Methods in Couples Therapy
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A Dialogue with Dr. Jim about Methods in Couples Therapy and Marriage Counseling
Interviewer (INT): How did you get involved in the field of couples therapy?
DR. JIM (DRJ): That’s a good question. Psychologists get involved in a diversity of fields. For me, it was just a matter of how things developed. When I started in private practice in the year 2000, I was open to treating a variety of problems and issues. As things developed, more and more couples were showing up in my consultation room, and I took that as a sign something was going right between me and couples. So I pursued advanced training and decided to make this my specialization.
INT: What training did you pursue?
DRJ: I completed all the levels of advanced training and supervision with the Gottmans in Seattle. I also completed an externship in couples therapy in Ottowa under Susan Johnson, who developed an approach called Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT.
INT: So you traveled.
DRJ: Yes, I went out of my way to get what I felt I needed to be effective.
INT: Can you say a little more about Gottman Method Couples Therapy?
DRJ: Sure. I was attracted by its commitment to a science-based approach. As a psychologist, this appealed to me. John Gottman was actually an MIT mathematician who decided to pursue psychology as his profession. And he took all of his science training with him. He developed what struck me as a very responsible approach.
INT: How does Gottman Method work?
DRJ: It is based on the conviction that couples experience each other primarily in their manner of interaction. Improve their conversations, and you improve their experience of each other. Improve their experience of each other, and everything else gets easier. The therapist’s role is to facilitate this. A Gottman therapist is less like an armchair sage, and more like a plumber with rolled-up sleeves trying to get the couple to connect-up effectively. Its central focus is on creating a new conversational dynamic between partners that allows the couple to experience each other in a deeper way. With this, a deeper sense of bonding forms. And with a deeper sense of bonding, things like joint problem-solving and collaboration improve.
INT: And sex?
DRJ: Well, yes. Sex tends to get better too. Every situation is somewhat different of course. But in general, emotional bonding enhances physical bonding.
INT: And what about Emotionally Focused Therapy?
DRJ: EFT is derived from something called “attachment theory.” Attachment theory is probably the best researched area in psychodynamic theory, being taken up by the academics early in its history. Susan Johnson, a Canadian psychologist, has applied this work to treating couples in particular. Her premise is that, as the emotional connection (or sense of attachment) strengthens between partners, their sense of intimacy deepens, and this creates more effective ways of relating practically as well.
INT: So bonding sounds like the goal of both approaches.
DRJ: Certainly. Whether you call it bonding, attachment, or emotional connection, it’s all the same, and it’s fundamental for overall improvement. Without a strong sense of bonding, everything in a relationship gets more difficult. Even things that are petty become issues. This is a very discouraging experience for couples. By contrast, with a strong sense of bonding everything improves. Even the hard things become manageable. Gottman calls this, “positive sentiment override.” Couples who are bonded become easy collaborators in solving their problems together. I make a big deal about this in therapy, and I’ve nicknamed the emotional connection, or attachment bond, “the platform.”
INT: The platform?
DRJ: Yes, I find it a helpful image for couples. The idea is that, when there is an emotional break, before anything else productive can happen, the break needs to be repaired. Repair means re-establishing the emotional connection despite the disagreement. When people can connect with each other emotionally even while disagreeing, I call this “the platform.” Learning how to repair, then, is an important aspect of therapy because it re-establishes the platform experience for the couple after an emotional break.
When problem-solving is attempted on “the platform,” it is collaborative and can be creative. Whether the issues are household responsibilities, parenting, relating to the in-laws, or anything else, the couple is freed up to experiment with solutions. If, however, the couple is not on “the platform” when they attempt problem-solving, they tend to fail. Off “the platform,” solutions tend to be short-lived, may be implemented half-heartedly, and cannot be counted on. When couples re-establish themselves on “the platform,” however, they tend to become more naturally collaborative and come up with solutions to problems that work and will last. Learning how to get on “the platform,” or how to recover when you fall off it, is another important goal of therapy
INT: So you apply Gottman Method and EFT together?
DRJ: I find they have a lot in common, and where they differ they are complementary. So, yes, I find it useful to draw on both approaches.
INT: Are there any other approaches you use?
DRJ: I have a background in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, as well as the Analytical Psychology of C. G. Jung.
INT: Are these useful to you in couples’ therapy?
DRJ: They are.
INT: How do you apply CBT with couples?
DRJ: CBT is built on the principle that emotion follows perception. If I’m walking down a dark alley and see someone approaching, I feel anxious. As the person gets closer and I recognize them as a friend, I feel relieved. As perceptions change, feelings change. Similarly, how couples feel about each other is largely based on how they perceive each other.
