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Couples & Relationships

Reflections by Corina Mattson

Interviewed: Aug, 2017

Corina Maria Teofilo Mattson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Illinois. She is a bilingual Couples and Family Therapist and the Director of Programs and Administration at Live Oak, Inc. in Chicago. Corina is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor. She supervises students in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Corina’s areas of clinical expertise include cross-cultural relationships, LGBTQ affirmative practice, trauma-informed practice, intersectional identity work, and intergenerational family therapy.

What drew you to the field of mental health and psychotherapy?

When I was in college, I worked in restaurants and coffee shops while also eventually working full time at a group home for individuals with co-occurring mental illness and developmental delays. I was a program manager and a direct service staff which meant that I was able to interact with our community members to a great degree. In this job I learned that while relationships can be the source of injury, they can also be a source for healing.

Are there any clinical approaches that you find particularly useful?

All of the research about therapy suggests that the most important factor in terms of therapeutic effectiveness is the clinical relationships. If we feel good about our relationship with our therapist, we are much more likely to find therapy helpful. With that in mind, I prioritize the assessment of goodness of fit. At the beginning of my work with individuals and couples, I attempt to create space for a bilateral evaluation in which I assess the extent to which I can offer what the individual, couple, or family is looking for. At the same time I hope to support the people that I work with on assessing their sense of my goodness of fit for them.

From there I am most informed by Narrative Therapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS), and Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST). In narrative therapy I focus on helping individuals, couples and families to bring curiosity to the stories that we tell about ourselves and our relationships. We notice the ways that these stories may actually get in our way. We work to notice what is missing from those stories, and to create new narratives that capture a broader understanding of ourselves and our relationships. IFS and IST both create opportunities to understand sequences and patterns in relationships.

Why is it difficult for couples to maintain and develop healthy relationships?

What is “healthy”? The idea of health in relationships is a social construction. Individuals, families, communities, and cultures see health in relationships differently. Let me give you an example. In the USA, if I might generalize a bit here, we would suggest that an “overinvolved mother-in-law” is a bad thing. We would also suggest that children should go off into the world and become independent. There is no reason that either of these things are inherently bad. In fact, when it comes to resources, sustaining closeness between generations is a logical value. All of this is to say that negotiating expectations for how to be in relationship, how to navigate boundaries with extended family, how to communicate, etc, is very difficult. There is no one right way to communicate. There is no one right way to set boundaries with extended family.

Many people come in to therapy hoping that I will tell them the “right” way to be in relationships. While I can support couples on experimenting with patterns that tend to be associated with relationship success, I cannot tell them what way is the right way for them to be with one another. The best case scenario is that I support the couples who meet with me in exploring their own beliefs about how to be in relationship, and to negotiate the co-creation of a new way of being that is based on the intersection of their life lessons and values.

For those facing difficulties with their partner do have any general advice?

Please, please, please ask for help. I can appreciate that from a therapist, it may sound self-promoting to suggest that couples struggling should go to therapy. But I have found that it is very difficult to for us to self-identify the patterns that we are in, because we can’t see the world through our partner’s perspective. We can’t know all of the life experiences that led our partner to engage in the behaviors that they do. We don’t usually even know exactly why we are doing the things we do. Coming to couples therapy can help us to empathize with our own behaviors and those of our partners, and to identify the context in which those behaviors developed. We can then identify new patterns that work for us now. We can work to anticipate the likelihood that old patterns might show up now-and-again, especially when we are facing stress. And we can work together to decide how those old and difficult patterns will be managed.

Are there any patterns you see in couples who maintain successful long-term relationships?

Even if we grew up across the street from our partner, our families of origin likely taught us very different things about how to be in relationship with others. From there we also have expectations based on our previous relationships, messages “Be curious about the lens through which their partner perceives their actions.” from our communities, the cultures in which we have lived and participated, etc. With that in mind, I consider it somewhat unreasonable to expect that negotiating relational expectations will be easy, messages “Be curious about the lens through which their partner perceives their actions.” from our communities, the cultures in which we have lived and participated, etc. With that in mind, I consider it somewhat unreasonable to expect that negotiating relational expectations will be easy.

Successful couples tend to:

  • Anticipate that they will (mostly unintentionally) hurt, and be hurt by, one another

  • Encourage feedback about their behavior

  • Apologize

  • Be curious about the lens through which their partner perceives their actions

  • Be curious about the lessons that they’ve learned through their own experience

  • Be willing to learn

What have you learned from your clients?

I learn from my clients constantly. I also learn from my students and the staff members that I supervise. The relationships in front of me, and the vulnerability that people show in my presence, inspire me to bring my own vulnerable parts into my relationships. My clients have taught me not to be afraid of making mistakes, because it is often through the negotiation of a mistake that healing can take place.

In our fast paced society, how do you maintain balance in your life? Do you have any places you like to travel for restoration?

I LOVE travel. I have such appreciation for the fact that I have the ability to travel. I feel acutely aware of the privilege of this opportunity, the realization that while some may not want to travel, many will never have the chance to choose to travel or not. My paternal grandparents both came from Bari, Italy. This fall I’ll have a chance to bring my husband to meet my extended relatives who still live in Valenzano. We will also have the chance to visit several other Italian cities. I once visited Italy more than 20 years ago.

I am just thrilled to have this chance to go back. Visiting my family in Italy is all about restoration and re-connection. It is a chance to relax, eat, talk, drink, sit, play, read and just be. On a more consistent basis, I find restoration in cafes. When I have an unexpected opening in my work day, per on the weekend, I go to coffee shops. I’ll chat with the owners and baristas, disengage from the business of work, and drink coffee. Lastly, I have three children. On the weekends I work very hard to disconnect from email and to be with my family. Just this weekend I had the chance to go on two bike rides with my kids. I consider this to be necessary both for restoration and balance.

In your life whom has been most inspirational to you? What about them has inspired you?

I consider myself to have been the beneficiary of a tremendous amount of privilege. I have been surrounded by loving people for my whole life. I have been most inspired by people who generously show love in unexpected contexts. One of my greatest inspirations is my good friend Patty Black. Patty was my first boss after graduate school, and she saw more in me than I knew was there. To this day Patty helps me see beyond my own internalized biases about the limitations of my skills. Patty once told me a story about her own mother,who made everyone around her feel special. I believe that Patty helps the people around her to see the specialness inside of them self.

Do you have any favorite quotes to live by?

"If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks." -Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

Have compassion, if we can understand the context in which a person developed their ways of living, then we can have compassion for the strategies that they employ. I believe that we start learning the day that we are born, maybe even in utero. From then on we begin taking in information, and attempting to do the best to learn from that information. Our relationships teach us, our family members teach us based on their experiences, we learn by the examples around us.

If you were to describe life in one word what would it be?

This interview is from our book Echoes Roots Grow Together.

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