In episode 18 — the third of season two of Knights Do That — we speak with Sejal Barden, associate professor of counselor education and executive director of UCF’s Marriage and Family Research Institute. She shares her expertise when it comes to couples and individualistic relationships, and her insights and advice on small steps we can all take to improve those relationships most important to us.

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Sejal Barden: Couples typically wait way too long to seek therapy. They wait much longer than individuals do because of course you need both people in the relationship to relatively agree to engage in therapy. And so by the time I see my couples, sometimes they’re not saying, “Hello,” to one another. They’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months on end. There’s really no semblance of who they used to be or what they used to have. And so these conversations that we’re having today is not where I’m starting with those couples. So I think it’s really taking an inventory and assessment of where are we today? And what’s the first next step?

Alex Cumming: Hey, Knight Nation. I’m glad you’re here for another episode of Knights Do That. Having and maintaining positive relationships is so important to our personal wellness. So for today’s guest, we have Dr. Sejal Barden who has spent her career counseling and teaching how to improve relationships, whether it be a spouse, family member, or friend, Dr. Sejal Barden’s words of wisdom will teach you how to make the most out of the time you have with the ones you hold dear. So, listen up because this could be your key to having the best Valentine’s Day ever.

Thank you for coming to chat with us. So I want to talk about your background, of working in counselor education, marriage and family therapy, and health and wellness. I love the papers you wrote that I read about working on addressing stigmas around mental health and recovery, and I just found them so insightful to read. So I just want to say kudos because those papers were lovely to get to read through some new perspectives I hadn’t thought about before. So I want to ask you about when in your career did you feel drawn to the marriage and family therapy field?

Sejal Barden: That’s a great question. I really think back on my journey of how I ended up where I am today. And I remember at a really young age, probably like 10, 11 years old, really being curious about relationships, coming from my own family history of relationships, but really just like what makes marriages thrive and also what really makes marriages struggle and what kind of separates couples. And so, I think most of my journey is explained by just genuine curiosity to relationships. When I was at University of Florida studying with my bachelor’s degree, I volunteered at a crisis center and did some overnight shifts and got really interested about people. Mainly the foundation of every kind of person’s mental health or pain that they were experiencing always became really relationally oriented. Whether it was a struggle with their parents, their children, their spouse, their bosses, everything centered around relationships. When I found out about the field of marriage and family therapy, it just felt like such a perfect fit for me to really hone in my knowledge and education for something that was personally and professionally very relevant. I mean, there’s that quote; “If you find something you love, you never work a day.” I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I do feel like the field of marriage and family has been a really good fit for me. And just making impact with helping people.

Alex Cumming: I imagine in a college town like Gainesville, there’s a lot of emotions and people are going through a lot, it’s a very transitional period. So health and wellness is of the utmost importance (during) that time in your life and your early 20’s, late teens. And even knowing yourself and understanding yourself better, the relationship that you have with the people around you. But I don’t think you can understate the importance of (how) parental relationships affect young adults and students.

Sejal Barden: Absolutely. And unfortunately, it’s not something that we actually talk about a whole lot. So it’s something that I think is intuitive that we might know. But when we find ourselves in our 20’s and that kind of quarter-life crisis kind of state of life of who am I as a person, how do I identify individually in relation to another person that oh, wow moment. I don’t know exactly how to move forward. This is really unchartered territory. So I think, being able to offer education, which I focused a lot of my work on really educating people, how to be in healthy relationships. Cause I feel like if we just knew a little bit more it might help us make some potential different decisions our personal journeys of being in relation to one another.

Alex Cumming: So I want to talk about your work with Project Harmony. You’re the principal investigator for Project Harmony here at UCF. Can you share what Project Harmony is? And then can you take me through your involvement with Project Harmony and what are your goals for it?

