Autism and Marriage: Successful Marriage Tips with Donna Tosky

On the same day that we received an autism diagnosis for Lucas, we also received a recommendation for marriage counseling. Autism, ADD, ADHD, and many other diagnoses in a child can present a unique challenge for many couples. And if the marriage was already on shaky ground before the diagnosis, then everything else that comes afterward isn’t going to be any easier. This interview is all about autism and marriage challenges and how to strengthen a marriage even after a diagnosis.

Donna Tosky was trained as a scientist, and after her own divorce, she wanted to know what went wrong. As she studied the foundations of a strong marriage, she shared what she was learning with friends and they encouraged her to teach others. Today she helps couples learn how to communicate with each other.

Men and women react and adapt to stress differently. As women talk, their cortisol levels go down, and they feel good when they talk out their problems. That’s why they love calling up their sisters or their girlfriends and hashing a problem out until they feel good about it. But when men talk about a problem, their cortisol levels go up. If a wife goes to her husband to talk out a problem, he becomes more stressed as she talks and talks about her thoughts. That’s perhaps why he wants to avoid the conversation.

Donna says that couples wait about six years too long to get into therapy. They put off their relationship problems as they deal with other, more seemingly urgent issues. In the meantime, resentment builds as they focus too much on the negative parts of the marriage. Donna works with couples to help them get on the same page. As you strengthen your marriage, you’ll be able to better support your child with autism too.


“My ex-husband and I were both good people. Why did it end so badly?” When Donna Tosky’s 14-year marriage came to an end, she had a burning desire to help other couples avoid the frustration and heartache that she experienced.

Donna has devoted the past 15 years of her life to showing 100’s of couples how to repair, renew, and sustain a fulfilling connection QUICKLY. She does this by teaching a unique model of relating called the SPARK Communication Success System For Couples. She believes you are perfect, whole, and complete just as you are and in the face of “problems”, she moves couples forward rapidly with her painless and “man friendly” communication programs.


  • How to reconnect with your spouse after a day away from each other.
  • The steps that Donna recommends you use to create a strategy that will reduce triggers that lead to arguments.
  • When is it time to seek counseling as a couple?

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Transcript for Podcast Episode: 103
Autism and Marriage: Successful Marriage Tips with Donna Tosky
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera

Mary: You're listening to the Turn Autism Around podcast, episode number one zero three today I have a special guest, Donna Tosky, who is an old friend of mine and she specializes in helping couples repair, renew and sustain relationships, mostly marriages. And so today we are talking all about marriages in families where at least one child has autism. We're going to talk about some unique challenges of couples, including one parent being possibly in denial and all kinds of things that can get in the way of a fulfilling marriage. So let's get to this important interview with Donna Tosky.

Mary: So, Donna, thanks so much for joining us today.

Donna: Thanks, Mary. Thanks for having me.

Mary: Yeah, I'm excited about this topic. So why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about your background and how you became interested in helping couples improve their marriages?

Donna: OK. Well, my background is actually science. I'm a chemical technologist and worked in pharmacy for many years. And if anyone would have told me in my 20s that I would be doing this, I would have never in a million years imagined it. What for me, like a lot of us who get involved in these sorts of helping professions, I guess we have our own experience. And I was married for 14 years and it ended poorly. And thank goodness I just got really logical and thought, wow, what was my part in that? We're so quick to blame. And I'm really thankful that I actually thought, well, what was my part even before I opened my mouth, what was my part in this whole relationship marriage thing anyway? And so I got really curious and started to do a lot of research and started to get together with kind of hole in the wall people. And I had read tons of relationship books, codependency, no more whatever.

Donna: And it was a little depressing, actually, you know, and my background in science had me really pay attention to that. Men and women are very different. And when under stress. How we handle stress is different. What how we adapt to stress is different, and that just really got my attention and so in my field, they tend to if you go to a therapist or a counselor, the focus can be what's wrong? Tell us what's wrong. And then you grind around and in a lot of these details. And I was just looking for something different. Because it didn't work for me. I had done counseling and we've done therapy and it just didn't work, so I was looking for just a different approach. So that's how I and actually I was taking self-development programs with a carload of people and I was living in the mountains. And we drive to the city once a week. And as we drove, I was sharing a lot of this information with people, things that I teach now. And people were saying, wow, you know, you should probably be teaching this just like, you know, the classic story.

