The Collaborative Couple Therapy goal is to get partners collaborating—that is, working together as a team. The focus is on how partners relate to each other about the concern at hand rather than on how concretely to resolve it. I call this approach solving the moment, by which I mean turning the immediate alienated exchange—the fight or withdrawal—into a conversation in which partners confide what is on their minds in a way that brings them closer.
Solving the moment—having this conversation—is the Collaborative Couple way to solve the problem. The inability to talk collaboratively—to have a conversation—may very well be the problem. When the partners try to talk, they get into arguments or, in fear of such arguments, don’t talk about the issue at all.
Olivia and Trevor originally come to therapy complaining of financial problems. She wants to save money whereas he wants to spend it. However, their principal difficulty is the fights they get into when talking about money, or about any number of issues, large and small. They begin today’s session reporting a fight they just had. While parking their car in front of the therapy office, a Porsche whizzed by.
Trevor (to Olivia): We’ve got to get a car like that.
Trevor doesn’t mean that they should actually buy one. He knows they can’t afford it. He just likes to play with the idea. Olivia doesn’t like such play. It scares her. And she’s not absolutely sure he doesn’t mean it.
Olivia: Are you crazy? We can’t afford that.
Trevor is stung by Olivia’s tone. Otherwise he’d say, “Yes, I know. I was just dreaming.” But being stung, he says, with a tone of his own:
Trevor: You’ve always got to take the fun out of everything, don’t you?
Olivia is stung by Trevor’s tone. Otherwise she’d smile and say, “Oh, you were just having fun. I thought you really meant it.” But being stung, she says:
Olivia: Well, someone has to be the responsible adult around here.
The back-and-forth stinging continues.
Trevor: The real problem, my dear, is that you’re so tiresomely ultra-responsible.
Olivia: Here we go.
Trevor: Someone’s got to show the kids that life isn’t all obeying the rules, minding your manners, and avoiding danger, because—you know something—that’s all you do.
Olivia: By default. Totally by default. You gave up being a parent long ago.
Trevor: And you gave up even the glimmer of the idea that once in a while a person ought to have a little fun in life.
Olivia: That’s all you do—joke around with the kids. I’m tired of being the only one who—
Trevor (interrupting): Oh? Who’s been helping Joey with his homework?
Olivia Wonderful! You helped him with his geometry once and you expect a medal.
Trevor: It was more than once.
Olivia (sarcastically): Okay, twice. I guess you expect two medals.
Solving the moment means helping partners shift out of the adversarial, withdrawn, or pursuer-distancer cycle in which they are caught and into a collaborative one. It means taking the arguments that the partners have right there in the session, or report from the week, and turning them into intimate conversations.
Olivia and Trevor begin today’s session continuing the fight that began on the street below. I move in at various points to recast their accusatory comments into conciliatory ones. Speaking for Trevor, I say:
- “I didn’t mean that we should really get a Porsche. You know me. I was just dreaming.”
- “I know I’m not good disciplining the kids. I don’t want them to be afraid of me as I was with my father. I probably go too far in the other direction.”
- “I know I’m saying some mean things to you—a little bit like my father—the thought of which horrifies me.”
- “I know I’ve mostly left it to you to help the kids with their homework, and that’s not fair.”
Speaking for Olivia, I say:
- “I sort of knew you didn’t mean we should actually buy a Porsche, but I wasn’t entirely sure.”
- “I know I’m overprotective. I’m haunted by the fear of something happening to our kids.”
- “I’ve told you that I resent how much you horse around with the kids, but I also want to say how much I appreciate it. They need that and I’m not good at it.”
- “I know I can give you a hard time sometimes when you do pitch in with the kids. By this time I’ve got my own way of doing things.”
I hope that one or more of these acknowledgments might trigger a collaborative cycle or, at least, prevent the usual escalation. My overall plan is to give Olivia and Trevor experience after experience of conversations that work out better than the ones they have at home. My goal is to enable them, on their own, to talk about anything—money, responsibility, having fun, whatever—
- Without slipping into fighting
- And, if they do slip, to keep the fight from escalating
- And, if it does escalate, to hold a recovery conversation in which they figure out what happened and re-establish connection.
But how is creating conversations going to help Olivia and Trevor resolve their issues over money, responsibility, and so on. Once they are talking collaboratively—working together rather than at odds—they’re in position to come up with whatever accommodations, compromises, or solutions might be possible, usually much better ones than I could think of for them.
But suppose the problem doesn’t lend itself to accommodation, compromise, or solution?
- One partner wants children and the other one doesn’t.
- One partner wants to continue the relationship and the other wants to end it.
- One person craves a different kind of partner than the one she or he has.
- The partners want to create sexual passion when one or both never had much sexual interest in the other, even during the honeymoon phase.
When couples come to therapy with such problems, it can be difficult to know what to do. As therapists, we feel responsible but powerless to help them. But if we define our task as solving the moment rather than solving the problem, we do know what to do: help them talk about their dilemma in a heartfelt way with an appreciation for each partner’s struggle. If there’s budge to their seemingly intractable problem, talking in this manner is likely to reveal it. If there isn’t budge, we can help them commiserate with each other rather than just continue to argue. To the extent that partners are able to commiserate over their dilemma, they’d be solving the problem of the alienation that comes from constant fighting. Of course, they wouldn’t be solving the problem of the dilemma itself.
Let’s suppose now that Olivia and Trevor have experienced years of unresolved fights, withdrawals, betrayals, and attachment wounds that have:
- Destroyed trust.
- Eroded good will.
- Narrowed the topics they can talk about.
- Sapped the relationship of its vitality.
- Opened an emotional chasm.
- Created bitterness.
Is improving Olivia and Trevor’s ability to talk sufficient to undo all of that? It might not be. In fact, increasing their ability to hear each other might simply make clear that the relationship is beyond repair. Solving the moment then means talking sadly rather than angrily about this fact. On the other hand, helping partners talk in a thoughtful and heartfelt way can sometimes turn around seemingly doomed relationships. Getting a chance to be heard can have a powerful ameliorative effect.
The quality of life in a relationship depends on how partners deal with disquieting moments. At various times in any given day, people feel out of sorts with, cut off from, or angry at their partners. The task is to keep such sour moments from mounting up, taking over, and damaging the relationship and, instead, to transform them into occasions for intimacy.