ll make sure to have the link to that website, as well as both of your websites and the work that you’re doing.

Thank you so much for having us, Jessica. Fun to chat about these important things.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching