Life in the Time of Coronavirus: May the Forest Be With You

Sheltering at home has its challenges. Even sleeping later, we accomplish our morning routine with lots of time left to fill. I read the newspaper (yes, I still get the paper) and read several sites online. The news is, shall I say, far from uplifting. It is downright depressing. When I consider the problems with adequate testing for corona-virus, my blood pressure rapidly elevates. The WHO had test kits we refused. South Korea took them and managed to test 10,000 people a day, allowing them to track the spread and quarantine appropriately. They are far ahead of us in containing this pandemic. Instead, we are all shutting down, staying home, and engaging in endless social distancing as people lose jobs and restaurants offer take out only. Don’t get me started.

Fortunately, as I checked my email, I found a newsletter from Michael Yapko, Ph.D. When I was in practice as a clinical social worker, I attended several of his workshops and trainings in Erickskonian Hypnosis. I learned a lot from him. Reading his words, I got reminded to focus less on these overwhelming problems I have no control over and turn my focus to what I can control. Ah, yes! I knew this.

I start with tidying the kitchen. How do all these little items accumulate so quickly? I throw away used napkins and tea bag envelopes, empty the dish drain, wipe the counters. Then I notice my droopy plants and water them. I pause to admire my work and notice I feel better.

Yesterday the phone rang at 8 am. “Are you expecting me today?” It was Toby, our house cleaner.

“Yes indeed!” I replied. I figured a clean house was top priority these days.

She was grateful. “A lot of my clients have cancelled.” When she arrived, she immediately washed her hands thoroughly in the sink and set to work. We are all symptom-free and kept the recommended distance from each other. Now we have a clean house. When I bid her adieu at the front door, I saw blue sky and felt warm temperatures. What a nice day!

I asked Dave if he wanted to go for a walk in the woods. Paddy, our 90 lb. Black Lab mix, heard the word “walk” and began dancing. We piled into the car and headed out to Whitfield Road. The first entrance to Duke Forest had a half dozen cars lining the road so we chose the second with one car. It’s my favorite hike and leads to what I call the Magic Forest where there’s a concrete bridge across New Hope Creek and high bluffs across the stream. I’ve been coming out here forty or more years. I feel like I’m in the mountains far away from civilization. We passed a couple pushing a stroller on their way out. The tiny toddler hollered “Doggie!” as we passed. Timid Paddy panicked and tried to pull Dave away from the eager little one. He’s a natural at social distancing. We barely saw anyone else. What a lovely place to practice social distancing. Trees were mostly bare but beginning to bud.

We left the main trail at the concrete bridge, stepping over roots and rocks, to walk along the creek. The path was clearly marked with blue circles on the trees. Paddy got his nose stuck several times, delirious with the smells he found. Green leaves peeked up along the trail. Dave thought these were called trillium, but neither of us has a memory for plant names. Whatever they are called, we enjoyed seeing them. The water gurgled over rocks in the shallow water. Then we came to a quiet expanse of creek with not a ripple on the water. We paused a moment to let our souls expand then paused another moment when we reached more gurgling water.

By the time we turned back, I was warm enough to have to take off my sweatshirt and carry it. At home, Paddy made a bee-line to his water dish. Next time we must remember to bring his collapsible bowl in addition to our water bottles. This had been a soul-refreshing break. All my troubles seemed to have faded away inhaling the fresh air and listening to the song of the forest. I felt happily tired and ready for a long nap.

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Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I can sleep as long as I want. Nothing to get up for anyway except the usual morning routine of washing, dressing, making coffee, walking the dog. Dave feeds him while I cook breakfast. While we eat, we listen to NPR describe the ongoing crisis in parts near and far. When breakfast is finished, I move to the recliner in the living room with my tablet and read from various online sources further developments. Dave cleans the kitchen and soon joins me. Before long, I have had enough news. It all blurs together into one comprehensive crisis with true leadership coming mainly from local and state public servants.

“Shall we meditate?” I ask. It has become our morning habit: to light a candle on the bedroom dresser and sit in our chairs by the two windows on either side of it. He starts the online timer for twenty minutes and we settle in. A few slow deep breaths bring me to myself. I am tired, deeply tired. The past two months have been full of unusual family stress, people dying, getting sick, marriages breaking up or not, offering what help I can, waking at 4 am with worry. I feel grateful for my ever patient trustworthy mate. Maybe a time of retreat will be good. Inside my mind, I repeat the familiar phrases, focus on those closest to me: May I be well, may I be free from suffering, may I have the ease of well-being, may I be happy, may I be free from all forms of danger and harm.

Later I have a hair appointment. My hairdresser and I have an email conversation about whether to postpone my hair cut. I suggest continuing with thorough hand washing by both of us. She agrees. After all, this is her livelihood. My hair has already been washed so it doesn’t take long. She wets it just enough and snip snip it’s done. Then blow dry and pay. I use a card rather than cash. She provides a wet wipe for me to clean my card and hands. I even wipe my phone screen which is over due. We wish each other to stay well and I leave.