Sejal Barden: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m a co-principal investigator with Dr. Dalena Taylor and this is our second iteration of Project Harmony. So currently we’re in Project Harmony 2.0. But largely speaking Project Harmony is a project that was funded really based on some of the higher divorce rates that we were experiencing in the ’80s and the ’90s and the government responding, saying, “How can we try to ameliorate or to reduce divorce and prevent kind of disillusion of relationships.” And so here comes this movement for marriage education, really relationship education. What Project Harmony is really focused on is teaching couples like what is healthy communication? We’re not trying to avoid conflict. We absolutely know that couples are going to have conflict, but if you’re going to have conflict, can we teach you some skills and techniques to have conflict in a healthier way? So, we actually can kind of talk about our issues and then move into a solution. And Project Harmony is really skills oriented. So, it’s about a 12-hour workshop that we have our couples come into for several weeks in a row and we teach them some skills and then they’ll actually work with their partner, and we give them some feedback on those live demonstrations. And so really trying to set them up for short behavioral skills that are translatable into their daily life.

Alex Cumming: When a couple comes in, do they have a hesitation or do you find that usually one person in the relationship is more gung-ho about it and the other person feels like they’re maybe being dragged along, but over the course, they understand it better.

Sejal Barden: Yes I think we typically will always find that the female partner is the one that’s a little bit more motivated to seek help. Statistically, we know that in general there’s a little bit less help-seeking stigma for females. And so for our heterosexual couples, our males might have a little bit of that dragging feet phenomenon. Interestingly, when they do their posts-workshop surveys and some of their data collection at the end of it, our males really almost report just as good, if not slightly better in terms of satisfaction, meaningfulness, impact of the work that we do. And that always makes us smile and we’re really proud of that. Even though they were a little bit hesitant to come in, they really were present and engaged in the workshops.

Alex Cumming: Not to give too much away for people who want to get involved at Project Harmony, but what’s the first thing that you have the couples assess or work on when they come in?

Sejal Barden: We consider our institute like a living room environment and so we have loveseats and couches and we have the couples break bread together, it’s a group environment. So we’ll have anywhere between eight to maybe 14 couples gathered in our space. And so we break bread and we get right into introductions and having couples get comfortable sharing a small part of their story. And what’s one goal or thing that they’re curious about learning with our times together. And that really sets the stage to normalize that we’re all in a relationship. All relationships have ups and downs and things to work on. And it creates this sense of, safety, which is really critically important to the work that we do.

Alex Cumming: I imagined safety is probably like the feeling that you’re in a safe space, having a spot where you can be open and not feel judged. As someone who used to be much more closed off myself, it’s scary to open up, to feel as though you’re being judged. And I imagine in a space like in family therapy, it’s almost like you want to do good. I want to get the positive approval of the person I’m working with.

Sejal Barden: Absolutely and there’s a little bit of that, don’t tell family secrets, right? So that, that fear, that hesitancy, I think sometimes personally we might be a little bit more comfortable sharing our story. But when we’re talking about the story of our marriage or our relationship that’s entering a new kind of territory of secrets and privacy and intimacy, and normalizing the playing field and saying, “We’re not here to judge. We’re here to recognize that all relationships can improve. You don’t have to be broken to improve your relationship. And how do we do that together?”

Alex Cumming: I like that when things are crumbling, that’s when you’re like, “OK, maybe we should try to piece this back together,” as opposed to just maybe sealing the cracks before any water can seep through.

Sejal Barden: Yes, absolutely.

Alex Cumming: What’s it, prevent instead of repair ,something along those lines? But when you have the couples, how can couples, maybe couples who don’t come to you or any couple, how can they work to improve their relationship and maybe regulate their own emotions in it?

Sejal Barden: It’s a good question. There’s lots of books written on this topic because I think fundamentally we’re all really curious of how can we be our best self? How can we be in our best relationship? I’m reading Atomic Habits right now by James Clear and I think some of the words that he says really resonate with when I think about marriages and relationships. And one of those is really, I think we focus a lot on intensity. So I need to go to this week long marriage retreat. And if we just got away without the children or without distractions, then we would have a healthier marriage and really. While intensity is great and couples retreats are wonderful what we really need to do in our relationships is focus on consistency. Can we find one small thing that we can do for five minutes a day? And can we do that every single day, no matter how busy our days are and how many ways we’re pulled in different directions, if we’re traveling in different cities. And I think if we find that in our relationships, that consistency really kind of builds a foundation of love, intimacy, trust, reliability, and those are the things that really make a relationship thrive. When I look to my partner and say that I can count on you, no matter what. We often talk about gratitude and appreciations as being really one of the most fundamental core, positive relational attributes, something as simple as I really appreciate when you poured my cup of coffee this morning. It’s not big, it’s not huge. There was no mountain that was moved, but that really if we get in the habit of noticing the small things that our partner provides for us or for our family or for our children or our finances or whatever, it may be. That is really, the research shows it, personally have experienced it, when I have couples really engaged in a routine of gratitude it really makes a huge difference.

