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May/June 2007

Couples Helping Couples — A Natural Progression From Therapy With the Couple Dyad
By Maya Kollman, MA
Social Work Today
Vol. 7 No. 3 P. 22

An Imago therapist explains why she believes the evolution of couples working with a therapist to couples working with each other flows perfectly..

Since 1989, my partner Barbara and I have been studying, teaching, and practicing a model founded by Helen and Harville Hendrix—Imago relationship therapy. The model’s purpose is to create powerful, conscious relationships. The Imago community is comprised not only of therapists but also of their nontherapist partners and couples who have been consumers of this model. The community is held together by a common belief in the innate health of all people and the capacity for relationships to become healing places rather than wounding places.

I was a therapist for several years before I discovered Imago. I enjoyed seeing individuals but not couples. My graduate training in counseling psychology gave me few skills for working with a dyad. I was uncomfortable scheduling a couple and felt incompetent during the session. In addition, I disliked the general assumption that, as a therapist, I knew secrets that would work like magic, and the clients would be fixed. Sessions were Band-Aids of problem-solving negotiation and compromise. There was always an endless supply of problems, and our appointments were not particularly helpful or enjoyable for any of us.

Discovering New Tools
One day, a client gave me the book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, PhD, saying, “This is an amazing book. I read it over the weekend, and I think you would love it.” I read the book and immediately called the Imago Institute in New York to sign up for the training, only to find that a prerequisite was to take the couple’s workshop. Barbara and I attended shortly thereafter, and it was this experience that sold me. Suddenly, I understood why even though we loved each other very much, our relationship often felt like a struggle.

I began using Imago therapy as my prime modality because of that experience and because it fit with both my social activist and feminist perspectives. My satisfaction working with couples, and the success I had working with them, increased dramatically using Imago ideas and processes. It was a philosophical fit for me—the theory made sense to the couples, and learning practical and portable communication skills made time in sessions and at home safe and growth-producing. Not surprisingly, my relationship with Barbara paralleled my clients’—we all flourished when we used what we were learning.

The Imago model provides a theory of why we pick who we pick to be with in a relationship and gives a toolbox of communication skills and processes. It makes a difference to couples when they realize they chose each other for an important purpose—to grow up and finish childhood business. Rather than viewing a relationship as the place to meet needs or be happy, this theory helps couples understand the deeper purpose. The idea that we pick someone who will help us grow by restimulating our unintegrated parts is so different from thinking, “This person is just trying to drive me crazy.” It creates a path for people to understand the purpose and value of their differences, and the conflicts that come from them, and helps them get on the same team.

What a concept—that my partner is my best teacher and my guide for reclaiming my wholeness and aliveness. What a relief to understand the benefits of growing into maturity rather than staying a child by demanding to have needs met and being constantly frustrated. This model focuses on empowering people to understand their contribution to the relationship so they can work toward changing their behavior and finding their best relationship.

Communication and Cocreation
The foundational skill of Imago therapy is the intentional dialogue. In an intentional dialogue, couples face each other and talk directly to each other, rather than through or to the therapist. The therapist’s role is to provide a safe environment, model vulnerable language for the couple when they don’t know it, encourage generosity, witness, be appropriately self-disclosing, and help the couple understand and communicate the psychodynamics of their system after they have uncovered it for themselves. It is a relational model, a horizontal model, a model of equity.

The other key focus is the idea that the relationship is primary, and it is the healthy relationship that births the two individuals rather than the individuals birthing the relationship. This idea comes from current attachment research that establishes a child becomes a self as a result of the relationship with the caregiver. If the caregiver is attuned to the needs of the child and the various aspects of the self, the child grows into an integrated self. In traditional models of therapy, only the responsibilities of the therapist are made explicit. Because Imago relationship therapy assumes equality, the responsibilities of the client are also made clear. This work is not about coming and getting fixed, but rather about a cocreation of the therapist and the couple working together in the service of the relationship.

Childhood Adaptations—A Gift
When a couple comes into my office for their first session, I ask them to express the outcome they are looking for from this experience. I listen and reflect back what I hear, modeling what it means to be a clean listener. A clean listener listens without assumptions, analysis, or adding a personal opinion. Behind the clean listening, I have a frame in my mind about this couple. I know that no matter how badly this couple behaves, how defensive they are, I can see beyond the presenting behavior to the deep longing beneath—the longing for connection, safety, being seen and heard, and being received and receiving. I see the “protest,” whether silent or voiced, as a plea for something better between them, as well as a plea in both of them to reexperience what they felt in romantic love. I understand that romantic love is not an illusion but a taste (induced chemically) of what it means to live in the world with an open heart. Suddenly, we can do things we never believed we could do (express feelings, be organized, catch a ball). Unfortunately, the chemicals that help us feel safe enough to open our hearts have a limited shelf life, and as their effect wears off, we don’t feel so wonderful with this person, and we again begin to erect our protective cage.

