Co-Writing the Story of "Us"
BIRACIAL COUPLES THERAPY
Why do bicultural couples or couples in general, seek therapy?
There is great beauty in interracial and intercultural relationships - the chance to learn and grow from someone who may come from a different background and hold different perspectives from you.
But relationships are knotty, couples are complex, and partners bring in varied emotional baggage with different ways of understanding and arriving at their own solutions. Partly as a result of this, intercultural couples may face a greater share of challenges that can create dissonance and disagreement. Perceived differences in culture, race, and ethnicity can cause real issues in relationships - and some bicultural couples instead of waiting for a problem to occur are increasingly seeking professional assistance preemptively to create the relationship they are passionate about.
Couples coaching creates a safe space to help open up such challenging dialogs both within yourself and with your partner. Couples coaching is recommended and pursued by individuals at various ages and stages of their relationship: premarital, engaged, long-distance, newly or long-term married, divorced, or co-parenting couples. Whether you may drop into therapy for a beginner's course, try it as a "last resort" during your separation, or may choose to make it a lifestyle option, we offer coaching that can help you navigate sticky phases to create a relationship where you both can flourish. Concerns if effectively listened to and attended to by a seasoned professional can often spearhead real change for couples for they can unlock distressing episodes in the partners' lived experiences. What may appear as a problem at face value, may be linked to something more deep-seated and more meaningful for one or both.
Many couples who complete our course of 12 sessions report feeling more satisfied with greater intimacy and enjoyment of their partner. They also report that their relationship is on a stronger path. Scroll below to learn more about what an initial consultation and what does couples coaching look like.
What you can gain from couples coaching:
Better deal with life transitions or crisis
Getting in touch with your thoughts and emotions, or "check-in" with an expert for your greater mindfulness in loving
Learning life-long skills where you can continue to understand how gender, patriarchy, race and class can affect your tensions, doubts, fear, and feeling stuck
Broadening your palette in understanding your partner's emotional life to enhance empathy and understanding
Removing short-cuts in your communications with each other so you can say what you mean and in a way that it is received and reciprocated
Stepping away from reactive actions by learning the relational dances that may trap you
The Couples Coach
Dr. Shaifali Sandhya is a US and UK-trained psychologist and will be leading the couples sessions. Over the course of twenty years, she has collaborated with hundreds of couples and families across cultures on rebuilding their relationships. As a former professor of Clinical Psychology, she is able to break down complex ideas into easy-to-understand and digest forms for you to bring about newer communication styles and relatedness with each other. She offers couples coaching both online through Zoom videoconference and in-person. She holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago and an M.A. from the University of Cambridge. Please email our office by clicking here or fill out our appointment form for more details.
What does the initial consultation look like?
Duration: The initial couples consultation session lasts 50 minutes. A therapeutic hour is generally, 45-50 minutes.
Process: The coach invites you to relate your perspective on your challenges, history of your concerns, any goals that you may have for yourself and your relationship, and other issues you may deem important. Your partner will do the same. Throughout the session, the coach while providing a safe space for potential radioactive discussions may also ask clarifying questions. In the context of an ongoing issue, the coach may ask you, "Why are you seeking therapy now?" Towards the end of the session, the coach may suggest some treatment options, including the frequency of visits that may seem right for your kind of issue. In the days that follow after your consultation, you can decide whether you'd like to embark on a 7-12 week journey of self-exploration with your partner tailored around concrete goals
Feeling scared or shy? It will be OK. Your coach is a warm and experienced professional who will ask you the right questions to draw you out if words fail you. The therapeutic space is 'your' space where one baby-step at a time, you will be re-writing your story.
Telehealth/Online/ Zoom: Dr. Sandhya is currently offering online coaching for those who prefer the convenience of virtual visits. Online couples therapy or tele-therapy for couples or individuals does not differ in quality or substance from in-person onsite psychotherapy.
Click here to make an appointment
What does "therapy" or "coaching" look like?
