What It's Like To Be...

A Couples Therapist

October 15, 2023 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 2
What It's Like To Be...
A Couples Therapist
Show Notes Transcript

Mystery dates, adult playrooms, habit stacking, and the misuse of “narcissism” with Laura Heck, a virtual couples therapist. Laura is also a co-host of the podcast Marriage Therapy Radio.

Want to share your thoughts on the show? Email dan@whatitslike.com

Follow us on Instagram!

Got a comment or suggestion for us? You can reach us via email at jobs@whatitslike.com

Want to be on the show? Leave a message on our voice mailbox at (919) 213-0456. We’ll ask you to answer two questions:

  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath:
It's a totally innocent question, just typical small talk. So what do you do? But if you're a couple's therapist, you might just dread it.

Laura Heck:
Inevitably somewhere I get cornered on long runs, long rides, anytime on an airplane someone finds out that I'm a marriage therapist and it is immediately just a loss of the next two hours of my life and not getting paid for it. So.

Dan Heath:
That's Laura Heck, and not only do people dump their problems on her when they find out what she does for a living, they also make assumptions about what her life must be like. For example, she's also a sex therapist.

Laura Heck:
And so their assumption is that, well, if you're a sex therapist, then you must be having the best sex ever, or you must be so wild and you play with all the colors of the rainbow.

Dan Heath:
You have a dungeon in your house. And-

Laura Heck:
Totally. My red room, my playroom is amazing, adult playroom, the APR. But so-

Dan Heath:
I didn't know there was an acronym for that. That's amazing.

Laura Heck:
Yeah, absolutely. I think I might be the only one that uses it.

Dan Heath:
And I have to confess, when you said that I thought, Annual Percentage Rate, instead of Adult Play Room, that tells you something about where I'm coming from.

Laura Heck:
I know. It's a little different, little different.

Dan Heath:
I’m Dan Heath, on each episode of “What It’s Like To Be”, we interview someone from a different profession and learn about their work. What are the highs and lows, what drives them crazy … ultimately we’re trying to learn something about: What would it be like to walk in their shoes? Today we talk to Laura Heck, a couples therapist based in Utah who does most of her work virtually. We’ll learn her favorite activity to try with couples who are struggling, and what it’s like when her girlfriends ask her for relationship advice knowing she’s a therapist, and also how she knows to stay AWAY from a potential client just based on their initial email. So let’s get to it… Here’s what it’s like to be a couples therapist.

So tell me about the most common reasons why couples end up reaching out to you.

Laura Heck:
Well, they are quite common, actually. I mean, I hear the same sort of generic complaints coming through, which is my job to say, "Oh gosh, that sounds so original and different. I've never heard that before. Why don't you give me some details of what that's looking like?" But most people are going to say, we're coming in because we are having trouble communicating, so communication. We aren't having sex, which is sort of a symptom that they are aware of of their intimate connection. Conflict isn't going well. It's escalating and it's getting out of control, or we have conflict and we don't want to do it in front of the kids this way. It's okay behind closed doors, but not okay that it's happening in the kitchen. Roommate syndrome, a lot of people are feeling like we're buddies, we're friends, but we've kind of lost that spark. Those are the four primary reasons why couples are coming to me, and it's really my job to become a bit of a detective and get them to add more language to it because those are sort of the popular phrases that they like to use, but it is unique when it comes to their relationship. So I'm asking a lot more questions.

Dan Heath:
So let's say you've got a new client, it's a first session. What are you watching for in that first session just to give you a sense of how to navigate what you're trying to do?

Laura Heck:
Yeah, I mean, I'm always paying attention to folks and it's really interesting. I'll check in a lot. I might reflect back to them something that I'm observing and just asking what that's about because I have a lot of assumptions as to, "I can see that you might be getting emotional right now. There's tears in your eyes. What is that about? Tell me what tears mean to you." Because tears, I could make a ton of assumptions as to what tears might mean. I might make the assumption that they're emotionally flooded, they're in fight or flight, and they might say, "Oh, Laura, I cry all the time. I cry at commercials or football games or whatever." And I'm like, okay, great. That's really good information. So I'm watching them physically. Another thing that I'm paying attention to is the way that they tell their story. So this is kind of neat. If I was to bring a couple in, I want to hear after I've heard about all the things that they think I can help them with, right, so tell me about what's not going well and how you think I can support you. And then what I start to ask them is, "Okay, now I want to know about the history of your relationship. Can you just describe to me from the very beginning, what were you drawn to? What were you attracted to in your partner?" And I let them sort of tell the story, and I'm really looking at the tone or the lens in which they're viewing because the lens that they're telling the story of their past is very clearly aligned with how their relationship is going today. Are they viewing their past relationship when they were in love and in limerence through rose colored glasses? Or is it tainted because they've been in negative sentiment override for so long in the relationship?

