Collaborative Couple Therapy consists of a theory (solving the moment), a technique (speaking for partners), and a sensibility (monitoring the therapist’s slippage from listening to judging). I came to this realization while writing my chapter for Case Studies in Couples Therapy edited by David Carson and Monterrat Casado-Kehoe and published in 2011. The following is an elaboration of what I wrote there about these three elements.
The Theory: Solving the Moment. When partners are in conflict, I try to solve the moment rather than solve the problem—which means that I enable them to talk intimately about the problem. Solving the moment is the Collaborative Couple Therapy way to solve the problem, since it creates the collaborative spirit that enables couples to arrive at whatever practical solutions might be possible. In many cases, the absence of this spirit is responsible for the problem in the first place.
Solving the moment frees the therapist from the pressure to fix things and makes possible therapy with couples whose problems seem unsolvable—what John Gottman calls perpetual problems. The goal is to create intimacy out of the manner in which the partners talk about their problems, whether solvable or unsolvable.
By “talking intimately,” I mean that the partners confide what is on their minds—what is alive for them at the moment, to use Marshall Rosenberg’s term. For instance, if Brad were to express what was alive for him at the moment, he’d say to his wife Lisa, “I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I worry sometimes that I’m less important to you than you are to me.” He would be confiding his unease or ache of the moment, his leading-edge feeling.
When partners confide their leading-edge feeling, they are solving the moment for themselves as individuals. Their bodies relax and their spirits rise—unless, of course, they fear how the other might respond. It is important, accordingly, to solve the moment as a couple, which means shifting from fighting or avoiding to talking intimately, moving from an adversarial or withdrawal cycle to a collaborative one. In a collaborative cycle, each partner admits, acknowledges, listens, comforts, reaches out, tunes into the other, builds upon what the other says, becomes conciliatory, gives the other the benefit of the doubt, looks at things from the other’s point of view, or makes a laughing-together-about-the-situation joke in response to the other doing the same.
If Brad were able to confide to Lisa, “I’m embarrassed to tell you this but I worry sometimes that you’re more important to me than I am to you,” she might say, “That’s amazing to me. You wouldn’t believe how often I’m scared you don’t need me at all or that you’d rather be with someone else.” Brad might say, “You really think that?” Each partner’s tuning into the other would create an urge in the other to respond in kind.
But a collaborative cycle can end suddenly. Brad and Lisa’s conversation would have ended before it began if she were to respond to his “I worry sometimes that you’re more important to me than I am to you” by saying “Well, get over it.” Or “It’s always about you, isn’t it.” Or “Just grow up and get a life, okay?” If Lisa were to respond this way, it might be because she experiences Brad’s statement as a childish plea for reassurance or feels uncomfortable when Brad makes such admissions. The therapeutic task then is to help her pin down and confide exactly what she is experiencing, that is, to give voice to her leading-edge feeling.
At any instant in couple therapy, I try to solve the moment for each partner by helping that person find his or her voice and for the couple by turning the immediate fight or withdrawal into an intimate conversation. A good way to accomplish both tasks is to “get meta,” as Mona Fishbane puts it—create a platform, a perch, a vantage point above the fray, an observing couple ego. Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodger baseball announcer, talked about “sitting in the catbird seat” and Erik Grabow, a colleague, talks about a “helicopter reporting the traffic.”
From such a meta-level, partners can “empathically join around the problem,” to use Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen’s words; talk collaboratively about how they’ve been fighting or withdrawn; look compassionately and dispassionately at themselves, each other, and the relationship; report their struggle rather than get lost in it; appreciate how the position of each makes sense; and admit and acknowledge rather than accuse and deny. They can recognize their own contribution to the problem rather than focus on that of their partners, serve as joint troubleshooters in dealing with whatever difficulties arise, and turn problematic moments into intimate ones. The shift to the meta-level can show up as a light joke (“Here we go again”) or a deep conversation.
Lisa: Listen, I feel really bad about snapping at you earlier—you know, when you told me how important I am to you. I guess it made me nervous to hear it.
Brad: It made me nervous to say it. I felt like such a wimp.
Lisa: You’re not a wimp. You were being sweet and I jumped down your throat.
Brad: It wasn’t so sweet to complain that I’m not important enough to you.
Lisa: Well, actually, that’s what made me nervous.
Lisa: I’ve never been able to tell people how I feel about them. I hate that I’m having the same problem with you.
This dialogue demonstrates all three parts of solving the moment: confiding what each partner needs to say, turning a fight or withdrawal into an intimate conversation, and creating a compassionate vantage point above the fray.
The Technique: Speaking for Partners. A therapeutic technique well suited to accomplish these three tasks is Jacob Moreno’s psychodrama doubling, adapted for couples. When a partner makes an angry or avoidant comment, I show how it might sound if, instead, that person were to confide his or her leading-edge feeling, collaborate rather than attack or avoid, and speak from the platform. Since I’m speculating about what this person feels, I immediately ask where my guess is right and where it is wrong.
If Brad were to say to Lisa accusingly, “You’re angry with me,” I might say doubling for him, “Could you be saying to Lisa, ‘I’m worried you’re angry with me. Am I right or is it just my imagination?’” When I want to have a more dramatic effect on partners—which I do when they are caught in an intense fight—I move over and kneel next to the person I’m speaking for.
The Sensibility: Monitoring the Therapist’s Slippage from Listening to Judging. The major problem couple therapists face is loss of empathy toward one or both partners. It is difficult to remain neutral when one partner nags, stonewalls, bullies, or expresses contempt toward the other. At times I find myself privately siding with one of the partners. It’s too bad that I do. Collaborative Couple Therapy is possible only when the therapist is able to appreciate how each partner is struggling. When I am reacting to a partner, I don’t see that person as struggling, but rather as self-satisfied, self-righteous, and enjoying being in control.
Fortunately, my negative judging can serve as a countertransference clue, that is, as a means for detecting the particular partner’s contribution to the relationship problem of the moment, which is the poor job they are doing making their case. Instead of talking in a reasonable and effective way, they make accusations and denials. If they were better at making their case, I—and, more important, their partner—might empathize rather than judge. My job, accordingly, is to help them make their case—that is, to serve as spokesperson for the partner whom at the moment I find myself siding against, since that is the person who is doing the poorer job representing him or herself.
The collaborative nature of Collaborative Couple Therapy can be seen in all three elements. In my effort to solve the moment, I help partners confide what they need to say in order to collaborate, show them what a collaborative exchange looks like, and create a platform from which they can talk collaboratively about how they’ve been fighting or withdrawing. When I speak for partners, I check back with them about the accuracy of my statement and alter my statement accordingly; we work together. The major purpose of monitoring my slippage from listening to judging is to become aware of those moments when I lose my ability to collaborate.
Each of the defining elements of collaborative Couple Therapy can be employed without the others. You can adopt the theory while using techniques from other approaches. You can adopt the technique and apply it to other theories. And you can adopt the sensibility with whatever theories and techniques you use. An integration of the three constitutes Collaborative Couple Therapy.