Alex Cumming: It sounds like it’s going back to the safety. It sounds like having a safety net in your partner, someone you can trust. If you don’t appreciate it, you’ll lose it. When the person doesn’t feel appreciated they sound like they detach themselves from the situation and move off.

Sejal Barden: Well, it also gives feedback. So sometimes what I might appreciate about my partner is something that he didn’t even consider being like a big thing, but it meant a lot to me. And the coffee example is my example from this morning. (I) was running out the door and just appreciate it, a hot cup of coffee before I left. And so that feedback then teaches our partners these are the types of activities that we can engage in, that will really kind of help fill your partner’s bucket. They might be thinking it’s something completely different. And so the appreciations serve as a way to say, “Thank you,” but also give that feedback, these are the things that I noticed that you do and that a lot to me.

Alex Cumming: Would love languages play a role into all this? Understanding what your partner goes for? I was trying to reflect on past relationships. I used to give a lot of gifts to a former relationship I had. And then I was like, “I’m doing all these nice things and getting her these gifts, but it’s just falling flat, I wonder why.” And then in retrospect, couple of years later, I’m like, “Oh, that’s why.”

Sejal Barden: And that’s such a great example of sometimes what our love languages is really a mismatch for our partners. A great example, and we can spend a lot of effort thinking that we’re delivering love in a way. And then we can feel really hurt and surprised when our partner doesn’t receive it. And so love languages is a really great roadmap to understanding that effort, it’s not endless. Like we all have so much effort we can pour into a relationship. So if you’re going to spend five or 10 minutes, let’s spend it in a way that your partner can really receive it and being open to knowing that it may be different than the way that you receive it.

Alex Cumming: I like what you’re saying, the consistency of having that routine of five minutes, which I’m curious, would you, if you had a recommendation for couples to have this like consistent routine where they can just set aside time, would you have a recommendation of what they should do with it?

Sejal Barden: I really like to follow, the formal name is called a daily temperature reading. And you do need about five to 10 minutes to accomplish this. But it’s something that both partners sit, without distractions, of course, I think that’s really important. Having connected time is free of cell phones, televisions, headphones, those types of things. So really staying in a space that you can find that for the two of you just to be close if you’re able to physically touch such as holding hands or having your knees touch, that’s even better. But starting out with one appreciation having each partner say what’s one thing in that day. So not like I appreciate you for being the best husband in the world, but I appreciate you when you wash the dishes this morning And then we go into sharing about new information. So often in the daily hustle of life right now couples really find themselves just talking about logistics a lot. It can be a little transactional and we don’t necessarily share if our boss gave us a really great compliment at work, or if we taught a great class and we made a big impact with one of our students. And so, what’s one piece of new information that you can share? Being able to have a safe place where we can give our partners feedback. If there was something that happened in the course of the day or past couple of days that hurt our feelings or made us feel upset, it’s so important to be able to give that feedback, because I really like to operate from that if they knew that it was hurtful, they would likely not do it. But they may not know that it was hurtful to you, so here’s a concern. But here’s our recommendation, “So when I mentioned about a summer trip that we wanted to go on, I felt you were a little bit short with me, that kind of hurt my feelings, maybe next time, can you let me know if it’s not a good time to talk about our summer plans?” And so I’m giving the feedback that my feelings were hurt, but I’m not going to sit on it and build that resentment towards it. If I feel like my partner can hear that feedback, then he may be able to be like, “Yeah, that’s a good point. I should have said, ‘I’m really distracted with work right now. I can’t really entertain a conversation for something seven months down the road.’ ” And then finally we like to finish those conversations off with hopes, wishes and dreams. And so what’s one hope, wish or dream that you might have in the upcoming day, week, month, whatever kind of comes up to you. So in that example, it might be like, I’m really dreaming about this North Carolina summer vacation to go on with our family, “and ending the conversation that way. It’s a structured way to communicate pretty important information that will likely get missed in the course of a day but can really help build intimacy and feel connection.