Donna: I said, yeah, OK, honestly, that's how it happened. Right. And so I did. I started with small groups and I was working with single people. And then married people. And because now I'm in in relationship, people that are, you're married, you're together for four years, you've got children, you've got assets, you've got a lot at stake. And so I very rarely do I work with singles anymore. I work with the most difficult situations because they have a lot at stake. Those couples have a lot at stake.

Mary: And do you work with families of children with autism or other special needs? Is that a common thing or happens? Sometimes?

Donna: It's pretty common. What I find most common is ADHD or ADD. That's what's most common for me. But I see some work with some parents of autism. There's a lot of stressors. There and so it's like if you don't really know where your potential disconnects lie, stress will show you, right?

Mary: Yeah, and many times many professionals, me included, consider ADHD to be kind of on the edge of the spectrum. We've done some shows on that. Denise Voight, I believe she's on episode number 80. We talk a lot about treatments for autism and ADHD being very similar. My new book that's coming out to an autism around approach, really one-to-five-year olds with signs of autism, ADHD speech delays, it all overlap.

Mary: So, yeah, and before we really dive into the differences between men and women and some of the unique aspects of marriages and divorce rates among families with autism, I wanted to tell you a quick story about the diagnosis of my son and how at the developmental pediatrician's office, when we got the diagnosis of moderate severe autism the day before Lucas turned three, we also got a recommendation for marriage counseling, which, yeah, it was kind of in hindsight, kind of funny, but not funny. At the same time or so in my first book, The Verbal Behavior Approach on page one sixty-nine, I tell the story as Lucas is getting diagnoses, sitting there silent, not talking. I have no idea how to teach him to talk or anything like that, like I do now. And the doctor gives the diagnosis moderate to severe autism. I start crying.

Mary: Gives me a tissue and then the doctor says, do you have any questions? My husband says, I have a question. When Lucas wakes up in the middle of the night, he'll ask for milk. And Mary thinks because he asked for milk, she should run downstairs and get him milk. And I think we should get him water. So what should we do? Who's right? And the doctor said. Neither one of you is right, and if you are fighting about milk versus water, you're in trouble, you need to go to marriage counseling because you are going to have much bigger fights along the way for sure. So on the way home, I'm not only grieving the diagnosis. It was a horrible ride home, and then I'm also thinking about marriage counseling, and we did we actually went to marriage counseling and in my book I talk about, you know, we did seek counseling and it was a it was a good place to work out our feelings of grief and to kind of get on the same page. And I think it illustrates that getting on the same page is really.

Mary: The key to everything, but before we talk about how to get on the same page, I did do a little research and I found, like I heard statistics once, like 90 percent of families with autism get divorced, which I don't think is really a stat, but that's really high. But what I learned from my little research, and you can correct me if I if you know anything different, is that about 60 percent of all marriages end in divorce and the rate is higher among children with autism.

Mary: There is one study which we can link in the show notes, which compared a three hundred ninety-one couples of kids with autism and a matched group of another three hundred ninety-one and found the divorce rate among families with autism to be twenty three percent, compared to almost 14 percent. So kind of higher, but not double. So do 60 percent of all marriages end in divorce? Is that is that a stat we should be looking at? Just all marriages?

Donna: Well, it depends on who you're talking to. You know, I would say around 50. Again, it depends on what country you're talking about. So that seems a little 60 might be a little a little high for all marriages. And I can see definitely divorce with parents dealing with special needs kids. Higher in question.

Mary: Yeah. And one of the things in the study also said that the rate of divorce now. This is a group of eight hundred people. Eight hundred couples total. But the rate of divorce remained high throughout the child's adolescence and adulthood, whereas most divorces level off somewhere around their children turning eight in general so that they had a higher risk of a longer period when divorce could happen. Again, we're not really sure. And this was just one study. But I did do a couple podcast episodes with parents Jim Cristie episode number fifty-nine. We can link that in the show notes who talked a lot about strengthening his marriage and getting on the same page and some of the unique challenges of when you find out a diagnosis being in denial.