Over lunch, we decide to give a donation to the Interfaith Council for Social Services. We recognize our privileged position. We are retired and comfortable. The homeless, the poor and hungry people in our community will surely be hardest hit by this crisis.  I go online to their website and in a few clicks I’m done. It’s so easy.

I’m 72 now and enjoy time after lunch to rest. I write in my journal my reflections of the day then pick up my latest novel. I don’t really nap but, if my eyes grow heavy, I close them. The novel I’m reading is a sad one, The Gathering by Anne Enright. I don’t mind at all when I sink into a brief oblivion. Maybe it will end on an uplifting note. I’ll find out soon, maybe tomorrow. I’m almost finished. Then I’ll choose another. With one click, I can buy it on my Kindle. It’s so easy and, yes, another sign of my privilege. And yes, humans have been through such times before. I reflect on the mystery of being taken down for a time by something we cannot see.

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Fifty Shades of A Female Fantasy

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has turned out to be quite a phenomenon as it explores a hot topic (pun intended). Since the movie came out, there have been even more reactions to the story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Reading a few of these, I’m not convinced that those reacting have read any or all of the entire trilogy. I myself might have been dissuaded from reading it by all the negative hype if a therapy client of mine hadn’t told me about it. I had read part of the first book and put it down because it was–how shall I say this–quite erotically stimulating. (It also reminded me, a post-menopausal woman with a sleepy libido, that I’m not dead yet. Hooray!)

When my client mentioned it–even said she owned the books and was reading them for the second time– I asked her to tell me more. “He changed his entire life so he could be with her,” she told me. Wow. I picked them up again. I have just finished reading the third book.

This story is a female fantasy, or, in other words, a wish, a longing, a dream for one’s life. They come in as many forms as there are human beings. When a dream becomes a fantasy it gets filled out into a story. It’s not something you actually expect to come true but it sure does feel good to imagine.

Female fantasies are often about relationships. Think about a mistreated stepdaughter forced to sweep the cinders on the hearth while her two stepsisters go to the Prince’s Ball . Through the magic of her fairy godmother, she goes to the ball, meets the prince and—you know the rest— they get married and live happily ever after. Yes, a fairy tale.

Or Anastasia Steele, an inexperienced, new college graduate who meets Christian Grey, five years older, handsome, fit, rich and very interested in her. Contrary to what you may have heard, they do not begin an abusive relationship. When he learns that he would be her first sexual partner, he sets aside his BDSM practices and suggests they begin by making love. Melting at the thought, she agrees. Her first sexual experience leads to her first intensely pleasurable orgasm and then to several more as the night goes on. Now she knows what all the fuss is about! Yes, it is a fantasy. A woman’s first sexual experience does not always result in even one intensely pleasurable orgasm. But wouldn’t it be great if it did?

Thus they begin to negotiate what kind of relationship they might have. He presents a lengthy legal contract for her to sign her agreement to engage in a dominant-submissive relationship with him, which is all he knows. Bewildered and despite her nearly overwhelming desire for him, she refuses to sign. What she really wants is to get to know him better and have him as her first regular boyfriend. That could have been the end of it, but they each find the other fascinating. So they continue to talk.

Finally, she decides to try it a bit, to let him do what he wants to do. He gets carried away and hurts her. Ouch! She breaks off the relationship, making it clear she will not be his submissive, and goes home. For five days they don’t see each other. Both are miserable. In his misery, he rethinks his whole way of relating. To him, there is something special about her. He doesn’t understand it but he can’t quite walk away. He decides to give up his BDSM habits, if that’s what it will take to win her back.

Just as the prince pursued Cinderella, he pursues her. He begins to enter her world, offering to escort her to an event he knew she planned to attend: the opening of her friend’s art show.

Reluctantly over time, he answers her questions about his past. She learns he was severely abused as a child; his mother was a crack whore with a violent pimp. He has scars on his chest he won’t let anyone touch. After his mother died, he was adopted by a wealthy family and saved from that destructive environment. As a teenager, however, he was seduced by one of his adoptive mother’s friends and taught to be her submissive. Their dominant-submissive relationship lasted years. He is a deeply wounded man.

And here is another aspect of a female fantasy: will Ana be the woman whose love heals his childhood wounds? Hearing all this, she is filled with compassion for him. As he trusts her with more of his story, they grow closer. He lets her touch him—physically and emotionally— in ways no one ever has. She comes to understand that his controlling tendencies operate as a protective defense. She loves him but she is not a woman to be controlled by a man. As she asserts her independence, they struggle.

