Foreplay Meet George Faller
Laurie: Okay, Foreplay partners. It’s my honor today to introduce somebody who is a global leader in couples therapy. He’s got a brilliant mind, and he’s a man of courage. Foreplay, meet George Faller!
George Faller: Awesome to be here, Laurie. Great to be part of this show.
Laurie: Hey, you’re listening to Foreplay radio for couples and sex therapy, with your host, myself, Laurie Watson, sex therapist, and George [Faller 00:00:28], expert couples therapist. George and I are counselors, educators, authors, researchers, contributors, and leaders in our field with a collective 50 years of experience working with couples and sex therapy.
Laurie: We’re grounded in the best and most scientific research from attachment theory with our emphasis on emotionally focused therapy using all we’ve learned from our clients, our work, and our own lives. We want to have this open, frank, and informative conversation about love and sex to help you and your partner keep it hot.
Laurie: So, how are you doing?
George Faller: I’m doing awesome.
Laurie: So, George…… I have known actually of his career and his work for about a year, year and a half and followed you on some of your videos and have had the pleasure of also being one of his students. George has graciously volunteered to be my new podcast host.
Laurie: He’s a husband, a father, and he’s coauthored actually many works, but three of his books are, Sacred Stress, True Connection, and Emotionally Focused Family Therapy. He is also a certified trainer and supervisor and therapist and EFT, and that’s emotionally focused therapy. Some of you have been listening to us talk about that. It’s kind of the new thought that I’m listening to and trying to learn.
Laurie: He’s the founder of the New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy where he’s the president. He’s also a licensed marriage family therapist and supervisor. He practices in Connecticut and New York, and he directs training at the Greenwich Center for Hope and Renewal.
Laurie: I’ve got to say, I have been incredibly impressed by what you’ve taught. I’ve now sat through your classes, I think, 24 hours of watching you talk with nearly no notes. It’s very impressive and have learned so much already from you. So, I’m really honored to have you join me.
Laurie: I’m so excited about what we’re about to do in terms of helping people, both sexually and emotionally, get on the same page. I think that we have a lot together to learn from each other, especially about kind of blending our theory so that we can also potentially help therapists as well.
Laurie: I know that you are bringing the EFT family hopefully today to listen to us. That’s exciting.
George Faller: All right. Well, the feelings are mutual, Laurie. It’s a privilege to be here. It’s funny to listen to someone else read out a resume of things I’ve done, and yet I can’t get my kids to listen to me. I fight with my wife as much as anybody else. We really truly are in this mess together. That’s why it’s so refreshing to have a forum where we could just normalize a lot of these struggles that we all have and find some ways of just strengthening the bonds that we’re all looking to protect.
Laurie: Yeah. I agree. So, George, I want you to tell people the story about how you got into couples therapy and how you started this whole thing, where you come from. I want to know your whole story.
George Faller: Well, how many days we have here?
Laurie: We have lots.
George Faller: All right.
Laurie: We have 52 days this year.
George Faller: All right. Well, let’s start with the Reader’s Digest version. I mean, I grew up in College Point, Queens, which is a pretty tough blue collar neighborhood.
Laurie: And we are actually in New York right now.
George Faller: We are in New York. We’re in White Plains, a little further north of New York City. Where I grew up they said the only way out of College Point was PD, police department, FD, fire department, or OD, overdose. So, unfortunately too many people I saw went that last road of overdose. It was something I didn’t want.
George Faller: I never grew up thinking I’d be a therapist. There were no therapists in my town. Most of the marriages that I saw were ending in divorce, and the ones that stayed together probably should have been divorced. I mean, it was a real train wreck.
George Faller: I always thought, you know what? I’m never going to get married. I can just do my own thing and make my own decisions. It sounded like a pretty easy life to me. Like most of us, I really didn’t understand what love was or what people were looking for. I didn’t have great role models. I didn’t have people talking to me about it.
George Faller: Then I met my future wife, and all of a sudden I did this crazy thing and decided to get married. I’ll never forget coming into the fire house at the time. Every other firefighter at my firehouse was married but me. I came into the kitchen table. There’s like 12 firefighters there.
George Faller: I said, hey guess what, guys? I’m getting married.
Laurie: What’d they say?
George Faller: [crosstalk 00:05:05] be all excited. They were like, don’t do it. What are you, crazy? All this kind of stuff. So, I guess I’ve always been interested in what makes relationships work. I remember being a police officer at 21 years old and-
Laurie: So, wait, wait, wait. You were a police officer. This was after college?
