Many people wonder how therapists manage to do the work they do. How can we sit in a chair week after week for hours on end, listening to other people’s pain and longing? What could possibly make it worthwhile?

There’s more than one answer, of course. Many therapists speak of the privilege of witnessing another’s authenticity, beyond the cheery “I’m fine” presentations of self that human beings work so hard to maintain. In the process, clinicians get the chance to experience a particular depth of connection with clients that’s unlike any other. And when clients take a leap that propels them out of some longstanding, misery-making behavior, therapists feel their own hearts lift.

Most clinicians experience these luminous moments, but of the thousands of meaningful sessions that take place in a therapist’s office, certain ones stand out. They’re the ones that shake us to the core, experiences so powerful that years—sometimes decades—later, we still remember them.

The stories that follow, originally composed for a special storytelling event at this year’s Networker Symposium, invite us into those moments. Most therapists will recognize them. Sometimes, a seemingly ordinary observation we make turns out to be revelatory to a client. At other times, we may hold our breath and take an enormous risk, having no clue whether it’ll fly or fail. Or something shattering happens to a client that allows him or her to seize life, rather than lose faith in it. In one of the stories that follow, a clinician becomes a client, and her own therapist’s refusal to behave “therapeutically” is the very thing that gives her hope.

In other cases, a client’s story triggers a scene from a clinician’s own life, illuminating a personal struggle. The issue at hand could be a tangle with a child, or an unexpected health crisis. It might be the desire to remake someone else, who, naturally, refuses to cooperate. It may be an unthinkable loss, or a moment in which one flashes on one’s own young and troubled self, long exiled and still yearning for compassion.

Whatever therapeutic moment sparked this sense of recognition and meaning, it’s left a permanent stamp in these authors’ hearts. What kindles it, that personally transformative moment that’s different from all the others, one so significant that we’ll remember it for the rest of our lives? When we first asked these individuals to write about their most memorable therapeutic moment, each offered almost immediately the experience they wanted to share. Not all knew why: they just knew. It’s curious, the things that stick with us. They hold meaning and mystery, both.

What’s clear to most clinicians, though, is that the work they do is breathtakingly intimate. Not many other people make a living the way we do. We’re witnesses to the deepest nooks and crannies of human experience—the heartsickness, the outbreaks of joy, the memories that cause shame, the persistent longings, the things people wouldn’t tell another soul, or at most very few other souls. We get to be present for the most vital stories of people’s lives.

Marian Sandmaier

Crossing to Safety


By Courtney Armstrong

Michael swaggered into my office, his flannel shirt flapping and his faded jeans threatening to rip at the knee. Before sitting down, he glanced at my footwear and looked up with a smirk. “I see you’re wearing new boots today,” he said. “Is that what you do with the money from our sessions? Or are you wearing those boots because you think you’re going to kick my butt with your psycho mumbo-jumbo?”

I was used to getting this kind of challenge from Michael, who liked to spar and use sarcasm as a defense. Graduate school hadn’t prepared me for this, but growing up with two obnoxious brothers had. Over the three months I’d been seeing him, I’d learned that the only way to soften his sneering was to playfully razz him right back. So channeling my best Albert Ellis, I teased, “Yeah, I know you want to test me to see if I know what I’m doing and whether or not therapy has been worth your while. So I’ve got a challenge for you.”

He folded his arms across his broad chest. “Okay, lady, bring it on,” he jeered. “Give me your best shot!”

For all the arrogance emanating from his six-foot, two-inch frame, Michael was a fragile 32-year-old guy, who struggled with depression, alcoholism, and a fear of crowded places, along with his terror of crossing bridges.

A bridge phobia poses an especially big problem in our town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s actually nicknamed Bridge City because it’s hard to go anywhere without driving over a lake or the Tennessee River, which meanders right through the center of town. Michael’s bridge phobia was locking him into a prison of despair and isolation.

He never admitted to a suicidal plan, but all the elements were there: major depression, loneliness, uncontrolled drinking, and a firearm in his house. For all the cheeky games he played, I knew that therapy was a last resort for him. We’d been preparing him to face his fear of bridges for several weeks now, and I knew we needed a breakthrough soon or he’d give up on therapy. Even worse, I feared he’d give up on himself.

At this point, I sat up straight, looked him in the eye, and said, “I think you’re ready to cross a bridge. Since it’s a beautiful day, we could go to the park and start with the wooden footbridge that crosses Chickamauga Creek.” Michael began to chew on his lip. “You don’t have to cross the whole thing today,” I continued. “But we could start and see how you’re feeling around it. I’ll even meet you there in my kickass boots, if you’d like.”

In a flash, Michael resumed the role of disdainful cool guy. Rolling his eyes, he said, “No, Miss Courtney, I don’t need you to hold my hand. I can do it all by my wittle self.”

Part of me wanted to slap the snarky smile off his face, but I was delighted that he was even considering this challenge. Realizing that he was motivated by the chance to prove me wrong, I winked at him and prodded, “I know you can do it, but I bet you won’t.”

“I bet I will!” he shot back. “In fact, I’ll do it right after I leave here.” Leaning forward, he added, “And I’ll take a picture on my phone to prove it to you, Miss Smarty Pants.”

Quick as a flash, I retorted, “I don’t believe it. I bet $50 you won’t do it!”

Oh, no. Had I just said that? I wondered. The challenge had popped out of my mouth before common sense could run interference. What kind of therapist makes a wager with a client, with actual money involved? But I’d thrown down the gauntlet, and it was too late to pick it up.

Michael raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “Are you serious?” He was laughing now. “If I do it, you’ll give me $50?”

Hiding behind what little pride I had left, I said, “Yes, sir, I will. But I don’t have to worry about it because you’re so stubborn. I know you won’t do it.”

Michael shook his fist at me and leapt from the sofa. “You’re on, lady! And I don’t need you to come along and babysit me. I’ll go do it right now and show you. I want my $50!” He pivoted toward the door and strode out.

Alone in my office, I took a shaky breath. My stomach churned with excitement and dread. I was thrilled that Michael was finally facing his fear, but a series of disastrous consequences flashed before my eyes. What if he gets over there and has a panic attack? Should I follow him and lurk behind a tree, to be on standby if he needs support? What if he does do it and I have to give him $50? Will he expect me to give him $50 every time he achieves a goal? Which one of my countertransference issues had triggered this incredibly dumb idea? Do I need to go back into therapy?

