It’s pretty common to start couples therapy strong. You use your empathy skills and make a good connection with each partner. Each one has a chance to describe the problem and each feels understood. And with basic skills, you begin to shift troubled interactions to more collaboration and better communication.
Then it happens. Progress stalls. Sessions start feeling repetitive. Your insights and feedback have limited value.
Consider this. Most likely, one or both partners has hit an intrapsychic impasse and they are showing you the impasse that is preventing relationship growth.
Here’s an example. In a previous session a client, Charlie made a commitment to call his wife, Sue, when he was going to be late for dinner. He did not call and now Sue reports that they are once again fighting about the same issues that brought them in. She is feeling distressingly hopeless that this pattern will change. It’s another dreary example of how Charlie promises and doesn’t deliver. She says it makes total sense not to trust Charlie again.
Charlie says this is a one time error. He fully intended to call but an unexpected circumstance occurred when his boss called an emergency meeting. He asks, “Why can’t Sue cut me some slack?”
What do you do?
Do you give Charlie a “pass” on this one and help him express renewed commitment to do better?
Do you help Sue reduce her distress, enlarge her perspective and find a better way to express her hopeless disappointment, so Charlie will be compassionate?
Luckily, you were anticipating this. You knew they might stall and you know how to work with this impasse.
You know that everyone has a limbic system that may generate resistance to achieving desired goals. So you are not surprised by Charlie’s lack of follow-through.
You are also not seduced by his apparent “legitimate” excuse.
You take this opportunity to deepen the work. You go quickly from their systemic fight to intrapsychic work.
Here’s what I mean.
You help Charlie describe the conflict between his two brains. You ask him to describe each side in the present as if he is experiencing it right now. One side of his brain wants to collaborate, be dependable, and strengthen his connection with Sue. This would be his visionary brain or prefrontal cortex.
The other side of his brain, AKA “the lizard brain,” is impulsive and makes excuses rather than being accountable, especially when it is inconvenient. He wants to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it!
Here is how you direct this intrapsychic dialogue.
You could start like this. “Charlie, when you made the commitment to call Sue, what were you thinking and feeling? Let’s review all the benefits to you, to Sue, and to your relationship if you stick to your commitments even when it is difficult.”
You recap and embellish whatever Charlie describes.
Then say, “Good. Now let’s move over here to another chair and respond from your alter ego that says something like, ‘Well those reasons sound pretty good, however….’ And let’s hear from the part where it is often difficult to maintain commitments.”
You can smoothly validate, embellish and even clarify the reasons it is hard to keep commitments. When done well, Charlie will feel supported in his resistance without getting defensive.
You can go very deep into Charlie’s ambivalence about change. And you do this by challenging Charlie to dialogue with himself. As Charlie verbalizes more and more of his resistance, he will be increasingly open about what keeps him stuck.
Having this dialogue in front of Sue gives her a clearer picture of Charlie’s intrapsychic conflict and is the first step to deepening your work and their conversation.
By understanding the neuroscience of the limbic brain opposing the collaborative visionary brain, you’ll recognize the myriad ways that intrapsychic conflict shows up. Now, your work is faster and more comprehensive with less effort.
Sue, of course will have her own internal conflicts about trusting and not trusting, in order to protect herself.
Using these types of dialogues can be a very powerful way to reveal early life parallels without you – the therapist – having to work so hard to uncover them.
Deepening the work often involves exposing the conflict between these two regions of the brain.
Your work may also stall when a client is ambivalent about closeness or is re-enacting an early transference with their partner.
Whew, no wonder so many therapists lose steam rather than channeling clients into deeper work.
- Do you find it easy or hard to clearly identify internal conflicts and the ambivalence they represent?
- Gestalt Two-Chair work is taught in lessons 21 and 22 of my training program and shown in a video tape example. To learn more about the many aspects of this training, click 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.