In my previous newsletter, I talked about creating intimate moments for couples, what Susan Johnson calls “softening.” Gemma Utting, commenting on my newsletter, reported difficulty creating such softening when people have resentments they need to express but their partners can’t stand listening to them.

Gemma gives the example of Barry, who had been depressed for four years and had been angry, distant, and at times frighteningly rude toward his wife Karen, who had done her best to take care of him. Karen is fed up and needs him to hear how she is still smarting. But Barry, who is on great meds and feels much better, sees talking about the past as painful and unnecessary.

In therapy, Gemma made efforts to help Karen talk to Barry in a compassionate way, but Karen would answer, “[That won’t work.] I tried everything. Barry is just not interested in hearing how I feel.” Gemma also tried to express for Barry what she thought Karen needed to hear, to which Karen replied, “But that’s you saying it. Barry doesn’t care.” “And indeed,” Gemma wrote, “Barry is stuck in defensive mode because (of course) Karen had a whole heap of things she is feeling in so much pain about.”

Gemma asked, “How do I get one partner to take the lead [in creating an intimate exchange]?” 

Here are things I’d try—some of which are variations on techniques Gemma already used. I would try to expose the buried vulnerable feelings. My goal would be to reveal the conversation hidden in the fight or to construct the conversation the partners might have had were it not hijacked by the fight.

I’d start by making an admission for Barry that I hope would give him relief and shift him out of his defensive mode and into a vulnerable one while giving Karen something better to respond to. I’d make a guess based on what Barry said previously in the therapy and what I think anyone might feel in his situation. Speaking as if I were Barry talking to Karen—doubling for him—I’d say one or more of the following:

  • “Karen, I know it doesn’t help when I try to convince you to focus on the future, but I wish you could. I feel so ashamed about what I put you through that I can’t stand thinking about it, much less talking about it.”
  • “When we talk about what I put you through, I feel too much like a bad husband and a rotten person.”
  • “I don’t want to think about those awful years because I’m scared about slipping back into them.”
  • “I put you through a lot so I should be accepting of your anger, but I’m having trouble dealing with its intensity.”
  • “I worry that I’ve lost you. My only hope is to get you somehow to stop thinking about those years.’”

I’d be trying to make understandable Barry’s wish to avoid talking about the past. I’d end my statement with, “Barry, where am I right and where am I wrong in my speculation about what you feel?”

I’d hope that Barry would put his own stamp on my comment by modifying it, elaborating on it, or offering an alternative. I’d be saying, in essence, “Here’s a soft-underbelly feeling that you might have. If my guess is wrong, is there another feeling of the same general sort that you are having?” I’m using an example to suggest a genre of responses—the genre of soft underbelly feelings.

In my statement for Barry, I’m having him admit that his reluctance to talk about the past arises out of feelings of shame or fear and is not, as he had originally claimed, simply the sensible thing to do because you can’t change the past. Karen might respond positively to such an admission—although it is easy to imagine her repeating what she had told Gemma earlier: “But that’s just you [the therapist] saying it. Barry doesn’t care.” Barry is likely then to say, “Oh, but that is what I feel.” And Karen is likely to respond by looking at him with disbelief.

At that point, I might make:

  • The how-much, how-much intervention. I’d ask “Okay Karen, how much are you saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, tell the truth, Barry, that’s not what you really feel’ and how much are you saying? ‘What worries me the most is that you don’t really care about me.’” This question allows me to tease apart Karen’s angry reaction and her underlying vulnerable feelings. I’m inviting her to elaborate on these feelings while leaving her room, if she prefers, to reassert her angry reaction.
  • The too-good-to-believe intervention. I’d ask, “Okay Karen, are you telling Barry—‘Barry, it’s too good to believe that what the therapist just said for you is what you really feel.’”
  • The fraction-of-a-second intervention. Speaking for Karen, I’d say, “Barry, for a fraction of a second I thought maybe what the therapist just said about your feelings is true. But then I said to myself, ‘Nah! I don’t want to get my hopes up just to be disappointed.’ Though it would be wonderful if I were wrong.”

I’d end my statement with, “Karen, where am I right and where am I wrong in my speculation about what you might be feeling?”

In my effort to turn Karen and Barry’s exchange into more of an intimate conversation, I’d go back and forth in this manner, guessing at the thoughts and feelings that they, like all partners in a fight, generally keep to themselves and may not even realize they have.

