When I double in couple therapy, I serve as each partner’s spokesperson, scriptwriter, and advocate—their Cyrano de Bergerac—finding words for what they had been struggling to say or recasting what they did say to make it more heartfelt. I show how it might sound were they to speak from a place of greater vulnerability and generosity of spirit.
People generally welcome my efforts to speak for them. When I get out of my chair and kneel next to a partner, decreasing our physical distance, some of our emotional distance disappears also. Moving close to a partner can create a mysterious intimacy. The partner softens and, in response, I do, too. Suddenly, I have a more palpable sense of that person’s struggle. We work together to come up with a statement that better communicates how she or he feels.
But doesn’t the other partner feel sided against? Not if my statement on behalf of the first partner is more respectful, conciliatory, heartfelt, or self-revealing than that person’s original comment. “Put that way,” the second partner says, “I can hear it.”
Furthermore, the second partner knows I’ll soon come over and help them express their point of view. In fact, I start speaking for this second partner while still kneeling next to and speaking for the first. I include in my statement for this first partner an acknowledgment of the second partner’s point of view: “You’re right that….” or “I get what you’re saying, which is…” or “I can understand how you might feel that …” or “I know I have a role in it, too, which is that…” or “I know it didn’t help that I came home grouchy” or “I’m not proud of how I behaved.”
I’m showing how it would look if the partners were having a conversation rather than a fight—an exchange in which each partner makes acknowledgements, looks at things from the other’s point of view, and engages in a kind of informal active listening.
If partners are caught in an intense, going-nowhere fight, I may double after practically every comment either of them makes. In most sessions, however, I double less than half a dozen times and often only once, twice, or not at all. The following are examples of the reasoning I use in deciding to double at a particular moment.
- They’re doing fine, but I think I have a way to take things deeper.
- This fight is escalating and I have to do something. Mel’s the more upset so I’ll go over and speak for him. I’ve only the inkling of an idea of what to say, so I hope it takes shape by the time I get over to him.
- There’s something conciliatory in what Elena just said, but Barry obviously missed it. I’ll repeat what she said in a way that emphasizes the conciliatory element.
- Uh-oh, I’m getting caught in Sam and Joellen’s depressed mood. I’m fading out along with them. Okay, I’ll speak for each and try to inject some spirit into this room.
- This first session is nearly over and I haven’t yet doubled, which I need to do to give them a sense of what therapy with me would be like.
The following are examples of the reasoning I use in deciding at a particular moment not to double.
- They’re doing fine. I can’t think of anything to say for them that wouldn’t just get in the way.
- They’re having trouble, but I can’t think at the moment how to intervene. I hope something occurs to me soon. It usually does.
- They’re doing wonderfully—coming up with better things than I could think to say for them. I’ll just listen. Afterwards I’ll comment on the great conversation they were having.
- I’ve been doing a lot of doubling, but I can’t tell for sure whether it’s helping or just getting in their way. I’ll back off for a while and see what happens.