Mary: One parent is optimistic, one parent's pessimistic. I was in denial for over a year when my husband first mentioned it. Then I was reading the research and thinking, you know, we can make things all better, mostly better. I was very optimistic. He was very pessimistic. So do you see that in all marriages?

Donna: I do. Again, it depends on the type of stressors people are dealing with. Right. But I do some one partner can be really freaked out about how things are going. The other partner, again, more optimistic, more hopeful. That's why it's really important for them to have some kind of a strategy so that they can get, like you said, get on the same page. You know, I'll tell you one thing now this and this applies to all marriages. These are what the experts say, the people that have done the most research. And there was a time where it was all just sort of pathology and whatever psychiatrists were, their whole approach would be that, OK, there's something there's something wrong. And we're going to look at everybody's childhood in. And what was your relationship like with your parents? And now they're finding that's not necessary as what they as much as they thought it was.

Donna: But here is the main what they say. Here's the main deal. This is the main cause of breakdown is negativity. Negativity, and so you mentioned it in your first podcast about eight positives to one negative, that's what that negative bias we can tend to focus on what's wrong and what we don't like. And if we're not careful, that will completely consume us. And so and your guest was is named Jim Christi's. That his name? Yeah. He was saying the couple needs to remember to focus on them rather than have the focus all be on the kid and what's wrong over there and just all the challenges. We have to be very careful of that, because if we're not careful, we look for what's wrong and what we don't like. And we put a lot of attention on that. It's like when I'm teaching couples, it's like being on a teeter totter with the biggest kid in the neighborhood.

Donna: And, you know, you're up there, right? Have you ever done that? We have a club close to us and many times, Murray Pontifex was his name and I'd be up there. And what happens when you're up on that teeter totter? The other kid jumps off when you least expect it, and it hurts know, and that's negative bias, it has a lot of weight with us. What we don't like and what we don't want. And that's a key thing for people to know. Be careful. Where is your focus?

Mary: Yeah, and I talk a lot about that through almost every podcast in my online courses and blogs is the if things are going wrong, whether you have a client or child and they're having problem behaviors, you have a marriage. It's not working. You're a professional in the field and you have your ancillary staff, your teacher assistants and everything, disgruntled, unhappy, whatever the situation is, it's almost always if you look at the positive to negative ratios of comments of yes. Of things, it's always backwards and improving that. I did a podcast interview with the folks from ABA inside track. We talked all about positive parenting and the work of Dr. Glen Latham.

Mary: And you can find that in the show notes as well. I also did a podcast interview with Amanda V., and we talked mostly about her son's gains. But in the process, I worked with our son 10 years ago and in the past since then, she has gotten divorced and she talked a lot about her divorce and explaining that to her son with autism, as well as their typically developing daughter and dealing with the ramifications of visits and co-parenting in two different households.

Mary: And so now we're going to talk mostly in this episode about strengthening marriages and everything. But we know there's a lot of families out there who have already been through a divorce and may be remarried and have blended families and complex needs. So we probably won't be able to address everything in this episode. But you can check out those resources. So in general, do you think that men and women in general face whether it's autism or a health condition of a child or a parent or a death of somebody close. Like do you think men and women handle stress differently?

Donna: Well, they do. I mean, obviously, this is a generalization and that you might have exceptions, but I'm more interested in what is the stereotype? Many people say that is stereotyping. It's not a good thing to do, but stereotype pointing to something or some kind of a trend there. There's something happening, you know, and it's been shown when they hook women up to these different detectors, when there's stress, we know there's high cortisol levels. And so whatever the stresses, whether it's finances or something going on with the child or something between them, what women want to do is women want to talk about it.

Donna: And when women talk. Their oxytocin level goes up. And their cortisol level goes down. But in a stressful situation, if a man talks about it, his cortisol goes up. And it's interesting, very interesting, because if we don't know that, you're going to have a woman chasing her husband around the house, we need to talk about this. No, I'm not talking about it. He's kind of got to work things out in his head first.

