Psychotherapy Blog


Turning Blaming into Confiding in Couples Therapy

Posted by Dan Wile, PhD on 6/23/11 - 9:06 AM
The defining task in a Collaborative Couple Therapy session is to create an intimate conversation out of whatever is happening—frequently a fight. Sometimes that means helping the partner who has just been accused deal with the accusation. Sometimes, and this is my focus in this write-up, that means reshaping the accusing partner’s angry statement. I speak as if I were that partner, translating his/her blaming statement into a confiding one, in a method similar to doubling in psychodrama. I show what this partner might be saying if the couple was having a conversation rather than this fight. Here are the principles I use for making these translations.

• Change the tone of voice
• Omit the blaming
• Report the blaming
• Add or substitute heartfelt feelings
• Append a question that turns the monologue into a dialogue
• Acknowledge

1. CHANGE THE TONE OF VOICE. If I can’t immediately think of ways to modify a partner’s angry comment, I repeat or paraphrase it, but now in a nonprovocative, nonaccusing, nondefensive, warm, intimate tone. Of course, if I can think of how to modify what was said, I still change the tone. None of the changes listed below would do much good if they were stated in the partner’s original angry, defensive, arrogant, sarcastic, contemptuous, or distant tone.

2. OMIT THE BLAMING. An important way to turn a partner’s fight-fostering comment into a conversation-fostering one is, of course, to omit (or at least reduce) the blaming, accusations, anger, attack. Lynn says to Fred, “You’re selfish, immature, and totally irresponsible to go out to a bar with your office pals after work, and come home late for dinner. You’re probably flirting with what’s-her-name in the next cubicle.” Moving in and speaking for Lynn, I say, “I’m going to restate what you just said but change the tone in order to help you get your message across to Fred. In my version, Lynn, you’d say, ‘I hope you can understand why I might be upset about your going to a bar and coming home late and why, given the situation, I might be imagining all kinds of things like your flirting with other women’.”

3. REPORT THE BLAMING. Another way to eliminate (or at least reduce) the toxic fight-fostering effect of blaming is to report the anger rather than unload it. Bob says angrily to George, “You’re nasty and mean-spirited and never think of anybody but yourself!” I move over and speak for Bob in an effort to show him what it would sound like if he were to talk about the anger rather than from within it. I say for Bob, “I can’t remember when I’ve felt as angry at you as I do now” or “As you can see, I’m still furious about that comment you made this morning” or “At times like this when I’m really angry at you, I forget all that I like about you and just see you in a super negative way.”

The effect of such reporting is to create a platform, a perch, a meta-level, a vantage point above the fray from which Bob confides being angry. Most of the other interventions on this list create such a platform or vantage point.

4. ADD OR SUBSTITUTE HEARTFELT FEELINGS. In a fight, people lose the ability to make “I” statements. They lose contact with their vulnerable, heartfelt feelings and become “you” statement generating machines. In speaking for a partner, I uncover these vulnerable feelings: the wishes, fears, worries, longings, disappointments, self-reproaches, shame, guilt, self-hate, loneliness, and so on. I reveal the “I” statement hidden in the “you” statement. Here, as in other instances in which I guess what the partner might be thinking or feeling, I use information gleaned from earlier in the therapy, label my comments as speculations (saying, for example, “I give myself about a 30% chance of being right”), and check back to see if my guess was correct (“Where was I right and where was I wrong?”). At times I recast much of the partner’s original statement, changing “you” statements to “I” statements. Sometimes, as in the following examples, I append a vulnerable feeling (an “I” statement) to the partner’s attack.

John snaps at Judy, “You’re being selfish thinking of going back to school when you’ve got our kids to take care of, and in this rotten economy. Don’t you ever think of anybody but yourself?” Moving in and speaking for John to Judy, I append “… and I worry that your going to school might be the first step toward your leaving me.”

Sylvia says to Bob angrily, “I’m tired of always being the one who has to manage the family: schedule everything, make all the phone calls, assign all the chores.” In saying “I’m tired,” her comment appears to be an “I” statement. But implied is: “You don’t do your part,” “You take me for granted,” and “You’re selfish and irresponsible.” Moving over and speaking for her to Bob, I add the following clearer underlying “I” statement to what she just said: “I feel lonely” or “I don’t like the kind of person I’ve become in this relationship.”

