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An Example of TherapEmailâ„¢

Written by Lawrence J. Murphy, Senior Counsellor at Therapy Online

You may be surprised at how effective TherapEmail - online counselling by secure email - can be. One of our counsellors, together with her client, recently published a description of what online counselling has been like for them. The article is entitled Being There.

Schell, D. (2010). Being there. Crosscurrents: The Journal of Addiction and Mental Health, 13(2), 16-17.

Below we've created a fictitious example of a client's first TherapEmail (identified by "W") and my response (identified by "L"). The client's comments are what she wrote in her description of her concerns when she registered for online counselling.

W: My name is Wendy and I am 41. I've been married for 12 years and I have 2 children.

L: I'm very pleased to meet you, Wendy. I can't help imagining that I am greeting you with a welcoming handshake and a warm smile. My name is Lawrence Murphy and I am 48 years old. I've been married 18 years, and I have two children as well. I have been a counsellor for over sixteen years, and have been working on the development of online counselling for the past fifteen. I could go on about who I am, but I want to respond to your concerns. If you want to find out more about me, please feel free to ask or go to my page on the web site. Enough about me for now. [motioning with my right arm]... please take a seat in the soft armchair across from me here in my office. I'll settle into mine too.

OK, now I'm really paying attention.

W: The biggest problem is that my husband (Mike) and I keep fighting about the stupidest things. When it gets bad, we end up saying really horrible things to each other. :-( Then we mope around for a few days until the anger wears off and we start talking again. Things are fine for a while. In fact, a couple of days after a fight is probably the best time in our relationship. But then we'll be talking about any old thing. I say something, he disagrees, before you know it we're arguing about something that happened ten years ago. I feel like he never listens to me. I am getting really tired of being the one who tries to hold everything together.

L: Hmmm... Sounds like you're starting to get really concerned about this pattern -- the fight, the cold atmosphere, the slow re-opening of communication, the good times, and the crash.

L: I feel concerned right now too. If you could see me now, you'd notice a bit of a furrow in my brow as I absorb the depth of what you're saying to me. [pausing now to think about what you're saying]...

L: I'm noticing that things get brought up that happened ten years ago [feeling curious about those things ... someone must've been quite hurt...]

L: I'm also noticing that you don't feel your husband is hearing you [shaking my head in concern]... communication is the glue of a relationship. I sense you know this. And you are starting to feel panicky that it's not happening the way you want it to.

W: Lately I've been thinking this relationship is the worst choice I ever made. I feel like it's hopeless. Sometimes I wish I could get out, but I know how hard that would be for the kids.

L: Hmmm... Your pain is deep and fear is growing.

W: On the other hand, my kids have definitely been affected by our marriage problems. They both disappear when we start to argue. My little girl (she's 7) gets really upset when we argue. I see fear in her eyes and it breaks my heart. There's no violence or anything, but the yelling really upsets her. I usually find her later in her room crying. My son, who's 12, kind of rolls his eyes in disgust when it starts to happen. He's been really disrespectful lately, and I think it's because he can see that things aren't going well in his parents' relationship.

L: The situation is getting pretty serious, isn't it. It must be awful to see your kids getting hurt like this.

W: I try to tell Mike we should calm down, but he gets all defensive and blames me for the yelling. It hurts me so much... That's usually when I break down and cry. I'm close to tears just telling you about it.

L: [biting my lip as I witness your pain] You're feeling pretty out-of-control... like you try to stop it, but it only gets worse. In fact, he puts you down... hurts you even more deeply. [taking a long pause now as I consider what this must be like for all of you...]

L: I'm not surprised that your tears well up. When you write to me and end up in tears, what is that like for you? Maybe you can tell me about this in your next TherapEmail.

W: Who has been affected? I guess you could say that some of my friends have been affected. I have a couple of really good friends that I've known since high school. We've been through a lot together, and right now it's their turn to give me a shoulder to cry on. I don't know what I'd do without them.

L: Wow! Wendy, these sound like amazing friendships! I'm so glad to hear that you have them. -- such long term relationships... so much mutual support. Are you aware that these kind of relationships are quite rare? You are very fortunate to have their shoulders to cry on. You can tell them I said so if you like!

W: It's really hard to talk about times when the problem has had less effect because the memories of this last argument are so fresh in my mind. We both said some awful things to each other....

