An Interview with Israel and Cathie Helfand

By Tammi-Lynne Moore and Michael F. Shaughnessy

Israel Helfand

Dr. Israel Helfand is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with his wife and co-therapist, Cathie, running Marriage Quest retreats at their 1850s homestead in northern Vermont.

The Helfands have been working together, as a couple, with couples for over 20 years since they met in graduate school in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Today their work focuses on improving marital and intimate relationships, as well as helping businesses with their human relationship systems.

1. Why did you choose Marriage Counseling specifically?

Like many fellow students at the time, and I suspect still today, I was looking to understand myself and the crazy family I came from. “Family Systems” was a breath of fresh air to me… realizing that there is really no such thing as an identified patient or a dysfunctional system. Systems, by way of their nature, even crazy ones… function!

When I was going through marital problems myself in the 80’s I sought out counseling for myself only to realize later how counterintuitive that decision is. In the final attempts to save my marriage, I talked my Marriage and Family Therapy supervisor and mentor into doing a marathon conjoint therapy session with my wife and me. It proved infinitely more useful than all the individual therapy I had done. This laid the groundwork for what was to come for me professionally.

2. What is Marriage Quest?

Marriage Quest is a 3-day intensive marriage retreat that my wife and co-therapist, Cathie, and I facilitate. We work together as a couple one couple at a time. It is a combination of educational, cognitive behavioral, and experiential experiences. We know that understanding plus action (skill building, like communication work) equals change. Understanding alone is not enough.

3. What are you trying to accomplish during these 3 days?

Being systemic in our approach, we have three clients every time we work with a couple: the husband, the wife, and the marriage/relationship. Each entity has needs and desires that must be addressed. Many couples seek our help to make a decision about whether to stay in the marriage or leave. Some couples want to work on improving their love life with each other. Others are looking to improve their communication together. Goals are negotiated with each couple and can change as our time together unfolds. “Getting to the truth” is the one common thread that exists in all of our work.

A valuable secondary gain of our marital retreat work is the improvement of the integrity of the family system in general, a re-balancing of the system. Many couples don’t connect their marital stresses with their children’s difficulties. The benefit can be profound.

4. What has been the feedback?

Our goal is to get to the truth, to help make each individual healthier and more satisfied in their relationship. For some couples, learning how to negotiate conflict is needed to make the marriage more satisfying. For others, their marriage feels irreconcilable to them, and therefore lovingly letting go is the beginning of their healing journey. Our purpose is to be supportive to each person, imparting information on useful relationship skill techniques and understanding family and relationship patterns.

We commonly hear that a three-day program with us is better than six months (or more) of weekly therapy sessions. I estimate that 20-30% of the couples we see are therapists (like psychologists, social workers, and other such professionals). Their feedback is a profound realization of how little they knew about relationships, communication, intimacy, and sexuality before working with us.

Most couples truly appreciate the luxury of spending hours talking through issues with their spouse, going to a deeper level than what ordinary life commonly allows for. It is a very satisfying experience to gain new tools for intimate communication and then to take the time to work on it. Weekly sessions are usually very frustrating, and non-productive.

Another interesting population we have worked with is high-profile couples such as people in the news, sports figures, politicians and high-powered execs and attorneys. They often find out that the way they communicate with the public is the opposite of how they should communicate with their loved ones—in an intimate relationship.

5. When should a couple worry that their marriage is in trouble?

The truth is that couples should do this work when there is NO trouble. Prevention and education are obviously very useful when it comes to relationships and marriage specifically. Unfortunately, our smallest population demographic is pre-marital couples. Learning to communicate, understanding the psycho-sexual stages of marriage and family, understanding the normal influences from one’s family of origin, discussing common parenting issues, and exploring personal values such as religion, politics, social responsibility, spirituality, family economics, etc. is useful for all couples to do. And we believe… the sooner the better. The longer a couple waits to negotiate their issues, the more difficult the process and the more likely that some damage has been done. For example, we have worked specifically with couples on what we call “affair prevention”. These are often couples where one spouse (or both) has had a pattern of extra-marital relations during previous relationships/marriages. It is useful to work on the relationship BEFORE there are problems.

6. What are the keys to a successful marriage?

Having two “whole” people really helps. Being a whole person means having emotional intelligence, and understanding one’s self (wants, desires, and behaviors). It also means being able to self-soothe, relax, be tolerant, patient, and humble. Knowing how to communicate thoughts and feelings while taking responsibility for behaviors, words, and actions without blaming others. Not asking questions, but really sharing one’s self. Intimacy is “in-to-me-see”. Being courageous enough to allow your spouse to see you as you really are, despite your fears or apprehensions. It is also important to do this with a positive flip. Couples who are more positive in attitude and tone are happier and more “successful”. In addition, it is clear that you get what you focus on in life. So asking for what you want or like you are more apt to get it.

Leaving “Mommy” and “Daddy” is important in the prognosis of marital satisfaction. Having more of an adult-to-adult relationship with one’s parents and siblings is best. Sharing common dreams, aspirations, and goals and enjoying the journey together is very useful. Couples often need to spend quality time alone together… weekly date nights, vacations without kids and/or parents, etc. Parents need to spend one-on-one time with their children, especially while they are growing up. This is good for the well-being of the whole family system.

It is often useful for couples to have some kind of spiritual or ritual practice that is shared. It could be almost anything, from dinner out and talking, to dancing or relaxing in the tub together with a candle lit… a community service project, a religious practice, political activity, volunteering at a nursing home, time enjoying nature… anything that connects both individuals with a sense of community, the role of servant leadership and a bigger meaning in life. Whatever the activity, it must be in line with the couple’s heart’s desire for it to be a true spiritual connection.

Lastly, to find a balance between being direct and assertively asking for what you want… and going with the mystery. For example, to have a juicy love life we believe that couples need to transcend emotional intimacy in order to reach the erotic. Her emotional intelligence may get in the way of intense sexual arousal. We help many couples to explore and rekindle a new sexual relationship with themselves and each other. This often makes for a rather strong marital bond.

7. Are couples today under more stress than they were 20 or 30 years ago?<

The World Wide Web has had an impact on many of the presenting complaints we have had. Easy and unlimited access to meeting people, spending money, gambling, and pornography are a few of the related stressors. I believe that the Web has exasperated the problem, not created it.

As our society loses more of its middle class, we are experiencing more of the polarization of the haves and the have-nots. Many couples are struggling financially, working many hours, and sometimes having second and third jobs. Again, this is not necessarily a new problem, but it seems to be getting worse

Another issue is the healthcare system and managed care… or “mangled care” as we sometimes call it. Sometimes the affordability and/or red tape of the medical and mental health systems make it near impossible to get the necessary help. Dis-ease sets in and causes yet more stress.

Finally, a significant increase and acceptance in the use of pharmaceutical medications today is notable. This trend conflicts with making lifestyle changes that are healthier. Most disorders described today can be lessened with a better lifestyle and attitude. “Take a pill and your stress will go away” does not teach anyone the skills of living and is potentially, systemically, a time bomb to the children and families of future generations. This deeply concerns me.