5. APPEND A QUESTION THAT TURNS THE PARTNER’S MONOLOGUE INTO A DIALOGUE In an effort to make their cases, partners often give little lectures presenting their evidence, making speeches, pronouncements, or indictments. They deliver monologues. I try to turn these monologues into dialogues by appending a dialogue-creating question. Sue expounds on her knowledge of interior decorating and denigrates Phil’s taste in an attempt to prove to him that she should have the larger say in what furniture to buy. Moving over and speaking for her to Phil, I append to what she just said, “What do you think about what I’m saying?” or “Am I convincing you?” or “You probably disagree with most of what I just said. Am I right?” or “Is there any part of what I’m saying that you agree with?”

6. ACKNOWLEDGE. In a fight, each partner argues his/her case and either ignores or refutes that of the other. Neither acknowledges the validity of any of the other’s points or admits weaknesses in his/her own case. In speaking for partners, I do this acknowledging and admitting for them by doing one or more of the following:

• Acknowledge what the other partner has been trying to say
• Agree with parts of it
• Recognize the other partner’s efforts or achievements
• Appreciate the difficult position the other partner is in
• Admit his/her (the person on whose behalf I’m speaking) own role in the problem
• Confide doubts about the validity or fairness of what he/she is saying
• Express concern about how the other partner might hear what he/she is saying

Acknowledge what the other partner has been trying to say. In a fight, each partner feels too unheard to listen, which is what keeps the fight going. In speaking for a partner, I do the listening for him/her. I demonstrate how it would sound if this person were to do a bit of active listening and acknowledge what the other partner has been trying to say.

Judy complains to Bill, “Are you at all aware that you hardly ever talk to me except to complain about things I haven’t done right.” Bill pays no attention to this and, instead, tells her what is on his mind: “You forgot to lock the front door again.” Judy pays no attention to this and, instead, repeats her concern: “That’s all you care about—the front door. What about the fact that we never talk about anything important, like about us?” Bill says, “Keeping the door locked is important. We’ve got a lot of valuable stuff in here. You’ve got to think about that.” Judy says, “I’ll tell you what you’ve got to think about, and it’s that I’m starting to feel closer to my friends than I do to you.” Bill says, “But this is serious. Half the time you don’t lock the door; it’s just luck that we haven’t been robbed.” Judy says, “Speaking of robbed, I feel totally alone in this relationship.” Bill says, “All I’m asking is for you to be a little more careful when you leave the house.” The partners go back and forth repeating their point (because the other appears not to have heard it), paying little attention to what the other is saying.

Moving over and speaking for Judy, I say, “I know you’re worried about my not locking the door, but I can’t listen to that right now because I’m so frustrated that you won’t listen to my concern, which is that we never have intimate conversations.” I could just as easily have moved over and spoken for Bill, saying: “I know you’re saying that I don’t talk enough, but I can’t listen to that right now because I’m so frustrated that you won’t listen to my concern about locking the door.”

Agree with parts of what the other partner has been trying to say. In a fight, neither partner gets the satisfaction of having the other agree with anything. Each partner rebuts or ignores what the other says. In speaking for a partner, I do the agreeing for him/her. “You have a good point that I…and I have a good point that….” Or, “If we weren’t in the middle of a fight, I’d admit to you that you are making some good points.”

Often I turn to one partner and say, “I’m going to repeat what you just said, but begin by agreeing, which would then put you in a better position to make your point.”

Gloria criticizes Ed for being too harsh with the kids. Ed criticizes Gloria for being too lenient. The argument goes back and forth in this way for some time. Moving over and speaking for Gloria, remembering what she had said in a previous session, I say, “You’re right that I can be too soft with the kids. I need to work on that. My concern right now is to get you to consider that maybe you’re too hard on them.”

