When I meet with a couple I ask that both begin in the first meeting together, and that we initially develop a ‘shared description’ of the problems they face. This is often just a short list of issues or concerns, taken from both parties, and given equal weight all around. I ask about the history of their marriage, their previous significant relationships, and the families in which they were raised. I then ask to meet individually with each person once, and to discuss (in confidence, not to be released to the other party) what else they might add to the effort to evaluate and assess their situation.
Then we three begin meeting together and follow the agenda that the couple has established for our meetings. I do not tell my clients WHAT to talk about, but I do help them repeatedly to modify HOW they discuss what they have come to consider together. The topics of discussion have been wide-ranging in my career, and I hope to assist an any dialogue between them that will bring up matters of concern for discussion and more-successful integration into their lives.
There is an emphasis on disrupting blaming, and an immediate encouragement for participants to pay increasing attention their own behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and responses to one another. In this way, for instance, one’s own repeated critical comments are seen as a precursor to the other’s explosive resentments. Or, perhaps, one’s chronic compliance is part of how one is dominated by some demanding significant other. It’s a two-party performance, and each person can identify and modify (with practice) their various painful actions and reactions in an encounter. There is also a strong encouragement to ‘own’ one’s experience and understand deeply how one participates in creating it.
Often individuals are radically unaware of the impact of their behavior on their marriage partner. And they are unaware of the true motives of their own behaviors as well. Those who can increase self-knowledge in these realms find they have a stronger capacity to be compassionate and forgiving towards their spouse, and are often humbled by their own struggles to respond consciously rather than mechanistically.
I bring to their attention the specific interpersonal roles that both parties have created: often subconsciously drawn from an early family model. We work to identify these roles and to ask the couple to assess the strengths and weaknesses of those roles. In this fashion a member of a couple can see vividly that his/her stance as The Manager, for instance, really does help get things done. Yet the same stance produces a kind of resistance in those managed, who thwart or react or rebel against the management.
We are trying to identify and disrupt this impulsive reacting to one another. We are attempting to increase emotional disclosures that are owned by the one that experiences them.
Most couples want from me tangible comments and ideas and ‘things to do.’ I can offer all this is it is desired, or can be less active if that works well for you. I cannot of course make major decisions for the partners, nor tell them the best course of action in their situation. But I can, indeed, help equip them to arrive at those decisions in as loving and intelligent a way as possible.