The Package and the Baggage

Help for Couples and Their Counselors

Neil Isaacs

Order now, with secure on-line order form
ISBN: 978-1-57733-251-0, 216 pp., 30 illus., 6 x 9, paperback, $17.95

This is a book about and for couples, a guide to ways of achieving successful coupling. Implicit in its presentation is the notion that a happy couple is the best foundation for a happy family. It is written with two overlapping audiences in mind. The primary audience consists of couples who are interested in examining and perhaps relieving difficulties in their relationships, whether or not they are considering therapy. The secondary audience is the growing cohort of mental health professionals who work with troubled couples. The Package and the Baggage occupies a middle ground between pop-psych lingo that aims for a lowest common denominator on the one hand and academic/professional discourse (with its inevitable reliance on jargon and doctrinaire methodology/modality) on the other.

Understanding the differences between the “package” and “baggage” are central and vital to a couple’s ability to achieve stability, success, and fulfillment. The book examines specific issues, identifying characteristic problems that weaken couples’ relationships and presenting:

Descriptions, narratives, and dialogue derived from cases and clients provide the necessary fleshing out of the skeletal principles that structure the book’s argument. No viable guide could work without them. Quoted dialogue heightens the sense of reality of what goes on in therapy.

Finally, a word about the cartoons that accompany the text. Humor is a valuable weapon in the arsenal of human defense against life’s assaults. The cartoon are offered with three goals in mind:


"Dr. Isaacs has fashioned an outstanding account of the process and content of marital counseling. His trenchant analyses of a wide variety of cases from his practice are accompanied by keenly selected and often hilarious cartoons illustrating the points he makes. A highly valuable read for both practitioners and couples considering use of their services." Edward J. Jordan, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

"This is a wise and good-natured book, replete with stories of people struggling to make sense of their closest relationships. It should be required reading for all marriage therapists and the couples they serve." Gordon Livingston, M.D., author of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

"Neil Isaacs's new book, The Package and the Baggage, is a literate, readable and practical treatise on working with couples in therapy. Dr. Isaacs's use of humor and straight talk gives the reader insight into how relationships work and how to work with relationships." Linda Schwartz, LCSW-C

"The trademark clarity of Neil Isaacs's writing is apparent throughout his new book, whether he is narrating and analyzing exemplary case histories or discussing novel concepts of coupling and couples counseling. The Package and the Baggage shows the author's thoroughly professional comfort and skill at couples therapy, a well-integrated ethical sense, and clear communication of wisdom. These qualities cohere in a valuable addition to any mental health professional's library--and it is also fun to read. It even features a skillful use of cartoons drawn from various sources. Who says serious learning can't be fun?" Paul Ephross, Psychotherapist, LCSW-C, Professor Emeritus, Social Work, University of Maryland at Baltimore

Table of Contents


Introduction: Tolstoy Was Only Half Right

I Couples Are Made, Not Born

II Why Couples Are Uncoupled: The Built-in Fault Line

III Leading from Strength

IV Deal-Breakers

V The Package and the Baggage: The Heart of the Matter

VI The Package and the Baggage: Playing the Triangles

VII Listening and Hearing

VIII The Business Model

IX Reciprocity

X Mommy-and-Daddy Things

XI Mutual Independence

XII House of Masks

XIII Seventeen Suggestions in the Guise of Commandments



Faces and bodies change, tastes and interests develop and are abandoned, priorities and attitudes shift, and beliefs and politics and values undergo modifications—at least. And those are the changes in the natural course of events, time, age, maturity, and development, not even taking into account the changes imposed by external factors. If relationships are based on superficial, transient, self-styled, elusive, and ephemeral qualities, how can they be expected to survive?

Yet that, I suppose, is beside the point, when we are concerned with how couples are formed rather than whether they will survive. It would be foolish to deny that such “dimensions” do play a role in the matching-and-mating process, just as the sexual appeal (which defies quantification, despite the cliché scale up to a perfect “10”) surely has its own inevitable influence. But it would be equally foolish to assume that the initial matching of qualities retains its “scientific” validity past first or second dates, when, for example, people self-described as having a highly developed sense of humor turn out to be tone-deaf and boring, when a professed particular interest in cinema verité turns out to translate into a taste for hard-core porn, or when an announced interest in good conversation over gourmet restaurant meals leads to hurried seatings at Applebee’s or Olive Garden.

No, the issue here is what there might be, beyond those measurable matching gimmicks, that constitute sounder foundations for promising relationships, stronger sets of commonalities that draw individuals together into couples. And here I offer two theories, both of which seem to have substantial validity, judging from significant numbers of couples whose experience resonates with one or the other and sometimes both of these formulations. One theory of attraction may loosely be termed psychodynamic. It suggests that couples come together when they satisfy each other’s emotional needs. The second is based on developmental theory. It offers the proposition that couples come together when both partners are at the same stage of “separation/individuation.” This is the post-adolescent period when people find and assert their individual “selves” while moving away, physically and emotionally, from their families of origin.

Clearly these theories apply primarily to relatively young couples. People making matches in later years have a different set of factors at work. They may have experienced negative modeling in earlier choices that didn’t last or function well and are seeking workable alternatives, attractive because different. They may have experienced positive models they are seeking to replicate. They may have given up on finding Mr. or Ms. Right and are willing to lower their expectations or compromise “on balance.”

Emotional needs have almost surely changed, so that different qualities may promise satisfaction. And of course separation and individuation may well already have been accomplished, so that the earlier developmental phase has become a non-factor. Still, mutatis mutandis (necessary changes having been made), emotional or neurotic needs and one’s status in a life cycle are still likely to play parts even in relatively mature choices. Besides, there is the possibility of repeating earlier failures, on the mistaken determination to get it right this time around.

I readily acknowledge that neither of these two theories, nor a combination of the two, is the whole answer to how couples are made. We could all list several other significant contributing factors, environmental and existential, internal and external, physical and spiritual. I would argue, however, that the majority of couples I have known fit one or another (or both) of the two scenarios. Besides, many of those other factors, e.g., sexual attraction, peer pressure, and practicality, to name a few, may only add details to support the theoretical framework.

If there is any validity to that argument, is it any wonder that relationships fall apart, lose their grasp on permanence, when the very forces that brought them together are transient and permeable? Fires flame out, the hotter the faster. Colors fade, the more brilliant now the grayer they seem later on. Old needs are replaced by new, stages of development once passed through yield to others, and paths and paces diverge and fork and vary. Other factors, many of them irrational, may surface to cause conflict, dissonance, rupture. Models, both positive and negative, from parents, schools, popular culture, etc., influence notions of appropriate roles, which when disappointed may result in a disillusionment fueled by an idealized nostalgia for what was and is supposed to be.

Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2010

Order Information / Blue Dolphin Publishing Home