Working with couples and families requires a different stance from working with individuals. I like that I can experience the relationship dynamics directly by being in the same room with the couple. It’s so different seeing the dynamics in action as opposed to having one individual describe it to you from her or his view. With couples work, you can witness how quickly one person’s response is cued by the other. Before you know it — before the couple knows it, for that matter — they launch into defensiveness and negativity almost as if you weren’t there. When you try to mediate, it either makes it worse or they both become angry with you. It quickly escalates.
I have learned to cope with this by acknowledging from the beginning that therelationship (or as Harville Hendrix has called it, the “in-between”) is my client. I like to think of it as a circle, the reciprocal nature of all relationships — in this case, close and intimate relationships.
I often describe relationship to couples as a dance in which they have to coordinate their actions so they won’t kick each other in the shins. The more they practice with each other, the smoother it becomes, the less they hurt each other and the more satisfying it is. If the music changes — as it often does in life — they have to adjust their rhythm with each other to recover the smoothness (stability) and satisfaction. For as long as they dance with each other, this will be a lifetime pursuit. I know! My wife and I have been married 50 years, and we are still adjusting our dance.
I work with relationships because I believe that everything we experience occurs in relationship. Without relationship, there is no existence. It’s the stress of relationship that keeps us alive — just not too much stress.
There is no more significant relationship than the couple relationship. It is unique because it’s a peer relationship, not hierarchical like most other relationships. It is an intimate friendship that can become the basis for our security and fulfillment. But as Murray Bowen said, a two-person relationship is inherently unstable — too close or too distant, too intimate and vulnerable or too disengaged and threatening. We never get it right. We just learn to adjust it so it doesn’t become too emotionally extreme.
I believe the primary objective in couple therapy is to help couples improve the stability and satisfaction in their relationship and learn to stay flexible, not rigid. It’s important for couples to maintain a context of intimacy and engagement that allows them to experience a sense of trust and security in which they can be “safely vulnerable.” Couples can do this if they feel attached, which in turn depends on their ability to emotionally engage with each other. The quality of emotional engagement enables people to develop in healthy ways, to trust themselves and each other.
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