Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Couples, Part 1: Inside Look at the Way a Top Couples Therapist Works

It goes without saying that being part of a couple is hard work at times. Even when things are going smoothly, studies show that each member of the couple will estimate that their success as a pair is due to their doing relatively more for the relationship than their partner. How about when things are going less smoothly? John Gottman, the kingpin of research on couple interactions and author of Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has found that of the problems that are a source of continuing disagreement for couples, 69% of them fall into the category of irresolvable problems. That is a sobering statistic. While Gottman is the premiere researcher on couples, one of only two couples therapists whose work Gottman gives a nod of approval to, is Dan Wile, the author of After the Fight: Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship. Wile's take on these perpetual problems is that it is not having the problem that is the problem, but rather each member of the couples inability, when things aren't going well, to recruit the other as a resource for dealing with that problem. Gottman is in complete agreement with Wile on this. One factor that makes a big difference between couples whose relationship is headed for the rocks, and ones that end up together years down the road is their ability to talk about those problems that aren't ever going to be completely resolved.

Dan Wile believes that the key to dealing with these problems is very elusive for us in those times when things aren't going smoothly. His entire approach to couples therapy is about helping each person to express what it is that is eating at them in a way that enables their partner to experience empathy for them. Wile's approach is similar to other couples therapists in taking turns trying to understand each person. Where his approach becomes unusual is that he then tries to speak to the other partner on their behalf, putting their concern, and their dilemma into words that might help the other see the difficult position their partner is in.

His version of speaking for them varies greatly but it might sound something like this. Picture Wile kneeling beside one partner speaking to the other on their behalf, saying, "There is a big part of me right now that wants to reach out to you and comfort you, but I'm afraid if I do, you're going to push me away again, and I just don't think that I can risk that right now." He then checks in with the person he's speaking for and asks how close he was, and what they might add or delete from what he said. When Wile does this with his clients, on those occasions that he gets it right, clients experience this as being very powerful, really capturing how it is that they are feeling stuck and misunderstood. When they have something to clarify, to add or something that they'd would take out altogether, they end up bringing the discussion closer to what the issues really are. One way to put this together is to say that Wile sees the goal as connecting around the difficulty rather than focusing therapy on solving the problem. Given Gottman's finding that 69% of ongoing couple problems are irresolvable, this makes a lot of sense.

Now hiring Dan Wile as a therapist would be a nice luxury that hopefully some Awareness * Connection readers will experience. But what about those of us who won't be able to, or who might not even have the opportunity to see a therapist trained in his approach? In the next installment of this post, I'll break down how and why Wile's statements work, and I'll show how in our better moments we can tap into them to connect with our partner when a perpetual problem comes up and those familiar feelings of tension creep back into our lives.
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