This post continues my previous post in identifying the most common interventions that I use in session to help clients in marriage therapy or couples therapy with me. Once I typed up the remaining seven common interventions, I found that they were too long for one post, so I’ve made this a three part installment. This post includes descriptions of Translation, Normalizing and Accepting, Enhancing Emotional Expression and Vulnerability, and Keeping Conflicts Manageable.
This intervention is used to help the members of a couple “decode” the message from another member of the couple. For example, imagine a couple named John and Tim. In this relationship, Tim has felt criticized and dismissed by John and John has felt emotionally disconnected from Tim. I’ve been working with them to help them stop this pattern. So in session, John says to Tim in a soft tone, “So, what do you really think about this issue? I don’t want to move forward without your input.” As I observe Tim’s reaction I see him pulling away in the same way that I have seen in prior sessions when he feels criticized. I might ask him, “What did you hear John say?” If Tim confirms my guess that he took the second sentence as an implied criticism from John, then I might repeat to the best of my ability John’s actual words and then help Tim identify John’s soft tone of voice, and help him get curious about John’s actual meaning. I might go so far as to translate John for Tim by saying, “John, correct me if I’m wrong about this but I think with that last sentence you are saying, ‘Tim, you are important to me and I’m trying to change the pattern in our relationship where I make decisions without your input so I’m really interested in how you feel.’” As long as John confirms the translation, this can decrease Tim’s defensiveness. By doing this translation myself rather than asking John to explain, I can help Tim realize that one key to improving their communication pattern is Tim learning to reinterpret John’s words. I am emphasizing that isn’t all up to John to adapt to Tim. With a little help at first, Tim can learn to hear the new meanings beneath John’s words.
Normalizing and Accepting
In a couples counseling session it is fairly common for me to say something like, “This is a really common pattern that I see between couples.” I could be talking about how a focused partner doesn’t look up from their screen when the other person is talking, to a reduction in sex frequency after the birth of a child, or many other common issues. I do this because it can feel good to know that you aren’t the only couple who has experienced this problem. Since couples rarely talk with each other, and we tend to only talk about the intimate details of relationships with our closest friends or family, it is rare to get this kind of feedback.
Another side benefit of normalizing for couples is that it points to the fact that I, as the couples therapist, have seen this issue before, I have worked on it and helped other couples with it. This can build confidence in the therapeutic process.
Enhance Emotional Expression and Vulnerability
Imagine that your partner arrives home for together time and flops on the couch in a stupor from overwork. This could cause a significant amount of frustration in you. But how will that frustration be expressed? Will you yell, “Forget it!” or walk away with a depressed, “I think you need rest instead.” When I see communications like these, I will often try to find ways of helping the person express the emotions underneath the surface communication. Though the examples of yelling or apathy above are very different, I would guess that underneath them is the same emotional core of sadness and disappointment after anticipating the time together and now not feeling like you are really going to have quality time together. So, if I heard about one of those surface communications in a session, I might try a number of different things to draw out the emotional vulnerability.
I might invite you to share your upset with your partner in a more raw way. I might ask, “What were you feeling in that moment.” If you can name the emotions sadness, disappointment, and frustration, then I will take the conversation further with other questions like, “What did you feel like you were missing?” or “What good quality in your partner were you sad to lose out on?” Questions like this have the potential to identify the attachment gap between the members of the couple. They will sometimes lead to tears. But the responses reveal the pain instead of the defense or attack. After a clear communication like this, it would be up to your partner to determine whether they can reach out to soothe you for the pain experienced.
Keeping Conflicts Manageable
This is a tool that I learned while I was in training to be a couples therapist but I have to acknowledge that I forgot the source. For years when I have been teaching this tool to students and interns, I have invited them to share with me if they know where this is from. So, if you recognize this tool, please let me know so that I can offer proper attribution.
The “Keeping Conflicts Manageable” tool is a 7-step process for decreasing the intensity of conflicts. I use it most often early in the couples therapy. The steps are:
- When the tone gets too loud or hurtful. . .STOP.
- Go to different rooms or spaces.
- Stay in your space until you have really calmed down.
- Decide what you will say to bring an “olive branch” to the conversation without restarting the ineffective pattern.
- Return to a neutral common space.
- Resume the conversation with your “olive branch”.
- If this doesn’t work and you can’t seem to have a productive conversation, table the discussion and bring it to therapy for the next session.
There are a few more details in my handout for clients on this process to identify specific ways they will apply the directions in each step. This multi-step process is deceptively sophisticated. It requires (1) the awareness that the conversation has fallen into an unproductive pattern, (2) the decision by each member of the conflict that it is more important to stop hurting each other than it is to be right, (3) the ability to self-soothe, (4) the willingness and the ability to change the communication when reconnecting, and (5) the ability to accept help if the skills to complete the above steps aren’t yet effective.
I have found that by just staying focused on whether a couple is able to keep conflicts manageable, we can ensure that not only do you stop the unproductive pattern but you also acquire the skills needed to have productive conflict and to establish and maintain an emotional connection.
In the next blog post I will present how I Attend to the Relationship Ecology, teach Nonviolent Communication, guide couples in Forgiving Injuries, and use Sensate Focus in couples therapy.
Other posts in this series: