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New center offers queer-centric counseling for couples

by Heather Cassell

Queer couples therapist Brendan Neff-Hall, right,<br>provides counseling to a gay couple. Photo: Courtesy Queer Couples Center
Queer couples therapist Brendan Neff-Hall, right,
provides counseling to a gay couple. Photo: Courtesy Queer Couples Center  

Relationships are not all neatly wrapped up Hollywood endings. They are complicated, and queer relationships sometimes have a little extra drama even when LGBT couples strive to be just like everyone else.


This is why Brendan Neff-Hall, a couples therapist, founded the Queer Couples Center, a virtual hub where people can find therapists.


Neff-Hall, a 34-year-old queer man, fell in love with the challenges of couples therapy while he was in the psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, he told the Bay Area Reporter. He was surprised to discover that there wasn't a center focused on queer couples like what he has envisioned when he was searching for internship opportunities several years ago.


He found the Gay Couples Institute, a research center studying LGBT relationships, but not a center that focused specifically on professional counseling and coaching for LGBT couples and individuals seeking love.


"Many of us are figuring it out. We are just dating and having sex and trying it out or educating ourselves," said Neff-Hall. "It's nice that we are in the age of Google. It's nice we are in a time where there is literature out there, it's just not enough support for us in our relationships and our sex lives."


Most research on couples is primarily on heterosexual couples. There is a dearth of research on queer couples, said Neff-Hall.


Additionally, couples therapy oftentimes gets a bad rap. Couples are the least satisfied clients when it comes to therapy, said Sheila Addison, 43, who's bisexual and a therapist with the center.


"I think that what makes us unique and makes this work important is that we are right at the intersection of two common mistakes that mental health clinicians make," said Addison, who has worked with queer couples for nearly 20 years and has worked in academia as well as provided diversity coaching for mental health settings and corporations.


The two mistakes are therapists who aren't trained specifically to work with couples and families and simply apply their skills working with individuals to "multiple people in the room," she said. The second mistake is the good therapists who are open-minded or LGBT themselves believe they are "ready to work with queer people," she said.


"There is a difference to being accepting and being sensitive and being culturally competent," said Addison, pointing out the multiple dimensions and combinations of relationships that occur among LGBT individuals.


The LGBT community's romantic and sexual relationships can be composed of non-monogamous, polyamorous, different gender combinations, and interracial relationships, said the therapists.


Then there is the legal and political reality.


The queer community is psychologically catching up with marriage equality being the law of the land, added John Hanig, a 32-year-old queer therapist at the center. He pointed out one of the key causes that brought the community together was lost when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.


"There are less opportunities for queer couples to get together for a common cause, to compare notes on what a queer marriage makes and to feel the need to reach out to the community for support when things go wrong in the relationship," said Hanig.


The law didn't magically erase homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia either. There's also the new reality of easier access to creating a family and building a life together, which brings its own unique challenges and blessings.


While the period of activism and fighting for rights isn't necessarily in the rearview mirror, LGBT couples need to shift their focus on a unique new fight, that of coming together to "learn how to love," and realize "their relationships are valid, beautiful, and worthy" of becoming stronger, said Hanig.


It's a transition that can be more challenging for queer people of color, trans people, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers living in the U.S., said Hanig, who is fluent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese and practices art therapy.


Some binational queer couples he has worked with have felt rushed to propose marriage due to immigration and asylum issues, he said, which brings its own set of challenges.


However, good therapy helps couples achieve "happier, more secure loving relationships," said Neff-Hall, by learning how to "navigate the relationship more easily and lean on each other for emotional support and build happy memories together."


Counseling helps couples work through conflicts easier, offers options for quick repairs when conflict arises or triggers are ignited, establishes effective communication tools, and most of all it helps partners become "experts on each other," he said.


"We want to get you collaborating and not acting out on each other," said Neff-Hall.


Individuals also benefit from therapy, offering opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their past relationships, and to heal wounds in a way that it benefits the relationships with people currently in their lives and potentially new relationships in the future, Neff-Hall said.

"We have unique and diverse relationship constellations," said Neff-Hall. "We want to help folks with navigating our diverse and beautiful expressions of relationships."


Hanig and Addison agreed.


"We have a lot of experiences working with all types of definitions of couples," said Hanig, who has worked with queer couples for six years. "That's a very exciting topic that couples can bring to therapy ... the liberty to really find what works for us."


The ability to create new relationship rules and become the role model rather than following a model that doesn't quite fit the relationship.


Love, love, love

The center offers couples and individual counseling and relationship coaching.


The difference between counseling and coaching is, in counseling an issue is identified and a plan is made to make the issue better. Coaching is more action-oriented acting out scenarios, such as meeting someone new at a bar.


Neff-Hall was careful to point out that while the center is focused on couples and singles, its therapists also handle many mental health issues that affect relationships such as affairs and non-monogamous relationships, anxiety, depression, coming out issues, and a variety of mental health disorders.


"We are comprehensive in our offerings," said Neff-Hall, who started counseling couples in 2012 before he opened his private practice, the Love Therapist, in 2014.


Neff-Hall selects the therapists at the center to ensure they fit its mission and vision for social justice and use emotionally focused therapy and psychobiological approaches to couples' therapy.


An activist from an early age, he has placed significant importance on the necessity of therapists being consciously aware of different factors that inform their client's lives, such as ableness, gender diversity, race, and more, he said.


Currently, the center has six therapists, including Neff-Hall, who have joined the center's therapist network to receive referrals for a small fee to support the venture's operating costs, said Neff-Hall.


Neff-Hall is seeking to bring on therapists from different ethnicities and racial backgrounds as well as gender variant to meet clients' needs, he added.


The center receives up to 30 calls a month from potential clients since the website launched in January, he said.


The center also provides ongoing training to student therapists and clinical support to professional therapists in the network through its consultation group, Neff-Hall said.


The center doesn't have a physical location for clients and the therapists to meet.


Instead the therapists operate out of their individual offices in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. This allows clients to see therapists locally. The center also offers clients a sliding scale to keep therapy affordable.


The center offers a sliding scale of $150 to $180 for couples and $130 to $150 for individuals, generally. The scale might slide down to $100 if clients are seen by an intern, said Neff-Hall.


Neff-Hall hopes to eventually expand the center into the North Bay, Peninsula, and South Bay, he said.


He's currently not looking beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, despite hopes that the center will grow and expand to other cities around the United States in the future.


"I would love that. That would be a dream come true to have the Queer Couples Center start showing up in major cities and around the country," said Neff-Hall, who is waiting until he has a staff and budget to support the center's growth.


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