Donna: And some often the men, when they get into a conversation with a woman regarding something that's stressful, he doesn't know when will this conversation end? Is there an end to this conversation and what's the point of this conversation and as a man says, are you just complaining? Are you criticizing me? Research has shown no offense, guys, men listening. But it's been shown that men will tend to get defensive quickly. But more quickly and they will stonewall, and I think one of the reasons is that if we were to make you and your husband the same mass, we would see that he's got a bigger amygdala. Then you do so that's the part, I'm sure, Dan Siegel's ham hand model of the brain. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Mary: No.

Donna: OK, well, so amygdala is part of the brain, the amygdala is that part of the brain that will be triggered and activated, taking a lot of blood when the fight flight or freeze response. So defensiveness or I'm not talking, shutting down, stonewalling. And so that's interesting. And if we don't pay attention to these things, to some of these fundamental differences, it starts to look really personal.

Donna: You know, that that a woman, when she talks, her stress level comes down. And if a man doesn't realize that, then he thinks, oh, your here's what it sounds like. You make a big deal of everything. You're so negative, but as she talks, she's laying out all the data, she sees this, she sees this, somebody said this, that she's laying out all the data. Men don't have that kind of a conversational style. They don't talk like that. Often, men are like, well, why are you talking about this? Why are you worrying about this? The doctor told us this. The specialist told us this. Why are we talking about this anyway?

Donna: But she's going to talk about everything, because that's just what women do, you know, and as a woman will work things out as she talks. A man doesn't do that. He's working things out in his head, then he talks and so something like that can sound, oh, well, you know, that's just whatever. But if you can, you can bring it back into your situation. When I work with couples and they see it.

Mary: And I do think, yeah, this is interesting because, I mean, as you're talking, I'm thinking, yeah, might I am more of a talker, like I don't want to just sit and read books and not talk. And my husband has a different way to distress. He likes to not talk and be quiet. And it's like, thank God I have my friends and my sister to chat with and to talk things through. And studies have shown and I did a video blog on this a while back, that autism moms have very high cortisol levels in general and that they have the cortisol levels, if they have I think they were eight year olds, I could be wrong with severe autism, that they had the cornrows, all levels and the chronic stress of combat soldiers. Wow. Yeah. So, yeah, there's all of that. And plus when we got the diagnosis in nineteen ninety nine, I mean it was before social media, before you know, you really interact with anybody outside of your local community. So a handful of the autism moms I met early on are still close friends of mine.

Mary: And I think another thing that happens, which happened in my case is I mean, the Internet was available right in nineteen ninety-nine is I drove into everything. Can I help my son? And my husband was working and doing massive amounts of hours and he's a physician. So everything is, I'm a registered nurse. And at the time that's what I was. And then with a master's degree and then I've gone on to become a behavioral analyst and have a PhD, but. You know, back then, we both had a medical model, but I was like, I don't care, I'll go to the end of the Earth to find out, you know? And then I remember doing a couple or if we were on a panel presentation at Lehi University and they interviewed us and he he and I were on it together, we usually it's just me talking about autism, but he and I were on it just like as you're talking, I thought of this story. But, you know, he said, like, if my wife reads like bazooka gum is going to help Lucas, we will have a case of bazooka gum in our garage. And it's like it's hard. And I even had a medical background. But I think if it wouldn't have been for him being so conservative, I would have tried a bunch more stuff.

Mary: But there's that. Should we try this? Should we invest in this? Can I get your buy in. Negotiations, financial constraints? I mean, that's all a part of autism. That is not necessarily a part of other things, you know, that I think really causes some stress. But in my reading, you know, families who divorced cite things like irreconcilable differences and conflict, but also lack of intimacy, which I think is also huge in the autism world, because many children and I've done a podcast episode on sleep and many children struggle with sleep.

Mary: And I wrote a chapter in my new book, I think it's called something like Stop Playing Musical Bed, Solving Your Child Sleep Problems, because literally for years, for 10 years, Lucas did not sleep in his own bed. And my husband said, Don't you dare put any advice in your book about sleep because you don't know how to solve it. So you won't find one piece of information about sleep in this book. But since then. In literally three nights, I solved Lucas's ten-year long sleep issues, and that's all detailed in the Sleep podcast, so and it will be detailed in my new book, too.

