A Q&A with Author/Therapist Lisa Ferentz
Valentine's Day is approaching, and if you're in a rocky relationship or alone or even happily wed, we have a gift as good--or almost--as candy, wine or a piece of blingy jewelry--being kind and loving toward you! Here's more advice and compassion from therapist and author of Finding Your Ruby Slippers (Pesi Publishing) by Lisa Ferentz.
Question: Why the title for your book?
Answer: In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gives the Wizard all the power by believing that only he can tell her how to get back home. Of course in the end, she discovers that he actually has no power and no answers. But then Glinda, the good witch, appears and encourages Dorothy to look down at her feet: she’s been wearing the ruby slippers all along! In the same way that Dorothy discovers she has always possessed the answers, I wrote the book to provide words of encouragement and inspiration, and journal prompts for greater self-awareness and insight, so you can take a personal journey to access and reconnect with your own inner wisdom. Because it’s been there, all along!
Q: How did you learn so much about relationship happiness? Was it personal and/or professional?
A: I had the great blessing of being raised by loving parents and I’ve always been close to my siblings. So many of my childhood memories with extended family are happy ones. It taught me that relationships can and should be safe, supportive, nurturing, joyful, and loving. I’ve been with my wonderful husband for 38 years and we have a great deal of joy in our marriage. We have three amazing adult sons who are and always have been a constant source of laughter and happiness. As a therapist, I have certainly witnessed the pain that is caused by unhappy, unfulfilling, or toxic relationships. Everyone has the right to feel safe and loved and to find the courage to leave relationships that don't meet their needs.
Q: Let's start with understanding the differences of what went on before versus now. How can that mess up a relationship?
A: I’ve worked with many women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who have stayed in marriages and relationships that were not meeting their needs. When they were honest and examined what kept them from leaving, the answers were remarkably similar. They were holding on to memories from the past; thinking about the earliest stages of courtship when everyone is on their best behavior, conflict is avoided, and lots of accommodations are made to “win over’ the other person. It takes courage to face the truth about the current state of your relationship because that’s what’s affecting you now. Is it still meeting your needs? Are you hoping it will somehow go back to being like it was before? Living in the past creates frustration and resentment and wastes precious time.
Q: How do we ask for help? Do we suggest going for help together? Go individually?
A: It’s always a good idea to be honest with your partner if you’re unhappy and believe the relationship would benefit from professional guidance and support. Couple counseling is a good way to work on issues related to communication, intimacy, finances, parenting, and mutual goals. Unfortunately, couples don't always agree about the quality of the relationship. The person who is “fine” with the relationship may be unwilling to seek help, claiming that the problems belong to the other person. If your partner is unwilling or not yet ready to participate then individual therapy is a good option. It’s a place to explore what you want from the relationship, and more importantly, an opportunity to identify personal goals, increase self-esteem, positive self-talk, and inner happiness. Ultimately, those things have to come from you.
Q: How do we choose a good impartial therapist as a couple?
A: The operative word is “impartial” or neutral. I think it works best when the therapist does not already have an established relationship with one of the two people. It's hard to not be aligned with a person you’ve already been working with so I encourage couples to seek out a new therapist together. They both have to feel equally safe, heard, supported, and understood. A good couple’s counselor shouldn't communicate any agenda regarding the future state of the relationship. Rather, they should help the couple explore and decide what is best for them.
Q: What are realistic v. nonrealistic changes to expect? And how do you make them and still stay true to yourself?
A: What’s most unrealistic is to expect that you will be able to change your partner! People are capable of tremendous growth and change, but only when they choose to do so and when there’s personally compelling motivation. This means it’s not about changing for someone else just to please them. Those kinds of changes typically don't get sustained. If your partner wants you to change a certain behavior because it negatively affects them, you still have to believe that you will personally benefit from that change as well. When the change improves your well-being as well as your partner’s then you will be staying true to yourself.
Q: Do you ever tell a couple at some point the relationship can’t be salvaged? Under what circumstances?
A: This becomes an appropriate intervention when the relationship is dysfunctional, toxic, or abusive and one person is being victimized and the other is a perpetrator who is unwilling to get help or change. Relationships can create intense damage and pain emotionally, physically, psychologically, financially, and mentally when they are toxic. No one deserves to be harmed in those ways and should be encouraged to leave before further damage is done.
Q: When a relationship ends, what is the best way to heal? Avoid dating immediately?
A: It’s a great idea to take some time to be on your own after a relationship ends. When you give yourself that space a lot can get accomplished. Reflect on what worked and what didn't, and what you can do differently next time to increase the likelihood of getting your needs met. Revisit your checklist of what you want in a partner. When you can learn and grow from a relationship that ends there are no regrets. Then take the time to experience and enjoy being on your own. Reconnect with a hobby or a personal goal you might have put to the side because you were caught up in the relationship or giving in to someone else’s dreams.
Q: Is relationship advice different at different ages and stages?
A: The core ideas of being treated with love and respect, having open communication and shared goals, and experiencing satisfying emotional as well as sexual intimacy apply to any age. But different stages in life typically yield different needs and desires so it’s most important to be honest with yourself and your partner about where you are in life and the kind of partner who could best compliment those needs.
Q: How do we stay or live in the present? Why is this so key to our happiness?
A: Living in the present has a lot to do with pausing, taking a breath, and noticing. Increasing your awareness about what you’re thinking, feeling, needing, and wanting. Taking in your surroundings and noticing how it feels when you’re in the company of others. It often means powering down and temporarily letting go of the digital technology that can cause you to “zone out.” When you do this it enables you to take realistic stock of your current state of happiness. It also can increase a sense of gratitude; when you notice the people and things in your life you typically can appreciate them more. And gratitude increases happiness!
Q: A list of coping strategies to help us love ourselves on Valentine’s Day and beyond.
A: Whether you are in a relationship or not, Valentine’s Day can be an opportunity to be your own best valentine! You know the things that bring you pleasure or joy. You’re wearing the ruby slippers and no one else has them! You can treat yourself with kindness, engage in positive and encouraging self-talk instead of shaming criticism. Focus on your blessings and document what you’re grateful for in your life and in regards to your own attributes and strengths. If you find that very challenging consider giving yourself the gift of therapy to get the compassionate support that can help you increase a sense of self-worth. Or do the journaling prompts in a self-help book to start your healing journey. Buy yourself a bouquet of your favorite flowers or your favorite box of chocolate. Write a loving card to yourself and mail it! Make your favorite dinner, light a candle, put on some great music and dance around the room. Celebrate you!
Lisa Ferentz is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who has been in private practice for over 30 years. She is the founder of The Ferentz Institute. An internationally known author, speaker, clinician and consultant, Ferentz participates in documentaries, webinars and podcasts related to trauma, self-care and wellbeing. She is also the author of Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing.