The task in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to create intimate moments by confiding feelings that induce an intensified sense of connection. Such moments occur when both partners confide the main thing on their minds—what’s alive for them at the moment, as Marshall Rosenberg puts it—and feel the other person understands.
Sally: I love the wonderful way you tell stories at parties, but I also feel a little envious.
Ben: I know what you mean. I’m envious of your quick wit.
Confiding such feelings isn’t the only way to create intimate moments. There’s showing up with roses, smiling that “only between us” smile, or folding the laundry without needing to be praised for it. For some people, sex is the ultimate intimacy. Gary Chapman categorizes various ways in which people feel intimate. Couple conflict arises, he says, when people reach out to their partners in ways they would like their partners to reach out to them rather than in ways that their partners would like to be reached out to. People who need words of affirmation (“I love you,” “I’m so lucky to be married to you”) in order to feel loved aren’t going to be happy if their partners express their love solely through acts of service, gifts, quality time, or physical touch. People need to be wooed in the currencies meaningful to them—in what Chapman calls their love languages.
Collaborative Couple Therapy is based on a particular kind of love language— confiding feelings. But suppose such confiding isn’t a love language of one of the partners—or of either. Do we force it upon people for whom it isn’t natural? For Joe, confiding leads to feelings of shame rather than relief and closeness. He’s not used to talking about personal matters. No one in his family or culture ever did. Furthermore, he fears that expressing such feelings will expose him to his wife Laura’s reproach, judgment, or ridicule. When he comes home after a difficult day at work, he wants to forget about it, not talk about it. And he doesn’t want to hear about Laura’s concerns either. He feels she talks too much about them.
We can create an intimate moment for Joe, however, and in the way we do for everyone else, by helping him confide this main thing on his mind, which, paradoxically, is his wish not to confide. That’s what’s alive for him at the moment. As Joe and Laura’s therapist, I show them how such confiding might sound:
Dan (speaking for Joe talking to Laura): I know I’m not very good company tonight and I feel bad about it. I had a rotten day and I don’t want to talk about it. Hell, I don’t even want to think about it. What I’d really like is to veg out with you in front of the TV—although I fear you’re disappointed to hear that because it’s not the kind of evening you want to have.
We don’t expect Joe to make such a statement, but he might appreciate my doing it for him. I’d be putting words to his feelings, or rather to the parts of his feelings that he might enjoy getting out into the open. There is always something a person can confide—even if it’s that confiding is the last thing they want to do—that can potentially be relieving. In order to make this statement for himself, Joe would have had to be able to thread his way through his disgruntlement to find his hidden wishes and fears—which can be hard to do, especially in the heat of the moment. In order to have any desire to make this statement, he’d have to have confidence that Laura is his ally and would be disarmed by his confiding.
- To want to say, “I know I’m not very good company tonight,” Joe would have to believe that Laura wouldn’t reply, “You’re never good company.”
- To be able to acknowledge that he hasn’t been good company, Joe would have to be able to look at things from Laura’s point of view. When people feel put upon, they focus on their needs and lose track of their partners’.
- To want to say, “I had a bad day and I don’t want to talk about it,” Joe would have to feel assured that Laura wouldn’t say, “Oh, is it your boss, again? What did he do now?” or “Why don’t you look for another job.”
- To want to say, “What I’d really like is to veg out with you in front of the TV” Joe would have to feel assured that Laura wouldn’t reply, “Oh please, not another mind-numbing TV night.” And he’d have to trust that she wouldn’t do a lot of talking during the show.
- To want to say, “—although I fear that you’re disappointed to hear that because it’s not the kind of evening you want to have,” Joe would have to feel assured that Laura wouldn’t reply, “My whole life with you is a disappointment.”
Even if Joe were able to make this idealized statement, there would be no guarantee it would work out. His confiding that he doesn’t feel like talking could easily bring Laura’s built up grievances crashing to the surface.
Laura: Tell me one thing, will you. When are you ever going to feel like talking? You’ve hardly said anything to me in the last couple of days.
Laura appears to be confiding the main thing on her mind—what’s alive for her at the moment—which is her anger at Joe. But she’s unloading rather than confiding. If she were to confide—that is, speak as one might to a confidante and bring Joe in on her inner struggle—she might be able to go to him later and say:
Laura: Joe, I know you’re not a big talker. But in the last couple of days when you got even quieter than usual, I worried you were upset with me, and I got into the lost and lonely place I always did when my mother shut me out. And then I got angry, which really shut you down, and I never got to ask if you had been upset with me about something.
It’s hard to imagine Laura being able to figure out and express all of this. But imagine her relief were she able to do so—and the even greater relief if she could feel that Joe understood. In an effort to help Laura figure it out, I’d ask her about her thoughts and feelings when Joe became quieter and the ones she had when he began to talk again.
Now we see what “confiding feelings” means and why couples don’t do more of it. It means being able to stand sufficiently back from the situation—and from ourselves—to be able to report our feelings rather than get lost in them, to recognize that our partners are engaged in an inner struggle and so are we.