George Faller: Right. Right after college at 21, just turning 22. I joined the police department. Then I spent three years on the police department, and then I transferred over to the fire department and did another 18 years in the fire department.
Laurie: Wow. 18 years, I didn’t know you were there. Then eventually you were a lieutenant there, right?
George Faller: Yes.
Laurie: So, you worked your way up. Okay. So, you’re in the fire department.
George Faller: I was-
Laurie: When did you meet your wife? At what point were you [crosstalk 00:05:46].
George Faller: I met my wife when I just joined the fire department.
George Faller: So, at 24 years old, 25 years old.
George Faller: But I remember being a new police officer and responding to family disputes. I was working in the South Bronx.
George Faller: People were screaming and yelling at each other. I tried to get them to be reasonable and to listen, to communicate better. Nothing I said worked. Right? People get emotional, and they start kind of getting… things start flaring and the parts of their brain…
George Faller: Now as I’ve gotten a lot of the research behind, you start recognizing people are set up to fail. They’re not really kind of given the skills they need to have successful conversations. Then they blame themselves when the conversations aren’t going so well.
Laurie: That’s right. I mean, we don’t come from families often that are functional and teach us about intimacy and how to talk to each other.
George Faller: Right, and yet despite that you look around, everybody’s trying to figure it out and make it work. I remember when my first son was born, they handed him off. Said, oh you can leave him. Go home. I was like, can’t we stay one more day in the hospital? I mean, there’s no manual with this. What are we supposed to be doing?
Laurie: What are they thinking when they send us all home with those babies?
George Faller: I don’t know.
Laurie: It’s crazy.
George Faller: So, for three years working in the police department it was a great learning experience. Really kind of seeing the best and worst in humanity, but it was a pretty stressful job. You’re constantly seeing people at their worst. So, I eventually transferred over at 25 years old to the fire department.
George Faller: So much of what I learned about in families and couples and relationships, I really learned in the firehouse. Because in a firehouse it’s so based on trust and becoming part of something bigger than yourself.
Laurie: It’s like a family, right. I mean [crosstalk 00:07:36] you’re depending on each other for your lives.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie: Huge bond.
George Faller: Because I was interested in helping people and psychology, I decided to go back to graduate school in the fire department. Then I figured I’d have a nice career once I retired in 20 years. I could do something else. I like self-help books. I like understanding why people do what they do.
George Faller: I never thought I’d work with firefighters, because they don’t talk about their feelings.
Laurie: That’s true. I mean, firefighters, officers, police officers, they’re tough to get into treatment, and they need it because they have so much trauma and stuff that they’re dealing with.
George Faller: And military, I do a lot of work with the military today. You really want to appreciate the good reasons why they are reluctant to do vulnerability. There’s a nice saying in every firehouse that says, whatever you see here, stays here. You want to protect your relationships and your families from all the kind of bad things that you’re seeing sometimes.
Laurie: Exactly. I do research on cancer, and they call it emotional buffering. Basically you’re protecting the people that you love from your innermost concerns and worries and feelings. It’s a protective mechanism, but it’s also the single most issue that prevents couples from getting on the same page. When one person protects the other one from their inner world, the couple can’t get on the same page and tackle things together. So, I imagine as an ethic, the fire department having that on the door.
Laurie: I mean, I understand the desire is to protect your loved ones, but wow. A difficult thing for marriages.
George Faller: Exactly. For me it’s not an either or scenario. It’s about flexibility. You do need to protect your family from some of what you see, but you can’t totally shut them out. It’s about finding that healthy balance of engagement.
George Faller: So, in my firehouse, my plan was to keep it a secret. I was going back to school to study psychology. Like any family, I knew the secret was out when I came into the office one day to change. I went up to my locker and they had spray painted my locker with flowers. From that moment on, my nickname was Cupid.
Laurie: Oh, good.
George Faller: Doctor Love. They had a few of them, which was pretty funny, but it wasn’t actually that funny for me. You can’t let them show that it’s bothering you, but in the inside I was like oh this is not good. We’d go to a fire, and I’d hear over the radio, Cupid, Cupid, break that door down. Cupid, break the door down.
George Faller: I was like… and the worst part was coming out afterwards in a fire, because at a fire you’d have so many firefighters from all over the city that would show up to help out. Everybody’d be lined up saying, who’s this Cupid guy? We want to know who this Cupid guy is. It was so, so embarrassing.
Laurie: Really macho.
George Faller: Oh, yeah. So, at least I got somewhat comfortable. I thought that it was going in a right direction, and I could separate this psychology passion of mine with the firefighting. Then September 11 happened, and certainly the world turned upside down. The New York City fire department lost 343 firefighters, which to date is the largest loss [crosstalk 00:10:48].
