Marriage Counseling 101: The Dialogue

We’d spent our first session introducing ourselves and covering our individual backgrounds and medical histories while sitting next to each other on a small couch.  When we walked into our second marriage counseling session, we found two chairs set up a few feet apart facing one another.

This was, apparently, the proper setting for The Dialogue.

That’s what our counselor keeps calling it.  “We’re going to learn The Dialogue” and “hopefully you’ll use The Dialogue at home” and “The Dialogue provides the framework for what we’ll do.”  It took about five minutes for The Dialogue to sound funny, like if you say bowl or helicopter or Neil Diamond over and over again.  I don’t know if it’s because she puts the word “The” in front of it every single time or if it was just a simple matter of repetition.

But anyway, The Dialogue.

She explained the rules of The Dialogue.

The first step is mirroring.  Your partner - because that’s what you call your husband or wife during marriage counseling – will say something.  Then you will repeat it.  You don’t repeat what it means or what they’re saying, you just parrot back what they said.  She emphasized that it didn’t have to be repeated perfectly, but the closer you got the better your partner would feel.

The next step is validating.  Validating, she explained, is not agreeing.  It’s simply affirming that your partner is not crazy.  You confirm that you can logically see how they could be thinking whatever it is that they’re thinking.  I was particularly elated at this description.  I thought it was about damn time he admitted I wasn’t crazy.

The final step is empathizing.  This is where you try to understand what your partner is feeling.

It sounded simple enough.  I nodded my head that yes, of course I understood.  Jared shrugged, indicating that yeah, sure, OK.

“Jared, I’d like you to speak first,” she said.  “I get the feeling that Britt does most of the talking in this relationship, and it would be good for you to talk.”

I hate it when people say this.  It might be a simple and possibly accurate observation, but it feels like condemnation.  It sounds an awful lot like “Jared, you poor thing, you can’t ever get a word in edge wise with this mouthy broad, can you?”  I resisted the urge to explain to her that someone has to do the freaking talking, thank you very much.

Instead, I settled back into my chair and prepared to mirror.  Jared shifted in his.

“I guess… um… I feel like…” Jared began.

I bit my tongue.  What he felt like was bullshit, I thought.  It seemed like it took him five minutes to explain how much it made perfect sense for him to lie to me last week.

“You said…” she prompted me.

I looked at her for confirmation that he was obviously doing this wrong.  She looked back and offered no such validation.

“Do I have to repeat the ums and the ‘I guesses’?” I asked.

Without so much as a smile she shook her head and told me to do the best I could.

“You said…” I began, and proceed to repeat the absolute crap he had just said to me.  I’m pretty sure I failed miserably at keeping the disdain from my voice.

“Is that right?” I asked.

“Did I get it,” she corrected me.  “We try to keep right and wrong out of this.  You’re just repeating what he said.”

“Did I get it?” I asked again.

“Yes,” Jared nodded.

“Is there more…” she prompted again.

“Is there more?” I asked.

Jared looked nervously at me and then again at her.  She nodded.  He looked back at me.  I sat stone still and refused to roll my eyes.

“Well, yes.  I also feel…” he went further.

I clenched my jaw.  This is bullshit, I thought.  Utter and total bullshit!

“You said…” she prompted again.  I wanted to remind her that I was a fairly intelligent person and was capable of remembering my part.

“You said…” I parroted his words back to him, choking on a few of them.  “Did I get?”

He nodded.

“Is there more…”

Jesus, Lady.  How much more of this are we going to listen to?  I took a deep breath.

“Is there more?”

He looked again at her, and then at me, and then back to her as if to say “really?  I’m getting away with this?  I can just keep going and she can’t say anything?”  His shoulders relaxed a little and I could feel him winding up.

I seethed.  Just you wait until it’s my turn, I thought.

“I’m afraid that you…” he went on again.

His sentences were getting longer and it was getting harder to concentrate on mirroring and being defensive.  I had to lean forward in my chair a little to focus better on what he was saying so that I could remember and repeat back.

“You said…” I parroted perfectly.  “Did I get it?” he nodded.  “Is there more?”

I was rocking The Freaking Dialogue.

