Helping Therapy Clients in Difficult Relationships Find Peace


I’ll be teaching a 2 hour webinar for therapists at 9 am, Eastern Time next Friday, 1/17/2020, on Two continuing ed hours will be provided by GoodTherapy for attending this web conference in its entirety. If you cannot participate live, you’ll be able to view it from the Goodtherapy archives.

Every client who comes to therapy is likely to have hurt or been hurt by their loved ones. This is understandable for people who are seeking marriage counseling and trauma recovery, but it is likely also the case when the presenting problem is addiction or any other mental health condition. The focus of treatment should not necessarily be on the harm caused or suffered, but relationships may need to be mended before recovery can be solid.

A break in a relationship can bring up many difficult questions for both the clinician and the client. Was the harm momentous, or was it much ado over nothing? Can a perpetrator’s complaints be taken seriously or are they simply justifying their actions? Are the victim and perpetrator in denial? Is the victim playing the victim? Is the victim forgiving too easily or making restitution impossible? Is the perpetrator staying in the relationship out of codependency or authentic love? How can things be made right? Is it okay to confess a betrayal to someone ignorant of it? How can the client effectively demand an apology? How do you make an apology stick? What can be done when reconciliation is impossible? What does peace look like?

In this 2-hour continuing education web conference, I will discuss how to answer these questions and more. I will describe a process of healing and potential forgiveness for anyone in a relationship affected by selfishness, violence, abuse, addiction, or betrayal; whether they are the victim, the perpetrator, or both. I will explain how to assess the damage done and recognize codependency and vindictiveness, blocking the way from injury to peace. I will give pragmatic advice on how to help clients find safety, assert needs, apologize, make amends, and promote change.

It’ll be all based on my book, The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad

Natural Variations

Take any two people and there will always be a natural variation between them regarding any characteristic.

There will always be one who is more strict with the kids, open to in-laws, careful with money, adventurous in bed, ambitious about career, social, self-confident, flirty, interested in a clean house, closer to family, better at math, permissive, more sharing of feelings, horny, generous to others, and on, and on, and on. Continue reading

How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again

Apo Book Cover 4If you’re in the doghouse and would like to get out, today is your lucky day. I just published a new book that can show you how: How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again.

This is the third in a series, all designed to help you have more satisfying, and less damaging relationships with the people you love. The first was Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments, followed by The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad.

This one is different in that, when you complete it, you will become the co-author of your own, personalized book. It’s a workbook, in other words. I lead you through exercises that will prepare you to make an effective apology and transform yourself into the person who never commits that misdeed again. Reading this book is a lot of work, but if you’re the type of person who repeats his transgressions, even though you want to change, then it’s worth it. Today is, indeed, your lucky day.

How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again is available only in ebook at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Have You Been Groomed?

The Road to Reconciliation

It’s bad enough to contemplate that someone who should have loved you, hurt you instead; but if you want to prevent it from happening again, there’s something even worse to think about. He might have groomed you to be a victim.

By groomed, I mean the process that an offender uses to prepare you to accept something you would not otherwise accept. It’s usually used to describe the way pedophiles befriend a child, and sometimes the family, with the objective of sexual abuse; but here I’m using it in reference to the groundwork laid to commit any offense.

This is how offenders groom a victim:

  1. First, you’re targeted
    If you’re emotionally needy, isolated, or have low self-esteem, this makes you easy pickings. Offenders like to select desperate people to be their victims.
  2. Then the offender gains trust
    The offender establishes herself to you and others who would protect you as someone who is safe and reliable. As you allow the offender to get close, she acquires information about you she can exploit.
  3. The offender fills a need
    Once the offender detects a need, he positions himself as someone who can fill it. He cultivates your dependency.
  4. The offender isolates you from others
    The offender cuts you off from others who might protect you. She forges a connection like no other. You start to think you and the offender have something special.
  5. The offender desensitizes you
    The offender starts with things you won’t object to, then moves on to more risky behaviors while maintaining plausible deniability. As less risky behaviors are accepted, they prepare you to accept what you would never initially accept.
  6. Lastly, the offender maintains control
    The offender uses threats, secrecy, and blame to maintain your continued participation and silence.

For example, Vernon owned a dairy farm that was passed down to him after his father died in a farming accident. Molly was shy and didn’t like to leave the house. They both believed in old fashioned family values. Vernon said she would make a perfect farm wife. They would get married and she would be in charge of everything inside the home: cooking and raising the kids. He would handle everything outside the home. Molly agreed but said that even though most farm wives keep the books for the farm, she had no head for numbers and found dealing with money made her anxious. Vernon said he would keep the books himself.

Vernon’s one fault was he liked to play poker with friends every Saturday night. He asked Molly to not begrudge him his one pleasure when he was so hard working the rest of the week.

As the kids got older and could do more chores, Vernon began to travel for days at a time. He said he was going to farm shows, but she found evidence he was visiting a casino. He had an excuse for every visit, and he said she hadn’t been concerned about the poker games, so why should trips to a casino be different. She began to notice the herd of cows slowly dwindling as he would sell one here and there to pay for gambling debts; but he said he was culling the herd. When creditors started calling the house, he got rid of the phone so they couldn’t bother her anymore. Then one day she saw a letter from the bank, saying they were in foreclosure. He yelled at her for snooping and said he had to go off on these trips because her lack of trust in him made it intolerable to be at home.

