It is very common for angry partners to come in saying they had a great big fight during the week and they want to talk about it. Sometimes they’ll even call you to request an emergency session.
At that moment they are like a powder keg in search of a match.
Don’t light the fuse!
Do not ask them:
- what the fight was about;
- to talk to each other;
- what they want to get out of the discussion.
If you do, things will probably get worse.
They’ve arrived in your office with their limbic brains already activated. If you surrender control early, they will leap in rapidly making their partner look bad and feel bad. Each will describe the fight from their self-protective defensive perspective and then want you to be the adult in the room who sorts it out and finds the other guilty.
You will have to scramble to regain control.
At that moment neither has the skill nor the will to look at his or her contribution. It’s like you are caught in the equivalent of a Middle East conflict but this one you intensified by using the conventional approaches mentioned above.
So what can you do instead?
Say to the couple, “I want to hear about your disagreement, but let’s try doing it in a different way. I want you to think about what you want to say to your partner. But I’d like you to tell them without making them feel bad or look bad. Please take a minute to write down how you want to start. If you have trouble expressing yourself without making them look bad or feel bad, you can ask me for help to construct it in a better fashion.
I would like each of you to feel understood without feeling blamed.
When you tell your partner something important without making them look bad or feel bad, they will be able to listen and hear you so much better.
A defensive mind cannot be understanding, compassionate or curious.
When you are thinking about what you want to say, be sure to include what you want or hope the outcome will be. Underneath every attack is an unstated desire.”
Intervening in this way pushes the partners to reflect and take time to exit their repetitive limbic looping. You are now in control of the process. They can discuss the bad fight without blame.
By encouraging a response from a different region of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, you are initiating early differentiation.
Solid differentiation requires five capacities. The first is internal self-reflection. You are structuring the session in a way that insists each partner start with step one rather than making repetitive symbiotic demands on the other.
They enhance their development, and you go home feeling more relaxed.
This series has included three posts on how to avoid losing control in couples therapy. In the next few days you’ll learn about how to avoid losing momentum during sessions. The series will conclude with three blog posts on how to avoid losing direction.
- Please comment by sharing what you do when partners come in activated from a fight they had during the week.
- Therapists who participate in my online training program learn to take charge and be firm with fighting couples in ways that promote each partner’s growth. Learning is accelerated through individualized case feedback. See if it is right for you; visit Developmental Model.
This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.