Dan Heath:
And so is it better for the couple's future if they maintain those rose colored glasses?

Laura Heck:
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I think a lot of people assume that rose colored glasses is pretty inaccurate, but that's really what we're hoping for is that you have the ability to really look at the positives in your partner and have grace for the things that are annoying with your partner, but can you tolerate their faults? And we find that after so long of being in this negative space, you no longer tolerate their faults and you have a very short fuse when it comes to your partner. But ideally, we're looking for rose colored glasses. But as you can imagine, by the time folks come into my office, those rose colored glasses have been in the back of the drawer for far too long and we got to search through a lot of clutter to get to them.

Dan Heath:
Something just struck me, this is a weird question, but I can completely understand how your job is interesting and satisfying and rewarding. Is it ever just fun?

Laura Heck:
That's a really good question. Is my job fun? I think that there's definitely times that pique my interest, especially when I'm working with sexuality of trying to help couples to tap into that play and that fun side of them. Oh gosh, I had actually a couple, I hadn't seen them for two years, and they checked in with me. They came back and they said, "Laura, we just want to give you a heads-up, give you a little bit of a story as to where we're at right now in a relationship." And they said, "By the way, we're really excited we have a mystery date coming up." And I said, "No way." So a mystery date is something that I had told them about years ago, and that's part of the fun of what couples can do. So a mystery date is where once a month you swap roles and one of you is the partner who's planning a date for your other partner, and then the following month you swap roles and you get to plan for your partner and you take them on a date. And there has to be some element of play or some activity and some kind of a meal. So you're not just going to dinner at a nice restaurant, you're also going on a sleigh ride. Or you're going like ice skating, but then also they're going to a lovely meal. So anyway, you don't tell your partner, all you do is you tell them when to show up and you give them an idea of how to dress for the occasion. And if there needs to be a change in wardrobe, you're packing it for your partner and you're planning the entire date from beginning to end, and it's a complete and total surprise. The only time they figure out what they're doing is when you pull up to the ice skating rink or you pull up to the horseback riding spot or whatever it might be, and then they're going, "Oh my gosh, are we going horseback riding?" You're like, "Absolutely. And I brought you a change of clothes." So the mystery date is a lot of fun. It's entering novelty and excitement and play into the relationship. And I get excited talking about those things with couples, especially if they are really grabbing onto, yes, this is something we can incorporate and we've been dying for some ideas.

Dan Heath:
God, what a great idea. I feel like I'm motivated to do that with my wife now.

Laura Heck:
Oh, it's so fun. It is so fun.

Dan Heath:
I was curious, do you have a favorite activity or exercise or prompt that you like to give the couples you see?

Laura Heck:
Oh man, I just had a workshop actually this last weekend and kind of off the cuff, I am really big into habits. How do you maintain habits over the long haul? And so I'm oftentimes talking to couples, how do you actually take the information that we're talking about and put it into practice in your own home? So the exercise that I have them do is called habit stacking, and I have them take a sticky note and they put it next to their toothbrush, and at some point during the day, they will brush their teeth. I know that's going to happen. They're going to take a pen and they're going to spend the time that they would be brushing their teeth, writing down something that they saw their partner do, and it could be a physical representation of a characteristic that they really love and adore. "You were so nurturing with our son last night. I watched you snuggle him and read him a book and talk to him about his day. And I really love this about you." So you're going to write it on the sticky note and then you're going to just put it up on the bathroom mirror. So this is called sticky note appreciations. And what I'm doing is I'm hoping to create an attitude of gratitude in their relationship where they're creating this desire to look for the positives, what's going right in the relationship, what do you love and appreciate about your partner, because whatever we look for, we're going to find and we just need to turn that volume up and turn the negativity volume down. If you look for the negatives, if you look for the things that are driving you nuts about your partner, you're going to see them because your partner's annoying from time to time, but your partner's also lovely and wonderful. So this is one of the exercises that even though it may not be one of my favorites, it's definitely my client's favorites.

