Alec Wilson, PsyD, Individual and Couples Therapist - Portland Oregon

Therapist Portland Oregon Individual Couples

Couples Therapy Portland

Alec Wilson, PsyD | Couples Therapy Portland

couples therapy portland

Couples Therapy Portland

In this article I discuss 5 keys to couples therapy, and answer FAQs couples ask prior to their first couples counseling session.

1) Couples Therapy Works.

2) The 1950’s Philosophy of Love vs. The Modern Philosophy of Love.

3) What Does Good Communication Look Like?

4) My Approach to Couples Therapy.

5) Couples Considering Separation/Breakup/Divorce.

Hi, I’m Dr. Alec Wilson.  As a couples therapy specialist in private practice, for 10 years I’ve helped hundreds of couples improve their communication, rediscover their spark, navigate productive separations, expand their anchors for experience, and recover from affairs. Good couples therapy takes dedication and expertise, it’s also fun and incredibly rewarding. My work with couples, whether with those in brand new relationships, or with those in 30-year marriages, is some of the most meaningful I do.

Let’s explore the 5 keys to couples therapy outlined above.

5 Keys to Couples Therapy | Couples Therapy Portland

#1:  Couples Therapy Works.

The research is clear:  Couples experience benefits from couples therapy, in several areas.  Here are the 3 main ways I help couples in my practice:

  • Communication Training. It’s important to have an agreed-upon structure for communication in your relationship.  If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, how will you know if you’re on target?  Couples struggle when they don’t have a common philosophy of good communication, and shared ideas about the nature of connection, disagreement, compromise, and fighting fair.  In couples counseling I teach a deep, organizing theory of connection, supported by specific communication tools you can practice with your partner.  You will begin to share a common language for closeness, and for working through misunderstandings, negotiations, and conflicts.
  • Recovery from Affairs and Other Rifts. Your relationship can withstand an affair.  Regardless of what you’ve heard around the water cooler, the research shows that 70% of couples who experience affairs stay together, and those who work with trained couples therapists report much higher rates of satisfaction and recovery.  Affair recovery therapy takes specialized training, it is not couples-therapy-as-usual.  As one of the few affair recovery specialists in Portland, I have helped dozens of couples recover from affairs.
  • Navigating Productive Separations. When couples feel caught at an impasse, when they feel persistently unable to make progress, it is normal for separation to enter the discussion.  If you and your partner feel clear that a separation is in the cards, I can help you plan a productive and healing separation.  Many couples (and couples therapists) fear that separation always leads to the end of the relationship.  This is not the case.  When the alternative is a binary choice like divorce, temporary separation can be a wise decision.  When couples have exhausted their ability to make progress, separations provide a dynamic break.  When correctly planned, they often lead to clarity and to rededicated, re-energized work on the relationship. 

#2:  The 1950’s Philosophy of Love vs. The Modern Philosophy of Love. 

The old school of love was born out of hard times—during an era of scarcity and social conformity.  It’s an out-of-date philosophy with three central messages:

  • Love is a form of self-sacrifice.
  • Sameness is a condition of intimacy.
  • The self is composed of two parts, good and bad. For growth, feed the good and starve the bad.

In brief:  If you run your relationship according to these rules, you’re likely to get worn out.  You’ll waste most of your energy, fear conflict, and beat yourself up for experiencing normal human emotions and needs.

The modern philosophy of love is based on concepts for couples that pencil out:

  • Romantic love is a reciprocal exchange, not tit-for-tat, but in the big picture. Both members of a couple need to feel consistently rewarded for a relationship to retain its spark.
  • It takes two healthy people to maintain a healthy relationship. Self-care isn’t selfish.  If you want your relationship to last, you’ve got to cultivate your own interests and take time to recharge your batteries.  It’s necessary to develop a connection with yourself, with others, and with the world.
  • Sameness is not a condition of intimacy. Authenticity is.  Compassion is.  To make a connection:  Practice being real, practice being kind.  You will frequently be on a different page from your partner.  That’s par for the course.  Your work is to learn to communicate during times of disagreement.  Conflict is often a communication problem with a solution, not a tornado from which to flee.
  • The self is composed of a thousand parts. Work to accept your own diversity, and your partner’s.  Recognize that you both have a full spectrum of needs that ranges from security to adventure.  This is normal, and it’s not going to change.  When you accept and integrate the parts of who you are instead of denying and repressing them, you make room for the productive expression of those parts.

#3:  What Does Good Communication Look Like? 

In this segment I briefly treat the concept of good communication.  If you want more on the subject, visit my blog site at and look for the free essay series A Workable Theory of Human Health, Avoidance, and The 5 Ways You Block Contact.

In its simplest form, intimate communication is composed of four parts:  An owned feeling, followed by an expressed need, followed by a reflection by the listener, followed by a conversational turn by the initial speaker.

If that feels like a lot, don’t worry, I’ll break it down.

An owned feeling is an I-statement followed by a feeling word, for example, “I feel angry” is an owned feeling.