There is going to be a lot of talking in therapy - but with insight, reflection, and purpose - so that you can connect the many dots of your life. Facilitated by insight and interpretation, it is a different kind of chat than you would have with a friend or family member.
As coaching progresses and based on your unique journey/ history, the coach may collaborate with you to determine your favorite learning method and offer recommendations of books, articles, exercises, questionnaires, and other resources enjoining learning through your different senses.
You will also learn useful couples techniques such as but not limited to, active listening skills, role-plays, perspective-taking, reframing, your unique toxic relational dance (s), and so forth to expand your relational lexicon and strategies you can utilize to have productive rather than counterproductive conversations.
We may work together to create family genograms or "family blueprints" to understand how the past may be unconsciously affecting the present if you feel ready. Above all, you hold the reins to the pace you feel comfortable with.
You control the pace of our work together, how much you want to share and what you want to share. As you gain good tools that restructure your habits and retrain your mind, you will also find that the effects of good therapy can last years after therapy ends. Based on your life history and what you've shared, a good therapist gives you all the data, but you still make all the decisions.
Feeling scared or shy? It will be OK. Your coach will be a warm and experienced professional who will ask you the right questions to draw you if words fail you. The therapeutic space is 'your' space where one baby-step at a time, you will be re-writing your story.
We believe strong relationships are not chanced upon but are actively co-created with collaboration and active listening. We help you parse through your mental noise that can exist in the form of rumination, negative filters. and other negative cognitive patterns to arrive at your inner dialogs. We help you resurrect a relationship that may have descended into a relationship where "anything goes" which may feel like mayhem to a relationship with operating values and predictability yet spontaneity if you wish.
Some goals couples can expect for the short-term or long-term
Whether you are with an "intellectually complex" or "impossible" partner, we assist partners from diverse cultural backgrounds with needs for both short-term and/or long-term strategies and goals ranging from:
Creating meaning through articulating values
Overcoming obstacles related to family factors
Relating unconscious lessons from childhood to the present
Opening up difficult dialogs
De-escalating conflict and destructive cycles
Building positive and reaffirming communication
Reducing reactive responses and enhancing compassion
Providing actionable collaboration and ongoing support
Creating a shared compass for moving forward
Introducing a shared and safe dictionary to talk with each other
Building accountability for promises made to enable renewed trust
Why do couples in general, come to couples therapy?
For modern couples who are navigating many unique stressors in our world today such as - racial justice, being a person of color, a transgender child, divorce, generational conflict, experiences of racism, historical trauma, immigration, care of a sick parent, or being gay - there may be many dialogs that can be difficult to engage with each other.
At other times, perfectly happy couples may find their relationship stuck and new conflicts erupting during life transitions -- wedding and the involvement of family; relocation; long-distance commute; unemployment; being in a rut; pregnancy; illness, or death of a loved family member or friend, or even a social justice issue such as the death of an African-American male. These transitions can bring about a changed or charged environment or renewed purpose in our lives, and rightfully, can create a psychological crossroads for some couples.
Consider 50-year old Cathy whose life was profoundly changed in 1999 with the brutal gunning down of 23-year old Amadou Diallo, the event calling into question her White middle-class values, Ivy-League schooling, professional career at a multinational company, and catalyzing a reasssment of her 15-year old marriage. Cathy's transition called into question the anchors of what she thought one's life or relationship was all about (Please feel free to scroll below to read other couples' stories; their identities have been changed)
Couples can also seek therapy if they find themselves trapped in repetitive and unproductive arguments or situations. A couple's arguments can be triggered by almost anything: whether gas needs to be filled; which spoon to use for stirring and which one for eating cereal; how to organize kitchen cupboards; how to discipline the puppy; who ought to take charge in setting the mood for sex; the tone one uses to talk; the volume of one's talk; whether crying during a 'talk' ought to be considered as a 'discussion-ender'; which partner has the 'bad tendency to litigate and not investigate'; whether during holidays one's hotel room ought to be spic and span, and so forth. With couples coaching you will learn new skills of communication, self-regulation, and awareness to transform a frustrating relational phase into one of growth, enrichment, and vibrancy.