And of course there was more.  He went on for what seemed like forever.  I braced myself every time I asked if there was more because dear GOD there was always freaking MORE.  I started to wonder if we’d ever get to Step 2, let alone Step 3.  He was settling into the role of speaker quite nicely and I worried that he’d completely forgotten that we had to get through more steps before our session was over.

“Is there more?” I asked again.

He rolled his eyes up, searching the ceiling for more he could possibly add as long as he had the floor.  I prayed to God that the white popcorn texture wouldn’t provide him further inspiration.  “Mmmm….” I waited, “nope!  I think that’s it.”  He seemed terribly satisfied with himself.

“OK, Britt,” she turned to me, “I want you to summarize what Jared just said.”

“You want me to summarize all of that?” I asked incredulously.

“Do the best you can.”

I took another deep breath and proceeded to repeat again most of what I’d heard.  I found myself choking on words again.  The last sentence was especially difficult to get out.  “And you’re afraid that…”

Afraid.  That was the word he’d used.  I knew because I had been paying very close attention in order to get my part right (because, bullshit, there is totally a right and wrong way to do this.  Clearly.)

“Did I get it?”

“Yes.”

“OK, now, Britt, can you validate what Jared is thinking?”

“Uh…” I didn’t say any more than that but I shot her a look that clearly said “are you freaking crazy?”

“You don’t have to agree,” she reminded me.  “But is there something in what Jared said that makes sense?”

“Uh….” I stuttered again, thinking about how much of what he said sounded like illogical excuses that no, as a matter of fact, I could not understand.

“Knowing Jared, what did he say that you can logically understand that yes, you can see how he would feel that way.”  She was clearly not going to give up and affirm that he was avoiding the truth while I was obviously the only one thinking rationally.  I was going to have to do this if we were going to get through the steps.

“OK..” I thought about what he’d said again.  I thought about what I knew about Jared and how his mind works and I thought more about what he’d said.  I squirmed a little in my chair as I felt myself get into his head and realize that this was not a comfortable place for me to be.  “OK,” I met his gaze, “it makes sense that you would think…”

It sure felt an awful lot like I was agreeing with him, regardless of her previous assurances that validating wasn’t the same as saying you agreed.  If nothing else, I certainly understood, and it made me squirm a little more.

“OK, now, Britt, what I want you to do is guess what he’s feeling.  And this time, I want you to guess three things you think he might be feeling right now.”

I thought about the things I understood.  Afraid.  There was that word again.  But it wasn’t just a word anymore, it was a feeling.  I choked again, but this time on my own tears.

“I think you’re feeling…” God, this was hard, “I think you’re feeling scared.”

His eyes reddened.  My God, he was scared.  He was 6 feet tall and fumbling with his fingers and thumbs and pulling on the soles of his shoes, and he was scared.  My heart melted and broke simultaneously.  I felt, for the first time, the full weight of how scared he was about what was going on in our marriage.  I hated that he was feeling this way.  But more importantly, I knew that he was feeling it.

I gave two more adjectives to describe how he might be feeling and he confirmed that, yes, those words were accurate.  We stared at each other from our facing chairs, me crying openly and him not crying but having difficulty keeping his eyes from getting redder.  He forced a smile and I looked down at my feet.

We sat there like that for an eternity.  One of us reached out and squeezed the other’s hand, and I wanted nothing more but for this session to be over so that I could hug him.

“Now, Britt,” she broke the silence, “I don’t normally do this in one session, but in this case I think it’s important that you each have a chance to speak.  So, you’re going to be the speaker and Jared is going to mirror you.”

Finally! I thought.  I was already triumphant, thinking about how now I would get to explain how much of what he had said was dead wrong.  Now I would finally get the chance to unleash all of those thoughts I’d bitten down on for the last 30 minutes or so.

“OK!”  I sat up straighter in my chair, prepared to set the record straight.

“Here’s the thing,” she interrupted before I could start.  “You just validated and empathized with what he said.  You can’t take that all back with ‘yeah, but’ now.  If what you said just now is true, you can’t immediately turn around and disagree.”

Shit.

It took me a few minutes, but I finally got out my first statement.  With the “you said” prompt from the counselor, Jared repeated back what I said.