And next another aspect of a female fantasy is revealed: Christian is a man willing to seek help. He has a psychiatrist and even gives Ana his permission to meet with him. She wants to know how wounded is Christian, can he be healed? Dr. Lynch reassures Ana, advising her to be patient and to give Christian the benefit of the doubt.

He protects her from danger, something women also fantasize about:  from one of his former submissives who has a psychotic break and comes after Ana with a gun and from Ana’s boss who tries to sexually assault her. Their relationship continues and deepens as they deal with these crises. Christian strives to protect her, providing her with security in the form of his trusted bodyguards. At times she rebels from being guarded, believing he is being over-controlling, which leads to more danger and more exciting reading.

To repeat: this story is a female fantasy. And what do many women (okay, what do I) fantasize about? A marriage proposal. Christian realizes he needs to propose to her to keep her in his life. Completely taken by surprise, Ana tells him she has to think about it. Eventually she says yes. They announce their engagement at his family birthday party. His family—parents, brother, sister—respond with great joy and embrace her as one of the family. His mother’s evil friend— whom no one knew abused him as a teenager— is at the party. She scoffs at their engagement, which exposes to his family the nature of their former relationship. As a result, she is banished.

The fantasy continues: they have a wedding and a three week honeymoon in Europe. He buys her a beautiful home with a beautiful view of the water and renovates it to her specifications for them to live in. She becomes strong enough in her own power to confront the interior designer, a sexual predator, who makes a play for Christian.

Throughout this story, they have frequent and mutually pleasurable lovemaking sessions. The author leaves little to the reader’s imagination and seems to want to demonstrate that women do enjoy erotic passion in a monogamous relationship. (Yes, we do.) Ana’s love becomes the salve that heals Christian’s wounds and transforms him into a loving family man. Ana’s sexuality blossoms under his erotic attentions. Her confidence and personal empowerment grow under the lamp of his love and care.

And so they live happily ever after. It’s the perfect fantasy. I submit that its popularity stems from this fantasy aspect. Women enjoy reading a story that shows their fantasies can come true, that love will last, will heal our wounds and provide a sanctuary where we can grow and be loved for who we really are. When I read this story, I look at my partner (now my fiancé) and remember that he truly is my dream come true. After disappointment and heartbreak, divorce and life as a single parent, I have found the shelter of his arms. And I want to pour my love into him as he pours his into me and watch amazed as we both blossom into more of who we really are. And I want to cherish the time we have left in this third chapter of life and enjoy our love in the way we both like best.

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It’s that time of year again!





“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” goes the old song.


But is it? It can also be the most stressful time.


Your to-do list gets longer. Besides the usual work and chores of daily living, there are gifts to buy, cards to write, Christmas tree to buy and decorate, outside Christmas lights to hang if you’re to keep up with the neighbors, boxes of dusty decorations to pull from the shelves and find a place for, special baking and cooking, parties to attend or host. The list goes on and on.


Christmas asks the questions: “Where do I belong? Who is my family?” The season propels you down a dark chute of memories of every other Christmas you’ve ever had and of images of whom you spent it with who may be long gone.

You recall that moment as a child when you woke up, sat on the top step of the staircase with five steps to a landing with a window then five more steps down the opposite direction. You saw reflected in that window your dad downstairs assembling your bicycle and you knew finally with certainty what you had suspected–that Daddy is Santa Claus!

As an adult, you may recall, as you lift an old ornament from the box, that little boy who turned an old jar top into an ornament with paper, scissors, pipe cleaners and glue who is now grown and, sadly, living too far away to come home.

That sudden cold snap with its dusting of snow may remind you of your first Christmas with your now ex-wife and the delight of being snowed in together, long before it all went so terribly wrong.

Or you recall the special oyster stew your mother made on Christmas eve and miss her terribly even though she’s been gone ten years.

Or you recall after your parents’ divorce how you had to divide your time between them and feel again the loss of the parent who is missing.

Our personal connections are fluid and ever changing. Awareness of what you now lack in the belonging department gets amplified at the holiday season. Family members grow up, move away, divorce, get sick, die.


Right now, an elderly cousin of mine is in the hospital following a serious stroke. He can’t talk or swallow. His family members are engaging in “hospital watch,” praying he will make it and spending their days at his bedside. This is not the Christmas they expected but it is the Christmas they have.


Choirs sing of peace on earth and good will to all. Yet the world seems sadly lacking in peace and good will: drones in far away places still hit their targets (and innocent bystanders), congress still engages in partisan bickering without doing much of anything constructive, and millions are still unemployed.


Just like my mood as I write this, it gets darker and darker for longer and longer as winter approaches. And the anticipation of visiting family is not always joyful.


If your elderly mother won’t stop harping at you for leaving church 40 years ago, you probably don’t want to go see her anyway. “Mother, I am a Buddhist now, get over it!”