Beneath the conscious selection process lives an important unconscious process. We are attracted to another person because of their looks or personality but also a force that is more powerful and unknown to us. Our unconscious is connecting us with someone who has some of the positive and negative characteristics of our early caretakers. This gives them the unique opportunity to provide us the same dilemmas of childhood but this time, as an adult, we can grow through our defenses to a healing outcome.

Our partners grew up in families where they experienced the same dilemmas we did. The difference is, when they felt endangered, they adapted to this similar situation in the opposite way. So, when those chemicals wear off and the adaptations come back up, we appear different to each other, but underneath, we struggle with the same wounding from childhood. This is why we are so perfect for each other. Each person’s adaptation is a gift for the partner. Unfortunately, without understanding this, instead of learning from each other and moving into balance, these adaptations become rigid. The emotional person becomes more emotional, and the person who can’t express feelings becomes more rational and logical. My job with couples, through process and psychoeducation, is to help them get on the same team by enabling them to see how much they can learn from each other.

Rather than analyzing or looking for pathology, I look for the healthy impulse that lives under the surface. I understand their defenses helped them survive their childhoods. I also understand that my job is to teach them how to speak and listen in such a way as to create connection rather than rupture. With this view, I am able to find a balance between being empathic and setting clear boundaries. This means Iistening and validating why they behave the way they do with each other but also setting clear boundaries so that the defenses can relax, and they can experience a new way of being together.

To help them experience each other in a new way, a new space must be created, which is why, after the initial introduction, I ask the couple to move over to chairs where they face each other. As the therapist, I sit on the side to create a triangle.

Susan and Jean
The following is a brief case study that illustrates how the theory of why we pick who we pick plays out with a real couple, and how Imago therapy reframes the conflict from being a problem to being a sign that something healthy is trying to happen.

I invite Susan and Jean to close their eyes and remember when they first fell in love, to feel the feelings of that experience, as well as to remember what the traits of the other person were that made them decide, out of all the people they had already met, this was the person they wanted to choose. When they are ready, I ask them to open their eyes.

Susan begins by recounting a memory and the traits about Jean that attracted her. Jean mirrors her as she speaks. When Susan is finished, I coach her to complete the stem, “I am telling you with what I am experiencing...”. Susan finishes it by saying, “I am experiencing connection and also such sadness that we don’t have this very often,” and Jean mirrors that. Then Jean summarizes all that Susan said.

Once this is complete, they switch, and Jean recounts her experience of falling in love and finishes with the same stem. When they switch back again, I invite Susan to say whatever is in her heart and remind Jean to just mirror. They go back and forth exploring in a tender way some feelings of loss they are both struggling with. If they move into any kind of blaming or criticizing, I gently use a stem to refocus them to their feelings.
As the weeks go by, they continue to use the dialogue during sessions, with me supplying stems, when necessary, to move them out of the surface content. Over time, the following narrative emerges.

Susan grew up in a family that was very wealthy. She had enormous material privilege but was cared for by a succession of nannies and had little emotional connection to her parents. Her mother could not see Susan for who she was and always wanted her to be something different. Her father was preoccupied and aloof. She adapted to this pain by trying harder to do what she thought her mother wanted, with the hope that her mother would be satisfied, and that by not being a problem, her father might appreciate her.

Jean’s experience was very different. She grew up with an alcoholic father and a depressed mother. She had six siblings, and they often didn’t have enough to eat. Even though her situation looked different from Susan’s, Jean also did not get the emotional support she needed, and she also was not seen for who she was.

In order to survive her pain, Jean adapted by becoming volatile and causing trouble. She was a hell-raiser in school and at home, desperately looking for the attention she needed. By doing this, she avoided feeling depressed and sad like her mother.

The women’s main complaints with each other were the following:

• Susan: Jean takes up so much space. There is no room for me. She doesn’t listen to me.

• Jean: When Susan gets upset, instead of talking about it, she just complies and then gets me in some passive/aggressive way.

Hidden underneath those protests were requests for both women to move into balance.

Susan needed to speak up and use her voice to grow out of her adaptation. Jean needed to be quiet and listen to grow out of her adaptation. Unfortunately, before coming to therapy, they delivered this invitation for growth to each other using criticism and blame, so rather than changing, they became more rigid in their positions. Susan shut down more, and Jean became more volatile.

Through the use of dialogue and some psychoeducation, Susan and Jean were able to express the pain hidden underneath their frustrations in a way that inspired both to change their behavior, and they began moving in each other’s direction.

Susan began speaking up and being more present, and Jean began to listen and become quieter. By being willing to take the invitation for growth, both women gained a larger repertoire of responses in their relationship and the other parts of their lives. Because they were willing to outgrow their automatic defenses, they now had choices of how to behave when they were triggered.

Along the way, I encouraged Jean and Susan to go to the weekend “Getting the Love You Want” workshop. I have been attending the workshop myself since 1990 and have seen a remarkable change in couples’ connection and understanding such that I require couples, if they want to work with me, to attend within the first three months of our work together.

