The Therapist as Emotional Conduit for Couples' Connection
by Maya Kollman, MA
Reprinted from The Family Therapy Networker, September/October 1998
"Maya Kollman's description of the case reveals her as a wise and experienced therapist who has crafted her own way of helping couples connect. Carl Rogers's work comes to mind as I hear her describe her intense efforts to hear not only her clients' words, but also their silences. Through modeling and direction, Kollman teaches Sue and Phil a new, more empathic, way of talking to each other. She is a sensitive therapist who looks into her armamentarium of skills and knows which arrow to choose for which target. . . "
When I first started out as a couples therapist, I tried my best to maintain a professional distance from the emotional vortex my clients so effortlessly seemed to generate. I thought of myself as a removed expert whose specialty was coming up with solutions to the messes troubled couples brought to me. Training with Harville Hendrix in Imago Therapy gave me a different perspective. I have come to see my role as a conduit of emotional connection between partners.
"Connection" is one of those fuzzy terms like 'spiritual' that everyone uses these days but that is hard to define. 'Joining,' 'creating rapport' or 'getting in tune' with another are all ways of describing it. As a therapist, I experience it as an intuitive sensing of clients' emotional energy. It is what happens when, for example, a loving moment takes place in my office and my own heart feels expansive and open, filled with compassion for the people sharing that moment. A key to my work is to try to nurture and amplify moments like that with my clients. I still have to keep in mind my clinical theory and what I know about the nature of systems change. But being a conduit of connection, more than any mere technique, seems to be what helps couples find their own resolution to their problems. Even if partners decide to separate, when they do it from a place of connection, they can disengage with kindness and respect.
My own feeling of connection with clients is the first step to my becoming a conduit for their sense of connection to each other. Sue and Phil, a white, upper-middle-class couple in their late forties, came to see me because Phil was talking about leaving the marriage. As Sue gave me some background-how long they had been married, what they did for a living-I listened to her story without trying to analyze or jump to conclusions. I also opened myself to her energy by noticing her body position and affect. I spontaneously shifted my body position to match hers. As she spoke, she leaned forward slightly, and when I also leaned forward slightly, she became more animated and open. When Phil talked, his voice was a monotone, and when I responded to him in a matching tone, he relaxed his shoulders slightly. Nonverbally, I was getting into rapport with each of them.
As I usually do, I verbally reflected back to each one what I was hearing. Instead of repeating word-for-word what I heard-which was usually a Statement that blamed the other-I mirrored back their experience to them. For example, Sue said, in a mild voice, "We're struggling because Phil had an affair and I don't think he really wants to stay with me. It feels so bad because I don't think I can ever trust him again, but I want him so badly." I mirrored back, "You feel upset because you're not sure what's going to happen with you and Phil, and you hope it can be resolved. Did I get that right?" Sue nodded, blowing her nose. Irritated and defensive, Phil said, "I can't stand her clinging to me. She complains endlessly and I feel like screaming." I said back, "So you've been feeling really pressured. Did I get that?" In this way, they both felt heard by me and also became more thoughtful. Phil said, "Well, I had an affair, but it's over. I've been taking care of people all my life. I don't want to have to do it any more. I want my own life." Sue stopped Crying and looked at him. It was the first time he had talked about leaving in terms of his own needs and not her shortcomings.
Soon Sue and Phil began to put aside verbal jabs and express their inner experience of the relationship. Phil talked about feeling stuck and wanting a change, while Sue talked about her anxiety that Phil would leave. Phil rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath, "Here we go," when Sue, who had started crying, said, "And we've had this tragedy. Our 20-year-old son was killed almost a year ago. It was a car accident."
Feeling for Sue's obvious anguish, I said to her, "So you're really struggling, because in addition to everything else, you've had this tragedy." Phil angrily broke the moment by saying, "I wish she would get over it. It's been almost a year! Why is she still upset?" I shifted into connection with him and said, "It makes perfect sense you want to move on. It's hard to stay with the sadness for a long time." I had to make sure I was balanced, being connected to both of them without invalidating either one's position. just by doing that, I demonstrated that they could each feel the way they did without wiping the other one out.
The ultimate source of most of the wounds clients bring to us is a break in connection to others. Some may react the way Sue did, which was to try to make nice and not say what was true, hoping Phil would come back to her. Others react the way Phil did, which was to get angry, hostile and reactive. Both reactions are disconnecting because neither allows real intimacy to emerge. Connection requires both safety and risk. The more I could stay in connection with the couple, mirroring them back to themselves and revealing who they were underneath their defenses, the more they could allow their authentic selves to be in the room. I had to be very aware of my own style of breaking connection when I get scared. I tend to be more like Sue than Phil, so I was especially mindful when Phil became angry, making sure I didn't automatically disconnect from him. When that did happen from time to time, I saw how Sue and Phil disconnected from each other. Particularly in the beginning of therapy, my role is to create a space that fosters authenticity and safety, because most clients cannot do that on their own.
At this point, my view of the case was that Phil and Sue had become so deeply entrenched in their opposing roles-she as the emoter, he as the stoic-that they couldn't grieve together for the death of their son. I decided to take a break from talking about the affair and the death. "One of the ways I would like to begin to bridge this gulf is to get you to just notice each other," I said. 'Just sit for a moment, look at each other, breathe, close your eyes and remember what it felt like to be in love." When they opened their eyes and looked at each other, I pictured myself as a container, holding them in the moment of connection. I asked them to speak while in this state of connection. Sue said, "I am experiencing hopelessness and sadness, and I am remembering how good it was when the children were born." Looking at her, Phil said, "I feel hopeless, but it's interesting to look at you." It wasn't the most loving of exchanges, but both of them felt relieved to be able to be honest with each other. Connection doesn't only mean you say wonderful, sweet things. It means being authentically who you are without annihilating the other.
