Written By Lisa Breslin, Photos by: Walter Calahan
Family therapist Judy Burch, who has more than 30 years of experience helping families, couples and individuals, answers questions about relationships and intimacy. Burch trained in Strategic Family Therapy with Jay Haley and Cloe Madanes for three years and then worked at their Family Therapy Institute of Washington, D.C.
Burch also worked with Dr. Deepak Chopra, Founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, and she often returns to the center to learn more about the meditation principles she incorporates into her therapy. Burch, who has a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in nursing from University of Maryland, counsels couples at her office in Owings Mills, and she estimates that a quarter of her clients are from Carroll County.
What are some of the common challenges that couples face?
Under time, financial and sometimes parenting constraints, it is hard for couples to be intimate as well as connected. They often do not understand what intimacy is. He takes his phone to bed with him; she takes hers with her. And yet they all want intimacy. But most people are frightened by intimacy. Think about intimacy this way: “Into me, I see. And when I can see me, I open enough to see you. I can be vulnerable.”
How do you help couples connect?
Good sex starts at the breakfast table in the morning. Most of the time, I have to help couples structure their time so that it includes significant time to relax. I ask couples to turn off all technology for two hours each night. Otherwise, they have no time to feel. They develop a cold war; they get so distant.
During a session, I ask them to take 30 minutes – 15 minutes for the male; 15 minutes for the female to talk about their feelings. There are 72 feelings; we tend to only mention five. He talks first and he has to open each sentence with “I feelÉ” They must also include positive feelings with the negatives. While one is talking, the other cannot ask questions. Each has to just pay attention. The exercise really helps couples listen; it also helps them reframe, if not get rid of, negative attitudes.
What are some characteristics of couples with healthy relationships?
There is a level of respect. There is also a certain kind of attention that they give each other. I once saw a marquee in front of a church that said, “The definition of a good marriage is two people who are givers.” And the giving part is something you see in healthy couples.
What are signs that a relationship is suffering?
The couples do not bother to hug or touch much. They often stop doing things with friends; they isolate. They each get on a computer or individual tech device in the house. Essentially. they just stop paying attention to each other.
You mentioned that technology can be toxic to relationships. What are other wedges that couples should avoid?
Too much alcohol, drugs, especially pot – these are huge hindrances. Pornography poses problems. And, of course, affairs.
Can relationships recover after an affair?
The rage of betrayal takes on a life of its own, but yes. Couples can and do recover. There has to be full disclosure and a lot of forgiveness. If someone has had more than one affair and can disclose them, the likelihood of repeat declines. I usually ask the person who has had an affair to write everything out and then meet with me first. Then I have a session with the husband and the wife. Each of them brings a support person who waits for them and then takes them out, or home. It is tough to have that kind of honesty; but when you get it, it is wonderful. Life together is better than it had ever been.
Can you talk a little about the role of forgiveness in relationships?
A lot of people need help forgiving or healing. They first have to deal with anger and rage. Holding on to hurt or anger is like drinking cyanide and expecting the other person to die. Forgiveness is not an event; it is a process. There is a book called Forgiving the Unforgivable. I ask couples to read it. Forgiving is not excusing someone and it does not mean that you will ever forget.
Once the intimacy between two people wanes, or flatlines completely, what do you recommend?
This is very common. After all my years in practice, I am just now seeing guys in their 40s 50s and 60s having erectile issues. They might take Viagra without telling their partners, but those pills won’t work if it is a hostile or unhealthy relationship. I encourage body exploration. I ask couples to take two hours one afternoon to touch each other. I want them to find arousal points without touching breasts or genitals. They often don’t want to do it at first because it’s done without clothing. But they do it, and it is successful because it leads to trust. This time together is a way of saying “I trust that you will be easy or gentle. I can let you this close.”
What advice do you have for couples who have healthy relationships and want to ensure that their relationships remain that way?
Therapy still helps. Couples should think of counseling the way they think of having a physical. Many people that I see come in for a mental health check. And, certainly, if a couple is stuck. If the same topic is a source of stress many times, they should go to a counselor. It really helps when I can see them before their problems intensify.