Empowering Clients in Couples Therapy By Dan Wile, PhD on 10/7/10 - 5:50 PM

When I do couple therapy, I bring partners in on my concerns about what is happening in the session. If I am concerned that one partner might feel I’m siding against him or her, I might say, “Ben, I’ve just realized I spent more time today developing Lisa’s position today than I have yours. Is that your sense, too? And if so, do you feel left out or sided against or ganged up on?” The person (here Ben) often responds with something like, “Well, I was wondering when someone would start getting interested in what I have to say” or “Lisa doesn’t talk about any of these things at home. I’m just happy it’s all coming out.”
If I’m concerned that the partners are not getting at what they need to get at, I say, “Are we talking about what we need to talk about or are there other things we should get to today?” or “Will you suddenly remember on the way home that there was something you wish you’d brought up?” I am trying to decrease the likelihood that they will raise important issues as they walk out the door, that is, when there is no time to talk about them.
If I can’t tell whether the partners are repeating the frustrating conversation they have at home (in which case I need to do something about it) or are covering new ground, I ask, “Is this the kind of conversation you have at home or are you saying some new things?” or “Are you getting something out of this fight—a chance to say a few things or hear a few things? Or is it frustrating and the kind of fight that you’ve come to therapy to stop?" or “In what ways is this conversation useful and in what ways is it not so useful?” 
If I’m concerned that they are going to leave the session angry and alienated, I might say “We have only 5 minutes left and it looks like you are going to leave the session angry and alienated. What is it going to be like on the way home? How long is the bad feeling likely to last and how are you likely to work out of it?”
I get the partners’ help in figuring out what the session is about. At the end of each session, I ask, “What are you taking away from this session that’s useful, if anything, and what has been not so great about it?”
Some years ago Lynn Hoffman wrote about putting clients on the board of directors. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m appealing to the partners as consultants in dealing with the problems I am having conducting the therapy. By appealing to them in this way, I am creating a perch (a platform, a metalevel) from which the three of us can look at what is going on in the therapy, providing a sense of safety (they’re not left wondering what I’m thinking; I’m telling them), modeling how they could confide in each other (a goal I have for them is to develop such a platform with each other), and doing something for myself (it’s relieving to be able to share the problem with the couple).

File under: Couples Therapy