Defining Roles in Relationships: Escaping Relational Fuckery

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Roles in relationships are rarely explicitly defined- most couples fall into roles that draw from the best & worst of their family histories. Those roles aren't reviewed strategically, and are only discussed when frustration or resentment trigger an argument (or ongoing conflict).

In couples therapy all of the couples I work with have challenges directly created by poorly defined or disputed roles.


    Introduction to Roles in Relationships

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    Most often when I hear people speak about roles in relationships, they are referring to domestic logistics-The Who-Does-What in the household.

    That's rarely the actual issue!

    When I work with folk in couples therapy, the issue is most often found in;

    • the differences in expectations of how relational roles are played,
    • how logistical roles are divided,
    • and the interactional patterns of behavioural roles.

    Roles in Relationships can be considered from a number of different angles, this essay will unpack those in an overview style, then begin to drill down into some of ways those roles show up in intimate relationships.

    Note: There's volumes of information on social roles in sociology. You can read some overviews of theory here, here, and here. I'm not aiming for theoretical accuracy, I'm here to help unpack how these roles play out in intimate relationships and couples therapy.

    Defining Roles in Relationships

    The word "role" is used in many different ways, for this piece I will be using the following definition;

    "A socially defined pattern of behavior that is expected of a person who occupies a certain social position or belongs to a particular social category."

    A role only exists in relation to another person/people. That means our roles change depending on who we are with, our interaction, and our context.

    For example, with Mum I'm a daughter, with a client I'm a therapist, and in a shop I'm a customer. All those roles come with expected patterns of behaviour that are defined by a combination of contextual influences, our lived experience, and depending on who we are with.

    In couples therapy, exploring roles within an intimate relationship includes;

    • What is the title of this role?
    • What is the function of this role?
    • Who holds responsibility for this role?
    • Is this an agreed role?
    • Are we aware of the dynamic this creates?
    • What are the specific bahaviours & expectations of this role?
    • Which activities do we expect for this role?
    • What is the setting where this role takes place?

    What are the Elements of Roles in Relationships?

    The elements of roles in relationships that I find most helpful to consider are;

    • the purpose & function of the role
    • our individual interpretations of that role
    • the effectiveness of that role.

    In a couples therapy setting I am primarily wanting to identify; is this role functioning effectively? And are all the participants happy with the arrangement?


    Unpacking the Categories of Roles in Relationships

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    There's no definitive way to look at categories of roles, or even the roles themselves. It will always depend on the framework chosen.

    For example choosing an hotel organisational framework provides team roles such as "Chef", "Housekeeper", and "Events Manager", a framework of Jungian archetypes provides roles like "Magician", "Lover", or "Rebel", or a familial setting suggests the roles of "Parent", "Sibling" and so on.

    Each framework is pre-populated with roles so the crucial part of defining roles in relationships is to have clarity on which frameworks you're choosing, why you choose them, and the built in flaws & strengths of each model.

    Let's look at some of the more common categories of roles in relationships, what defines those roles, and how they play out in relationships.

    Social Roles in Relationships

    Social roles in relationships describe how we see people in society, and includes career roles, community roles, and other relationships between people.

    They're defined primarily by the cultural expectations of an interaction, as well as the activities and settings- you would anticipate you would find a baker in a bakery, and be able to buy some bread.

    Some examples of social roles are;

    • Butcher
    • Baker
    • Candlestick maker
    • Customer
    • Client
    • Neighbor
    • Colleague
    • Boss

    Mostly these roles play out fairly effortlessly, and the mismatches or disagreements about expectations go unnoticed, or just become today's rant about "can you believe that X did Y!"

    As the role increases in frequency of contact, or importance, or impact, the mismatches in expectations become more apparent. Like, disagreeing with the baker about their role may never happen, in contrast with disagreeing about your role with a colleague you see daily.

    Familial Roles in Relationships

    Familial roles in relationships are some of the most complex to define. While we're likely to share the language of the "position" (for example "parent"), our family of origin, lived experience, and cultural influences create very different ideas of what the "position description" includes.

    They describe the family relationship between people, both biological and chosen families. I've included partner/s and friends here too because the nature of those relationships is what I consider to be familial.

