Couples Therapists Reveal the Ingredients that Make the Biggest Impact on Your Relationship

I contributed to the following to a PsychCentral article about ingredients that make the biggest impact on relationships:

“Danielle Kepler LCPC, who specializes in couples counseling, also said that repairing before, during and after an argument is vital. It helps you have productive conversations and reduces the tendency of being critical or defensive. “When people feel like their partner is attacking them, they physiologically are unable to take in what the other person is saying due to perceiving their partner as a threat.”

Repairing during an argument might be saying, “I’m feeling really defensive right now, can you reword that last part?” Repairing after an argument includes reflecting on your own. You might think about what happened during the argument to trigger you—exploring whether you’ve felt this way before, as a child or in past relationships.

Then you and your partner process the argument together. Both of you talk about the mistakes you made, and genuinely apologize (by fully understanding and acknowledging how each of you hurt the other). Doing so helps “to wipe the slate clean and not hold onto negative feelings towards one another,” Kepler said.”

Read the entire article here.


Huffington Post Stonewalling

This Marital Behavior Is Not Only Annoying, It’s A Sign You Might Divorce

I contributed the following to a Huffington Post article about stonewalling, one of Joh Gottman’s Four Horsemen:

“2. Be aware of the physical reaction you have before you stonewall.

“If you’re a stonewaller, you usually have an internal physiological reaction (increased heart-rate or rapid breathing, for instance) and an external reaction right before you close up: Maybe you physically turn away from your partner or close your eyes and deeply sigh. These are all signs your partner needs to start paying attention to. Discuss what you do during times of distress so you both can recognize the stonewalling warning signs.” ― Danielle Kepler, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois”

You can read the full article here.

Good guys do exist!

How I Almost Missed Out On My “Good Guy” and Tips So You Don’t Miss Yours!

I’m just going to go right out and say it, dating sucks, especially now with all the apps and the swiping and the paradox of choice. However, I don’t think it’s the modern technology, although it doesn’t help, that makes dating suck. It’s more scientific than that. You’ve heard that saying ‘dating is a number game,’ right? It certainly is!

Let’s talk about attachment styles for a minute. Neither one is good or bad (although it may seem that way). Odds are you either will recognize these characteristics in yourself or someone else. The three main attachment styles are as follows:

  • Anxious
    • Wants a lot of closeness in relationships
    • Has a lot of insecurities about rejection
    • Sensitive to small cues and fear the relationship is in jeopardy and that he/she must work to keep you interested
    • Struggles expressing what is bothering him/her
  •  Secure
    • Reliable and constant
    • Naturally expresses feelings for you
    • Not afraid of commitment or dependency
    • Communicates relationship issues well
  • Avoidant
    • Sends mixed signals and doesn’t make intension clear
    • Values independence a great deal
    • Emphasizes boundaries in relationship
    • Has difficulty talking about what’s going on between the two of you

Odds are, you have most likely dated people with an anxious or avoidant attachment style. I know I have certainly dated my share! In fact, I dated so many people with this attachment style, I almost blew my chances when someone with a secure attachment style (my husband–believe it or not) came along!

Don't miss your secure person!

Here’s my story, hopefully you can benefit from hearing it and the lessons I’ve learned from it. Keep in mind, I would consider myself to have an anxious attachment style (at least at this time!) and my husband having a secure attachment style. I will include my inner dialogue and ways my husband calmed my “activated attachment system” as well as some 

See if you can pick up the cues that his attachment style is secure. 

Back in the day, I was a big fan of online dating. It was easier than meeting people in person and I liked the screening process. When my now husband messaged me on a site, I at first did not see it, but then he messaged a few days later and I quickly scanned his profile before responding. We didn’t seem to have much in common, but decided to respond to him anyway. We chatted online for an hour or so then he quickly asked for my phone number that same night. 

“My phone number?! I don’t even know him, he’s moving very fast!”

“What if we talk and he gets bored because we’ve already talked for a while already?”

I gave him my phone number anyway and we talked for a few more hours that night. He said he had a great time talking with me and then asked me on a date for a few days from now. 

“I don’t know about this, I usually like to talk to people more before I meet them.”

