The two topics that elicit the most heated emotions in couples therapy are perhaps money and sex. But there are plenty of other issues that typically get argued about: who’s spending too much time at work, who’s not helping out with household chores, who’s unwilling to commit, who’s being excessive with food or alcohol, who’s got misguided ideas about how to raise the children. What’s important to understand is that arguments are rarely about what they appear to be about. It’s not really about how to load the dishwasher or about how many hours are spent glued to the Blackberry. It is about not feeling seen, not feeling understood, not feeling valued and not feeling loved. It is about feeling trapped, feeling alone, feeling stifled or feeling out of control.
When couples come in for their first counselling session they usually present with the same scenario. Both individuals believe they’re right. Consciously, or unconsciously, they’re hoping that with a therapist on their side they’ll be able to get their partner to see sense. They want their spouse to change. In good couples therapy both individuals soon realise that their job is not to change their partner but rather to listen to them (spouses change surprisingly rapidly once they start feeling loved and accepted as they are).
A cornerstone of Imago Therapy is the Couple’s Dialogue where all attention is given to the “Sender” who initiates the dialogue. The “Receiver’s” job is to listen and draw out as much information about their partner’s world, viewpoint and feelings as possible. The “Receiver” imagines himself or herself visiting another country – a foreign place, somewhere they’ve never been before. Their job is to look around at the different scenery, the sounds and smells and really enter the world of the other. When they do this they begin to realise that their partner’s thoughts, feelings and reactions make complete sense give his or her inner landscape, childhood and relationship history.
It can be difficult to listen in such a way because we invariably hear a version of events that is different from our own. Our chest and stomach gets tight, our jaw clamps down and we want to pipe up, “no it wasn’t like that”, “what I meant was…”, “that’s not how it happened”, “I can’t believe you’re implying I was moody when it was clearly you who was in a bad mood”. We have a barrage of thoughts, opinions, judgements and emotions that take us over and make it difficult to stay open and curious about our partner’s experience.
The therapist’s job is to slow things down enough so that both individuals can understand the dynamics, feelings and sequence of events that happen during their “core” scene – every couple has a “core” argument that gets played out over and over again in different ways. When more awareness is brought to these interactions they shed light on relational patterns that often began in childhood and real healing becomes possible. Everyday scenarios that used to spiral into drama get processed in a way which deepens intimacy and, amazingly, can even be fun!
The more this kind of listening starts to happen, the more a transformation occurs within the relationship. The power struggle turns into teamwork – you’re finally both on the same side. And you finally understand the wisdom of the saying “you can either be right or you can be happy”.
If you have any questions, or would like to schedule a couples session (90 minutes), please don’t hesitate to send me an email at email@example.com