Just then, my phone vibrated. Michael had texted me a picture. He was standing tall on the other side of the bridge with his tongue sticking out. The caption read “Never make a bet with a crazy person.”

Phew! He’d done it. I breathed a sigh of relief and figured it was worth $50 if this experiment boosted my client’s confidence and helped us get on a new, productive track. Michael returned to the office 10 minutes later, grinning from ear to ear. Since we had a little time left in the session, I invited him in, reached into my purse, and handed him the cash. As he reached out to take it, his hands trembled and his face grew red. His lips quivered. Then he bowed his head and began to cry.

I placed my hand on his shoulder. “That was a big step, Michael,” I said. “You did great. You did it, man.”

He wiped his eyes and took a shaky breath. “Thank you,” he said in the softest tone I’d ever heard from him. “I can’t believe you got me all caught up in that. But I really did it. I can do this.”

Smiling, I said, “Yes, Michael, you absolutely can. We just had to find something more compelling than your fear to get you to take a risk.”

After this success, we continued to do experiments outside the office that got more and more interesting. No more wagers. But one time, he drove downtown with me to cross the narrow Market Street Bridge that towers 70 feet above the Tennessee River. At the stoplight before the bridge, I noticed that his hands were shaking as he gripped the steering wheel. “Are you okay?” I asked.

When he looked at me I realized that he was laughing, not panicking. With a noisy snort, he asked, “Have you seen who’s driving the car next to us?” I turned my head to see a grown man dressed as Smokey the Bear driving a yellow Volkswagen. We roared with laughter. In the throes of his giggle fit, Michael proceeded to drive across the bridge with ease. Elated by that triumph, he managed to drive across the bridge several times in the succeeding weeks. There was no Smokey to the rescue now, but Michael had tasted fearlessness, and something inside him had shifted.

In another experiment, we met at a Starbucks to help him overcome his fear of crowds. Before we entered, he looked pale. He paced up and down the sidewalk a few times, flicking his wrists in an effort to dispel his nervousness. When I offered to walk with him, he looked down at my shoes and smirked, “Nah. I see you’re wearing your kickass boots again. We better go on in.”

As we approached the counter, I did a double-take. The woman in line in front of us was wearing jeans that were two sizes too small and, without a trace of self-consciousness, exposing half of her rear end. I was so thrown off by the spectacle that I tripped over a chair and knocked over a whole container of straws on the counter. Once again, Michael doubled over with laughter. Later, he teased, “I suppose if you and that lady can go out in public without being embarrassed, I can too.” And after that, he did, visiting a grocery store, a shopping mall, and then Walmart—a store whose mega size even makes me anxious.

As Michael gained the courage to face his own fears, he mustered the nerve to enter a 12-step recovery program. He worked diligently in our sessions to heal the pain of growing up with a distant, alcoholic father, a major source of his anxiety and depression. He even invited his dad to a session to begin the process of repairing their relationship—another bridge he’d long feared to cross. Getting on speaking terms with his dad was vital to his healing. Recently, he wrote me to say that he was maintaining his sobriety, continuing to work things out with his father, and even playing in a rock-and-roll band on the weekends. Toward the end, he wrote, “You’ve got a strange way of doing therapy, but you saved my life.”

I treasured that appreciation, of course. I was thrilled and relieved to find out how well Michael was doing. As it turned out, the help was mutual. While I’d prodded my client to face his fears, he’d nudged me to face my own. Before meeting with Michael, I was timid about confronting tough clients, doing sessions outside the office, and taking therapeutic risks for fear I’d offend my client or make a mistake. How often do we hold back, believing that therapy can only happen in the confines of our office as we maintain a reserved, composed presence, squelching the feelings and impulses that well up inside us?

Mind you, making bets with clients hasn’t become one of my standard interventions! But Michael helped me realize that clients can benefit from seeing our raggedy humanness. They watch our willingness to take risks—or even make fools of ourselves—in the hope of moving forward, of supporting growth. We need to take care not to hurt our clients, of course. Yet often our own leaps of faith can empower them to muster the courage to try something different and keep going in the face of the unknown.

I had no idea that making that bet would open a gate for me, for Michael, and even for his father, but I’m glad I took the leap. I’m grateful that I crossed that bridge.

Courtney Armstrong, LPC, trains mental health professionals in creative techniques for healing trauma. This article was adapted from her book The Therapeutic “Aha!”: 10 Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck and Transforming Traumatic Grief, © 2015 by Courtney Armstrong. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Happy New Year?

By Ron Taffel

I don’t know why my parents are putting up such a fuss,” says Jenny. At 15, she regularly breaks her curfew, flirts with drugs, and is getting close to being suspended from her Manhattan public school. Today, she and her parents are in my office discussing the latest issue: New Year’s Eve is coming up, and Jenny and her posse have plans.

“So what exactly are these plans?” her mom, Mary Ann, wants to know.

Jenny shrugs. “You know, a party.” Tall with straight, auburn hair, Jenny dresses casually in jeans, a black sweater, and a knitted scarf hanging loosely around her neck. She’s down-to-earth, but is clearly in the cool crowd.

Mary Ann turns to me. “We can’t seem to get a straight answer out of her,” she says. “We need to know where she’s going, when, and with whom!”

Ever the good family therapist, I nudge them to talk about it with each other. “Get Mom and Dad to trust you about this, Jenny,” I say.

Mary Ann leans toward her daughter. “What time is this party supposed to start?”

A typically gifted teen litigator and obfuscator, Jenny responds, “Not so early, but it could be much later.”

At this, Jenny’s dad, Craig, practically shoots out of his chair. “Look, Jenny, we’re not stupid,” he says. “Just tell us what time!”

“Around midnight.” Jenny shrugs.

The parents’ eyes meet. “And when will it be over?” asks Craig, struggling to keep his voice even.

“It won’t be bad, Dad. Maybe four in the morning.” She flashes her most innocent smile. “Hey, guys, it’s New Year’s Eve.”

Mary Ann ignores this. “How many kids will be there?

“Oh, more than usual, but not as much as we’d like,” Jenny replies. “Maybe 300?”

Mary Ann and Craig look like two volcanoes about to erupt. “And where, exactly, is this harmless party supposed to be?” asks Mary Ann through gritted teeth.

Hitting new levels of obfuscation, Jenny says, “You know, between here and the bottom.”

“The bottom of what?” shouts Mary Ann.