In addition to making Barry’s reluctance to talk about the past more understandable, I’d try to make more understandable Karen’s wish to do so. Speaking for Karen, I’d say one or more of the following:

  • “Barry, you were struggling with your demons so I can’t entirely blame you for all you did over those difficult years, but I’m having a lot of trouble getting over it. I guess that’s not news to you.”
  • “I wish there were a way you could feel at least a little of what I experienced so you could understand what I went through—although maybe I need also to appreciate more all you went through.” (I’d be showing Karen acknowledging Barry’s point of view while presenting her own).
  • “Over those four years something feels like it broke in me. I keep hoping that if you could appreciate what I had to deal with, that would fix it. But I worry sometimes that even that might not do it.”

One way to introduce vulnerable feelings without being Pollyannaish is to put them on a list that includes angry feelings. “Karen, what is the main thing that you’d want to say to Barry? Here, I’ll make it a multiple-choice question. Is it, A, ‘Barry, you don’t have a clue what I went through and you don’t seem to care,’ or, B, ‘I wish I didn’t feel as angry as I do” or, C, ‘I know I seem angry, but mostly I just feel hurt,’ or, D, none of these and something else entirely.

At some point I’d describe the negative cycle Karen and Barry are in. Speaking for Karen, I might say, “Barry, we’re caught in this horrible vicious circle and I’m not sure how we’re going to get out of it. I get angry when you get defensive and you get defensive when I get angry.” In so saying, I’d be creating a platform—a compassionate perspective above the fray—from which Karen and Barry could commiserate about their predicament.

I might provide more details to this compassionate perspective by dramatizing each partner’s experience. “There you were, Karen, struggling with this depressed man, doing all this one-sided giving, feeling alone, running on empty, feeling at times like a punching bag. It was an intolerable situation that kept going on and on and on—a four-year continuing trauma. Still, it might have been tolerable if, when Barry came out of it, he seemed truly remorseful about what he put you through and the angry things he said to you. Instead, he seems to want to go on almost as if nothing had happened—leaving you lonely, sad, and angry.”

“And Barry, you wish Karen would understand the blackness of the depression—how it threw you into survival mode in which it was impossible to focus on anything but yourself. You hope Karen can forgive you for that, as well as for the things you said and did out of your misery. But now you’ve got a new lease on life. And you’re trying to avoid looking back—because it was so horrible, because you fear sinking back into it, because you feel such shame about its effects on Karen, because it makes you feel like a bad person, or because talking about it seems to upset Karen even more. But your efforts to avoid looking back totally alienate Karen—this one person in the world most important to you. You can worry whether she’ll ever forgive you.”

I’d hope this description of their situations would create some compassion.

If I can’t spark an intimate conversation between Karen and Barry, I might hold such a conversation for them. “Okay Barry, in this ideal conversation I’m making up, I’d start by having you say, “Karen, I wish you’d see that talking about the past has just made matters worse.” And then, Karen, you’d say, “Well okay, you’re right. That’s what’s happened so far. But we need to find a way to talk about it because otherwise I’m just left feeling you don’t really care about what I went through and, to me, that translates into you don’t care about me.” And then, Barry, you’d say, “When you say that, I want to find a way for us to talk about it. For God’s sake, you were there for me when I desperately needed help. It’s just so painful to go back. I’m horrified remembering some of the things I did and said to you. And then, Karen, you’d say, with an encouraging smile to Barry, “I think you’re beginning to get it.”

I’d end by saying to both of them, “I’m getting a little carried away with my speculations, so I’d better stop here. But what did it feel like hearing me playact this?

I’d be showing Karen and Barry what they might say were they having a conversation rather than a fight. It’s hard for partners to have a conversation when discussing hot topics. But we can do it for them.

In summary, in an attempt to create an intimate moment for a couple caught in gridlock, I try to make understandable each partner’s point of view and bring out the hidden vulnerable feelings. I do so, among other ways, by:

  • Translating their attacking and defensive comments into confiding ones
  • Crystallizing what they are trying to say
  • Directing their attention to the genre of soft-underbelly feelings
  • Making admissions for them
  • Demonstrating how they might acknowledge their partner’s points of view
  • Using the how-much, how-much, too-good-to-believe, fraction-of-a-second, and multiple-choice interventions
  • Describing the vicious cycle they are caught in
  • Painting a compassionate picture of each partner’s position
  • Modeling the ideal conversation they could have.

These are things I would want to try and I’d hope that something in them would make an impression on the couple.

I sent the above to Gemma and she wrote back, “As I imagine the wonderful variety of suggestions you offered, I think each one would have been very helpful. The prize, however, goes to modeling the idealized conversation. I am under the impression that many couples have not had healthy give and take conversations modeled,” she wrote. “TV couples aren’t helpful and most of my couples—even if they come from intact families of origin—do not remember how their parents communicated as being worthy of imitation.”