A key point in CBT is that thinking intervenes between perception and feeling. In other words, our perceptions can be misperceptions that create confusion or offense. This is huge in couple relationships. Couples often need to correct their perceptions of each other. As they learn to do this through improved dialogue, they are in effect reprogramming their relationship.
INT: So relationships can be reprogrammed?
DRJ: Absolutely. And the paradox is that this usually happens through conflict.
INT: Interesting. Say more about that.
DRJ: Well, you know, I don’t expect couples to be conflict free, even in an improved state. Rather, through a method I call, “conflict-pause-repair,” the couple can learn to turn conflict into an opportunity for reprogramming their relationship.
If, in conflict, the “pause” button can be pushed and the couple can disengage from each other for a while, an opportunity is created for reflection that gives an entry point for the insights of therapy to have influence. This takes some practice, because couples can reflect negatively on each other too. But over time, when a conflict erupts, they can learn to step back and create time for reflection. This gives the couple an opportunity to access what they have learned in therapy. This re-thinking can then be brought back into the dialogue in the form of what I call a “repair” conversation.
With each successful cycle of “conflict-pause-repair,” the relationship is gradually re-programmed. At some point, the need to “pause” diminishes as the couple gradually gains the ability to remain connected, even while in disagreement. This is fun to watch at times, because it can take the form of a couple finding humor in their conflicts.
INT: What about Analytical Psychology?
DRJ: I think what Jung has taught us is that we are symbol-making creatures. What I find is that often enough what seems to be a conflict over something petty is really a metaphor for a deeper emotional conflict that is not easy to bring into words.
For example, I had a couple once who would fight repeatedly over the condition of the bathroom in their home. It seemed petty at first. He would leave the bathroom in perfect order. She would leave it a mess. This went on with a fair amount of bickering for months. But with some work, it became evident in therapy that the conflict wasn’t really about the condition of the bathroom. It was a statement they were making to each other symbolically without realizing it. His sense of order was something he generally expected her to live within. Her statement back was one of rebellion, in essence saying, “I’m my own person and I won’t let you rule me.” Until the underlying meaning symbolized in the conflict was exposed and worked with directly, the conversation about the bathroom kept going in circles.
INT: Do you have any place in your thinking for Imago Therapy?
DRJ: My connection to Imago is by association with Jung. Imago draws broadly from psychodynamic theory, including Jungian theory. The idea in Imago is that we develop an image of a mate based on an inner ideal of masculinity or femininity. These images unconsciously influence the way we pick a life partner. We seemingly find someone who, to use a trite phrase, “completes” us. The inevitable problem is that there is no one who really can complete us emotionally; that is ultimately something we need to find within ourselves.
Conflict in a relationship is therefore inevitable. And the meaning of the conflict is to bring partners back to their own resources and to develop their own internal sense of completeness. The vehicle for this to happen is transformed communication, which includes creating the experiences of emotional validation and empathy for each other.
INT: Why does everyone need to be validated? Doesn’t being mature mean validating yourself?
DRJ: Validation and empathy are ways of each partner affirming the other’s individuality. The ideal of mature relating is to form an emotional bond with a partner that also respects who they are as a separate individual. Empathy is not a co-dependent merger between partners. It’s a bond with a boundary. It is an attempt to relate to another person from the heart, but also in the ways they differ from you. With this new experience of each other, the couple is freed from the unrealistic emotional burdens they formerly placed on each other.
INT: But how can I relate to someone in the ways they are different from me? Isn’t that a contradiction?
DRJ: It can seem that way, can’t it. But I think what really happens is that relating to someone else in the ways they differ actually open you up to discovering more about yourself. You become a fuller person in learning to relate to and respect the differences in your partner. Through forming a bonded empathy, you each become more the individual you were meant to be.
INT: Do you use all these concepts in how you conduct couples therapy?
DRJ: Yes. I find them all helpful. And while I promote Gottman Method in particular, I liberally draw on the other approaches we’ve discussed as well. I am not so much concerned with forming an alliance with any particular theory or approach, but rather draw what I can from all these approaches in addressing the uniqueness of each couple.
INT: So it’s not like one theory is right and the others wrong. Each one has something to offer.
DRJ: That is my belief. Every theory has its value. But I tend not to overuse theory in the therapy process. While theory can help clarify some of the couple’s issues and help guide therapists in their work, I’m not primarily after how a couple understands the theory or even how they think it applies to them. I am more concerned that they develop the skills they need that take them toward a new experience of each other. Learning, for example, how to work through conflict, get on “the platform” together, and use this as a basis for collaborative problem-solving. Theory can come in at times to help give a perspective, but I am more concerned that couples begin to actually have an improved experience of each other.