Alex Cumming: I love that. I think that’s so awesome to sit down and have time to just talk openly with your partner, which I know sounds so strange. Like, what? That’s what you should be doing. But it does seem to be so overlooked and so under appreciated. And those are the little things that kind of like fester under the scene and then can boil over into one large action. What do they say? Like most fights, aren’t usually about what you’re arguing about, it’s about other things or subtext?

Sejal Barden: Well, I’m often asked what do couples really argue about? And I always say absolutely nothing/ So, I mean, of course we know that couples argue about money and sex and other things like that, but, usually the conflict that happens every day in our house is about absolutely nothing. But it’s because it was maybe 10 smaller things that end up in exactly like what you’re talking about. You know, a balloon can really only have so much air until it pops and that is what happens in a relationship when we don’t spend a small amount of time daily talking about ourselves and issues, challenges, positive attributes, appreciations, those types of things.

Alex Cumming: Something that I’ve been thinking about and that I’ve been talking with some of my other friends who are in relationships. I have a friend of mine who’s getting married, and they’re a young couple and they’re going through all these various couples counseling and just like making sure that they’re on top of stuff, which I appreciate. As I said earlier, you know, making sure that you understand it before you have to fix it. We were talking about how sometimes you feel like this antagonistic drive, like you want to be a little antagonizing just to like provoke. Is that a common thing or is that just like young people?

Sejal Barden: It’s a good question. I think the part of it that is probably universal along all people is that there’s a part of us that sometimes gets a little bit bored in the mundane and might like to put a little fuel on a fire to keep things. Yes. So, you know what I mean? It’s like the toddler in all of us. Like any attention is good attention, even if it’s bad attention. And so there’s a part of us that sometimes might just see how somebody is going to react and light things up a little bit. I would say there’s many other ways light things up other than being a little antagonistic, but it’s likely a universal trait, not just for young people.

Alex Cumming: It’s just weird. You’re like, “Why do I feel so like angsty right now? Why do I always want to poke the lion and what I feel so provocative?” So, with relationships, we talked about the time setting aside and consistency, but what’s one thing that most, all couples overlook? That if all relationships knew they’d be turned for the better?

Sejal Barden: I think I really could not emphasize enough the importance of communication. I think you just said, you said it a couple of minutes ago. It’s something intuitive. Like we all know of course, sit down and talk to your partner. And in today’s day of social media technology, always being plugged into our phones, hearing an email beep at us every 20 seconds and feeling like we need to respond. I wasn’t a wife or a mother 20 years ago. I’d like to say that there was a simplicity then that we have lost now because of technology and social media. And it sounds simple. It sounds old school, but I think that if couples could just spend X amount of minutes to together, five, 10 minutes together, really being unplugged, one personally, it would feel really fulfilling. And I think this really applies to our younger couples. You know, I think older couples might experience this too, but when I think of stats of social media use and just like screen time that your iPhone will show you and people are on it for six, eight, maybe 10 hours a day, it’s so much of our life is going into something that doesn’t really fill our buckets in a positive way. In the moment there’s some instant gratification, of course, but long-term it’s not really helping grow us as people or in our relationships. I would challenge any couple to do a 21-30 day challenge and say, can we commit to 10 minutes a day without phones, without technology and just have a conversation and whatever comes up in that conversation being open to it and to reassess in 30 days to say, do we feel more connected? Are we happier in our relationship? Did we come up with a goal to do together? Did we do something positive in that time? I would be really surprised if couples didn’t feel like 10 minutes a day unplugged was significantly beneficial to their livelihoods.