Laurie: Yeah. Painful.
George Faller: Even just saying that you can just feel all that emotion start coming up for me. I was assigned to Ground Zero. So, I spent days down at the site doing search and rescue.
Laurie: So, tell me, I mean, we all have our story about 9/11 and what we thought. I know I thought it was the end of the world, literally.
George Faller: Right.
Laurie: How did you hear about it? What do you mean you were assigned?
George Faller: Well, I was at home, and my first son was only a couple months old. We were just kind of figuring out how to do this parenting thing. I got a phone call saying, hey turn on the TV. I turned on the TV, and then I got a phone call. All firefighters were reported or called to report to their firehouses.
Laurie: Oh my gosh.
George Faller: So, I can still remember the scene now just needing to drive away. My wife crying with my baby crying, and they’re sitting on the lawn, and I’m like you know what? We have to go in. We had to idea what we were heading into.
Laurie: You were heading into hell.
George Faller: Yeah.
Laurie: And your wife letting go. I think that’s so painful when I think about her letting go. Also painful.
George Faller: I give her a lot of credit. She had to be as strong as I had to be.
George Faller: I was distracted. I had a mission. There was a lot going on that took my energy. She had to sit in, I think, a more harder position of being helpless and just sitting here watching TV not knowing what’s going to happen. So, I got into my firehouse in Harlem. We actually commandeered a bus and took off all the seats and loaded it up with tools and drove down to the site, to Ground Zero.
George: That was like a scene I’ve never seen before. It was just… We got there right after the second tower collapsed.
Laurie: Oh my God.
George: It was like being on a different planet with all the twisted steel and smoke and dust. You couldn’t believe that that was New York City. We’re used to some kind of controlled chaos at a fire, but that was just like really, really surreal.
Laurie: Yeah. I can imagine how awful, how terrifying, just a nightmare. We were watching from a very safe distance, and it was nightmarish just to watch. I remember the second tower going down. Honestly my first thought was oh my God, all the firefighters. So, how do you survive that mentally, and then how do you come out of that to help people?
George: Well, that’s where your training comes into play. I mean, this ability to turn off your feelings and focus on a mission and be part of a team really kicked in. We’d be spending our days… The hardest part was just not knowing all the long list of friends and coworkers that you knew and who was missing and not and family.
George: So, I mean, it was a bit of a total disaster, but if you would have told me almost 18 years later that where I would be was so influenced by that day and the decisions I made shortly afterwards. So, I was involved in doing… working at Ground Zero, but then on my days off I was doing what they call critical incident stress debriefings, which is basically you go into firehouses that lost 16 firefighters, 12 firefighters, and you’re really just trying to help in any way you can.
George: Because I had just finished my degree in marriage, family therapy, I didn’t think I’d ever work with firefighters, but they needed help so I was volunteering just to do whatever psychological first aid I could in these group settings. What we would expect to see after any disaster, an increase in alcoholism, acting out behavior, violence, post traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, but we also saw increased marital stress.
George: Relationship stress. What was really fascinating was there was so many therapists volunteering their time to see the individual firefighters, but there were hardly any therapists volunteering to see the couples.
Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: I remember I was in a room of about 100 therapists, and the director was trying to figure out who wants to see the firefighters with addictions and 60 hands went up. Who wants to see firefighters with post traumatic stress? 75 hands went up. Who wants to see the couples? No hands went up.
George: So, I was like holy cow. Nobody’s stepping up to see these firefighters. I don’t want to see these firefighters, but I’d have to be better than nobody at all. So, that was really my moment of truth. I didn’t think I would ever be put in that position, but nobody was willing to do it in the room I was in. So, I kind of put this finger up in the back saying maybe I’ll see them.
George: Somehow that director saw my finger. They were like, great, George. You’ll see the couples. You got them.
Laurie: You’re it.
George: You’re it. So, on my days off I was seeing 10 couples, and they were screaming and yelling and not listening, crying and pleading. I was like, I have no idea what I’m doing. Talking about a baptism by fire. That’s what that felt like for me.
Laurie: That’s it. That’s it. Oh, I’m sure. They’re all escalated. They’re all hurting. They’re all in PTSD, both the men and the women, I’m sure.
Laurie: That’s something. Let’s take a break. We’ll come right back and talk more with George about how he got through this and how he became a marriage family specialist.