Healing and Growth in Community
An environment for positive change that is far better than any environment I can create alone in the office is created by the energetic holding of the group. The taboo of discussing our intimate partnerships is broken as each person honors and witnesses the others. This breaks the common feeling of isolation, and alleviates the “We are the only ones who are so messed up and struggling” experience. Individuals learn there is a universal struggle to hold onto the self while being profoundly connected to another.

With this understanding, the couple finds room to be buoyed and hopeful. In this way, the workshop connects likeminded couples with each other, giving them the opportunity to create a couples group, with or without a therapist/coach, to serve as support, modeling, and mentoring of new ideas, skills, and habits. They now have the resources to cocreate a support and friendship network that can hold and empower everyone. In my opinion, the workshop is worth seven months of therapy and is a much more economical way than private counseling sessions for a broad section of the population to get much needed help. Following-up the workshop with a group is also less expensive than individual sessions.

A weekend workshop does not fix a relationship. Changing a troubled relationship or even deepening a good relationship requires time and support. As it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to raise a relationship.

Because of this, I run eight-week couples group follow-ups after the workshop. These groups meet every other week, and the purpose of the group is to support the learning of the theory and practice, as well as to teach the couples to become support couples for each other. There are usually six couples in these groups—or an even number—because when they leave, each couple will have a couple buddy to call on when times get difficult or when they want to celebrate a success. Some groups have decided to continue on their own once the time was up.

The feedback I have received over the last 10 years has been very positive, and the couples who make use of their buddies are less likely to need to see me on an ongoing basis. I am a strong believer of working with couples in groups. If I could arrange it, I would not see a single couple by themselves.

In a workshop or couples group, powerful learning is gained from watching how other couples relate to each other and modeling the interactions that work. We can often see and hear ourselves and understand the impact we make through witnessing one another. Hearing another couple discuss an issue similar to ours can shed helpful light. We can learn what respectful, kind, and generous behavior looks like. We can learn what vulnerable language sounds like. There is a scene in the recent movie Shall We Dance where Susan Sarandon’s character explains why she thinks people get into committed partnerships. She says it is because we need a witness to both the little and big things in our lives. Just as I believe we all hunger to be seen and recognized, so too do we hunger to have our partnerships seen and recognized. It is helpful to have others to be with us in support and nonjudgment, to sit with us and bear witness to our efforts to dialogue with our partners. It provides courage and safety. Afterwards, mutually sharing our experience of a just-witnessed dialogue, we can cocreate expanded ideas, views, and visions. When a couple is empowered to be a witness, a model, and a cocreator, great things can happen in their relationship.

A Retreat
It is Sunday night of a couple’s workshop, and there are 21 couples in the room. Upon arrival Friday night, most couples seemed in some degree of distress and disconnection. All were strangers to one another. As the workshop ends, it is extraordinary to see the transformation. Each couple is reconnected, and there is a powerful sense of community between the couples. One by one the couples come forward and say the following to each other: “One new thing I learned about you is…”, “One thing I appreciate about you is…”, “One new way I will be with you is…”.

After speaking, they hug, light candles from a central relationship candle, and sit down. When everyone’s relationship has been witnessed in this way, everyone stands. Holding their candles in their left hands and putting their right hands on the shoulders of the people next to them (not their partners), I invite the group to repeat after me, in unison, “Remember, your experience was made possible by your willingness to be both vulnerable and curious. You did this with both your partner and with everyone here. Together, we have created a community of support. Keep this spirit alive when you go home, remembering that this group energy can help hold you up if you get discouraged. Pledge to keep your relationship sacred and to be grateful for the gift of your partner in your life.”

We finish up one week of couples camp. For 10 years, we have met once, sometimes twice a year. Our purpose is to have fun and work on our relationships in the context of community. Barbara and I would never have reached the level of connection we have, nor would we have been able to parent our children as well, if we didn’t have the consistent support of this group. We leave our time together once again renewed, with new insight about ourselves and with a profound sense of connection to our group and to the universality of the struggles and triumphs of all couples.

An individual couple “going to a therapist” is still the most common avenue for relationship maintenance, and the above scenarios are not offered to most couples. Still, there is a slow shift to a coaching/educational model that focuses on the following:

• the health and strength of people rather than their pathology;

• the teaching of communication skills and use of vulnerable language so people can connect directly to each other, rather than relying on the therapist as analyst, go-between, or seer;

• the use of couples groups rather than individual couples sessions; and

• the encouragement of a couple to have a mentor/buddy couple for support.

I believe these shifts will greatly enhance the chances for a couple to achieve the relationship they desire. Not only do the couples benefit, but if your experience is at all like mine, you will find yourself working with less intensity and stress and having a lot more fun.

— Maya Kollman, MA, is a certified master trainer of Imago relationship therapy.

The author would like to thank her partner of 25 years, Barbara Bingham, for her help and guidance in writing and editing this article.