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Love and Forgiveness:

Controversial Healing Tools for Survivors and Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse

(as well as physical/psychological abuse)

The purpose of this chapter is to

  1. Explain and interpret my Love and Forgiveness work with survivors and perpetrators of sexual abuse
  2. Share criticisms and controversy about this work
  3. Respond to those criticism

I have been a psychotherapist since 1963. I was originally trained as a non-directive Freudian, said little to my clients, and rarely revealed my own feelings in my work. Soon, however, I was strongly influenced by the Existential approach and Rogerian therapy (Rogers, 1961). I started focusing on the feelings and thoughts held "right now" in the moment by the client (and myself, the therapist).

I entered private practice in 1966 and had a half-time research job studying Family Therapy. This gave me a rich overview of a significant "growing edge" in the field of psychotherapy. In 1967 I had an experiential introduction to Gestalt Therapy (Perls, 1969), was very impressed and started a self-training program immediately. I read what was available, attended some Fritz Perls workshops, a five-day Jim Simkin workshop, a weekend seminar with Laura Perls, and did regular co-therapy with therapists who had trained extensively with Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy. What impressed me about Gestalt Therapy was the speed with which clients could get to their deeper feelings and resolve conflicts. And, of course, insights often emerged in the process.

After practicing and teaching Gestalt for ten years, I went through a powerful shift, or transformation as a therapist and as a person. I was strongly influenced by Sydney Banks' seminars (1978-79), Gerald Jampolsky's Mini-Course and Tibetan Buddhism. I became much more spiritually grounded in love, happiness, forgiveness, commitment, and the deep connection we all have with each other. The healing efficiency of my work took a significant jump at that time.

There are numerous possible steps to the healing process I use currently, depending on the client's strengths and readiness. Some people are only ready to share or ventilate, while others are ready for a deeper movement and healing. Timing is crucial here, and it relates mostly to the following two factors:

  • The establishment of trust in the therapeutic relationship
  • A clinical judgment or intuitive sense by the therapist that the client is ready

The essence and power of this work since 1978 seems to come from combining Gestalt Therapy with a spiritual grounding. The controversy centers around asking the survivor to put themselves in the shoes of the perpetrator.

Gestalt Therapy

The Gestalt therapy process puts things in the now. Instead of talking about your father, you imagine he is in front of you and talk directly to him. You do not talk about your dream, you imagine you are in your dream and describe it with "ing" verbs like it is happening right now. To relive a traumatic event, you describe it with "ing" verbs as yourself at the age at which it happened, i.e. "My name is Terry. I am six years old and my grandfather is taking me to his workshop. Normally I like going there, but this time he is acting kind of odd and I am wondering why..." (The specific details are often important for completing the healing process.)

Then I have the client relive the event with "ing" verbs as the perpetrator. This process greatly increases the chances that the client can get in touch with buried feelings and memories. It is a very efficient and effective tool. Since 1967, I have used this with many hundreds of clients to work with dreams, nightmares, thoughts of suicide, obsessive fantasies, obsessive anger, revenge fantasies, and traumatic events. Some specific criticisms have arisen about using this tool with survivors of sexual abuse, especially the part about having the client relive the event as the perpetrator.

The Specific Criticisms

  1. It is confusing. What does it mean to the victims to "pretend" to be the perpetrator? It may further confuse them about the event. It may increase or precipitate guilt. Did they somehow abuse themselves?
  2. It may be re-stimulating, and re-traumatize the client.
  3. It is unfair. After all they have suffered, we now ask them to empathize with the perpetrator.
  4. It may disintegrate the victim's personality.
  5. What message does the therapist give the patient in suggesting they put themselves in the shoes of the perpetrator? Does not his lessen the significance of the patients' experience or suggest that their pain and trauma was not as important as they thought?

Criticism 1: Is is confusing?

Some people are so angry (or sometimes in a more opposite state, they are emotionally flat or without feeling) that they are nowhere near ready to make an empathic connection with the perpetrator. They need to relive the event and change the ending to acting out their rage on the perpetrator, often killing him/her. After they have killed the perpetrator in a fantasy, I recommend a spontaneity exercise starting sentences with "Now that you're dead..." Some typical responses are:

"Now that you're dead..., it's a relief." Now that you're dead, you'll never hurt me again." "Now that you're dead, you'll never hurt anyone again." "Now that you're dead, I feel better." "Now that you're dead, I feel worse." (Often people express one response and then express the opposite.) "Now that you're dead, I'm free." "Now that you're dead, you're free." "Now that you're dead, I'll go to prison." "Now that you're dead, I feel an odd connection with you."

