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Frequently Asked Questions

This page is intentionally more conversational in tone because I am aware that anyone reading the FAQs is generally serious about kickstarting the process and is genuinely looking for real answers. I’ve been asked these questions many times, so I know that some of these answers are really important to you too.

How do I know it will work? Can your relationship intensives really fix us? Can you get us back to the relationship I deserve and desire?

This is your most important question. I understand that you’re looking for reassurance and that’s exactly what I’d be looking for too. Whilst I can’t guarantee you results, I can offer you one of the best chances you’re going to find in Australia for saving your marriage. If you’ve looked at my biography, then you know that I’ve devoted the last 20+ years to mastering marriage therapy. The good news is that you don’t need to take my word for it and can simply read through my success stories page to ease your mind. If you’ve already seen this page, I ask you to trust that those stories and testimonials are true.

What makes your approach so effective?

There’s a dirty little secret within the world of therapy and coaching. That secret is that most therapists have no formal training in how to work with couples – especially ‘difficult’ ones. 90% of my work is with those couples that find themselves on the edge of disaster. Let me tell you the questions that you should be asking a potential therapist and why they are important:

Can you describe your background and training in relationship therapy?

The reason that this is such an important question is that so many people who are qualified in individual therapy assume that working with couples is the same as working with two singles. This is a serious mistake. Individual therapy is based on Individual Empowerment. When they get you feeling ‘empowered’, you’ll be saying things like ‘I was weak and now I’m strong, screw you! I’m leaving!’. By using this approach, a therapist will generally applaud your decision to leave, especially if you are female. This is an absolute disaster for you and your relationship.

The very best couples coaching is based on ‘relational empowerment’ or ‘family therapy.’ It’s also evidence-based. Pretty quickly, you’ll find yourself moving to a position of ‘I was weak and now I’m strong. I’m going to stand toe-to-toe with you until I get what I want in this relationship.’ I can teach you how to rock the boat without sinking the marriage. A therapist trained in relational empowerment will assist you to get to whatever point you want in any relationship you are in.

Couples therapy is challenging and, realistically, takes decades to master. It’s been compared to flying helicopters through hurricanes. My colleague Bob is fond of saying ‘if you’re doing anything other than working with couples, then you are a dilettante.’ (What Bob means by this is that anyone who is not wholly committed to couples’ work is dabbling). I do about thirty hours of couples therapy every week and I’m still getting better twenty years in.

An easy clue to pick up on is the length of the appointments you are being offered. If your therapist suggests a one-hour appointment, it’s because they are trying to fit occasional couples into a practice that generally focuses on individuals. Good luck with that and let me know how the process goes – I’ve heard that it’s really enjoyable rehashing a fight and then needing to leave (not).

What is your attitude toward salvaging a troubled marriage versus helping couples break up?

My starting point is this; if you got married in the first place, there was generally a really good reason for it. You had a beautiful dream together and you’ve lost sight of that dream. It’s deeply painful that your soulmate has turned into a cellmate. It’s my job to keep this in mind whilst working on reconnecting you both.

If you have children, it is my firm belief that any ‘divorce’ you think you’ll experience is largely mythical and is going to be hugely expensive on every level. Your partner is going to be in your life forever. Even when the kids are all grown up, there will be grandchildren to consider. If you think your spouse is hard to negotiate with now, you’ll be horrified to see how inflexible they become post-separation.

The smart move is to figure out how you got stuck in so much pain and to get the both of you reconnecting. This is what I do, even if you’re not sure that it’s what you want right now. This is my bread and butter and I ask you to trust the process.

What is your approach when one partner is seriously considering ending the marriage and the other wants to save it?

This is one of the reasons that you are given the option of attending an assessment before signing up for ongoing sessions. Remember, I only work with the serious couples with serious problems. In most of those cases, one partner is totally convinced they are done. That’s where the conversation starts. I do not need both parties to be invested in the marriage to have this process work. I just need both parties to commit to staying in the room long enough to show you where you’ve disconnected and then reconnect you.

The only real exception to this is where someone is experience abuse in a way that is damaging. If you’re facing abuse, it needs to stop right now. I don’t wish to alarm you, but you’d be wise to research coercive control because physical abuse most certainly isn’t the only clue that you could be in danger.

What makes Relational Empowerment Therapy different?

Let’s hear from my key mentor and teacher, Terry Real. Terry is the founder of the Relational Life Institute and he has grown to be one of the biggest names in marriage therapy across the world. This is an excerpt from an article in the New York Times.

Part of the problem is that the kind of person who tends to become a therapist — empathic, sensitive, calm, accepting — is generally not the kind of person who is a good couples therapist. “The traditional, passive uh-huh, uh-huh is useless,” Mr. Real says. “You have to like action. To manage marital combat, a therapist needs to get in there, mix it up with the client, be a ninja. This is intimidating.”

TERRY REAL, Family Therapist Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

‘A therapist needs to get in there, mix it up with the client, be a ninja. This is intimidating!

TERRY REAL, Family Therapist Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

It is essential that you understand this point. Most therapists are trained to know that taking sides is a big no, however I am trained to take a hard line on damaging behaviour. Great couples therapy is much more aligned with the coaching approach. Terry’s approach is science backed and based on 40 years of clinical experience. I will address all the hard issues you may be having a difficult time dealing with. This won’t always be comfortable, but a place of comfort is rarely where the magic happens.