Relationships offer a mirror to oneself and personal growth
The way couples deal with challenges can impact their sex lives, emotions, and stress levels. The rosy self-descriptors individuals use to describe themselves when they are single like "emotionally loyal," "care-free" can be challenged by their partners or may not hold when they find themselves living with another. Couples coaching or therapy can help you course-correct and open the doors to a more vibrant, mindful, and purposeful relationship.
What if I feel there's nothing wrong with me? What if my partner won't come to therapy/ coaching with me?
Therapy sometimes is not simply about you - it can be about those who love you and who are impacted by your behavior, in which case it becomes the most compassionate thing you can engage in. So, can one person-in-therapy change things for their relationship or family?, I've often been asked this question. Yes, you can. Systems therapy is the art of changing the system with one person embarking on learning and acting on certain strategies and we will work on these strategies and others together, during the coaching process.
Do other couples face the same challenges we face?
Often times, yes, but it may not be always. We all get mad at our loved ones - however, when anger is protracted or passive, important issues are neglected and a downward spiral can begin in relationships creating a relationship rife with defensiveness, blame, stonewalling, and criticism where important issues are repressed. When important needs are postponed, and underlying differences are not validated, appreciated, or respected they can start to erode the vitality of relationships. Like yourself, even when interracial couples share similar professional and socioeconomic backgrounds they can grow up with different cultural values that exposes them to unfamiliar attitudes, behaviors, or prejudices in each other or in their family members.
Cultural differences may span values and philosophies around money, need for independence versus interdependence, need for space, sharing home chores, children's discipline, gender roles, frequency of sex, and ascription to spirituality that may affect how you communicate with each other, levels of trust and confiding, intimacy, happiness, and the satisfaction levels in your relationship. What complicates things for intercultural couples is the absence of mentors, resources, and networks that they can call upon for support during challenging times. For, sometimes the ways they interact with their respective family/ social network might be affecting the rifts between them.
Some challenges faced by couples who navigate differences in race, culture, class, sexualities, and religion can range from:
greater emphasis, involvement, and interaction of extended family members in your relationship
varied subscription to cultures of both families
differential emphasis on money, materialism, space, or even what constitutes emotional connectedness
different preferences around the display of affection and maintenance of boundaries in your relationship versus friends on social media
how to gain acceptance from your partner's family members and/or how to prevent lingering issues from eroding your own relationship
different preferences on whether to prioritize the "couple" over one's parents and siblings; how to manage friends' or family's opposition to your relationship
and how to manage the differences that might emerge with being with a partner with a different immigrant status (first-generation versus the second generation)
But every person is unique and compared to others, you can face issues that are different.
Obstacles to Couples Coaching
A major obstacle for well-meaning biracial couples or individuals belonging to different race/culture/ethnicity seeking therapy is that an overwhelming number of psychologists in the U.S. workforce are either white or in general, not experts in cultural competency and/or couples relationships, and only about 15 percent belong to other racial/ethnic minorities. This can make it tremendously challenging to seek a therapist, connect with them, and to maintain a therapeutic relationship. In general, there is a dearth of psychologists and therapists who are trained in couples and family psychotherapy which is a specialized field.
VIGNETTES FROM INTERCULTURAL COUPLES
*names/identifying details have been changed
Caucasian American and French-Canadian Couple: "Am I falling again and again for the same wrong person?"
