Articles - Couples


Here is an article about couples therapy that might interest you.

Reprinted with permission from The California Therapist - July/August, 1998

From Insight to Experience - An Experiential Approach to Couples Therapy

By Rob Fisher, M.F.T.

Introduction: Think  about it... Which would have more impact on you, watching National  Geographic on TV or going to Africa and smelling the heat of the  rhinoceros as it paws the dust in front of your jeep? Which would be more rewarding, discussing chocolate cake with a friend or eating it (non-caloric of course!)? Which is more pleasurable - talking about sex or having it? If  it is true that experience has exponentially more impact than does  verbal discussion, then why do we so often conduct psychotherapy as a  form of expensive conversation?

Psychotherapy is often practiced as an in vitro exploration of a person’s or a couples’ life. While this is an interesting pursuit, it often lacks depth and aliveness, not to mention brevity. 

This is an article about in vivo psychotherapy, about how to bring therapy alive for client and therapist alike. It  is dedicated to the premise that people want not just insight about  what is going on in their internal worlds, but the opportunity to  experience something different. It  is dedicated to the idea that you can obtain more information about a  psychological phenomenon by exploring it as it is happening than by  discussing it as a report after the fact. 

More  specifically, this article is designed to introduce the reader to  somatic and experiential interventions in couples psychotherapy. Many of these interventions can be used regardless of your theoretical orientation. They  provide an opportunity to elegantly access, explore and change systemic  and characterological material in a time effective and non-intrusive  fashion. I will present both theory as well as examples of how the concepts may be immediately applied in your clinical practice.

Clinical Example: Jack’s complaint about Betsy was that she was too emotionally volatile and prone to verbal and physical violence when angry. Betsy’s complaint about Jack was that he was unavailable emotionally. From  a somatic point of view, one interesting thing about Jack was the way  in which he held his head - high on his shoulders, with his back very  straight and the chin tilted up about two inches. I  had some guesses about what was encoded in the posture, but my  preference was to have him find out from the inside rather than my  interpreting it from the outside. I would rather be a midwife for his deepening consciousness about himself than an authority who tells him who he is.

I said: “How about a little experiment?” They both said “O.K.”. I  then asked Jack to take a moment to go inside to a mindful, observant  state and then to drop his chin about two inches and notice what came up  - feelings, thoughts, images, memories, sensations or nothing at all. After sitting this way for a few moments he said: “I feel less powerful.” I next asked him to raise his chin about three inches and for Betsy to notice how it affected her. She said, “Its amazing, because its such a little thing, but I go into a rage.” I asked him to lower his chin again to see what that elicited from her. She said that he felt available to her and that he had a pleading look that made her want to gently take care of him. 

This powerful somatic signal had a constant presence and effect in and on their relationship. Whatever  content they might discuss, his posture and her reaction to it was part  of the background ambiance in which their conversations took place. It colored the emotional climate of the relationship and predicted certain patterns of interaction.

Raising  and lowering of his chin was an access route to significant  intrapsychic processes for each of them as well as a circular systemic  process in which his withdrawal elicited her rage, which in turn  elicited his withdrawal. Continuing  with this process (accessing core material through the body) involved  having him explore from the inside his characterological organization  which prompted him to hold his chin “above it all”. This kind of exploration is not talking about his character and defenses; it involves experiencing them from the inside. His  physical organization around his chin also served as a trigger for her  and enabled us to explore her object representations relating to an  unavailable intimate partner. Again,  we did not talk about her history as much as we had her study from the  inside what happened internally when he raised his chin. A stream of memories, feelings and meaning became available to her in a connected, vital fashion. Together  they were able to develop a visceral sense of the pattern along with  its automaticity and circularity, which helped them make some conscious  decisions and choices regarding its continuation.

It  also provided them with the opportunity to explore new patterns of  interaction; to face the fears associated with them as well as to  experience their benefits. 

Benefits of a Somatic Approach: People are holographic. Their internal organization is reflected in  their every act, movement, tension, from their tone of voice when they  call you on the phone, to the speed by which they transport their body  across your office, to the amount of eye contact they maintain with  their partner, to the relative positioning of their bodies. Somatic  signals are a powerful commentary on the couples’ internal organization  and can provide a quick and accurate diagnosis of a couple's dynamics.

The most effective way to access the past is through the present.