“He’s very direct, I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“I bet once he meets me he won’t want to see me again. I don’t know if I am good enough.”

We met and had a wonderful date where we talked and seemed to really hit it off. The next morning, he called and left me a voicemail saying that he had a wonderful time and he wanted to know when I was available next. 

“This is unreal. I meet a nice guy and he tells me right away that he had a great time and wants to make plans with me again right away!”

“What’s his angle here, I’ve never met someone with such clear intensions.”

I messaged him saying I had a great time too and that I was available that next weekend. We called and texted throughout the week, getting to know each other further. He was available to talk during the day (work permitting) and let me complain about my crummy job at the time.

He said he knows he just met me once, but he wants to see where this goes and is planning on canceling any other dates he had lined up for the future. 

“I can’t believe this. No guy has ever been this direct and able to express his feelings so clearly.”

“Do I have to do the same? I am not sure if I like him as much as he likes me…” (no, I did not have to do the same)

“He’s taking a big risk on me, I don’t know if I am worth the risk.”

A close friend warned me about “guys like him.”

Can you pick up on his secure attachment style? How about my anxious one and what I was used to dating in the past (anxious and avoidant men)? Had I listened to my friends and my rather calm but confused attachment system, I may have missed out on someone really special.

A few tips on how to not let a secure person get away:

  • Ask yourself “is this person able and willing to meet my needs?”
    • Do you really like a few texts throughout the day? Are they able to meet that need for you?
    • Do you need to vent about your work? Do they listen to you and not shut you down?
  • How do they react to you expressing your feelings (within reason) for them.
    • Do they shy away from commitment or play games with their feelings?
  • How do they react when you express displeasure with something they did or said?
    • When you effectively communicate that you were disappointed, how open are they to your feedback.
  • Do you know where you stand with this person? Is there very little “drama”?
    • We’ve conditioned ourselves to be used to and welcome the drama, but people with secure attachment styles are upfront with their feelings and can at times seem boring due to the lack of drama. 

Stay tuned for more attachment style insights to help you improve your dating life.

Signs Couples Should Go To Therapy

There’s Only One Sign A Couple Should Go To Therapy

I contributed to the following article for the Huffington Post about the signs a couple should consider going to therapy:

Signs Couples Should Go To Therapy

Image by Huffington Post

“It gives you a safe, open space to address complaints you haven’t voiced to your partner.

“Take a behavior that six months ago was slightly annoying to you, such as your partner forgetting to turn off the lights before leaving the house. At some point, you might start to think, ‘I bet other people’s spouses remember to turn off the lights and aren’t so wasteful.’ Seek out couples therapy before you get to the point. You never want to unfavorably judge your partner’s behavior and compare it with real or imagined alternatives.” ― Danielle Kepler, a therapist in Chicago, Illinois”

Read the entire article here.

7 Fights Couples Tend To Have Right Before A Breakup

I contributed to the following article for the Huffington Post about common fights couples tend to have before a breakup:


The “I’m sorry you feel that way” fight

For an apology to mean anything, it has to be genuine. When you tell your spouse “I’m sorry you feel that way” after you get into a heated argument, you’re dismissing his feelings and essentially issuing a non-apology apology, said Danielle Kepler, a therapist based in Chicago, Illinois.

“Instead of reducing the tension, this sort of apology comes off as condescending and contemptuous,” she said. “Apologizing for your partner’s feelings does not convey that you understand where they are coming from. Failed repair attempts are another sign of a possible unhappy future.”

Read more of the article here.


Fan the Flames in Your Relationship

What would you say if I asked you to describe how you felt about your partner in the beginning of your relationship? Would you remember positive memories of getting to know each other? How you felt excited just to speak with him or her on the phone? How you felt nervous and giddy to see your partner in person for a special date? Listening to a couple describe how they felt about each other earlier on in their relationship is a great measure of the couple’s fondness and admiration for each other. Fondness and admiration are related to affection and how much spouses look forward to being together after being apart. It speaks to how strong their friendship is which is related to passion, intimacy, and good sex.

