I broke down and did it. Between appointments, I wrote index cards that said, "Your partner's favourite band," "What your partner was wearing when you first met," and "Your partner's secret ambition." These come from a series of exercises developed by John Gottman called "Love Maps". You hand the cards to the client and s/he says what s/he thinks is the right answer or asks his/her partner. Gottman is one of the most prominent and serious researchers of couples ever. There's a whole lot of theory and research behind "Love Maps" but the first time I handed these cards to my clients, I cringed a little (I hope I did a reasonable job of hiding it).
My cringe went a little like this: "I went to graduate school for three years and then did post-graduate training for years afterwards. Now I am doing an exercise that feels like it has been clipped from Elle magazine."
Love Maps has a high 'cheese factor.' That kept me from using it for a long time even though it is an evidence-based practice for helping couples do better.
What is it about cheese? I rely on being able to offer people something they can't get from a popular magazine or an online quiz for my living and my sense of professional attainment. Not only that, coming to someone who they believe knows a thing or two, helps people feel safe, which is a prerequisite of a lot of the work of therapy. I worry that the pungent odor of cheese can destroy that confidence that my clients and I rely on.
Its not just me. My training has been aimed at instilling a sense that therapists have complex, scientific knowledge that allows us to serve as serious professionals with something to offer that goes beyond the self-help section of a book store. I think that is true. But I also remember what Sylvain and Elise told me (names are made up). They came every week to therapy and used it really well. But at one point they said to me, "You're nice and all and you're probably good at what you do but for us the metro ride over is the most therapeutic part of the whole thing. We never have a half an hour where we are just sitting and talking about what's going on with us."
Family doctors are highly trained professionals who spend a big portion of their time telling people stuff that their moms could have told them; "Have some soup and rest." "Stop picking at it." Sometimes you need a professional to tell you (because you won't listen to your mom). In plenty of cases the mechanics of having a loving relationship aren't rocket-science; be kinder to one another, develop affection, show caring, stop bad habits that drive one another away, pay attention to your own and your partner's feelings etc. What is hard is making the commitment to do it; taking the weekly metro ride over to my office may be some or even most of the therapy.
So now I don't cringe (much) when I take out the Love Map cards. Some couples roll their eyes and laugh at how cheesy it is and I laugh with them, but usually they smile at each other they laugh at one another's foibles or shared memories. When they do the Love Maps exercise, couples understand one another a little more. They have a little more feeling of affection after they do it. And despite doing something they could have done online or from a magazine, many of them find it worthwhile to come back.
Not doing things because they feel cheesy is actually a pretty big issue for some clients as well as for their therapist. Some people hate the idea that doing basic, pedestrian things is going to help them. (I wrote little about this here). As the therapist, I sometimes have to model that we can push past our impulse to eye-roll just like we can push past other things that keep us from doing what helps.
I would love to know your experiences of cheese in therapy. The person who sends in the best example will get ... hmmm. a lovely stilton? or perhaps a nice wensleydale? whaddya say Gromit?