Next time I ask them to relive this Gestalt therapy fantasy process (of killing the perpetrator) as the perpetrator, i.e. "Jane suddenly has super strength (or a gun or a weapon). She is catching me off guard. She is knocking me to the ground," etc. It is important to finish this fantasy in detail and then, as the perpetrator , start sentences with "Now that I'm dead..." Some typical responses are: "Now that I'm dead, I can relax." "Now that I'm dead, it's over." "Now that I'm dead, I'll never hurt anyone again." "Now that I'm dead, I feel a strange relief." "Now that I'm dead, I'm sorry." "Now that I'm dead, you'll probably hate me."

This may be the first glimpse of the client being able to put themselves in the perpetrator's shoes. Also at this stage, the client sometimes gets a glimpse of the price they pay for hanging on to their anger, i.e. as the client Jane is being the perpetrator and saying "Jane is pounding me, Jane is choking me, Jane is beating the life out of me," she sometimes can get the feeling that by hanging on to her rage instead of releasing it, she is also beating the life out of herself. In therapy and in life, some people cry and express rage or pain in a way that is releasing, relaxing, and letting it pass out of their body. Other people express pain or anger in a squeezing fashion that keeps it locked in their body.

Some people are so emotionally flat or dead that they, too, are not ready to connect emotionally to the perpetrator. They can't even get mad about what happened. After a few failed attempts to connect them with the event, their anger, and/or their body, I might say "Is it okay if I pretend to be you and express some feelings and/or relive the event?" If I really put commitment, energy, and feeling into it, they sometimes start connecting with their feelings about the event. Sometimes (rarely) a client will say "no", they do not want me to pretend to be them. It is important to explore their resistance at this point, but not to pressure them to proceed.

Before I pretend to be the client, I usually say, "Don't try to figure out if what I say fits. Your body will give wiggles or waves or warmth if it fits. Otherwise you will feel like I might as well be reading the yellow pages." Sometimes the technique has been criticized as putting words in the client's mouth and possibly confusing them. I always tell my clients it is important for them to feel free, to be unmoved or untouched by my role playing. Also, I look at it like group therapy. One of the values and purposes of group therapy is that sometimes a client gets in touch with feelings they did not know they had, when another client in group is working on an issue that parallels their buried pain. It is not uncommon for a client to start crying when I pretend to be them and I express what I sense to be their buried pain and anger.

So, returning to the criticism of "Is is not confusing to a client when they pretend to be the perpetrator and relive the traumatic events?", my experience has been that it is not confusing. In fact, usually it helps clarify the event and helps the clients sort out their feelings and also get to buried feelings. As themselves, they are not always sure exactly what happened. when they relive it as a perpetrator, they sometimes get a clearer picture of what happened. This is very useful.

This process raises some interesting questions. When the client pretends to be the perpetrator, from whence comes the thoughts and feelings they express. Sometimes the experience seems almost psychic. Not only do some clients have an uncanny ability to become the perpetrator, they also will say things about the perpetrator's life and childhood that sound extremely credible. This is often a sign that a deep healing is taking place in the client.

Sometimes in these Gestalt processes, a client is momentarily confused. But is only lasts a few seconds. Sometimes they feel temporarily worse as they work through the experience towards completion and integration. Often it takes more than one session. If the work is done in one of my large seminars (25-500 people), it often seems to have an even greater healing impact. Sometimes this process seems irrelevant to or out of the question for a particular client's needs.

Certainly if a client had very weak ego boundaries or was on the verge of disintegrating, you would not want to attempt this process. It needs to be practiced with intuition and great sensitivity.

One middle-aged woman I worked with in a large three-day Love and Forgiveness seminar had never been able work through her repeated rapes by her father when she was a teenager. He would take her to the basement late at night, tie her up and rape her, and then refuse to talk to her during the day. She told me later (after completing the Gestalt process) that she felt a peace and a connection with her father that she had never felt before; no confusion, no guilt, no anger. She felt complete and ready to leave the rapes, trauma, and pain behind her. She was a peaceful, grateful woman.

To achieve that level of peace and integration, two aspects of the experience seem particularly important. One, the client needs to feel and release the pain around the traumatic event(s) and two, as the perpetrator, the client needs to be able to feel the fear, self-hate, loneliness, hatred of the victim because the victim reminds them of their own despicable behavior (which leads to more self hatred), the compulsion or addiction behind this terrible, poisonous behavior, and the feeling "no one could possibly love or respect me if they knew what horrible things I have done." The isolation, fear and self hate is overwhelming. To feel all of this seems particularly liberating for most clients.

