In Collaborative Couple Therapy, we try to turn what’s happening between the partners at the moment into an intimate exchange. We:
- Go within to elucidate each partner’s struggle—to find what each needs to get across in order to feel fulfilled in the moment, experience a sense of relief, and be able now to listen to what the other partner has to say.
- Go between to create the conversation that fulfills the potential for intimacy intrinsic to the moment and get partners working together to come up with whatever solutions to their problems might be possible.
We also, and this is the subject of the present blog:
- Go above to create a compassionate vantage point above the fray—a platform—from which partners can talk cooperatively about their alienated exchange and function as joint troubleshooters in dealing with whatever comes up in the relationship.
The therapist goes between to create the needed conversation, within to discover the thoughts and feelings each partner needs to get across in this conversation, and above to provide a compassionate view of each partner’s struggle and the couple predicament. Here’s an example.
Nadia (to Lucas): We never spend time together anymore, just the two of us.
Nadia believes she’s saying, “I’d love to spend more time with you.” What Lucas hears, however, is “Here’s another way in which you let me down.”
Lucas: What are you talking about? We went for a walk just yesterday.
Since Nadia thinks she’s made an invitation—she doesn’t realize that her voice has a complaining tone—she’s thrown by Lucas’ response.
Nadia: Why do you always have to get so defensive?
I’ve been seeing Nadia and Lucas in weekly couple therapy sessions for several months. Since exchanges like this one have often led to irresolvable argument, I go into action.
Dan: Lucas, when Nadia says, “We never spend time together anymore, just the two of us,” how much do you hear that as an invitation and how much as a complaint?
Dan: Here, I’ll be you, Lucas, talking to Nadia and for you I’d say, “Nadia, I can’t help hearing your comment as a complaint that I’m doing something wrong.” Could I be a little bit right in thinking this?”
Dan: Nadia, when you say, “We never spend time together anymore, just the two of us,” are you feeling, “I’ve been missing you” or “I worry that we’re drifting apart” or “I realize I’ve been feeling lonely lately” or “I worry whether you really want to be with me” or “I’m upset with you about it” or something else entirely?
These three alternative responses are examples, respectively, of the how-much/how-much question, doubling, and the multiple-choice question. In each case, I’m going within Nadia’s experience in order to go between her and Lucas—swooping down in order to bring out the unexpressed thoughts and feelings that might provide material for an intimate exchange.
But I could also go above—inviting them to swoop up with me in an effort to create a compassionate perspective above the fray.
Dan (to both partners): Here’s what I see as happening. Tell me what you think. Nadia, you made what you felt was a friendly overture and are mystified that Lucas didn’t take it as such. Lucas, you feel criticized and wish you could get Nadia to see how it’s understandable you might feel that way.
I’m inviting Nadia and Lucas to swoop up with me—to view their situation without blame, see the reasonableness of each partner’s point of view, and recognize each partner’s struggle. If it’s a pattern we’ve talked about before, I’d go on to describe it.
Dan (to both partners): Is this one of those situations we’ve been talking about—you know, where something you say strikes the other wrong, each feels hurt, and you get into a fight that leaves both of you feeling bad?
Alternatively, or in addition, I might ask
Dan (to both partners): Is this a minor issue—a momentary glitch—or is there something important here for us to look at?
By going above, I mean looking at the situation with an appreciation of each partner’s struggle and, in the words of Eli Finkle and his colleagues, “from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved.” I’m trying to construct a meta-level that Nadia and Lucas can return to when needed and from which they can co-manage their relationship.
Both going within and going above involve the partners stepping back and reporting.
- In going within, partners report their inner struggle: “I feel bad” or “I feel lonely” or “I’m not proud of what I’m doing” or “I get appalled when I find myself acting like my angry father” or “I know I’m being defensive” or “I’m angrier at you than I want to be.”
- In going above, partners report the couple struggle or, as Erik Grabow puts it, the couple predicament: “We’re pressing each other’s buttons” or “When both of us have had a bad day, we run into trouble.”
Going within creates an individual platform—a vantage point from which a partner can look compassionately at her or his struggle. Going above creates a joint platform—a vantage point from which the couple can look at their struggle.
There are two major ways to help partners to go above and look compassionately at the couple predicament. The first is to ask a going-above or joint-platform-creating question:
- Is this fight as frustrating as it looks or are you getting something out of it?
- In what ways is this fight useful and in what ways is it not so useful?
In response to this question, the partners are likely to talk collaboratively about their fight, at least for a moment. “I’m getting discouraged,” One might answer. “Me too,” the other might say, “This could be our living room.”
Here are other examples of such going-above or joint platform-generating questions:
- I want to go back to that touching exchange you had just a moment ago right in the middle of this fight. Let’s figure out what allowed that to happen and then what catapulted you back into the fight.
- I want to go back to that angry exchange you had just a moment ago right in the middle of this otherwise warm conversation. Let’s figure out what triggered that and then how did you got out of it.
- Are we getting to what you want to talk about today?
- Given the sour turn this session has taken, what is it going to be like on the way home and then for the next couple of days?
The second major way for therapists to get partners to look compassionately at the couple predicament is to describe it.
Dan (speaking as Alan talking to Joyce): Joyce, we’re caught in this vicious circle in which you withdraw when I get angry and I get angry when you withdraw.
A goal in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to improve the partners’ ability, when they run into trouble, to “get meta,” as Mona Fishbane put it—to escape the impacted situation by shifting up a level and talking collaboratively about it.