One of the main themes in my stories is love. Unrequited, idiotic, shameless, idealistic, and all other kinds of love. So you’d reckon that talking to Winifred Reilly about relationships was more than fun. Also, her advice might prove useful not only in my stories.
1. First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve been a life-long writer, first writing poetry when I was seven or eight. I’ve written short stories and finally found my favorite genre in writing non-fiction. Now my two passions— writing and psychology— have come together, both in the book I’m writing about marriage and in my blog.
When not writing, which at the moment takes up a huge share of my time, I work as a psychotherapist, primarily with couples. I am also an avid gardener and a walker.
2. How did you become a couples therapist? And, of course, why.
My love of psychology began when I was fourteen. I grew up in a high-rise apartment in New York City and one day, out by the incinerator, I found a stack of psychology books, one being Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, a book about identity, growth and human development. In many ways it was love at first sight.
Though as an undergraduate I was far more drawn to writing and literature, with thoughts of going into journalism, I ended up following my original path and going to graduate school in clinical psychology. My thought at the time was that real people are more interesting to analyze than fictional ones.
For nearly ten years my practice consisted mostly of individuals. Then, as a way to fulfill my continuing education requirement, I signed up for class in working with extremely difficult couples.
At the time, my own marriage was not in great shape. My husband and I were often in conflict, bickering a lot and making each other miserable. When I showed up for the class, I had no idea that I was about to make a life-changing decision about my career and my marriage.
Nor did I have any idea that twenty years later, I would end up writing a book about how training to be a couples therapist ended up being the thing that saved my own marriage.
Before taking the class I was working with maybe four or five couples and those sessions were by far the most challenging and intimidating hours in my week.
The saying “knowledge is power” really applies to working with couples. Once I learned how to actually be effective dealing with all the crazy nonsense couples get into, work became exciting. It became a place where I had a lot of fun and could be expressive and supportive and highly confrontational in ways that got people unstuck.
By the end of that weekend workshop I’d also discovered what was making my own marriage so awful and got to work on making big changes there too. (Visualize doing a total remodel of your house while you still live in it!)
3. In your line of work there’s a lot of emphasis on rebuilding. Do you believe any relationship can be rebuilt?
Perfect word, rebuilding. My metaphor exactly.
I am overwhelmingly optimistic about what people can do if they put their minds to it. One of my first blog posts, titled Better Than Chance, is about how I never place a ceiling over the possibility of a person’s growth.
Some therapists think they can predict who’s going to make it and who isn’t. I tell every couple that if they want to have a satisfying marriage there’s no reason they can’t, as long as they’re willing to work for it.
Mind you, I don’t underestimate how challenging that work is. Especially since I did it myself in relation to my own marriage.
4. Do you believe that because you went through the same situation as the couples you now counsel you are able to better empathize with them?
Absolutely. Couples can idealize the therapist’s marriage and think, “oh, she must be blissfully married while my marriage is in the toilet.”
I make it clear that marriage is challenging for everyone, without exception.
I underscore that we all have work to do, that all couples struggle and that there really are solutions. I also tell them that the things I’m suggesting they do are the things I’ve learned to do in my own marriage. And I never imply what I’m asking them to do is easy in the least.
The fact that I’m willing to reveal my own marital struggles makes me a much more credible and genuinely emphatic guide.
5. What would you say is the most crucial aspect when it comes to a healthy relationship?
I’d say it’s a tie between commitment and generosity. Commitment being the element that keeps people hanging-in through the hard parts and continuing to grow as individuals and as a couple. Generosity being an open-hearted willingness to give when possible.
Generosity doesn’t mean giving at one’s own expense or saying yes when we mean no. It’s about offering the best of ourselves in as kind and loving a way we can.
Generosity sometimes (…often) means being firm and direct.
6. So a sure way to make a relationship work is to give and receive equal amounts of love and attention. But how do you fix things when that balance breaks?
The part about give and receive isn’t quite it.
In an ideal world it works that way, but that ideal world, well, it doesn’t exist. I tell people to be as generous as possible, come what may. Offer what you can, strive to give the best of yourself with no guarantee as to what your partner will do.
People get stuck on quid pro quo, thinking, “well my partner’s doing squat, why should I bother?” The trouble with that is you then have two people putting in a half-assed, stingy effort, and the results reflect it.
