We’ve been on a journey together exploring the external behavior of self-absorbed partners. And although they often mislead therapists with detours and distractions, we’ve stayed focused on understanding their behavior and why they often challenge their spouses and their therapists.
We reviewed how self-absorbed partners objectify their spouses and push their own interests and desires into the foreground. We’ve come to understand the enormous loneliness and helplessness their partners experience.
I discussed six challenges self-absorbed partners create for therapists, including how hard it can be to recognize and track progress. We’ve acknowledged that all of us are self-centered at times. And that self-absorption often arises from trauma and neglect. So in describing self-absorption I don’t mean to disparage the self-absorbed partner.
However, because self-absorption creates so much pain and disillusionment in relationships, I believe it is essential to increase our skills in transforming the internal world of the self-absorbed partner. This dynamic is so common, we just can’t ignore it!
So, let’s go deeper into intervention and change strategy.
I’m going to demonstrate how to create intrapsychic change and explain why being able to reach this deeper level is crucial for couples to feel substantially changed and for you to feel like you have the expertise to know that you’ve competently made a big difference.
I compare therapy with self-absorbed partners to gloaming.
In ancient myth, gloaming is the twilight between day and night. It’s the place between the known and the unknown, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Gloaming is the “blue hour” as the day transitions into night and night into day, where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness. Lions and leopards awaken. They prowl. It’s just that time when rarely seen behaviors emerge from the shadows.
You can see where I’m going with this. Your office is the place and time of gloaming for the self-absorbed partner and their spouse. You will be shining a light – and just the right light – for a whole new world to emerge and for all of you to sit with and accept that which is emerging.
It’s important to realize that self-absorbed partners have an intrapsychic conflict that they prefer to obscure. They usually have a self-centered demanding side that has voices that are not socially acceptable. They prefer to hide these voices. There may also be another weaker side that feels guilty or thinks they should behave in more socially acceptable ways.
This is a key insight into working with the self-absorbed partner. You must expose their internal process, while being non-judgmental. Gestalt two-chair work is an elegant way to expose these voices and the hidden intrapsychic struggle.
Below you will find a composite demo of some two-chair work done over several sessions by Pete with a self-absorbed client. I will comment on some of the subtleties of Pete’s interventions.
Two-chair work can be done in individual sessions with the self-absorbed partner or in front of their partner during couples sessions. There are significant advantages and disadvantages to each choice and it is usually best to intermix both types of sessions.
Pete and I always prepare for the exercise by gathering relevant information about the stresses each partner faces in their relationship. We ask the self-absorbed partner if there is any part of them – even a small part – that thinks their partner has at least some legitimate complaints about their self-centeredness.
After gathering relevant information, Pete asked Bob, the self-absorbed partner, “Is there any part of you – even a small part of you that thinks your wife has some legitimate complaints about you?”
This is where you get the first leverage. Without this beginning agreement that there are some legitimate complaints, you will be exploring and giving insights to an unreceptive partner.
Intrapsychic change just won’t occur when this partner remains resistant with you!
After Pete gets agreement from his client, Bob, that his wife has some legitimate complaints, then he begins the two-chair work. He will be asking Bob to dialogue between the self-absorbed side of himself and the side that just mildly aspires to some change. Pete’s first focus is on exposing the thoughts and feelings of the self-absorbed side.
Notice that Pete is not pushing for any change. He wants to expose what the self-absorbed part has to say, while keeping himself out of the middle of the entrenched “civil war.” Early in the two-chair process he does not want to align with either side.
For the purpose of this transcript I will label the self-absorbed side as “SA Bob” and the side motivated to change as “Aspiring Bob.”
Pete: So you agree your partner has some legitimate complaints about you. Is there any part of you that aspires to create a better relationship with your wife? Would you like to be a little more giving, a little more responsive to her? It doesn’t even have to be a big part. Just some part of you that thinks it would be better to improve your relationship in any way that makes sense to you?
Aspiring Bob: Well, yeah.
Pete: Why might you want to do any of those things?
Here Pete is looking for any bit of motivation for change.
Aspiring Bob: Well so she wouldn’t be so angry with me. I might get a little more sex.
Pete: Anything else?
Aspiring Bob: Not that I can think of.
Pete does not get a lot but it is a start.
Pete: Ok that’s good. If humans were driven by logic, we could just start working on improving your relationship, so you’d be a little more giving when it isn’t convenient, and you could start collecting some of those benefits.
But relationships are not driven by logic. Anytime we have a goal that stretches us, there will be another voice – kind of like an alter ego, which will have a different perspective. Usually the perspective will be in the form of, “Well, that sounds pretty good, BUT …”
So move over here to another chair and let’s hear from the other voice.
