The beginning of each year is a time when I reflect on my own goals for the year and also stop and think about whether I have a clear direction with each of my clients. I frequently check in with each partner to see that we have agreement about their focus.
Developing a strong direction with a high probability of success in couples therapy often involves supporting the couple's bond and simultaneously stressing the importance of self-directed differentiated change — change that is not connected to what the partner does. What does this actually look like?
In early sessions, it is important to define what positive outcome each partner is trying to create. Often couples come to therapy because they are stimulating negative, traumatic reactions in each other and can't extract themselves from these cycles without help from a third party.
When I ask partners what they want to create in their relationship, I am looking for answers that represent a vision of a strong bond and a secure attachment. Common examples would be:
– I'd like to feel safe expressing my thoughts and feelings.
– I'd like us to function more like a team.
– I'd like my partner to support my career.
– I'd like us to parent together more successfully.
Moving towards a positive picture of support and safety will help create positive motivation. However, I know that accomplishing it will usually require increased differentiation from each partner. It is quite common for partners to wish for the magic of the other person changing while they passively wait for nirvana. I use their positive image to facilitate a discussion that leads to uncovering nodal points of change.
For example, a partner says “I'd like my partner to support my career.” This is an other-directed goal that is meaningful in life, but will not be achieved without some changes from the requesting partner.
Here is how a dialogue might unfold to elucidate a needed shift:
Ellyn: What do you do that you believe gets in the way of your partner supporting your career?
Client: I work long hours, 60 hour work weeks at least. I come home exhausted.
Ellyn: Would it be fair to say that you are asking your partner to support something that takes you away from him/her both physically and emotionally?
Client: I suppose so, although I hadn't thought about it that way.
Ellyn: Have you ever told your partner what your career means to you and why you don't set limits that leave you with more to give to the relationship?
Client: Maybe, but probably not quite like that.
Ellyn: It sounds to me like you drive yourself to work and that even you may not be aware of all your motives. You know it means an enormous amount to you, so much so that you will sacrifice quality time with your partner. It seems to me that it would be valuable to understand yourself more completely and also learn how to describe the support that would be the most meaningful. Does that make sense?
This dialogue paves the way for goals that involve greater self definition, more openness and clearer boundaries by this partner. While of course all dialogues do not go this smoothly, this demonstrates several principles.
1) I am using the client's desired outcome as a stepping stone to increase this partner's awareness of the self-defeating nature of the overworking behavior.
2) Sprinkled into the questions are statements where I hold and express the value of a secure partnership.
3) There is an implication that to get what is desired will require more self awareness and stronger boundaries.
Client: I'd like to feel safe expressing my thoughts and feelings.
Ellyn: Let's separate the two of these. What happens when you express feelings and feel unsafe?
Client: I say something and my partner looks hurt. I hate that look on her face so I stop talking. She is so sensitive and gets hurt easily.
Ellyn: Do you know why she feels hurt?
Client: She says I am a bully.
Ellyn: Well is she correct some of the time? Do you sometimes bully her? It is an unusual partner who doesn't jockey for control sometimes.
Ellyn: How difficult would it be for you to apologize to her when you are bullying?
Client: Very difficult. I feel like I am eating crow and groveling when I apologize.
Ellyn: So you don't recognize an apology as a course correction, but see it as shameful or humiliating?
Client: Yes. I hate to apologize.
Ellyn: In a committed relationship, we all step on each other sometimes. An apology is like putting salve on a burn. Being able to repair painful interactions actually strengthens you as a partner and also strengthens the connection between the two of you. While you may believe that safety to express yourself would come from your partner changing, actually it will come from you strengthening your ability to regroup and repair when things go poorly.
Both of these examples demonstrate some beginning dialogues that integrate attachment and differentiation-based interventions. It is our strong belief that couples therapy is often an art and that one aspect of the art is holding two realities at once. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “It is the mark of a 1st rate intelligence to be able to hold two incompatible thoughts at the same time and still function.” The couples therapist does exactly this..by supporting closeness and pushing differentiation in the same intervention.
We welcome hearing from you about any methods you have developed to strengthen attachment and differentiation in the same session. Please share your ideas below and I will look forward to reading them.