Of course, couples who have long, bitter histories don't change with one exercise. After a minute or so in this tender state, Phil broke the connection by sniping at Sue, she started to cry, he shut down, and they were right back where they had started. When couples are struggling, they often feel terribly alone, and as a conduit I can help them to be together in the experience-even if it's a lousy experience. I said, "It sounds like it's not just that the pain of this uncertainty about your marriage is so crummy, but it's that you feel alone in it." They both nodded. I said, "Maybe you can use therapy to witness for each other what you are going through."
Over subsequent weeks, I became a witness to Phil and Sue's story-their increasing distance before the affair, their increasing alienation after the children moved out of the house. They described how it was to move into separate bedrooms, to stop eating dinner together, Sue's pain at discovering the affair, Phil's weariness with her constant crying and grief over their son, her bewilderment at his lack of emotion. But whenever they started to feel tender toward each other, the grief would well up and one or the other would panic and strike out.
When a couple works on very intense material, it can be overwhelming, so every once in a while I focus on their emotional connection instead of their presenting issues. I helped Phil and Sue practice the mirroring technique by having them talk about a safe, non-conflictual topic. One week, they talked about what rocks meant to them, but it wasn't just chit-chat. Phil remembered a trip they took as a family to the Rocky Mountains. Sue remembered a rock they had sat on by a lake when they were dating. They were able to listen and speak to each other without getting reactive. I had them describe how it was to look at each other and what they saw in each other's faces. "Notice who this person is," I suggested. They got to the point where they could have an amiable conversation and at one point, they even laughed. Those sessions helped them remember what it was like to enjoy each other's company, and I built on their connection by giving them homework assignments to do something enjoyable together each week. I talked to them about their family traditions. They had routinely eaten dinner together, and before dinner-no matter what kind of mood they were in--they would put aside their differences, join hands and think about their children. But when their son died, this had stopped. I suggested they have one meal together a week, even though it might be painful.
The biggest roadblock for this couple continued to be how they managed their grief. When Sue tried to talk about their son, Phil became angry. During one pivotal session, Sue brought up the affair and Phil said he had done it out of his loneliness. He started talking about how he had felt that only one person had really cared about him, and that was his son. Then he described his last hour with his son, Brad, before the young man died. Brad had driven from his home three hours away to see Phil because he had learned about the affair and wanted to talk about it. He had told Phil he was worried about his mother, but that he loved Phil no matter what. On his way home from this visit, Brad was killed.
All my attention was on Phil as I allowed myself to be touched by his words. As he talked in his monotone about Brad's death, tears came to my eyes. Looking up, he was startled to see my tears, and suddenly he began to sob. While Sue's tears usually shut him down, mine reflected back to Phil his own pain. Sue was, for once, dry-eyed, a compassionate witness to the grief Phil had kept bottled up inside. As Sue instinctively put her hand on his head, Phil leaned into her.
It was a sweet moment, but that can be hard to tolerate, particularly when the couple is more used to dealing with discomfort and pain. They almost immediately devolved back into their old patterns. Sue started pushing Phil to say more about his grief, which made him angry. Soon they were polarized in their roles. Now I drew on all the weeks they had practiced holding a loving connection, and said, "I want you, Phil, to notice what you feel this week after having opened up to Sue like you did. I want you to notice when you feel you might need to clamp back up and be tough, and call me if you start to feet the pain so intensely that you are really uncomfortable." Because I encourage clients to connect with me, I don't hesitate to make myself available by phone if they are in a crisis. I asked Phil to really look at Sue during the week and remember what she was like when he was crying-not hysterical, but strong and there for him. I told Sue that Phil might be particularly critical and invite her attack that week because he believed that if he was vulnerable, she would attack him. I asked her to try not to react even if he was provocative.
They made it through that week and several more, holding their connection more and more consistently. Finally one day, Sue said, "I know that even though it's hard for me to forgive you for the affair, our son did. I know you were a good father and he really loved you." For the first time, they cried together and shared their desolation. It was a major step toward healing.
Phil and Sue spent the next few months working on whether they wanted to stay together. Phil continued to talk about wanting to be on his own and Sue continued to lobby for saving the marriage. Finally, Sue told Phil, "Be whoever you choose to be, and it may work and it may not, but I am not making you bad. I am saying I have my limits. I can't live with you beyond those limits." As soon as she stopped being the one to carry the torch for saving the marriage, Phil stopped talking about leaving and: started working on staying.
Becoming an emotional conduit for couples requires a keen understanding of the fragility of our awareness of connection. We are always in connection, but it's hard to maintain that: awareness. I have to know how to be present with myself so I can be present with my clients. I have to overcome my own fears of intimacy in order to be open to intimacy with my: clients. Having a strong theoretical foundation helps therapists feel grounded and relaxed so we can be present with our clients, but when researchers compared different therapy modalities to see which ones were most successful, they found that the particular technique and model didn't matter as much as the qualities of the therapist-the ability to be respectful, to listen well, to empathize-all of which are ways of: creating connection. It all boils down to artfully and gently being our authentic selves with each other.
© 1998, Maya Kollman, MA
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