(Bob moves to the self-absorbed chair).
Note how skillfully Pete is letting the client know that it is okay to express his self-absorption out loud.
Pete: You just named a few advantages of putting in the effort to try to improve your relationship. What would you say to the guy in the other chair who might put in that effort?
SA Bob: Well that sounds good but I don’t believe it will turn out that way. You’ll invest all that effort for nothing. I just don’t see it being worth it. Seems like you’ll put out effort and not get much in return.
Pete: Ok come back over here to the first chair to the part that aspires to change.
Pete: How would you respond back to him?
Aspiring Bob: Give me a chance – something good may happen.
Pete: Go back to the other chair that says “Yes but.” How would the part that doesn’t see value in changing reply?
SA Bob: Things aren’t so bad now. I can live with me the way I am now. I get a lot of what I want the way I am without too much effort. You don’t have to bother. The risk reward ratio is not worth you making the effort.
Pete: It makes sense from this guy’s perspective. Out of curiosity, how did you evolve this kind of approach? You likely see some advantages of viewing life and relationships this way.
They go on with Bob describing some of the reasons he came to be this way.
Notice that throughout this dialogue, Pete is not trying to change any cognitive distortions or self-sabotaging attitudes. He is building a stronger alliance with each part, understanding each side more completely and setting the stage for a lot more intrapsychic dialogue.
These two alter egos will need to go head to head later and Pete does not want to be aligned with either side. He also does not want to be perceived as a bully who is aligning with Bob’s wife. He doesn’t criticize, challenge or confront the obvious limitations of a selfish approach to relationships.
In the next session, Pete will start to heighten the conflict between the two sides.
Pete: Bob, will you sit in the chair of the guy who aspires to change and give the other guy one reason to consider changing.
Aspiring Bob: You’re stupid and short-sighted. You could get more from life if you were more thoughtful and giving to your wife and friends. You’d get more respect.
Pete: Now switch and respond to yourself.
SA Bob: I don’t care about those goals. I am not interested in following your path. I like doing whatever I want whenever I want.
Pete: It sounds like you don’t want him nudging you.
SA Bob: That’s right. He thinks he can boss me into being a better person but he’s wrong.
Pete: Let’s switch again and see what the side that aspires to change says.
Aspiring Bob: Think about what you are saying. Grow up already. Where has this gotten you?
The side that aspires to change has just responded more vehemently.
Pete: Switch again and respond from the side that is not so interested in going along.
SA Bob: You think you can boss me. You think you can override me but you are wrong. I’m smarter than you are. I know there isn’t any pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Ellyn: Notice how relaxed Pete is about what he is hearing. Pete’s relaxed acceptance allows the two sides to keep talking and being as strong as they each feel.
The strength of what Bob exposed to Pete allowed Pete to know that the self-absorption was very pervasive. Bob could feel the value of what that side does but he did not experience much value in being more giving.
Change takes time, patience and understanding. Pete needs to keep a good relationship with each alter ego so that they trust that Pete does not have an agenda. This is counter-intuitive to us as therapists because we are supposed to facilitate change as quickly as possible.
As I write this to you, I realize there is so much more to share about how the internalized selfishness begins to shift. If I make it quick and easy, you won’t believe me. If I put too much into one blog, it will be hard for you to integrate it all. And I realize I haven’t even started talking about how couples can coach each other and also work systemically to move from the “I-It” relationship to the “I-Thou” relationship or from “I-Need” to “I-Give.”
So, I’ve made a few decisions. This is such a rich transcript on a complex topic that I’ve decided to send one more blog post discussing the process with Bob. I’ll write up more of the two-chair process in another post, which I’ll send in a few days. I’ll also include a description of how Bob’s wife perceives his evolution.
Pete and I have also decided to dig even deeper into this topic by kicking off September’s training with a live call on self-absorption. We’ll include more about how to transform couples with self-absorbed partners and how the partners can work together as a coaching team.
If you’re already in the my training program, you’ll automatically get to join this special call.
If you're not yet in my online couples therapy training
program, you will have a chance to join soon. We open registration in the fall.
In my training over the next few months I’ll be putting much more emphasis on transforming partners who take a lot more than they give.
I’ll send the next installment in just a couple of days. Before then, please comment on where you would pick up in the next session. Bob has exposed the strength of the self-centered side. He likes his life that way. So, what’s next?
If you missed the videos in this series on self-absorbed partners, you can see part one here and part two here. If you’d like to advance in the series, please click here for part four.