I’m sitting with a couple during a therapy session as they have been talking through whether or not they should stay together.
In the weeks leading up to this moment, Mark (not his real name) had been leaning towards ending the relationship.
It was just too hard.
Still, after years of building a life and sharing love for a child who would be impacted by a possible break-up, this is truly a grueling decision.
Suddenly, Mark turns to his partner and says this:
“When I was younger, I survived a house fire. If you haven’t been in a fire before, you can’t imagine what smoke feels like–the burning sensation on your skin and the way it fills up your lungs, preventing even the most basic function of breathing.
I helped my roommate Dave out of his room but I knew I had to go up a flight of stairs to help Nancy out of her room. As I climbed each step, the smoke grew thicker and thicker. When I reached the fourth step I knew that if I went any further I would die. I could not go any further. But I was able to stay on that fourth step, to call to her, and wait for her to respond to my voice. She eventually found me and we were able to escape the house together.”
He paused. And then he continued, “Rachel… Our house is on fire.”
The words landed powerfully.
“And I am willing to tolerate enormous pain right now, the burning of my skin and lungs, even tolerating not being able to breathe easily. But I cannot die for this relationship. I will stay here with you on this fourth step and call to you and wait for you to find me. I will stay here for as long as I can. And I will accept the nearly unacceptable hurt. But…I cannot go any farther.”
This moment brought tears to Rachel’s (not her real name) eyes. Despite his doubts about the viability of their love, Mark had declared his enormous commitment to this relationship, to her, and to the life they built.
Especially coming after weeks of his seemingly becoming more certain that he could no longer withstand the hurt that years of volatility and unhealthy conflict have brought to the relationship.
It is truly remarkable that now he is declaring… I’m here. I’m with you. I’m strong. I am scared, but I won’t leave you in this burning house alone.
This vulnerable and transformative moment took place last week– on a screen. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic and domestic crucible. I live several thousand miles away from this couple and I’ve never met them in person.
But what I’ve learned in my 2 years of working online with couples is that poignant and life-changing moments can happen through a screen. Practiced therapists can find a way to draw close to clients, and have clients draw near to one another, even from far away.
Mark and Rachel experienced an emotional and relational breakthrough, mediated through a combination of technology and trust.
In response to Mark’s metaphor of the house on fire, Rachel both understood the urgency and felt tremendous relief. She was no longer in danger of losing this man, whom she loved deeply. She had a chance. She just needed to find a way to crawl back to him.
We are living through a time of enormous, even paradoxical, contradictions.
On one hand, people are hoarding supplies, devolving to survival mode. And at the same time, people are generously giving their precious stock to people who need them.
People are terrified of being exposed to a deadly microbe.
And people are offering to run errands for those who are more vulnerable. People are losing their jobs and worried about money.
And people are buying meals at restaurants to be delivered to front line workers in hospitals.
People are feeling hopeless about what they might have in the future. And people are finding gratitude in what they have right now.
Online therapy is in itself a contraction. It is both distant, in obvious ways. And also incredibly intimate in perhaps less obvious ways.
When I started seeing couples online 2 years ago, there was, indeed, a learning curve.
I needed to upgrade my Wifi, learn how to connect with couples through a screen.
I also had to learn how to implement and to adapt research-based interventions without being in the same room as the couple.
What I discovered is that online couples therapy yielded unexpectedly powerful results.
One example is that I was able to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to quality couples therapy. These are couples living in rural communities, or couples living geographically apart from one another (across the country or even across the world from one another). Often couples with young children were able to put their children to sleep, turn on their computers, and receive needed help for their struggling marriages.
The “distance” part of the distance-therapy was, in many ways, more boon than blemish.
There is a great deal of research solidifying the efficacy of online couples therapy.
We know it works for many, many couples. That means that it can work now, through this crisis… for many couples who may have never would have considered it before.
For my couples that live near me, that I was seeing in person before the lockdown began, there is a new closeness that is achieved despite the physical distance.
I’m invited into their homes, their living rooms, their kitchens. I see their family pets, a toddler traipsing through the session, and even a mother nursing her young child.
Therapy is intimate by nature, and by design. Online therapy has a way of amplifying some of that very intimacy.
I sense that my previous in-person couples are adjusting to this new modality, quickly and gratefully, experiencing firsthand the power and efficacy of the connection built through a screen.
With an assist from Zoom, I’ve helped couples learn how to heal after an affair… how to build a strong connection early on in a marriage… how to manage, and assuage overflowing volatility… when dagger-like criticism flies back and forth.
Separated by hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles and many time zones, I’ve guided hopeless couples back to believing that their love had a future, and witnessed courageous couples share their needs transparently and respectfully, forging a path back to the intimacy they richly deserve.
And while I never shared actual physical space with most of these online couples, the relationship between therapist and couple continues to be close, raw, vulnerable.
Though it remains a dynamic fraught with the risks associated with balky wifi and interruptions unlikely to disturb an in-person session, I remain confident that the online therapeutic relationship is based on trust, transparency, healthy boundaries, and emotional risk-taking. And, again, it works.
You don’t have to wait until your house is on fire to begin couples therapy. Nor do you need an excellent therapist down the block. You might find one across the country.
When we commit our life to another person, we are taking a massive leap of faith.
Online couples therapy may feel like yet another leap of faith.
But a skilled therapist will take your hand and walk you through the journey.
And it may end up being the most important journey of your life.
Havi is a graduate of Columbia University School (M. S. in Social Work, 1997). She also studied at the prestigious Ackerman Institute For the Family, New York, NY., where she completed 4 years post-graduate education in family therapy. Although Havi lives in Los Angeles, she also is licensed in North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania License and Connecticut, and works extensively with couples in these states online.
An effective approach to couples therapy will look a little different. We put together this free course Upgrade Your Couples Therapy, to help you to do just that, upgrade your experience. Whether it is with us or any other couples therapist, your relationship deserves the best.GET STARTED