When couples fight in my office, as a therapist I try to create a compassionate vantage point above the fray—what I call a platform.

Here’s an example of how it works. Judy and Bob had been fighting in my office for a while. After watching them wrangle back and forth, I said to them, “Is this the kind of fight that you’ve come to therapy to stop, or are you getting something out of it—a chance to say a few things, or to hear a few things?”

“I hate this,” Judy answered. “This is what we do all the time.”
“This could be our living room,” Bob added, “and it wasn’t always this way.” For the moment, Judy and Bob are no longer fighting and, instead, are commiserating. With my help, they have escaped the fight by gaining perspective and talking in a non-fighting way about the fight.

But is it possible for couples to take such a compassionate vantage point while talking about the subject of their fight? The fight began when Judy criticized Bob for something he did in the distant past. “That’s ancient history,” he said. “Can’t you let it go?” “No, because you never listened to anything I said about it then, either,” she answered. “You always get so defensive.”

The stumbling block—what keeps these partners from climbing up on a platform—is that it is hard in a fight to empathize with the other unless you have been empathized with first. So I tried to empathize with both partners simultaneously. I said, “Yes, Bob, you understandably don’t like Judy’s bringing up that incident from so long ago; it makes you feel she’ll never let you live anything down. And Judy, it’s understandable that you’re bringing it up, since it’s the clearest example of what you want Bob to see is still happening in more subtle ways today.”

“Is that true?” Bob asked Judy, adopting a softer tone of voice. Judy nodded, her body relaxing. For the moment, each was appreciating the logic of the other’s position. They were reviewing their fight from a shared compassionate perspective.

I know couples have reached a platform when they believe that their position makes sense, and, at the same time, appreciate that their partner’s does, too.

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Comments

Thank you for demonstrating in this short piece how
good couples therapy helps partners, who come in
acting like adversaries, to recognize the validity of
each other’s perspective as well as if their own. As
you point out well, it is crucial for both partners to
experience the therapist’s empathy when they are at
a stage where they are not ready to show it for each
other.

Marcia Naomi Berger, LCSW | 5:18 pm, June 5, 2011 | Link

 
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