Craig whips his head toward me. “What in the world is she talking about, Ron?”

Trying to set a therapeutic path amidst the confusion, I say, “Jenny, I think your parents would like you to be slightly clearer.”

Jenny asks, “Do you mean the avenue, or do you want an address?”

“The address, the address!” pleads Mary Ann.

“Sorry, guys. I really don’t know,” is Jenny’s calm reply.

The four of us keep volleying back and forth, with me trying to push the parents to show more authority, as my family therapy training had taught me to do, while her parents keep sputtering questions until Jenny finally blurts, “It’s somewhere near Times Square.”

Mary Ann spits out, “So who is doing the supervision? Hookers?”

“That’s lame, Mom,” Jenny says with a pitying half-smile

“That’s it,” says Mary Ann. “We’re calling up the other parents to find out more about this!”

For the first time, Jenny sits straight up. “Don’t you dare,” she says, her voice suddenly steely. “None of the other parents know.” She glares at each parent in turn. “I told you all this, and now you’re betraying me. If you do this, I’ll never confide in you again.”

Trying to disguise my disorientation behind a veneer of therapeutic aplomb, I say, “Let’s take a break for a few minutes. I’d like the three of you to go out into the waiting room, sit and breathe a little.” As they file out of my office, I reflect that I’ve heard this same “dialogue” between parents and teens hundreds of times before, whether about New Year’s Eve or prom or another big night. Clearly, Mary Ann and Craig need to “parent-up” and tell Jenny what’s what.

But this time, I feel a clutching in my chest. I flash on a recent incident in our own family in which my wife and I sat dumbfounded as one of our teens nearly convinced us that riding a ramshackle bicycle without reflectors in the middle of the night in New York City, from party to party, “would be a lot safer than risking the subway or a cab.” Only at the last moment did we come to our senses.

That memory sparks another one, of a 12-year-old client making a pitch to the effect that, according to the latest research, five hours a day of playing the violent video games Doom and Call of Duty would boost his brain development and—get this—his empathy. “Mom, listen,” he explained, “I have to anticipate other people’s moves, know what they’re feeling when I play these games online.” He stated this with such conviction that I caught myself seriously considering whether we should let our own kids start playing video games in order to give them a leg up in the socially and academically fierce world they live in.

Reflecting on the ubiquity of parental waffling, I become more determined to help Mary Ann and Craig establish credible authority. I call them in, asking Jenny to sit in the waiting room for a few more minutes. As soon as I begin my pitch for them to hold the parental line, Mary Ann begins to cry. “Ron, don’t even start with us,” she says. “What if she means it? What if she’ll never confide in me again?”

Craig joins in, “Jenny and I used to be close, but since she became a teenager I’ve felt awkward with her. I know she needs limits, but she hasn’t spoken to me about anything that matters in years. I’ve been benched, and I can’t stand it.”

In moments like these I feel the force of the culture flowing through me, shaping things in the consulting room at least as much as what’s going on clinically. On the one hand, of course these kids need limits. As happens every month, I’d recently heard about several teens and college kids who’d overdosed and been rushed to the emergency room; two of them had died. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the torture kids can suffer at the hands of their peer group when their parents step forward and “rat them out” about some planned hazardous activity. Some of these adolescents are ostracized for years, and sink into deep depression. Nearly every therapist knows a story of a vulnerable kid who’s so undone by the shunning that they end up hanging themselves in a closet or a bathroom, to be found by their horrified parents, siblings, or friends.

Even if an adolescent survives this, the parent–child relationship can take a serious hit. Sometimes, a daughter or son never forgives a parent for breaching their confidence. Again and again, I’ve seen how estrangement from one’s own teen or young adult can be one of the most agonizing experiences a parent can endure. I don’t want this family to rupture, yet I know that bad parental decisions can lead to horrific consequences. This is for real, and I feel paralyzed.

As Mary Ann and Craig stand up to leave at the end of the session, something takes hold of me and I say, “Honestly, as I think about what my wife and I would do in your situation to keep our own kids safe, I don’t know how we’d handle it. I really don’t know.”

During the next session, I learn that Mary Ann and Craig had come up with a rough-and-tumble, 21st-century solution to the New Year’s Eve conundrum. They’d actually let 15-year-old Jenny go to the loft party, but with a twist: Mary Ann had, in fact, called up Betsy, the mother of Jenny’s best friend, and had sworn her to secrecy. The three parents had hatched a plan in which Craig would accompany Jenny and her friend to the loft. He waited outside until their revised curfew of 1 a.m. When the girls emerged, he brought them to an after-party they’d organized with family, friends, and neighbors in their home.

A little wimpy maybe, but not bad, I thought. But just as I was about to launch into a lecture about the need to establish clearer family hierarchy, I remembered one of my own 21st-century solutions—a scenario my parents could never have imagined in a million years. Several times, my wife and I had actually gone with our son to indie rock concerts. There he’d stood with his friends, shrieking in the mosh pit way up front, while we silently sat up in the balcony and tried not to cause too much embarrassment. There I was in my sunglasses and hoodie (which hid my industrial-strength earplugs), trying in vain to blend in with the crowd.

Now, as I listen to this family’s recap of New Year’s Eve, I realize something I’d seen building for years—that a cultural sea change had taken place. The Millennial family lives in a new space, with parents struggling to find a balance between the need to exert authority and a profound desire for continuing attachment. Parents want safe limits for their teens and a seamlessly close, uncomplicated relationship with them. They want it all!

Regaining my curiosity, I ask Craig and Mary Ann, “What led you to this, umm, unusual solution?”

“Strangely,” Mary Ann replies, “it was when you admitted that you didn’t know the answer, that you couldn’t handle it any better with your kids. At that moment, you became a real person with us. And when you did that, we knew it was up to us to figure out our own way.”

My head spins. Not only has the culture changed, but these parents are telling me that in the therapy room, I need to do something different from what I’d been doing all these years. I’d prioritized clinical theory-making and skill-building, trying to translate my observations about child and family development into realistic strategies for parents. But this mother and father were telling me that they also needed my full, honest presence. Sometimes, they just needed me to be with them in their confusion and fear.

You never know where small changes will lead. Mary Ann’s leap of faith in calling Betsy led her to start a peer group for parents. Over time, and with my help, it grew into a community-wide partnership between home and school that aimed to create a container strong enough to hold kids more safely. I felt hopeful about this enterprise, glad I’d been able to support their effort.