Alex Cumming: I liked what you’d said in the conversations that couples have, that sometimes they can feel transactional. If you go through your texts, often, it kind of boils down to, “What time will you be home? Will you be bringing food? Did you pick the kids up? Did you walk the dog? Did you feed the animals?” Stuff like that. And when you’re connected the entire day and something does pop into your head, it could be so easy just to text your partner, but then when you get to the point where you are communicating in person, it can be hard to communicate because you’ve run that well dry throughout the day because you’ve been communicating from nine to five. And now here you are at six o’clock what’s been going on since then?

Sejal Barden: Absolutely. And I think, texting has its own responsibility and it is an effective form of communication for exactly what you’re speaking of a lot of that transactional quick information. Yes or no type questions. What texting doesn’t allow is the open-ended responses. Like, “How are you feeling? Was there something that came up in your day that surprised you?” like those types of conversations are not meant to be texted about. They’re meant to be sitting on a couch or a chair and just having a conversation I think if we can kind of separate what communication is best served through a text message or an email or in a very simplistic kind of logistical transactional way.

And what’s one thing that I’m curious about that I would really like to save maybe to keep in my pocket when I get the opportunity to sit with my partner I think that really helps us separate what we do in text messaging versus what we do face-to-face.

Alex Cumming: Right. I hear you saying communication is this large cornerstone. Communication can be really difficult, it can be a hard hurdle to overcome. It can be hard to have an open conversation. How would you recommend being more open with your loved ones?

Sejal Barden: Yeah. Communication is the number one reason that couples come into therapy. Everyone presents with having communication troubles. It’s usually not actually communication at all. It’s what happens when we create a bid for connection and really how we feel rejected when our partner turns away from us. That usually is underlying feeling of the fear and hesitancy for communication. So, if I say, “Let’s hang out on the couch tonight ,”and you say, “I’m too busy with work.” I might really over personalize that of you don’t really want to spend time with me. Where sometimes if I would’ve said, “When is a good time tonight to sit on the couch?” that’s a very different way of approaching that. And both people can contribute to that conversation of well, “I’m really slammed. I’ve got to get some emails, but maybe at nine o’clock tonight, can we meet on the couch for a 10-minute conversation?” But I would say for couples that have a little bit of that hesitancy, that fear, maybe there has been a lack of safety with communication, start small. Start with insignificant information that you just want to share. There’s all kinds of books of a hundred questions to ask on your first dates or something like that. But sometimes we don’t even know, we can live with somebody for 10 years and if somebody is like, “What’s their favorite movie?” “I have no idea.” You know, “What’s a book they read recently that they’re really into? What podcasts are they listening to that made them think about something?” So sometimes it can be sharing relatively safe, simple information to build that foundation of having a conversation. I don’t really minimize that having conversations are challenging and especially if we’re out of practice of being away from our phones and our technology we haven’t flex that muscle in a while. So it’s going to take some warming up to get into a space and over time, of course, those conversations would build into being deeper and more intimate. But we have to have some patience with ourselves and with our partners if we’re going to really work on our communication.

Alex Cumming: And this would also extend to familial relationships, siblings, parents?

Sejal Barden: Yes. You know, I mean, There’s the classic when you get on the phone with the parent of, “What’s the weather?” and do you know what I mean? I, I think the weather report really comes from that fear, that hesitancy. That I’m out of touch with what’s going on in your life since I don’t really know what else to talk about. You know, I would encourage anybody if they got on the phone with their mom or dad and wanted to avoid the weather question, like maybe asking them some of those questions, ”Hey, mom I was thinking, I don’t know what your favorite flavor of ice cream is? I’m curious about that,” or “Tell me a story of when you first learned how to ride a bike.” It can berandom questions that help us just say, ultimately, I’m curious about you, I care about you and I want to know about you. And I realize that some time has gone. Maybe it’s been 10 years that we’ve kind of missed with having these conversations, but let’s start somewhere. The worst thing we can do is not try and not start somewhere.

