Dan Wile on Collaborative Couples Therapy

Dan Wile on Collaborative Couples Therapy

by Ruth Wetherford
The founder of Collaborative Couples Therapy discusses the power of negative thinking, the pleasure of being non-defensive, and other strategies for effective couples therapy.


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The Interview

Ruth Wetherford: Dan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Psychotherapy.net. I'm delighted to be interviewing you to bring more information about collaborative couple therapy to the world. Let's start with the question of how you got into psychology. How did that happen for you?
Dan Wile: Well, it was in the family. My mother is a psychiatrist, and my sister became a social worker. I was planning to be a psychiatrist myself. But when I went to the University of Chicago, I discovered that if I was going to be pre-med, I wouldn't be able to take the University of Chicago Great Books courses. So I decided at that point to be a psychologist.
RW: In your writing, you often credit the work of Berkeley psychologist Bernard Apfelbaum for contributing to your ideas. Do you have specific memories of working with him that stand out for you?
DW: A bunch of us would meet with him every month, we'd present all kinds of ideas and cases, and he'd always come up with a fascinating new angle for looking at the matter. He seemed to be thinking at a higher level than practically everyone else I knew. Whenever I do therapy, I think, "What would Bernie say about this situation?"

The Importance of Non-Pejorative Interpretations

RW: The growing emphasis in psychotherapy on the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client, more than on the accuracy of interpretation, has contributed to a cultural milieu perhaps more receptive to your ideas, and your approach is gaining more interest and attention in recent years. What is it about your work that makes it more appealing to people at this point in the development of the profession?
DW: I use my relationship with my client couples to improve the accuracy of my interpretations. I make guesses about what they're thinking and feeling but not saying, check with them whether these guesses are accurate, and revise my statements according to what they say. We figure out together what's true about them. And I use my interpretations to create a collaborative relationship with the partners. They like the fact that I take their view of the matter into account, and, in fact, make them the final arbiter of the accuracy of the interpretation. And they like that my theory of personality and relationships leads to interpretations that are non-pejorative. That was the problem with the old style of interpretations and what got them into disrepute—they were pejorative.
RW: Interpretations frequently imply blame, and have the pejorative connotations you just referred to. Your approach emphasizes the opposite of that: acceptance.
A big problem in couple therapy is that we react to clients in the same way partners do with each other when they fight.
A big problem in couple therapy is that we react to clients in the same way partners do with each other when they fight. When clients act in an arrogant, bullying, or other off-putting way, we get angry at them—though, of course, in a much milder way than the partners do with each other. Being angry, we think of these clients in pejorative terms, make pejorative interventions, and lose the ability to look at things from their point of view. When a client says or does something off-putting, you can stand back in negative judgment and say to yourself, "Well, this is borderline or sadistic or passive-aggressive,"—or you can imagine what it's like being in that person's position and what inner struggle the person is engaged in that's leading them to be stuck in this off-putting behavior. I spend a lot of my effort in couple therapy trying to recognize when I'm standing back in negative judgment so I can overcome it.
RW: That process of putting yourself in the other's position and seeing how it makes sense that they could be stuck—is that what you call empathy?
DW: Yes, that's a good way to put it
RW: Would you discuss the centrality of empathy in your work?
DW: A big problem in couple therapy is finding yourself siding with one partner against the other, feeling unempathic. And that's not a place where you can do therapy. So I try to think how to shift out of my pejorative view of this person and imagine what it's like being in their shoes and seeing the hidden reasonableness in their seemingly unreasonable and irrational behavior. If I can get myself in a mood where I'm not reacting to them, I can make a pretty good guess as to what that is or think of questions to ask that would bring it out.
RW: You're pointing to the importance of self-control of the therapist's own emotional reactions. Do you have some tools you can share or ways that you manage yourself internally?
DW: I have three tools. First,
just recognizing that I am reacting and viewing them in negative ways may be enough to shift me into a more compassionate place
just recognizing that I am reacting and viewing them in negative ways may be enough to shift me into a more compassionate place and enable me to begin to look at things from their point of view. If that isn't enough, the second thing is I have slogans—statements I make to myself or questions I ask myself—that remind me of my theory and help me shift to a more compassionate mode.

One slogan is, "My job is to become spokesperson for the partner I find myself siding against." Another is, "What is the internal struggle this person is having?" It's great to ask myself that question because until I ask it, I don't think there is an internal struggle—I think that person is just enjoying being provocative. Another question I ask myself is: "What is the vulnerable feeling that, because the person can't express it, is causing this person to act in this off-putting way as a fallback measure?" Still another question is: "What can I say or ask that will enable the person to feel listened to?"

If these slogans and questions aren't enough to get me out of my adversarial state, the third thing I do is I try to get myself out of this state by expressing what I need to say to clear my gills, just as I try to get partners out of their adversarial state by helping them express what they need to say.