By  noticing and working with proprioceptive signals, body tensions,  posture, gestures, energy and presence, a skilled practitioner will have  immediate opportunities to help a couple recognize and reorganize the  dynamics of their relationship.

For  example, whenever Helen entered the office with her husband, Henry, the  first thing she did was to grab a pillow and hold it tightly covering  the middle part of her body. This was a prominent and clear signal. As  a therapist I could guess, or interpret what this meant, but that would  simply interfere with her own ability to access the meaning of her  actions. I proposed an experiment whereby she could sense the difference in her body with and without the pillow. She  saw how she relied only on herself to provide safety and comfort and  shut her husband out from this potentially nourishing interaction, while  complaining that he was never available. We then experimented with what  it was like to have him gently hold the symbolic pillow for her against  her body. He took over from  her the soothing function it provided, and gave her the opportunity to  press her limits of accepting care and contact. She noticed how much she resisted this, and he noticed how much he liked feeling useful to her. This gave them a new basis to examine an old problem as well as redefinition its causes.

People are holographic. Their internal organization is reflected in their every act.

Working With the Present: 

One of the keys to working somatically is to pay close attention to,  and acknowledge the moment by moment internal experience of the client.  The most effective way to access the past is through the present. By  working with the present, characterological organization can be  addressed, studied, felt, clarified, as well as new options explored in  an immediate and undeniable way. This approach has the power of immediacy. As  a therapist, you have the opportunity of working with wet clay, as  opposed to hearing about clay that has already solidified sometime  during the week. If asked to  describe the lines in your hand from memory you would be far less  capable than if you are looking at your hand as you speak. Psychological phenomena and couples dynamics can be most effectively worked with in the present.

It  is also important to pay particular attention to the process that is  occurring in front of you and not become entranced by the content of the  conversation.

Cynthia and her husband Ron came in to my office. She began to speak immediately and didn't stop until I interrupted. She spoke without punctuation - no commas or periods. One  long, desperate run on sentence. The content did not speak nearly as  loudly as the presentation. When she took a shallow breath, I inserted:  "You feel really fast inside, huh?" She calmed down a notch upon being  seen a bit. I took this as a sign that I was on the right track and  said, " Let's have Ron say something to you and you notice what happens  inside - feelings, sensations, images, memories, anything. Would that be  O.K.? " She said, "Yes. Then I instructed him to say, "I hear you and I  see you." (Histrionic personality styles are often based on early  injuries of not being seen and heard by the significant others in the  child's world.) She sat there, quiet for the first time in the session,  tears rolling down her cheeks. Finally she said, "That's what I have  been waiting to hear from you all these years. " I had simply contacted her pace, energy level and quality of physical movement.

In a desperate attempt to gain his attention, she talked so fast and so much that she alienated him. The faster she talked, the more disengaged and glazed over he became. This kind of mutually reinforcing circular pattern is common in couples. I wanted to interrupt it, as well as address the wound she carried and how it functioned in the relationship. By  noticing and commenting on her pace, I was able to access a significant  intrapsychic injury and an interactional pattern based on it. This helped the couple to develop a new and more satisfying way of relating.

Contraindications: Working somatically tends to uncover deep material more rapidly than many traditional therapies. It  is therefore very important to ask permission prior to potentially  invasive procedures and to track carefully the effects of any  intervention. 

It  is also inadvisable to work with clients in this fashion who have very  rigid personality structures, borderline issues, or strong expectations  of therapy involving talk only. In  situations such as these it is best to use somatic signals for  diagnostic purposes and only use the mildest form of interventions.

Mindfulness: In order to work somatically, to access deeper levels of internal  organization, and to avoid the liability of psychological invasion, it  is important to enlist the assistance of the client's observing ego in a  state that can be called "mindfulness". This is based on the premise  that if you are driving down the freeway at 70 miles per hour, it is  unlikely that you will notice the smell of the flowers by the roadside. When  one slows down and becomes aware of the minute-by-minute flow of  internal experience, one begins to notice the core beliefs, feelings and  characterological strategies that determine the kind of life that one  experiences. 

For  instance, a couple came in and the wife complained that her husband was  unavailable. While she looked at him, her whole body was turned away  from him. As she slowly turned to face him, she found herself uneasy  about performance and dependency issues. Studying her posture in  mindfulness enabled her to stop blaming him and to notice that she was  also ambivalent about intimacy and found it easier to blame him rather  than to face her internal conflicts about it. 