Timothy, 40-years old was born on a boat in the Arctic, the last of three siblings born to parents who were research scientists. "Growing up on the seas, I was always an adventurer guided by my own inner compass," shares Timothy. When he turned 30, while on an assignment as a photographer in Latin America, he fell head over heels with an Iraqi woman, Theresa who was a model. She had arrived in Latin America as a refugee and had spent her first six years of life in a refugee camp. After six months of dating her, Timothy discovered she was also dating someone else. When he confronted her, she ended their relationship. Following that, Timothy made it his mission to woo her back. He read self-help books voraciously, consumed podcasts, joined a codependents anonymous group, and self-medicated. One year later he succeeded in marrying Theresa only for the marriage to collapse spectacularly. "My entire world was her. That one was difficult," shares Tim. Over time, his tendency "to fall for impossible but intelligent women" has become more ardent. Timothy wonders whether he has a tendency to date women "who would soon become my clinical patients." In a relationship with Sophie who is French-Canadian and a ballerina. They both are seeking therapy to figure out how to better understand their past dynamics, manage their volatility, and whether they can work together to stay away from mixed messaging in their relationship such as: "Physically I want to be with you, but mentally I don't want to be here." Creating stability in their relationship has meant installing mental safe-guards individually so their relationship does not feel like a boat on choppy waters.
Caucasian and Indian-American Couple: "Is it Culture or Ellen's Personality?" asks Hari
Ellen, Caucasian, 32 years old, Director of business development at a hedge fund, and Hari, a 32-year old Indian-American Cardiologist have been dating for three years and find themselves stuck. "Mostly it is me feeling stuck with his family," shares Ellen. Although family issues have been ever-present in their relationship, as their relationship started to get more serious, family involvement also became highly charged. Hari is the eldest born son in his family, belongs to the Brahmin caste, and grew up in Michigan. Hari's parents always expected that he would marry an Indian woman. "I was pretty familiar with the Indian culture as I had done volunteering in India," says Ellen, but nothing prepared her for Hari's family. "His family is posing a lot more difficulties than I could ever imagine." After every trip to Hari's family, "I found myself in tears" shared Ellen. They grappled with significant and strenuous objections from his family as they attempted to create their own relationship. Their challenges ranged from: whether or not Ellen ought to learn the Indian language; should Hari be expressing his affections to Ellen in front of his conservative parents; whether Hari's parents would ever give approval and hence, legitimacy to their relationship, and so forth. Such family and cultural issues started to invade their intimate space and the couple became more enmeshed in defending or attacking family members than enjoying each other's company. Cultural issues - like, Hari being the oldest son and his family's caste also played in their relational dynamics.
Ellen and Hari were serious about their commitment but they found themselves stuck. Couples counseling assisted Hari in figuring out "Is it Ellen's personality that his mother refers as 'intolerable' or is it the culture that is posing as a challenge for us?"; helped Ellen could manage the authoritarian behaviors of Hari's family members in a culturally sensitive manner; and enabled Hari and Ellen to collaborate with each other to create a vibrant and empathic partnership along with strong family support for their wedding and ultimately, marriage.
Ghanian and African-American Couple: "Can we learn to communicate authentically without tearing into each other?"
Miriam, 29-years old, African-American is married to Ethan, 30 years, from Ghana. They met in high school and have been married for 5-years. For the last couple of years, their relationship has been going through a "rough patch" where little issues become big. Right from the time Miriam moved into Ethan's home, they cannot stop fighting on everything - from which spoon to use, which and whose dishes to keep versus donate, how to use the soap dispenser, and whether or not to use social media when they are having family dinners. In therapy, the couple acknowledges the disparate ways they have learned emotional expression and how it affects their exchanges. Miriam tells Ethan, "I keep communicating to you in different ways. It feels like either you are not listening or you are not understanding." Ethan grew up in Belgium when his mother sent him to live with his grandmother when he was only one year old. At some level, he is aware that he has "deep issues as a result of being an unwanted orphan that affects his inability to express emotions, but I don't know what to do." With growing awareness of how suppressed emotions might be playing a role in their conflicts, Miriam and Ethan learn to be emotionally present and develop their nonverbal sensitivity to each other for greater insight, support, and transformation. With this, they supported each other in building an environment of non-judgment and unconditional positive regard.
Caucasian and Indian-American Couple: "We are planning our wedding but will we be able to trust each other?"
