I am writing a book—Solving the Moment: A Collaborative Couple Therapy Manual— based on my blog entries. Here is the introductory chapter, which grew out of my May 27, 2019 blog: A Synopsis of Collaborative Couple Therapy.
In this introduction, I lay out the essential features of Collaborative Couple Therapy, presenting in a few pages its principal elements. This distillation allows me to reveal the flow among elements and provides a useful introductory overview.
Fighting and withdrawing are the major couple problems—not the specific issues about which the partners are in conflict, such as money and sex, but how the partners talk, or don’t talk, about these issues.
Having a conversation. If fighting and withdrawing are the problem, then talking collaboratively is the solution. Such talking can be thought of as
Solving the moment rather than solving the problem. The focus in Collaborative Couple Therapy is on how partners relate to each other about the issue at hand rather than on how concretely to resolve it. Once partners are talking collaboratively instead of fighting or withdrawing, they’re in position to come up with whatever solutions, compromises, or accommodations might be possible.
Intimacy may be just a sentence away. The needed conversation begins with a confiding or acknowledging sentence that could induce the partner to respond in kind.
Loss of voice. Partners are often unable to come up with that sentence because they feel unentitled to their experience (Bernard Apfelbaum) and suffer a loss of voice.
Fallback measures. Having lost their voice—which means being unable to express what they need to say to obtain the relief that can come out of bringing their concerns into the open in a way their partner can hear—partners are stuck resorting to measures that generally make matters worse. In couple relationships, there are two major types of such fallback measures: attacking (fighting) and disengaging (withdrawing).
Turning your partner into an ally, enemy, or stranger. If you lose your voice and are unable to confide what you need to say, which could turn your partner into an ally, you are stuck as a fallback measure attacking, which can turn your partner into an enemy or withdrawing, which can turn your partner into a stranger.
The therapeutic task is to recast partners’ enemy-promoting or stranger-promoting comments into ally-promoting ones.
Doubling. The therapist seeks to produce this recasting primarily by doubling: moving into the partner exchange, speaking as one partner talking to the other, and transforming an angry partner’s accusations into vulnerable feelings (“I” statements) and acknowledgments, or a withdrawn partner’s devitalized responses into engaged and animated ones.
How-much question. In this second major method of Collaborative Couple Therapy, the therapist raises potentially illuminating but possibly threatening possibilities by pairing them with benign alternatives. “How much do you see your anger as a sensitivity you have about the matter going back early in your life and how much as an understandable reaction anyone would have in your situation?”
Sentence-completion question. The therapist enriches and deepens the discussion by adding a few words to what a partner just said (“because__,” “for example__”) or starting a new sentence (“My greatest wish [fear] is that__”).
Compassionate overview statement. The therapist deals with deadlocked exchanges by stepping back and describing each partner’s struggle and the couple predicament.
End-of-the-session question. The therapist asks, “What’s been disappointing about this session and what if anything has been useful about it?” The therapist tries in this way to (1) make it easy for partners to express dissatisfaction with the session (or the therapy or therapist) and (2) find out what partners have gotten out of it.
Guardian of the conversation. The therapist serves as guardian of the conversation—keeping the thread of the conversation, heading off incipient fights, pumping energy into an enervated exchange, giving voice to what’s being implied but not said, revealing the conversation hidden in the fight, and drawing attention to important points that are getting lost in the mass of everything else being said.
Three-person platform. The therapist creates with the partners a three-person platform from which to bring partners in on what s/he is doing and consult with them about issues that arise in the therapy. The effect is to turn the therapy into more of a collaborative effort and model the relationship s/he is trying to foster between partners.
Spokesperson for the less likeable partner. A major problem when doing couple therapy is losing empathy for and siding against one of the partners, a problem that can be dealt with by serving as spokesperson for the partner whom at the moment the therapist is siding against. The way to become such a spokesperson is to look at things from this partner’s point of view and appreciate this person’s struggle. Once the therapist tunes into this struggle, the reactions of this partner begin to make more sense.
Recovery conversations. Since difficult moments will inevitably come up—moments when partners irritate or disappoint each other and slip into fighting or withdrawing—the goal is to have recovery conversations, in which partners turn these alienated moments into intimate ones. Recovery conversations are possible even in the case of unsolvable problems. Each relationship has its own set of such problems that the partners will be struggling with for the life of the relationship. The goal is for couples to deal with moment-to-moment expressions of these problems, as they do with any alienating exchange, by stepping back, piecing together what happened, and appreciating the couple predicament and each partner’s struggle.
Changing each partner’s inner conversation. The short-range objective of Collaborative Couple Therapy is to improve the partners’ conversation right there in the session. A long-range objective is to change each partner’s inner conversation, enabling the couple to have better conversations on their own.
The ultimate goal of Collaborative Couple Therapy is to increase the couple’s ability on their own to solve the moment (hold the conversation needed to deal with whatever comes up in the relationship and turn problems into opportunities for intimacy) and create a two-person platform (a vantage point above the fray that the couple can keep coming back to and from which they can jointly guide the relationship).