L: Hmmm...

W: I can remember a couple of months ago we went so long without one of these arguments that we were actually commenting about it to each other, kind of joking about how there must be some kind of drug in the air. We were talking about how it must be because it was spring and the freshness in the air and the joy of the snow melting and life returning was upon us. Something made me feel different. Now that I think about it that was a really wonderful time. We got along well, Mike seemed like the man that I fell in love with. We joked around a lot. He phoned me from work almost every day. Sometimes he would even bring me a little gift home from work.

L: Wow! This is wonderful! I feel much more positive at this moment. [I don't want to downplay what's been happening lately, but I DO want to recognize what you just said!] I feel full of questions [excited too]:

L: How long did this "really wonderful time" last?

L: It seems like the promise of new life with springtime somehow helped to create "freshness, joy." I know winter is almost here, so the hope of new life is sort of fading. I'm just wondering how important that "springtime-ish, fresh, joyful, drug in the air" environment is for your relationship? Am I making sense? 'Cuz if it's that important, then the next question is How can you re-create it?

W: I miss how carefree we used to be...

W: I had to stop writing for a minute to collect myself. I just wish I knew what has gone wrong.

L: I can see that the contrast between the "alive" relationship with Mike last spring, and what's been going on lately really worries you, but I sort of feel less connected with you when you say: "I had to stop writing for a minute to collect myself." I imagined that you might've broken down in tears, and maybe that you experienced a wave of hopelessness. Would you be willing to fill me in on those feelings -- the feelings you had (have?) when you think of how carefree you and Mike used to be?

L: At this moment, I'm also realizing that you have a way of "collecting yourself." Can you tell me more about this? How do you do it? Is it helpful in some ways? Are there times when collecting yourself is helpful and other times when it is not?

W: Many things were different about that spring. Obviously we got along better. We used to share our feelings with each other. Now he doesn't say a thing. I used to feel I could say whatever was on my mind and Mike seemed to enjoy listening. But now there is a dark cloud over us and I feel like I'm walking on eggshells... like if I say something wrong, or say it the wrong way, well look out.

L: So communication used to be open, spontaneous, carefree. And you felt accepted. Now it sounds like you are quite afraid to speak, afraid of ?? Mike's anger? rejection?

W: Now that I think about it, another thing that was different was that we didn't have any added expenses to worry about. In fact it was last spring that we paid the car off.

L: Aaaahh, I bet you both felt a sense of relief about that. Are tight finances part of the problem now, do you think?

W: Another thing that was different was that Mike's parents were off vacationing in England. They really bring a lot of stress into our lives; at least that's how I feel. Mike is their only child and they still pamper him, but to the point of being intrusive. Am I making sense? They take care of the kids a lot, and I appreciate that. But they also constantly tell me how to parent. Sometimes I could just scream! Well, I guess the truth is that I do end up yelling when I'm trying to talk to Mike about it. It's like he's more loyal to his parents than to me. I wish he'd grow up.

L: [Nodding] Hmmm... there's a lot of stuff for us to talk about here, and I'm just about out of time. I think, at this moment, I just want to acknowledge the importance of this whole topic, and promise you that we'll come back to it as soon as possible.

W: OK, back to what was different in the spring... Another thing that was different was that we were making love more often. He seemed to be more attracted to me. And I felt closer to him; he was more like a friend. We were doing more things together, and he was spending less time at work. The kids were definitely happier... better behaved too. Arthur -- my son -- spent more time around the house. We did things more as a family.

L: Uh huh [nodding with a little smile]. I guess I just want to say that I appreciate your ability to be clear about what was different last spring. One thing that really stands out for me, besides the feelings of joy and love, is that you and Mike were spending more time together, and more time together as a family.

W: I'm not done yet, but it's getting late, so I think I'll stop here and finish the other questions another day. I hope this is enough to get started. Do you think you can help me? I really do want to save my marriage.

L: Wendy, I am so impressed with the work you've done here! You've obviously done a lot of soul-searching already, and I sense your eagerness to do more. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will grow as an individual through this process. And I definitely feel hopeful that your growth through the winter will bring your marriage back to the springtime.

L: I've booked time to reply to your next message a week Tuesday, so if you get a chance, maybe you could send me an update by then... Or if you don't get time, just let me know.

L: Very eager to hear from you again soon,
Lawrence Murphy


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