Arya, 27-years old, Indian-American, and Patrick, 30 years, Caucasian, have been dating for the last year. They met each other on the dating app, Bumble, and shortly after started dating. As they spent more time together, they discovered they aligned on family values, shared an unspoken understanding of what was most important in life, had similar abilities on articulating things well, enjoyed having sex with each other, and realized they "just absolutely adored each other." Arya came from a traditional Indian family with many constraints on her freedom when she was growing up. In order to survive the controlling and strict family environment, Arya found herself lying or "manipulating the truth." When Patrick was very young, his father in pursuit of an affair, deserted their family. Following the divorce, Patrick's mother raised him and his siblings with the support of her extended family. Recently, jealousy and trust issues seemed to have been sparked between Arya and Patrick over "flirtatious messages," Arya perceives that Patrick exchanged with an ex on Instagram, Facebook, and Facebook Messenger. Patrick is similarly concerned whether Arya "embellishes the truth" or even whether there are "lies of omission" or he wonders, "if she's manipulating with others, she's going to manipulate me." "We are bringing out the worst in each other," Arya shares, and both Arya and Patrick "want a reset button in their relationship where they can grow their relationship and themselves in positive ways." Among other goals, therapy focuses on establishing expectations and healthy boundaries of communication on social media.
Irish-American and Polish-American Couple: "Can we repair our marriage after an affair?"
Scott, 40-years old, Irish-American and Brenda, 39-years old, Polish-American, have been married for 3 years. They are both surgeons and met each other when they were on a fellowship. In the past three years, they have changed home, cities, and jobs three times. Shortly after their first child was born, Scott started an affair that Brenda discovered. The affair is over and after a series of talks, they want to figure out how to heal their hurt, initiate a new way forward, and repair their relationship.
Iranian-American and Palestinian Couple: "If you had religion, suicide would not happen."
Rania was twenty years old when her favorite uncle shot himself in the fields of Iran. He was her father's youngest brother, adored and cherished by all. Although her father was a well-established member of the Jordanian community in their town with great wealth, prestige, and respect Rania had always experienced her father as a distant patriarch who did not readily show his emotions. She had hoped though, that his brother's death would be a "wake-up call" for dad, that it might soften him to understand others' feelings and invite him to engage with her life. That was not to be - that same night her dad would berate her on her "way of living as an American" and that "if she would only pay heed to religion, all of this would not happen." Rania is now dating a Palestinian man and hopes to be able to stand her ground to marry someone outside of her community and culture; determine whether they share common values to create a compassionate yet egalitarian marriage. Rania identifies herself as "Jordanian" she also believes that "Being Iranian is not completely who I am but feeling American feels foreign." Rania feels her identity is forged by having to be an immigrant and having to juggle different cultures. She can see the similarities in culture with her Palestinian boyfriend's culture and since both of their cultures don't encourage dating, they want to understand what it means to build a partnership and be a couple in the long run.
Surinamese and Caucasian Couple: Can we get over his betrayal?
"When I first arrived in Surinam as a medical student on a humanitarian mission, I fell in love with Kenny immediately. But I was married," shares Sarah. Although it was not Sarah's first dalliance, their torrid affair caused her to keep returning to Surinam from America, again and again. A year later she applied for divorce so Kenny (who had been previously married and had children) and she could be together. Kenny had grown up as fourth-generation Surinamese with Sri-Lankan roots. Life was fast-paced for Sarah and Kenny and they decided to settle in America. As Sarah traveled back and forth that year, Kenny had an affair with someone else. But Sarah's pregnancy with Kenny's child and travels proved to be a detriment in doing justice to any discussions at that time. Three years later as Kenny and Sarah set up a home in America with a blended family, old feelings of hurt resurface and they ask: "How can we resolve Kenny's betrayal?," "How can we adjust as a blended family in a small predominantly white American town?; and, "How can we help Kenny manage feelings that arise from being treated as a minority based on his skin color?"
Multicultural Therapy for Minority and Diverse Clients
Psychotherapy for Minority Clients Navigating Race, Language, Sex, Faith and Ethnicity
Dr. Sandhya provides interfaith and intercultural therapy to clients who come from different cultural, racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds such as African-American, Italian, German, Palestinian, Chinese, Saudi, Iranian, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian, Jamaican, Moroccan, Iraqi, Cameroon, Uganda, Egyptian, Korean, Syrian, Sudanese, Nigerian, and African-American. Dr. Sandhya's multicultural orientation and sensitivity is informed by her academic writings on the global family as well as her interviews of families in many countries around the world.
