Dr. John Amodeo, author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships and a marriage/family therapist, is adept towards helping those in relationships find intimacy and happiness from their significant other. Social support and relationships are powerful tools that can help us through our problems we face in our lives. Therefore, it is crucial that we are able to foster a healthy relationship with others (whether it be with a significant other or with a good friend).
Working as a marriage and family therapist and as a professional with relationships, what are some of the challenges and rewards do you experience in your career?
It’s very rewarding when clients are committed to their personal growth, which means they are willing to be honest with themselves and with me about their feelings—and find the courage to face what is happening in their inner and outer world. It’s very fulfilling to see people growing—being more confident in themselves, more richness in their relationships, and more meaning in their lives.
I also have enjoyed working with couples. It is very satisfying to see them switch from blaming, shaming, and criticizing each other to sharing their deeper, more vulnerable feelings and longings. It’s magical when we can create a climate of safety where they begin to share more deeply and authentically. When the connection they’ve been wanting is felt more tangibly, it is rewarding for everyone.
It can be challenging when clients are so consumed by shame and fear that they have little access to their authentic feelings. Then a big part of the work is to help them identify and recognize the shame they’ve been carrying that has suppressed their life energy and their potential to live a more rich and satisfying life. It takes lots of patience and mindfulness to work with these things in a skillful way, but it’s very rewarding when people emerge from the grip of shame and discover the beauty of who they really are.
Regarding your time as a family and marriage therapist, what happens during the therapy session and what kind of therapeutic approaches do you use?
Therapists have different approaches, but I think one thing that many of us have in common is to create a good connection with our client. This happens through careful listening and genuine caring—conveying that we understand them and that it’s ok for them to experience whatever they happen to be experiencing. I’m very fond of Attachment Theory, which tells us that we’re wired for connection and need authentic, caring connections in order to thrive.
Many of us grew up not feeling safe to reveal our true feelings. As a result, these feelings go into hiding…perhaps for a long time! They learned that it’s not okay to feel sadness, fear, anger, and other feelings. They may have learned—and continue to believe—that they’re being weak if they’re afraid or hurt—or if they have a need for connection and kindness. They may have learned that they need to be perfect in order to be loved—that being strong means not being vulnerable.
If a client grew up with a boatload of shame, the corrective is to normalize their experience. It’s ok to feel what they feel; they don’t have to struggle to be someone they’re not in order to be acceptable. It takes strength and couple to be the vulnerable human being we are. When a person can accept, honor, and embrace their experience as it is, they gradually become a more self-confident, connected person. Their relationships become more intimate and fulfilling as they show up as their authentic self with people they want to be close to.
Techniques are not as important as the connection with the client. But my main approach is called Focusing, which was developed by Eugene Gendlin through his research into what makes psychotherapy effective. He was a colleague of Carl Rogers and Carl helped with the research. His team found that when psychotherapy clients were connecting with their authentic feelings and speaking from their authentic experience (rather than just intellectualizing) they made progress in therapy.
Gendlin then developed steps so that people could learn to do what these naturally gifted clients were doing. It’s really about being mindful of our feelings and being gentle and friendly toward them. And hearing whatever wise messages they may hold for us. People can go to Focusing.org to learn more about it.
Sadly, Gendlin died on May 1, 2017 at the age of 90. Many therapists today who use somatic and experiential approaches have been influenced by Gendlin. He coined the term “felt sense,” which many therapist use now. A felt sense is a combination of feelings, sensations, and meanings. We pause and allow ourselves to open to our felt sense of various life issues and concerns—and we work with the unclear edge of our felt experience. Then something can shift inside us—how we hold an issue changes, even if the issue is still there. Gendlin talks about all this in his book, Focusing.
I also like Dr. Sue Johnson’s work with couples, which is called Emotionally Focused Therapy. It encourages couples to notice what they are feeling and wanting and invites them to find safe ways to communicate their feelings and wants in a non-shaming, non-blaming way. This creates a climate for safer and deeper connections. She wrote the book, Love Sense.
Peter Levine also developed a helpful approach for working with trauma called Somatic Experiencing (SE). He wrote the book, Waking the Tiger and acknowledges Gendlin for the term “felt sense.”
In some of your articles, you state that using meditation and mindfulness are beneficial methods to foster a healthy relationship, whether it be with a friend or significant other.
Mindfulness simply means noticing what we’re actually experiencing inside in this moment. If we want fulfilling relationships and friendships, we need to share our true feelings with each other. But we need to find ways to communicate that invite people toward us rather than push people away.