    Some examples of familial roles in relationships are;

    • Mother, Father, Parent, Sibling, Sister, Brother, Daughter, Child, Son
    • Aunt, Uncle, Auncle, Cousin, Niece, Nephew, Nibling, Grandparents
    • Lover, Partner, Spouse, Husband, Wife, Boyfriend, Girlfriend, Pal
    • Friends

    These roles in relationships play out in spectacularly different ways because of the huge variety of contextual influences each individual brings to a relationship. Familial roles also carry more emotional loading as they're often the source of dysfunctional (and functional!) relational patterning.

    Logistical Roles in Relationships

    In a couples therapy context, logistical roles are the shit that needs to be done to run a household. I call this "domestic logistics" and find it helpful to use the metaphor of a hotel to identify those roles - beginning at the department level then working down into specific roles.

    These are just some hotel departments, and the titles of some of the roles they include;

    • Kitchen; Chef, Sous Chef, Kitchen Hand,
    • Food & Beverage; Wait Staff, Bar Tenders, Room Service
    • House keeping; Cleaners
    • Maintenance; Gardens, Handy Man
    • Fleet Management; Mechanic, Driver,
    • Front of house; Bookings,
    • Events; Planner,
    • Administration;
    • Finance; Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Bookkeeper, Accountant, Financial Planner
    • Public Relations,

    In most households some or all of these roles are performed with varying degress of skill & willingness. However many couples get confused and think they have conflict about logistical roles in relationships, when actually it is the layering of gendered, or behavioural roles and expectations that is causing the fuckery.

    Archetypal Roles in Relationships

    The idea of relational archetypes draws from Jungian psychology, as well as recurring characters or ideas from mythology or storytelling.

    Individual interpretations of these archetypes can be the cause of great friction when partner/s have different or conflicting understanding of what it means to "do" that role! That's why this work of unpacking roles is so crucial, so that we can come to a consensus between partner/s about their interpretation of each role.

    I find working with archetypes to be helpful in couples therapy to name & identify patterns, as well as to experiment with flavours of expression.

    Here are some examples of archetypes, or flavours of roles in relationships;

    • seductress, lover, magician, dreamer, artist,
    • roles in a social change ecosystem : weavers, guides, experimenters, visionaries, builders, disrupters, healers
    • dark side and positive archetypes (martyr vs/ healer, leader vs/ bully)

    Archetypal roles in relationships most often play out unconsciously. That is, we don't realise we're bringing a 'hero' vibe and trying to 'save' our partner, or that we have 'rebel' energy which pushes back on true collaboration. These roles are most helpful to help us recognise a relational issue, or to generate solutions.

    Archetypes can also bring different flavours to other role categories; for example layering 'martyr' over 'partner' describes a person with poor boundaries, layering 'rebel' over 'colleague' could describe a disruptor of the status quo (or just an asshole), or layering 'magician' over 'gardener' might imbue that role with a flavour of creativity & artistry.

    By experimenting with the flavours of each archetype we can create expressions of roles in relationships that feel relevant & desirable to us as individuals.

    Behavioural Dynamics in Relationships

    This category of roles in relationships is about the relational dynamics between two people. Some of these roles are interactional patterns that we enact in many (or all) of our relationships, and some dynamics only arise with one other person.

    These roles describe the way each individual behaves within a relational 'dance', and most of these patterns require at least one other person to play the complementary role.

    For example, interactional pattern roles in relationships include;

    • Interactional patterns;
      • Drama Cycle (victim, aggressor, rescuer, observer)
      • frustrated teacher/resistant student
      • over function/underfunction
      • sibling competition
      • parent/child
      • pursuer/distancer
      • leader/follower
      • Kantor's four players (movers, opposers, followers, bystanders)

    • Energetic Roles
      • initiator
      • starter
      • maintainer
      • finisher
      • leader/follower

    • Power Roles
      • Decision Maker
      • Resource holder
      • Privileged in context


    These interactional dynamics of roles in relationships are often where couples find the most traction to resolve their issues. It's not the content of their issue, it's the way they engage with each other that causes conflict.

    It's also good to note that most of these interactional patterns are resourceful & appropriate in specific contexts, but not others. For example; sibling rivalry can be a way to connect with each other playfully echoing your childhood. Or it could be an immature way of navigating an adult sibling relationship. Or it could be a very unhelpful (but common) way of sparrring with your intimate partner/s!

