COVID-19 UPDATE: MARRIAGE COUNSELING SESSIONS & COUPLES' WORKSHOPS
I am doing both in-person couples counseling sessions and counseling or coaching sessions with Zoom (secure account). Online couple's workshops are also available. Contact me for questions or to schedule an appointment. (If you are considering in-person counseling sessions, please read this on keeping each other safe._
Frequently Asked Questions on Marriage Counseling with Dawn
You Offer a 20-30 Minute Free Consultation by
Phone or In-Person?
Well, how will I know if we are a good fit for couples marriage counseling without a free consultation?
What if My Spouse/Partner Doesn't Want to Come to Couples Counseling?
Why not just talk to my best friend or a trusted family member instead of some stranger?
I'm not sure I want to be in this marriage/relationship anymore. Wouldn't it just be a waste of time and money?
What Can I Expect in the First Session of Couples Counseling?
How many sessions will it take?
Do you think we should do individual counseling first to work on our own issues before we come to marriage counseling?
I looked online and most counselors do couples counseling. What makes you any different from the rest of them?
Do you work with LGBT couples?
Is there anybody that you would NOT take into marriage counseling?
Are you a Christian or spiritual counselor?
What kind of person are you?
Couples / marriage counseling is different from individual therapy. Talking to one person without the spouse or partner present makes it feel 'unsafe' for the absent partner. No matter how fair you may try to be, you can't tell your spouse's perspective,. The partner needs to have his or her own voice and also help us determine what his or her issues are as well.
Another reason that I don't do free phone consultations is that talking on the phone is very different than participating in a session -- especially in couples counseling. Therapy starts with the forms you fill out in advance and in the very first session. When we meet, you get a sense of me AND of the work. Then, I send you home to decide if we are a good fit and if you want to commit to doing your part in strengthening your marriage or relationship. I believe you make a much more informed decision that way.
I'm a big believer in couples finding
the right 'fit' for couples therapy. There are
therapists I think are excellent and would send my
own family to, but I wouldn't go to them because
they are not a good fit for me. In our very first
session, you both get to experience me, we look at
what you want to get out of counseling, we start
laying issues on the table, talk about how we are
going to work, and I try to give you a taste near
the end of the session of the way I would work in
I do not make a second appointment at that point. I send you home to talk about it, decide if I and the way I plan to work with you is a good fit, and if you are willing to do your part in it. Then we either set up another appointment or I am happy to try to give you a referral to someone else that might be more of what you are looking for.
I require the spouse to come to at least one session of couples counseling. Most often, even if a spouse was reluctant, they are willing to come back, but it is up to them to decide after the first session. It is essential to have their perspective, what bothers them, how they experience you and the marriage or relationship -- both positively and negatively. Otherwise, I can't help you effectively if you end up coming in alone later. There are two people in the relationship. Both people create the quality of it and both partner's needs, concerns, fears, hopes, dreams, longings, frustrations, hurts, need to be considered whether they come back or not.
Having one or two trusted people you can vent to from time to time can be a great support for you, especially if they support your marriage and your spouse. However, when it comes to marriage and relationships, talking about the problems to friends or family can actually undermine you sometimes, even though your family member or friend is very well-meaning. Sometimes even talking individually with your own therapist about your spouse or your relationship can do the same! Why?
Family and friends love you. They want to protect you from hurt and want you to be happy. The problem when you start talking about your hurt, your unhappiness in your relationship or things your partner does or fails to do that frustrates you, people close to you will nearly always 'take your side'. All they are hearing is YOUR pain, YOUR frustration, YOUR experience in the relationship. So it's very easy for them to say things like, "You deserve better than that. You shouldn't stay with someone who . . . . ." "Why do you put up with that - that's unhealthy", etc. An individual therapist can say the same thing because they are only hearing the negative effect on you. However, they are not hearing what happens on your spouse's side, or what the spouse's intent is that can be positive yet have a negative effect. For example, in YOUR frustration, you might criticize your partner. Then your partner withdraws and eventually stops trying. They avoid talking and avoid you. And then you get more hurt and frustrated and criticize more -- and they withdraw more. NEITHER pattern of reacting works. If your friend, family, individual therapist hears, "He or she completely avoids talking about important issues . . . . I feel like I'm alone trying to work on our marriage . . . it doesn't matter enough to him/her to sit down and talk about it" . . . . I always feel alone when it comes to the important things in building our marriage . . . .", how do you think someone listening would respond? So the couple together needs to understand their effect on each other and learn better ways of working with issues that doesn't add more to the distress and disconnection.
