In my previous blog, I started showing you the elegance of using Gestalt two-chair work to transform self-absorbed parts of your clients. With self-absorbed partners, it’s important to recognize that self-absorption is an intrapsychic problem and that you will want to focus intrapsychically in many sessions.
It’s also important to note that, during therapy, the spouse often takes the self-absorption personally and describes it as an interpersonal issue. “My partner doesn’t care about what matters to me!” It becomes crucial for you to be clear with the spouse that the struggle would be happening no matter who the self-absorbed partner was with.
We’ll return to Bob, the same self-absorbed client we were following in the last blog. It’s now several sessions later. Pete has been working with Bob and his wife together, intermixed with occasional individual sessions with Bob.
In this session Bob’s wife, Karen, begins by saying that she is seeing some progress. She says that Bob is taking more initiative and seems to be starting to enjoy doing some things for her. She likes the shifts she is seeing.
Not one to settle for just ‘some’ progress, Pete asks for another dialogue between the part of Bob that resists being more giving (Self-Absorbed Bob, abbreviated SA Bob in the transcript below) and the part that aspires to change (Aspiring Bob).
Pete: Things seem to be improving at home. Let’s hear from the part of you that has been resisting change. Let’s have him talk to the part of you who aspires to change.
SA Bob: You are wearing me down. I am starting to see a little wisdom in what you are saying.
Pete: Shift chairs and see what the part that aspires to change is going to say.
Aspiring Bob: I do want you to get more from life.
Bob sits with this a minute before moving to the other chair to go deeper.
SA Bob: Ok but I am not giving up easily. I don’t want you to gloat. Maybe I can pick my battles more carefully and give you a little leeway.
Pete: You mentioned in an earlier session that you felt bossed by aspiring Bob. Now you are afraid he will gloat.
SA Bob: Where does it stop when you make big changes? I don’t want you to get all the credit. How do I know you won’t bully me? If I take the weight of the world on my shoulders then I’ll lose sleep.
Pete: Switch chairs.
Aspiring Bob: You may lose some sleep. You have to risk discomfort to get to the other side. I won’t belittle you if you risk.
By now Bob is getting so comfortable with the exercise that he moves fluidly from one chair to the other.
SA Bob: I know I approach life like a contest that I need to win. The winning seems to override everything else. I haven’t really cared about the effect on Karen.
Aspiring Bob: You can’t just think of yourself. Winning like that doesn’t work. You will end up alone. Really alone. Is that what you really want?
There are no dramatic breakthroughs with very self-absorbed partners. Rapid change approaches do not shake up the elaborately constructed and well-entrenched structure of the self-absorbed partner. As with Bob, the progress is developmental and incremental.
He is inching along. His basic character is slowly evolving. He is moving away from being driven by greed. The aspiring Bob is slowly and more forcefully gaining traction. He is confronting himself in a stronger and blunter way. The greed of self-absorption is no longer his driving force.
The couples therapy is less draining and more collaborative. The pressure for change is coming from Bob rather than coming from his wife or from Pete.
Karen can see Bob responding more and more from a caring position.
A few weeks later, Karen summarized Bob’s evolution this way.
“He is more aware of the roles and responsibilities required to run the household. He is following through more often and taking the initiative. He treats me more respectfully. He owns up to his stuff.
He gets joy and pleasure from doing things for me like getting me coffee in the morning. Sometimes he cooks me breakfast. He opens the car door for me because he enjoys being a gentleman. He waits for the plumber to come and it’s not just a ‘I have to….’ No, it’s an, ‘I will do it.’ And he feels good about his participation.
He enjoys making my life easier like going to the post office. He enjoys taking the initiative and finds it personally rewarding. Perhaps best of all it’s not just his compliance to therapy or for me.”
Creating these posts on self-absorption has been challenging and rewarding for me. There were so many aspects of this work that I wanted to share with you, specifically, building empathy and collaboration in your couples, and increasing your own skill set in working at the intrapsychic level.
When I started putting this together I had no idea how long it would take and how intricate it would be to convey the real transformation that is indeed possible. I’ve been happy to learn that I hit a nerve with so many therapists and deeply appreciate the many emails and comments I’ve received.
You continue to push my thinking and hopefully I continue to push yours. Together we get better and better at doing this challenging work.
In my last email I mentioned that my online training and mentoring program opens soon, in two days. Click here to see the details and to learn about the Bonus Call Pete and I are conducting on “Mastering Your Work with Self-Absorbed Partners.” It takes place September 19th.
On the call you’ll learn a three-step formula for confronting self-absorbed partners, as well as learning how to facilitate more other-differentiation. We’ll also focus on how partners can coach each other to create more collaboration at home. You’ll be able to get your questions answered on working with self-absorbed partners. Your clients will stay longer. And, you’ll feel more secure about your ability to facilitate change.
Our world desperately needs more therapists who are willing to take on the challenge and skillfully work with couples in truly effective ways. I hope you feel called to be one of them. I would be honored to work with you.
And – if you value this content and want more direct support, check out my online couples therapy training program.