    The skill lies in knowing your tendencies, and being behaviourally flexible enough to do that in appropriate contexts.


    Context & Roles in a Relationship

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    Relationship challenges are found in the dynamics BETWEEN people. They are the result of your differences in culture, family, lived experience, intersections in identities, and other contextual elements that have influenced each of your personalities and approaches to life.

    We could frame your conflict as being about your roles in relationships,  but without acknowledging the CONTEXT of your lives we're being dangerously reductive. Suggesting that relationship strategy will change your circumstances is bullshit.

    It's definitely possible (and important!) to negotiate those relational roles, AND crucial to name that those contextual influences will remain as constraints. Like, you can redefine your logistical roles to have equal domestic labour, AND you will still experience the influence of gendered roles because of the structure of the world.

    The most important factor is  your understanding of those differences and contextual influences, and the way you CHOOSE to navigate them together. Unless you understand the deeper roots of those dynamics,  you will continue to cycle through highs and lows...  always returning to the same old unresolved shit.

    Gender Roles in Relationships

    The immediate relevance of patriarchy when we look at defining roles in relationships is to be very clear that your relationship did not generate this problem. Instead, you're experiencing this shit show because of the dominant patterns of thinking in whatever cultural soup you swim in.

    As Laura Pustarfi says in her piece It Matters What Paradigms Paradigm Paradigms, "at the root of this systemic issue is the Western paradigm characterized by capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and mechanistic thinking."

    This isn't the place for me to unpack those ideas in detail, but I'd like to take a quick minute to list some of the ways that patriarchy plays out in relationship roles.

    Consider the 6 structures of patriarchy identified by Sylvia Walby;

    1. Paid Work. A huge factor in defining roles in relationships is the amount of time, energy, and attention you each have for domestic tasks. The access of women to promotions, and the gender pay gap, means that logistical roles are negotiated to allow the higher earning partner more time & energy & attention for "work", while the other partner is expected to carry the full domestic load.

    2. Housework. Not only are we socialised differently according to gender, but the Western paradigm values linear project type work over the circular caring economy. So... housework is unpaid, outsourced to minorities and those with less access to family money, and not valued.

    3. Culture. Gendered roles in relationships are reinforced continually in the media, through lived experience, and in every aspect of the fabric of society. Those of us who are challenging the status quo find that the pushback from others can be quite confronting, and costs ALOT of effort to stay on mission. From the perspective of roles in relationships, that means that there's a serious lack of awareness about choices we can make! If you don't see it, or hear it, then you have to work a lot harder to generate solutions.

    4. Sexuality. The different expectations for behaviour around sexuality create some fucking horrendous role conflict - and not just in the sexual sphere. Those judgements & 'norms' bleed into our self-esteem, confidence, and ideas about what a relationship 'should' look like.

    5. Violence. Patriarchal violence speaks to the fact that "while men are usually exposed to violence outside the family, women and girls are primarily the victims of violence in the home and within the family. This has not only made the violence invisible and placed victim groups at risk but also made it more difficult to provide protection against extensive, systematic violence and oppression" (Patriarchal Violence - an attack on human security)

    In the context of roles in relationships, this threat of violence (from displeasure and anger, to physical blows) can be a real barrier to good faith negotiation in a couple.

    6. The State. There is little opportunity for women in political & public spheres, those that do occupy those positions are subject to atrocious attacks, and the legislation & policies that do exist to move towards equality are rarely enforced. From a roles perspective that means that couples may again prioritise decisions based on availability of choice, instead of their actual preferences.

    Some well-known patriarchal logistical roles in relationships include;

    • breadwinner, stay at home parent, home maker
    • parental discipline / parental emotional support
    • domestic logistics - indoor chores vs/ outdoor maintenance
    • the 'fun' parent and the 'boring' parent
    • social network maintenance
    • decision maker
    • administration
    • care provider & emotional support
    • and oh fucking hell I could go on forever here...

    What is a Mans Role in a Relationship?

    I have included this heading in this essay because people search the internet for this answer.

    I want you to know that in my extensive research and experience as a couples therapist I have found there are zero roles that are more or less appropriate for a man in a relationship.

