on psychotherapy with couples

GlamoramaBrideAndGroomThe art of coupling and staying together for a long period of time in a world where each partner is often self-reliant; where relationships can split and re-form is seriously challenged. Children often find themselves shuttled between the newly formed partnerships, and life gets complicated.

Self-reliance takes away one of the fundamental glues that kept relationships together over a long period in the past, but conversely we could say that self-reliance is really about individuation, the capacity to realize one’s true potential in life, without relying so heavily on someone else. Our ancestors, living perhaps in a more limited, sometimes brutal world, didn’t focus so much on this individuation thing. Today, however, we can achieve that capacity for individuation and self-reliance, and that gives us options in relationship, including living alone outside of relationship.

Generally we still do, however, want to form partnership, to feel the physical and emotional attraction of the other, to form a team to accomplish life goals together, each pulling on their own strengths. The goals may be raising children to their full potential, forming partnerships in education, business or the arts, or other pursuits, where it is exciting to be a team with each other.

Relationships don’t often form this way however! That is, they don’t form after one has achieved a degree of self-reliance and individuation, because that is a process that can take well into middle age, and even then there is still plenty of work to be done!

Therapists working with couples and individuals on the issues of relationship see the same thing over and over again. In the 1970’s it was called co-dependency (the opposite of self-reliant), and this term still works fairly well.  The partners are dependent on each other to fill some void or piece of something in life that they could not achieve on their own. Maybe one is very logical, orderly, confident and bold, but not very empathic or intuitive. Their partner is sensitive, empathic and intuitively attuned, but not always logical and their confidence is undermined because they feel everything around them so intensely, including negative vibes from other people. In heterosexual couples the logical one is often enough the man and the more empathic one the woman. Hence John Gray’s idea that “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” (Gray, 2005). This dynamic is prevalent in Gay and Lesbian relationships as well.

When working with these couples or individuals, I like to consider a couple of things. First, what is their individuation path, if we can find it? What were they supposed to develop into, to bring to this world? The concept of individuation comes from the psychology of Carl Jung (Sharp, 1998). It is also an idea that comes up in Family Systems theory where it is called differentiation (Nichols, 2012). The idea is that you have a potential for something in life that gets arrested in the process of forming codependent relationships, and/or self-destructive behaviors (e.g. addiction). These compensating behaviors get in the way of your potential.

Let’s say you are a real foodie, you love food, and are fascinated and intrigued with all facets of food including preparations, nutritional aspects, food from different cultures and so on. You are a great cook, cooking satisfying meals for your family, but they rarely appreciate it, and it means so much to you to be appreciated for his gift. Your husband is dismissive. He is absorbed in some important work, and takes you for granted, especially in this area. The kids may have picked up on some of that also. You have that sensitivity and empathic attunement, coupled with the lack of confidence and boldness described above. Your husband has the confidence and boldness but takes your nurturing contribution with the food and other things for granted. With you taking care of those things, he is freed up for his business focus for example. You are frustrated.

Before I go into the resolution of this scenario, I want to describe the second thing I look for when working with couples and individuals in relationship. What is there attachment style? If they are in therapy it is likely that they suffer from one of the three kinds of insecure attachment (Main, 1995). These are (1) Dismissive – always in control – in my first years of life, I couldn’t depend of caregivers so much, there was some neglect of my needs, so I have developed this – “My way or the highway, I’m in charge, in control, you’re lucky I’m around taking care of things!” attitude towards life. (2) Preoccupied – always wondering whether I am measuring up to my primary attachment figure because in my first years of life, sometimes they were with me, and sometimes I couldn’t be so sure! – I’m preoccupied with this, and lack confidence, but I’m very sensitive to everyone’s needs, and always trying to serve them. (3) Disoriented-Disorganized – I was terrorized by my caregivers, they neglected me, abused me, let me be abused by others – I can’t really trust people – I don’t know who I am really – I first go towards people, then run away – I have no boundaries. Some believe that this last type, is inclined towards Personality disorder (see my last Post).

The woman in the scenario could have a Preoccupied style and her husband a Dismissive style. I often see this in therapy. They were attracted to each other to fill a void in their lives. He found a receptive emotionality indirectly from her, and she found strength and confidence in him instead of herself. In the beginning they were intensely attracted to each other, had an amazing sex life, but now their sex life and intimacy in general are zero. Why? He has a low opinion of her lack of confidence; she is disgusted with his lack of empathic attunement. It comes out in how they parent the children. It is really a mess!

Jung’s concept of individuation is an anecdote because it recognizes that with strength and confidence, and a sense of order, the woman could parlay her love of “all things about food”, perhaps into a career in catering or by becoming a restaurateur, or nutrition expert; something beyond the role of codependent servant.  Jung called this idea of integrating the weak functions (those she projects onto her husband) the transcendent function; that is, she can realize her true potential (transcend) by taking on those characteristics she has projected onto her husband (confidence, orderliness) and coupling them with those qualities (sensitivity, empathic attunement) that she naturally has as a result of her psychological wound.

The work in therapy focuses on this potential, but also working through scenarios where the woman enacts her preoccupied attachment style to her detriment, working on how it feels to step out of that; feel more self-serving, confident (at first it feels unnerving, anxiety producing, coupled with some depression about the box that she has put herself into).  If I am working with the couple, then the man, with his whole host of issues related to integrating sensitivity and empathic attunement has to be worked through.

Couples counseling often works better on relationship than individual counseling if both are committed to change, achieve the same realization about what has happened and is happening in their relationship, and both are willing to hang in there. The dynamic has to change between the two, in front of you the therapist, rather than just helping the individual achieve the insight. But an individual may have a partner that is not willing to commit to this process. In this case, more often than not, it will be about assisting this person to find a new relationship!

(2005) Gray, John  “Men are from Mars, women from Venus”, Harper Perennial, NY.

(1995) Main, Mary “Recent studies in attachment: Overview, with selected implications for clinical      work.” In: Goldberg, Susan (Ed); Muir, Roy (Ed); Kerr, John (Ed), (1995). Attachment theory: Social,        developmental, and clinical perspectives. , (pp. 407-474). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Analytic Press, Inc,    xiii, 515 pp

(2012) NIchols, Michael P. “Family systems”, Pearson, NW.

(1998) Sharp, Daryl “Jungian psychology unplugged: My life as an elephant”, Inner City Books, NY