When you double in Collaborative Couple Therapy, you speak as if you were one of the partners talking to the other. “Okay, Joe, so you’re saying to Felicia, ‘When we fight, I feel very alone.’” You become the partner you’re speaking for. Use of the pronoun “I” collapses the space between you and that person. You practically disappear as a separate entity—a vanishing made visual if you vacate your chair and sit or kneel next to this partner. The person you’re speaking for now has someone literally on their side helping them get their partner to understand—or just figure out what they want their partner to understand. They feel less alone.
But isn’t the second partner going to feel sided against? Not if what you say on the first partner’s behalf is more respectful, conciliatory, heartfelt, or self-revealing than what this person has said for him- or herself. This second partner will appreciate your changing the tone. Also, he or she knows that you’ll soon come over to their side to help them express their point of view.
When you double, you don’t just repeat what the person says. And you don’t simply say the same thing in different words. You show what the person might say were they to speak with an increased generosity of spirit, from a place of greater vulnerability, or from a perspective above the fray.
Beth has just said to Judy, “You’re nasty and you never think of anybody but yourself.” Doubling for Beth, I say, “I know I’m coming across pretty strong. That’s because I’m still fuming over that comment you made ten minutes ago.” I’m showing how it might sound were Beth to observe the situation from a perspective above the fray and report her anger rather than unload it. Turning to her, I ask, “Where am I right and where am I wrong in guessing how you feel?” Beth replies, “It’s not just what she said ten minutes ago but the awful things she’s been saying to me for as far back as I can remember.”
I respond; “Okay, I didn’t get it right; it’s more—here I’m you again, Beth—“I’m upset about all the things you’ve been saying over the years—“ Adding an element of greater vulnerability, I continue, “—things that make me worry how much you really care for me.” I work with Beth to come up with the most accurate statement of how she thinks and feels. We puzzle it out together. She is the final arbiter.
How do I decide which partner to double at any particular moment? I choose the one who seems to be in greater need of a spokesperson or the one in whose behalf I’m able to think of the more useful thing to say.
Luis says to Jane, “You spoil the kids rotten. You let them run all over you.” I could double for him, imbuing his statement with a greater generosity of spirit, “I know I can be too harsh with the kids and I need to work on that. But I worry you make the opposite error.” However, I’m not sure he’d agree he’s too harsh. So, instead, I double for Jane, saying, “Luis, maybe there’s truth to what you’re saying, but I can’t even think about that now because I’m so triggered by your accusing tone and need you to admit that you can be too hard on the kids.” I expect Jane to say, “Yes, that tone drives me crazy”—which is what clients generally say when I make such an intervention. But she snaps, “There’s no truth at all to what Luis is saying! I don’t spoil the kids.” Immediately I backtrack: “Oh, I guessed wrong. It’s more that you’re saying, “Luis, I don’t spoil the kids. I give them the understanding they need and I wish you would do that, too.”
Partners generally forgive my errors, as long as I accept their corrections. When, on the other hand, I accurately capture their feelings, perhaps stating them more succinctly or less accusingly than they had done, they say things like, “I wish I’d put it that way” or “Can we take you home with us?” But occasionally clients resent my speaking for them. They feel invaded, in which case, of course, I stop doubling for them. Or they feel I’m whitewashing the situation: “You’re saying it too nice.”
As long as partners can tell me my statements for them are too nice or off the mark, I can modify them. The problem arises when they have difficulty telling me, which may come from a reluctance to correct their therapist. I try to solve this problem by making it easy for partners to reject my guess by telling them, for example, “This is a wild speculation. I give myself about a twenty percent chance of being correct.” Afterwards, I ask, “Where was I right and where was I wrong?” If partners say, “That’s mostly right,” I respond, “Tell me about the ‘mostly’” or “What would make it perfectly right?” If I sense that their “You’re right” is perfunctory, I say, “That’s a hesitant ‘You’re right.’ It looks like I got it wrong.”
Here are the principles I use in my effort, when doubling, to raise partners on a platform above the fray and to imbue their comments with greater vulnerability and generosity of spirit.
Change the tone. If I can’t think how to change the content of what the partner just said, at least I can change the tone. If a partner makes an angry statement, I repeat it in a friendlier tone or show how it would sound were they to report the anger rather than unload it. If a partner speaks in an emotionally distant way, I repeat it in an emotionally engaged way.
Add feelings. When a partner makes an accusation, I try to bring out the feeling—the “I” statement—hidden in the “you” statement. Often this means recasting the partner’s complaint as a wish (a “dream” in John Gottman’s language and a “need” in Marshall Rosenberg’s language) or a fear. “You’re always late” becomes “I’ve always wanted to be cherished by the person I married and when you arrive late I feel totally uncherished” or “I take it personally when you’re not on time; I fear I’m not very important to you.”
If a partner gets angry, I might double, “I’m angry, but I also feel hurt.” If a partner says he or she feels hurt, I might double, “I feel hurt, but I’m also angry.” I include phrases that pull for rich feeling: “It breaks my heart,” “It saps my spirit,” “I don’t like the kind of person I’ve become in our relationship.” “I’m haunted by…,” “When we fight like this, I feel lonely.”
Make acknowledgements. When a partner makes an accusation, I soften its edge by adding acknowledgements. To the partner’s, “You’re always late,” I may add “I’m angry, so I know I’m not saying this in the best way,” or “Maybe I don’t fully appreciate the pressures on you at work,” or “I know I’m hard to live with, too.”
In a fight, both partners argue their case, ignoring or refuting that of the other. Neither gets the satisfaction of having the other agree with or acknowledge anything. In speaking for partners, I do the agreeing and acknowledging for them. Speaking for one, I might say, “If we weren’t in the middle of a fight, I might admit to you that you’re making a good point here and there” or “I feel hurt, but you have no way of knowing that because it’s coming out as anger.” I try to make acknowledgements that the partners I’m speaking for will like my making for them.
Shift to the meta-level. When a partner makes an accusation, I show what that person might say were he or she to step back, view the broader landscape, and recognize another perspective. When one partner says to the other, “You’re always late,” I may add, “Half the time I think that I’m too critical and should give you more leeway, but the rest of the time, like now, I don’t feel that way at all” or “Your easy, relaxed, carefree attitude toward life is what attracted me in the first place, but certain parts of it—like being late—drive me crazy” or “I know my anxiety about being late upsets you as much as your casualness about being late does me.”
Turn a monologue into a dialogue by adding a question. When a partner makes a statement that is essentially a monologue, lecture or rant, I interrupt and turn it into a dialogue—a conversation—by moving over to that person and adding: “What do you think about what I just said?” or “Is there any part of what I’m saying that you agree with? or “You probably disagree with most of this. Am I right?”
In speaking for partners, I recast what they just said into a more disarming, engaging, conciliatory, or heartfelt statement. I try to make their case more effectively than they did. I shorten, lengthen, or reformulate what they said or add something to it. My goal is to come up with a statement that the people I’m speaking for like better than their own version and that their partners are moved by or, at least, will be better able to hear.
The task in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to develop both partners’ positions and to turn their arguments into conversations and their disengagement into engagement. Doubling is a premier way to accomplish these tasks. It allows the therapist to move in and show partners how it might sound were they able to talk rather than fight and be intimate rather than distant.