Talking with … A therapist with a flair for couplesby alix wall, j. correspondent
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Name: Gal Szekely
Home: El Cerrito
Profession: Couples therapist, founder of the Couples Center in San Francisco
J.: For a therapist, you have an unusual background. What were you doing before and why did you change careers?
Gal Szekely: First, I was a marketing manager in tech companies, then I was a management consultant, and then I became a psychotherapist. From a really young age, I was interested in personal growth, because of something that happened to me at age 13. One of my good friends suddenly turned against me and got others to do the same and it caught me by surprise. I was very lonely and disconnected. I had no answers for how it happened, which started me on a path learning about myself and people in general and relationships. That has been one of the strongest forces in my life, looking at who we are as people and what our potential is.
My work in the tech and business sectors wasn’t as satisfying as I wanted. Also, there was a time where my relationship with my wife was in a difficult place and I wanted to learn more about why. I learned there is a huge value in learning and teaching yourself about yourself, and I really felt the impact a good relationship can have on your life. It was inspirational and made me curious to work with couples.
GS: I’m from Ashkelon, Israel. My father was born in Hungary and left just before World War II at age 3. My mom was born in Israel. Her father was born in Holland, and her mother was born in Israel, but her family was from Algiers so I have some Sephardic ancestry. I came to the Bay Area to attend CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies).
J.: Why did you choose CIIS?
GS: After military service, I went on a big trip to Asia and learned about Buddhism. I did my first 10-day meditation retreat in Dharamsala (India, home of the Dalai Lama) and fell in love with meditation and the practicality of Buddhism. When it’s cleared of religious stuff, there’s a lot more of learning about yourself, just sitting with “What am I seeing in myself?” Once I decided to be a therapist, I was searching for a program that combined Buddhism and psychology, and not that many places do it. Most of those that do are in the Bay Area.
J.: Why do you think so many Israelis are attracted to their program?
GS: There’s a growing interest around meditation and Buddhism in Israel, that’s one reason. But also, there’s something about Israelis that they’re innovative and not going the traditional route. CIIS offers an innovative way of looking at personal growth, and I think Israelis are attracted to that. That’s also why you have so many startups in Israel, because they’re not afraid of doing something new or exploring territory that’s not mainstream.
J.: What does the Couples Center offer that other marriage counselors don’t?
GS: Early on, I saw an interesting phenomenon, which is that most therapists will work with couples, but 80 to 90 percent of their practice is with individuals. When you try to apply things you’d do with individuals to couples, it can make things worse. When a couple is in the room, things can be critical; there can be anger and resentment. It’s a system between them, but you have to notice what’s going on for them as individuals, so the level of complexity is higher.
It’s ironic that in every other aspect of our lives, if you want to be good at something, you have to learn about it. No one can assume you can do your job without learning, or by doing some kind of training. But when it comes to relationships, people just assume it’s going to be fine, as in “I love this person so everything will be smooth sailing from here.”
J.: Do you think the Israeli trait of being direct and forward makes for good therapists?
GS: I think it makes me a better couples’ therapist. A lot of times, people come in during a crisis situation and want concrete answers, like “Should we stay together or not?” and in that situation, directness is a benefit. Couples have come to me after seeing other therapists who didn’t give them enough direct feedback or it wasn’t practical enough.
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