Alex Cumming: It makes me think about you sort of take the conversation and maybe stem it off. In my own personal life, I love sports, but I find that what’s more interesting is when we’re talking like, “Oh, did you see the game last weekend?” Where does that branch off, they say that they love the Chicago Bears. “Why? Oh, you grew up there. Oh, I love the city.” They sort of branch off into those conversations as opposed to just talking about the score.

Sejal Barden: Absolutely. My eight-year-old is becoming a sports fanatic. And we have a lot of conversations and so he’s really fixed on who won, what was the score, who threw for how many yards and touchdowns and whatnot. But then we’ve got to start talking about, so Tom Brady is big in our house right now, is probably big in many people’s houses, you know, like really sharing of what is Tom Brady’s story and how has he learned to be such a leader on the field? How are you a leader in the classroom? What attributes of Tom Brady do you really want grow into and become? And so you can take a conversation, that’s relatively simple and benign about gloating about how Tom Brady’s the best quarterback. I don’t know if —

Alex Cumming: No, I agree

Sejal Barden: Oh okay.

Alex Cumming: I love Tom Brady.

Sejal Barden: But you know, then we can get into like a deeper value system of what is it about these identities that we’re attracted to and how do we want to, grow from that and learn from that. So I think any conversation to me is a starting point to going somewhere beautiful and different if we allow it to.

Alex Cumming: I totally agree. We talked about the connections we have with our partners, spouses, and parents, but I want to talk about something that we mentioned near the start of us talking the relationship we have with ourselves and as individuals. And what would you say through communication and understanding? Can we do to better ourselves as individuals so that we can bring our best selves to our friendships, our familial relationships and our spouses.

Sejal Barden: I think so often when I think about couples and really when my couples come into my office, what they present with is every couple comes in blaming their partner for their problems. It’s human nature to look outside of yourself, to somebody else saying, “If you would only change this and this, then I would feel better and I would be happier and our marriage would be better.” And all of these things. Is there some truth that our partners can trigger us? Absolutely. And that piece of the question that you’re really asking is like, what as individuals are we really responsible for? And can we also really hold ourselves accountable, it is a really big question. And it really with introspection and like an open dialogue with ourselves of what are our strengths? Like what do we do really well at? What are things that we naturally know individually or in relation to other are going to be something they keep us moving forward? So for example I’m really good at social relationships. And so I bring that to the table. No matter how busy I am, I’m always going to keep our family connected to other families and other friendships. I always want to plan a fun time on a Saturday or Sunday. My husband’s really good with forgiveness. Like he’s very quick to be upset and come back to the table and apologize for whatever his misdoings were. I think if we know that as people, then that really helps us say these are my strengths. But then we also really need to be open with these are things that I’m not so great at. So if I’m not so great at forgiveness or I’m not going to be the first one to apologize and I’m one to kind of hold onto resentment, we should be realistic about that and then say, what’s one step that I could take? How would I know if, for me, I was slowly but consistently working on improving my journey of forgiveness and maybe instead of being upset for 30 minutes, I would try to, reenter a conversation in 20 minutes or something like that. But I think ultimately there’s no blanket response for if each person just did X, Y and Z, because it’s such an individual journey to what are your strengths? What are your growth edges? How do you lean into areas that you need to grow in and try something, reflect if it worked or not, and then try something again. I feel like life is just a journey and we’re all in that process of constantly becoming. But the hard part is when we stop acknowledging, accepting that we need to keep growing and learning.

Alex Cumming: With ourselves, too. It’s a lot to think about.

Sejal Barden: All of it is much easier said than done, right? And so one of my personal mantras is progression, not perfection. And I really try to hold myself accountable to that and emulate that in the classes that I teach and the couples that I work towards. It’s, we’re not striving to this end goal that when we reach it, we’re going to have all of these outcomes, like happiness and satisfaction and all of those things. But we’re striving on a journey to say am I a little bit more satisfied a month from now than I was today? And if the answer is yes, then we’re on the right journey. If the answer is no let’s drop back and not keep doing the same behaviors that aren’t working, but let’s try something different and really try to keep up with that progression.

