What happens in a session?

We talk about emotions a lot because they are the music of the dance – we help you understand the signals you send that might make it hard for your partner to come close and help you send new emotional signals that pull your partner towards you and help you dance together – in harmony. Sue Johnson

A session is time to speak and think freely, to feel clearly, to sense truly and reach for all that is best in you and in your life. A session is both playful and earnest; light hearted and at times poignant; confronting and revealing.

I aim for each person to be clear, tender and strong within themselves and with each other.

I create a safe place to speak the unspoken, to untangle the knot, to be curious about the way a repetitive negative interaction cycle is maintained by both; to begin re-kindling the spark;, to slowly unfold the unforgiven, and to get a glimpse of how the future might be if you worked toward it like a team, like two people rowing a boat together.

I am often an educator disguised as a therapist, and always a process consultant. My work is often to simply interrupt self-defeating patterns within and between a couple and bring self-regenerating patterns to life.

My skill derives from on-going training; life experience; the enjoyment of working with people; a natural ability to listen carefully, understand and to communicate clearly, and the evidence of successful work with previous clients. Clinical psychology has taught me how to think about people in context, how to think ahead and to value a thorough enquiry.

Sometimes even one session can kick start a simple life change or a small shift in perception, meaning and values. Though private and subjective, this can nevertheless impact on those significant others, colleagues, friends, children and even pets who are not directly engaged in the process.

This needs to be considered, as others can help and hinder your intentional change process.[/toggle]

How do I arrange session with you?

I am available for face to face couple therapy in Mullumbimby in the Northern Rivers of NSW.

I am happy to spend 10 minutes on the phone to help you work out if it would be appropriate to make a first appointment to deal with the issues you are handling. Same for an email chat.

I also provide and recommend premarital coaching and counselling. Very few people have taken this up preferring, I believe, to come when it hurts bad rather than when it’s a troubling itch.[/toggle]

What are your fees?

A session of 90 minutes costs $330 and a 60 minute session $220. You can pay by card, ApplePay, Google etc., internet bank transfer or cash. International clients PayPal only.

  • Cancellation policy: 48 hours or more notice – no charge
  • Between 24 and 48 Hours notice – $50.00
  • Cancellation less than 24 hours or failed to attend – $100.00

If you are unavoidably delayed please text me ASAP on 0412 621 957.

Are your fees covered by Medicare or Health Insurance?

Most health insurance companies around the world do not recognise couple’s therapy as a rebatable health service. In couple’s work the client is the couple. That ensures impartiality, and accountability to the relationship not to an individual in the relationship. Some private health funds, however, will accept “Mental health consultation” on the receipt.

A couple does not have a Medicare number, only individuals get that. Medicare funding relies on the person having a diagnosis of a serious mental illness. Once you have that diagnosis it becomes part of your medical history for ever. The diagnosis may have an impact on you even if it was given decades ago or even when you were a child.

Having had a diagnosis of a mental illness can affect later claims on life, disability and income protection insurances and incredibly, on travel insurance. The insurer may only need to show that the disorder was a contributing factor or ask you to prove that it was not!

Here are two useful links to follow up this difficult issue:

Beyond Blue

Mental Health Coordinating Council

Please contact me to discuss your personal situation.

What builds a happy relationship?

The pre-requisite is responding well to our partner even when they disappoint or hurt us. Responding well calls on friendship, mindfulness and clear boundaries. These are the inside and outside work of love. It is a myth that lasting love is easy, and that you shouldn’t have to work at it. Much of the inner work is invisible to our partners – especially when we respond well to hurt. ‘Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. They have simply hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. John Gottman

Friendship, emotional safety and responsiveness are key. Good connections precede better communication – not the other way round. Too often we put the cart before the horse and hammer the communication problem – fretting about the symptoms rather than the underlying cause.

Are you there for me? Will you respond to me? Will you engage with me emotionally? When the answers are resoundingly yes, you are in a healthy relationship built on trust!

Distress accumulates in everyday small disconnects like an absence of eye contact; turning away from each other rather than toward; forgetting chores or bills to pay. And in hurtful times, like rolling the eyes, painful withdrawal, in harsh criticism or rejection.

Husbands who eventually were divorced ignored the bids for connection from their wives 82% of the time compared to 19% for men in stable marriages. Women who later divorced ignored their husband’s bids 50% of the time while those who remained married only disregarded 14% of their husband’s bids.

By being mindful of these disconnects, being accountable and responsible for them rather than reacting to them a relationship can grow through them. Big, generous spaces can form that make a safe harbour for attachment, connection and conversation.

Or they can grow to be spaces filled with the unspoken and with unfinished business. This is a lonely place. There is a profound and “primal hope in all of us that someone, my loved one, will respond. That they will come to me in the dark and find me, hold me, accept me, care about me.”

When that is uncertain, when you can’t trust it to be there when you need it, when your partner does not have your back – trouble WILL take its place. It may take months even years to know the truth of our situation. We postpone the day by fudging the fact that we are its co-creators. Relationship change begins with mutual ownership and true dialogue.