Mary: But let's talk about lack of intimacy and families with autism. We have professionals here who don't have a child with autism. So I think this is just really good general information because it really doesn't matter what you're fighting about or what you're not on the same page about.

Donna: Well, that's what I say is the issue is often not the issue. We can think the issue is the issue. Get in there and we're grinding around in our story, and that's part of where we go a little self, it's like, you know, I I lived up north in northern Alberta for a while and they have, like, a lot of Bush. And I remember going into this Bush going for a walk and I realized, like, wow, I'm lost. And that's what can happen when you get into the details of whatever it is it's going on rather than rather than looking at what's going on around to get more like of a meta view, I tell couples like going drone so that you're actually looking at what's going on, looking at dynamics instead of getting down into the details, for example, milk or water. You can get lost in that stuff and then it's who's right, who's right and who's wrong, and you have to be really careful of that.

Donna: So intimacy, it can be tricky because women want to be connected first. Before they're going to have sex, you know, they want to feel safe, comfortable, and men will actually get connected with sex. But there's an order, I tell man like I get it, but you know what, you can't you know, if she's not doesn't feel connected to you, there's nothing going to happen. And so that's why it's this is so important that the couple is sure that they're taking care of themselves as a unit. Because if they're not doing that, you know, I work I remember working with this couple where they had a three-year-old and they had seen the pediatrician and see the specialist. I don't remember exactly what the diagnosis was, but he was really having tantrums. And we started working together and after six months when they their connection cleaned up.

Donna: The you know, the kid was could, they really noticed a big difference. In other words, the energy that that was created around them, so it does make a difference, right? So it's not so again, the focus being on the child. It's really important, the couple's connection. And so if the couple can't get connected and connected, what do I mean by that? Well, safe and secure. Here's what gets in the way, is we start to make one another wrong. Basically, on a basic level, that's what it is. And nobody likes that. If you're made wrong, you get defensive or critical or you shut down. And so if we can stop making one another wrong.

Donna: And then identify the problem rather than, you are the problem. We identify one another as being the problem because we're associated with the problem somehow, whether it's, let's say, making a decision or you can never make a decision. Oh, you want buy whatever, whatever it is to identify the problem rather than the person be the problem. But that's it. Like we start making one another wrong is very hard to get connected. Because what happens is now, as soon as you're made wrong, your amygdala fires. You're get you're going to either get defensive or you're going to fight or you're going to shut down, and connection cannot happen through that part of the brain. Rather, it happens to the cortex, the prefrontal cortex, where you can actually listen to one another. You can feel connected, you can trust, you can empathize. That's all from the front of your brain. And if you are defensive either-or hostile, there will be no intimacy through that. It's very difficult.

Mary: Looking meta at your marriage, it involves also using those five to eight positives to every negative. So if a husband comes in. When you say things like you're late now, where have you been? I've been dealing with my screaming child all day. Those are all negative, negative, negative, negative. And you really need to be more planful about your positive interactions. And it doesn't all have to be words. It can be a smile. It can be a text. It can be gestures, a hug, a kiss, you know, and I think for all families, when you have kids, multiple kids, maybe multiple kids with special needs, it's hard to take care of ourselves and take care of our marriages.

Donna: So, you know, you said something really interesting. I just want to jump in here because you said something that I just I don't want to skip over because I see this a lot. And particularly if there's a special needs kids at home. He walks in the door, she's like, wow, the day was. And he can't even hear her because his testosterone, after a day of work is low and he might need 20 minutes just to get grounded. And so it's even something simple like that, like there is an order to things that just works and we don't need to get weird or offended by it. Right.

Donna: Where a woman might say, well, I've been here all day. What about my hormone levels? I get it. But it's just the way it is. There's no point getting offended and getting upset. Right, about just about where a person is at their best and where they're not at their best. You know, we have difficulty holding difference. It causes a lot of tension and we have difficulty. But if we can depersonalize it, take the personalness out of it that OK and then even make a plan. OK, when you come in the door, what do you need? What and what do each of you need rather than competing in every situation, does that make sense?

