The task in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to construct intimate conversations by helping partners confide their leading-edge feeling, often the one that’s rattling around in their minds making them uneasy (or, as Marshall Rosenberg put it, what’s alive for them at the moment). If they confide this leading-edge feeling—figure it out, put it in words, and feel their partner understands—they often experience a sense of relief and a surge of warm caring feeling.
But is there just one leading-edge feeling at any given moment? To explore this issue, let’s consider Maya, who in a couple therapy session castigates her husband, Steve, for so frequently coming home late for dinner. Her leading-edge feeling appears to be anger. But couldn’t it also be:
- Hurt that Steve doesn’t care enough about her feelings to come home on time.
- Disappointment that he doesn’t on his own behalf want to spend more time with her.
- Fear that his love for her might have flagged.
- Shame about getting angry in the way her mother always did, which scared and embarrassed her.
- Frustration in failing to get him to understand how she feels.
- Distress at the idea that she may not be as important to him as he is to her.
A configuration of some of these feelings is generally implicit. But they’re not there. What is there is anger. So I try to bring one of these implicit feelings into the moment.
I say to Maya, “You’re angry. Do you also feel hurt?” “Oh yes, she says,” her voice softening, “I keep forgetting that stab of pain just before I lash out.” Her demeanor has changed and, with it, her leading-edge feeling. A moment before, she was unaware she felt hurt. Well, actually, she didn’t feel hurt. Now she does. My question sparked a resetting of her mind, bringing the “hurt” out of the realm of potential feelings and up on the stage.
In suggesting “hurt,” I made a guess. If it didn’t feel right to her, I hope she’d correct me by saying, for example, “It’s not hurt. It’s fear that he’s losing interest in me.”
Instead of guessing, I could have explored more broadly by:
- Mentioning several alternative feelings, saying, for example, “You’re angry, Do you also feel hurt or afraid or disappointed, or something else?”
- Leaving the nature of the feeling open, saying, for example, “If you weren’t feeling angry, what would you feel?”
- Bringing her in on the principle I’m using, saying, for example, “Within a complaint is often a wish or fear or other vulnerable feeling. If that’s true in your case here, Maya, what would that wish or fear be?”
A conflict-filled couple exchange typically involves repeated resettings of each partner’s mind. Sean slides into his chair in a couple therapy session and says, “I think we’re doing well.” He sneaks a look at his wife Gloria, sitting next to him. His unspoken leading-edge feeling is, “I’m worried you might say we’re not doing well since you’ve done that here before.”
Until the moment that Sean spoke, Gloria’s unspoken leading-edge feeling had been, “Thank God we’re finally here. I could hardly wait to talk about our awful fight.” Hearing what Sean just said, however, Gloria experiences a wave of loneliness (“How could we be living in such different worlds?”) followed by a surge of anger (“He doesn’t know me at all. I could be anybody. All he’s interested in is himself”). Her mind has reset twice. She says sharply, “What relationship have you been in? Did you forget Wednesday already?”
Hearing Gloria’s complaint, Sean’s mind resets. If he were to express his leading-edge feeling, he might say, “Oh, I really screwed up. I’m in trouble now.” Instead, he says, “We’ve had much worse fights. I hardly remember that one.” He’s trying to convince Gloria that the fight wasn’t a big deal. Glancing over at her and seeing her look of disgust, he slips into the “I’m a failure as a husband” frame of mind and then into the “She’s a bitch” frame of mind. His mind has reset twice. He says, “Are you ever happy with anything I do?”
As their therapist, I try to come up with a comment that might turn their argument into a conversation:
- It looks like you’re caught in the struggle we’ve talked about before. Do you see it that way, too?
- In what ways is this argument useful and in what ways is it not so useful?
- Do I have it right, Sean, that you feel unhappy with yourself and unfairly attacked by Gloria and that you, Gloria, feel alone at the moment, discouraged about the state of things, and angrier at Sean than you want to be?
I hope that whichever question I choose will enable them to step back and look, together, at what is going on between them. I hope my question will reset their minds.
Or I might make a stab at tracking the sequence of leading-edge feelings.
Dan: I’m going to make a bunch of speculations about what you guys might have felt in the session, and you can tell me afterwards whether any of them are accurate. Okay, Sean, I imagine you felt disappointed that Gloria didn’t share your view that it was a good week, and then felt bad that you didn’t remember the fight, and then felt attacked, perhaps slipping into that feeling you’ve talked about of being a little boy with an angry mother. And you might have gone back and forth between “Gloria has reason to be upset” and “She doesn’t have reason and she’s being unfair”—perhaps worrying whether she really likes you. Gloria, I imagine that you felt disappointed when Sean didn’t see the significance of the fight, and then felt alone, and then angry—getting into a state in which you felt frustrated by practically everything he says and forgot that there’s anything you do like about him.
The purpose in this short paper is to question the Collaborative Couple Therapy notion of leading-edge feeling—the idea that at a given moment there’s a single such feeling rather than a nexus of feelings or, in psychodynamic terms, conscious feelings underneath which lurk hierarchies of unconscious feelings.
My belief, built out of ideas from Bernard Apfelbaum, is that people shift among states of mind (Richard Schwartz’s “parts”), each of which is associated with a leading-edge feeling. A feeling that is absent and unavailable in one state may pop into awareness and, in fact, form the centerpiece of the next state. When Maya was angry, she was unaware of being hurt. The feeling of hurt wasn’t there anymore. In response to Gloria’s look of disgust, Sean shifted first into the “I’m a failure as a husband” frame of mind in which anger was totally absent and then into the “She’s a bitch” frame of mind in which anger was the defining element.
In couple conflict, each partner’s mind continually resets in response to what her or his partner has just said. As a couple therapist, I seek by my interventions to reset partners’ minds—to lift them out of their adversarial and withdrawn interactions and up on a joint platform from which they can track what is happening between them and confide their experience.