What is the usual way intimate relationships get broken?

One gets stuck in criticising, pursuing and attacking, and the other responds by placating, defending, fighting back or opting out emotionally. This negative interaction cycle played out over a year or more will do it. Both end up feeling despair and believe the other has the power. ‘With effort and introspection we can come to feel content enough to let go of desperate striving and angry scrambling for ascendancy and concentrate instead on controlling the one thing we can ever really have power over: ourselves. Julia Grey

This is a reciprocal dance of pursue and withdraw or demand and placate, taking turns getting up close and withdrawing to a safe distance. The dance is recursive , it can go on and on. Yet, the pattern unearthed, it can become a dance of illumination in the darkness.

Underneath the noise, hurt and disappointment there are mature adult needs for secure attachment, for responsiveness, availability and engagement.

The average couple waits six years before they seek help with their negative interaction cycle. It can usually be undressed and re-directed within 3 sessions of effective couple therapy. After 8 to 12 evidence based couple therapy sessions, most are likely to report: ‘Even when we fight or disagree I know I am important to my partner and we will find a way to come together.’

In couple therapy I look at the dance you are caught in and how it leaves you both hurting and frustrated. I help you step out of your negative dance and create a new dance that is safer, closer and more satisfying.

How is an attachment lens useful in understanding couple trouble?

We are pair bonded creatures. Secure attachment in a primary relationship is a basic survival need. The brain reads it as safety.

You are not, nor ever will be, independent of other people. You will always care what other people think. You can only really know yourself through your relationships – and managing these relationships is the best and most reliable way to manage your feelings. Julian Short

Secure attachment soothes and comforts; offers a safe haven; promotes trust in self and other and openness to new experiences, risk taking and experimenting. It promotes affect regulation and integration. Sue Johnson

It soothes the brain and the body. For example, those who undergo heart surgery recover faster when they are allowed visitors. People with congestive heart disease live two to three times longer if they have a happy relationship. Holding a partner’s hand when they are in pain reduces their experience of pain. The happier the couple is, the greater is the pain relief. The same occurs in the speed of wound healing.

Trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner. Gottman

Love demands the reassurance of touch. Most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath the distress, partners are desperate to know: Are you there for me?

When attachment security is uncertain, a partner will pursue, fight, and even bully a spouse into responding to attachment cues, even if this has a negative general impact on the relationship.

Disconnection, disruption or insecure bonding occurs when you are unsure if you matter to your partner; unsure if you can rely on them; unsure if they will catch you if you fall, hold when you hurt, and celebrate your triumphs with you.

Why do we conflict?

You don’t have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand. Rick Warren

The majority of couple fights are about conversations that didn’t happen and needed to.

Troubled relationships can talk about everything else but what really matters. Healthy relationships bounce back from troubles relatively quickly. They are not without troubles, they just work better as a team, with mutual responsibility and a no-fault view of conflict. ‘Marriages are successful to the degree that the problems you choose are ones you can cope with. Most problematic issues are not solved they are consciously managed. John Gottman.

They focus on helping each other become experts on one another; they share responsibility for the emotional regulation of the other; they rely on experience of each other to build expertise on who they are.

Each are more likely to feel contented in relationship as they become expert at identifying dysregulation in the partner and successfully attend to them, and aid them back to self-regulation and calm, centred, emotional balance. This is a two way street!

It is not sustainable over the long term if it is one-way only.

Successful couples describe solidarity in the face of crisis. They find a common voice in their interactions with money, work, leisure, with boomerang children and extended family. They experience conflicts around these issues, but they resolve their differences privately. These couples avoid the temptation to negotiate “side deals” with family members, friends or co-workers. They support each other in conversations with family and friends.

In short, they stick together.

What convinces the usual couple to get help?

  • I told my partner it was over and I left.
  • My partner found out about the affair.
  • We lost those regular, simple, good things in our relationship.
  • We kept on recycling all the old issues to the point of indifference.
  • We often refuse to be influenced by the other.
  • We defect from team work at critical moments.
  • We stopped paying attention to each other.
  • That tone of voice and that look just said contempt.
  • Something unforgivable finally woke us up.
  • I am living with a stranger.
  • We’re like two dead people living in a mortuary.


Why won’t HE come to couple’s therapy?

Even in a big mess, both genders baulk at admitting the want of help and doing something about it. It is easy to find reasons not to go for help – not the least that everyone is telling you that you should – I went and saw the doc! What else do you want?

Paul (not his real name) was in his 30’s and worked in an agricultural business. He wanted to check me out over the phone before committing to a session. He told me that he was ‘scared shitless’ about coming to talk. His ‘will I or won’t I’ phone call went for about 20 minutes. At one stage he broke down and wept. He felt safe talking to me. We made a time.

He drove the 40 kilometres from home in Murwillumbah to my office stopping and starting along the way. He had plenty of opportunities to turn around. He headed back home a couple of times before finally committing, irrevocably, to face it.

He was a big bloke with a big heart, dressed in work gear and heavy boots, smelling of burnt sugar cane and diesel fuel. He looked like the kind of guy who was never far from his truck, his shed, his dog and his banjo.