Mary: Yeah, yeah, totally, and what happens? How do you handle breakdowns or conflicts or somebody flips out. Like how do you get back from that?

Donna: Just like no different from what you do with your special needs child. Right. You have you have structures. And you develop tools and you follow structures, and it's no different for that, like when one or both partners, they flip their lives like they lose it. The best thing is to have a plan. You have a strategy for when that's going to happen or rather, do you just wait till it happens? And say we'll do better next time, because that's not the time to say that, because it's not it doesn't work that way. So just a simple strategy is to even have a conversation about that, to have a plan. What will we do if either one of us gets triggered? And so what do I mean by triggered when you either want to attack? Or defend or shut down. That's it. It's pretty freeze. It's pretty simple.

Donna: And so if you allow yourselves to talk about that, not when you're doing it, but when everything is calm, OK, let's have a strategy. It is helpful for each person to know their triggers, know what sets you off and know how you react. Where do you feel it in your body so that you can recognize it yourself, so that you can have a plan. Are we OK if we tell one another? I'm getting triggered. Wow. I feel like I'm losing it here. I feel like I'm getting confused. You have a plan that OK, what is it for you? What does it look like for me? And you make it OK that you can tell one another when you can't be in the conversation anymore. What we do is we force ourselves or our partner stay here, have this conversation. When they are gone, when their amygdala is triggered and activated and taking all the blood, there's nothing else going to happen here. There is no conversation that's going to happen. It's not going to happen.

Donna: It's defensiveness or attack. You can't get creative coming from that place if you make a plan, OK? If either one of us gets triggered, can we call a time out and that be OK? And then, hey, it would sound like this. Hey, you know what? Well, I'm starting to feel confused. My brain is getting discombobulated. I feel like I'm shutting down. I'm just going to take some space and I'll be back. So that's often what's missing. We often don't say I'm going to take space, we just take it and then we don't. And then our partners left, like in a lurch are when are you coming back? Because now you probably triggered some attachment, wounding your partner. You're leaving me. I'm not safe. But when am I coming back? You know what? Let's come back to this conversation in an hour. And so go to another room. If it's me who's shutting down, go to another room.

Donna: Now, often what we do when we do take some space and here's the thing to watch out for is we'll start to ruminate and we start to grind around in our story why we were right. About whatever it is, and that's often the mistake that we that we make when you take space, there's two ways to experience yourself. Either your narrative, you go into your story, which makes things worse. Rather, wherever you go, you can get into your experiential self, feel the floor under your feet. What is the temperature of the room? What does the air feel like on my skin is one thing that you can do to collect yourself. So that's the point. OK, so you make a plan, you make it be OK that you call timeout when either one of your triggered you separate. You go to different places if you have to. When you're there, you calm down.

Donna: You either you can also do some box breathing or some breathing. People say, well, just take deep breaths, but there's a way to do that where your exhaling longer than what you're inhaling, because now you're stimulating the thevagus nerve, the part of the nervous system that will actually call you down and then you come back when you're calm. Now I to go through I could do it now a little bit later. But so then you say, OK, so now what do we do when we come back right now. Right. Right. Because let's say there's a real conflict. There is.

Mary: How about before you say before you tell us what to do when you come back, like is there any benefit to when you do take a time out, not just to breathe and just be calm, but also to think about, well, what is he thinking like from his perspective? Try to get into his. Like, why try to trade places with him mentally?

Donna: Oh, absolutely tons of benefit and you will have a hard time doing that if you're in your story. So you first kind of have to calm down, calm down a little bit so that you can get into the front of your brain.

Mary: And think about well, like, OK, well, he walked in, I said this, that probably wasn't helpful.

Donna: What was my part? It could be, what was my, did I have a part in that? And what was my part?

Mary: So go ahead. So you come together now and how do you kind of move forward?

Donna: Yeah. And so what you said was great suggestion. Like first of all, what was my part?What, what, what am I trying to accomplish here? Right. And to even look at the conflict or whatever the conflict is and to get good at identifying what is the problem actually on often what we do. Like I was saying, we identify the person as the problem. Let me give you a little example. OK, so I was working with this couple. Every time he comes in the door, he says, thirty-five pairs of shoes by the door. Right.