    You will, however, be playing out gendered beliefs and roles that are driven by patriarchal cultural ideals (see above; Gender Roles in Relationships)

    Let me offer you an alternative question to ponder:

    "How could we as a couple, support each other to play to our strengths, pursue our passions, get the important shit done, and BOTH feel like we are contributing according to our individual capacity?"

    What is a Womans Role in a Relationship?

    I have included this heading in this essay because people search the internet for this answer.

    I want you to know that in my extensive research and experience as a couples therapist I have found there are zero roles that are more or less appropriate for a woman in a relationship.

    You will, however, be playing out gendered beliefs and roles that are driven by patriarchal cultural ideals (see above; Gender Roles in Relationships)

    Let me offer you an alternative question to ponder:

    "How could we as a couple, support each other to play to our strengths, pursue our passions, get the important shit done, and BOTH feel like we are contributing according to our individual capacity?"

    Capitalism and Roles in Relationships

    The immediate relevance of capitalism when we look at defining roles in relationships is to be very clear that your relationship did not generate this problem. Instead, you're experiencing this shit show because of the dominant patterns of thinking in whatever cultural soup you swim in.

    As Laura Pustarfi says in her piece It Matters What Paradigms Paradigm Paradigms, "at the root of this systemic issue is the Western paradigm characterized by capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and mechanistic thinking."

    This isn't the place for me to unpack those ideas in detail, but I'd like to take a quick minute to list some of the ways that capitalism plays out in relationship roles.

    Consider the capitalist values defined by Bear Hebert in their webinar series Freely;

    1. Growth. Under capitalism the economy is only successful if it is continually growing. Relationally that plays out as a belief that all things should always be getting better. This can look like a focus on wealth accumulation, buying lots of things (and replacing things with 'better' things), working more so you can 'do more', a focus on endless personal development or relational 'growth'.

    Of course growth in itself is not a problem, so long as the growth is toward an agreed & articulated purpose, AND it supports your health & happiness.

    2. Scarcity. There's not enough for everyone, we are competing against each other. Relationally people internalise the belief that its a single sum game. That if one of us feels like we're doing too much, it is because our partner is not doing enough. The feeling of not having enough, and the interpretation of that as meaning my partner isn't giving enough.

    We direct our personal dissatisfaction toward our partner/s without examining the systems.

    3. Extraction. We should be getting the most return for the least output. Relationally this plays out when individuals are always looking to "get their needs met", or competing against each other to continually do less for the other, while getting more for themselves.

    Some well-known capitalist beliefs about roles in relationships include;

    • making the most money we can is important, and so we should prioritise the highest earner. Their time is more valuable. Their contribution (of money) is more valuable than other relational contributions. Their input to decisions is more important.
    • your value in your relationship/s is tied to your productivity. If you are not working to earn money, your contribution should be tangible and labour based (cooking, cleaning, child care, and other domestic logistics)
    • people should be "doing the work" and if they're not we should cut them off or out of our lives
    • and oh fucking hell I could go on forever here...


    How Do We Negotiate Roles in Relationships

    Negotiating Roles

    In couples therapy the work we do to define roles in relationships always begins with a review of the bigger picture-

    The immediate issue is simply a flag that there are differences in opinion about lifestyle, values, shared & individual goals, as well as a lack of perspective on the causes of those issues.

    We consider contextual influences like;

    • Systemic influences
    • Social identities & intersectionality
    • People
    • Personal factors
    • Transitional events

    That is big work, my friends. Stepping back to do some critical thinking about where this issue truly came from requires curiosity, generosity, and patience. This is the heart of truly defining roles in relationships, because without clarity on context you're just making shit up.

    The next piece of work requires an expanded consideration of what it means to contribute, to ask for help, and to be in community.

    Then the final steps shake out with ease because it's just the logistics of creating the vision you both share!

    What are the Roles in a Healthy Relationship?

    To cultivate intimacy, passion, and meaning, we need to focus on the three key relationship roles;

    • How you connect with each other, that is being best friends
    • How you attract each other, your relationship as lovers, and
    • How you create together, the team work in your relationship.

    I also want to say that not every couple desires this kind of relationship!