If your parents have the same argument every year about when to get the Christmas tree– your dad wants to get it Christmas eve as tradition dictates, your mother begs him to get it earlier so you won’t be late for the Christmas eve service again! And they escalate til they’re yelling with no resolution in sight. So you not only get to church late but everyone is angry and upset when you get there. If this is your family, you might long for a gripping mystery novel and a closet to hide in.


Or perhaps Uncle Henry will predictably get soused and corner you after dinner, breathing bourbon breath on you, and demand to know why you voted for that Muslim from Kenya who should be impeached. And you’ve given up trying to explain your views so you declare an urgent need to use the bathroom where you lock the door behind you until he passes out.


Add your own scenario: there are many.


What is a poor soul to do?


Sit down right now wherever you are and take a slow deep breath. Then another and another. Feel your heartbeat gradually slow down as you do this. Close your eyes and remember—it may be dark outside and the dark memories of past holidays may be seeping steadily inside you, but the days are actually getting longer. Once we pass the Solstice around December 21, daylight slowly increases. It’s a paradox—the coldest days lie ahead but the light is slowly returning.


Turn your attention to what gives you light and joy and love. You get to choose.


Interesting fact: our brains are wired to notice bad things instantly (important because sometimes bad things can kill you). But it takes our brains 12 seconds to notice the good things. So you must be a good bit more intentional if you are to let the good things register. (Read more such fascinating tidbits in Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Ph. D. and Richard Mendius, M.D.)


What gives you light?


What gives you joy?


Who do you love?


Take 12 seconds to notice.


Then sing another song: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”





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Triangles Can Be Pitfalls




Recently on a ladies night out with two women friends, I saw the movie Enough Said. I had wanted to see it earlier but my sweetheart dismissed it as a chick flick. (In case you’re wondering, a chick flick is about relationships. A guy flick has explosions and car chases.) So I decided to see it with some chicks! I loved it. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It raised some interesting questions.


Spoiler alert: I’m about to give the entire plot so stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet but intend to and return here after you see it.


Enough Said is about Eva, a divorced massage therapist about to send her only child to college. She meets Albert at a party. He is also divorced and also about to send his only child to college. They enjoy talking at the party and soon start dating. They really like each other.


At the same party, she meets Marianne who becomes her massage client. They talk about their lives, their ex-husbands, and get to be friends. Marianne bad mouths her ex a lot. Eventually, Eva realizes that Marianne’s ex and Albert are one and the same person. She freezes and feels torn and doesn’t know what to do. She keeps dating Albert and giving massages to Marianne as she tries to wrap her mind around the situation. But Marianne’s criticisms of Albert sow seeds of doubt in Eva about their budding relationship.


Eventually Marianne and Albert’s daughter, Tess, bring all three together when Eva is at Marianne’s house to give a massage and Albert comes to pick up Tess. Talk about a tense moment! Albert leaves Eva and won’t return her phone calls. Finally Eva shows up on his doorstep and they talk. Eva admits she’d felt torn and not sure what to do. She confesses she was protecting herself as they’d both been divorced and “you know how things can get messed up.” Albert declares she broke his heart and he was too old for that stuff. So they part ways.


But they can’t forget each other. Later it turns out they each drive by the other’s house from time to time. One day Eva stops. Albert sees her in her car and comes outside. They end up sitting on his front step and laughing together—there’s obviously a nice connection between them. The movie ends there with the hope—at least for me–that they may try again.


Years ago I read an article in Ms. Magazine suggesting it would be helpful if a woman could talk to her sweetheart’s ex-wife. Sort of find out how he is and thereby avoid all those problems if you knew about them ahead of time. Avoid marrying a jerk or something like that. This movie sure blows a hole in that idea. Albert eventually does many of the things with Eva that Marianne complained about. The difference is all in the attitude—those same behaviors can be irritating or endearing.


Which brings me to the basic question we all face—are you going to be a loving person or a judgmental person? Even with an ex-spouse whom you once loved and who caused you enough pain to end the marriage, can you forgive and move on? Not hold bitterness and animosity but be able to relate cooperatively as co-parents? Put the needs of your children first?


In the movie Eva and her ex-husband Peter go together with their daughter to the airport to send her off to college, tearfully giving those last hugs, then walk off together arm in arm. As Eva wipes her tears away, Peter says: “We made a good person.” That tender moment brought tears to my eyes.


Marianne and Albert are still fighting over who gets to take their daughter to college. Marianne refuses to talk to him and seems to demonize him.


I found this movie completely believable. It could so easily happen.


I have never met my sweetheart’s ex-wife. She lives across the country. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had I met her, gotten to be friends with her, and heard her complain about him? I know women can run the racquet that “all men are bastards.” During the early years of the women’s movement, it was a popular past-time. It was surely a part of consciousness raising groups. I’ve run that racquet myself Thirty-five years ago, a year in group therapy with both male and female participants helped me to see men with more compassion. Then I gave birth to a boy child I adored. That really cured me. We are all just human beings doing the best we can.


