By Lindsey Walker, LMFT
PACT Ambassador and Level II Therapist
Couples therapists often struggle with how to sort through the many feelings and complicated relational dynamics that arise in couple therapy sessions. You have two people, both hurt. Each come with a different perspective, combined with years of history and unresolved conflicts, and they are looking to you to figure it all out.
By walking into your office, they invite you into their relationship. As a therapist, you join them through attunement. As a PACT therapist, you combine your attunement with identifying the couple’s observable behavior, which enables you to determine what they have not yet integrated into a secure-functioning relationship.
When you mind your own experience with couples, while simultaneously observing how they interact with each other, they provide you with real-time information about who they are and how they handle their relationship. As you gain this information, you can feed it back to them. This helps them build an understanding of how they are functioning. It also creates opportunities for them to move away from destructive dynamics.
In one session, Rochelle and Brandon sit as far back in their seats as possible, leaning away from one another without trying to be obvious. A line of tension runs through their bodies, which tells me they are not fully relaxed.
I look at one member of the couple and see her folding in on herself, hands tucked under her legs, which are crossed. She bites her lower lip. Her partner’s body twists toward her. However, his neck cranes to look at me whenever discussing his feelings or experience.
I take these observations in and then turn my focus inward to take note of my own senses. Am I feeling something strongly? Seeing any notable pictures in my mind’s eye? How’s my body handling the stress of the situation? What ideas are coming to mind? Is there something I’m moved to say here? How pressing is it? My breath is shallow. I feel tension in the room and also inside of me. Most notably, I feel stuck — if someone asked me to speak, it would seem impossible.
As therapists, through our attunement, we experience the relational wounds that our couples bring to us. This body-to-body exchange of information is communicated so quickly. Couples often miss it, which is why they end up in therapy, stuck in repetitive cycles.
In the example of Rochelle and Brandon, when I look inward, I get information about what it feels like to be with them, which the couple needs for themselves. Closeness is difficult for them. Internally, I interpret their body postures combined with historical information I have gathered about them: they deal with the tension of intimacy by either turning inward (Rochelle), or toward something or someone else (Brandon). Speaking openly about their more vulnerable experiences is not something they know how to do.
From the neck down, Brandon shows me that he wants to be with his partner. From the neck up, however, his eyes plead with me, asking to know whether or not he’s safe to turn all the way toward Rochelle. I feel a great sadness well up in me.
I feel that these two are mourning the loss of closeness in their relationship, and they don’t yet know how to connect over it. When they are not in the therapy room, they resort to old patterns of attack/defend in the face of vulnerability. As a result of not knowing how to express his more vulnerable self safely, Brandon gives his sadness to me, instead of to Rochelle. Though she is facing him, Rochelle does not signal to him (or to me) that she is ready for what he has to offer. She is too preoccupied with managing her own anxiety.
My purpose in their relationship in this moment is to contain the experiences that they are not yet equipped to handle within themselves or their relationship. I recognize this via my own felt experience, what I see in them, and how Brandon is interacting with me. I prepare to help move them toward each other.
Brandon starts to talk to me. I want him to know that what he is saying is valuable, so I focus my attention on him. This kind of affirmation can serve as a bridge for him to contain his own experience within their relationship. Yet, the goal of couple’s work is to help them find affirmation and support within the couple system. Knowing this, I want to turn them back toward one another to see how they handle each other in this vulnerable moment.
Now a therapist can take many directions, all lead to the same essential thing. Here are several possibilities, including the PACT methods of cross-questioning, cross-commenting, or going down the middle:
- To her: “Does he always look away from you when he’s feeling vulnerable?”
- To her: “He’s about to tell me something important, and I don’t want you to miss it. What happens when you ask him to look at you?”
- To him: “There’s something you want to tell her, but you feel more comfortable telling me. Why?”
- To him: “Experiment with turning your head to face her. Look her in the eye, and tell her what you just told me.”
- To both of them: “You want to be close, but it’s hard for you to fully let go.”
- To both of them: “It’s hard to speak about how you feel with one another.”
- To both of them: “You guys are so sad together, but you don’t know how to share it.”
With these interventions, you’ve taken what you discovered about them and used it to highlight how they operate with one another. This helps them:
- Identify a feeling they have so they can begin to integrate it into their couple system.
- Increase awareness of how they react to one another in tense situations.
- Own the idea that there is something they want together (though in some cases, not) and for which they are both responsible.
Couples therapy moves fast. Your couples signal to you all the time about their distresses, their hopes, their worries, the ghosts from the past that they struggle with. Your ability to be pulled into their system, and yet retain the sense of your own experience and observational abilities while in it, is one of the best tools you can use to help them heal their relationship.