Criticism 2: Is it too re-stimulating for the client?

If you are exploring this technique and you get the feeling that the client is stirring up more emotions than they are capable of processing, then, of course, you need to retreat and/or get the client to focus on simple body sensations.

"Can you feel the arm of the chair? The texture of the material? The back of the chair supporting you? The heaviness of your body pressing into the chair? The tightness of your belt? The weight of your left ankle resting on your right ankle? Your breathing expanding your ribs?"

Often though, I suspect that the emotions are getting too intense for the therapist, not the client. It provides a lot of security for the client to feel that the therapist is comfortable with their intense feelings (even though I sometimes cry when I go through this with a client). It also helps a great deal if the therapist feels confident in his/her ability to create something positive and healing from any feeling that the client comes up with in the process.

And, of course, if the client seems on the verge of disintegrating, this is not an appropriate process at this time for their healing.

If the client is ready for this work, then of course there are many potential benefits (i.e., accessing emotions and memories; achieving clarity and insights; eliminating flashbacks and stress; diminishing over-reactiveness and distortions in every day life; gaining strength and optimism from adversity; and for some, resolution, completion, and peace through compassion and forgiveness for all people involved, including the perpetrator).

For those interested in a deeper discussion of the value of abreactive work, I refer you to chapter one from The Sexually Abused Male, volume two, pages 1 through 55, by Steele and Colrain, "Abreactive Work with Sexual Abuse Survivors: Concepts and Techniques" (editor, Mic Hunter).

Criticism 3: Is is not unfair to ask the client to put themselves in the shoes of the perpetrator?

It may seem unfair. It was unfair that the perpetrator molested or raped the client in the first place. And I tell the client that I am very sorry for the pain they have suffered. But the wiser I get, the less interested I am in the fairness of what happens with the client (though I still feel waves of anger at times). I am more interested in the client's reclaiming their personal power and their peace of mind. Not power over other people, but power over how they experience people and events in their lives. I have not found anything more effective in restoring this peace and power than this process we are describing here.

Also I am a fairly active therapist. My work tends to be rather short term and intense. I tell clients that everything I suggest is optional and that they should never feel obligated to try something. I also encourage clients to "try out" my suggestions as an experiment and let their body sensations tell them if the experiment "clicks" for them or not. They will have thoughts or feelings of "Oh no" or "Oh yes" or waves or wiggles if it fits. Or, if they have an urge to run out of the room, it may be a sign that we are making progress.

Criticism 4: This is a dangerous technique that will disintegrate the client's personality.

As discussed earlier, this is a very powerful tool and, of course, you do not use it if you sense or observe weak ego boundaries or that the client is on the verge of disintegration. But even with weak clients, I sometimes sense a strong inner core and with a little reinforcing or validating of this core, I can proceed with desirable results.

Criticism 5: Does this work diminish the client's sense of self value or diminish the significance of their pain?

It is important to have great respect for the client's experience and pain. It is important for the therapist to feel strong love and commitment toward the client and their well being. As I write this, of course I have the feeling that I am opening up an entirely new controversy. "A strong love for the client - what is this? Now you're telling me I must have a strong love for the client to do this work?"

Actually, what I am really telling you is that you have an overwhelming love for the client whether you realize it or not. And the more in touch this love that you are, the more powerful will be your therapy.

In 1978, I went through a powerful shift as a person and as a therapist. As part of this shift, I realized that underneath our fears, we all have a deep connection and love for each other, although many people are not conscious of it. My shift came from my contact with Sydney Banks, reading Gerald Jampolsky's Mini-Course, and reading a book review on "Unlocking the Secret's of Tibet". Then in 1986, in the middle of a very intense six-day seminar, I realized that this love (for all our brothers and sisters on the planet) is far stronger than I had previously thought. One of my favorite descriptions of this is a quote by albert Einstein that I chose for the ending of my book Love and Forgiveness.

A human being is part of the whole, called by us "universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. - Albert Einstein

Another slant on this comes from the research of Carl Rogers back in the fifties. He studied numerous therapists that were quite respected and noted for their effectiveness. They came from many different schools of therapy (analytic, behavioral, existential, etc.). He discovered that the best therapists all had some significant traits in common. These traits were non-possesive warmth and unconditional positive regard. In other words, mature love.

If this information upsets you or feels irrelevant to you, please feel free to ignore it.

My experience with this work is that the client does not feel diminished in any way unless the therapist is pushing forgiveness or pushing their point of view on the client. It is true, however, that after completing this work, the client no longer feels that their pain or anger dominates their life or their relationships.