Mary: He's been to my house and mine, but it's actually my husband putting the most of the shoes there.

Donna: So there you go. Yeah. And sohere's the thing, because it's not just you don't just have conflict around your special needs child. It's like everything that's going on in the house. Right. And so there's a way that to handle that stuff, you want to separate the person from the problem. So his thing was like, well, she's messy. What is the problem? The problem is the shoes by the door. That's actually the problem. Right? So identify the problem and you can hear it in your thinking. He this she that her you can hear it how you're making wrong and that will get you nowhere. And you can't get on the same side to get on the same side. You want to get really good at identifying what is the problem and have it be that it's not the person that's the problem because it's usually not the person that's the problem. Right.

Donna: There's something that somebody is doing or saying or whatever. So you identify the problem and then what is the feeling that you're left with? OK, I'm frustrated. Or let's say Jason, he always puts his dishes on the counter, right. Doesn't put them in the sink, right? Oh, you're just such a slob. No, the problem is the dishes on the counter. How do I feel? I feel frustrated. So you want to get in touch with what is the feeling that you're left with? What kind of an experience are you having?

Donna: And then what is your concern? What is the concern that's underneath everything you know, rather than your messy? What's my concern? My concern is I got to make lunch for the kids. I need a clean counter. You know, that's my concern and then make an actionable request. Right after dinner, would you be willing to just put your dishes in the sink? What is the actionable request? Often we will say something like be more considerate. No.

Mary: Well, as a behavior analyst. I like the specificity of your request.

Donna: Yes. Be very specific. And what action do you want? Do you want somebody to take and it doesn't hurt to preface it with.

Donna: Would you be willing? Would you be willing to write and then you can throw in and what can I do to make that easier for you? So that you can actually fulfill right .

Mary: And sometimes things like shoes by the door or clothes in the dining room or, you know, is also a kind of systems issue, like a habit. Yeah. That may be clearing out another closet or clearing out a space or doing a project together to have a shoe rack or have Cubby's so that each person has a spot like sometimes redoing in the area together to solve a problem that is just a bad habit.

Donna: Well, and you know, I would just call that structure. What I say at the end of the day is that there's just a whole lot of structure missing. And so rather, who's right and who's wrong, look for what structure could be missing or what do we have going on right now that's not working. Right. Usually, it's always about structure.

Mary: So when do people, when do couples, when should they really go forward and seek counseling? I mean, I say in my book that I would recommend personal or couples counseling for anyone at any point, even if you don't think you have a problem, because you can always improve your marriage, you can always improve your relationships and your life. But is there a point when it's like the past when it. Yes. Is even appropriate?

Donna: Well, that's a great question. And I found that couples wait six years too long.

Mary: Six wow, six years, wow.

Donna: And I work with a lot of couples have been married for 40 years. Forty-five years, 30 years, long time. Right. And then they show up and it's like, wow. Yeah. Six years too long. So you said something really great. When I listened to your first podcast, you were talking about that you went into denial. And I think that it's kind of the same for couples. Here's this is a myth that on some level we think that we should know how to do this. And so we'll get to it later. Know we'll figure as particularly men, often women are like, oh, something's not this is not good. We're not we're getting disconnected. And she can occur to him like a dog on his pant leg. Come on. Come on. And he's like an off and men will do that. They'll say, well, later, because they are producers and they're all about knowing what to do, but they often don't admit that they don't know what to do.

Donna: But somehow it's going to come down from the sky now and we don't know. Nobody tells us this stuff. And so we could stop assuming that we should know. And I think where that comes from is that we are born into a relationship. And so it's by default we are in relationship. So because of that, there's something in us that has us think that we should be able to figure it out. We should know. And that's just a myth. So getting back to your original question. As soon as possible, as soon as you notice that you're starting to not feel, you know, maybe you don't feel safe or you feel like you're you can't be free to be who you are or that you're getting a little too cranky in the deal. You know, your notice that you're making wrong. I mean, one of the big things, one of the big things that can make a difference is just this ability to self-reflect.

Mary: To look at so this is just a good lead in to our final couple of questions, what kind of services do you provide? You provide in person online, private, groups? What do you provide or are there other national or international groups that would be a first step into looking into couples counseling?

Donna: Well, what I do is I'm not a therapist and I'm not a counselor. But what I do is I offer workshops for men and women. One of the things about men that I've found and I work with hundreds of couples and men that I work with, they don't they don't want to go to therapy. They don't want to look for where they're failing or how the thing is failing. They're not interested in that. They more want to find some kind of a solution. How can we move forward quickly? And so that's the type of thing that that I do and I offer right now. I'm doing online workshops. We were doing in-person stuff. But then covid came around the very day before we had an in-person retreat scheduled. Our government announced that there was no gatherings. And so the very day before that was it. We had to stop. And so we've changed. We pivoted and we've gone online.

Donna: And I was concerned about that, thinking, wow, can people be present for two days online? And they can and they really like it. So I do private work with just single couples. But you know what I find? I find that the group, like a group of couples, is actually it's better. And I actually recommend that people go as into the group situation. And what makes my work a little different is that we're not looking for who's wrong or who's to blame. And I actually tell people there's no talking about that in the in the group. I talk to people separately first, so that alone so that I know what's going on and so that people feel safe, that their partner is not going to make them wrong or that we're not going to be grinding around in anybody's problem. And men really appreciate that. If they're nervous, like, who is she and who are these people?

Donna: But when we get into the group, I slowly draw them out a little bit. I'll say something about men and I'll say, man, is that true for you? Nod your heads. The guys go like this and then the people will slowly talk a little bit and then they find they feel great because they're not alone. You know, eight out of ten couples are struggling out there. Eight out of ten. That's a high number. Wow. Eight out of ten and nobody's talking. And so then what I do is I will offer follow up coaching for people who want to go a little deeper and individual the one on one with a couple. But I'm interested in laying out some very key differences and even in how we communicate, because that makes a difference, because then you've got the detail and then there's how we're doing it. And so we want to focus on the details often. We want to look at the issue.

Donna: But the issue is not the issue. It's what's going on around the issue. And that's what I'm interested in. And so it's very transformative. People can get like a lot of relief just from, wow, I had no idea, like, men don't understand women. And I've talked to hundreds of men personally. And I will say, do you understand your wife? I know what's coming. Do you understand your wife? No. And OK, so it's like here, come in and you can learn about the world of a woman, how she communicates what she's looking for in this whole thing, because they are quite different what men and women want.

Mary: Which is the name of your Web site. Right. What is it?

Donna: It's called between men and women that come between men and women.

Mary: Right. Right. So that really is where you can find out more information. We'll link that in the show notes as well. So this has been a fascinating talk and we didn't even touch on some of the other big issues with marriages. But I think we we scratched the surface and maybe we'll have you on again in the future. I'd love that. So I'd like to end with part of my podcast. Goals are for parents and professionals listening to be less stressed and lead happier lives. And so we gave some tips. But anything that you do for self-care or stress management that you'd like to recommend?

Donna: Well, yeah, I'm just a couple of things is like if you want a different result, then just be willing to do something different. Trying to stay open, I talk about three ways of being like victim to just again, to self-reflect and to be able to do that. Am I being a victim? Is being stubborn? Do I just want to be right? But the big thing, too, is I kind of got this idea from Stan Patkin. He's a psychologist that works in the area of attachment, attachment theory. And he says, we can all be difficult, we can all be assholes. Right. But you just don't want to be too difficult. And so you owe it to your partner. Where am I too difficult? Tell me, when am I being too difficult? And if you can share that with one another, because really it's about being safe and secure, right? When we're when you're dealing with stress, if we can if we know we're safe. Then we can do so much better. I mean, they've done studies where just one argument that lasts a half an hour can delay the healing of a small wound by a whole day. That's huge, you know, so, yeah, so. Tip, don't be too difficult, and if you're not sure what that means, ask your partner. Where am I too difficult for you because we're all difficult. That's OK, but where are you? Too difficult? So that's my big tip.

Mary: I love that. So thanks so much for your time. It's been great. And your website is So you can find out more information about Donna and her great work. So thanks so much for your time today, Donna. Really appreciate it.

Donna: Thanks, Mary. My pleasure.