But the moment I’ll always remember is a smaller one, which took place when Craig, Mary Ann, and Jenny met with me following the New Year’s Eve party. Right after the session, Craig took me aside and said, “Honestly, I thought it was crazy, that whole plan. But on the way back from the loft party, Jenny opened up to me, telling me details about the party and how she felt about stuff.” He fought back tears. “It was the first time I felt needed since she was 12 years old.”

When Craig said that, I felt a click of recognition. Both of us would do anything to keep our kids safe, and yet we’re desperate to maintain their trust. We want the limits and the indie rock concert, the boundaries and the Times Square party. What a hard, messy privilege it is to raise children in the 21st century, and we’re in it together, my parent-clients and I. The more I lead with this truth, the more I can be an effective therapist.

Ron Taffel, PhD, chair of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, is the author of eight professional and popular books and more than 100 articles on therapy and family life.

Keeping the Faith

By Mary Jo Barrett

They say you always remember your first.

It was 1978, and I’d just graduated from social work school. I saw myself as a kind of perky Jane Addams, brimming with altruistic energy. I’d just landed my first job as Illinois’s first in-home family therapist for child abuse and neglect cases. And my very first case was the Byford family.

The Byfords lived in what’s known as a Chicago bungalow, a narrow brick house with a low-pitched, overhanging roof. But the Byfords’ house wasn’t the neat and clean type with mowed grass and flower boxes under each window. When I walked on the dry, brown grass, dust blew up in my face. The windows were grimy. The place looked more like a bunker than a home.

When I first met the family, the father, Robert, was serving a six-month sentence for domestic abuse. He’d sexually abused his 16-year-old daughter, Laura, for many years. Yet when Laura opened the front door for me, she was warm and welcoming, with a cute bob of a haircut that I immediately envied. I was struck by her bubbly hospitality, given what she’d endured.

Laura stood in dramatic contrast to her mother, Reesa, who was still in pain from two broken ribs Robert had dealt her three weeks earlier, on the day he’d gone to jail. She was curled up in a barrel chair in the corner of the room, wearing a faded housedress over gray sweatpants.

Carl, age 14, was a playful kitten. Within the hour, he was teaching me the latest dance steps, cavorting across the floor in a yellow Grateful Dead T-shirt. He, too, had been beaten by his father. Later, in an individual session, Robert explained to me that he’d hit Carl “to beat the gayness out of him.”

Five months into my work with the Byfords, I walked up the front steps for a scheduled visit and heard loud voices and the sound of crashing glass. I pushed the door open and found Laura, Reesa, and Carl in the living room, shards of glass around their feet. I watched Laura pick up a drinking glass from the coffee table and hold it over her head like a quarterback, aiming straight for her mom. Reesa was huddled in her barrel chair, crying, “Please don’t hit me.” Carl was pacing back and forth like a caged cub, his hands over his ears, muttering, “Shut up, just shut up!”

When Laura heard me come into the room, she spun around to face me. “I hate you,” she shrieked. “I hate you all! You were supposed to take care of me!” She whirled to face her mother. “Dad is getting out of jail today! And he’s coming here!”

My mind went blank. I found myself falling backward into the couch I’d avoided for months because it smelled like cat piss and looked like it’d swallow me alive. Voices in my head taunted, You have no strength, no skills. You have absolutely no idea how to help these people.

A low, keening sound snapped me back to the present. Laura was crumpled on the floor. Carl was crouching next to her. “Mary Jo, help me,” Laura whimpered. “Help me.” I looked frantically around the room, unsure what I was looking for—maybe a way out. At that moment, my eyes fell on Reesa. We gazed at each other. It was as though I passed whatever strength I had to her, and she then passed it back to me.

“Reesa, I need your help,” I said. “I need you to help me help your children. What do you need from me?”

Reesa stood up, walked over to her children, and got down on her knees next to them. Gently, she began to stroke their hair and rub their backs as they cried. I’d never seen Reesa this way with her kids. She looked up at me and said, “Help me keep my children safe. I want to be a good mother. I need your help.”

Something had happened here. But I didn’t know exactly what.

I worked with the Byfords over the next four years. During that time, I witnessed enough of these shifts that I began to call them Byford moments, even when I’d experience them with other families.

About a year into my work with the Byfords, I walked into their home and found Reesa, Laura, and Carl sitting forlornly in the living room. They looked sunken, as though all the energy had been sucked from their bodies. Reesa looked at me dully. “Will we ever be normal, ever have fun like other families?” she asked. “We’re so sick,” added Laura.

“Well,” I said, playing for time, “what do you think fun is, and how could you have it?”

They thought for a while. Then Carl shrugged and said, “I think bowling would be fun.”

“Say no more,” I responded. “Excuse the pun, but that’s right up my alley.” A little-known fact about me is that in my youth, I wanted to be a professional bowler. My mother told me that this was impossible: Jewish girls do not become professional bowlers. But that didn’t mean that a Jewish social worker couldn’t take a client family bowling!

“If you guys can find a bowling alley and decide on a time,” I said, “I’ll meet you there.” Reesa organized the outing, and I met them at the alley the following week. Carl and Reesa were decent bowlers and Laura not so much, but she was a good sport. We even talked a bit about bowling as a metaphor for family—acting as a team, cheering each other on, and yet remaining individuals. I walked out of the lanes that night musing, I’m not sure what happened here, but I think they had fun.

Then, a few months after Robert had gotten out of prison, I visited him. It was our sixth session. When Robert had first been paroled, his supervision order forbade him to be within 300 yards of his family. So he bought a motor home and parked it on the street exactly 300 yards and one inch from the family bungalow.

On this particular day, I walked into the motor home and found Robert hunched in a kitchen chair. All the color was washed from his face. You should know that Robert, a six-foot, four-inch ex-cop, usually spoke in a dominating, scary voice. Now, he wouldn’t even look at me. “Robert, what’s wrong?” I asked. Silence. I took a deep breath and walked closer to him. “Tell me how I can help.”

I saw then that he’d been crying. He looked up at me. “Do you think I have what it takes to be a decent human being?” he asked.

I had asked myself that question many times while working with him. He was forever minimizing his abuse and rationalizing his behavior. Finally, I said, “Robert, I don’t know. I don’t know if you can. Tell me, what do you believe is a decent human being?”

He thought about it for a long time. “I think I’d have to get to know myself,” he finally said. “I’d have to understand why I hurt my wife and kids. I’d have to change into the kind of man I want to be.”