I’ve found Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication (NVC) to be very helpful and effective in helping people connect. If every couple learned NVC, they’d be helping their relationships. If everyone learned NVC (or something similar) in schools around the globe, we’d create a foundation for peace in our world. His book is called Nonviolent Communication.
You offer tips to apologize sincerely and warn us about illegitimate ones. Would you say that using assertive communication (using “I” instead of “you,” showing empathy, clarifying how you feel and what you want from the other person) is just as effective as a sincere apology?
I think if people showed more empathy, they wouldn’t need to apologize so much. Apologies can be helpful when we say or do something that violates someone’s boundaries and sensibilities. Being human, we’re destined to hurt people sometimes. We can’t expect ourselves to be perfectly attuned to others at all times. Sometimes we get caught up in our own desires and narcissism, so we have lapses of empathy. We do or say things that hurt people, usually unintentionally.
The NVC method that I mentioned is a way to use “I” statements rather than blaming and attacking people. If we practice mindfulness or an approach such as Focusing, we become more attuned to what is alive inside us in the moment. By allowing ourselves to feel what we feel and want what we want—and communicating this in a respectful way—we create a climate for intimacy.
Self-awareness and communication are linked. Some couples enter my office telling me they’re having a communication problem. What they’re usually less aware of is that they’re also having a self-awareness problem. They’re aware of surface feelings, such as anger, but not aware of the more vulnerable feelings underlying it, such as shame, hurt, or fear.
We can only communicate to the extent that we’re self-aware. We need to bring mindfulness to our inner world of feelings and desires. I talk about this in my book, Dancing with Fire. We need to dance skillfully with the full range of our feelings without getting burned by them—and without scalding others.
As we become more attuned to our own feelings and vulnerabilities, we can attune more to others feelings and needs. If we care about a person, we don’t want to hurt them. We want to give them what they need to be happy, if we can. So we can apologize when we blow it and try to do better next time. But what is also important is learning to communicate in responsible ways and being more responsive to others as a daily habit. Then there may be fewer occasions where we need to apologize.
It can get old to keep apologizing for our insensitive behavior, though it’s better than not apologizing. But it’s even more important to cultivate empathy, understanding, and effective communication skills so that we have less need to apologize.
In our website, a writer interviewed Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist who advocates the positives of living a single life. Additionally, I have met people who are in relationships where they contemplate they joys of being single. Both have in common that they find relief in being single. Do you think that such sentiments are a natural process in a relationship or are there underlying problems?
This is a good, but complex question. It’s one thing to get what we think we want, and then another to still want it once we’ve got it! It takes time to know a person and some people bond too quickly. If a couple bonds sexually very quickly, they may become flooded with oxytocin (sometimes called the love hormone) and other hormones, which may override other aspects of how they are experiencing each other. It takes time to see how each of their shadows interact with each other and whether the relationship is workable—or how they might work it out.
I think everyone is different and it’s best not to judge people. Some people might prefer being single and that may be best for them. And certainly having children is not for everyone.
For those choosing singlehood, friendships would become very important—one or more people to confide in and feel connected with. Friendships might also meet some of our needs for hugs—and perhaps massage can help satisfy some of our need for touch.
While the fulfillment from friendships should not be underestimated, there is something about a more deeply intimate connection that most people seek for good reason. There may be a deep longing for an intimate, soulful, spiritual, and sexual connection. Learning how to dance skillfully with the passionate fires ignited by intimate desires is a tricky business, but one that can bring fulfilling rewards.
Couples counseling can help people learn how to dance with fire without getting burned. It can help identify issues that need to be worked through. Then a couple can decide whether they want to do the work that may offer a path toward resolution and deeper connection. It can also help them (perhaps along with individual therapy) to get clearer about what things they absolutely need in their partnership and what things they might prefer but can live without.
Being single and being partnered both have their advantages and challenges. Each person must decide what seems best for them. Knowing that we are capable of being single—that we can still have a satisfying and meaningful life—can empower us to move toward a partnership from a position of strength. As I discuss in my book, The Authentic Heart, we can then move from the view that “I can’t live without you” to the more mature stance of “Life is richer with you.”
Any worthy advice to give to those interested and want to have a career with working on relationships?
I hesitate to offer any advice. I can only say that I’ve been doing this work for over 35 years and still find it to be very fulfilling. The training is long and in some areas, there is an abundance of therapists. The training can certainly help your own growth and your own relationships. Each person must weigh the risks and potential rewards. If you can talk to students and/or therapists, and schools you might be considering, it may help you decide if this is a path for you.
Hopefully all of you have a take home message from reading this article and that you guys can be more cognizant with other people. If you would like to know more of his work, his website can be found here and his articles can be found here.