Alex Cumming: It all sounds so simple, but I imagine for a lot of people that come your way can seem overwhelming. A lot to take in, maybe for somebody who hasn’t even questioned these things in themselves, their entire life or their entire relationship.

Sejal Barden: Absolutely. I think the reality is I think we started talking about stigma a little bit, but couples typically wait way too long to seek therapy. They wait much longer than individuals do because of course you need both people in the relationship to relatively agree to engage in therapy. And so, by the time I see my couples, sometimes they’re not saying, “Hello,” to one another. They’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months on end. There’s really no semblance of who they used to be or what they used to have. And so these conversations that we’re having today is not where I’m starting with those couples. So I think it’s really taking an inventory and assessment of where are we today? And what’s the first next step? Not what are the 15 steps, but what can we do tomorrow? And making sure that’s relative and we set our couples up for success.

And so that might be, can you try to say, “Good morning,” to one another tomorrow? And we start with that and if we’re able to do that successfully, then we’ll go into maybe you can share something about your day, you know? And so I think we need to really set each individual and person up for success based on their relative stories.

Alex Cumming: Have you had a moment in your career in the time you’ve been doing it, where an unorthodox method of thinking got you a better result than maybe what you would have thought originally?

Sejal Barden: I guess that’s what I love about everything related to my job is, it’s really rare that I think of anything honestly being orthodox. And it’s because it’s such a dynamic process, couples therapy to Project Harmony. People  — we’re unpredictable in our core and in our nature. And so, when I’m meeting somebody, I have a plan, but my plan is more of how do I make my couples know that I’m not judging them? How do I really actively connect with both people in the room? But in terms of being unorthodox it happens really naturally and dynamically. But sometimes I think maybe what we think about when we think about assigning interventions or really having help couples come together. It’s usually what has worked for you in the past. And can we build on that or what has been absolutely a horrible idea that a previous therapist might have assigned to you or offered to you and let’s not go anywhere near that. Really understanding for each of them what’s worked, what hasn’t. And then thinking on your feet to what do we do next that may work?

Alex Cumming: There’s no one, all fix all for the relationship?

Sejal Barden: There is no textbook on how to be in a relationship or how to help people when they’re struggling. I mean, there are multiple textbooks. I’ve written one of them on couples counseling, but you know, the reality is that we have a toolbox, I have multiple tools in my box, but I never actually know which one I need to pull out.

Alex Cumming: Well, if you go to the Barnes and Noble, there’s plenty of books. Everybody has their own idea of relationship and couples fixing.

Sejal Barden: Yes, self-help will probably always be the best-selling area of the market. But I think it really speaks to the true nature of how challenging and difficult behavioral change really is. Showing up to a first couple’s sessions or individual session is extraordinarily challenging. That’s one that’s never lost on me. And the amount of courage that it takes to be open enough to share your story with a perfect stranger. And so I’m never one to minimize the reality of how hard it is to activate change and sustain change. I think that’s why there are so many books and there will be for the end of time, because it’s something we’re all interested in doing, and we all struggle with it.

Alex Cumming: I agree. I have a whole shelf of self-help books that I still haven’t gotten into just because they’re so appealing to buy aren’t they? The promise that they sell?

Sejal Barden: Yes.

Alex Cumming: But Atomic Habits. That is a good one.

Sejal Barden: I think something that James says in his book too, is we don’t actually accomplish our goals, but we rise to the levels of our systems. And that idea really resonates with the work that I do with couples again. When we got into think about couples and that idea that if my partner would do something different than my life would be different. We each have a responsibility and really a great impact that if we make some personal changes on our own. We’re changing the level of our system. So our partner will eventually take some of them longer than others, but they will rise to the level of the system. So for example, if we went without (the) appreciations idea, it’s only so long that I think if one of the partners had a daily appreciation, we could all assume that the other partner would learn that this was going to be a new way, that we had a conversation or communicated with each other and would reciprocate that appreciation. They might not be on day two. It might take day 12, maybe day 25, but at some point that person would also kind of rise to the level of their system.

Alex Cumming: I like that. The rising to the systems.