Often times it is night and day hearing couples describe their feelings about one another when they first started dating compared to how they feel now. As you can imagine, couples whose relationships have deteriorated often rewrite history to only remember the negative aspects of their earlier days. Often describing the things their partner did wrong early on. “She was an hour late for our second date, I looked like an idiot waiting at the restaurant!” “He was so nervous we sat in silence for 10 minutes!” These couples probably did not start out viewing each other this way, but the negativity of the present has crept in to re-write the past. This is indicative of how they view their relationship now. Per John Gottman’s research, re-writing relationship history in a negative light is also predictive of the future of their relationship.

Luckily, it is possible to revive fondness and admiration that has been dwindling for many many years. It takes a cognitive switch, a choice if you will, to view your partner in a more positive and admirable way. Making a choice to scan for the positives instead of the negatives.

We can mentally rehearse all the positive things about our partner’s qualities or we can choose to focus on the negative, annoying, irritating things about their personality. What are you going to focus on? You have a choice.

Here’s a personal example. My husband leaves his dinner dishes on the counter for a long time after he has finished eating dinner. It used to bother me ALL THE TIME. I would come home and those dishes would jump out at me, instantly ruining my mood.

It had to stop. Not his dish leaving habits, but my scanning for his faults.

Instead, I chose to focus on what he was doing right. I would come home after a long day of sessions and he would greet me with a “hey sweetie, I’m glad you’re home.” I chose to focus on that nice greeting, a positive bid for attention, instead of focusing on the dishes. You know what? Soon those dishes did not mean as much to me anymore.

Ways to rekindle affection, fondness, and admiration:

  • Take some time and remember the positive experiences you and your partner had together, the fun times, the adventures and share them with one another.
  • Instead of pointing out what your partner did not do right, point out something that they DID do right.
  • Identify two positive characteristics of your partner and mention to him or her two specific events in which he or she displayed these characteristics

An Easy Way to Get Therapy at No Cost to You

It’s been my experience that many people view cost as a barrier to getting therapy. They might have a high deductible insurance plan or no insurance at all and have been putting off contacting a counselor because they fear they will have a big bill to pay at the end of the month. Many people are aware of their employer offering them medical, vision, and/or dental insurance, but often are not aware of another benefit offered by many employers called an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). By using your EAP benefits you can receive therapy at no cost to you!

An Employee Assistance Program is a benefit separate from the insurance that your employee pays to be able to offer benefits to employees. The EAP program can offer employees resources such as financial planners, child care, legal services and (you guessed it!) counseling services. These counseling sessions are paid for by your employer and are at no cost to you. Many employees have plans that offer between 3-6 counseling sessions but in my experience, I have seen plans that offer up to 10 sessions. EAP counseling sessions are considered to be “short-term” counseling and if you want to seek counseling beyond the number of sessions for which you are approved, you would have to use your insurance benefits or pay out of pocket.

You would access these therapy services by calling your EAP company and speaking to an EAP staff (usually a therapist) about why you are seeking counseling services and any preferences you would have in a counselor such as location, specialties or available times. If the EAP staff feels like your situation is appropriate for EAP sessions, he or she would would then either give you a list of therapists to call and set up an appointment or would set up an appointment with a therapist for you and give you the therapist’s information. It’s that simple.

Many people assume the word “employee” in EAP means that your employer will know if use your EAP benefits and that is not the case at all. With the exception of being told you are required to attend counseling sessions by your employer, your employer will not know if you are attending therapy or not. In the case that your employer requires you to utilize your benefits, the therapist that is providing the EAP services still cannot speak to your employer without your consent and the EAP staff will usually be the go-between between the therapist and your employer.

How do you find out if your employer offers EAP benefits? Contact your Human Resources department and ask how you would go about contacting your EAP. You do not have to inform your HR department you are wanting to seek counseling, because, like I said previously, EAP programs offer many services. Many people are told about these benefits when they have their employer orientation or sign up for their insurance benefits and then often forget they even have them! Why not take advantage of a few counseling sessions at no cost to you if you are able?

Please note: Although I am an EAP provider/affiliate for many EAP companies, this blog post does not reflect any one company in particular and is based solely on my understanding of the EAP referral process.

EAP benefits provide therapy sessions at no cost to the employee.

