“The First Duty of Love is to Listen” Words of Wisdom from Couples Counselor Stephanie Wijkstrom

Conversation is a two-part process, with a speaker and listener. Listening non-defensively, with openness, empathy, and understanding can be hard!!! Many clients come to me with a torrent of information they want to convey about themselves and their partner. They point fingers to show who contributed the most to the problem. Developing the skill of pausing, and listening leads to connection and becomes an act of love. Listening as well as the ability to convey empathy allows us to see our partners’ perspective and allows us to heal closer together.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Wijkstrom MS, LPC, NBCC — Co- Founder of The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, Top-Rated Marriage Counselor in Pittsburgh, Licensed Professional Counselor, Wellness Aficionado, Crusader for the American Family, Blogger, and most recently Wife.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I always walk into any room first as a human, markedly a woman who has intimately known victory and defeat. I have struggled and suffered greatly, this is the kind of vulnerable grit from which my ability to practice as a counselor has risen. Like many therapists and marriage counselors, I was called to the healing profession with a vivid curiosity for the world around me. Psychology dictates that our practice is grounded in science yet it is the application of wisdom and our own humanness that really fosters our unshakable belief in the process of therapeutic change and our depth of empathy. There have been several factors which have influenced me significantly, my childhood was marred by trauma and I was thrust into the adult world as a homeless teen mom. I had to work very hard to become an educated woman, and I now know the kind of outcomes that result from beginnings such as mine. Grim statistics dictate that I could be dead, in jail, or grossly troubled, yet instead I am here doing this interview, I am full of gratitude for that. There is a karmic honor in being able to help others repair and resurrect life into love, by helping my clients and their families evolve to a place of connection, peace, understanding, and warmth.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Yes, what’s next? My business partner Nicole Monteleone and I are driven by our efforts to apply the wellness model to individual and marriage counseling. Wellness dictates that we emphasize preventative measures to help couples, families, and individuals stay healthy and connected. One area in which we are focusing our efforts is the DE-stigmatization of the prospect of entering into therapy or marriage counseling. There are so many people who would benefit immensely from seeking out support, yet they refrain for fear of taking on the stigma, they fear acknowledging the issues, so instead they muddle on unhappily, with conflict, trying to convince themselves that they will become better on their own. We delay seeking help until there is no other option. According to the Gottman Research Institute, the typical American couple waits for 6 years after experiencing problems to seek therapy. Imagine the ramifications if you noticed a lump in your breast and waited for 6 years to have it checked, what kind of treatment options are left at that advanced stage of disease? By providing opportunities for couples to understand and enhance their relationships while they are still healthy we increase the likelihood that marriages and families will stay intact. That is why The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh offers premarital counseling and other similar interventions to support families’ emotional health and wellness. We also have a few other things up our sleeves that will be unveiled in January of 2018.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Professionally, the individuals, clients, and couples we work with have legal and ethical confidentiality, this is something that we hold to be sacred. Although it is safe to say that on a given day the therapists at The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh serve wonderfully diverse members of Pittsburgh’s community. From those working in labor intensive blue collar jobs such as janitors and factory workers, to business leaders, attorneys, and physicians; we see it all, each socio-economic class and education level. We value the diversity of people that come through our doors. Something I can talk about without ethical restraint is my personal life, I make a habit of meeting as many people as possible and this kind of continual engagement has allowed me to have encountered so many fascinating, complex, and intricate humans who have inspired me. Biking is my favorite pastime, during one breezy summer morning I met someone really special on the bike trail. I had seen him before, he’s typically perched on the cement stoop of the Roberto Clemente bridge. A really gentle and nice homeless man, cloaked in well-worn clothes, his face which burst into an easy smile to reveal gleaming yellow and chipped teeth. I have often stopped to talk with him and learn his story, he was displaced as an American veteran who landed in Pittsburgh after living in Louisiana post hurricane Katrina. He came to Pittsburgh to seek safety and in hopes of finding a new job, instead he deepened his dependence upon crack cocaine. He was sincere and calm, able and yes, a very interesting man despite the choices he was making and his current housing situation and struggles with addiction.

Who do you aspire to be like one day?