Laurie: So, we want to remind all of you that we are thankful for the way you’ve shared the podcast. We continue to grow. It is our greatest honor when you share with a friend the work that we’re doing in trying to help people reframe their sexual life in a way that is understandable and not so mysterious so that they can make positive changes and strengthen their marriages and their partnerships.
Laurie: We would like to invite you to our retreat in November, loveandsex360.com is where you find us and all the details. Again, we’ve broken that up so that there is a part that you can come to that is less expensive and hear the lecture and do the work on your own, as well as perhaps do the private therapy issue if you would like. Loveandsex360.com
Laurie: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books, and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book Sacred Stress, A Radically Different Approach to Using Life’s Challenges for Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stresses into a positive force in your life.
Laurie: Who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing, but George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson, and it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at georgefaller.com.
Laurie: So, now you’re the guy. You’re doing these debriefs with the couples. What was the next step? How did you learn how to do this? You’re a newbie therapist, basically.
George: Absolutely newbie. Clueless, is what I felt like. I really wanted to quit [crosstalk 00:18:08] nobody else willing to step up and kind of jump up. So, I decided… I reached out to Sue Johnson. I remember reading an article in my graduate program about emotionally focused therapy, and I said, hey listen. They seem to have a way of organizing this trauma. I need some help.
George: So, I shot her an email saying, hey can you help me out? She responded back saying, certainly. I’ll send you some tapes and some books, but better yet I’ll fly out and train you and our staff.
Laurie: That’s amazing. That’s a huge gift.
Laurie: Did she just realize that you were the guy that was helping the couples, the firefighters, and she said okay I’m going to have mercy on you and come help?
George: As terrible as 9/11 was, I’ve never experienced in my lifetime where people felt more together than that time. I remember driving down there going to Ground Zero, and you’d have thousands of people cheering. It didn’t matter color, sexual orientation, religion. People were just pushing together being part of something bigger than themselves.
Laurie: That makes me want to cry.
George: Makes me, too, because it was just so touching. I can get goosebumps just recognizing. It wasn’t big egos. People really just wanted to help. It was in that spirit that even those first couple months as a new therapist, I had Sue Johnson fly out, Harville Hendrix, John Gottman. I got all this exposure to the masters, and I thought this was how all new therapists begin.
George: Right? It wasn’t big egos. People were just trying to kind of give different vantage points of the truth. It really has informed how I’ve trained since that moment on. There’s lots of different ways of seeing things, and it’s really just… It’s just fantastic to be able to have conversations instead of just surrounding yourself with people who agree with what you say. There’s not really any conversations.
Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s so generous. I know that you’ve done a lot of generous training as well. I mean, that’s incredible. So, what did you learn? How did you help these people? [crosstalk 00:20:14] learned to go into it.
George: I think a lot of what I learned, too, was trying to apply this in my own relationship. Me and my wife were following the rules. She was trying to give me space to help out, and she was kind of suffering in silence. I wanted to protect her, and I kind of had all my own threats and insecurities. Our own relationships, even though we were loving each other and protecting each other, was growing further and further apart.
George: So, EFT was really a way of me and her saying, wait a second. These rules don’t work so well.
Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: We have to find a different way to kind of be present with each other.
Laurie: Our instinct is not necessarily what’s drawing us closer. We think we’re doing something good for each other, and we can mess it up.
George: Exactly. I really think that was the pivotal lesson I learned that we weren’t made to face fear and insecurity alone. I don’t crawl into a fire alone. Knowing people are there makes all the difference. So, why would our relationships be any different? How could protecting my wife from my deepest most fearful vulnerable places actually be protecting her and vice-versa.
George: So, it’s counterintuitive, but the lesson I learned was actually to head towards the vulnerability.
Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George: Which my whole life I’ve been trained to kind of go away and shut it down and suppress it. There are times where I’m still going to need to do that, but again it goes back to that flexibility.
Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, right. All the training as a boy, as a man, is about guarding yourself and getting the job done, right?
George: Yeah. I saw this study that baby boys on average smile over 350 times a day. Old men, how many times a day?
Laurie: I don’t know.
George: Less than tree. So, again, look at what all this emotional constriction does habitually over time to so many of us. It’s pretty sad. So, I’m so glad that I learned at an early age that I didn’t want that to be my destiny. I didn’t want the price of my protection to be the numbness of my own heart.
Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love that. Yeah. I think that’s a lot of why I’m grateful that you’ve joined me, because I really feel like as I listen to you, you bring this perspective that is so freeing to men. How to be manly and open and vulnerable. I mean, I think what you bring is going to be very powerful for us. Talk about what did you learn from Sue Johnson? Tell people who Sue Johnson is. We’ve talked about her before, but you know Sue.
