The Collaborative Couple Therapy task in the case of partners in a fight is to turn the fight into a conversation, often by speaking for the partners, using an adaptation of Jacob Moreno’s doubling. I replace the partners’ blaming comments with conciliatory ones. Often, I go back and forth between the two partners, speaking for one, checking whether I’ve captured how she or he feels, getting the other’s response, speaking for that other, and so on. On those few occasions when I can remember their fast-moving back and forth angry exchange in sufficient detail, I stop the fight at some point and show how it might have gone if they were having a conversation rather than this fight. Here’s an example.
Jennifer (to Damon): You’re immature and irresponsible—just like your father.
Damon: What are you talking about?
Jennifer: Everyone thinks you’re a wonderful guy. They don’t know you. You’ve got them all fooled.
Damon: What’s going on here? We were feeling okay when we walked in the door and now you’re saying all this stuff? Why are you doing this?
Jennifer: You know exactly why. Don’t pretend you don’t.
Damon: I haven’t a clue. I never know when you’re suddenly going to explode all over the place about absolutely nothing.
Jennifer: You think it’s nothing that I walk in here feeling good about us and immediately you accuse me of flirting with some guy at the party.
Damon: Oh, it’s that.
Jennifer: Damn right it’s that.
Damon: Well, you were flirting.
Jennifer: Dude, you don’t get a right to accuse me of flirting after the multitudes of women you—
Damon (interrupting): That was way before we had any kind of commitment. Why do you have to keep holding onto that? And, anyway, it wasn’t multitudes. It was just two.
Jennifer (sarcastically): You never learned how to count, did you? There were way more than two.
Damon: No, there was just Sarah and—
Jennifer: Don’t give me that.
Damon: No, listen, there was—
Jennifer (interrupting): You’re a liar!
Damon: What kind of thing is that to say? I’m not a—
Jennifer (interrupting): And what do you mean I hold onto things! I hardly ever think about those early years. They just popped back into my mind right now when you accused me of flirting.
Damon: Something is always popping back into your mind.
Jennifer: Well it wouldn’t if you didn’t behave like you do.
Damon: We’re talking about something that happened years ago.
Jennifer: Yes, but how can I trust that tomorrow you’re not going to run into some hot chick and—
Damon (interrupting): How can I trust that you’re ever going to stop harping on things from the dawn of time. That’s ancient history—practically the last ice age.
Jennifer: Well, you shouldn’t have done what you did whatever the age.
Damon (to Dan): See what I have to deal with.
Jennifer: (to Damon): Well, you may not have to deal with it much longer.
Damon: I’m so tired of your threatening divorce all the time.
Jennifer: One of these days it’s going to be more than just a threat.
Recasting the Fight as a Conversation
Ordinarily I would stop such an exchange before it became so intense. I’d double for each in turn, ask questions, and make compassionate overview statements. But sometimes the fight escalates before I get my bearings. Or it builds up despite my efforts. Or I wear out—I need a rest from doubling because I’ve been doing it for much of the session. Or, as with Jennifer and Damon right now, I decide to let the fight go on for a bit and then move in and translate their fight into a conversation. First, I need to get their attention.
Dan (to both): In what ways is this fight useful and in what ways is it not so useful—or even destructive?”
Jennifer: We’re getting nowhere.
Damon: This could be our living room.
For the moment Jennifer and Damon have joined me on the meta-level—a vantage point above the fray—commiserating about their fight. I take advantage of this short respite to bring them in on my plan.
Dan (to both): I want to show you how it might feel if you were having a conversation rather than this fight. You can tell me later where I guess right and where I guess wrong.
In my effort to translate Jennifer and Damon’s fight into a conversation. I:
- Change their tone of voice from harsh to soft.
- Leave out or report the anger.
- Make acknowledgments:
- Show Damon accepting some responsibility for the fight rather than blaming it all on Jennifer.
- Reshape an accusation made by Damon into an acknowledgment made by Jennifer.
- Add vulnerable feelings.
- Demonstrate a virtuous cycle in which each responds in kind to the other’s warm and understanding response.
Dan: I’ll begin, Damon, at the point in which you said, “We were feeling good about each other. What happened?”
I’m repeating what Damon said, but leaving out the angry parts and replacing his harsh tone with a soft one.
Dan (continuing as Damon talking to Jennifer): “Did I do something? Did I say something?”
I’m doing for Damon what people in a fight almost never do: consider the possibility that they might bear some responsibility for the fight.
Dan (to Jennifer): Then, Jennifer, you’d answer, “It’s that comment you made about flirting—which upset me because, because— (to Jennifer): Well, actually I don’t know how you felt, so I’ll make some guesses. (Resuming speaking as Jennifer): “It upset me because I’m embarrassed that people might have thought I was flirting.” Or maybe it’s “That’s just how people talk at parties.” Or maybe it’s “You have some nerve spying on me.”
I make sure to include both a soft, self-disclosing possibility (“I’m embarrassed…”) and a harsh, angry one (“You have some nerve…”).
Jennifer (breaking in): It upset me because I didn’t think I was flirting.
Dan (incorporating Jennifer’s response): Okay, that’s it, “I didn’t think I was flirting.” And then, Jennifer, in my version you’d go on to say, “And what really bothers me is your double standard: getting upset at the possibility that I might be flirting while you’re the one who really messed around with people.”
I imagine Jennifer will like my bringing in the idea of a double standard and that Damon will like my replacing her harsh tone with a gentle one.
Damon’s original response at this point in their exchange had been, “Do you have to keep holding onto that? That was way before we had any kind of commitment.” I want to recast this to make it more reaching out and less attacking. The best way to do this is to take the words out of Damon’s mouth and put them in Jennifer’s. In Damon’s mouth they’re an accusation; in Jennifer’s mouth an acknowledgment.
Dan (continuing to speak for Jennifer): “I know what I’m saying might not be entirely fair, since what you did was long ago and before we made a commitment.”
Such an acknowledgement, were Jennifer to make it, could easily disarm Damon—which I now demonstrate happening.
Dan: And then Damon, you’d say: “I appreciate your saying that.”
If Damon and Jennifer were to talk like this—which means that they’d be in a collaborative rather than an adversarial cycle—they might suddenly have access to vulnerable feelings.
Dan: And then, Damon, you’d say something like—and here again I’m pulling stuff out of the air—“Jennifer, it was hard for me to see you talking in such a lively way to that man at the party because I can get insecure at times” Or, maybe it’s “It reminded me of how we used to talk to each other and rarely do anymore.” Or— (to Damon): I’m getting way too speculative here. What is it that you felt when you first saw Jennifer talking to that man at the party?
When I make up a conversation for partners, I sometimes elicit their help. I hope my examples of vulnerable feelings might predispose Damon to come up with such feelings.
Damon (to Jennifer): It was hard to see you talking in such a spirited way when we’d driven to the party mostly in silence.
This kind of heartfelt response could easily jumpstart a collaborative cycle between the partners—a self-reinforcing exchange in which each partner’s warm, confiding, conciliatory, admitting, reassuring, and reaching out comment inspires the other to respond in kind.
Jennifer: The drive upset me, too.
Jennifer: I hate when things are bad between us.
Damon: Yes, me too. So then when I saw you with that guy—
Jennifer: You needn’t have worried. He was a total bore.
Damon: That’s good to hear.
Jennifer: Talking to him just made me aware of what I have in you.
Jennifer: You’re the only man I ever met who doesn’t bore me.
Damon: I know you say that—so why did I have to get so upset seeing you with that guy.
Jennifer: I’m touched you got upset. It makes me feel loved.
Damon: Yes, but…
Jennifer: Don’t feel bad. I know it could easily have looked like I was flirting.
Jennifer: Hell, I was flirting.
Jennifer: I hoped you were watching. I can get pretty small-minded sometimes.
Damon: Yes, well neither of us does well when things are bad between us.
My made up conversation would have paved the way for this conciliatory exchange. But suppose Jennifer and Damon don’t engage in such an exchange and, instead, appear totally unaffected by the conversation I made up for them. Let’s say that they shrug and quickly resume their fight. I hope, nevertheless, that something about my made-up conversation registers within them and that later in the week one or the other experiments with her or his own version of it.
In my effort to jumpstart the conversation needed to solve the moment, I double for each partner, replacing their blaming comments with acknowledging ones and their distant comments with heartfelt ones. At some point, as I just demonstrated, I may act out the ideal conversation they might have had.