Mindfulness is a lot like slow motion. It allows one to notice what was previously unconscious. Couples can become upset, emotionally volatile and begin to blame each other in a session. This  is usually not very therapeutic unless they have previously been highly  disengaged; in which case it represents the beginnings of reengagement. If,  however, mutual blaming and uncontrolled feelings threaten to take over  a session, I generally ask the couple to slow down " as I am rather  simple minded" and have one partner repeat the central phrase that  triggered the emotional reaction. I will direct the other partner to let  their spouse know when they are ready to be triggered and then to  carefully study and report their reaction, as opposed to acting out in  such a way to alleviate their internal pain or conflict. 

Mindfulness is a lot like slow motion. 

It allows one to notice what was previously unconscious.

Working in mindfulness with couples tends to undercut blaming and promote self-focus. Any  therapist who has worked with couples knows the tendency of partners to  shift the focus onto the character flaws of the other and to save  themselves the narcissistic injury of self-examination. When  one notices the present time responses that each partner has to the  other and shifts the focus towards understanding their response, there  is hope for the interaction disentangling as opposed to escalating in a  circular fashion.

For  example, When Jim and Sally started to talk about their recent dinner  out, it soon became obvious that there was a lot of underlying emotion  and the session was beginning to get out of control. She complained that he did not pay attention to her when she talked. He complained that she was trying to abridge his freedom. A  good case could be made for both their indictments, and had I been a  judge, I could have convicted and beheaded them both for their  interpersonal crimes against the other. However, the legalistic  arguments not withstanding, this was supposed to be therapy. I wanted to  study with them her sensitivity to abandonment and his to being  controlled. Two experiments came to mind that could be conducted in mindfulness. One  was to have her try to turn his head towards her and for him to study  the images, memories, sensations, emotions and beliefs that surfaced. The second was for him to turn his attention away from her so that she could equally study the internal effect of this. By proceeding like this, they were able to stop arguing and make productive use of their therapeutic time. It  is investigations like this that 1) undercut the circular escalation  that is the hallmark of painful couples interactions, 2) help develop  sympathy for the partner, and 3) reduce the tendency to take one's  partners sensitivities personally.

Experiments: Many  experiments can be created in therapy to provide the couple with an  opportunity 1) to study their issues, and 2) to gently push the envelope  of what is already possible to do, act and feel in a relationship. Providing  such opportunities to deeply understand and to actually modify  behavioral, cognitive and affective patterns is an important cornerstone  of effective therapy.

For instance, Phil was upset that Kathy always got angry when he asked for something. A  therapist would have a couple of options to help her explore her  reaction to his requests. One way is for her to talk about how she feels  and what she thinks when he asks, and to explore her associations  around this issue. This is a  fine method and is certainly tried and true in the analytic tradition.  Another approach would be to ask her to become mindful, and to direct  him to ask her for something. They  then both have the opportunity to study the dynamic underpinnings of  this potentially conflictual interaction in a very real, undeniable and  responsible way, as opposed to a method which tends to be more mental  and which can lack in deep internal connection.  This is the same reason why working with the transference in individual therapy is so powerful. By  studying the interaction in mindfulness, the couple also has the  opportunity to develop a "relationship observing ego" which can be  applied outside of the sessions. The crucial subtleties of object  representations can be best noticed in the present, and tend to be  obscured and distorted with the passage of time and implementation of  defensive strategies.

Needless  to say, one would also explore his issues around asking and the  communication patterns that took place between them surrounding this  issue. 

There  are different types of experiments. The two most important categories  are verbal experiments and experiments involving touch. Examples of each of these will follow. 

As a therapist, when you propose an experiment you do not know what the result might be. This  kind of experimental attitude takes the willingness to make mistakes,  to not position yourself as the sole authority on the inner world of the  client, and to tolerate uncertainty - not an easy task!

Proprioceptive Signals: When a client begins to pay attention to the proprioceptive signals  that arise internally in a spontaneous fashion, a whole new world of  information that was previously unconscious begins to be available to  him or her.