A good couples counselor is going to consider the needs, concerns, longings, and frustrations of BOTH of you, help you see that HOW you work them is a often a big part of the problem and keeps you stuck. The counselor helps you learn to work through them in a more connected way, create more emotional safety for one another, build more emotional intimacy and transparency, and help you make more effective changes at the root of what fuels most of your frustrations.
I'm not sure I want to be in this marriage/relationship anymore. Wouldn't it just be a waste of time and money?
Most often, people thinking of
leaving their marriage are just sick and tired of
feeling unhappy, disconnected or alone in the
marriage, tired of arguing, tired of some behavior
of their partner. They have usually tried on their
own, and sometimes even with some counseling, to
change things and nothing has worked. The fear is
that it will never change and that this
unhappiness will be the next 20 years of their
No one wants to live in an unhappy relationship. But if you could clean out the distress, disconnection, and create a marriage you both would want to be in, would you want to do that with this person who is your spouse? If so, do marriage counseling. Usually, it will only be a waste of time and money if you have no desire to do anything more to try to make it better, if you blame it all on your partner and are not willing to look at your own contribution. Both people create the distress, mostly without meaning to. One might add more distress than the other. But usually with even some willingness to work, people can start creating more of what they want in the relationship they are in. (If there are addictions or mental illness, that would need to be addressed first.)
Before the Session:
When you make your appointment, I will send you an email with instructions to create your private space on the Client Portal. Each of you need to create your own. There are 2 forms to fill out in advance of the first session. One is a basic name, address, medications, etc. form. The other form requires more time and thought because it is about your marriage, you and your partner. The Client Portal is a secure area for you to keep your forms, some of your work, notes I will share about sessions, and a place where we can send secure emails about the session so that all of your information is kept confidential and safe. I will also put handouts or other things for you to do on the portal so you can have most of your activities and work in one place. I don't mind making appointments by regular email, but anything that has more personal information should be through the secure client portal.
At the First Session: The counseling room of my office in Winter Park (part of the Orlando area) is like a living room. The atmosphere is warm and cozy. However, because I cannot control the temperature, I suggest bringing a sweater just in case it is a little on the cool side on the day you come.
I like to plan for one hour and a half for the
first session (no extra charge for the extra half
hour in this session.)
We start by clarifying what you each most want to get out of counseling. I give you a framework for thinking about how you create your relationship. We then look at the behaviors and patterns that are not working in a non-blaming way. Sometimes I will add in some information about one of the issues. I do take notes in this session, which I will later type up and share with you on the client portal. Then, I usually have 15 minutes or so at the end where I can give you a taste of how we would work together in future sessions. I begin by teaching and coaching you in a core set of communication skills as you talk about one of your smaller frustrations. Then I send you home to decide if you want to work with me or not and you let me know.
Years ago, before cell phones, a
man driving across state ended up going down
several country roads out in the middle of
nowhere. His car broke down and nothing he did
helped. He figured that he would just have to
walk to the next town to get help. He saw a
farmer working in a field near the road and
called out, "Excuse me sir, how long will it
take me to get to the next town?" "I don't know"
replied the farmer. "How can you not know" said
the man with irritation. "I said I don't know"
replied the farmer. The man angrily started off
walking down the road. The farmer called out,
"It will take you about 25 minutes." "Well, why
didn't you just tell me that in the first
place", said the man. The farmer replied, "I had
to see how fast you walk!"