One of the advantages of couple therapy is you can move in and speak for the partner. I use a psychodrama kind of method—
I move over and kneel next to the person I am speaking for.
I move over and kneel next to the person I am speaking for. For example, if I'm reacting to how one partner seems to be bulling the other, I can move over and, speaking for that person, I can say, "When you get bullying like this, I just stop listening and wonder why I'm in this relationship." The partner I'm speaking for usually likes this, and I feel much better—so much so, in fact, that I'm suddenly able to look at things from the point of view of the bullying partner. My feeling of empathy has returned for that person and I move over and make a confiding statement for him.
RW: What might that be?
DW: I might say for that person, "Well, I know that you don't listen to me when I come on strong like this. I feel helpless and get frustrated. I've lost some friends because I've come across this way. But there's something important I'm trying to say and I wish I could find a way to say it that doesn't blow you away." Of course, I would immediately check with this person to see which parts of this, if any, capture how he feels.

Finding the Leading-Edge Feeling

RW: You talk about the "leading edge," and I know that's one of your core concepts. Say more about the leading edge and how you try to elicit the couple to talk about this.
DW: Well, I figure that, at any given moment, there is a thought or a feeling each person is having that is who they are at the moment. It's what Marshall Rosenberg calls "what's alive at the moment." If there's going to be intimacy between the two partners, this is what each needs to confide to the other and feel that it gets across.
I'm looking, at any given moment, for the feeling the person needs to express that would make them sigh with relief and feel closer to their partner.
I'm looking, at any given moment, for the feeling the person needs to express that would make them sigh with relief and feel closer to their partner. And the term "leading-edge feeling" sort of captures what I have in mind.
RW: It seems like at any given moment there could be any number of feelings that they're having, such as, "I'd better keep my mouth shut—I'm scared." Another one could be, "I feel lonely; I feel distance." Another one could be, "I'm so angry—I don't deserve this." How do you determine which is the more salient or the one you want to focus on more?
DW: I may be wrong, but I think that there is just one leading-edge feeling at any given moment—but it can quickly shift from, to use your example, fear to loneliness to resentment. But you're right that if I ask partners a multiple-choice question, they might pick the leading-edge feeling they had two moments before, one moment before, or right now.
RW: A multiple-choice question.
DW: If people don't respond when you ask them how they feel, you can help them along by suggesting possibilities. I might say, "Let me make it a multiple choice question: Are you feeling, A, hurt, or B, angry, or C, lonely, or D, something else entirely?"
RW: You're very clear that you want people to feel more connected by increasingly confiding their inner vulnerabilities in a way that can be understood by the other. But when you're trying to get them to reveal those things and they're presenting their default modes of anger or withdrawal, you don't shy away from that. How does that work?
DW: Well, at times withdrawing or being angry is a leading-edge feeling. So I would help people capture that. I might help them express their anger in a way that is more satisfying to them and easier for their partners to hear. Moving over and speaking for them, I might say, "I'm still fuming about what you said ten minutes ago. I'm not even listening to anything you're saying. It wiped me out." I'm hoping that the person I'm speaking for will express a sigh of relief and, when I ask whether I got her feelings right, will improve what I said to make it more accurate. If a partner is withdrawing, I'd try to give words to that. I'd move over next to that person and, speaking for that person, say, "Well, when you say what you just did, I get despairing, and feel hopeless about us and kind of give up and don't have anything to say." A statement like this—if the person were able to make it—is the way for that person to be intimate at that moment.
RW: It seems like so much of your method is in the nonverbals: your tone of voice and your facial expressions that imply what you want is for them to get closer by being able to confide and have so-called "elegant conversation." You seem to be equally accepting of rancor and disconnection—you believe it's just as important to talk about that as well. Is that right?
DW: That's right. I'm looking for the leading-edge feeling of the moment, and it could be any feeling, positive or negative. I'm always thinking that there's a way of confiding it rather than just acting from within it.
RW: That reminds me of another thing you emphasize, which is the "relationship atmosphere." Talk about that.
DW: My focus in a couple is whether they're in an adversarial cycle, which means fighting—either a quiet one or a loud one—or a withdrawn cycle in which they're disengaged, or an intimate cycle in which they're expressing their leading-edge feelings and it's getting across to the other person. Those are three different moods that a couple goes through. And my task is to shift them from the withdrawn or adversarial mood they're in, into the collaborative one.
RW: That's where intimacy occurs.
DW: That's right. That's intimacy. And
sometimes I show them what it would look like by enacting the conversation they'd be having right then if they weren't angry at each other, but instead were feeling intimate.
sometimes I show them what it would look like by enacting the conversation they'd be having right then if they weren't angry at each other, but instead were feeling intimate.
RW: By speaking for them.
DW: By speaking for them.
RW: You've written in your book, After the Honeymoon, that "a relationship is a busy place. It's like an airport with lots of things going on and scheduled and unscheduled feelings arriving and departing." Say more.
DW: In the metaphor of the airport, I was thinking particularly of the observation tower, where people up there would be looking at everything going on—the planes, or feelings, going in, going out. So the couple could be in that observation tower noticing how they shift among those three moods—how there's anger, withdrawal, and tenderness—and having an ongoing way of talking about what's happening in the relationship. The "permanent platform" is another metaphor I use.
RW: This has a lot of implications for your view of what constitutes intimacy. Do you have a summary about that, a distilled view?
DW: Yeah. It's that intimacy is each partner saying what's on their mind, their leading-edge feeling, with the other one understanding. And you could say that a goal I have in couples therapy is to get the partners to develop, or develop further, such a permanent platform from which they can co-monitor the relationship. Intimacy is created by the way partners talk about what's happening in their lives and, in particular, about what's happening between them.  It's a consequence of their ability to be mutual confidants. That's a key point to my approach—the goal of the couple developing the ability to observe their own interaction patterns, the permanent platform.
RW: So it's not about agreement or consensus—it's about being more revealing.
DW: Yeah, it's having a way of getting in touch with what you need to say, what you're feeling, and having a relationship in which the other person is able to take it in, is eager to hear it, and has a confiding comment to make in return. And it doesn't become a fight, and the other doesn't withdraw.
When people are saying the main things on their mind, their main worries and concerns, their ache of the moment, and feel it's heard by the other person—well, that's the height of intimacy.
When people are saying the main things on their mind, their main worries and concerns, their ache of the moment, and feel it's heard by the other person—well, that's the height of intimacy.