“To me, Dan, the art and grace of your work most specifically dwells in your ability to model each client’s ‘better self’—the one we all wish we could summon in the face of our hot buttons and pain.”

 July 28, 2012  Posted by Owner at 7:35 am Dan Blog  Add comments


  1. Hi Dan! Yeah, this is a good example of a very common problem, I think. I like the many examples you give of how we, as therapists, might work with those difficult moments where it appears one, or both, partners have lost heart. For me the guiding principle of finding the hidden reasonableness in a persons, often puzzling, behavior is just flat out brilliant. Just the act of orienting around the question already begins to shift, & broaden, our perspective of the client, who may appear difficult. Compassion is built into this frame work. And, of course, helping the couple to get that each person has very good reasons for why they say & do what they say & do frequently allows them to see each other in a more understandable way. So they can be more compassionate with each other.

    This reminds me of a situation very similar to what your describing when an old issue comes up repeatedly for a couple. Often one person will bring up an old issue & the other person feels like “we’ve been over this before, I already apologized. The problem is you can’t forget/forgive”. I like to tell couples if an issue comes up over & over again it’s not over for you (as a couple). The repetition is trying to tell you that, despite your best efforts to resolve or get past it, there’s something still needed. And often, I think, the thing needed is an expression of empathy and an understanding of the pain caused, intensional or not.

    So, in your example above, when Karen says, “He doesn’t care about my feelings”. I’d want to find out from her what he’s saying &/or doing that leads her to think what she thinks. I’d want to find out from him, “is she right that you don’t care?” The likelihood is that he’s already done what he knows to do to remedy the situation but he hasn’t heard from her what, to her, would help. He gives what he thinks she wants, or what he might want were the situation reversed. I might also want to sieze on her comment, “thats what you said, but he doesn’t care” to help articulate the the hidden request in her comment. So I might say to her,”Oh, so you like what you just heard but you really need to hear it from him, is that right?” or something like, “Sounds like it helped to hear what I said just now on his behalf but for it to really help in a deep, or more beliveable way, you need Barry to find his words to say it, right?” And now that I’ve modeled for him/them how it could go, he can find a way to say it to her that not only says he cares but shows it with his facial expression, tone, gesture, and words.

    I think I’m taking a slightly different route to get to the same place you end up. Many roads to Nirvana, they say. But for me it’s about believing/knowing they are behaving this way for very good reasons. Now, let’s find those reasons & bring them out into the open; have the conversation that really trying to happen!

    • Kevin, That’s a great principle: work with what they give you (follow the implications of what they say). I’d like to add that to my list. If Karen says “But that’s you saying it; Barry doesn’t care,” you can ask Barry, “Is she right that you don’t care?” (or “Is it understandable that she feels that?”) or you can ask Karen, “Oh, so you like what you just heard but you really need to hear it from him. Is that right?” (or “I guess it’s too good to believe that he would really feel that”).

      • Yeah, I think thats my old Client Centered training: follow what the client gives you. Or at least the heart of what they give you. It seems to be more meaningful to them if I piggy-back on their language. It has immediate impact, whereas if I stray too far from their words (or meaning) & offer something I like better, it seems to interrupt something in them and runs the risk of breaking the connection between us.
        Thanks again for this great example of the work & the many ways we can think about, & approach, working with this kind of situation.

  2. Hi Dan,
    I’m so glad I had the chance to experience the way you work in a class with Carolyn Saarni at Sonoma State. While reading your latest newsletter post, I could really imagine how you would go about doing those interventions. I was very inspired to read this post and to remember your manner, the way you go to the softer side of each partner in the relationship. Your newsletter will remain a valuable resource as I continue my learning. Thanks so much.

  3. Something bothers me about this newsletter. You seem to come perilously close to having a “politically correct” form of intimacy that can result in very limited intimacy, missed intimacy, or worst, a pseudo-intimacy that misleads the clients and misleads your trainees. You selectively blend elements of a partner’s statement with a preconceived and hypothetical ideal intimate conversation. This imposed ideal conversation can prevent partners from developing the real problem they bring to therapy. The title of the newsletter says it all: Creating an Intimate Exchange, that is, you are creating the dialogue rather than developing or facilitating it.

