Working with Couples

“It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life.” Amoris Laetitia 2016.
Pope Francis

In Western culture, the capacity for intimacy — the ability to be myself fully with the other person and them with me — has become the ideal of the healthy couple. Yet we have no useful cultural narratives about how to achieve this in the twenty-first century.

The Honeymoon Phase

Instead, the basis for marriage is the honeymoon phase, the thrilling experience of falling in love, bonding, and delicious feelings of uniqueness and specialness. It usually involves magical moments, long intimate talks, and hot sex. In the process of attaching to each other, the couple’s differences, disagreements and potential conflicts are generally suppressed. Excitement and anxiety are high; partners idealize each other, present their best selves, are off balance and overly focused on the other.

The honeymoon phase can last anywhere from six months to a couple of years until the couple is deeply bonded and invested in the relationship. At this point, the differences and disagreements emerge. The couple moves into the power struggle phase and begins to fight, which can feel painfully threatening and can lead to frustration, disillusionment, alienation, loneliness and despair. One partner may stop feeling close and back off; the other may pursue and provoke repetitive arguments. Blame, hostile attacks and shaming are common. Another scenario, less common nowadays since couples are more likely to be equal partners than in the past, is that one partner, usually the woman, capitulates and goes along with the partner. This may also lead to a diminished sense of self, alienation and resentment.

Working through the Power Struggle

Paradoxically, when skillfully handled, the power struggle phase offers couples the opportunity to love more deeply, mature emotionally and expand their interpersonal skills. Creating the experience of empathy and safety, where both partners can feel understood and respected, we work with couples to move from the power struggle into more effective ways of connecting with each other. We help couples deal with their very real differences, difficulties and disagreements by learning conflict management and fair fighting skills. When each person in the couple is willing to take responsibility for changing, the couple’s sense of mutual goodwill and usually increases exponentially. We also teach couples ways of expanding their loving connection by using affectionate language (“sweet talk”) and physical closeness in everyday life.

Other important concerns that we address during couples therapy are unresolved family of origin issues that impact the couple in unexpected ways. An intimate relationship seems to promise us the possibility of having a devoted person there who will love us unconditionally and make up for family hurts. Part of the disappointment and hurt of the power struggle phase is the realization that this will not happen. Couples therapy offers the possibility of rediscovering and working through unfinished childhood difficulties with abandoning, abusive, and otherwise unsatisfactory parents and siblings. This helps both partners understand themselves and each other more deeply.

Ultimately, Teamwork Develops

As the couple’s experience of love, mutual understanding and acceptance develops, they move into the teamwork phase. In this stage, the couple feels settled into a loving, ongoing, and committed relationship that provides them with a secure base from which to negotiate the next phases of their lives together. They understand each other deeply, appreciate each other, are familiar and supportive with each other’s ongoing issues, and have the skills to work through new issues as they arise. They can then undertake the teamwork necessary for a pleasurable and fulfilling life together: raising children, pursuing careers, and contributing to the community.

In the past five years, I have been studying with Stan Tatkin PsyD, originator of PACT, a Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy. This is an attachment based approach to couples therapy which has deepened my work with couples, especially in the teamwork phase.

Frances Verrinder and Michael Griffith developed this material as part of their couples therapy course for the Somatic Psychology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco California. All rights reserved.