Dan Heath:
That is totally brilliant. I love that. 'Cause what's interesting about it is, I mean, it's not just the activity, it's also the fact that it's almost like you're giving them a new lens to perceive their partner's behavior throughout the day.

Laura Heck:
That's totally it.

Dan Heath:
They're kind of raising their alertness to the good things.

Laura Heck:
Yeah, a lot of people are like, "Oh, so this is kind of like the five love languages, words of affirmation?" I said, "Sure." This might feel really good to receive a sticky note from your partner, but that's not actually the purpose of this. The purpose is to create a habit of mind where you're scanning for the positives and it gets easier with time. So the more you start to tune into what do I appreciate, what do I admire, what do I respect, the easier it becomes.

Dan Heath:
So you said the habit stacking is kind of a crowd favorite. What's your personal favorite to facilitate?

Laura Heck:
One of my favorite sort of interventions that I really love doing, it's called Doing a Dan Weil. Dan Weil is a probably lesser known famous couples therapist. Brilliant gentleman, just passed away this last year. But one thing that Dan Weil will often do is he will speak for his clients. And what you're doing is you are taking what can often be a lot of pain and a lot of frustration that is being directed at their partner, and you're softening it and you're really saying what's deep down in their heart. And you're making a lot of assumptions as a therapist, but often you are, right. And so it's like I can sit back and I can see all of this anger coming from a client, and I'm just going to say, "Okay, let's just hold on for a second. I think I know what's going on here and I'd really love to speak for you, and if I'm ever off, please stop me. But I'd really love to just see if I can understand a little bit better what might be going on for you." And then I start speaking from a place of vulnerability and softness of what's going on inside that we're protecting and probably not able to put words to. And I speak directly to the other person almost as if I am embodying their partner. And it always brings tears to both people. Tears because it's like I could never find the words to say it or I could never lay down my sword long enough to be able to tap into that softness. And then the partner who's hearing it, who I'm looking directly at and kind of embodying their partner, they're hearing their partner for the very first time in a whole nother way and their softening, and it immediately changes the dynamic in the room.

Dan Heath:
Wow. Can you think of a recent time when you used that technique?

Laura Heck:
Yeah, this one actually was really powerful. The male in this relationship, it's a heterosexual relationship, the male in this relationship is going through a lot. He says, "I think I'm going through a midlife crisis. I'm very emotional." He's always been emotional, "but I just don't feel like my partner is there for me." And she says, in so many words, "Why can't you just suck it up? You are so needy." And I paused for a second and I said, "Let me just see if I can speak for you if that's okay."

And so I spoke for the female, and I looked directly at the man in his eyes and I said, "Honey, when you are struggling and you're in pain and you're emotional, it's really scary for me. And I don't know how to respond to you, and I definitely don't know how to make it better. And I want to reach for you, but something stops me because I'm terrified and I don't know how to hold you. And so instead, I pull away and I tell myself that it's okay for me to pull away. And I know that that's not what you need in that moment, and I really want to get better at showing up for you."

And his eyes are tearing up. She's tearing up and she's nodding along with me saying, "Yes, Laura, that is a hundred percent what's going on? I'm scared. I don't know how to handle your pain." And it was one of those moments in therapy where I got an email maybe a few days later where they said, you hid it right on the head. And I think the nailing it piece, it's tough as a therapist sometimes. You walk away from sessions, you're like, what resonated for them? I mean, sometimes people are really stoic and you just have no idea. There's not a ton of feedback.

Dan Heath:
Hi folks. It's Dan. Just wanted to break in here and say, I hope you're enjoying the show so far. It's brand new. This is a passion project for me. I'd actually love to get your thoughts on it. What's resonating for you? What do you think would make it even better? If you want to drop me a line, just reach out to dan@whatitslike.com, no apostrophe on the it's. Dan@whatitslike.com. Enjoy the rest of the show.

So let's switch gears for a minute. I figured there are a lot of listeners out there who, they've got great social skills, they give good advice to their friends, and they feel like they can empathize with people well, they see multiple perspectives and probably many of them have been told maybe over the years or have wondered whether all that means they should be a therapist. I just want to get you to talk a little bit about what are the biggest differences between being an armchair therapist to your friends versus being a therapist for your living?

