Couples Therapy: The Art of Teaching Connection


"...couples relationships undergo developmental stages, beginning with a necessary symbiosis between partners that accounts for the strong feeling of bonding so typical of the first 6 months or so. In this phase individual differences are barely noted or seem to have very little significance. Most couples starting therapy find themselves in the process of emerging out of that symbiotic stage, but the transition to a more mature partnership is not going well, leaving them stuck “in between phases”..." -Julia Flood


Couples Therapy: The Art of Teaching Connection
by Julia Flood, LCSW

When I first started out in private practice with a strong desire to focus on couples therapy work, I more or less assumed that it would be similar to individual therapy, just with two clients. When I actually started seeing couples in my office I quickly learned that successful couples therapy looks very little like individual therapy, the most important difference being the level of leadership that is required by the therapist in the session. I quickly fell in love with Ellyn Bader and her husband Peter Pearson’s ongoing training “The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation, and Neuroscience” and have stuck with it ever since.

One central idea in that model is that couples relationships undergo developmental stages, beginning with a necessary symbiosis between partners that accounts for the strong feeling of bonding so typical of the first 6 months or so. In this phase individual differences are barely noted or seem to have very little significance. Most couples starting therapy find themselves in the process of emerging out of that symbiotic stage, but the transition to a more mature partnership is not going well, leaving them stuck “in between phases”, sometimes for many painful years. Whether the couple’s interactions are hostile and aggressive, or conflict-avoidant but resentful, the major task is likely going to be what Bader and Pearson call differentiation, which is the untangling of the symbiotic “we” into what is either one or the other partner’s issue.

The main tool that I like to use in the middle stage of couples therapy is something Bader and Pearson have coined “Initiator and Inquirer”. More than a communication tool, an important reason for using it is to “stretch”the brain into learning new ways of connecting – with each other, but even literally by creating new pathways in the brain. This leads to both personal growth and better communication. Two ways by which this growth is achieved are 1. by learning to identify and express important parts of oneself: telling your partner what you think, feel, and want and 2. by learning to not take personally what your partner thinks and feels.

The Initiator-Inquirer exercise is a dialog tool with assigned roles that aim at stretching this double task of differentiation I just described. So how does it work?

The “Initiator” role: expressing yourself
I ask one partner to bring up one specific topic without getting thrown off course, and without blaming or accusing their partner for it. For the time being, it is the problem of the speaker. I encourage them to risk getting to the more sensitive feelings (such as disappointment) underneath the more obvious ones (such as frustration).  The idea is for the Initiator to find out new things about him or herself. This task is challenging, because the speaker needs to manage the stress that comes from “exposing” what they think and feel, and be ready for what might come from that.

The “Inquirer” role: listening to your partner
At the same time, I ask the listener to stay involved, close, curious, and connected without trying to “fix” the problem, shutting down, interrupting, joking, rolling eyes, or defending him or herself. Throughout the exercise I remind the listener that they don’t need to agree with their partner’s perspective, but to do try and understand them better, similar to how a journalist might conduct an interview with an eccentric artist. This is a chance for the Inquirer to practice being the patient and attentive listener they typically desire to be.

The Initiator-Inquirer process involves a steep learning curve for all parties involved, including the therapist.  Apart from managing the content and manner in which it is discussed, I look to give “developmental assistance” to each individual client to help push through to the next level of their personal growth, be it by taking greater risks in sharing feelings or helping to regulate their anger and anxiety. If all goes well, partners will learn that it is normal to have several conflicting feelings at the same time, that it is not the end of the world when your partner “falls apart” sometimes, that it is normal and good that each partner’s views and wishes are different, and that discussing them does not have to mean the dialog needs to spin out of control. Last but not least, they can experience that there is value in not compromising too quickly, but to tolerate the tension of unresolved issues in order to find solutions that work for both of partners long-term.

All this is difficult and tedious work. The threshold for successful couples therapy is high, and many difficult feelings will need to be experienced before partners are able to again soothe and comfort each other. But when they do, they have created a much stronger foundation that can last a lifetime.

Julia Flood, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in San Francisco's Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood. She has been working in the mental health field since 1996 and specializes in couples therapy/marriage counseling, helping partners in crisis to break out of the vicious cycle of hurting and being hurt. You can find out more about Julia on her website: www.newstarttherapy.com, or by calling (415) 820-3210 to arrange an initial phone consultation. She is bilingual in English and German.

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