While finding many of the ideas discussed in the workshop interesting – some as refreshers, some quite new, it has been especially great to discover Michelle Wiener Davis’ work So often I have found myself working with an individual client, exploring their relationship and silently wishing I had the other half there! And wondering about the wisdom and usefulness of taking up precious therapy time on this.
The concept of Cheese-less Tunnels is useful here – most people can identify that what they’re doing isn’t working. So while they generally want the other person to change, it is perhaps easier when there is only one person in the session to be able to say ‘we can’t work on Doug changing as he’s not here, what do you think you might be able to do differently?’ And maybe, as a result of that, Doug may also change his dance steps
Bill Doherty’s article ‘Bad Couples therapy: How to Avoid Doing It’ had some really useful and thought-provoking ideas. His statement that ‘not having a moral framework is to have an unacknowledged one’ rang bells.
On the one hand, it was a familiar concept – an earlier gig I had was training Lifeline volunteer counselors and I introduced a session on values, the core message being ‘If you haven’t thought about where you stand on a whole myriad of core issues that will come up in calls, this will get in the way’. So often volunteers would say ‘I have no particular stance on (e.g.) same-sex relationships’, when what they really meant was ‘I haven’t thought through the issues at all, and will no doubt find myself doing so when I am a call!’
But I had not given enough reflection myself to where I stand on my values around commitment.
Thinking about couples I have worked with, the pattern seems to be that, where the couple voices a strong desire to stay together even when difficulties are huge, it’s easy to go along with this.
Where one partner has doubts, or I find myself struggling a bit to actually like one partner, I think it’s possible I have worked in a less committed way to help the couple stay together. As if I am confusing who actually has to spend time with this person!
The ideas around divided loyalties also struck a chord – remembering a couple where the woman mentioned childcare issues on the phone but it was 45 minutes into the session before I realized the male partner present was not the biological father of the toddler in question – their relationship had started while she was pregnant (but had ended her relationship with the child’s father). To talk through the very different developmental stages here – a sole mother coping with demands of a toddler, alongside the thrills of the ‘puppy stage’ of a relatively new relationship – might have helped the couple find more empathy for each other.
The ‘gender issues’ discussion during the workshop was interesting. I have found that Gottman’s notions of stonewalling and flooding have been really powerful when labeling male’s behaviour – men feel like you get it, and women are offered a physiological explanation for their partner’s behaviour that doesn’t feel so personal, and perhaps helps them see a little more vulnerability in their partner. Which hopefully creates a more empathic connection.
But the idea that was new to me was about the male primitive drive to ‘make my wife happy’. I had taken the common expression ‘happy wife, happy life’ to be somehow pejorative – ‘do the right thing to keep her happy, whether or not there’s any genuine meaning behind the action’. But I see it a bit differently now, and will do some more reading around this!