Laura Heck:
It's such a big difference. I was just actually recently on a girl's trip with six other women, and I woke up early. I'm an early riser, I'm having a cup of coffee and I'm sitting across from this other woman and she's sharing personal details. And she said, "I didn't know if this was okay because I know this is what you do for a living." And I said, "Well, I'll just be really clear with you. I am probably going to have some tequila here in T minus two hours, and I just need you to know that when I'm with my friends, I don't show up as a therapist. I don't think as a therapist, I don't have the boundaries that a therapist has. I am here as a girlfriend. And as a therapist, if you were talking about your relationship, I would be thinking from both perspectives, what is your perspective, but also what is the perspective of your partner? And how can I get you to have a little bit more empathy?" If you're going to share the woes and miseries of your relationship, all I'm going to do right now is I'm going to empathize with you and I'm going to pepper you with compliments. I'm going to lift you up. I'm going to be another girl. And so I think I make that really clear with folks that you're incredibly boundaried, while also being vulnerable as a therapist. But when I am just showing up in my everyday life, I have to remind folks that I'm going to give the same advice that your mom would give, your girlfriend would give. And there's probably zero research or boundaries coming from me at that point.

Dan Heath:
So it is basically about being an advocate versus being a referee or a coach.

Laura Heck:
Yeah. Boy, it's referee. If there was a dirty word that therapists probably don't like, it's referee.

Dan Heath:
Oh, tell me why.

Laura Heck:
It's exhausting, first and foremost, to be a referee. And a referee, it's assuming that there might be sides that are taken, and there are certainly some modalities of therapy where you do absolutely take sides. But I would say for the most part, I don't want to be a referee. I really want to give you the skills to be able to be your own referee and put you in charge and in control of yourself, because ultimately, you're spending an hour with me this week and you're going to be home with your partner for all the other hours of the day when I'm not present.

Dan Heath:
Is it hard to avoid carrying their burdens around with you?

Laura Heck:
Sometimes it is hard to leave work at work. And I will tell you, that's actually the reason why I started working with couples and not working with children. I found that working with children left too much of the control out of my hands and out of their hands. And when I leave my office, I feel pretty good that I have individuals who are in control of their lives and make choices, and I'm just going to help steer them in a way of being able to make better choices. But I didn't feel like I had that control when I was working with kids, and I carried that burden with me. So I needed to work with someone that I could sort of say, you're not in control, Laura. They're in control. They're adults. They make their own decisions. You can guide them, you can support them. And that felt better to me. But I think about my clients all the time, but it's not in a space of feeling and more in a space of how can I support, how can I help? And I think that's the boundary, that compartmentalizing that I've created is I can feel with my heart when I'm with my clients because I need to. It's a part of how I show up is I'm a feeler as well. I'm a thinker and a feeler. But when I leave my office, I turn off the heart part and I turn on the brain part.

Dan Heath:
That's really interesting.

Laura Heck:
I don't think I've ever put words to that, but it actually made a lot of sense to me as I was saying it.

Dan Heath:
It makes sense to me too. I love the way you put it. It's like, my heart stays in the office and then I switch to thinking or cognitive mode later.
So Laura, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions.

Laura Heck:
Oh, boy.

Dan Heath:
So let me fire away here.

Laura Heck:
Fire away.

Dan Heath:
Okay. Question one. What's a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know, and what does it mean?

Laura Heck:
There is something that kind of drives me a little bonkers is when people use the phrase or the word trigger and they use it inaccurately. So like, "You triggered me" or "I was triggered yesterday." And really all that a trigger is there is a threat that it may not be present, but your body is registering it from old information. And so something's going on at this moment that isn't an actual threat, that isn't actually causing any sort of insafety to you, but your body is saying, hey, here's some old information. We're going to respond to that old information. That's what a trigger is. And I think we use it so inaccurately, along with narcissism. Oh my gosh, is that a word?
And just an understanding, we throw that word around so much. Professionals know what it is. I don't, because I don't work with narcissists in my couple's practice, doesn't work. But I think that the lay person uses triggers and narcissism inaccurately.

Dan Heath:
It seems like maybe an annoying part of your work would just be untangling some of these labels that people are throwing around in therapy.

Laura Heck:
Absolutely. We call it psychoeducation, and we spend a good 70% of our time working on psychoeducation.

Dan Heath:
Okay. Well, next question. Who is the most famous therapist, whether real or fictional?

Laura Heck:
So John Gottman probably one of the most famous couples therapists. He's like the godfather of couples therapy. He was one of the very first researchers that was actually researching couples in sort of a laboratory setting. And that's who certified me. And I teach for the Gottman Institute. And so that's my bread and butter and the blood, sweat, and tears has all come from understanding Gottman method.