EAP benefits provide therapy sessions at no cost to the employee.

The Struggle with Being an Authentic Therapist

Authenticity is a topic I discuss with clients on a weekly basis — how to be your “true self” and why people struggle so much with this. I believe the first struggle lies with knowing which version of “self” to be at any given time. A person is many selves throughout the day depending on the roles they play and who they interact with during their day. They can be the “daughter or son self” the “wife or husband self” the “mother or father self” the “boss or employer self” the “friend or foe self.” I could go on and on and on listing roles that people play each day!  These roles themselves are also constantly evolving with each experience. How can you be true to a self that is constantly changing?

One version of myself that I believe I am fairly true to each day is my “therapist self.” This was certainly not always the case, especially when I was just starting out in the field. I would take theories that made the most sense to me and for my clients then do my best to apply interventions like Aaron Beck (CBT) or Carl Rogers (humanistic psychology). I’d read and try to memorize phrases, hoping to appear very knowledgable and insightful to my clients. I am not sure if it was a lack of experience or a lack of confidence in myself as a therapist that made me feel like I had to be a certain type of therapist.

This got old. Fast. I also soon became too busy to read textbooks every night and conceptualize the best interventions for each client down to every word. By far, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was “the best therapist you can be is yourself.” It is sort of like that phrase “be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” This is very true for therapists as well. I could never have been Aaron Beck. Aaron Beck is Aaron Beck and I’m still me. Once I finally embraced this and let go of all of the “therapist selves” I thought I was supposed to be, my life in and out of session got easier. I started to come into my own and take the theories, interventions, and metaphors and put my own spin on them, adding my own humor and life experiences.

I also found that if am myself in a therapy session, that the clients picked up on this and were more of their true selves with me. They seemed to open more more and be more interospective. I hope  that I can create the type of space where someone can be his or her authentic self, at least for a hour. Hopefully, afterwards, they will struggle a little less with showing others that version of themselves outside of the therapy session.

Vulnerability During and After a Therapy Session

One of the best TED talks I was ever introduced to was one by Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability.” I’ve read a few of her books, but I still like to watch the TED talk every now and then to remind myself how important vulnerability is within the therapeutic setting.

I often have clients say to me in session “I’m sorry I was so emotional” or “I’m sorry I cried the whole time.” It’s interesting to me that clients feel the need to apologize for their vulnerability during session. I can definitely see why they do this. Most people were raised not to express vulnerable emotions, weaknesses, and flaws. Having to do just that while in therapy for one hour each week or so can be incredibly intimidating! I remember I had one client who said he needed to “take time” after our sessions because he was not used to telling anyone, let alone someone he didn’t really know, about his unpleasant emotions and flaws.

I am always careful not to placate or invalidate a client’s vulnerability by saying “it’s ok.” Instead, I try to thank them for trusting me enough to be vulnerable in session because that is what I need to see in order for clients to make changes in their life. As a therapist, it is often difficult for me to sit with my clients when they are so vulnerable. In a way, I empathize so much, that I start to feel vulnerable myself. This is a process for me and for every therapist.

I believe that once you can have a vulnerable conversation, one where you express and sit with your true and unpleasant feelings/thoughts, in the therapeutic setting, you can start to be vulnerable in your every day life. State dependent learning anyone? Take that client I mentioned earlier, he was exercising his “vulnerability muscle” if you will. Soon, he was able to have more emotion-focused conversations with his wife, where he would admit his insecurities about their marriage. This brought them closer and wouldn’t have happened had he not practiced and become more comfortable with being vulnerable.

My challenge to you, is to make yourself emotionally vulnerable to someone once a week to start flexing your “vulnerability muscle.” For me, this is usually admitting to someone that I do not know the answer and will have to look it up, asking for directions, or admitting I was not fully listening to a friend or family member when they were speaking. Each time I do something like this, I become more comfortable with being emotionally vulnerable and I would hope this makes me more equipped to sit with vulnerability in the therapy room. My hope is that it would also allow my clients to be more vulnerable with me in session. After all, if you cannot be vulnerable with your therapist, who is un-biased and non-judgmental, with whom can you be?