The following is a synopsis of Collaborative Couple Therapy theory, simplified to reveal the logical flow from each element to the next.
- The problem is fighting and withdrawing.
- The solution is having a conversation.
- Having a conversation is solving the moment.
- The conversation begins with a sentence: intimacy may be just a sentence away.
- The inability to come up with this sentence is loss of voice.
- When partners lose their voice, they’re unable to confide what they need to say. They shut down and/or become angry, that is, they avoid or attack.
- Confiding, avoiding, and attacking lead to three couple cycles:
- Confiding can trigger a collaborative cycle.
- Avoiding can trigger a withdrawn cycle..
- Attacking can trigger an adversarial cycle.
- The therapeutic task is to turn the fighting or withdrawing into intimate talking by:
- Going within to bring out what each partner needs to say in this conversation.
- Going between to manage the conversation.
- Going above to create a platform—a vantage point above the fray—from which to deal with impasses in the conversation.
- The goal is to enable couples to turn problems into opportunities for intimacy.
The following is an elaboration of each of these elements. It’s putting meat on the bone.
- Fighting and Withdrawing. A couple problem is really two problems: (1) the problem itself (money, sex, etc.) and (2) how partners talk (or don’t talk) about the problem. How partners talk or don’t talk is often the major problem and, in any case, the part of their difficulty where we as couple therapists can best help them.
- In Need of a Conversation. Since the problem is fighting, withdrawing, or a combination of the two, the solution is to have a conversation: a conversation of reconciliation in the case of fighting and of re-connection in the case of withdrawing.
- Solving the Moment. Instead of engaging in direct problem-solving, I try to get the partners talking collaboratively about the problem, that is, having a true conversation. I call that solving the moment rather than solving the problem. Once partners are talking collaboratively rather than fighting or withdrawing, they’re in position to come up with whatever solutions, agreements, compromises, understandings, or meetings-of-the-mind might be possible. Solving the moment is the Collaborative Couple Therapy way to solve the problem.
- Intimacy May Be Just a Sentence Away. The needed conversation begins with a sentence. Intimacy is often just a sentence away as is also a fight. The therapeutic task is to help the couple find the intimacy-inducing sentence and manage the fight-provoking sentences they stumble into.
- Loss of Voice. The reason people are often unable on their own to come up with the intimacy-inducing sentence is that they lose their voice. They are unable to confide what’s “alive” for them at the moment, to use Marshall Rosenberg’s language, because they are ashamed of, threatened by, or not used to talking about these feelings. They feel unentitled to their experience, as Bernard Apfelbaum has put it. Also, they may fear, perhaps justifiably, that confiding these feelings will create bad will, start a fight, alienate their partners, or expose them to rebuke or humiliation.
- The Avoidant and Adversarial Shifts. When partners lose their voice, they make what can be called the avoidant or the adversarial shift of everyday life. They sweep what’s troubling them under the rug or turn it into something their partners are doing wrong. (“I feel guilty” becomes “you’re trying to make me feel guilty.” “I have trouble sometimes asking for what I want” turns into “You should know what I want without my having to ask.”).
- Couple Cycles. In other words, when partners lose their voice and can’t confide what they need to say, they’re stuck as a fallback measure avoiding or attacking. Confiding, avoiding, and attacking lead to three couple cycles:
- Confiding can turn the partner into an ally and trigger a collaborative couple cycle (an intimate conversation).
- Avoiding can turn the partner into a stranger and trigger a withdrawn cycle (mutual withdrawal).
- Attacking can turn the partner into an enemy and trigger an adversarial cycle (a fight).
There is a fourth couple cycle—pursuit and distance—a combination of the last two, in which one partner pursues and/or attacks and the other withdraws.
- Going Within, Between, and Above. The purpose of therapy is to turn the couple’s adversarial, withdrawn, or pursuer-distancer cycle into a collaborative one. In my effort to do this, I go:
- Within to find each partner’ voice and bring out what each partner needs to say in this conversation.
- Between to manage the conversation—to guide it, and keep it on track. I may go back and forth between the two partners recasting what each says.
- Above to deal with impasses that occur in the conversation by creating a platform—a vantage point above the fray—from which partners can talk thoughtfully about the impasse. I might ask, “How do you feel about this fight you’re having?” My hope is to get partners talking collaboratively about the fight.
9. The Ultimate Goal of Collaborative Couple Therapy is to increase the couple’s ability on their own to solve the moment by having the needed conversation and create a couple platform from which to guide the relationship and turn problems into opportunities for intimacy.