UM offers couples therapy online




Free online therapy offered to 450 couples as part of a University of Miami study.

Call 305-284-5613 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

• The Nest

115 Madeira Ave., Coral Gables


The center offers programs on strengthening the family and marriages

In the film, As Good as it Gets, there is a magical moment when Melvin, a rude, obsessive compulsive, wreck of a character, played by Jack Nicolson (who else?), delivers this line over a meal at a fancy restaurant.

“… you make me want to be a better man.”

As the collective hearts of women everywhere stop, the object of his affection, Carol, played by Helen Hunt, responds, “That may be the best compliment of my life.”

“Well, maybe I overshot a little,” Melvin says, “because I was aiming at just enough to keep you from walking out.”

With Valentine’s Day just two days away, that scene or some variation, underscores the messy, difficult and unpredictable business of trying to build and keep a loving relationship. For many couples, Valentine’s Day is less a celebration of love and more an unwelcome reminder of what’s missing in their marriages and relationships. Flowers, candy and an expensive dinner may be a Band-Aid for a relationship on life support.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that despite ample evidence that couples therapy provides lasting benefits, most don’t get help. In response, some South Florida relationship experts, particularly those involved with treating children, are developing alternative ways of helping couples develop more loving relationships.

“The majority of couples don’t seek any type of outside help, and that includes from clergy, from a mental health professional, from anybody,” said Brian Doss, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami.

“Couples with relationship problems have a choice,” Doss said. “Here’s flowers and a box of chocolates, let’s just kind of pretend that everything is OK. What we hope they would do is use (Valentine’s Day) as an opportunity to recognize that things aren’t OK and to think seriously about what they can do to improve it.”

Doss is working with noted relationship expert, Andrew Christensen, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), on an on-line therapy process for couples, the first of its kind. Christensen and the late Neil Jacobson, professor at the University of Washington, developed Interactive Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), and authored the book, Reconcilable Differences, a self-help book based on IBCT, which uses a number of different strategies to help couples. Doss and Christensen will publish a second edition this fall.

Through their study, Doss and Christensen will measure the effectiveness of the IBCT approach, including relationship and individual satisfaction and the impact of the process on children. They also hope their new website will make enough of a difference that couples will want to continue improvements.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded the five-year program. Doss said it took three years to develop a website that couples found user friendly.

They launched their site,, three weeks ago. “Expert help for your marriage problems – from the comfort of your own home,” is its calling card.

Doss hopes to include 450 couples in the study. The couples will receive gift cards for their participation.

The “our” in “our relationship” is an acronym, Doss said, for observe, understand and respond. Couples fill out questionnaires individually and ultimately determine together what problem or problems they would like to work on, with a limit of two problems.

The initial process of on-line therapy will take five to six hours. Couples will be assigned a “coach” rather than a therapist, Doss said, to emphasize the couple is doing the work with help from a professional, and to combat the stigma some people see attached to seeing a therapist.

The site targets the primary reasons why people say they choose not to seek help – lack of time and money and the fear of sharing personal problems with a stranger.

“Couples therapy is not funded by a lot of insurance companies,” Doss said, “or if it is, it’s covered in a very minimal way especially compared to individual therapy.”

Another barrier to seeking therapy is more gender based, Doss said.

“You hear a disturbing number of men say, ‘I didn’t know there was anything wrong,’ ” Doss said.

“It’s also women who are most likely to file for divorce, women who recognize their serious relationship problems,” he said. “In some literature, women have gotten the nickname of ‘the relationship barometer’ because they’re more clued in and much more predictive of where a relationship is headed and overall how it’s functioning.”

Back in the world of in-person psychotherapy, Miami therapists Lina Acosta Sandaal and Alina Vega have developed a “community” approach aimed at middle class couples and families who are often priced out of the help they need.

About a year ago, Sandaal and Vega opened The Nest, an emotional wellness center for couples and children in Coral Gables. Both South Florida natives, Sandaal, program director, and Vega, clinical director, met in Los Angeles, when their careers took them to Vista del Mar Child and Family Services, a non-profit children’s services organization that focuses on at-risk children.

Sandaal, a graduate of the New World School of the Arts, and Vega, a Lourdes graduate, bonded.

“We were both in the area of prevention,” Sandaal said. “We became aware that that’s the answer. Let’s get at it before it becomes a problem.”

The problem was, Vega said, no one was focused on the middle class. It was assumed that better educated people would somehow have more access to information and services, they said.

“We assume that because people are lawyers and architects they have any clue how to be in a relationship,” Vega said, “Just because you have a doctorate has nothing to do with whether you know how to relate emotionally.”

At their Coral Gables center they run family yoga programs, host family book clubs, and host sessions on, say, helping your child transition through change. Couples often end up in therapy after problems appear in their children, who may be acting out because of problems in the marriage, Sandaal said.

“A lot of the times, this is not a conscious thing, the child will take it upon himself to save the marriage by becoming the problem,” she said. “If the child is the problem, the parents have to unite to deal with them. So what happens is someone finds us because their little one is not doing well.”

For couples who need some immediate advice as they contemplate therapy, Valerie Goode, a Miami marriage and family therapist and expert, reminds couples, that if you had love once, it’s not too late.

“If you have something good to begin with — you can make any marriage work as long as long as they have something to go back to,” Goode said.

Accepting change is the key, she said. You make a relationship last, she said, “by recognizing the other person’s need to be something other than the person you married. You have to recognize their growth and not take it personally.”

Goode also suggests not waiting for your spouse or significant other to do something for you for Valentine’s Day. Go all out for them. You can also make yourself feel good by doing something for someone else, she said.

“If you’re lonely, you should find someone else who’s lonely and make it a very nice Valentine’s Day for them. We can’t expect our spouse or anybody else to make it good for us. If they find somebody they figure is going to suffer a bad day, a newly divorced person, go out and get something for that person.” Goode said. “There’s far more satisfaction in that.”

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