When I talk about hard issues, I’m considering things such as living with an untreated depressive, a rager, someone with an untreated addiction, narcissism or ADHD. Or perhaps there’s been an affair or affairs, verbal or physical abuse or episodes of lying. These issues require a solid, science backed approach with someone who is willing to go out on a limb with you. We all know the difference between good and bad behaviour. If these issues are causing your relationship to fail, I will take a stand with you and we will sort it out together. I will pursue the goal of getting you both reconnected and enjoying a relationship that works for both of you. We will achieve this goal as quickly as possible.

Another significant difference is that a relational empowerment therapist does not expect you to know how to change. Instead, we will tell you exactly what needs to happen, why it needs to happen and how to get it done. After all, you didn’t learn how to drive a car by having someone listen to your feelings about the process.

Can I come to the session on my own?

Of course. But here’s the deal – I’m going to spend that session strategising with you about how you’re going to get your partner to attend the next session. There is an argument to be made for the whole ‘I change me, I change we!’ approach, but it is much faster and more effective when I have both of you in the room together. I offer limited coaching for individuals in relationships and this is always done with a view to getting your partner into the room.

How many sessions will be required?

No one gets through the process in under five sessions and most people complete around seven in total. If you complete a day long intensive with me, that will be equal to three sessions. In saying that, if you’re attending the day-long intensive, you’re generally in crisis so it’s hard to know how many you will need in total.

Your first two hours with me is always going to be an assessment. You will tell me all about what’s going wrong and I will tell you exactly what needs to happen to correct it. Once we meet, you’ll understand that I have a solid strategy to move you towards success as soon as possible.

Can I get after-hours appointments?

I have excellent news for you. Whilst I won’t work late into the evenings, I am available for weekend appointments.

Where is your practice?

My practice is based in St Ives on Sydney’s North Shore. There’s plenty of parking to be found in the area. I don’t think you’ll find a nicer place to work on your relationship. In the breaks, you can head out to a cafe or even take a walk to the nature reserve to shift your perspective.

We’ve tried therapy before and it didn’t work.

As I explained earlier, not all couple therapies or therapists are created equal. Hopefully you now have an understanding of why therapy didn’t work so well for you last time. It is not uncommon for a couple to tell me that they gained more understanding of their issues in two hours with me than they gained over months with someone else. At its most simplistic, you need new skills and these skills need to be taught in a way that makes them easy and attractive for you both to implement.

Do you treat issues around infidelity?

Yes, I frequently work with issues of infidelity. Whether there are issues of trust or if there have been physical or emotional affairs, it is never too late to seek therapy. I have a page devoted to this specifically – take a look here. 40% of couples survive these issues without any professional help, however there is a huge difference between surviving and thriving.

One quick, life-changing tip that I can provide around infidelity is that no matter how much outrage you are experiencing right now, it is ALWAYS counter-productive to expose your partner’s wrongdoing to anyone but an incredibly select few (I mean people like therapists or a very trustworthy friend). No matter how much you want to blow up their social media profile, don’t do it. Do not call their parents. If you do, it’s going to be a much longer road to recovery. On balance, women tend to do a much better job of containing their hurt, so if you need to send this paragraph to your husband, please do so.

Do you see same sex couples?

Of course. I work with couples of all genders and sexual orientation.

Do you help couples with sexual difficulties?

Yes, I do. You’ll see I have a whole page on this topic under what I offer. In my experience, there are a multitude of reasons for your ‘love’ life getting off track. For many couples, the fact that their erotically charged adventures have disappeared serves as a really good indicator that they’ve disconnected.

Another deeply confusing phenomenon is when you are still totally in love with each other and are intimate, and yet there is a lack of any real sexual desire. Briefly put, intimacy is not always such a great bedfellow of desire. I can help you to rebuild the mystery and desire that you used to have. Do not allow the fact that people will tell you it’s ‘normal’ to fall out of lust mean that it’s gone for good. Read more here.

Anything else I need to know about what you offer?

Thanks for asking! This may be more information than you require, but it keeps things clear. When people are referred to me for help, the person that loves my work will generally say ‘Go work with Michael, he’ll tell you the truth!’.

I believe that if one of you is so relationally ‘off’ that I’d be joking about it with my supervisor, then I owe it to you to tell you this. I really don’t understand why anyone would want anything different from me. If I was teaching you how to ride a horse and I knew that hopping on a particular horse was going to get you killed, why wouldn’t I tell you? If you were learning how to fly a plane, it wouldn’t be overly helpful for me to ask you how you were feeling as you crashed the plane into the side of the mountain. So, if I can see what it is that’s killing your marriage, I assume you’re paying me to tell you.

I’m able to hold a therapeutic space for you both while we explore more sensitive vulnerabilities. However, there will be times when what you are doing is dangerous to the relationship and it’s my job to coach that out of you.

I am respectful, compassionate and care deeply about getting you back on track. More importantly, I’m committed to you creating a better environment for any children involved. I have firsthand understanding of the damage caused by poor relationships and the resulting shitty parenting. Occasionally, we may end up in a challenging conversation that may feel quite uncomfortable for one of you. You are free to call a time-out anytime you wish and you are free to ask me to rephrase anything you like. I believe the work that I do is high stakes, therefore the reconnection of your relationship matters to me more than your comfort.