Paul criticizes Cheryl for something she did. Cheryl’s justification seems to convince Paul, but instead of acknowledging that, he goes on to make another complaint. I say, “Paul, were you feeling at that moment, ‘Okay Cheryl, you convinced me. But it just reminds me of something else I’m upset about, which is that…’”

Recognize (at times even celebrate) the other partner’s efforts or achievements. Sam proudly describes doing what Ann had asked him to do—pay the bills and clean the bathrooms. Ann replies, “Yes, that’s good. It’s about time. You act like you’re still single. You don’t take responsibility.” Moving over and speaking for her talking to Sam, I say, “You obviously paid attention to what I asked for last time. That’s wonderful! I really appreciate it. I hadn’t thought you would. But—and I’ll make this a multiple-choice question, Ann—A, I don’t want to get too excited about it and get my hopes up that the change is permanent, or, B, it’s too small a part of what I want to be really excited about. Ann, is it A or B. Or is it C, something else entirely?” (When I am uncertain what the person is feeling, I often ask such a multiple choice question.)

In her original statement, Ann skipped over Sam’s achievement. I try to show how it might make sense that she did so and how it would sound if she hadn’t done so.

Appreciate the difficult position the other partner is in. In a fight, each partner feels too unempathized with to empathize, too worn down by his/her own struggle to notice that the partner is caught in one, too. In speaking for partners, I do the appreciating, empathizing, and noticing for them.

Sara says to Ralph, “You never stand up for me when your mother pulls one of her numbers.” Ralph says, “Can’t you just do what everyone else in the family does—just accept that that’s how Mom has always been and realize there’s no way to change her.” Hearing this argument, I look for the right time and moment to say for Ralph, “I feel bad that I haven’t protected you from my mother” and for Sara, “I see how you’re caught in the middle.”

Admit his/her own role in the problem. In a fight, each partner blames the other partner for the problem and denies or minimizes his/her part in it. In speaking for a partner, I do the admitting for him/her. “I came home frustrated and took it out on you.” Or, “I overreacted.” Or “I know it didn’t help that I…” Or, “I’m suddenly seeing you as my father, which I know isn’t fair” Or, “I’m feeling hurt, but you have no way of knowing that, because my hurt is coming out as anger.”

Express concern about how the other partner might hear what he/she is saying. In a fight, partners lower their heads and bull ahead without acknowledging that what they are saying is provocative. In speaking for a partner, I do the acknowledging for him/her, often as a kind of prefacing statement. I say, “I know you never like it when I bring this up, and that’s why I mostly keep it to myself, but it’s been really bothering me lately so I need to say something…” or “I know this is a criticism, but I need to say it anyway” or “I’m angry, so I’m probably not saying this in the best possible way” or “I hope you see my distress peering through my anger,” or “This could get us into trouble, but I want to talk about it anyway” or “I wish I could find a way to say it that wasn’t a criticism because there’s something important here that I want to get you to see.”

Admit doubts about the validity or fairness of what he/she is saying. In a fight, partners focus on making their case. They put aside (and often lose awareness of) any doubts or reservations they might have about what they are saying. In speaking for a partner, I reintroduce these doubts or reservations. I say, “I know this isn’t fair, but it’s on my mind so I want to say it anyway and it’s that…” or “I know I’m on shaky ground here because I do the same thing myself, but…” or “I go back and forth between blaming myself for this problem and blaming you and, as you can see, at the moment, I’m deeply into blaming you” or “For a fraction of a second I was pleased by the lovely thing you did—and began to hope that it meant that you’ve really changed—but then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not going to get my hopes up just to be disappointed again’” or “I know I’m difficult to live with, so I probably don’t have a right to complain about something you do that’s so minor, but here it is…”

In speaking for partners, I try to make their case more effectively than they had been able to do so themselves. I repeat what they had just said but now in a more disarming, engaging, and heartfelt way. At times, I shorten what they have said and at times lengthen it. At times I reformulate what they have said and at other times append something to it. My effort in each case is to restate what the partners have just said in a way that will give them greater satisfaction and that their partner will be better able to hear.

My purpose here was to list the principles I use for arriving at my statements for partners in an effort to turn their blaming statements into intimate ones.
Filed under: Couples Therapy
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