Sejal Barden: The advice I’d give to anybody, so I am greatly privileged to work with graduate students in our counselor education program at the master’s level and doctoral level. And so I work with master’s students that want to be future counselors and doctoral students that want to be a future academic. The advice I always give to them is to build relationships. That’s probably not surprising at all, but when I think of my career, so much of how I’ve landed to where I am today is based on the relationships and the connections, the curiosity kind of asking questions for why do we do things this way? And have we thought about doing them a different way and really thinking outside the box as it relates to research and inquiry. And so really I say, build a relationship. If you’re not even in school yet, you don’t know what you want to do, call up a therapist and say, can I have a 30 minute interview with you? I want to know about your day. I want to know what your job has in store. Most of us in this field are really motivated to give back and love talking to people, rising therapist, rising educators to share our story and encourage people to get involved. I think we all are pretty aware that as stigma for mental health decreases, there is more and more in demand for well-trained counselors, therapists and educators. So I would say come along because there’s plenty of work to be done, and we really have a great opportunity here to improve the quality of life of people around us.

Alex Cumming: UCF a great place to work with that and to see the students and to watch their growth.

Sejal Barden: UCF has been an amazing place to work for that. Our program has typically been top 10 in the country, and I think the reason for that is, is that we have a really diverse faculty. My colleagues and I none of us look the same, think the same, talk the same. And that’s wonderful because that’s the real world of who our clients are and who our future therapists are.

They say UCF stands for opportunity, but that has really been true for me and my students. There are so many different opportunities that we’ve been able to engage in from being in this community.

Alex Cumming: What’s one thing that you’re still hoping to do on a personal and professional level?

Sejal Barden: One is hard to narrow it down. I’m really motivated by research inquiry and my curiosity. And so right now I’ve just started a brand new project. That’s really bringing the work that I do with relationships and educating couples on what a healthy relationship is, and integrating that more into the medical world. And so a project that I’m just starting, that I’m super excited about is working with cancer survivors and looking at how has cancer impacted their intimacy and how do we really talk about cancer? Not just from a medical diagnosis and survival, which is imminent, of course, but the aftermath kind of the breadcrumbs that follow into that survivorship lens specifically as it relates to intimacy and relationships.

So I see myself. In my near future, continuing this line of research, we were recently just awarded a grant to do some of this work. But I would love to see a research Institute that has more of that integrated behavioral health component as it relates to chronic illness and intimacy and relationships.

Alex Cumming: I’m really excited to hear about that, how it develops. And if people wanted to find you, or they wanted to find out about Project Harmony, where should they go?

Sejal Barden: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I would say, come check us out at the Marriage and Family Research Institute here on campus. We have a web presence, social media presence, pretty easy to find. And we’re always here, but our project is open to the community. We’re actively enrolling participants right now and it’s all free. So that’s hard to find these days, which is a great benefit. And we offer everything in English and Spanish, which is really important to us to be able to offer accessible services to all people.

Alex Cumming: That’s awesome. That really does show how UCF incorporates the community. UCF have stands for opportunity, like you said.

Sejal Barden: Yeah, absolutely.

Alex Cumming: Thank you so much for joining us today. It was such a pleasure to get to sit and chat with you. I’m reflecting on my own past and things that I’ve been involved in, the relationships that I have with the people in my life. So thank you for giving me a lot to stew in.

Sejal Barden: Absolutely. This has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for your time and your questions for sure.

Alex Cumming: I want to thank Dr. Sejal Barden again for joining us. Her wisdom is definitely something I’ll be taking into my own life. Her words on honest communication and making consistent quality time seems so obvious, but are so easily overlooked.

Join us on the next episode of Knights Do That when we will talk with UCF alumnus, Brandon Nightingale ’16 ’19MA. Brandon is the assistant archivist at Bethune-Cookman University and joins us to discuss how we can honor Black history year round, as well as the importance of slowing down and studying cultures outside of our own.

It’s an insightful conversation and I’m stoked to share with y’all. Charge on until next time.

If you’re doing something cool, whether that’s at UCF or somewhere you took UCF that we should know about, send us an email at, and maybe we’ll see you on an episode in the future. Go Knights and Charge On.