The last stage of actually saying to the perpetrator "I forgive you" takes place after the client has relived the traumatic event as themselves and as the perpetrator, and invented a conversation between themselves and the perpetrator. For completion with the traumatic event, the conversation needs to get to the place where the client actually feels a brother/sister connection with the perpetrator. Sometimes at this point, they go ahead and say "I forgive you" and sometimes it doesn't seem necessary.

This work is quite paradoxical. I have had clients actually cry over the pain in the life of the perpetrator. These are not the self-cancelling tears of a co-dependent caretaker. There is a powerful spiritual truth operating here. We are all part of each other. We are all connected in a way that is beyond words and beyond understanding. Forgiveness is nice for the perpetrator, but it is much more powerful for the person doing the forgiving because of the following:

At the deepest level, forgiveness means we are finally loving a part of ourselves from whom we have been withholding love.

This is a very integrating, empowering experience and in no way does it mean the perpetrator's behavior was acceptable.

Sexual Feelings in the Therapist

Writing about sexual abuse would not seem complete to me without touching on the often-neglected subject of sexual feelings in the therapist. Therapy can create some very intimate, vulnerable moments. Feelings of tenderness can lead to sexual feelings. Also, when dealing with sexual abuse, some very explicit sexual experiences may be recalled and/or relived. The therapist may, at times, have a sexual feeling when this takes place. Something similar may manifest around sado-masochistic material with or without sexual specifics.

Because of all this, it is very important that the therapist has clear healthy boundaries and feels sexually grounded. I have also noticed that when I am fully aware of my love and commitment to the client's well being, sexual feelings are almost non-existent. When they rarely do occur, I think of my commitment to the client and those feelings disappear.

When I work with clients and/or therapists who have any sexual ambiguities, confusions, ungroundedness, or vagueness, here is some of my coaching:

"If you have a sexual feeling toward someone other than your mate, notice that feeling, gently set it aside without judgment, and think of something that you sexually appreciate about your mate. People often use sexual feelings toward a third party as a way of avoiding intimacy or commitment. In our ‘big mind', we have a deep longing to connect (mind, body, and spirit) with our mate. In our ‘little mind', we are terrified of it. Would you be willing to practice this exercise for one (or two, or three) weeks?"

If a therapist does not have a personal relationship of their own and is having sexual feelings for hi/her clients, it is potentially dangerous if they cannot (or will not) easily set them aside with some of the tools mentioned above. In their "big mind", the client wants a beautiful, trusting, healing relationship with the therapist. In their "little mind", the client may expect (unknowingly) that the therapeutic relationship will also turn out to be an abusive one. They may even attempt to orchestrate it. All the more reason for the therapist to have very clear boundaries and commitment.

This sort of discussion and coaching should be a part of all therapist training programs. It is unwise to give someone a potentially dangerous power tool without teaching them safety precautions.

Love and Forgiveness with Perpetrators and Victims in a Prison Setting

Since 1986, I have been teaching my three-day "Love and Forgiveness" seminar (as a volunteer) at Monroe State Prison, near Seattle. This takes place four to five times per year and is attended by approximately twenty-five inmates, fifteen friends and relatives of inmates, and ten outsiders (including therapists from Europe and Canada).

Most of these inmates, have been severely abused physically, sexually, and/or psychologically as children and most of them grew up to severely abuse others (murder, rape, child abuse, etc.). In order to hurt another human being, we must numb ourselves and pretend that we do not have a deep, loving connection with them.

In order to heal our violent acts that we have committed, we must relive the event and stay conscious (first as ourselves and then as the person we injured, raped, or killed). And again, this is done by describing the event in detail with "ing" verbs, like it is happening right now, at this moment. To own this behavior "in the now" in front of fifty people is a very intense, powerful experience. After re-living the event as themselves and as the victim, I then have them invent a conversation between themselves and the victim until they feel the deep connection that we all have for each other. Most men cry when they go through this process. (I do not process violent crimes when we have young children in the seminars.)

Since terrible violence was perpetrated on these men when they were children, this also means that to heal, they often must relive that traumatic event, first as themselves, then as the perpetrator, and invent a healing conversation between themselves and the perpetrator. (This is the usual order, though my intuition sometimes guides me in another order, or even to skip some steps.)