My sweetheart does things that frustrate me—some things he can change and some he can’t. But I have decided to love him and put up with those things because in the big picture, he’s a sweet, kind and generous man who takes good care of me and I know puts up with a lot from me.


As an Imago Relationship Therapist, I have learned that those same traits you find so attractive in your beloved during the romantic stage can make you gag during the power struggle stage. The man of your dreams can sometimes seem like the man of your nightmares. Once you come down from the high of romantic love, you discover your differences, you have disagreements, you get frustrated more than you ever thought you would. You need to become skillful in handling those frustrations. You need to remember, as Harville Hendrix says, that conflict means something new is trying to be born. One of the hardest things we ever do as human beings is recognize our partner’s reality as different and equally valid. (You mean, you don’t like blueberries? OK, more for me.) And if you don’t understand that all this is inevitable, you can pile up divorces faster than you can yell: “You drive me nuts! I wish I’d never met you!”


As Albert puts it when he and Eva finally talk, Marianne poisoned Eva against him. And Eva let her. “How about protecting our relationship?” he asks her.


Like the popular saying “Be the change you want to see in the world,” you need to be the person you’d like to see in your relationship. Once you get really close to someone else, all those left-over needs and wounds from the past come to the surface. You can fight over them or you can create a safe space between you to heal them. Learn to become deeply acquainted with your own wounds from the past and those of your partner. Learn to ask your mate for the kind of love you really need. Learn, not the golden rule, but the platinum rule. Instead of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Learn to love him the way he needs to be loved. So you can learn to become a more loving person. Which is what I think it’s all about anyway



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Yesterday, in honor of Halloween, I wore a halo left over from a past Halloween to the Chapel Hill Leads Group. A few years ago when the Imago Conference was held over Halloween, I wore a set of wings on the back of my sparkly evening gown to the conference banquet. Someone there handed me this halo saying “You need this.” I couldn’t find her at the end of the evening so figured it was a gift. It lived in my consulting room on the shark puppet I kept on my bookcase– which I thought expressed a certain irony– until yesterday morning when I plucked it off and set it on my head to wear to my favorite business networking group. The wings were big and bulky and did not survive the move to my new home office. But I figured the halo was easy to keep and would come in handy some day, like the day before Halloween. Made of fluffy white material, it looked more like a ring of kitten’s fur, but it worked.



When I got to Leads, my friends greeted me with smiles and laughter. “You’re an angel!” someone said. “I always wanted to hug an angel!” said another, reaching arms around me. I was surprised to be the only one with any kind of costume in this group filled with funny and creative small business owners.


When time came for my turn to have 30 seconds to advertise my services, I stood and addressed the group: “Are you stressed? Are you anxious? Is your mind filled with disaster scenarios? Well, you can change your mind! I can help you fill your mind with positive messages. Learn more at”


As often happens, later I wished I’d said: “Learn to be your own guardian angel.”


That’s what I learned in my own therapy and that’s what I strive to teach my clients. For good self-care is surely being your own guardian angel. Perhaps we already have guardian angels. I like to think so. Perhaps learning to be your own guardian angel is really opening to the guardian angels that are already there. Who knows? But giving intentional attention to what’s in your mind—to what messages you give yourself—is important in good self-care and in creating the life you want.


A student I saw once came in on the verge of a panic attack over a bad test grade. “I wish I’d never taken this course! But it’s too late to drop it! I’m not a good test taker!” she lamented. After finding out she was doing well in her other classes, that she had talked to the professor who was sympathetic and offered to help her if she came in during office hours, I suggested this might just be a blip in the road. “I’m good at finding blips in the road!” she declared.


“Let’s think about that statement. Is that really true? Is there a more useful message you could give yourself?” I asked.


She thought a minute and then said: “I’m a strong person. I won’t give up.”


“Good. I’d add: ‘Everyone has to deal with blips in the road, not just you.’”


She smiled, “Yes, it’s not just me.” She had a lighter spring in her step as she left that day.


The thoughts we think matter. We can choose the thoughts we think. We forget this but it’s true.


Years ago when I had first become a single parent and felt weighed down with enormous responsibilities, I realized I could not allow myself to sink under them. I could not allow myself to fall apart. I had a child to raise. I needed to be a good role model for him. Watching my mind, I saw how fertile it was in creating disaster scenarios, how easy it would be to despair and fall into a black hole. Mark Twin once said, “I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.” I realized if I was going to make it, I would have to pay attention to what I put into my mind. I began to read uplifting spiritual books. I made time to ventilate into my journal. I nurtured relationships with supportive friends. I took up a daily meditation practice. I began the disciplined work of training my mind.