Kind of.

“Did I get it?”

I said nothing and looked at the counselor.

“Did he get it?” she asked.

Is she deaf? I wondered.  “Well, um, no.  Not exactly.”

“OK, tell him again.”

I clarified.  He repeated.  Kind of.

“Did I get it?”

“Um, well, almost.”

We went back and forth like this three times before she stopped us.

“Jared, you are doing a great job,” she assured him.  “Every sentence, like every person, is different.  And you are doing a great job of listening and mirroring.  But some people have different levels of the need to be understood.  That’s all that is going on here.  Let’s try again, but this time, Britt, say it in smaller chunks.”

I thought that was interesting.  I’d never heard that before, that the need to be understood wasn’t exactly universal.  I wondered if maybe I hadn’t parroted perfectly so much as Jared was OK with the idea that I got the gist of what he was saying, whereas I was desperate to have him get it just right, down to the subtle nuances because the nuances mattered and changed the specific meaning of what I was saying.

We continued on in smaller chunks and worked through Steps 1, 2 and 3 until we had both been validated and empathized with.  She congratulated us both on staying present and being committed to the process, and I handed her a check as we walked out the door.

It was hard.

I realized that maybe I wasn’t the great listener and communicator that I had thought I was.  The image of Jared relaxing and opening up in a safe place stuck with me, and I remembered it later in the week when I found myself trying to convince him that he had nothing to worry about when he tried to talk to me about an issue at work.  “You said that you’re nervous because…”, I reverted to The Dialogue, and while he laughed, he seemed to appreciate it.

Of course, a few days later I insisted that “I have been working my ass off to listen to you and it would be nice if I got a freaking turn here!”  “You said…” he responded, and while I laughed, I appreciated it.

I highly doubt that we are rocking The Dialogue.

But we’re trying.

******

I decided to write about this, as discreetly as I could, because walking into counseling blind is really scary for a lot of people.  You have no idea what the format will be or how a stranger could possibly help you, or even where you’ll begin.  When a relationship is so convoluted and there are layers and layers of resentment, it’s hard to know what layer to start with.  Maybe knowing a little more about what we’re going through will make it a little less scary for someone else.

Also, my husband is totally not scared of anything.  Ever.  And he tears apart trees with his bare hands.  He’s totally manly.

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Comments

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  1. daniel says:

    Good luck. It is hard. My wife and I did it, and it was rough. Good luck.

  2. adallasdiva says:

    I think you have done an amazing job of telling what happened and your feelings without revealing what was said.

    I am really impressed that Jared is ok (accepts?) that you blog. I would love to thank him too for letting us benefit from your lives…

    P.S. You rock.

    • Miss Britt says:

      @adallasdiva, thank you. It’s a fine line that I was trying to walk and I hope I managed it.

      Jared accepts that I blog, and he says he appreciates my writing ability. I’m not sure he’s in love with the idea, but he seems to accept it.

  3. Dawn says:

    This post was like therapy for me.

    Brilliant explanation of what you went through. I feel like I went through it, just by reading it.

    It’s so hard for a couple to communicate well. Men and women are so different in what they say, how they say it, and what they hear. Or what men DON’T hear. I have this argument (errr, conversation) with my husband at least three times per week.

    And my husband? Yeah. He’s a psychologist.

    • Miss Britt says:

      @Dawn, aren’t psychologists supposed to be the craziest of them all?

      You know, I was all prepared for her to explain to him that HE wasn’t the good listener.

      It’s been a bit humbling to see how much better he communicates when I stop trying to translate what he’s saying back to him.

  4. he can tear trees apart and be totally manly, yet afraid of losing you. that is completely awesome. now go hug him. in your underwear.

    thanks for sharing what therapy is like. it is cool to have a friend like you who is so open with their experiences, both good and bad.

  5. also? i’m still blown away by the revelation that not everyone needs to be heard on the same level. that is pretty fucking cool to know.

  6. Faiqa says:

    Oh, stop. You and I both know that we’re the men in our marriage. And our trophy wives love every minute of it. :D

    • Miss Britt says:

      @Faiqa, it’s a damn good thing they are pretty.