Together, we created a recipe that included the ingredients of a mensch. (I’d taught the family a little Yiddish.) Robert made it his goal to access the ingredients we chose—responsibility, caring, respect for others—and become a man he could be proud of.

At the next family session, which Robert was allowed to attend with everyone’s agreement, he apologized genuinely for his abusive behaviors. “I want to become a good father, husband, and man,” he said softly.

I asked Reesa, Laura, and Carl to think of times when Robert was the kind of person they’d want back in their family. Each made his or her own recipe card, not just for Robert, but for each of themselves. We sat around the kitchen table brainstorming the ingredients that were necessary to make and bake a happy, nonviolent person and family. Some of the ingredients they chose were:

  • 2 cups of God and going to church as a family
  • 4 tbsp. of no alcohol
  • ½ cup of good communication
  • 1 cup of safe boundaries

Other ingredients were honesty, humor, and fun. I structured sessions based on these recipes, and family members began to design their day-to-day lives around nourishing activities and interactions. We imagined together that we were actually making—baking—a different life.

To this day, I’ve stayed curious about what makes treatment effective for traumatized people, especially those who’ve endured interpersonal violence. I knew that something had happened in those Byford moments that helped clients move forward, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. So, two decades later, after I’d started my own therapy center, my staff and I began interviewing clients after they’d completed treatment. We asked them straight up, “What were the essential ingredients in your growth and healing?”

One day in 2002, 24 years after I’d last seen the Byfords, I found myself thinking of them, and an idea bubbled up. Maybe we could find them, wherever they were, and ask them what they thought. Thanks to the internet, three weeks later, the family was sitting in my office. When I paused for a moment outside my door, I heard loud voices and chairs shifting. Were they fighting? My heart sank.

I braced myself and walked in. On the loveseat sat Reesa, looking fit and vibrant in a turquoise yoga outfit. She and Robert were holding hands. On the couch sat Carl and his boyfriend, Brad. In the chairs next to Carl were Laura and her 11-year-old daughter, Shauna, who attended the school where Laura was a fifth-grade teacher. All of them looked relaxed and vital.

Laura jumped to her feet and wrapped me in a hug. Afterward, I hugged Reesa, Robert, and Carl and introduced myself to Brad. Then I fell into my chair. “Look at you!” I exclaimed. “Do you realize that 24 years ago, when we first began working together, I had no idea what I was doing?”

There was a pause, and then some giggling.

“It was kind of obvious,” Carl said, trying unsuccessfully to maintain a poker face.

After some catching up and progress reports, I asked, “Do you remember that day when Laura threw the glasses? The day Robert got out of jail and moved into the motor home?” The room became quiet. Turning to Reesa, I asked, “How do you remember that day? What did it mean to you?”

She paused a moment. “That was the first time anyone ever had faith in me,” she said. She took a breath. “That’s what it was. It was the first time someone else respected me enough to truly look at me and ask me what I needed.” Reesa gazed at me. “If you could ask me for help, I knew I could ask you for help. It was then that you and I became a team to help my family.”

And at that moment, I knew what I hadn’t known before: that all the families we’d been interviewing were telling us essentially the same thing. It wasn’t just the techniques and protocols we utilized to work with clients. After all, back in the day when I’d been working with the Byfords, I didn’t have models or techniques. I learned that even a therapist’s compassion, humor, and awareness aren’t enough, although those qualities are essential. What I learned in that meeting, 24 years after my first Byford moment, was that truly effective trauma treatment depends on my capacity to collaborate deeply with clients in discovering what they believe they need to heal. When you ask them, they know.

Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the executive director and founder of The Center for Contextual Change, and the creator of The Collaborative Change Model: A Meta Model for the Treatment of Complex Trauma. She’s coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change.

In the Valley of the Shadow

By Margie Nichols

In 2004, I lost my daughter. Jesse died four days before her 10th birthday, following months in the hospital and a series of medical catastrophes after brain surgery that ended with a condition called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. Jesse spent the last three weeks of her life in New York’s Cornell Burn Unit, in a chemically induced coma. It was a terrible way to die.

For the first couple of years after losing Jesse, I woke up every morning to the same horrific thought: I’m still alive? I’ve really got to drag myself through another day?

The answer was always yes. I had to stay alive. Above everything, I had to stay alive for my 20-year-old son, Cory, who’d been devastated by his little sister’s death and badly needed his mom. Suicide was out of the question. So I went into therapy instead.

Now I’m not the easiest person to find a therapy fit for—and not just because I am a therapist. I’m queer, but I’m also a Baby Boomer, lefty liberal, second-wave feminist, atheist, hippie peacenik. A likely fit might’ve been a feminist woman, or maybe a gay man. Instead, I was drawn to a colleague whom I’d first met as a couples-counseling trainer in a program I’d attended 15 years earlier. Bruce, the therapist I picked, was way at the other end of the Boomer continuum. He was an older, white, straight, Midwestern guy. An ex-Marine. An ex-seminarian. My guess was that he voted Republican.

Bruce was a tall man, thin, and kind of severe-looking. He had a calm, level, neutral way about him, and at times, with his pale skin, he could look almost ghostly. I’m not saying he was cold, because he wasn’t, but he didn’t do warm and fuzzy, either. He had a poker face and talked in a kind of deadpan way—quiet and measured. Considered. Slow.

It helped that I knew that Bruce was a recovering alcoholic and a Vietnam vet. I knew that, like me, he’d seen things people shouldn’t have to see, endured things people shouldn’t have to endure. I didn’t know a lot about him, but I knew he understood darkness.

Every week, once a week and sometimes more, I’d go to Bruce’s office and scream, rant, rave, and bang the sofa. I’d weep and wail for a really long time. Bruce always had tissues and a wastepaper basket out for me. Mostly, he just listened, intently and completely. He never moved to hug me or put a hand on my shoulder. This was a good thing, because at that time, any physical comfort would’ve short-circuited my grief. Sometimes, though, when I’d finished crying, I’d look up and see tears standing in his eyes.

Bruce never tried to cheer me up. I’d say, “I’m never gonna be happy again,” and he’d say in a neutral voice, “That could be true. It’s possible.” I’d say, “There’s a part of me that’s dead and will never come alive again,” and he’d respond in the same, matter-of-fact way, “Yeah that sounds about right. You’re not going to quite be alive in the same way ever again.” I’d say, “Life fucking sucks,” and he’d reply, only slightly ironically, “Yep, the Bible’s right. Life is a vale of tears.”