Kevin and Janie had trouble getting and staying close for very long before an emotional explosion occurred. I  asked Kevin to sit some distance away and I asked Janie to begin to  come physically closer to him while he noticed precisely what happened  in his body. When she got  within about five feet of him, he started reporting uncomfortable  feelings, "squirminess", anxiety, a constriction in his chest, trouble  breathing, and the feeling of being trapped. This experience was a  window through which to study his earlier emotional intrusion by his  mother, which colored his interactions with Janie. Instead of acting out  from his uncomfortableness to make it go away, he began to become more  conscious of what was driving him. Janie was also able to depersonalize her experience so that she did not feel so much the target of his withdrawal.

Boundaries: One filter through which to evaluate a couple is the continuum from enmeshed to disengaged. An enmeshed couple has overly permeable boundaries, while a disengaged couple has boundaries that are overly rigid. A  somatic method for diagnosing this and working it through is to have a  couple sit facing each other and use either a string or soft chalk to  create a physical representation of their personal boundaries. This technique relies on the proprioceptive experiences of the clients as discussed above.

Alexandra complained in therapy about John's lateness. She organized every aspect of his life. He responded to this by stealing time for himself and by passive-aggressively being late. She  responded to his attempts at autonomy with escalating rages. I asked  them to draw boundary circles and to note how it felt different inside  their bodies with and without the circles. John felt instantly relieved  when he drew his circle. Alexandra,  however, was faced with an intolerable feeling of aloneness and the  memory of her father's abandonment of her and her family when she was  twelve.

Inexperienced psychotherapists tend to oppose their client's defenses rather than helping them identify, appreciate and reown the wisdom of the defense.

Now,  instead of John being the villain, the couple was able to appreciate  the depth and intensity of her feelings and to creatively and  compassionately deal with them, rather than fighting about his lateness  and further alienating each other. Alexandra  also began to disassociate John from her father and to give him a  little more breathing room, which resulted in less rebelliousness on his  part.

Working With Defenses: Inexperienced psychotherapists tend to oppose their client's defensive  system rather than helping them identify, appreciate and reown the  wisdom of the defense. When this happens, one of the only honorable things the client can do is to resist. Another approach is to support the defense. By  doing this, the defensive system relaxes, feels sympathized with and  the feelings it is designed to protect begin to surface naturally. It is in this way that the therapist begins to gain the cooperation of the client's unconscious.

This approach is different from paradoxical intention in that is not a covert activity on the part of the therapist. Supporting  a defense is always done with the permission of the client for the  express purpose of studying the defense, providing therapeutic safety,  and allowing information and feelings to surface from a deeper level.

In working somatically, one looks for somatic components of the defensive system and offers to have the spouse take them over.

For instance, Jake complained that he had to do everything and that Sally was never there for him. This  reflected certain beliefs he had about the availability of emotional  nourishment and his ability to take it in. As he spoke I noticed that he  held his head rigidly on top of his shoulders in a military fashion. I asked him if it would be O.K. if Sally helped him hold his head up high. He said, "Yes". As  she gently took the weight of his head that he had had to hold up by  himself since his father taught him to be a "little man"; he first  noticed how hard it was for him to let go of this control. Beliefs such  as "No one will ever be here for me" started to become apparent. He could hear internally his father's injunction to "Be strong and not depend on anyone". Finally  he started to let go and experience the sadness of his early  abandonment which had influenced every subsequent relationship.

Psychological defenses are always somatically represented.

He was defended against dependency. The somatic representation of his defense was literally trying to hold his head up high. 

Gesture, Posture, Tensions: From the foregoing it should be obvious that a tremendous amount can be  learned about a couple by noticing their postures, gestures and  tensions individually and in relation to each other. Here are some more specific samples of each type of intervention:

In  the case of a couple afraid of intimacy, one way to work with gestures  is to have one partner reach out to touch the heart area of the other  while both study the internal effects of this action as well as what the  hand seems to be saying. 

An  example of working with posture follows: Carl would get very upset with  Mary. When he did, he fell into a private world of darkness and did not  look up at his wife. We noticed that if he made visual contact with  her, his image of her as a cruel and dangerous woman immediately  diminished.

When  Jessica and Dan came in to the office and sat down, the most obvious  thing about them was the difference in the tension in their ankles. Dan's were more relaxed that humanly possible, while Jessica maintained a high level of tension, wiggling her foot constantly. One could speculate form this the type of conflicts they had around time, money and agreements. By  pointing out and discussing these differences with them, they began to  relax. I n the next session she commented that she no longer felt  compelled to make him make him be like her. As  an alternative intervention, I could have also had each one try to make  the other's ankle like their own, or I could have asked him to take  over the tension in her ankle. 