Dan Heath:
Can we just pause there for a second? Readers may, or sorry, listeners may recognize his name from Malcolm Gladwell wrote about him in, was it Blink?

Laura Heck:
Yep. It was.

Dan Heath:
His ability to diagnose whether a couple would make it based on some snippet of seconds or minutes.

Laura Heck:
So he became pretty darn famous for being able to predict with, depending on the study, he did multiple, multiple studies between 91 and 94% accuracy whether or not a couple would divorce or stay together. And it was really about being able to just observe what is observable, what are the behaviors that are present that he knows are going to eventually erode away at the relationship if left unattended to. And that's the difference is that's where I come in. I can observe these behaviors and then I can provide some hope and say, okay, now that we know that they're present, let's do something about them.

Dan Heath:
Okay. Last question. What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of a couple's therapist?

Laura Heck:
I already alluded to this. It's narcissist. That one strikes fear.

Dan Heath:
And so is that typically something that one partner is lobbying as a label on the other?

Laura Heck:
Yeah. I mean, you're rarely going to have somebody come to you and say, "I'm a narcissist." That doesn't happen very often.

Dan Heath:
Fair. Yeah.

Laura Heck:
So yeah, usually it's a label that one partner's putting on the other. And if it's true that it's untreated narcissistic personality disorder, that is something that I cannot support a couple with. It needs to be an individual treatment. So that strikes fear. I kind of giggle at this one. It sort of tongue in cheek is when I get an email and it's probably four pages worth of here's our background and here's going on and here's how you can help us. And we have this amount of time before we get married. And so when people are putting deadlines on things like we need to decide whether or not we're getting a divorce or whether we are going to stay together for the kids and we want to do it before we go to Disneyland in a month. Those types of things make you sweat.

Dan Heath:
We got to get this scheduled.

Laura Heck:
Yeah, yeah. Can you solve all of our problems? And FYI, we only have this amount of money, so if it's going to take more than three sessions, I don't know if this is going to be worth it. Meanwhile, I just spent three hours reading your email and responding. So that strikes a little bit of sweat and fear, in my opinion.

Dan Heath:
I love the idea that they're scoping it. They're like, okay, we have this much money and this many weeks. Can you fix our marriage? Yes or no?

Laura Heck:
Totally. Yeah. And that's where it's really lovely to be in private practice because I can just say, "I'm so sorry guys. I am all filled up. I don't have any room for new clients at the moment, but here's my absolute favorite therapist and I'm going to refer you to them."

Dan Heath:
And then you refer them to the person you like the least in your social circle.

Laura Heck:
That's exactly it. Yeah. But you think they'll do a great job.

Dan Heath:
Revenge referrals.

Laura Heck:
That's right.

Dan Heath:
Laura Heck is a couples therapist who does online therapy sessions from her home in Utah. You can find her online at Laura Heck Therapy dot com – that’s H-E-C-K. Laura Heck Therapy dot com. She’s also co-host of the podcast Marriage Therapy Radio.

One thing that struck me was how for Laura to succeed, she has to work THROUGH people versus FOR people. Like, if a plumber comes to fix a leak, he or she will just get the job done. You don't really need to understand what they do. They don't need to change your behavior, versus a life coach for instance, can't really accomplish anything for you. It has to be about what the work unlocks within you.

And doctors, if you think about it, are a blend of the two. Sometimes they can knock out the problem themselves solo like a plumber with the right prescription or the right surgery, and other times they can only work through you like with managing a chronic disease. And it was fascinating to hear Laura talk about how you work through couples to help them help themselves, the self-awareness they need to develop and the new habits and the new lenses they need to see their partner in a more positive light. And also the qualities that the work requires of her to make all that happen, objectivity and empathy and patience. Folks, that's what it's like to be a couple's therapist.

I'd love to hear what your takeaway from the show was. Drop me a line at dan@whatitslike.com and after you dash off that email, if you don't mind me adding just a few more things to your to-do list, would you leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform? And of course, if there's somebody in your life who you think would really dig this podcast, would you share it with them?

On the next episode of the show available right now, I speak with a criminal defense attorney whose work involves the highest possible stakes.

Criminal Defense Attorney:
Burglary with a battery in this state is a punishable by life offense.

Dan Heath:
Oh my God.

Criminal defense attorney:
I know, I know.

Dan Heath:
I'm Dan Heath. Take care.