The Therapist and the Marriage

The Therapist and the Marriage

by James Rudes, PhD & Guillermo Cancio-Bello, LMFT
Marriage, as a two-headed entity, can be doubly challenging for a therapist to treat. Here's how to find a focus that works.
Filed Under: Career Counseling, Couples


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A Marriage Fable

One bright morning, as the therapist was sitting by his window watching the clouds, in walked a marriage. It had one body with two heads. This was not the first marriage the therapist had seen, as he had been working at his craft for some time and had met many marriages with many different forms.

“Hello,” he greeted the marriage, inviting it to sit, watching as it shifted in its seat, straining to get comfortable. “What brings you in?”

One of the marriage’s heads mumbled under its breath, sighed, and then the other one began to talk. Moments later, the marriage became distraught, each head trying to speak over the other.

these marriages will devour anyone who tries to fix them
The therapist reminded himself that these marriages will devour anyone who tries to fix them or tell them what to do. They are sensitive in that way.

Each of the heads began to blame the other, asking how they could get the other to change, declaring what the other did wrong… As it argued with itself, the marriage kept growing and growing, beginning to press against the therapist.

The therapist wanted to push the marriage away, tell it to stop. But he knew that doing so would only make it grow larger, and that he would then be lost forever.

He anchored himself to his own thoughts, to his curiosities about the marriage, and raising his inquisitive pen, said, “I have a question.”

The marriage shrank slightly at the sound of his voice, allowing him to take a deep breath. He recalled everything he knew about the origins and histories of marriages, and he focused on it.

“Was there ever a time,” he asked one of the heads, “when you had your own body?”

The other head jumped in immediately and started to speak, and the marriage started to grow again. But the therapist spoke up, “Actually, I was speaking to this head, and would like to hear what they have to say.”

As the one head began to talk, the marriage shrank again, further this time. Then the therapist spoke to the other head. And as the therapist addressed each head, one at a time, the marriage began to shrink, until it was smaller than the form with which it entered. As the therapist stood, the marriage noticed for the first time since the day it was born that it had two bodies as well as two heads.

“Well,” said the therapist, “it was nice to meet you.” He brushed off some of the dust that had fallen from where the marriage had earlier scraped against the ceiling.

“Goodbye,” said the marriage, “Goodbye.” And, noticing its separateness, the marriage felt closer and more open than it had ever been.

The therapist smiled and went to write down his latest encounter with a marriage.

A Bowenian Paradox

In the emotional closeness of marriage, the two partial “selfs” fuse into a common “self.”
 Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p.473

A marriage with one body and two heads is a marriage where each person has lost “self” to the relationship.

a marriage with one body and two heads is a marriage where each person has lost “self” to the relationship
But what is self? Let’s begin by saying what it’s not. It is not rugged individualism, nor is it isolation or being an island; it is not denying connections to others or to one’s environment, nor is it selfishness. The idea of “self” has more to do with the ability to stay in your own skin while being connected to important others. None of us are as good or adept at this as we think we are. We all fall prey to relationship pressures, which are ever-present and in constant operation. When confronted with the pressures and tensions inherent in all relationships, we tend to react in automatic ways to alleviate those very pressures and tensions. The irony is that those automatic reactions serve as fuel that helps drive the pressures they are attempting to relieve.

So the problem is that the things we do to relieve relationship tensions often exacerbate them. This happens because our automatic reactions emerge from the instinctual part of us, with little to no clear thinking attached to them. Those reactions are driven by emotions and feelings. In fact, much of the time we will tell ourselves we are thinking clearly, when in actuality we are thinking the thoughts our emotions and feelings suggest. In other words, it is often our emotions and feelings that drive and guide our thinking, rather than our thinking governing our emotions and feelings. When we react emotionally, guided by feeling, it tends to add to the relationship pressures to which others are equally reactive. Both people end up reacting to the pressures and tensions each helps to create. The more intimate the relationship, the more potential for intensity to increase and stimulate our reactivity. This happens because human relationships are reciprocal; each person contributes to what happens, as each person influences and is influenced by others.

the degree of our reactivity is connected to the degree to which we are able to be a self in relationship. The less defined we are as a self, the more reactive we tend to be
The degree of our reactivity is connected to the degree to which we are able to be a self in relationship. The less defined we are as a self, the more reactive we tend to be. The more defined we are as a self, the less reactive and more thoughtful we can be.

Being a self in a relationship has little to do with what you say, i.e. communication, and has a lot to do with your ability to separate your clear and principled thinking from thinking clouded and governed by the emotionality of the moment. The ability to be a self will be communicated by what you do, not what you say. If you can work on being clear, calm, and thoughtful in the intensities of a relationship, the other person will respond to that. Reciprocity works in both directions; it can work to increase tensions, or it can work to calm things down.

The less defined we are as a self, the more of ourselves we trade in relationship to others. Borrowing and trading of self is a way people adapt to each other to reduce anxiety. In a marriage, people tend to be in relationship to those of the same emotional maturity, and so each has about the same amount of self to give up to the relationship. That giving-up, however, is not a thoughtful and principled support of the other, but is, rather, a reactive attempt to mitigate the anxiety generated by relationship pressures and tensions. That giving-up is automatic and reactive. This is not to say that people do not thoughtfully support their spouse in certain ways, but that much of what we do in relationships is more automatic and driven more by our reactions to perceived pressures than we think.

This is how a marriage can become a monster with one body and two heads. It happens slowly over time, as two people give up more and more self to the relationship through their automatic reactions, which begin as attempts to stabilize the relationship tensions and manage their own anxiety. This process can begin with people in radiant love and end with people feeling war-torn and distant. This has less to do with whether the marriage is “the right one” or whether it’s “good or bad,” and more to do with how each person has managed the tensions and anxiety that are present in the relationship. The more of the self that people give up in reactive ways to the relationship, the less flexible and adaptable they will be, and the more rigid and inflexible the relationship will become.

People are drawn to the comfort, support, and affection of intimate relationships. The desire for closeness pulls us together. That togetherness can be the source of both satisfaction and anxiety. We desire closeness and togetherness with others but can be allergic to too much of it.

For instance, in the beginning of the marriage, one spouse was viewed by the other as a good listener, but over time, that “listening” becomes viewed by the other as passivity, and the “listener” begins to be pressured to talk, to say something, anything. Perhaps they will be accused of never having an opinion. What the “listener” does not realize is that a large part of their listening was emotional distance they employed to manage their own anxiety over the relationship intensity. What the “talker” does not realize is that their intensity had more to do with the off-loading of anxiety than about thoughtful sharing with the other. In the beginning, this off-loading of anxiety, and the listener’s passively distancing from it, managed the intensity of the relationship. It was the desire for closeness in the relationship that enabled the pattern to be successful for the length of time it was. Thank goodness it happens that way, or we might never enter into marriages. Over time, however, the initial pattern becomes less effective. Neither partner has an awareness of this deeper emotional process of off-loading and distance. What drew them toward a comfortable togetherness in the beginning, now pushes them apart.

This couple will often come to therapy each believing the other is the problem. One thinks the other is passive, while the one labeled “passive” believes the other is too “intense” and needs to calm down.

The reality is that each person is overly sensitive to the emotional state of the other and is reacting to the pressures of the relationship by automatically focusing more on the other. Under stress and pressure, our focus shifts toward others because we are threat-assessing creatures. This can be useful if it is used to plan and adapt to difficulty. It becomes problematic when our thoughtfulness is overrun by our emotions. It loses its adaptive quality and will inevitably exacerbate the issue that makes us anxious. When we react automatically to relieve the anxiety of the moment, we further entrench ourselves in problematic patterns.

a marriage with one body and two heads is an instinctual creature, tuned in to threat, and ready to react by fighting, running, or becoming static
In the example above, each partner reacted to relationship pressures by off-loading on one side, and distancing on the other. Initially this process managed the anxiety, but over time it added to the degree of anxiety in the relationship.

A marriage with one body and two heads is an instinctual creature, tuned in to threat, and ready to react by fighting, running, or becoming static. Each person has become absorbed in their reactivity to the other, and neither is doing any clear thinking for self. Because the marriage has two heads, each person believes they are thinking clearly, but they do not realize the degree to which they are bound-up and fused emotionally as one body.

“Fixing” a Marriage

As a therapist, you cannot do surgery. It is not your job to try to pull each person back into their own body. That attempt will surely end up in the marriage’s absorbing you. Nor does improving communication fix the issue; rather, this enables two heads to talk about their one body more efficiently without anything changing.