Without hesitation, my husband Martin, he is wise and kind with a stunning depth of spirit which allows him to penetrate all matters with gentle playfulness. It helps that he is the most brilliant human I have ever met, but it is really his unwavering quest to be of service to all of those around him that inspires me to be more patient and thoughtful each day. Martin is a legitimate hero, in his work as a transplant surgeon he saves lives, I can think of nothing more stressful or noble than that. Yet, he prances in the door after being in the Operating Room for far too many hours, with dim circles punctuating his eyes from lack of sleep, cheerfully he finds me, offers a long hug and kiss then asks, “How can I help?” He is remarkable as a man, husband, and doting dad to our dogs Diego and Eros.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Nicole and I have made community engagement our philosophy and mission at The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh. Last year we sponsored countless free events, some of our favorites were the Summer Sequence, our yoga instructors, and meditation teachers offered our community access to opportunities to enhance health. Holly, our mediation instructor, led a Starlight Meditation, it was serene and beautiful, we were really surprised and pleased at the number of people who came out. A Sunset Yoga Series led by Tara, our clinical herbalist/yoga instructor, she led the vinyasa yoga classes in the park, alongside a flutist trained in music therapy, this was on the first Friday of every month in the summer. We know that if we can create opportunities for the individuals and families of our community to experience wellness, counseling services, mindfulness workshops, meditation and yoga, with these skills changes start to happen for people. When we enhance our mindfulness, becoming acquainted with our bodies, each other and even the earth, that our bodies, lives, and relationships are enhanced. We believe in our mission, that if the individuals around us are enhanced, the families will benefit, the communities will be safer and vibrating with more love, we don’t want to sound too grandiose but this is how to really start something big, meaning a global level of greater peace, love, and balanced connection.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started practicing as a therapist” and why.

1) Love is resilient. People will devote so much of themselves to staying together and enhancing their relationships. Love is a source of such joy, hope, safety, and meaning in our lives. Sometimes things do get off track, conflict and other situations arise that can lead to a couple coming to us with the very real fear of break up or divorce. According to “The Population Research Institute”, there is a 45–50% risk of a couple divorcing or separating. My task as a couple’s therapist is helping them rebuild, and to keep marriages and families healthy. A couple I had been working with for a few months came in glowing and shared that their daughter had asked, “are you two in therapy?” The parents wondered how she knew. She said that “everyone seems happier recently!” We all teared up.

2) Conflict is a sign of health within a relationship. Many couples are really nervous that they have squabbles and that the disagreements sometimes get out of hand. As a therapist I help couples develop skills to disagree in healthy and productive ways that enrich their connection instead of making it more tense. Sometimes as a part of the intake process I let couples argue a little bit on the couch, we learn so much from witnessing their patterns and styles of communicating.

3) The most important skill for a couple to develop is how to repair after a conflict. There are many communication styles, they are developed throughout our childhood and adult life leading to varying skill sets that impact our relationships. Some couples enact a style of avoidance after disagreeing, or they fixate and ruminate over what went wrong, we remain unable to forgive until developing the vital relationship enhancing skill of repair.

4) “Our best teachers are our mistakes.” This goes for every area of life, we all make mistakes but they can be transformed into strengths and become a launching point for change. Whether it is loss, heart ache, infidelity, or betrayal, we have a tremendous opportunity to grow when things go off course. There is a beautiful Japanese custom called Kinsukuri, where they fill in the cracks of pottery with liquid gold. All of the therapists I know love this metaphor. We do this with people, we teach them ways to glimmer and be stronger in the places where they have a chip or a crack.

5) The first duty of love is to listen. This is how relationships are fostered. Conversation is a two-part process, with a speaker and listener. Listening non-defensively, with openness, empathy, and understanding can be hard!!! Many clients come to me with a torrent of information they want to convey about themselves and their partner. They point fingers to show who contributed the most to the problem. Developing the skill of pausing, and listening leads to connection and becomes an act of love. Listening as well as the ability to convey empathy allows us to see our partners’ perspective and allows us to heal closer together.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

Brene Brown, she is a really brilliant psychologist, I often refer clients to watch her Ted Talks. Every time I watch one I get something new out of it, they have this grounding effect to be able to put labels to the things that are going on in our life. I must also mention Dr. John Gottman, I think I have read almost everything that he has written in the field of couples counseling and his techniques really work!

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on December 27, 2017.