Let’s break down this story and see how Molly was groomed:

  1. Target
    Vernon chose Molly in part because she was fine with being a traditional wife who would not question his authority.
  2. Gain trust
    Vernon was hard working. He owned a farm. Her parents liked him. He promised to take care of her.
  3. Fill a need
    Molly believed she was unable to do the accounting for the farm. Vernon was willing to do it.
  4. Isolate
    They lived far out in the country, so Molly rarely saw friends and family. She was financially dependent on Vernon.
  5. Desensitize
    Molly learned to accept the weekly poker games before he moved on to the trips to a casino. He had an explanation for the trips and selling the cows. She was also gradually desensitized to Vernon getting domineering.
  6. Control
    Vernon evoked traditional values to keep her silenced and to continue to accept his gambling. He eliminated the phone, her one connection to the outside world. He even tried to blame her for losing the farm.

The problem most people have with the concept of grooming is that it’s sometimes hard to believe that the offender, Vernon in this case, deliberately chose his victim, and went through the stages systematically, knowing full well what he was doing. It would be chilling if that’s how it happened. We usually say that the offender unconsciously grooms the victim. What do we mean by that?

We mean a pattern develops. Choosing to live out on the farm in a traditional arrangement, taking charge of the finances, and gambling small amounts before moving on to big ones does not have to be part of a master plan to be part of a pattern. One thing simply creates the conditions that lead to another as Vernon drifts from one stage to the next because of opportunity and lack of restraint. In other words, Vernon groomed himself while he was grooming Molly. Rather, his gambling addiction groomed him.

When I claim an addiction groomed Vernon, as if it was a person, I’m not suggesting there is a demon afoot, nor am I saying he has a split or multiple personality. Addiction is not an actual creature; it’s an emergent phenomenon, a process that organizes itself naturally out of properties inherent in the situation. Other examples of emergence are the Market, Evolution, the Self, or Life itself. We often personify them, too, in the same way I have personified addiction. So, relax. I haven’t gone flaky on you. It’s a natural process.

How Vernon got groomed by his addiction to gambling
Let’s look at the stages of grooming and see how addiction might have used them to have its way with Vernon.

  1. Target
    Vernon may have been predisposed to have a gambling problem by some genetic factors. His father was not a gambler, but he was a risk taker who died trying to clear a jam in the corn picker with the machine still running and bled to death alone in a corn field.
  2. Gain Trust
    Vernon never gambled a lot in the beginning, so he never lost much at first. He would win every so often, so it seemed safe. He met ordinary, likeable people who gambled, so it didn’t seem weird or especially dangerous.
  3. Fill a need
    Gambling gave him a thrill he never got the rest of the week. It was an escape from the drudgery of farm work.
  4. Isolate
    As he began to gamble more and more, he spent more time with people who fed the gambling bug, casino employees and other gamblers, and avoided those who could give him a hard time about it, his wife and other people who don’t gamble. As his gambling got more serious, he migrated away from the games with friends who might restrain him, to high stakes games with strangers.
  5. Desensitize
    In the beginning, he got used to gambling small amounts, before moving on to big ones. Indeed, he needed to move on to high stakes games in the casino because the low stakes games with friends weren’t giving him enough of a thrill anymore.

Vernon also gradually desensitized himself to treating his wife poorly. He did not start off being so domineering. He started by having a separate area of responsibility, which facilitated keeping secrets. It was easy then to move on to lying, and making excuses before he cut off her ability to communicate with the outside world and blamed her for the problem.

  1. Maintain Control
    The shame and stigma of losing money gambling silenced Vernon and made him feel different from everyone. These are, of course, uncomfortable feelings from which more gambling can help him escape.


If you’ve been groomed, how do you get ungroomed?
So, how about it? If you’re the victim, did your offender groom you? If you’re the offender, were you groomed by an emergent problem that you failed to recognize and resist? The answer is almost always yes. That’s because hurtful actions don’t ever really come out of nowhere, they arise from a context, there’s a pattern. If you can detect a pattern to a problem, that would be tremendously valuable. Patterns give you warning, they show the connections the problem has to everything else, and they hint at how the problem can be defeated.

How can Molly and Vernon defeat the gambling problem that had caused so much harm to their relationship? They can work backwards through the stages of grooming and undo the conditions that lead to them losing their farm.

  1. Renounce Control
    Vernon can relinquish control that the shame and stigma of gambling has by refusing to let it silence him. He should admit that he has a gambling problem and admit that he has essentially taken Molly hostage.

Molly can escape the control Vernon, and his gambling problem, have on her by taking steps towards becoming more self-reliant.

  1. Sensitize
    Vernon must become more sensitized to gambling and the triggers to gamble. This means that even small bets should be a big deal. It also means that all the approaches to gambling should set off trip wires and alarms. He should be careful when talking about big wins, playing Yahtzee with the kids, and watching the Poker Channel. No more trips alone, casino or not. For most, sensitization is achieved by making abstinence an objective.