So what can you do? I believe that question begins with thinking differently about who is in your office. When you are sitting with a marriage, are you finding yourself siding with one spouse over another? Do you see the “problem” as being isolated within one individual? If so, you are thinking in a cause-and-effect framework and not in terms of reciprocity. Cause-and-effect thinking will inevitably lead a therapist to the position of “fixing” a marriage. At best, a cause-and-effect framework keeps the therapist focused on behavioral dynamics. But helping people shift their behavior or dynamics doesn’t address the emotional process underlying a relationship issue. When the therapist is bound up in cause-and-effect approaches, the end result will always be an involvement in the dynamics the therapist is trying to help the couple shift.

we are born into a multigenerational emotional process, and each time we enter a relationship, we carry that inheritance with us as we attempt to define ourselves in that relationship
Thinking reciprocally means leaving cause-and-effect behind when it comes to relationships. Reciprocal thinking means seeing the mutual influence of the relationship; that each person contributes to the creation of a relationship atmosphere to which both respond or react. This isn’t just about behavior. Behaviors are only markers of a person’s degree of self. Behaviors point to an underlying emotional process. That emotional process is not isolated within the individual, it is alive in the interactions between people. We are born into a multigenerational emotional process, and each time we enter a relationship, we carry that inheritance with us as we attempt to define ourselves in that relationship. Our inheritance determines the baseline of our ability to define a self in those relationships.

Thinking in terms of reciprocity is a broad-view perspective in which the therapist is focused on the interactions between people rather than what occurs within an isolated mind.

From that perspective, a therapist can ask questions about the interactions, helping people to think about what they are doing rather than to react to the emotions generated by the other. Getting people to think about their contribution to the reciprocity in a relationship is perhaps the most important step toward making a deep and lasting functional shift in that relationship. That shift however comes from observing, focusing on, and managing one’s self, not the other. Helping people think reciprocally presents the idea that improving a relationship comes from improving one’s own functioning in that relationship, regardless of the other. If one person in the relationship takes on the challenge of defining their self more thoughtfully, they will begin the process of separating themselves emotionally from the fusion in the relationship. That definition is not emotional distance, nor is it selfishness. It allows one person to be more thoughtful about what they do in that relationship. In fact, a marriage with two heads and two bodies means each person is thinking and acting for self in ways that improve and grow the relationship. That marriage will be more open, flexible, and equal, each person free to be themselves and bring their thoughts and feelings to the other.

In order to help people think reciprocally, the therapist must maintain a broad view of whomever is sitting with them. If the therapist can maintain that perspective and focus on reciprocity, they will be of more use to their clients. From that position, the therapist is less likely to get caught up in the emotional dynamics of the relationships that walk into their office and will have a greater freedom and openness in their position to ask questions that help others think about their part in the relationships that make up their life.

Working on self is an idea that translates to all relationships. Just as working on the marriage means working on one’s own part, being effective therapeutically increases with the ability of the therapist to manage themselves.


Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation. NY: W. W. Norton & Co.  

© 2020, LLC
James Rudes, PhD, LMFT, is an Assistant Professor in the Adrian Dominican School of Education at Barry University. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is also an AAMFT (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy) Approved Supervisor. He recently completed a three-year training program in Bowen family systems and is on the Board of the Florida Family Research Network. The author of numerous publications, Dr. Rudes is best known for his contributions to narrative and postmodern applications to counseling and therapy. As of late, he is exploring Bowen Theory and experimenting with applying it to Postmodern practices. An ongoing project is researching the light at the end of the tunnel.

Guillermo Cancio-Bello, LMFT is the director of The November Institute, where he teaches, coaches, speaks and writes about relationship systems and emotional management. Guillermo's work is grounded in Bowenian Theory, a theory of natural family systems, and is informed by the natural sciences. He works to help people grow their perspective, awareness, maturity, and ability to manage themselves in relationship to others, especially when they're under stress and experiencing anxiety. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in counseling at Barry University, where he is an associate professor, and is on the board of the Florida Family Research Network. He has an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and an MS in Counseling from Barry University. He lives in Miami, Florida, with his wife and two dogs.