The thoughts we think matter. We can choose what thoughts we put into our minds. Just because you think it, does not make it so. Don’t believe everything you think. And as a therapist once told me, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.


Happy Halloween!


October 31, 2013


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Reverse Mirror

In dialogue, mirroring usually refers to reflecting back what the other has said to let them know you heard them. A reverse mirror, on the other hand, refers to holding the mirror up to yourself, to examine your contribution to the dynamic between you. Of course, when you’re upset, it is much easier to see what your partner does and says than what you’re doing. But true growth comes from examining and altering your own ways of relating, which is really the only thing you’re in charge of anyway.

When Tom and Sally entered my office and took their seats, I immediately felt the tension between them. He sat on the couch, she sat in the recliner, as far away from him as she could get. I hadn’t seen them in several months so I began by asking how they were and where they wanted to begin today’s session.

“I just feel he keeps disrespecting me,” she began. I saw him stiffen. They had just moved into the house of their dreams on a cul de sac where their two kids, 4 and 8, could play safely, in contrast to their previous rental home on a busy highway. He had just had a promotion to division manager for his company, she had just completed her training to become a massage therapist and had opened her private practice in a lovely room off their garage with a separate entrance. When she had called to reschedule, she bubbled over with excitement about this new stage of life they were entering. Now they were obviously in a bad place. I leaned forward to hear more.

“I did all the packing, I know he had to work, but I thought he would at least take the kids when he was home from work I’ve just had it. And then when he yelled at me and threw the broom, I just got in the car and left.”

“She does this all the time!’ he cried. “I had no idea she was this upset until she started sniping at me with her sarcasm and gave me that attitude. I know she did more packing than I did, but I have to work. I helped all I could over the weekend. I’m sick of the way she treats me!” He pressed his lips together and crossed his arms over his chest and looked away in disgust.

I reflected back what I had heard each say, then instructed them to face each other and begin a formal dialogue, taking turns speaking and mirroring each other. They grumbled but complied. “Who would like to start?” I asked. She began to pour out her frustrations. “I can’t stand it when you yell and curse at me. And throwing things just drives me crazy. It’s just not fair!”

I turned to him. “Mirror that.” He was seething but through gritted teeth he said: “ What I hear you saying is you don’t like me to yell and curse and throw things. Is that right?” She nodded. “Is there more?” again through gritted teeth.

We continued on in this structure for a while, but I felt unsatisfied. Each had a long litany of complaints. Neither seemed to be able to calm down and truly empathize. When I learned that a few weeks ago their argument had escalated to talk of divorce, I stopped them.

“Moving is stressful for everyone. It’s a big upheaval,” I began. “I have known you all for quite a while now.” They nodded. “I know you love each other. I believe you can work this out. Let’s try something different today. Remember “ I extended my hand with my pointer finger out “when you point your finger, there are three pointing back at you?” They nodded again. “You are frustrated with each other, but you are really only in charge of your own behavior.” I held my hands up with palms towards my face, “Forget for a moment what terrible things you see the other doing. Only look at your part, as if looking into a mirror.”

“Like a reverse mirror?” she asked.

“Yes, go inside, take a few deep breaths, and examine your part in all this. Identify one thing you regret. In a moment I’ll ask you to share with each other.”

We sat in silence for a few moments. I noticed their eyes lose focus and their attention go inside. When they both raised their heads, I asked who would like to start.

She began: “I regret leaving when I got so angry. I know that when I get upset, I shut down and often I leave. I know that really upsets you. I’m sorry I did that.”

I had him reflect back what he heard her say. Then he spoke: “I’m sorry I lost my temper, cursed, and threw the broom.” As she mirrored him, I noticed how starkly the atmosphere had changed between them. There was a softness, a sensitivity now. Just in time because our time was up.

“We have to stop now but I encourage you to continue to reflect on your part….and enjoy your new home!” We made another appointment.

“I’m going to do that reverse mirror a lot,” she said before she stood up to leave.

“I will too,” he added.

I have used this reverse mirror exercise with many couples, even some so reactive they are unable to mirror. It has made a difference many times.

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Dialogue with a Teenager

One day when my son was around 13 years old, he did what had become all too customary by that age: push the limits with me. I can’t recall what the issue was—there were so many during those years—but I do recall he wanted to do something I didn’t believe he was old enough to do. And at age 13, he could really push hard. He was bright, articulate, and determined. It probably went something like this:

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. You’re too young. There’ll be time for that when you’re older.”

“But WHY? You’re not FAIR! “

He was angry. I was getting angry too. Then something hit me: I’m trained! I teach couples every day how to use the Imago Intentional Dialogue. Ah, I knew what to do. I began to mirror him.

“So what you’re saying is you do believe you’re old enough to do this and you think I’m being unfair!”