    Some people have other partners or people who fulfil those relationship role in their lives. Some people don't want, or don't like engaging relationally in one or more of these ways. The most important thing is that YOU explore & decide what matters in your relationship so that together you are creating your unique relational dynamic.

    You can read more about that here: The 3 Key Relationship Roles for Fulfilled Partnerships.

    The 3 Key Relationship Roles for Fulfilled Partnerships

    Painting of couple who are best friends sitting on the roof of a car watching the sunset

    Intimate relationships require 3 key relationship roles to bring intimacy, passion, and meaning to a conscious partnership. Co-create with purpose... Read More...

    Step 1 - Consider the Context

    As discussed above, contextual information is vital to getting perspective on the roles in relationships.

    Explore with your partner which of these influences impacts your relationship and the roles you each play, and talk about whether you want to continue that, change that, or stop doing it that way.

    • Which systemic influences are informing what we think 'should' happen?
    • What are the limitations those systems place on us?
    • Do we have to accept those limitations?
    • If yes, how will we manage our wellness within those limits?
    • If no, what will we do differently?

    Systemic Influences include;

    • Politics
    • Economics
    • Religion
    • Environment
    • Culture
    • Conflict
    • Colonialism
    • Media

    Step 2 - Explore Your Vision

    In couples therapy when there's is a conflict about roles in relationships, it's important to agree on some key lifestyle choices.

    Time is a precious resource.

    We each have a finite amount of time to live, and within that to direct energy & attention toward what matters. This is a whole 'nother topic, but an important part of defining roles in relationships.

    Every time you say YES to a lifestyle choice, you must say NO to another.

    That might mean you agree that quality family time is more important as a couple than financial goals. Or you might decide that a quiet life and more rest are important to you both. Perhaps it's travel and adventure that you both value.

    For example, you want to invest more time, energy, and attention into parenting roles. Where will that come from? Will you do fewer chores? Have less time for rest? Stop scrolling on your phone? Work less? Play less?

    It's about getting really clear on the kinds of lifestyle you want to lead, so that your choices support that lifestyle. You might consider things like;

    • What percentage of our free time do we want to spend on domestic logistics?
    • Are there things we are investing our time, energy, and attention in that we could stop doing entirely?
    • When we choose to do this thing, what are we choosing not to do?
    • Is this important to one of us? Or both of us?
    • How can we find a way to fulfil both of our desired lifestyles?

    The Gottman Method Dreams Within Conflict can be a really helpful resource to guide your conversation.

    Step 3 - Eliminate the Shoulds

    Planning the structure of our days comes with a huge side serving of SHOULDS.

    That is completely normal, we live in a world that commodifies 'lifestyle'.
    What that means is we are conditioned to believe that there are certain things we should be doing.

    Experiment with these questions;

    • Where did I learn that this is a thing that Should Be Done?
    • Have I internalised expectations or desires that don't belong to me?
    • Does doing this thing, or not doing it, cause me to feel shame?
    • Does this activity energise me or deplete me?
    • Do I find this activity meaningful for my life?
    • Is it important to someone else (and therefore to me)?
    • If noone knew that I was doing this thing, would I?
    • Imagine never having to do this again. How do you feel?

    Step 4 - Expand Your Village

    It's not possible to do all the things!

    * Raising a child is a full time job.
    * Household cleaning, administration, and logistics are a full time job.
    * Your full-time job is a full time job.

    Add to that a series of part-time jobs – employment, health & wellness, fun & play, social connections, projects (home, work, passion) ,learning, pets, holidays, family, sleep, rest & relaxation, intimate relationships.

    This is a time where we need each other more than ever, where the fragile balance of mental wellness is sliding, where emotional support is crucial, where we need to be with people who love us.

    That means contributing to our friendships according to our capacity – maybe I have more energy than you this week, so I make & freeze lasagne portions, clean your bathroom, or pick up groceries. Maybe you feel more mentally stable next week so you listen to me cry, visit me when I’m unshowered, or help me with a decision. Perhaps we just exchange memes for 10 months because we don't have capacity for anything else.

    Take a moment for the following considerations;

    • Which roles in relationships are things that actually someone else could do
    • Who could I ask to support me in this role?
    • Who else could permanently do this role?
    • Do I have enough support people in my life?
    • How will I engage with people to create my village?