I’d rage a lot, too. About all kinds of things, large and small, but a special pet peeve of mine was the sentiment that everything happens for a reason. No one had the nerve to say that to me about Jesse, but I heard people say it a lot, about other stuff. You know the type, the people who insist that every storm cloud has a silver lining, the ones who say cheerily, “Oh, I know you lost your job three months ago, but I bet you’ll get one that’s even better. You see, everything happens for a reason.” Whenever I overheard that, I’d silently scream, You idiot. Everything happens for a reason? Really? You want to give me one good fucking reason why my daughter died?

In one session with Bruce, I said through gritted teeth, “The next person who says, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ I swear I’ll put my fingers around their neck and choke them to death.” I illustrated by putting my hands out in front of me and squeezing the life out of the imagined victim. “And you’ll have to bail me out of jail.” His response came slowly, but I could tell he meant it. “I’d not only bail you out of jail,” he said, “I’d defend you on the grounds of justifiable homicide.”

The most dramatic session I had with Bruce took place about eight months after Jesse died. My son, Cory, was more torn up by his sister’s death than I’d realized. He was away at college and, unbeknownst to me, became involved in some very self-destructive behaviors. One night, I got one of those terrible middle-of-the-night phone calls that every parent dreads. I won’t go into the details, but let me just say that for some period of time, I felt strongly that his life was in jeopardy, that I might lose both my children. One day, during the worst of it, I walked into Bruce’s office and calmly said, “If Cory dies, I’m going to check out myself.” I’d decided that I couldn’t endure the death of both my kids. “I’m going to buy a gun,” I told him, and then shared the rest of my detailed plan.

Now, it’s never fun for a therapist to sit face-to-face with a suicidal client. It’s our job to prevent suicide. So Bruce’s response was remarkable, one I’ll never forget. He didn’t call 911; he didn’t send me for a psychiatric evaluation; he didn’t try to talk me into checking myself into a hospital. He didn’t even make me sign one of those commitment-to-stay-alive contracts. All he said was “If that happens, and that’s what you decide, I’d absolutely understand why. I’ll feel sad, but I’ll in no way blame you.” Basically, Bruce gave me permission to commit suicide. To me, it meant that he was meeting me human-to-human, not shrink-to-patient. It meant he understood that perhaps there’s some pain in life that people shouldn’t be expected to bear. That empathy was precious to me. I had a place to go, week after week, year after year, as long as I needed, where I could sit down and say, “Yup, still feel like dying,” and this man would say to me, “Got it. Understood.”

It’s 12 years later. Cory is doing well. In fact, later this year he’ll receive a PhD in philosophy from Princeton. And sometime after Jesse died, I adopted two older girls, sisters who were growing up in desperate conditions in a Guatemalan orphanage. They’re my heart, and the three of us continue to heal each other every day.

It’s also true that a part of me is dead, and isn’t coming back. It’s true that my life will never be the same, or as happy, as it was when Jesse was alive. Once, I heard a parent say about the enduring effects of losing a child, “It’s like the backdrop of my life is painted blue.” That’s what it’s like for me. Still, these days the foreground of my life is pretty damn good. Sometimes, I can even say I’m happy.

In no small measure, I owe that to Bruce.

Margaret Nichols, PhD, has been a licensed psychologist and AASECT Certified sex therapy supervisor working in the LGBTQ community for 35 years. She founded the New Jersey Hyacinth AIDS Foundation and is the founder and president of the Institute for Personal Growth. Her recent publications include chapters in textbooks Principles and Practice of Sex Therapy and Systemic Sex Therapy. 

The Uninvited Guest

By Hedy Schleifer

Arriving at Claire and Martin’s home on a sunny winter morning, I walk up a wooden ramp to their front door. At my knock, the door flies open. “Welcome, come in!” cries Claire. She’s animated, vigilant. Martin sits behind her in a wheelchair, his face colorless, his gray eyes turned inward. “Hello,” he says, nodding briefly. It’s our first meeting of a two-day, intensive session.


This couple has been married for 27 years. For 20 of them, multiple sclerosis (MS) has been a constant presence. MS is a disease that eats away at the protective membrane of the brain, slowly shutting down muscle function and other bodily processes. You get around on a walking stick for a while, and then discover you need a walker. Soon, the walker can’t support you, and finally, you find yourself using a motorized wheelchair, as Martin had been for the past six years.

We enter a sunlit, comfortable living room with an aqua velveteen couch, two wing chairs, and an abstract painting covering most of one wall. Intuitively, I choose a corner for our work, one with a lamp shining brightly over a big, bushy plant. As we move the chairs into place and sit across from each other, I feel the tension in the air.

“Can we shut off this light?” snaps Claire. “I hate it.”

Almost imperceptibly, Martin’s face tightens. Then he turns to me. “When I got this dieffenbachia,” he says, looking at the plant, “it was just two straggly leaves. I’ve nursed it for two years into this beauty.”

Before I can respond, Claire says, “I wish I got the attention this plant’s been getting.” Martin looks away.

As we talk more, I find out that this disconnection has plagued them from the beginning, long before MS knocked at their door. Before getting married, they took a trip to France and Italy, and Claire suggested that they keep journals of their journey. One evening two years later, as they sat up in bed reading, she said, “How about we read our journals out loud? Just one entry, from the same day.” Martin agreed.

Claire flipped through her journal at random and found an entry from a day they spent in Rome. She read pages and pages of angst: Is he right for me? Will he talk? He hasn’t looked at me all day! Does he love me? Shall I marry him? Does he find me pretty?

Martin skimmed his pages until found the same date. He read: The Vatican. HUGE!

And here we have it: the woman riddled with angst, with many, many words; the man closed-off, monosyllabic. And then, as time passes and MS enters the room, the pattern intensifies. Her angst swells into frustration, bitterness. His silence twists into fear, hesitancy, numbness.

I begin my journey and I ask Claire and Martin the question I always pose: “What is your wildest dream for your relationship? Your deepest aspiration?”

“I dream of shared physical pleasure,” Martin begins after a brief silence. “When I could reach out and hug her, I didn’t even think about it,” he says, struggling to compose himself. “I took it all for granted.” Then he hangs his head and weeps.

