At the root of Collaborative Couple Therapy is the idea that partners in a problematic exchange are in need of a conversation—a conversation of reconciliation in the case of partners who have been fighting and reconnection in the case of partners who are withdrawn.
My job, in addition to helping initiate the needed conversation, is to keep it on track. If the conversation begins to fall off the track—it turns into a fight or shows signs of doing so—I jump in.
Dan: Janet, the words you just used—liar, irresponsible—are almost certain to set Dennis off. Of course, Dennis must have just said or done something that set you off–which is why you’re using those words.
Dan (to June and Roy): You were having this great conversation until a moment ago when things began to turn sour. Do you see it that way, too? And what do you think happened?
If a couple gets stuck in an irrelevant side argument, I remind them of the major issue.
Dan (to Mark): It’s clear that you and Sharon disagree about this specific example that she brought up to make her point. But what do you think about her point in itself?
Dan: To get back to the main conversation, Angie, you were saying ______and Steve you were saying______.
I keep the thread of the conversation. If partners’ comments are long, rambling, and hard to follow, I repeat what they said more crisply. If partners’ comments are short, abstract, and overly condensed, I fill them out. “That says it better than I did,” they may say in response or “That’s what I meant” or “I wish I put it that way.”
My goal at times is to help bring out what partners wish to say. My goal at other times is to guide the conversation in what I believe to be a more useful direction. In a fight with his husband Phil, Jerry makes a conciliatory gesture that immediately gets lost in the mass of everything else being said. So I draw attention to it.
Dan: Let’s go back, Jerry, to what you said just a minute ago—you know, when you wondered whether you might be taking out on Phil your frustration with your foreman. That had a different feel from everything else that’s been said this session. For a moment you were looking at your possible contribution to the problem.
At times an acknowledgment isn’t stated in words but is implied in the logic of what the partner says—or doesn’t say. Remember Linda and Ellen from Chapter 4.
Linda: I can’t stand how often you’re late.
Ellen: And I can’t stand how you buy things we don’t need.
The fact that Ellen doesn’t refute Linda’s charge about her lateness (and, instead, brings up the entirely different matter of Linda’s buying habits) is tacit acknowledgment that she (Ellen) is often late. I make it explicit.
Dan: Let me say something for you, Ellen, and see what you think. Here, I’m you talking to Linda. “Linda, you’re right about my lateness. It’s an old habit that’s hard to break. I feel bad about it and, I’ve got to admit, a little irked at you for bringing it up—which I’m dealing with by pointing out that you have faults too.”
At times, it doesn’t take much—just a nudge—to transform a couple argument into a conversation. The couple is already within half an inch of having such a conversation. A great deal more than a nudge is necessary with partners who are angrily entrenched. They’re a hundred miles from having a conversation. With such a couple,
- I go back and forth between them, turning each person’s angry and/or defensive comment into a collaborative one. I do a simultaneous translation of their fight into a conversation.
- Or I wait until they stop for a breath and make up what they might say if they were in a collaborative rather than their adversarial mode.
My purpose in either case is to give the couple a taste of the conversation they’re suffering from being unable to have.
In summary, in serving as guardian of the conversation, I head off incipient fights, pump energy into enervated exchanges, remind partners of the main point when they wander off into side issues, expand overly cryptic statements, condense overly rambling ones, reveal the conversation hidden in the fight, give voice to what’s being implied but not said, and show partners the conversation that ideally they could be having.