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Evan Imber-Black: Guru of Couples and Family Therapy

Evan Imber-Black: Guru of Couples and Family Therapy by Eric Rosenblum, LMFT, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

I was lucky to have known and studied with the eminent couples and family therapist, Evan Imber-Black, who died yesterday at the too-young age of 80. Dr. Imber-Black directed and taught in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Mercy College, where I got my degree. She was an author and a pioneer in the field of family therapy. Dr. Imber-Black wrote books primarily about two themes: family rituals and family secrets.

To me, Dr. Imber-Black has been a mentor and a guide. A few months ago, I reached out to her for advice on a case I have and I began seeing her once a month for supervision. Talking with her has been greatly helpful and a pleasure.

Dr. Imber-Black used to say about marriage and family therapy, “One thing about this field, it’s never boring.” I found that notion inspiring, and I believe it to be true. I love couples and family therapy, because it’s an exciting privilege to talk with people about their lives, to be an outside resource mirroring back what I see playing out before me.

Every first session I have with a new couple client, I use an interview template that I got from Dr. Imber-Black. I start out by asking about who’s in the family, where they live, and what they do for a living. Then I ask them to describe the challenges that bring them in to see me. Shortly after, I ask them each to tell the story of how they met, and what attracted them to their partner.

When I started doing couples therapy, I used to have a print-out of the questions that I kept in a notebook on my lap. I would surreptitiously look down, to remind myself where I was in the elegant sequence of questions that Dr. Imber-Black had designed. At this point, I have internalized the questions; Dr. Imber-Black’s wisdom and experience have become a part of me.

One of the best aspects of Dr. Imber-Black’s teaching were the essays she assigned us to write. There was a real emphasis on what is called ‘the self of the therapist’; we had to apply what we’d learned of systems theory to ourselves and our own families. It was useful and cut deep.

I respected Dr. Imber-Black and I would work hard on the essays for her class. She had edited the most important academic journal about family therapy, Family Process, for the better part of a decade. She was a real intellectual, a seasoned editor, and an accomplished writer. I wanted to demonstrate to her in my writing that I understood what we were learning in class.

I wrote about my own family for the first essay I was assigned in Dr. Imber-Black’s course on family therapy. By assessing systems at play in my family of origin, I came to realize that my maternal grandfather’s sexism had trickled down into my mother’s point of view, and had, I believe, influenced how she parented myself and my siblings. 

This was revelatory for me. It was systems theory in practice: I was processing how the patriarchal system of our broader society had impacted my grandfather, and then impacted my mother, and then impacted me. Through the framework of Dr. Imber-Black’s essay assignment, I was able to, as she would say, ‘think systemically.’

As I reflect on what I learned from Dr. Imber-Black, I realize that I’ve maybe gotten too far away from systemic thought, which requires discipline and rigor. Dr. Imber-Black was a hardcore proponent of the Genogram—a clinical family tree that couples and family therapists create for each client to understand how family systems function and interact with societal systems. I want to get back in the habit of using a Genogram.

I would describe Dr. Imber-Black’s demeanor as tough and matter-of-fact. I never found her to be warm and fuzzy, though I did have the sense that we had a camaraderie. She kept me on my toes--I never felt too comfortable with her, I always felt like I had to be as real, honest, and thoughtful as I possibly could. I did feel warmth from and towards her, though.

In text messages, my fellow students and I still refer to Dr. Imber-Black by her initials, EIB. RIP EIB. I am grateful to have had you as a teacher and to carry you with me.  

About the author

Eric Rosenblum, LMFT

Therapist, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

I work with clients who are seeking to deepen the intimacy in their relationships, feel more connected and confident in themselves, and create meaning in their lives.

  • 🎯 Direct
  • 💙 Warm
  • 😃 Humorous
  • 🎨 Creative

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