An expressed need is a direct expression of what you want.  It’s ok to start with what you don’t want, but in the interest of connection it’s best to get to what you do want as soon as possible.

For example:  “I’m feeling angry about last night.  I didn’t like it when you were on your phone when I was trying to tell you about my day.  What I’d like is for you to be curious about my day, listen, and ask questions.”

A reflection by the listener means you repeat back the vital core, the golden seed, of what you just heard.

For example:  “You didn’t like it when I was distracted last night when you were trying to tell me about your day.  You want me to be present, and interested, when we check in at night.”

A conversational turn by the initial speaker occurs as soon as they feel heard and understood.

For example:  “Yes, that’s what I want.  What’s it like to hear me say that?  What was last night like for you?”

Just using these four concepts:  Owned feelings, expressed needs, reflections, and conversational turns—you can dramatically improve your communication.  Read the three free essay series mentioned above if you want more info about the process of good communication.

#4:  My Approach to Couples Therapy. 

My approach to couples work is called Collaborative Couples Therapy (CCT), an approach developed by Dan Wile, Ph.D.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dan Wile, but familiar with John Gottman and the work of the Gottman Institute, here’s a quote you’ll enjoy:

“I love Wile’s writing and thinking. They are entirely consistent with many of my research findings. I think that Wile is a genius and the greatest living marital therapist. I am blessed to have been able to exchange ideas with him.”      —John Gottman, Ph.D.

One of the key principles of CCT is to practice stating your ideal position and notice when you’re getting stuck in your fallback position.

Your fallback position is a massive power drain and a social death trap. When made conscious it sounds like this: “I’m not going to tell you how I really feel, I’ll tell you the feelings I think you can handle. I’m not going to tell you my real needs, I’ll tell you the needs I think you’re capable of meeting.”

Your ideal position is your actual take on the issue, it’s how you really feel, your most desired outcome. This is the beginning of intimacy and the seat of your social power.

A reminder: You are not being mean for expressing yourself and leading with your real take, your desired outcome. It is only the wounded who are threatened by honesty. It is only the wounded who will reject you for making contact.

CCT is an enjoyable and effective way to radically improve your communication skills and the level of emotional intimacy in your relationship.  It pairs well with the other main counseling theories I use in my practice:  Gestalt therapy, Emotion-focused therapy, and Attachment theory.

#5:  Couples Considering Separation/Breakup/Divorce. 

To couples at their breaking point, I offer two pieces of advice:

  • The first is to slow down the decision-making process. As human beings we hate the gray area, it’s a stressful place to be and being there drains our energy.  In many cases, we’d rather make a choice and be done with it.  But be careful applying this binary process to a decision about your relationship.
  • The second is to hire a neutral expert to help you, a trained couples therapist. When you have legal problems you hire a lawyer.  When you have medical problems, you hire a physician.  When you’re having problems that affect your primary relationship and the emotional foundation of your life, hire a couples therapist.  Let a third party help you talk through your historical dynamics and present-day problems.

Understand that the role of a trained couples therapist is not to moralize or to sit in judgment.  Your couples therapist is on both of your sides.  If you ever feel unsupported or judged in a therapy setting, you should bring this to your therapist’s attention immediately.  There is no identified patient in couples therapy, the relationship dynamics you enact with your partner have been constructed 50/50 and you will need to deconstruct them in the same way.

Alec Wilson, PsyD | My Practice | Couples Therapy Portland

Couples use therapy for many reasons. They come in to work on differences in values and communication, breakups, make-ups, marriage, affairs, divorce, remarriage, deepening commitment, career, trauma, and issues related to their personal histories — to name just a few. A large part of my practice is focused on relationship/couples’ issues, I strive to be a non-judgmental source of support and education for both couples and individuals working on these issues.

If you come in with a specific issue such as an affair or communication problems, I will encourage you and your partner to take an active role in researching that subject. Information gathering is an important part of change. Of course, I will provide reading recommendations if you want them.

Regardless of the specific focus couples come to work on, most people say their relationship could benefit from more openness, better communication, and increased honesty. Many couples remember with fondness the spark and closeness that defined the early phase of their relationship—but for one reason or another notice that their communication has gotten stale and their love has lost some of its shine. Many couples feel cut off from sharing pointed honesty with one another—the danger of vulnerable exposure and the threat of their partner’s response may feel too risky.

When was the last time you told your partner what you thought they could handle, rather than what you actually felt?

Many couples become caught in a distant communication pattern in which they don’t fully express themselves. This results in a problematic cycle of distance, misunderstanding, resentment, anger, blame, and an overall deadening of the relationship.

I can help you explore your communication patterns and help each of you express your unspoken feelings, values, disappointments, and needs. Getting to mutual honesty with your partner can be scary, but it is exactly this honesty that revitalizes a relationship and gets the couple moving again. When each partner is able to identify harmful relationship patterns and express, with my help, what they truly want from their partner they set the stage for better communication, more intimacy, and rejuvenated spark.