      (Although Jared swears he would never wear that “sash thing with the baby in it” around company. He says he’d throw the kid over his shoulder or something. LOL)

  7. That was really brave of you to write about – I don’t think I could have been quite this open about something so personal.

    I hope you’re both doing OK…
    xo

  8. corrin says:

    I wish we could find a good counselor in our area. We really need this.

  9. angi says:

    This is amazing, Britt. Thanks for sharing. I empathize with both of you, but as a divorced woman, I’m hoping like crazy that you two keep rockin’ The Dialogue.

  10. Finn says:

    The fact that you guys can laugh together at things that maybe shouldn’t be funny but totally are, is good.

  11. Laura says:

    As a fellow women who has been through counseling with her husband. You rocked this post.

    I’ve been there and kudos to you for doing something many couples refuse to do.

  12. Kristin says:

    Great post babe.
    The beginning had me laughing because I can totally see and hear this going on. I know it’s not a laughing matter, but the description was great.

    I am so glad that you guys are at least trying to rock the dialogue.

  13. melissa says:

    damn. I wish I lived in Florida. Sounds like you have a great therapist. I have some resentments to work on. I think both Tim & I do. Thanks for sharing.

    • Miss Britt says:

      @melissa, I said this to someone else, but I’ll say it again here. Look up “Imago therapy”. We’re only 2 weeks in, but my personal therapist highly recommended it.

  14. Bre says:

    I’m so glad you guys are going through counseling! I always wished my parents would have tried… I admire you both and I’m still rooting for you!

    • Miss Britt says:

      @Bre, “I always wished my parents would have tried…”

      that right there was what I was trying to avoid my children ever thinking. At times, it was my strongest motivator when everything else was too overwhelming.

  15. perpstu says:

    Great post. I have no doubt that in time you two will indeed be rocking The Dialogue.

  16. TSM says:

    I wish we had done this before it got to the point it did in our marriage. Granted, we’re together and working our asses off to stay that way, but I’m not sure he would have “got it” back then.

    He was so quiet. Never said what he thought. Never thought much of me, I thought. Turns out there was a huge elephant in the room all these years. Whodathunk?

    Best of luck, girl.

    • Miss Britt says:

      @TSM, “I wish we had done this before it got to the point it did in our marriage.”

      Me. Too.

      We talked about counseling so many times over the last few years, and then life would get in the way and we just let it go. We figured we’d moved on.

      It took a complete implosion for us to finally breakdown and get help.

      Best of luck to you, too. Better late than never, right?

  17. Ren says:

    I’m glad you both seem to be earnestly working on it.

    Also, this was wonderfully written; nicely done.

    • Miss Britt says:

      @Ren, that makes me laugh because at the end we had to do appreciations and I’m like “I appreciate that you say you want to try even if your actions don’t match up.” and the counselor is like “uh, you can’t insult him with an appreciation.” LOL

  18. What Ren said. That’s pretty awesome.

  19. Maria says:

    I’m really proud of you guys. We’ve only gone once together and it was VERY hard.

  20. Headless Mom says:

    feeling heard is never over-rated. well done on all accounts.

  21. SciFi Dad says:

    Great and very informative post.

    At the risk of sounding arrogant, although I haven’t been to counseling, I have tried to explain the concept of validating feelings to my wife often (example: I say something I think is innocuous, she gets mad, I respond that while I’m not sorry for what I said, I am sorry that she felt that way about it).

    • Miss Britt says:

      @SciFi Dad, “I respond that while I’m not sorry for what I said, I am sorry that she felt that way about it”

      Oh my freaking word, Jared does that and I HAAAAAAAAAATE it. Because what it sounds like is “well, I’m sorry that you’re stupid.”

      Maybe next time try “I can see how you would feel hurt. I think you’re feeling…”

      Because, you know, I’m an expert now and shit. :-)

      • @Miss Britt & @scifiDad

        Oh, man. Those words just sent hackles. Those words are why I haven’t spoken to my mother-in-law in 4 years. She did something pretty rotten and hurtful and kept saying she was sorry “I felt that way,” not “sorry I did that.” I consider that the un-apology (almost like pointing out I am wrong for feeling that way in a twisted way) and in my mind that means there is no saying she wouldn’t do it again.