It has been suggested to me (by professionals and nonprofessionals both) that since these men committed such violent crimes, perhaps they do not deserve healing and peace of mind. It is very clear by the third day of these seminars that:

  • We are all in this together and if we refuse healing to these men, we are refusing to heal ourselves
  • When we love these men, we are loving ourselves
  • We are all much more alike than we are different

The volume of childhood trauma in these men's lives, though, is usually much more severe compared to the general population. two examples:

"I am six years old and I have accidentally scratched my cousin's brand new bike while riding it. My mom says, 'Wait until your dad gets home.' ... My dad is bringing his rifle out of his bedroom and putting the barrel in my mouth. He is pulling the trigger. The gun clicks with no bullet in it. My life is changing forever."


"I am ten years old. My mother is extremely violent, but she allows me not the slightest expression of anger or aggression. (Later as a teenager ten inches taller than she, I still cannot lift a finger when she is choking me. I black out. My stepfather saves me by pulling her off.) Anyway, as a ten-year-old, I have a magical place in nature where I retreat for long periods of great peace and healing. It is a beautiful clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. One day, unknown to me, a teenager follows me to my healing place and forces me to have sex at knife-point. I never go there again."

One inmate, after re-living a traumatic sexual event (suffered at the hands of his father) realized that the pattern of the rapes he committed as an adult was a replay of his childhood trauma, only now he was the perpetrator.

Inmates have also reported that repetitive nightmares or day terrors disappear after doing this work. Often they discover within themselves a great desire to help others. A lot of lay therapy takes place while walking the yard with other inmates who are struggling with emerging traumas.

The vicarious impact of this work is quite powerful. There are some inmates who have attended many of these three-day seminars and never taken the "hot seat", and never worked directly on their childhood traumas or adult crimes. Even they report examples of wanting to kill someone, or being in a violent situation that looks like "kill or be killed" and choosing to walk away or do something or say something loving.

It takes tremendous courage, discipline, and ego-death to relive your crimes and your childhood traumas (and your Viet Nam traumas). This level of vulnerability makes it easy for people to access their deep love for each other and to tell the truth about it.

An Important Tool of Technology

There is one other important tool I use in private practice that seems to free me to offer larger therapeutic leaps to my clients. I audio-tape all sessions, with client permission (and one out of twenty say "no"). I say "This is only for your use and nothing else. Is that okay?" ("Yes") "You may tend to judge yourself when you listen to the tape. If you notice that happening, see if you can set aside your judgements and listen to this person with love and compassion. The tape will be more useful that way." Some clients have listened to their tape five times by our next session and others not at all.

I have a small inexpensive tape recorder. I buy tapes by the case (100) for under one dollar each, and the key to the recording is a microphone the size of my little finger that costs ninety dollars.

If the session is particularly rich and/or covers considerable material, the tape helps the client integrate and reinforce our work. I use relaxation and visualization, and segments of our work are often affirming and life-enhancing. Therefore, parts of the recordings are almost like tailor-made affirmation tapes for the client.

My work tends to be rather short-term and intensive (five to ten sessions), and three to eighteen months later, another few sessions (though I have a few ongoing weekly clients for more than three months). Sometimes when clients come back for more therapy, they say they recently sat (or took a car trip) and listened to all our previous tapes and felt ready to take a deeper cut into their unfinished business. They also say "I forgot how far I've come".


In summary, remember these tools are not to be inflicted on clients. This work requires great respect for each person's unique rate of healing. Some clients are ready for great strides in therapy and others need to take very small steps.

A therapist's intuition and sensitivity play a key role in this work.

Another important tool for the therapist is love and commitment. The higher your love and commitment for the client, the easier and more effective is the work. Every session, I try to do the best job that I possibly can. When the going gets tough in a particular session, I tell myself, "When this person leaves, I want to feel complete with them. Is there anything I'm holding back or afraid to say?" I may even tell the client "I notice I am holding back what I usually say in these circumstances." The client usually appreciates this honesty a lot and together we look at the possible significance of my reluctance. Often my ego is wanting to look good or wanting the client to like me when I am reluctant, and not wanting to upset them.

Another tool I use on myself if my commitment starts to lag a little is that I imagine we are doing our sessions with lapel microphones in front of hundreds of people and I want the person in the very last row to get a lot of value from this session.

I almost always feel happy and energized after a session. And, after forty years of doing therapy, I feel very grateful to love my work more than ever.

Another attitude on my part that makes all this possible is very paradoxical. I am willing to be impotent as a therapist. I am willing to be defeated by the client. Of course, this is very hard on my ego, but quite empowering to the therapy. I approach each session as though my task is to give my very best. What the client does with it is their responsibility. The client can sense all of this on some level and it leaves them much freer to allow me to have great impact on them.

I have attempted to do the same thing with this chapter. I have given you the best I have to offer. I have included material that my ego wanted to alter or censor. What you (the reader) do with this is your responsibility. I hope it has been useful.


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