I usually plan from 6-12 sessions. Sometimes it takes less, sometimes it can more. It depends on how hard you work. It depends on whether you are working between sessions with me. And occasionally, it just depends on your situation. For example, recovering from a recently discovered affair will take longer than having communication problems. But my focus is short-term counseling while still helping you do the work you need help doing.
Do you think we should do
individual counseling first to work on our own
issues before we come to marriage cunseling??
Most times that is not necessary. Everyone has 'issues' and could benefit from counseling. However, in marriage counseling, you often do work that impacts those issues when you are working wih frustrations and patterns. In fact, it is often individual patterns that create problems in the relationship, so we are working on that. And because conflict brings those things to the surface, it can lead to healing and growth both as individuals and as a couple. However, as you will see in the section below on who should NOT come to marriage counseling, if you have an addiction, severe anxiety or depression, or bi-polar or similar disorders, you should be getting help for those kinds of things first and decide with your counselor when you are ready for marriage counseling.
I looked online and most counselors do couples / marriage counseling. What makes you any different from the rest of them?
Several things. Of course there are other good, competent marriage counselors out there. However, there are several things make me different from most marriage counselors.
1. One of the big things that makes me
different is that I focus exclusively on
marriage and adult love relationships.
Many licensed counselors are 'generalists'. That means they see individuals, couples, maybe families for issues ranging from anxiety and depression, addictions, personality disorders like bi-polar disorder, trauma and PTSD, self esteem, and a variety of other issues. Even many who list themselves as Marriage Counselors, also do all those other things.
Although I have a background earlier in my career working with many different types of people and issues, over 25 years ago I chose to specialize only in marriage and relationships. If you have a potential heart problem, you would want to go to a cardiologist, not just a family medicine physician. The precious heart of your love and your marriage needs a specialist. If some of those other common issues like anxiety are not just related to the conflict, and continue to have a significant impact even when things are starting to improve, I will refer that person to get some extra help with an individual therapist for that particular issue. If it's related to the conflict, it usually gets better as the relationship gets better or with just a couple of tools.
Most counseling degree programs often require only one or two courses on marriage and relationship counseling. Because I focus on relationships, I have done a lot of advanced training in marriage, relationships and helping couples. And, because it is my passion, I continue to do most of my continuing education in either some couples training with leading marriage experts and researchers like Harville Hendrix, John Gottman, Sue Johnson, Ellyn Bader, or in things related to couples' counseling-- for example, how the brain 'reacts' and goes into self-protection that sets up disconnecting patterns and how to act more from your values, goals, and vision, or how to use knowledge about your brain to be more effective in changing a behavior. I also use what I learn and teach in my own relationship. Like most therapists, I also use what I have learned from personal relationships in life and from the many years of working with diverse clients with many different issues.
2. I differ from most counselors in that
I do not view you or what's happening in your
relationship as a diagnosis of some type of
The majority of therapists, especially those who take insurance, have to fit you into a diagnosis code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or most insurance will not pay. Most of my couples don't have a mental disorder (although it can feel crazy-making at times!). Some do have anxiety or depression or something they have already received a diagnosis with another therapist and are getting help. However, they are coming to marriage counseling because they usually have patterns of relating that don't work and they want to feel happier, more connected, more valued, have better communication, or work through conflict and issues as a team that grows stronger together. THAT is not a mental disorder. It's a sign of health!
Diagnosing relational patterns that are
ineffective and making them 'pathological' or part
of a ‘mental disorder’ is not usually helpful in
couples counseling. And many times, it is
inaccurate. Sometimes there are disorders, but
usually people have or are receiving help with the
issue from another counselor or professional.
People's behavior makes sense and is often
perfectly 'normal' -- even though ti doesn't work
and adds to the problems and unhappiness in the
relationship. The 'problem behaviors' or
'patterns' are often normal ways we try to protect
ourselves and get love. They don't work, but they
3. Another thing thing that makes me
different from many marriage counselors is in
the way I work and my basic philosophy.
