Powerful Therapy Strategies for Healing Wounded Couples By Robert Johansen PhD on 1/24/23 - 11:18 AM

I remember greeting them for the first time in the lobby of my office. At first glance, they seemed like gentle people, kind to each other and to me. As they entered the corridor leading to my office, he deferred to her, politely allowing her to go before him as they entered the room. I recall thinking to myself, “I wonder why they're here?”

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But apparently this had been performance art, a quick bowing to public expectation. Soon after taking their seats, finding themselves safely sequestered behind closed doors and out of public earshot, those first-impression niceties vanished, and the emotional floodgates burst wide open. With what seemed like the disgorging of years of pent-up acrimony, accusations began to fly like the shrapnel of a bomb blast.

The First Salvo

She was first to launch her attack with the speed of a knee-jerk reflex. “He never listens to me...We don't communicate at all... I try to talk to him but it's like talking to a brick wall... I get so angry at him! I've tried everything.” Each new rendition of her complaining was an embellished and emphatic iteration of the previous one. Notably, throughout her hair-pulling allegations, her eyes fixed solicitously upon me, as though she were expecting me to jump into the fray—once she'd fully discharged her accusations—and like a biased, one-sided arbiter, I was to join her in a corrective condemnation of her partner. Instead, probably to her great disappointment, I looked back at her with an empathic expression of heartfelt concern for her gnawing frustrations and deep hurt.

Amid her scalding allegations, her partner sat stoically, appearing inured to the barrage of insults and blaming he'd no doubt endured many times before. Then, with the first lull in her opening assault, when her “guns” appeared emptied and before she could “reload,” his defensive counter-indicting assault began with a fury matching hers, “She is always critical... She's so negative and judgmental... Nothing I do is right... I walk on eggshells all the time... It never used to be this bad... She used to be kind and loving... Now look at her... I don't know what happened.”

I've learned the hard way not to allow raw venting such as this to continue unharnessed for too long. I've found, probably as you have, that if “law and order” aren't soon imposed, the potential for a productive session soon diminishes, and can even irrevocably tip over into non or counterproductivity. I typically jump in quickly, stop the mudslinging, and administer another dosing of empathy, followed by questions such as “Did you just give me a sample of how you talk to each other at home? If so, how do these conversations usually run their course?” As you might imagine, their answers are predictable: “Not good...We get nowhere...Things just get worse....”

Opening a Window

After allowing a moment for their answers to percolate, I typically find it therapeutically helpful to ask, “Do you think your upsets could be this intense were it not for the fact that each of you brings to the other important personal needs, indeed, very valid ones?” Of course, this is a therapeutically-baited question with a largely calculable answer. But the question also flings open a window onto a wider batch of potentially therapeutic questions, like: “Wouldn't you agree the legitimacy of your needs is clearly evidenced by the strength of the emotions that attend them? And because of the importance of your needs, don't they beg for your best reasoning and problem-solving, in short, your best need management? Wouldn't this be more achievable in an emotional atmosphere of nonjudgementalism, mutual acceptance and respect?” More time for percolating.

In the case above, and once we collaboratively agreed on these goals, I turned to her first and asked the seemingly obvious question: “Can you identify the basic needs at the heart of your arguments?” Her answer came swiftly: “I need him to listen to me.” I replied with a quick confirmation and a slight tweaking of her response, “Yes, your need is to be listened to, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.” Then while my confirmation was still fresh, I turned to him and pointedly asked, “Is your wife's need to be listened to a valid one?” Put in this strategic manner, his affirming response was all but guaranteed because her need had been stripped of its biting and condemning emotional overlay, its legitimacy laid bare with plain and calculated neutrality. So, expectedly, his affirmative response was speedy and unequivocal. Then, without hesitating, I again responded with a deliberate, co-confirming, “I agree, your wife's need is valid.”

Now, in turn, I directed the same questions at him, first by asking him to clearly identify his needs. Foreseeably, he answered, “I want to be treated kindly and with respect.” Following the same protocol, I confirmed the legitimacy of his need which had just been divested of its own attention-gobbling, counterattacking emotion and was now openly “on parade” for its indisputable validity. Now, turning back to her, I asked in the same manner, “Does your husband's need for kindness and respect seem reasonable to you?” Again, you can guess her answer.

The stage was now set to bullhorn what had become increasingly obvious. Formerly vitriolic and contentious partners were questioning their use of blame and accusation and were now instead marching to the tune of mutual respect.

Moving Forward

I’ve been fortunate enough to apply this technique with relative effectiveness, so it has been my experience, and I suspect yours as well, that this purposeful trio of empathy, caring, and genuinely curious question-raising can soften these “marital combatants” to a degree that their cognitive flexibilities and problem-solving skills become more accessible. Once this appears clear, I drive home the same critical point. “Could you be at odds with each other to this extent over needs that possess little, or no personal significance? And given the in-your-face evidence of the strength of your personal needs and the intense emotions that orbit them, what if we were to carefully examine how you manage them now, and maybe better, how you might more effectively manage them moving forward?”

The demanding work of implementing this strategy outside of therapy certainly belonged to the couple and others like them, but in my experience, these partners leave my office with a helpful set of tools, a cause for optimism, and hope for re-connection.

Questions for Thought

What is your reaction to the author’s approach to dealing with “warring” couples?

How do you address anger and blaming in your own couples work?

Can you think of a warring couple that you successfully helped? One with whom you were not successful and why?


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy