I am writing a book—Solving the Moment: A Collaborative Couple Therapy Manual—which is based on my blog entries. Among the special methods I discuss in this book is the sentence-completion question.
One way to join with partners in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to double for them. Another is to add a few words to what they say.
Jack (to Lois): You’ve stopped doing the sweet things you used to do.
Instead of, “What sweet things?” or “Could you give an example?” I say:
Dan: Such as___.
I could also have said “for example____” or “an example of which is___.” There’s a fluidity and concision in adding to a partner’s sentence. As people generally do, Jack treats my addition as something he had said. He repeats my words and goes on to finish the sentence.
Jack: Such as giving me spontaneous hugs and texting me at work.
At this point, I’m tempted to ask, “How do you feel about this change?” or “Is it of concern to you?” Instead of starting a new sentence, however, I add to Jack’s sentence. I consider saying, “And that leaves you feeling___” or “And that leaves you worrying___.” To maintain the feeling of working as one, I speak as if I were Jack, replacing the “you” with a “me.”
Dan (doubling for Jack): And that leaves me worrying that____.
Jack: That Lois doesn’t care about me anymore.
If it feels comfortable to speak as the person (“And that leaves me___”), I do so. If it feels intrusive or awkward, I speak instead to the person (“And that leaves you____”). In either case, a rhythm gets started.
If a partner says “We get along so much better on vacation than at home,” I often prefer to say, “which leads me (you) to conclude___” or “which I (you) take to mean___” rather than “What do you conclude from that?” or “What do you take that to mean?”
If a partner says, “Yesterday was a complete downer,” I often prefer to say “in that___” rather than “Can you say more about it?” or “In what way?”
If a partner says, “I’m never going to go to your parents’ house again,” I often prefer to say “because____” rather than “How come?” or “What happened?”
I try to give partners something to glide into. Partners who respond hesitantly when asked “Can you say more about it?” or “What’s an example?” respond more fluidly to “in that___” or “such as___.” By continuing their sentence, I’m joining them in what they are doing rather than approaching from the outside asking questions. They feel less interrogated.
At times I put words to what a partner implies.
Miriam: Clara says that she wants a separation. She’s probably right. We’re not getting along. It’s been a long struggle. I don’t know (trails off).
Miriam’s nonverbal behavior suggests that she has reservations about Clara’s idea of separating. I bring these reservations into the open.
Dan (to Miriam): Are you saying something like, “Maybe separating is what we need to do, but there’s something about it that____.”
Miriam: That doesn’t feel right.
Later in the session, I press for deeper feelings, using a form of sentence-completion question I picked up from a colleague, Donna Scott, and from watching a Harville Hendrix videotape.
Dan (speaking for Miriam): “What I’d most miss if we did separate is___.”
Miriam (to Clara): The family, you, everything.
I could also have said, “What scares me the most about separating is ___” or “What’s most heartbreaking about all this is____.”
Other phrases that pull for deeper emotions are “And my greatest fear is____,” “And what upsets me in particular (haunts me the most) about that is____,” “And my greatest hope (or what I most long for) is____,” It is breathtaking how quickly an intervention of this sort can shift partners out of an adversarial or distant stance and into intimate talking, commiserating, and coming to grips with what’s at stake.
At times I start a fresh new sentence.
Laticia (to Rodrigo): Why do you always have to explode like that?
Rodrigo: Oh, so you’re completely innocent, huh?
Laticia: Wait a minute! I’m not the one who got so angry.
Rodrigo: What do you mean? I could tell you were upset with me the minute I walked in the door.
Dan (to Rodrigo): Here I’m you talking to Laticia. “Laticia, when I saw the look on your face when I walked in the door, the first thing I felt was (or my immediate thought was)______.”
I’m taking Rodrigo back to the moment before the fight in search of the soft-underbelly feeling that might lie under his anger.
Rodrigo (softly): That I’d done something wrong. You know me. That’s where I go. I felt that I’d done something wrong.
It is possible at this point to do what I saw Harville Hendrix do on the videotape and try to track Rodrigo’s reaction to childhood.
Dan (Speaking as Rodrigo): “And that reminds me of___.”
Rodrigo: And that reminds me of—. I don’t know.
When the partner on Harville Hendrix’s videotape responded this way, Harville went on to say:
Dan (persisting): “And that reminds me of how in childhood____.
In summary, I use the sentence-completion question to (1) provide a fluid way to encourage elaboration by asking partners to give examples, express feelings, or draw conclusions about what they just said and (2) deepen the conversation by putting words to what’s just been implied, adding a phrase that probes for emotion (“What frightens me the most about that is___”) or starting a new sentence that pulls for soft underbelly feelings.
Jack (to Lois): You’ve stopped doing the sweet things you used to do like making special meals and calling me at work.
Lois (breaking in): Just look at my schedule, would you! I get up early—it’s still dark for heaven’s sake—then I struggle through traffic, work this high-pressure job, and struggle back through traffic. When am I going to find time to make special meals or call you at work or anything else?
Jack: Yeah, I know. It’s just that I (stops).
Dan (doubling for Jack): It’s just that I____?
Jack: I don’t know. I can’t put it in words (fades out).
Dan: Okay Jack, here’s a sentence completion question for you. I’ll start it out and you finish. “Lois, what I miss these days more than anything else, what I really miss, is___.”
Jack: How your face would light up when I entered the room.
Lois: My face would light up?
Jack: In the most wonderful way. In fact, in the way it’s doing right now.
Lois: I know. Come over here.