“YES!” he screamed.

“Is there more?” I asked with deliberate calm.

“YES! And you think I’m still a little kid. You don’t realize that I’m growing up. You think you can stop me from growing up!”

“So what I hear you saying is that I think you’re still a little kid, I don’t realizing you are growing up, and you even think I want to stop you from growing up. Is that right?”

“Yes,” he replied, a bit calmer.

“Is there more?”

“YES! All my friends get to do t it. You only talk to the strict parents.”

I mirrored him again. “So you’re saying all your friends get to do this and you think I only talk to the strict parents. Did I get it?”

“Yes,” calmer still.

“Is there more?”

So I listened and mirrored him til he told me there was no more. Then I said: “I get what you’re saying. You make sense to me. And I can imagine you feel very angry.”


“Do you feel that I heard you?”


“Are you ready to listen to me now?”

“Okay, I guess,” he replied reluctantly.

I expressed my point of view, pausing after each sentence or two to ask him to tell me what he heard me saying. After I got it all out, I asked him if what I said made sense. It did. Then I asked him what he imagined I was feeling.

“Oh, you’re just worried about me because you love me,” he replied.

I felt tears in my eyes. Thus ended that day’s battle. We both had calmed down, we both felt heard. I did not change my limit.

Pretty good, right? It gets even better. A few days later, or I should say nights because it was after 11 pm. I was practically brain dead. He was wide awake. I was headed to bed as we were scheduled to get up early the next day to drive to Greenville with a group to help repair houses damaged by the floods from Hurricane Floyd. He had agreed to go but was now having second thoughts. Getting up early on a Saturday morning to do something in a group with Mom was fast losing its appeal. “Mom, Mom, come here, let’s do that mirroring thing!” he hollered.

In case you’re wondering, we did go on the service trip. Listening and mirroring him did not mean I had to allow him to abandon a commitment at the last moment. But he went a bit more willingly.

We used the dialogue process from time to time as needed during the next few years, usually at my initiation and with some initial grumbling on his part. But he did it and it helped. It helped a lot. It became one of my main strategies for surviving his adolescence. Along with a few key phrases such as “I’ll have to think about it” and “Because I said so IS enough of a reason!”

But the story gets even better. Fast forward a few years to the summer after his freshman year at college. He had had two semesters in a dorm with no parents and felt pretty grown up. He was living back at home, however, and I felt there were still some rules. Minimal rules: if you decide at 3 am to spend the night elsewhere, I expect to find a message on my cell phone to that effect when I wake up the next morning so I won’t worry you are dead in a ditch. I turned my cell phone off at night so he wouldn’t risk waking me up with a late call. Somehow he found it hard to remember to do this. Or to comply with the rule about cleaning up the kitchen after himself. We had a lot of conflict. It peaked on July 4th when he had a few friends in the front yard around a small fire pit way past when I went to bed. One decided to come inside to use the bathroom around 3 am and scream from inside the living room to her friends outside. This woke me up. I was not happy. I was angry. It took me til 5 am to calm myself and go back to sleep. I was thinking maybe he should go live the rest of the summer with his father. Or maybe be sold into slavery. Yes, we had a lot of conflict.

During one of these conflicts, as we sat across the kitchen table from each other, he spoke very emphatically: “Mom, I want you to mirror that! I want to make sure you heard me!”

Ah, he had gotten it! I thought, Surely this skill will help him in his future relationships.
It all started with me mirroring him in the midst of an argument. I did not think he would respond favorably had I suggested I teach him the intentional dialogue. I imagine he would have said something like, “Get away from me with that therapy stuff!” Dialogue with a teenager probably comes under the category of dialogue with an unwilling partner. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to just start mirroring him. I submit that if a mother and a 13 year old boy can learn to dialogue, anyone can. Try it. It really works.

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Imago Relationship Therapy

Some years ago, when I was still new to private practice, I met regularly with three colleagues for peer supervision. We shared cases and helped each other think through how best to help our clients. One day in 1991, as I sat in the big stuffed chair in a colleague’s office, I talked about a tough relationship issue. She handed me a book from her shelf. “You need to read this book,” she said emphatically. I looked at the cover: Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph. D.


I took it home and read it straight through over the next two days, completely absorbed. The next year I signed up for the training. It was 1992. My son was five years old. Yet I left him with his father while I made three trips to New York City to train with Harville Hendrix himself. I was captivated. He had taken a lot of approaches I had studied and been trained in—Transactional Analysis, Gestalt, family systems, Jungian, psycho dynamic therapy—and focused them on relationships.