He opened the session by saying other people thought he had ’emotional problems’. He didn’t think so. What scared him was that he might find out stuff about himself that he didn’t like. He came from a close family all living within an hour of his home. His sister, mother and partner had been telling him for years about his emotional problems. However, he feared that if he recognized them in a session, he would have a real reason to change.

I thought to myself, as long as our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and girlfriends nag us about our emotional problems, we can continue to ignore our own view of it since so many others are on our case.

Paul didn’t want to change what he thought, felt or acted but he had reached an impasse within himself and in his relationships.

He knew he had to deal with himself but without the interested involvement of his family. He cared too much about what they thought but it didn’t help him get clear about who he was. He knew only too well their version of who he was.

On that fitful drive to my office he committed to face himself, and to do whatever it took. He wanted to be content in himself AND connected to the people he cared for. In our 20 minute phone call I had inadvertently done most of the work. He did the rest. He said his plan was to approach himself in the same way he ‘would go about managing a people problem at work – reducing it to its simplest elements’ and observing his thoughts and feelings about. ‘It needed no women’s talk’, he said. Paul had a natural mindfulness practice.

A project at Harvard has followed two groups of men for almost seventy years, tracking physical and emotional health, opinions and attitudes, successes and failures, all in the hope of understanding what makes us happy. The study has generated some remarkable findings, such as the massive impact of relationships, the fading long-term effects of childhood experiences, the role of defences in managing emotional well-being, and feeling useful in a social network is one of the best predictors of health and long life.

Now, don’t roll your eyes and think Men! I’ve had the same kind of conversations over the last 40 years with the ladies. More examples in the Case Studies.

So how do I get him or her to come for help?

We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious. Sebold

The inner force that inspires fear in us is life itself. This is a fear from which no theory in the world can deliver us. It is normal, universal, and healthy.Tournier

It is fear and shame that hold us back from seeking help early in the development of physical, emotional and psychological problems. To answer this question I have to go back to the earlier question about attachment. The more connected we are to other people, the less likely fear will swallow our endeavours. A deep sense of belonging tames fear. Attachment is evolution’s buffer against trauma and loss. Secure attachment is the basis of resilience.

Our brains are shaped to emphasize the negative and prioritize fear. Most brains keep a map of memories skewed to losses rather than gains. ‘Our physiological responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunity and pleasure. Haidt

Furthermore, we predict the future from the vividness and emotional impact of past events rather than on the probability of a recurrence. Many people and communities suffer from avoiding or accounting for risks that are vanishingly small whilst not attending to obvious widespread, high risk behaviours. The difficulty is that when afraid or upset we’re less able to judge risk, including the risk of unhappiness.

The art of happiness thus requires out-foxing our fears and placing the pursuit of happiness to one side, obliquely, and observing our thinking/feeling process rather than identifying with it.

So how do I get him or her to seek help? Stop criticising the failure to do so – that will take out your part in the shaming and it may diminish the fear of failure that could underlie the fear. Start thinking about the times and places where you and your partner really connect. DO more of that. Communication follows connection not the other way around. Start being curious about the fear and the memories that are skewed to losses rather than gains. Spend a session interviewing me to work out if I am a good fit for your partner.

Alternatively, do you see partners separately?

Yes as above, and also for an initial session if desired on the condition that I not keep secrets from the other.

However, couple therapy is not viable ‘where there is ongoing violence, uncontrolled drug use or where the partners have incompatible goals for therapy. Clients who present themselves as rigid and consistently externalise their difficulties, insist on keeping secrets that are relationally significant and do not express commitment to a relationship’ are unlikely to find couple therapy useful. Johnson 2002

If you are partnered and either straight or LGBTIQ, and want to come for individual or couple work without your partner, I will ask you to explain. For example, one guy, withdrawn in his relationship for some years said, “I want individual sessions first to put the past behind me before I ask my partner if she’ll attend.”

Anything in the past or something controversial in the present is better discovered slowly and dealt with as a couple. Most partners do want to know about their loved one’s unfinished business as it is usually material to the problems in the current relationship.

I am first a couple’s therapist. I may insist you bring your partner along and decline to offer a service if they will not attend.

Is divorce or separation the last resort?

A controlled separation is preferable to divorce. ‘Should I Stay Or Go? : How Controlled Separation Can Save Your Marriage’ by Lee Raffel is a good place to start exploring this alternative. The controlled separation website http://controlledseparation.com is the next place to explore this option, and then when you are ready come and see me and I can help you flesh out your plans, design and facilitate a program for conscious and deliberate re-connection.


Divorces with the greatest potential to harm children occur in marriages that have the greatest potential for reconciliation. Doherty

Evidence based couple therapies, with decades of research behind them, have upward of 70% success rate irrespective of how distressed the couple or how severe the problems are at the time of entering couple therapy! Johnson

Even when a couple divorce, researchers found that unhappily married adults who divorced were no more likely to report emotional and psychological improvements than those who stayed married. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost 8 out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married 5 years later!