I’m in a relationship…get me out of here!
Couples can see their partner as the root of their difficulties. Underneath their complaints about each other, the common and universal dilemma they present is: “How can I be the person I know I am AND be with you - the person that I fell in love with?”
Each will complain of what they have had to give up of themselves for the other, and how they resent that. This is the lifelong challenge that couples face, of how to be "fully me and be fully with you" or, put another way, how to be an autonomous adult and be emotionally and still be intimately vulnerable.
“It’s the Relationship…stupid!”
Central to couple psychotherapy is their relationship, and the couples therapist needs to conceptualise "the relationship" as "the client". Their relationship is the issue they are bringing to therapy, and a large part of the work is to develop an understanding of the nature of their relationship, particularly the characteristics that limit autonomy and emotional intimacy.
Transactional analysis (TA) is a model of psychotherapy that provides many ways of understanding the couple’s relational make-up both objectively and inter-subjectively.
An objective approach is through a more task-orientated style including analysis, curiosity/reflection, and challenge requiring standing back and thinking about the relationship.
An inter-subjective approach is one in which the therapist and each individual of the couple are open to being impacted by each other. In this way the therapist has encounters with one partner and then again separately with the other, revealing the unique characteristics that limit autonomy and emotional intimacy. This more inter-subjective style is often less focused on the spoken and more focused on silences and non-verbal communication experienced both with the other person and within oneself through the mutual engagement.
It is through this inter-subjective way of working with each partner that clients get to observe and experience how their partner and therapist relate. Each can see how the therapist will struggle with their partner in many of the same ways in which they themselves struggle with their partner. They will also see how their partner reacts so differently to the therapist in ways that elicit different responses that are more autonomous and emotionally present. An important and significant aspect of couple work is to then focus in on the watching partner’s experience as well as the partner that is working individually with the therapist.
These two ways of working with your relationship help the therapist to understand the ‘symbiosis’ that exists between you.
Symbiotic…? What, me?
Commonly described as fusers and isolators by Harville Hendrix, "fusers" fear abandonment and independence and "isolators" fear closeness and engulfment. There are generally four defensive relational combinations:
Babes in the wood (two fusers): where difference and conflict are avoided and there is a sense of ‘we are one’.
Cat and Dog (two fusers): where connection is via conflict and there is a sense of ‘Can’t live with/can’t live without.
Net and Sword (one fuser and one isolator): where the fuser is needy, dependent and clingy, and the isolator feels smothered and creates distance/space. Connection is by this constant struggle to chase and hide.
Career Couple (two isolators): where the couple lead separate lives and closeness is experienced via distance - they feel closer when apart.
All these ways of relating limit autonomy and emotional intimacy by aspects of themselves on each other, and at the same time disowning aspects of themselves in order to maintain relationship.
Couple work aims, through mutual discovery, exploration and confrontation, to develop awareness of the couple's symbiotic pattern and resulting difficulties. Getting to grips with this material and accomplishing this will support each person’s expression of their disowned self, and so achieve greater autonomy and emotional intimacy.
Both autonomy and emotional intimacy are interconnected in the sense that a person becomes autonomous only through relationship, and a person achieves emotional intimacy with another only through becoming autonomous (Benjamin 1990).
Watching Your way to a progressive relationship
Uniquely in psychotherapeutic couple work, clients will see and experience how their partner and therapist relate with each other. What’s of particular interest to the watching partner is how the therapist reacts to aspects of their partner that they themselves find most difficult. They get to see the struggle the therapist has with familiar, unhelpful responses from their partner that damage the connection, and seeing a different response from their partner when the therapist finds and gently holds onto vulnerable experience that emerges. They witness an expression of emotional intimacy between their partner and the therapist that fosters connection and provision of what’s needed.
Watching the therapist struggle with their partner gives a sense of greater clarity about how this happens in their own interactions with their partner. Watching the therapist find a path to underlying vulnerability provides the watching client with an opportunity to both see and be with them in this as they re-join the process and their partner. This experience is not only powerfully healing for the couple but promotes couple and individual growth through intimate connection as well as hope for a better way of being.