  22. Lisa says:

    Once again you managed to put me right there with you, so much so that I teared up reading this. You have an amazing gift.

    I really wish I could get hubs to go to counseling with me. He has such preconceived notions about it that he just won’t go.

    • Miss Britt says:

      @Lisa, I’ve spoken with so many women recently who say the same thing, and it’s the main reason I decided to write about it. I’m hoping that MAYBE by doing it, someone will get a better understanding of what to expect.

      I think after one session of getting to sit there and talk without feeling attacked and having a stranger validate him, my husband would recommend this to other men.

  23. Hockeyman says:

    Damn, I’m glad I didn’t have to try and do that. However, nothing about therapy of any kind is easy. It’s never easy to face whats rolling in your mind that you are generally afraid to let out because of what might happen after. That being said, I commend the both of you for being brave enough and committed to doing it. It IS hard, and although it never gets easy, it will get less hard if you stay committed. Being able to joke about it fits perfectly. Even though its not “proper” procedure, it was applying a newly learned communication skill in your own style. That’s very positive.

    Hugs to you and a fist bump to Jared. I’m not a guy huggy kind of person, sorry J.

  24. Wonderful post, Brit. Wonderful.

    Having been married 13 years this week, I often think my marriage could have done with some counseling like this during the rocky parts. We are stable and smooth sailing right now, but there were times and probably still will be times that we could have used counseling, but I was always to afraid (based on all my friends’ divorces) that that was the sure 1st step to admitting the marriage wa sover. Hearing from you, it truly does seem like an awesome way to shore up our marriage and strengthen it even better. Funny, my husband is getting his MBA and taking a negotiations class. It has had some similar lessons, but with business world applications, but it has ironically enough opened a form of “the dialogue” between us. Again, kudos for sharing this. Love the post!!!

    ~Scout

    • Miss Britt says:

      @Scout’s Honor, that doesn’t surprise me. I suspect the fundamentals of communication or the same in many areas.

      Also – I totally understand the resistance to counseling until you get to the WORST possible point. I was always afraid of the expense.

      Turns out, it doesn’t cost near as much as I imagined.

  25. stacy O says:

    Hi Britt. I am starting “couples counseling” on Thursday. We did it once before 3 1/2 yrs ago and 3 months later our marraige ended.
    We have since divorced, had other relationships, re-connected, and are now re-married..Yikes, so we are starting counseling again and i am freaking out!! We arent broken by any means, but after a long seperation we decided to go..scared is not the word…thanks for that post. Me and my hubby use humor alot in our marraige, so keep your fingers crossed

  26. Robin says:

    Wow. Just wow.

    Seeing breakthroughs in progress is very inspirational to me. Please keep writing about you and Jared (if you feel comfortable, of course). Us unmarried people ::points to me:: learn so much from it. :)

  27. Hilly says:

    You’re rocking the process, Britt. I am really happy to be able to watch you both grow and try and try and grow throughout this whole process. There is so much strength inside of you and I’m not sure you even know how much I admire you.

  28. Kirsten says:

    Wow, I’m in awe of this:
    “I’d never heard that before, that the need to be understood wasn’t exactly universal. I wondered if maybe I hadn’t parroted perfectly so much as Jared was OK with the idea that I got the gist of what he was saying, whereas I was desperate to have him get it just right, down to the subtle nuances because the nuances mattered and changed the specific meaning of what I was saying.”

    Because it just described me perfectly. When a conversation is so intense, I feel this exact way. It is a matter of semantics.

    Thank you for sharing this, Britt. I really appreciate it.

  29. Aunt Becky says:

    You can do it. I have faith.

  30. I’ve gotta give you both two thumbs up here. Jared, for being able to get comfortable in a totally uncomfortable setting (gah, I hate counseling), and Britt for following the rules of The Dialogue (that’s really fun to say, The Dialogue, hahaha, it sounds so elite).

    It’s really hard for anyone to admit they need help, and I imagine that asking for help with a relationship is really freaking hard. You guys are doing great, and I really think you will come out of this just fine — if not stronger.