When his sobs subside, I ask, “Would you be willing to go inside and find out more about your desire?” He nods. I guide him to close his eyes and visualize, in his innermost being, the pleasures of sexual intimacy. He breathes deeply, and after a moment, his face fully relaxes: “Yes, that would be so nice.” He looks radiant, open. I see that he’s a handsome man.

Suddenly, his eyes narrow. His hands tremble in his lap. I ask, “Who just showed up?” With a bit of guidance from me, Martin names this part of him: the Scared-Uptight-Silent-Boy. “Oh yeah, I know this boy,” he says. “He’s been there for a long time.”

I ask, “What would you like to tell him?” He’s silent for a moment then says, “I need to say to this scared boy, ‘It’s okay. You don’t need to get panicky.’” He breathes deeply, waiting for more. “And I need to say to myself, ‘It’s okay. You deserve this pleasure.’” He opens his eyes and sits up straighter in his chair. “Yes! What I dream about is to embrace the state of physical pleasure that I just experienced.” He grins boyishly. “I felt calm. I felt whole. I felt self-assured. Now, I feel open to all possibilities with Claire.” He steals a look at her. She’s gazing at him, listening, present.

I ask Martin, “What’s the image you have of this physical pleasure?” He blushes. I suggest, “Whisper it in Claire’s ear.” He does, his mouth grazing her lobe. She blushes, too. They chuckle, sharing some delicious, private moment.

Now it’s Claire’s turn to share her dream. But before she can speak, she’s hijacked. Her body goes stiff and her expression turns angry and sour. And I ask, “Who just showed up?”

“I know this sour-faced, angry lady,” says Claire. “I think I’ll call her . . . Matilda the Martyr.”

I say, “Tell us about her.”

Claire grimaces. “Matilda steps and fetches all the time, every hour of every day—never gets a break,” she says between clenched teeth. “She does everything, all by herself, and she’s goddam furious. And guilty. And sad. She’s . . . lost her life.”

As I listen to Claire, I see the constant, grinding work of the caregiver. I’ve read up on MS, so I know a little bit about what it entails. I see Claire using small flex balls to massage Martin’s hurting neck, dispensing multiple medications, making blender meals to aid swallowing, giving attention to the increasingly complex bowel movements.

And for me, a story begins to emerge. I share it with them: “Once upon a time, a passionate and vibrant young woman met a soulful young man. They laughed and shared secrets and made wonderful love. But unbeknownst to them, a seed of disconnection had already been planted in their relationship. Twenty-seven years later, with MS in the picture, this seed had grown and mutated into something painful. Their relationship doesn’t belong to them anymore. They get hijacked by Matilda the Martyr and the Scared-Uptight-Silent-Boy. The more Claire becomes hostage to Matilda, the more Martin gets commandeered by the Scared Boy, which further triggers Matilda, and so on. It’s become a dance of survival, and neither of you wants to continue it. That’s why the three of us are here today.”

Suddenly, Claire exclaims, “I know my dream! It’s for the MS to go away.”

I glance at Martin, fearful that he’ll shut down. Instead, he turns his wheelchair toward her and says, “Yes! He’s an uninvited guest, an intruder who won’t leave, no matter how much we try to push him out the door.” They look at each other with understanding, complicity. She grips the arms of her wing chair and drags it closer to him. Her hand reaches for his knee. Together, they begin to cry.

After a few minutes, I ask, “What’s happening for each of you?”

Slowly, Claire says, “I feel how we share this. Neither of us wants it. But it’s here. Here for both of us.”

Martin muses, “Maybe we can just be here together, being sad together.” He hesitates, and then plunges in. “Maybe we can show each other our helplessness.”

Then and there, they make a decision: they’ll use this corner of the living room, where the plant grew from two scraggly leaves to this flourishing bush, to spend time together, sharing their sadness. “With the lamp off,” Claire adds lightly.

On a personal level, I know that couples need this deep unity to welcome and honor the uninvited guests who show up in all of our lives. I know it in my bones. Twenty-one years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband, Yumi, held my hand in a way I didn’t even know a hand could be held. He named the event Rallying Round the Boob, and he called our circle of supporters the Boob Brigade. We had an international Boob Brigade. My husband and I cried sometimes, but we also laughed together, even in the midst of our fear and pain.

Years later, depression knocked at Yumi’s door. It was serious, this visitor. I decided to marry the fragile, agitated man he was, hovering at the edge of life and death. Several months later, when Yumi was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit, I crawled into bed with him. The nurse came in. “Who is the patient here?” she asked, her tone reproving. “I see two heads under the blanket.”

A teenager who was also a patient in the unit wondered aloud, “Did you guys just start dating, or what?”

But now it’s day two of my time with Claire and Martin, and we’re sitting in the late afternoon light. They’ve nearly completed their journey, during which I’ve witnessed many magical moments of connection.

Claire exclaims, “Today, the MS is gone! It’s the most exhilarating feeling. We laughed together over nothing, we cried together. For one whole day, the MS just walked out the door.”

Martin adds, “He’ll come back, no doubt. He’s pretty clueless—can’t take a hint. But the kind of connection we’ve experienced today is . . . well, it’s an act of transcendence.” His face, and even his body, looks confident, deeply alive.

Claire’s face has lost its tight lines; she’s radiant. “You’re my brave man,” she says tenderly.

He says, “You’re the one who brought me here.”

I don’t know whether to cheer or bow. I do both.

Hedy Schleifer, MA, LMHC, an internationally known couples therapist and clinical trainer, is the founder of the Tikkun Learning Center and the originator of Encounter-centered Couples Therapy (EcCT). 

The Found and the Lost

By Terry Real

When Ben first entered my office with his wife, Sylvie, the word that came to my mind to describe him, and I don’t mean this disrespectfully, was schlub. While Sylvie was svelte and stylish in black jeans and a cropped jacket, Ben was a mess. About six-foot-two and a good 60 pounds overweight, he wore baggy chinos that hung precariously on his hips. His shirt hung half out. His eyeglasses were held together with a paper clip. If they still sold plastic pocket protectors, Ben would be first in line.

And schlub, in its way, was the presenting problem. Sylvie was bored in her marriage. When they’d first met, she said, Ben had shown her a poet’s soul. “He poured out his heart to me, asked me a million questions,” she recalled. “He even wrote me love poems.” But those days were long gone. Nowadays, Ben would come home from work, pop open a beer, plop in front of the TV, and affably give . . . not much. Sure, he loved his three daughters and was particularly close to his youngest, Carrie, a 16-year-old, with whom he shot baskets and took long bike rides. But when it was time to set limits with their daughters, he was nowhere to be seen. Even he admitted that he was more of a playmate than a father. Sylvie spoke the words I’ve heard from women for 30 years: “I need a real partner.”