George: Sue is a character. I mean, you could Google and get all the professional resume, but just as a person she’s got a huge heart, and she’s got a brilliant mind, and she has a passion very similar to mine. She grew up in England in an environment that people struggled in their relationships. She didn’t know why, and she just got curious and started trying to pay attention.
George: So, what I loved about her work is how she came up with this model. It’s just video taping her couples fight and make up and just notice these common themes. So often couples get stuck in these patterns of trying to protect themselves, and yet that protection comes at such a heavy cost of creating more and more distance in their relationship.
George: So, the only difference between the best couples on the planet and the couples that don’t make it is one thing, this ability to repair, this ability to notice distance and be able to bridge it.
Laurie: To be able to get back on track.
Laurie: Because we’re all going to mess up. Right? I still fight with my husband, but it’s getting back on track. I think doing that faster is kind of my own measure of success.
George: The goal isn’t perfection. It’s just being good enough. So, having her at that critical time really helped me not get lost in all the trauma and all the noise and all the chaos, to start saying, hey listen. Every one of these couples has a choice. Are they going to head towards each other with the stuff that’s on their plate that they’re dealing with, or are they going to protect themselves and grow further apart?
George: So, the simplicity of the model really resonated, because there was too much going on in my own life and around the couples I was working with. Before you know it, I started to see progress and transformation in places that there was a lot of bleakness.
George: People around me started noticing. What is going on in George’s office that there’s such breakthroughs happening? It really set me on this trajectory where today I get a chance to travel all over the world, and I’m in different languages with translators that I kind of have to laugh. How does this blue collar boy from Queens who didn’t do emotions is somehow in Russia or Israel or Brazil or different places trying to talk about feelings and vulnerability? It’s quite remarkable.
Laurie: I think what’s true is that this transcends language and culture, right? The need that we have to be deeply connected to another person is beyond that, and you’re tapping into it and helping people get connected. That’s what’s so cool about what you’re doing.
George: Precisely. Certainly we want to respect the differences of culture and how that informs how we see the world. There’s more that unites us and we have in common than what separates us. So, when you start seeing, hey in this culture they don’t do vulnerability. They don’t express their feelings or they can’t touch. Yet before you know it they’re having a very similar conversation as me and my wife. They just want to be seen and loved and cherished and be that special person.
George: When you start seeing people head towards each other and feel a confident yes to that answer, their lives become much safer.
Laurie: Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, we’re going to head toward this conversation, and we’re going to talk about sex and relationships and why do this? Why do you want to talk about sex, too? What’s important about that to your work, and how are we going to help people with this?
George: Well, since the last 18 years, I really feel like I’ve gone so deep in helping couples understand what really is going on in their relationship and how to not get lost in the symptoms and the content and sex, money, kids, all the things we fight about. We’re really looking to stay to their emotional bond and really help couples strengthen that.
George: Yet for some couples even when you strengthen the emotional bond, the sex doesn’t always come back online. There’s more going on. As a couples therapist, we don’t get that much training on how to focus on sex. Every so often it’s a presenting issue, and then we’ll spend a little bit of time on it, but for the most part there’s so many things that couples are talking about that we don’t give it the space that I really think is so important.
George: I think culturally we live in a society that avoids having this conversation. I mean, I know I grew up, I didn’t even want to even think my parents had sex. They had eight kids, so obviously something was going on.
Laurie: Eight times.
George: Eight times. They got lucky, I guess. Really so my passion is similar to what I’ve been doing around vulnerability and just getting people to want to face and talk about things that are a little bit difficult, but the opportunities that we find in heading towards those conversations.
George: I’m so excited about doing this same thing around sexuality. It’s the doorway into the deepest intimacy and vulnerability if we’re willing to just have these difficult conversations.
Laurie: I agree. I agree. Thank you so much for going on this journey with me. Day one. It’s exciting. You’re listening to Foreplay Radio, couples and sex therapy. Keep it hot.
Laurie: Hi, Foreplay fam. The biggest support you can give us is sharing our podcast with a friend. You can find us also on socials, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and we’d love your questions and feedback and really do use these to guide our show. We’d also love it if you’d rate and review us.
Laurie: If you’re interested in learning more about us and our mission, look us up on our hot new website, foreplayradiosextherapy.com.
Voiceover: Call in your questions to the Foreplay question voicemail. Dial 833-MY-FOREPLAY. That’s 833, the number four, play, and we’ll use the questions for our mail bag episodes.
Voiceover: All content is for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician or as medical advice from a doctor.