Here’s the theory: Imago is the Latin word for image. It refers to that first internalized image we form when very small from the family we grow up in about what love is, what life is. When we leave our childhood home as adults and go into the world looking for a mate, our imago operates like an invisible sensor causing us to be attracted to some people and not to others. We tend to fall in love with someone who is like our parents in all the good and bad ways. At first, intoxicated by love, we only see the good. This first stage of relationship we call the Romantic Stage, when we feel attraction, infatuation, and form an attachment. It can last anywhere from three weeks to three years. Inevitably, it is followed by the Power Struggle Stage, when the person of our dreams sometimes seems like the person of our nightmares. This is when the real work of relationship begins. We must learn to deal with our differences, with disagreements, and with conflict. Whatever is left over from the past–unmet needs, childhood wounds– comes up. If we understand what’s happening, it can be an opportunity for growth. If we don’t, it can begin the nightmare that ends in divorce court. The way through to the third stage, the Conscious Relationship Stage (or from Romantic Love to Real Love), begins with becoming thoroughly acquainted with our own childhood wounds and those of our partner. This way we learn to become a more loving person (which is what I think it’s all about anyway).


The basic skill taught in Imago Therapy is the Imago Intentional Dialogue Process. Not meant to replace ordinary conversation, the intentional dialogue is a structured way of talking most useful when there is a conflict or touchy topic. Dialogue is really a listening exercise. Listening is very difficult when we are upset. Dialogue slows down the process to help us listen to each other. It involves first one person taking the role of sender and the other as receiver. The sender shares a frustration, the receiver gives a neutral reflection, called a mirror, of what the other said: “What I hear you saying is you are frustrated with me because I get home late so many nights from work.” Then the receiver asks: “Is this correct?” and, if yes, then “Is there more?” Dialogue continues until the sender gets it all out. The receiver then summarizes, validates, and empathizes. Then they switch roles–the receiver now becomes the sender—and gets a turn to share his/her point of view on the given topic. It may start with a current issue but can deepen as the sender realizes the other’s behavior reminds them of past hurts from childhood. Most people say it feels awkward and artificial at first, but with practice, it becomes a powerful tool for couples to use.


The training was wonderful. There is nothing like a group of therapists hanging out together. After a long day of training, we went off in small groups to dinner at various New York restaurants. We had no reluctance to share intimate details of our own lives as we tried on the theory like a new dress or suit. We walked the streets late at night, exploring the city, laughing, and sometimes singing songs from Broadway shows. At the end of the week, I left the hotel and visited my childhood friend in Brooklyn, staying over with her Saturday night to get the cheaper airfare. Andy and I had been friends since fourth grade so this was a real treat. She had a daughter the same age as my son so we compared notes as parents. As a lawyer who wished she had become a therapist, she was fascinated to get a vicarious dose of Imago from me.


Imago became my passion. Its vision of the healing power of the intimate partnership sustained me through many ups and downs in my own life. And finding that I could use it to help couples who had worn out previous therapists just thrilled me no end. Riding on Harville’s marketing coattails as I built my private practice didn’t hurt either. A bonus for us all was that Oprah became a fan of Imago and had Harville on her show many times. Now there are over 2000 Imago therapists all over the world. Thanks to modern technology, we keep in touch through email, weekly phone bridge trainings, and annual conferences. In Imago World, support and consultation are available to me at the stroke of my keyboard. Conferences feel like family reunions. And now more and more couples seek me out because I am an Imago Therapist. Learn more at

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Welcome to Relationship Journeys

Welcome to Relationship Journeys. I intend this space to be for reflections of many kinds from my 35 years of practice as a psychotherapist. I have certainly seen and heard a lot over the years as I have worked to help people create the lives and relationships they want, including the most important relationship: the one with themselves..

I began my journey as a preschool teacher. After college (English major at the College of William and Mary in Virginia), I joined the National Teacher Corps and taught in a demonstration kindergarten in Little Rock, Arkansas. This was 1969 when the importance of early intervention was a fairly new idea and public kindergartens had not become the norm. I came to Chapel Hill in 1971 and became director of a church-based kindergarten-day care center. There I developed an interest in family therapy. I saw young children having difficulties, then when I met with their parents, I found out the entire family was having difficulties. I also volunteered as a counselor with the UNC Human Sexuality Information and Counseling Service from 1971-74. It was the first peer counseling program in human sexuality in the country and gave me further experience.

All this led me to the UNC School of Social Work (1974-76) to learn more about therapy. Earning an MSW seemed to be the shortest way to get a passport to become a therapist. My own therapy during those years helped me to see the value of therapy from the inside out. Therapy became the safe haven from where I began to rethink all I had been taught, to get to know myself on a deeper level, learn valuable self-care skills, and begin to chart my true path in life. Among many other lessons, I learned I was born to be a therapist, I just needed training.

Thirty-five years later, I have been honored by the trust my clients have given me and fulfilled by the experience of helping them solve life problems, find their own power, and create satisfying lives for themselves and those they love. In this blog, let me share some of what I have learned.

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