When I asked Ben what he thought and felt, he looked bewildered. “Well, I know she’s always mad at me,” he muttered, shifting his gaze from me to his wife like a kid in trouble with his parents. He went silent for a moment, and then shrugged, “Honestly, I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to do.”

By the end of the third session, I found myself agreeing with Sylvie’s point of view. (I’m not a neutral therapist; when called for, I take sides.) It’s not that she was a model spouse: she alternately lit into her husband about his failings and kept her distance from him. But he was an immovable force. He seemed like a guy who’d made it to his wedding vows and then had pretty much given up. He seemed to expect to be left alone, much the way his family had treated his distant father.

When I told Ben that Sylvie was largely right, that he’d let himself go in all sorts of ways, he nearly collapsed in shame. I had to prop him up emotionally, but he soon digested the difficult news, and together we embarked on an explicit makeover. He went on a diet, made an appointment with a personal trainer, and went to Newbury Street in Boston for a new hairdo, clothes, the works.

The name of the game was rendering Ben attractive again, in all sorts of ways, most of all emotionally. He needed to come out of his shell of passivity and engage.

When Ben complained that it was too complicated for him, I held the line. “You have to give, Ben. You’ve got to make an effort.” I handed him a dog-eared copy of a book I kept in my office, 50 Romantic Things to Do for Your Wife. A week later, in an individual session, he told me he’d conspired with Carrie to choose the perfect romantic gesture—until she’d gotten fed up with his waffling. “Just buy Mom some damn flowers,” she’d said.

To her credit, Sylvie didn’t disqualify or criticize Ben’s nascent efforts at getting close. She loved him, had three kids with him. She wanted him to succeed. Besides, Sylvie came from Old Yankee stock and she had the best characteristics of her tribe—she was a person good to the bone. Driving Carrie home from a friend’s house, it was Sylvie’s goodness that compelled her out of her car one snowy New England night to help another car that had skidded on an icy curve and got stuck on the shoulder of the road, caught in a snowbank. That’s when a second car skidded in exactly the same spot, careening into the first car, and then careening into Sylvie and Carrie. Sylvie had multiple fractures in an arm and both of her legs. Carrie died within minutes.

When Ben called me the next morning, he was weeping, grief-stricken for the loss of his daughter. But he was also worried sick about Sylvie. She was in the hospital on a high dose of morphine, and “between the drugs and the shock, she’s pretty much out of her mind,” he said. “She keeps waking up and asking for Carrie: ‘Where is she? Where is she?’”

And no matter how many times Ben tried to tell her, and no matter how he put it, she would not let in that her daughter was gone. “She turns her head, changes the subject, acts like I haven’t even spoken,” Ben said. “You’ve got to help,” he said urgently. “She’ll listen to you. She always listens to you.”

When I walked into Sylvie’s hospital room, the profusion of flowers and gifts had the opposite effect of cheering me. It looked like a funeral home. While I’d tried to prepare myself, the sight of her was shocking—tubes everywhere, both legs and one arm in traction, her face swollen almost beyond recognition. I sat next to Ben and took her good hand. “Sylvie,” I said, “Something terrible has happened.” She closed her eyes. We went round and round for 5 minutes, 10 minutes. I felt cruel, sadistic.

At one point, Sylvie looked at me, really looked at me. Her eyes grew wide. Then she swung her head away from us and sobbed, letting out raw, heart-wrenching sounds.

After many minutes, she turned to Ben. “Go home and get Carrie’s old fisherman’s sweater.” Her voice was trembling, urgent. “It’s in her bottom drawer.” Then she turned to me. “You’ve got to make sure she gets it,” she told me. “She’ll need it. She’s cold. She’s dead.”

Carrie was buried in that sweater three days later. It seemed like half the town had come out. Friends and family squeezed into every church pew, a sea of kids spilling out the steps and into the street. I sat close to the family—Sylvie propped up in a portable hospital bed, Ben standing next to her, holding her hand, straight and stiff in his handsome new suit.

Over the next several months, I went to their home as often as I could. About three months into it, Ben pulled me aside and confessed that since the accident—and unbeknownst to Sylvie—he’d been keeping a blog. He’d been pouring his anguish out into the internet, garnering thousands of followers from all over the world. I read the posts; they were shattering. Later on, I asked his permission to excerpt an early entry, entitled “Holding My Breath.”

People ask me if I miss her. Actually I don’t, not yet anyway. Maybe I’m in shock or some kind of denial, but I actually feel close to her. I feel her in the air, the sky. She’s with me now as I write. What I miss isn’t her, but us, the two of us together. The back and forth, teasing—what she called, “talking smack.”

Everything froze the minute they told me. My heart stopped, my world stopped. Since then, I’ve hovered somewhere between here and god knows where. I’m the ghost. I don’t think I’ve taken a full breath since. I don’t really want to. If the whole thing started up again—if I begin to live again—it would mean that the world will go on without her, and that’s just not thinkable. I can’t imagine accepting that. There can be no world without her in it, laughing and alive.

Ben told me he was keeping his blog secret from Sylvie because he was afraid it would hurt her too much. But shortly after our meeting, a friend spilled the beans to her. She went right to her laptop and read every entry. “It was amazing,” she told me at our next visit. “Here was my poet’s heart—the man I loved. I fell for him all over again.” She took his hand. “It’s not just the blog,” she explained. “It’s Ben. The way he’s showing up for his own feelings. And the way he’s showing up for mine.”

Ben squeezed his wife’s hand. “We’re holding each other up, best we can,” he said. He was looking at her, not me. “We’re in this together.”

About six months after the accident, we sat together, each of us locked into what felt a heavy, interminable silence. Three people breathing, each of us thinking what Sylvie finally spoke out loud. “I lost my daughter,” she said, “and found my husband.”

You hear that the greatest single predictor of divorce is the death of a child. You hear that no force on earth is more capable of ripping apart a loving union.

But not always.

Terry Real, LICSW, is the author of the bestseller I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression and has been featured on numerous national news programs. He’s been in private practice for 30 years and is the founder of The Relational Life Institute, where he teaches therapist trainings and workshops for couples. 


Photo © WestEnd61/Getty Images

Marian Sandmaier

Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at