Why Counseling? How does it Work?
Couples often come to therapy polarized by reactivity and power struggles that make them feel increasingly disconnected. Trapped in a stalemate that they are unable to change on their own, they invite the therapist into the intimacy of their struggles, hoping for a new direction. It is the work of the therapist to understand the complex interactions and experience of the couple caught up in stalemate or an ‘impasse’. The therapist’s approach helps to identify the couple’s pattern and investigate and challenge emotional undercurrents that might be fueling and informing their dynamics. In working with couples’ impasses in the here and now, the goal is to help the partners move from being reactive to being more able to discuss, and from a view of themselves as victim and villain to positions of increased responsibility and personal agency. The process of change is facilitated by awareness, behavioral changes and negotiations, and the creation of alternative scripts based on greater empathy and connectedness.
In the course of a life together, couples often deal with dilemmas in their relationship that spring from their differences or from situations in which their wishes and needs are not in sync. These quandaries may cause distress; they can even break up the relationship. In these situations, stressful as they may be, the partners often have a clear understanding of their issues and differences and are able to see each other’s perspective, negotiate, and move on.
By contrast, many couples come to therapy feeling stuck, caught up in impasses that are characterized by intense reactivity and escalation, rigid positions of each partner, irrationality, and the repetitive recurrence of the same dynamics in the relationship. While caught up in one of these impasses, the partners are unable to empathize and see the other’s perspective. They feel offended and violated by the other’s behavior, and become increasingly defensive, disconnected, and entangled in power struggles and misunderstandings. These impasses involve vulnerability and confusion, and they tend to become more pervasive over time, taking up more and more space in the relationship.
Even when the presenting problem is a straightforward situational dilemma, a couple’s differences sometimes derail into a core impasse in which their attempts to talk and negotiate with each other become part of the problem. In the therapist’s view, a core impasse is experienced as such a difficult entanglement because it involves the activation of past hurts and survival strategies, which complicates the couple’s process. This activation may include emotional overlaps of meanings between their present situation and experiences in the past, or between their present situation and a current painful experience of one or both partners in another context. Core impasses may also spring from tensions related to power inequities and disconnections based on gender or cultural differences.
Core impasses can serve as a gateway to the exploration and deconstruction of key dynamics in the couple’s relationship. The very nature of the impasse–its thick texture of misunderstandings and entanglements, often based in the past history of the couple and of their prior relational experiences–yields rich potential for greater awareness and change. In identifying the impasse and coming to understand the various strands embedded in it, the couple and therapist have an opportunity to learn more about each partner and to transform the couple’s core dilemmas.
In working with a couple in a core impasse, the overall goal is to help them move from highly reactive positions to more reflective ones, from automatic actions and reactions to greater differentiation, awareness, and flexibility. The term “reflectivity” refers to an individual’s ability to pause and be thoughtful and planful before acting or communicating. In facilitating reflectivity, the therapist helps each partner to feel more empowered and empathic, and to have more options and choices in these critical moments of their interpersonal process.