Let’s face it; it’s easy to get lost while doing couple therapy. And there are so many ways to get lost that it’s surprising it doesn’t happen more often. To give a few examples: A couple gets into an intense debate over a content issue, such as whether their teenage daughter needs more structure or more freedom to make mistakes, and you find yourself losing track of their process and getting sucked into a debate about the merits of different parenting styles, giving advice and quoting parenting experts. Or, a couple you believe has de-escalated and moved into stage two suddenly returns to their historic conflict pattern and it’s as reactive and consuming as ever; and worse yet, you’re not clear what precipitated the shift.
These moments happen to us all; key to finding our way through them is checking in with ourselves to track the couple’s process and at least as important, our own internal reactions in the moment.
Getting Lost in Content
When I follow a couple into content – often an exit from more vulnerable emotions in the moment – I start to see myself less as a therapist and more as a teacher or referee. I notice that the conversation seems somewhat shallow and find myself sitting back in my chair and disengaging. I feel like a bystander in the therapy and momentarily inadequate. When I catch it, I reorient myself to the process, lean forward in my chair and attune more carefully to the emotions in the room – both theirs and mine – and begin to note the impact they’re having on each other as they discuss parenting styles.
In other words, if one or both becomes dismissive, blaming or retreats, I want to reflect that process, ask evocative questions about their experience in the moment and help them each expand on it. I also want to notice if there’s something about their interaction with each other or with me that makes me want to stay in my head rather than use my empathy and attune to them in the moment. Do they sound detached? Am I feeling overwhelmed by the conflict? Do I feel hopeless about change? All are excellent questions for a quick self-check.
By the way, it’s not that the parenting concerns are unimportant, but rather that the couple’s conflict cycle – often fueled by attachment-related distress – leads to familiar patterns of critical pursuit and defensive withdrawal that interfere discussing those concerns productively. My overriding task is to help them shift that pattern.
In the second example above, it’s not just that the couple relapsed to old patterns; couples often do, and tracking relapses can help them recognize the precipitants and the related vulnerability. It can turn a temporary regression into a renewed focus on their attachment bond and the blocks to maintaining it. This is more of a challenge though when I’m at a loss about what created the shift back into a negative cycle. I just can’t see the links and neither can they. I often start by reflecting and validating that staying open and accessible isn’t easy when partners have gotten accustomed to protecting themselves with negative patterns of pursuit and distance. Next, I’d likely look for entry points to primary emotion as they relate their experience in the moment. If needed, I’d probably ask them to return to the interactions that accompanied the shift back to the cycle and focus on the context and attachment meaning of those interactions. Silently or aloud, I begin to wonder what necessitated the familiar, reactive responses such as distancing or blaming that create temporary protection while adding to the sense if isolation. I might also ask them what they noticed in reaction to recent expressions of vulnerability and what sort of blocks to trust and openness they were noticing. In short, I want to get curious about the process, bring it into the moment, heighten the experience in the moment and hopefully create enactments built upon re-accessed primary emotion.
So it’s really not so significant that we get lost – we all do. The keys are noticing it, checking in with our internal, affective experience in the moment and getting very curious with our clients. After all, even the best of guides have to learn the terrain.
Next time: How to help your transparency work for you.