• In over 25 years of experience, and in what I know, I know there is almost always far more hope to repair and strengthen the marriage or relationship than couples often believe. I believe conflict is often an opportunity for healing and growth of both people that can make you stronger together. HOW you work with it can make a huge difference in whether it helps or hurts your marriage.
I believe in not making couples dependent
on a therapist.
That means I am always working to teach and coach you in tools you learn in my office so that when issues come up in the future, you have more effective skills to work through them on your own. I believe in short-term therapy and I use Imago Relationship Therapy. I don't believe in dragging it out for a year. Either you are going to do the work or not. If you do the work, you are likely making progress. If you don't do the work, you won't make much progress. If you wait too long between sessions -- especially in the beginning, you will tend to slip back into old patterns, have conflicts that you are not working with effectively, and take steps backward., Usually couples can recover, but it will take you longer that way and feel harder. As couples work, I usually like to start spreading sessions out longer because I want couples to be working to implement what they are learning at hom. I want you to come in and work very hard. Then, when you've worked through some of the things that had you stuck, have a grasp of the skills and tools, understand each other more deeply, I want you to then go out and continue to use the tools any time you need them to deepen emotional intimacy and connection and to create win-win approaches to issues. Of course, if you get stuck, you can come back for a session or two, but I want to empower you to have what you need to continue to strengthen your love and connection, and build the kind of marriage or relationship that you both want.
I help you discover the one or two
'roots' that fuels most frustrations and hurts.
You've probably had the experience where you think you've fixed one frustration, but almost the same conflict pops up later about something else. So, in addition to teaching tools and skills, I help couples find the 1 or 2 'roots' that fuel most of their conflict, frustrations, hurts and misunderstandings. Learning how to work with those 1 or 2 core roots in each partner helps you make more effective changes that are going to have the biggest and most widespread impact. That's why 'problem-solving' by itself is often more like a 'band-aid'. It doesn't address what causes the wound to keep reappearing or re-opening, so the same 'issue' pops up about a different topic. And problem-solving alone often does not create the inner motivation for change and often does not fully address the underlying concerns, fears or longings of one or both partners..
I don't let couple fight in my office and
then try to referee the fight OR just nod and
say I understand.
I teach you ways to work with issues in ways that often deepen understanding and connection instead of adding more disconnection by fighting. When you can truly understand each other, and the effect you sometimes have without meaning to, you can often come up with creative and effective ways to approach the situation, and sometimes just dissolve that conflict. I DO give homework for you as a couple -- some of which you do or practice together, and some of which may ask you to reflect or make a list of something individually. This is not 'busy' work. Homeworks are building blocks to help you make more progress more quickly.
4. I am also different from most
therapists in that I am a big believer in
sharing my notes, my thoughts, with YOU.
In my experience, sharing my notes or thoughts after some sessions helps you think about and process things more fully after a session and it allows you to clarify something that I may have misunderstood or not understood fully. Yes, I am a marriage/relationship expert. But even counselors can miss things, or misunderstand something -- which is why it is important to check out things with you! Plus, this is about the two of YOU -- it benefits YOU to see what I am thinking or wondering about. Marriage counseling is not a counselor doing something to or for you. It is you and the counselor, each with a different perspective and different skills, working together to empower you to build the marriage the two of you want. So it's important we all share our insights, ideas, strategies with each other to give you the best possible path forward.
Yes. Over the years I have worked with many couples in a same sex relationship or marriage. I am not knowledgeable enough about transgender issues, so I would recommend that you find someone else if that is an aspect of the help you need. However, if you are coming for issues like communication in your marriage, working with conflict or ineffective patterns, and you happen to identify as transgender, I am happy to work with you.