    Step 5 - Consider Capacity

    Consider your individual capacity; 

    • Your time, energy, and attention.
    • How financially resourced you are.
    • Your level of social support.
    • Your physical capacity.
    • Your social identities & intersectionality.
    • Current events in your life.

    It's simply not possible to keep all those balls in the air without burning out!

    As you are exploring roles in relationships have a good hard think about your individual capacity as well as your partners. 

    • Am I asking for them to do more than they can?
    • Can I have this need or desire met in another way, or by someone else?
    • How are we internalising hustle culture by wanting 'more'?
    • What would be the most satisfying use of our time, energy, and attention?
    • Will this element of our roles in relationships truly lead to better outcomes?

    Step 7 - Experiment with Allocation

    This part of defining roles in relationships is not about being ‘fair’.

    This part of defining roles in relationships is not about being ‘fair’.

    This part of defining roles in relationships is not about being ‘fair’.

    Got it?

    This is about exploring what works for your unique dynamics as a couple.

    The roles in a healthy relationship are those that;

    • are articulated & agreed
    • respect each partners time, energy & attention
    • maintain the structure of chosen lifestyle
    • support each partner's wellness and happiness
    • acknowledge individual capacity
    • are dynamic, reviewed, evolving.This part of defining roles in relationships is not about being ‘fair’.

    I’ve called this an experiment in allocation because it’s important to create this kind of change together over time, and for it to be dynamic.

    It’s much easier to agree to trial a new role, or do a role for 3, 6, or 12 months, if you don’t think you’re committing to a lifetime!

    Some questions for consideration;

    • Why does this role require discussion?
    • Am I hearing someone else’s voice of judgement? Or is it genuinely a desire of my own?
    • How would it feel for me to be responsible for this thing?
    • How would it feel for me to be free of responsibility for this thing?
    • Could neither of us do this role?
    • Could both of us do this role?

    Step 8 - Define the Role

    The concept of a position description can be helpful to consider- where the role is the title of a position, and the description breaks down;

    • objectives & purpose
    • major duties
    • scope and limits of authority
    • flow & dynamics of power
    • tools required
    • skillset required.

    It's helpful to get really granular on what you each believe that role requires.

    You can consider;

    • What are our standards?
    • What are the benchmarks?
    • How do we know when this job is 'done'
    • How do we give each other feedback?
    • How often do we review this?
    • What will this mean for our relationship when this is successful?
    • Where is the "how" of this kept for reference?
    • What tools do we use?
    • Do we have skills gaps?
    • What skills are required?
    • What learning or handover is required?
    • Who do we know who does this really well?
    • Do we want to do this ourselves? Outsource? Stop?
    • Who is the owner of this job?
    • What is the minimum standard here?
    • Can we live if this is never done?
    • Is this an important skill to have as an adult? Is it good enough to just 'not know'?
    • What parts of this role require invisible labour?
    • Which parts of this role require emotional labour?
    • What are the specific tasks required of this role?

    Step 9 - Test & Calibrate

    Changing roles in relationships isn't just about doing a new task, it's a new identity that you are evolving.

    That's because a lot of these dynamics are dictated by each individuals beliefs, values, behaviours, lived experience, and a life-time of practice!

    Change takes time.

    And changes around roles in relationships can take even more time.

    Bring your most curious, generous, patient, self to this experiment.

    Know that you will both need to learn, unlearn, and relearn much of what you think you know in order for these changes to stick.

    You've got this. And if you don't, I've got you.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    image of sign saying the next steps
    Image from Canva.

    Defining roles in relationships is one of the trickiest parts of modern relationships.

    That's because deciding not to play 'traditional' or predefined roles means that everything needs to be discussed, designed, and continually reviewed. Ideally you are checking in on roles annually, and continally responsive to changes in circumstances.

    That takes a lot of effort!

    If you find that every time you have this kind of conversation with your partner/s it slides into conflict (or remains unresolved), that's a pretty clear indicator that it's time to go to some form of couples therapy. These are the kinds of conflicts that can be easily resolved early, but lead to bitterness, frustration, and resentment when left for too long.

    Obvs you can work with me if you think I'm a good fit (read my FAQ here), or you could check out my article Couples Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing a Therapist.


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