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Updated: Aug 14, 2019

By Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT

We are long overdue for a relationship revolution. Everyone is in a relationship of one kind or another, and relationships are a place to find relief, friendship, solidarity, love, and belonging.

But for many of us, relationships are also sources of deep pain.

In my position as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I have heard many stories of that pain. I have listened to the toll that an abusive childhood has on a person's psyche. Heard the impact of a toxic relationship on one's self-esteem. I have sat with those who questioned their will to live after sustaining a deep relational wound. Empathized with those who had deep, long-lasting pain borne from past relationships. And encouraged those in the process of healing from heartbreak and intimate traumas.

As I listened to my clients unburden the stories of their relationships day after day, I had a realization.

For something that is so basic to human nature, why are we so bad at it?

There was a repeating thread through the stories of all of these relationships. The circumstances and the characters may have changed, but the patterns remained the same and ended in the same way. Heartbreak and Pain. This struck me... and stuck with me. As humans, it is in our programming to avoid pain. All animals avoid pain! Avoiding pain is hardwired into our biology. Pain helps keep us safe by telling us what to avoid in the future, and pain is a powerful teacher.

Anyone who has had their heart broken will agree that relational pain can be excruciating. The adverse, long-term effects of attachment trauma can be as devastating and life-altering as scars inflicted by physical injury. A toxic or abusive relationship can do more damage to a person's quality of life and health than bodily injury when measured over the lifespan. Research has consistently borne these statistics out. So why did I see so many people repeat their painful patterns over and over?

Why was the method that was powerful enough to keep us alive, failing us in the realm of relationships?

It was not for lack of trying. These stories I heard were from people who were in therapy. Some had attended counseling in the past with previous partners or as individuals. Many of these people were aware of their destructive relational patterns. Some were able to trace it back to a pattern in their family of origin or some other early attachment trauma. And yet, awareness alone did not prevent the repetition of negative and painful patterns.

It wasn't for lack of wanting things to be different! My clients were sincere when they said through their tears, "I thought this time was going to be different." "I worked so hard to avoid the pattern!" They all wanted to have successful, long-lasting, loving relationships!

Unfortunately, wanting something and knowing how to get it are two very different things.

It seemed to me that to most people, love and relationships were something that you were supposed to try and figure out as you went along. Hurt and pain were just the price you paid to be on that journey. And most people paid. Maybe if you were one of the lucky ones, you would avoid the "heartbreak toll", but almost everyone took a hit at one point or another.

Although a large part of my job as a therapist is simply to hold space for a person on their emotional journey (research shows that the best indicator of successful therapy is the client/therapist relationship); I also like to give my clients tools. I had my Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and certifications in a variety of relational and couples' therapy models. I had training in cognitive and behavioral therapies, solution-focused and trauma-informed approaches.

My therapeutic toolbox overflowed with communication and conflict management skills, all ready to pass on to my clients in our sessions. But what I found was that a) people were leery of the effectiveness of therapy; b) therapy is expensive (many insurances don't cover it); and c) it is not a quick fix!

Most people wanted clear steps to change NOW.

Even though I am a firm believer in the power of therapy (I am a therapist because I know it works), it can take a long time. Especially when you have a deeply entrenched pattern. What I was finding was that many people would come into couples therapy in a crisis, stabilize, feel better and then leave. Until they were right back in the cycle again. Therapy does work, but I needed more than 50 minutes a week to pass on to my clients all the tools they needed to break their negative relational patterns! I wanted something to encourage them to continue to work on their relationships even when things settled down at home.

That is why I created The STRONG Relationship Model. It started as my way to encapsulate everything I knew about what makes a good relationships into a simple, memorable model.

The blueprint to a good relationship!

It started as a one page handout for my clients. The take-home guide to give a couple at the end of their first session as a visible reminder of what we were going to work towards in therapy. To put on their fridges to encourage them that it wasn't just "therapist feel-good mumbo jumbo". Here was a plan! There was science! Data, Facts, Research! All combined into Six Easy Steps.

Now, I am expanding this model into a book, S.T.R.O.N.G: The Relationship Revolution, due for publication in 2020.

The late, great Toni Morrison said, "If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it."

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun and I agree. I am not a researcher or scientist. I am simply a therapist who wanted to distill the existing information on neurobiology, sociology, interpersonal science, and relationships into a simple, straightforward model that worked for my clients. This model stands on the shoulders of giants. It draws from from my clinical training as a systems-based marriage and family therapist, my certifications and trainings in other theories and models, the library of books I have read, along with my first-hand experience in working with couples.

The STRONG Relationship Model can be used to strengthen and deepen any and all relationships in your life that you value on a deep level. It can be used in your marriage, other romantic relationships, your friendships, your parent-child relationships, your co-working relationships, and any other relationships you want to keep STRONG. I hope you find it useful.


Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT is the Founder/Clinical Director of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center; Creator of The STRONG Relationship Model; President-Elect of the Austin Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Texas Certified Premarital Education Provider, and Guardian Ad Litem volunteer with CASA of Travis County.

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