The quality of life in a relationship depends on the atmosphere the couple creates. At various times, partners feel angry at, out of sorts with, or cut off from each other. The goal in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to solve the moment rather than the problem, that is, to enable partners to keep these sour moments from building up, taking over, and damaging the relationship and instead turn them into occasions for intimacy.
In a cartoon by Mark Parisi, http://www.offthemark.com/cartoons/gender%20translator/ a distraught wife bursts into the room where her husband is sitting quietly reading the paper and screams, “You left dishes in the living room, the garage is a mess but you never listen to my opinions and half the time you don’t even look at me when we talk!” Parisi has equipped the couple with a “gender translator,” who now explains to the husband, “She says you didn’t notice her haircut.” The husband responds by turning back to his paper and muttering “Hmph…” The “gender translator” explains to the wife, “He says he’s sorry and he’ll try to be more sensitive in the future and he loves you but he wants to change the subject because he’s not comfortable with confrontation.”
“Solving the moment” means turning the immediate discordant interaction (the partners’ fight or disconnection) into an intimate one in which the partners confide what is on their minds in a way that brings them closer.
But couples have come to counseling for help with their problems. Aren’t they going to be unhappy if we focus, instead, on how they relate moment to moment? Not if their major concern is with this relating, that is, with their poor communication, inability to talk, out of control fighting, emotional distance, or loss of intimacy.
But suppose the partners’ primary concern isn’t how they relate in the moment but, instead, a concrete issue such as money, children, or where to live—aren’t they going to want us to help them with that? Even then the problem typically reduces to how they talk, or don’t talk, about the issue. When they try to talk, they get into fights. Or in fear of fighting, they avoid talking about the subject entirely.
In Collaborative Couple Therapy we try to give partners a chance to talk about the issue in a way that doesn’t just devolve into a fight. (We ask intimacy-inducing questions and, at times, speak for partners, translating their angry words into confiding ones.) To the extent that the partners have such conversations, much of the problem may disappear. What they needed to ease their distress was a chance to have their say and to feel heard.
But suppose the problem doesn’t disappear. Shouldn’t we then engage in problem-solving? Since the partners are talking rather than arguing, they are in position themselves to come up with whatever solutions or compromises might be possible. And what they come up with is typically better than anything a therapist could devise for them. Solving the moment is the Collaborative Couple Therapy way to solve the problem. It shifts the partners into an attitude toward each other in which problem-solving becomes possible.
But suppose the partners don’t come up with solutions or compromises. Suppose, moreover, the problem is unsolvable—which is the case with many of the problems for which couples seek therapy. In the classic example, one partner wants children and the other doesn’t. Since we can’t solve the problem through compromise or creativity, we can be glad we have the option of solving the moment, which means enabling them to commiserate with each other about this insolvability—to be sad about it together, to cry together.
I don’t mean to say that I never engage in problem-solving. I wouldn’t withhold information, suggestions, or solutions that might be helpful—although it isn’t often that I have such to offer. When I think I do, I imagine that the partners might already have thought of the idea. I tell them, “Since both of you are unhappy with how Bill keeps the checkbook, I guess the two of you considered having you, Joan, do so, but decided against it.” I mention my suggestion in passing (or at the very end of the session). I don’t want to distract from the principal therapeutic tasks, which are (1) turning the partners into joint troubleshooters so they can deal with the moment-to-moment problems that arise in the relationship and (2) digging out the emotional information hidden in their disagreements. I wouldn’t want to get so focused on getting Joan to take over the checkbook that we never get to hear:
Joan: The checkbook is only part of the problem. We don’t agree on anything.
Bill: Oh, it’s not that bad.
Joan: It isn’t? We’re totally incompatible.
Bill: Oh, come on now.
Joan: You “come on now.” We don’t like the same movies. We don’t go to bed at the same time. When was the last time we took a trip together?
Bill (looks unhappy)
I wouldn’t want to get so focused on coming up with a bedtime, movie, or vacation that might suit them both that we fail to follow where this conversation could lead.
Therapist (to Bill): How much do you feel that Joan is exaggerating and the problem isn’t that bad? And how much do you feel that she’s right and you’re discouraged about it, too?
Bill (sadly): We haven’t been happy in a very long time.
Joan (moved by Bill’s softened tone): We began getting into these awful fights.
Joan: And soon we didn’t want to go to movies together.
Bill: Or to bed together.
Joan: Or be cooped up together on a trip.
Bill: How did we let all this happen to us?
Joan and Bill are lamenting what has happened to them. Each is “softening” in response to the other’s doing the same, to use Susan Johnson’s term. They are “turning toward” each other (rather than turning away or against) and are engaging in “repair,” to use John Gottman’s terms. They have shifted from fighting to talking and are in position now to work together to come up with whatever positive changes might be possible.
But what about couples who don’t soften and don’t turn toward each other. Let’s say that they feel too wronged, embittered, fragile, mistrusting, mistreated, misunderstood, unheard, afraid, unloved, or ashamed to do so. One way I deal with this situation is to show them what a mutually softening conversation might sound like—which they can experience vicariously.
Some therapists try to accomplish the needed softening by doing a version of individual therapy in the couple therapy session. They spend extended periods with such a partner—often entire sessions—tracking that person’s feelings and tracing the childhood roots in an effort to reach through to vulnerable feelings and, in the case of Sue Johnson, to an attachment fear. Or they show that the anger this person feels toward the partner is really anger at a family figure long ago. Therapists taking this approach turn to the past as a way to solve the moment.
Some people act in contemptuous ways toward their partners. This disrespectful behavior makes it hard for us to empathize with them in the way we would need to do if we are to help them soften. The problem is our countertransference. We hope to become increasingly better at seeing past the behavior of such partners and into their inner struggle—while at the same time, of course, speaking up for their partners.
Occasionally partners are unhappy with my efforts to help them solve the moment. They say, “You’ve been helping us communicate. But we know how to communicate. We just don’t know how to solve our problem.” I doubt that they do know how to communicate, but I am grateful to them for confiding their dissatisfaction rather than just ending the therapy without telling me why. I might say, “Yes, we haven’t solved your problem, so let’s first pin down exactly what the problem is and then let’s each take a turn as therapist giving advice to this couple. I’ll go last, so I’ll have plenty of time to think.” In the few times I have tried this, the couple came up with a plan before it became my turn. How they were able to do this, I am not sure. Perhaps taking the role of the therapist gave them the perspective needed to think creatively about the problem.
The goal of Collaborative Couple Therapy is to turn the couple into a curative force for dealing with the inevitable problems that arise in a relationship—that is, to enable them to solve the moment for themselves.