Benjamin: "I have not seen successful relationships. How can I be less guarded with the woman I want to marry? How can I understand the unsaid at work?"
What Benjamin, 38-years old, African-American, investment banker, an Ivy League graduate wants more than anything is to live a life of abandon yet spirituality, to take leaps of faith in love and be able to express himself without inner censor or fears in his professional and personal life. Benjamin grew up in a rough inner-city neighborhood of Detroit where families never felt safe to send their children to school and where most were caught up in drugs, gangs, and poverty; his parents too, battled their own addictions. Benjamin was the only one in his county and across all generations of his family to graduate from college. Despite being talented, ambitious and successful, Benjamin struggles with articulating his thoughts to others for fear of dismissal or disparagement; taking leadership in managing communication at professional meetings; and developing a better social IQ to pick up up the subtext in a politically charged work environment. In therapy, he develops action items to to empower his public speaking abilities and nonverbal body language; learns how invisible and insidious effects of race can affect the communication of even successful Black men like himself; how to proactively build supportive and mentoring relationships; and, how to invite, encourage, and sustain open-hearted conversations with his girlfriend.
Anthony: Achieving Success While Negotiating Identity and Race In Corporate Finance
Anthony, a Stanford-educated MBA, African-American, works in a high-stress and cut-throat financial environment where smooth interpersonal dynamics are key factors in driving success and determining promotions. Anthony is ambitious, trustworthy, with a high social IQ, and hardworking but struggles with confidence, self-esteem, and projecting leadership attributes, stumbling blocks in moving up the corporate ladder. Most specifically, "I am fine in small groups, but in large groups, my heart starts racing and I feel my nervousness overpower my expressions."
Anthony grew up impoverished in a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood of Chicago were crack cocaine, alcohol, and violence were the norm of life. "There were lots of disappointments in my childhood. I saw my friends, family and neighbors did not attend school, but instead, they battled addictions" he shares.
Unspoken and unique cultural challenges of race may affect even successful African-American men and women in our society today; these need to be expressed, validated, and integrated for their overall well-being. Sheer grit, perseverance and hard work have brought Anthony material successes - in therapy Anthony's goals are to embark on authentic conversations with himself; to express himself to others without fear of repercussions; to learn the invisible impact his family, race, and cultural legacy have on his present-day behaviors, nonverbal expression, identity, and belongingness; and to create rewarding mentorships for interpersonal and professional successes.
Kristina and Alison: An Out and Proud Lesbian Couple
Kristina and Alison met while working at a multinational technology company, and they soon learned that their backgrounds could not be more different. Alison belonged to a family who was staunch social conservatives, white, blue-collar community, and not college-educated. Although Alison's mother was Catholic, she was supportive of Alison and was loving and warm towards Kristina. However, being in a relationship Alison and Kristina learned that even though they came from loving families, homophobia occurred in nuanced and sometimes, overt ways. It could also manifest in the expectations and aspirations they held of themselves and their relationship - "aspiring to be married versus always having a pretend friend who, in effect was one's partner" or "being a parent versus always being a cool aunt." For their families too although times are changing, heteronormative notions of coupledom and legally recognized marriage were still ideas that subconsciously organized their thinking and behaviors. Alison and Kristina seek intercultural psychotherapy as a lesbian couple to relearn new methods of communicating their emotions and manage their expectations with each other's families.'
Dr. Shaifali Sandhya (PhD., The University of Chicago; MA, The University of Cambridge) is an experienced couple's and family therapist and has assisted hundreds of couples around the world in their quest for personal growth, enrichment, and happiness.
Engage in honest communication
Build a partnership around trust
Manage stressful family dynamics
Break your cycles of impasses and arguments
Acquire cultural awareness/ sensitivity
Gain greater empathy and perspective