If you have questions about my approach to relationship counseling or to schedule an appointment, please contact me:

Alec Wilson, PsyD | Couples Therapy Portland


Phone: (503) 757-6259

Office: 3050 SE Division, Suite 260, Portland, OR  (In the ‘D Street’ building.)

FAQs About Couples Counseling | Couples Therapy Portland

Do you use Attachment Theory and Emotion-Focused Therapy in your work with couples? | Couples Therapy Portland

Yes.  These are important tools for any trained couples therapist.  Attachment Theory allows you to consider your attachment style and that of your partner, without need of pathology.  Emotion-Focused Therapy allows you to practice, normalize, and build resilience with the important emotions that arise in your relationship.

How can I persuade my partner to come to couples counseling? | Couples Therapy Portland

First, the obvious: Sometimes less is more. Try not to use threats or ultimatums to coerce your partner into couples’ counseling. Try letting them know what it would mean to you to do counseling together. If you are about to leave your relationship and see couples’ counseling as a last chance to save the relationship, you may decide to share this with your partner—try to be honest and calm. Connect therapy to positive feelings and outcomes for you and your partner—although it takes hard work, couples’ therapy results in more happiness and understanding for many people. For any relationship to work, both partners need to put in effort, and attending counseling is usually evidence that an effort is being made.

Make sure your partner understands that any competent couples’ therapist will align with both members of the couple equally—neither member will be made to feel like the “bad guy”. Some people are particularly resistant to using couples’ counseling for fear that they will be judged and blamed by the therapist. This should never happen—it is the therapist’s job to support and understand both members equally, and to help them articulate their position so that it is heard. Sometimes picking a therapist of the same gender as the most reticent partner can encourage them to try couples’ counseling.

What is couples counseling like in session? | Couples Therapy Portland

I open the first session by asking each member about the decision to use counseling, and what their hopes and fears are about the process. I ask about the history of the relationship—the good times and the hard times, and assess for family and relationship patterns. I make time in each session for you to ask questions and check in about how counseling is going. If we need to shift our focus, we will.

As counseling progresses I help each member give concrete, recent examples of times when things were going poorly or going well in the relationship. I help members articulate what they wanted in these situations that is different from what actually happened. I help couples talk about how they were feeling and what particular outcomes meant to them. I run a balance between talking individually with each member of the couple and having you talk to each other. The benefit of talking to each of you individually is that it gives the other member practice with listening and it breaks up unhelpful communication patterns in the relationship. It also allows me to help you articulate your position without compromise or interruption. The benefit of having you talk to each other is that often the same patterns will emerge in therapy that you experience in your relationship—but I will be able to help you process what happened instead of shutting down.

I will encourage both of you toward unedited honesty and toward articulating your ideal position. The idea is not that your partner can necessarily meet all your needs, but that it is more authentic and more intimate to incorporate your dreams, needs, and fantasies into your relationship than it is to bury and ignore them.

How long does couples counseling last? | Couples Therapy Portland

This depends on the issue you’re seeking help with.  Ultimately, the time you spend in therapy is up to you.

  • For basic communication training, you will see benefits within 8-12 sessions.
  • For affair recovery therapy typically you will see positive change within 3-6 months, and some couples elect to stay in therapy for up to 18 months.
  • For depth work to change long-standing dynamics from childhood or from your previous relationship history, allow 3-6 months, and many couples elect to work for up to a year.
  • For premarital therapy, or for exploring the dynamics in any relationship headed toward a deepening level of commitment, 4-12 sessions provides benefit.

Is couples counseling covered by insurance? | Couples Therapy Portland

Not typically.  However, some high-end plans do cover couples counseling, check with your insurer.  Sometimes it is possible to do adjunct therapy in which one individual is diagnosed as the primary patient (and is therefore covered by insurance), with their partner in the room taking part.  Often couples split the cost of couples counseling, which makes it more affordable.

How do we find a great match for couples therapy? | Couples Therapy Portland

Please read my article Portland Therapists for a comprehensive answer to this question.

Can communication training make things worse? | Couples Therapy Portland

Many people avoid looking at what makes them uncomfortable.  If you, like many couples who come in for therapy, have established an avoidant pattern in your relationship, you will notice an initial period of discomfort as you acknowledge these areas of disconnection and stress.  If you stay the course you will receive support and tools to integrate more authentic, emotionally-open communication into your relationship.

Can we do both our individual therapy and our couples therapy with you? | Couples Therapy Portland

Periodic one-on-one sessions are helpful to the couples therapy process.  This is different from me working as your individual therapist.  If I’m working as your couples therapist and you would like a one-on-one session, I will meet with you for up to 2 sessions individually, before I meet with your partner in the same way to keep the dynamics balanced.

Any common misconceptions clients have about couples counseling? | Couples Therapy Portland

One misconception to avoid is the idea that the couples therapist is there to sit in judgment.  I’m there to support both of you, help both of you use your authentic voice and move toward the life and the relationship you want.



Alec Wilson PsyD | Couples Therapy Portland |