Vernon also needs to be sensitized to how he treats Molly by learning to respect her independence and acknowledge her worth. He should become scrupulously honest, especially about his dealings with money.

Molly can become sensitized by recognizing the signs and the triggers of Vernon’s gambling and the signs of when he is becoming domineering. She could be a lookout and learn how to warn Vernon effectively when she sees trouble coming.

  1. Expand your view
    Vernon must find other forms of recreation that don’t involve gambling and develop friendships with non-gamblers.

Molly also needs to develop relationships with people who demonstrate ways to live, other than the one she’s used to.

  1. Fill the need another way
    If Vernon needs a thrill, there are a hundred other ways to get one besides gambling. Even better, he can tune into the joy and wonder that can be found in ordinary activities.

Molly needs to overcome her math anxiety and monitor their finances.

  1. Develop self-reliance
    Both Vernon and Molly got into trouble because they trusted that something or someone else would bail them out of a problem that was only theirs to solve. Vernon trusted gambling to solve his problem of being bored with farm work. There is nothing inherently boring about farm work; it is his attitude towards it that made him bored. Molly trusted Vernon to solve her math anxiety by eliminating the need to ever having to do any math. In both cases, they trusted too much and did not challenge their own abilities to face their problems.
  2. Protecting the target
    There isn’t a lot Vernon can do to change the predisposition he was born with; but he can be aware he has a tendency to take risks and a willingness to sacrifice everything for a thrill. He should keep that in mind just as he knows that a cow can kick, or a corn picker can chew up his hand. He can safely live with that predisposition if he knows to be careful with it.


Molly needs to know how letting her fears control her put her at risk. If she faced her fears of leaving the house and of handling the finances, then not only will she be keeping herself safe, she would also be helping Vernon.

Announcement: Online School

I’m pleased to announce the opening of the Road to Reconciliation’s Online School for all those who need step-by-step instructions to find peace when relationships go bad.

The first course available is How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. Click here if you would like to find out more.

Soon, I hope to develop other online courses that deal with other parts of the book such as finding peace when you are hurt, cultivating change in others, and dealing with pervasive problems.

Research on How to Make an Effective Apology

I didn’t see this research until after I completed my book, The Road to Reconciliation, so I couldn’t include it; but I’m happy to report that the findings support what I said about how to make and screw up an apology. Most people screw them up.

In Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive, sociologists Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane, analyzed and studied the effectiveness of 183 celebrity apologies that occurred between October 2000 and October 2012.

They categorized each apology as utilizing denial, evasion, reduction, corrective action, and mortification. They identified seven sequences. Some, for instance, start out by focusing on the offender; some on the victim; others on the context. Once they categorized each apology, the researchers measured the apology’s effectiveness as indicated by opinion polls conducted shortly thereafter. An effective apology was defined as one that resulted in an improved opinion of the apologizer. In other words, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, not the transformation of the character of the apologizer.

Less than a third of the apologies they looked at were effective with the public. In other words, at least two-thirds of apologies resulted in the apologizer digging a deeper hole for himself and becoming more contemptible. Cerulo and Ruane are able to say what works in making an apology.

  • Don’t wait, make an apology right away.
  • The first words in an apology matter. Don’t start by talking about how your life has been made more difficult since you got in trouble. Start by showing empathy for the victim.
  • Don’t apologize for what people think; apologize for what you did. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” Say, “I’m sorry I touched you without permission.”
  • No one wants to hear why you did it because it sounds like you’re making excuses.
  • Express regret and remorse.
  • If you express regret and remorse, actually feel regret and remorse. People can tell when you’re faking it.
  • Say what you’re doing to make restitution, but don’t say you’re going to rehab to make restitution. Rehab is not restitution. Rehab helps you, not the victim. Say what you’re doing to help the victim if you are able to make direct amends, or people like your victim, if you are not.
  • End your apology the same way you started it. The last words matter, too. End by showing empathy for the victim.
  • If you have already made your apology, but botched it, somehow; make a better one. You can still improve another’s opinion of you.

Like I said, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, but, had they studied whether the apologizer repeated the offense after apologizing, in my experience I think they would have gotten the same results. I am eagerly awaiting the results of such a study.

The People of the Mind

As if it wasn’t hard enough to deal with the people who hurt you, you also have to deal with their representatives you carry around in your head. Actual people you can divorce, send to jail, move across the country and never see again; the people of the mind follow you, they share your bed despite divorce. Regardless of orders of protection, they dog your footsteps, day and night. It’s imperative you find a way to cope with these imaginary people or they will do you more harm than the real ones ever could. Continue reading

The Re-Negotiated Relationship

Once you’re in a relationship with someone, you’ll always be in a relationship with that person. It’s like the Hotel California, you can never leave. I don’t care if you never speak to her again, if you move to the other side of the world, and put up a dartboard with her face on it; you’ll always be in relationship. There will always be a corner of your brain, I dare say, a corner of your heart, that has her name on it. Continue reading