In many relationships the balance is tipped, but most of what couples do in response tips it more. Though it’s counter-intuitive, acting with kindness, respect, honesty, courage will give a marriage it’s best chance. This is true even when only one partner has set high standards. At worst, partners who put in their best effort will know they’ve given it their all.
When we refuse to degrade our behavior to match the crummy behavior of our partner, we increase the odds of that person choosing to take our lead and step up to meet us.
Still, we have no guarantee. But isn’t that true about life in general?
7. What is the best piece of advice you’d give to people who are having trouble in their relationships?
Pay more attention to what you’re doing that gets in the way of your relationship and less attention to your partner’s annoying behavior.
Another thing— accept that relationships are hard, that nothing is wrong if you find yourself struggling. You may need some tools, but don’t give up just because you’re having a rough time. Relationships are a tough teacher and we all have plenty to learn.
8. It’s funny that most people expect relationships to be effortless. In a way, we all want to live happily ever after without realizing that real life is more about the struggle than it is about the victory. But how do you go about learning such a difficult lesson?
Big question! We all want to live our version of happily ever after and we think we should have that for free, with no investment of effort, with no need to self-reflect or step outside our comfort zone in order to grow.
I like to think about struggle and victory as part of a whole. Most of what I’ve accomplished has come from a combination of struggle and curiosity, seeking ways to have a satisfying outcome, or to at least learn something from the struggles I face.
We therapists are big on making meaning of our difficulties rather than being plowed under by them.
9. You’re currently completing a book. What do you think is the most challenging aspect when writing a book?
For me it’s never been an issue of having what I call bum glue— sitting in the chair and cranking out the pages. My biggest struggle has been with perfectionism, re-working on a ridiculous micro level: will I say rebuild or restructure or renovate or remodel… I have three thesauri. (Never in my life have I used that word!)
Blogging has been a great perfectionism relaxer. Blog posts are ephemeral. The goal is to say it and get it out there. Books seem much more permanent and fussed over.
10. A lot of writers complain about perfectionism as being one of the most dangerous traps. Would you agree that books are never finished; we just have to let go?
I’d be happy starting with the idea that a SENTENCE is never finished and we have to say this is good enough!
Answering your question, yes, books are like children: we have to give birth to them and then let them be in the word, strengths and imperfections.
Great opportunity to work on vanity.
11. How did you find your current agent?
I read an article that said “Don’t think you’ve queried enough agents until you’ve reached out to fifty of them” and I took that to heart. My husband regularly reminds me, “it only takes one.” One agent, one publisher. Forty-nine rejection letters and one acceptance is still a win.
A good query letter is essential! I had a query letter that caught many agents attention. Some asked for sample pages. Others wanted the whole manuscript. Some had encouraging comments but didn’t want to take on the project. Several even thanked me in their rejection letter for helping them with their relationship difficulties.
One was so vile in her rejection email that my vengeful side is waiting to send her a publication announcement and tell her that aspiring writers don’t need to be given a raft of her crap. A simple “no thanks” would suffice.
Agent number thirty was the winner. She loved my story and my writing and has guided me to really sharpen the manuscript. She’s asked me to push my creativity in ways that have made the manuscript sing.
It was her idea that I start my blog to build a community of followers.
As a friend wisely said, getting a book published is a war of attrition. If the boulders in the road don’t stop you and you don’t wear out from discouragement, you’re likely to succeed.
12. Would you say success is all about perseverance, rather than luck?
Hmmm. I think that perseverance is key. People give up when they hit the inevitable setbacks and dead ends. Be it with their relationships or their writing. Marriage, writing they both take fortitude.
As for luck… you still have to show up. No matter how great the odds, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.
Winifred M. Reilly, M.A., MFT, is a psychotherapist specializing in marital therapy and relationship issues, with a private practice in Berkeley, CA.
In her nearly thirty-three years of practice she has treated many hundreds of couples— some seeking guidance for an essentially sound relationship that is encountering difficulty and many who are convinced they are headed for divorce.
Ms. Reilly has been a guest lecturer on marriage and sexuality, has made numerous radio appearances, written guest blogs and has been interviewed as a relationship expert by Web MD and The New York Times.
She is valued for her positive yet practical approach to the inevitable challenges all couples face, believing that even the most troubled relationships can be repaired through proper guidance, encouragement, and hard work. Regardless of how challenging the issues.
She is currently completing a book about the power of unilateral change to transform troubled marriages.