  31. Kelley says:

    Keep up the good work Britt and Jared. It is a hard road, this communication thing. But in the end, not only will your marriage and family benefit, but surprisingly, all of your relationships. I have applied alot of what I learned in marriage counseling to the rest of my life. Also, my husband recommends couples counseling to friends in need. He tells them our experience, and is quick to say it isn’t for everyone, but it worked for us, and continues to help us daily. (and this is a man that breaks trees and scares small children!) Always thinking of you and wishing you the best girl!

  32. Sybil Law says:

    For the record, I still think you’re right.
    Ha! Kidding. Well, kinda. ;)

    I wish our therapist had done more of that stuff, though. I too remember waiting for him to jump in and tell my husband he was wrong and not at all listening, etc!
    Just happy you guys are trying. That’s the really important part. :)

  33. Poppy says:

    For the record, you do talk more than Jared does whenever I’m in the same room than you, but that just means he observes while you engage. I don’t think there’s anything negative about having separate roles in a social settings. Healthy!

    Jared thanked me for the “glass thingies” we sent, this made me giggle and smile.

    I am glad you are doing this. By the time I got to the “I want to separate” stage my relationship was just way too far gone and scary and messy and not worth salvaging for me. I feel bad on occasion, even now, for not giving that relationship more of a chance, but I know in my heart that it was never going to work out.

    Proud of you for trying. :)

  34. Becca says:

    Kudos to both of you for being willing to try. I have always thought those “I’m sorry you feel like I…” statements were a total load of crap because then I do feel like I am being called stupid. However, I think you both rock for trying so hard!! :)

  35. DeannaBanana says:

    I call complete bullshit! You and I -BOTH- know that Jared has only ever torn apart trees with his teeth, while juggling a couple of cold ones with his hands. Seriously, at LEAST be honest.

    GAWD.

  36. Kris says:

    We call those “unapologies.” And yes, they make you feel like worse crap – like your feelings don’t matter at all. I’d rather feel that I’m wrong, than feel stupid and insignificant.

    And The Dialogue is akin to smoking The Marijuana and doing The Drugs.

  37. Lauren says:

    Counseling of any kind is challenging. When I was in therapy my counselor tried to dig deeper than I wanted to go at the time. Maybe it was necessary but who knows. I’m glad that ya’ll are giving it a shot. Marriage is hard work.

  38. Susan Payton says:

    It’s hard to be vulnerable for each other when you’ve spent so long trying to be strong.

    You’re doing it though,and so is he.

  39. Fair play to you for your honesty here. Thank you. I am going to try these steps when me and the hubs are having a screaming match. Best wishes.

  40. Natalie says:

    Thank you for this BRILLIANT rendition of a typical marriage counseling session. I’ve been in relationship counseling with 2 different people, and this never happened. THE DIALOGUE makes so much sense…it’s a process…my husband and I can learn and do process. Sometimes all we will have is that process.

    What we are doing right now is silence and getting away from each other for a while. Then we come back together and it’s like nothing happened. This is a bad recipe.

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing.

    Good luck with the process Brit!

  41. RW says:

    I’ve been away for a while. Hey what’s this thread about?

  42. Tonz says:

    This was incredible. My partner and I have been having so many problems of late and he was not able to talk about it. One day after I’d had a couple of beverages, I proked and prodded until he spilled his guts with everything that was going on with him. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever listened to. But it was incredible. Listening (well reading but I always feel like I’m listening when I read your posts) reminded me of that. Well done on doing this, it sounds incredibly hard. And I have to say that I was speechless and until I read your comment “just IMAGINE how annoying we’ll be at parties if we ever do!”…that’s when I laughed.

    Well done, good luck and thank you so much for sharing this.

  43. Chibi Jeebs says:

    Thank you for sharing this: as Robin said, it’s definitely a learning experience as a reader (in a relationship with a man who may or may not have sworn to “never” go to counseling).

  44. Artie says:

    This is so, very, well written. You have nailed The Freaking Essay about the Freaking Dialogue. I was right there in the room with you.
    Now that we live twice as long as we did a century ago, I can’t even imagine how any two people can continue on and on w/out the aid of some skilled, objective third parties once in awhile. Seeking help and learning skills is really just “Rocking the Commitment.”
    Thanks for this!

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