Lissy Abrahams has seen distress arrive in her office and joy walk out of it. She’s seen couples who won’t touch each other at the start, leave holding hands. The turnaround stories she has witnessed give testament, over and over, to the value of therapy both for individuals and couples. The problem is there are not enough therapists in the world to meet the demand.
“One in three marriages end in divorce in Australia. We also have a mental health crisis taking place. So even though therapy is a great process, we need to think about new ways to help more people,” explains Abrahams, who is based in Sydney, but has a world-wide reputation as both an individual and couples psychotherapist.
Her game-changing solution is to move the therapy couch into people’s homes through her online programs and book, Relationship Reset: How to Break the Cycle of Conflict and Create Secure and Lasting Love, both of which are slowly revolutionising the way people can experience therapy. “There’s a lot that people can do on their own through books, online programs, and podcasts,” she explains. “If they need more, then they can go to a therapist too, but her solutions save time and money and offer a strong foundation. It starts the journey.”
It takes bravery to begin therapy, especially couples therapy, according to Abrahams. It requires a willingness to confront difficulties and want change. “People come to me often when they are in distress. Whether it’s because they’re not relating to their children, or their partner, or they’re struggling at work, or they feel lonely or exhausted, or had a major loss in their lives. But I believe in people’s capacity for change. We all have the capacity to improve our lives and relationships.”
With a wide, empathetic smile and her non-judgmental understanding of what it means to be human, Abrahams is the kind of person you want to pour your heart to. She calls herself The Queen of Awkward because she says she is dealing with awkward in some way every day. It’s part of being human.
Helping people matters to her. After years of study, training, and practice, she knows how to do it too. She specialises in couple’s therapy and her book is for anyone who is either in a relationship now, or curious about why a past one might not have worked. “Couples need help now more than ever,” she says. “This makes it critical that they can access information and the tools they need to improve their relationships.”
With easily digestible stories and explanations, Relationship Reset: How to Break the Cycle of Conflict and Create Secure and Lasting Love explores the science of our relationships, demonstrating how our childhood experiences wire us in how we behave in our adult lives, how they influence our fight style with our partner and how our ego trips us up. It also takes readers through steps to stop the cycles of conflict that undermine relationships.
It’s a subject close to her heart after watching her parents’ marriage struggle when she was a child. “There were times when I thought ‘Are my parents going to separate?’ That was a big fear of mine,” she explains. “Children are really just the passengers in the backseat of their parents’ relationship. If there’s a lot of conflict and distress, that will impact a child’s developmental trajectory. A major reason for getting into this is because I wanted to help couples make family life better for children.”
At the heart of her work is the understanding that we are all unconsciously programmed by thousands of micro-moments in childhood with our parents and caregivers, shaping how we relate in adulthood. “The way to join our past to our present is to understand it. Each of us inherits a program based on the environment we grew up in, and a lot of it is unconsciously held. It’s a program we didn’t sign up for, but it affects how we think, feel, and behave. We need to know what’s in that program in order to change it.”
Taking a journey into understanding ourselves is one of the most helpful things we can do, according to Abrahams. In relationship work, that means opening ourselves up to other perspectives. “We get very entrenched in our own viewpoints. Couples therapy looks to open up the space between the partners and explore how they interact, as well as why they behave the way they do. After some work, the success stories can really start to happen. Sometimes that can be a couple who can’t resolve a single conflict becoming able to sit down together and having a conversation without name calling or pointing fingers. Sometimes it might be couples who haven’t had sex for a long time, who want to touch each other again. I believe it’s entirely possible to create a life that someone can live and be happy in.”
That doesn’t mean every relationship can be salvaged. Research reveals it takes an average of six years of unhappiness before couples typically contact a couples therapist. “For some couples that’s too late,” she says. “People become wedded to the narrative of their partner being bad or inadequate. A lot of jabs and distress may have entered the foundation of the relationship. So, I do sometimes suggest couples separate if the work’s not building and there’s no changes coming along, and I know that there are children whose mental health is suffering. I rarely need to do this, but when I do I encourage them to do it in a kind and respectful way.”
That’s important to Abrahams. “It’s easy to destroy your ex. It’s easy to cut up credit cards so a partner doesn’t have access to financial resources. It’s easy to poison a child against the other parent. People do some pretty awful stuff during a separation and divorce. The real skill in separation is doing it well and respectfully.
“Even if your ex has cheated on you, even if they’ve harmed you in some way, I encourage people to ask themselves “How am I going to operate with integrity, so that twenty years from now I’ll be proud of how I managed this difficult period, especially if my children will be impacted by my behaviour. I want to know I did everything within a kind framework?”
That subject is of one of her forthcoming programs. Her others include Fight Less, Love More and Transforming Couple Communication – It’s time to Pull Up Your Socks. Her book, as well as these programs, take participants into the complex world of couples encouraging self-reflection and personal growth. Participants are invited to answer key questions like – What would your partner say is the reason you fight? Would you want to date you? There are no right or wrong answers. The questions are prompts to think.
“My work covers a lot of ground. Some of it might hit a few raw nerves because it’s personal. This might even feel awkward. But people don’t come to me for fun, even though we have fun. They come because they’re hurting and need a way to ease their suffering. I want people to know that change is possible, that relationships can become more respectful, more peaceful, more loving.”
Relationship Reset: How to Break the Cycle of Conflict and Create Secure and Lasting Love by Lissy Abrahams. Pan Macmillan Australia. $36.91
For Lissy Abrahams online programs and free ebooks: www.lissyabrahams.com