Yes, there are people who I would not take, and
some who need to do some other work first:
If there is a history of domestic violence, joint couples counseling is usually not wise because what is said in session can be used against you later and possibly put you in danger -- OR, it will cause you to hide things and not be fully honest in counseling. I have worked with couples where the incident that brought them in was that in a middle of an argument, one pushed the other or something minor. But it is not a pattern of domestic violence or coercion and that is usually workable as a couple.
If there are addictions or drinking or
other substance use that is considered a problem
by ONE of you, you will need to actively be
addressing that with a specialist in addictions
and be drug-free or sober for 3 or 4 months
before you do couples counseling with me.
Your counselor can help you know when you are ready for couples counseling. Otherwise, those times of drinking too much / too often or doing drugs, will undermine everything you are trying to do in marriage counseling. It only takes one time to undermine weeks or months of progress as a couple.
You want to come to me because you or
your spouse is depressed, suffers from anxiety,
has bi-polar disorder, or severe and persistent
erratic behavior that is affecting your
Again, my focus is the marriage or relationship. Get help with those oher things first, then when your counselor thinks you are ready for marriage counseling, I am willing to work with you. Having said that, some of your spouse's behavior may look like an over-reaction or 'unhealthy' to YOU and may be just be part of the fight or flight reaction when something accidentally triggers him or her in the relationship. THAT I do work with. (That probably happens in most couples who come in!)
You are still in an affair with someone
else and don’t have any desire or commitment to
I often see people after an affair has been discovered. So I will work with couples after an affair. Sometimes the person having the affair wants to end it and doesn’t know how. Sometimes it is not easy for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the other person pursues them to continue the affair. In those situations where you want to, are committed to, but need some help, ending the affair as part of rebuilding trust and emotional safety is essential as an early goal. No matter what the reason for the affair is (and there are a variety of reasons why they happen), the betrayal does major damage to the spouse and to the marriage or primary relationship. Rebuilding trust is core. Trust can never be rebuilt with an affair still open. Increasing connection and vulnerability won't happen with an affair still open. Recovery from an affair takes longer than anyone wants, but it is possible. Couples can go forward and create a stronger marriage than they had before if both are willing to work.
My faith is important to me in how I live my own life and the decisions I make for me, but I don’t consider myself a ‘Christian’ or ‘spiritual’ counselor. I have clients, family and friends of different faith backgrounds and some who consider themselves agnostic or atheist. If spirituality is an important part of your life, I am comfortable with that and would encourage you to draw on that as a resource for building or repairing your marriage or relationship. We can incorporate that in your work. At the same time, I do not believe in imposing my path on anyone else. People find their own ways of tapping into their sense of 'something bigger' and that is their way — even if it doesn’t include specifically ‘religious’ beliefs or practices -- or is very different from my path. The majority of people don’t say anything about spirituality in marriage counseling, but some do. I don't decide that -- it's up to you!
I am warm, down-to-earth, understanding, practical, straightforward in a kind way, optimistic and value integrity. I am a big believer in choosing gratitude as one path to happiness as an individual and in my relationships. I care deeply about the couples I work with and I am passionate about the work I do. One of my gifts is helping people feel 'safe' in counseling and couples often comment on how they both have felt safe in counseling or the workshops.
I believe in practicing what I preach. I use the principles and tools I teach couples in my own relationship. I look for the best in people and life, and at the same realize there are upsets and challenges that need to be addressed and not swept under the carpet. I believe even frustrations and disagreements can be done in more positive ways than we usually see in relationships and in the world and can benefit both parties. I think growing as individuals and as spouses, partners, friends and in other relationships is a life long journey of adventure and discovery -- even in the potholes we encounter.
Outside of work, I enjoy music, being in nature, photography (just as a hobby!), working in the garden, reading, researching my family tree, traveling and hanging out with family and friends. I am also very blessed to have a large extended family locally, and wonderful friends. I'm happy to have Facebook to keep up with family who live further away in Florida, my cousins in Australia, and friends all over!
(You can find out a little more about me on my bio page on this website. )