    Instead, and in an effort to get at the real problem, I might begin by describing the partners’ impasse: “It looks like you two are pretty stuck, and so I’d like to summarize what I am seeing—and you two can then tell me what you think. Barry does not really see how there can be a problem. However, it appears he is feeling obligated to listen and hear about all the pain he has caused Karen. After all, he knows his years of depression were hard on her, but he cannot see anything he can do about it now. But he feels the least he can do is to sit over here and let himself get beat up—after all, he feels he deserves it, and maybe that will help Karen. But it is wearing on him. He’s not seeing it getting anywhere. It seems like this is just what happens at home. And Karen, you are really frustrated because for years you bent over backwards to be understanding, to be sensitive to his depression, to not react to his irritability and accusations, and you thought that at least one day, Barry’s problems would be worked out and he would see all you did for him and appreciate it. Now you’re somehow not feeling the appreciation, and you are feeling all these negative feelings are not resolved, just all backed up. And it seems like what has triggered it for you is that Barry seems like he can just forget it all.”

    The clients are likely to respond, ‘OK, so now what do we do about it?’ At this point I’d respond, ‘Well, what do you think about what I just said?’ They will repeat, in various ways, their request for me to tell them what to do. This is normal for couples. They will do a head-nod agreement and then just go on as if you said something unimportant. I would bring them back to process how they feel about what I just said—do they agree, disagree, feel it is worthless, etc.” I’d then process their frustration with the therapy, with me as therapist, with my ideas, and with each other. I want to use the impasse and my depiction to bring out feelings about all of the above. Who knows what will come out but it is probably going to be on the lines of their not knowing how to talk, Karen putting others feelings first and ignoring her own, Karen’s despair over not being acknowledged, feeling like a fool, and Barry’s guilt over how he has been, maybe Barry always feeling like he is a problem to everyone and just believes that to be true—so how could he think of it ever being different, so why talk? etc.—or whatever.

    • The summary you made up for this couple makes several good points. Also, I can see how you go about doing couple therapy, that is, if your description here is typical of what you do. You press partners to make a response to what you say about them in hopes that this will bring to the surface their frustration with the therapy, you, your ideas, and each other. Your hope is that this, in turn, will bring to the surface crucial new realizations—such as Karen putting others’ feelings ahead of her own, Barry believing that he’s a problem to everyone, and how they don’t know how to talk.

      As for your main point—that I impose a hypothetical intimate conversation that limits or blocks intimacy rather than facilitates it—I plan to address that issue in my next newsletter.

  4. In this example, you get to all the relevant content, and most therapists wouldn’t. But I seem to be missing the point of your way of making these interpretations. I don’t see what’s the rush; why does everything you think have to be said all at once? Take your first interpretation: “I think you can’t stand talking about it because you feel ashamed.” Suppose you let him respond; he might just look thoughtful, not responding immediately. You might say: maybe he thinks you mean he should overcome the shame and talk about it. In other words, if allowed to, he might not agree or disagree; he might have to find out what you mean. And so on, through all these interpretations. When you rush through them, I’m not sure what the message is.

    And on Karen’s side you again make excellent points, but again why cram it all in at once? She gets no chance to really think about each point, and it starts to seem like it is all a bravura performance designed to dazzle rather than actually reach these people. (Even, “what do you agree with and what do you disagree with” just narrowly defines their response.) I think that’s why I found myself unable to read through to the end, although I got uncomfortable right away, since it looks like poor Karen will never get to vent, thinking that your message is that she’s not supposed to and that, instead, she is supposed to get over being fed up and help Barry to open up. Unless you clarify this, it can seem like your message is that everything should be sugarcoated, and that that even is what intimacy is all about. Maybe if I thought you were worried about this understanding of your message, it would be easier to take.

    Your rather grating, soft underbelly metaphor is a one-note dynamic and just seems like jargon at best and a position of advocacy at worst. By “underbelly” you of course mean vulnerable, but the most vulnerable position for Karen would be to tell Barry she was fed up. But that wouldn’t be softening; it would be more like hardening.

    • As I understand it, Bernie, your main points are that:

      1. Instead of my listing the range of possible interventions, it would be more useful to take an intervention and describe the partner’s response and go on from there. What I might discover, you suggest, is that Barry doesn’t know what I mean—which would indicate that my question, “Where am I right and where am I wrong” is too limiting; that is, Barry doesn’t understand enough about what I’m saying to know whether he thinks it’s right or wrong.

      2. My goal of softening (bringing out the vulnerable feelings, creating an intimate exchange) can easily be seen as sugarcoating and as making partners feel that they’re supposed to be nice. Karen may need a chance to vent (even though it looks as if she is already doing so) and my softening interventions would be telling her that she’s not supposed to do so.

      As to the first point, I chose to lay out a range of alternative responses, only a few of which I would make in any given session. I hoped readers would find it interesting. It looks like not everyone did. As to the second point, I plan to devote my next newsletter to it.

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