Couple's Sculptures: "A picture is worth a thousand words." A family sculpture is worth at least ten thousand. Particularly  for couples who are highly verbal and cannot stop long enough to notice  what they are actually doing, having them produce a sculptures of their  relationship dynamics is very useful.

The  technique works as follows: Have the couple stop whatever they are  doing and notice the psychological stance that they are taking with  their partner. Ask them to  imagine what a physical sculpture would look like that personifies this  dynamic. Each will probably come up with something different. Then  ask one of them to silently direct him or herself and their partner  into this precise position in regards to each other - and hold it for a  minute noticing how it feels in their bodies, memories and images it  calls up, tensions, etc. After a while, ask for a report from each. From here, you can explore in a variety of ways. They can each exaggerate a certain aspect of their sculpture, or diminish it. They can look for associations about their stance. The  partner can modify a part of their stance and the other person can  notice internally how it affects them. Finally, it is usually best to  have them recreate the sculpture to fit their ideal prior to continuing  with the other person's sculpture. 

For example, a turning point came in therapy with Howard and Susan when they did his sculpture. He placed himself in a corner with her reaching out towards him, as he beckoned with one hand and held her off with the other. He  was able to study each part of his internal conflict about intimacy as  he explored the feelings and meaning connected with each hand. We  were able to experiment with what it would be like if only one hand was  operative, and in particular, what it was like as he let her in more  breaking the trance of the transference and beginning to experience her  as his wife rather than his intrusive step-mother.

Breaking The Trance of the Transference: We are all familiar with the way in which emotionally laden images from  the past form an overlay on present time experience, and how one's  partner seems to take on an uncanny resemblance to the emotional  characteristics of earlier intimates. This is the work of transference. Part of the challenge of couple’s therapy is to break the trance of the past. What follows is an example of a technique, which although controversial, may be useful in achieving this result.

Debby had been molested as a child by her father. When  her husband, John reached out to touch her in a way that could be  construed as even a mild sexual advance, she was immediately filled with  fear and revulsion. John, of  course, had interlocking issues about his masculinity and rejection,  which were easily triggered by Debby's sexual withdrawal. In the middle  phase of therapy we tried an experiment designed to break the automatic  association between John and Debby's father. Although  intellectually she was able to tell them apart, on an emotional basis,  they merged and the image of her father was cast over John making their  sexual relationship impossible. After  describing the experiment and asking for both of their permission, I  asked Debby to go inside, check into her inner experience and let John  know when she was ready by opening her eyes. He then started reaching out his hand towards her arm (a spot designated as "safe"). He did this in slow motion as she tracked her experience for the point where the fear and revulsion began to appear. At  this juncture, rather than deeply exploring those feelings, (which  would be appropriate in an individual session) I asked him to say to  her: "Debby, I am John, your husband. I am not your father. I love you, I  do not want to hurt you, and you can say 'no' to me whenever you need  to'". She took this in, and her feelings calmed down. We tried this three times before it was O.K. for him to actually touch her arm without triggering her old response. They were then able to successfully apply this to their sexual relationship outside of the session. He  had more sympathy for her conflict and pain and personalized her sexual  rejection considerably less as a result of this experiment. 

Summary: The  purpose of this article is to introduce the idea of somatic diagnosis  and interventions in couple’s psychotherapy, to provide actual examples  of this and to stimulate thinking about new technical possibilities for  effective therapy. It is not  intended to provide comprehensive training in these techniques, which,  because of their power and potential invasiveness, need to be carefully  studied and, when applied, closely tracked for the client's response.

Rob Fisher, MFT is  in private practice in Mill Valley, California where he specializes in  couples therapy and consultation as well as individual experientially  oriented psychotherapy. He publishes the Couples Psychotherapy Newsletter and  is an adjunct professor at JFK University where he teaches marriage and  family therapy and at CIIS where he teaches the theories and techniques  of body oriented psychotherapies. He also teaches at a number of agencies at the postgraduate level and is a Hakomi Trainer. He has recently published a book entitled Experiential Psychotherapy With Couples – A Guide For the Creative Pragmatist (Zeig/Tucker).