The Power of Negative Thinking

RW: The ache of the moment—that reminds me of your comment about the power of negative thinking. Say more about that.
DW: Well, that was my cutesy way of talking about the permanent platform, in that the couple would know that there are certain problems that arise, certain conflicts that they have, certain issues that keep coming up, and they have an ongoing way of talking about that in a collaborative way when it arises. That means you're not just trying to talk yourself out of the problem and look on the positive side, but are fully appreciating that it's a problem—that's the power of negative thinking.
RW: So you're saying that couples who can go in and out of collaboration and intimacy are having conversations, not just about what they're enjoying in their lives, but about what they're not enjoying of the important things, including the relationship.
DW: Yeah. So it's an increasing ability, after a period of fighting or withdrawal, to have a recovery conversation where you figure out what happened and get together in an intimate way about what went wrong—which is one of the more intense experiences of intimacy that people can have, if they can have it.
RW: Tell me about the recovery conversation.
DW: It's inevitable that partners are going to fight and withdraw. Some couples are lucky to have the fight end without it escalating too much, and they wake up the next morning and go on as if nothing had happened. And maybe that works for them okay. But for some couples, that doesn't work. And there's a disadvantage anyway, because a fight or withdrawal is an opportunity for intimacy, in the discussion of it afterwards. But it's understandable that a couple might want to avoid having such a discussion, since it often gets them back into the fight. Having productive conversations is a skill that evolves over time. The goal of such a discussion is to end up with a picture of how each partner's position made sense and how the two of them got stuck in something. So it's a compassionate, commiserating, from-the-platform view of what happened in the fight.
RW: It's been said that your compassion-based approach is compatible with attachment work. How do you see it being congruent with issues of secure and insecure attachment?
DW: Well, I'm trying to create secure attachment by enabling partners to confide their ache of the moment. When, in every given moment, or maybe in just enough moments, a person can confide their ache of the moment—this leading-edge feeling—and feel that the other understands, this increases the security of the bond between them.

The Pleasure of Being Non-Defensive

RW: You know, one aspect of your work that you describe a lot is your role of being utterly non-defensive. Anyone who knows your work would say that. How can you be so non-defensive?
DW: I tell myself to be non-defensive and take pleasure when I succeed.
And if a client criticizes me, I'm grateful the person is doing that rather than just quitting therapy without saying anything.
And if a client criticizes me, I'm grateful the person is doing that rather than just quitting therapy without saying anything. And I believe that such criticizing is often a fallback measure the person engages in because they couldn't say something more vulnerable. So I don't want to make the mistake of reacting to the fallback measure when what I really want to do is help them discover the more vulnerable feeling underlying it, such as, "You know, I feel uneasy about the therapy for this reason or that reason," or "I worry that we're really not getting anywhere," or "I'm afraid that nothing can help me." Well, if they can't get that out, they may be stuck just blaming me for something. So I want to track back to the person's vulnerable feeling rather than react and defend myself.
RW: Right. You'd call that "the pleasure of being non-defensive." What's pleasurable about it?
DW: Well, it's a goal I set for myself. Instead of feeling defeated or whipped, I have a certain amount of pride in being able to do that. Also, I find it enjoyable when we escape from polite conversation. So when a person is expressing some disappointment or anger at me that I could get defensive about, that person is likely to be saying something more direct than they've said for some time. For me—and I believe for others as well—there's some intrinsic pleasure in shifting from the level of politeness to that of directness. And so this would be a shift towards more directness—that would be enlivening, you'd get to feel more there. And you kind of slump when there's a movement in the other direction, of people saying things that are just polite and not engaged. Yes, there's more energy, more feeling, more aliveness with the escape from politeness.
RW: You describe things you tell yourself as slogans, implying you repeat them, you remind yourself frequently. And I know the repetition of thoughts and images that we want to acquire does lead to their acquisition. I would imagine that would be an important tool, to have some of these slogans that people can put in their own language and learn.
DW: Yeah—now that you say that, I realize a therapist's orientation can be thought of as developing from the slogans and questions that arise automatically in the individual's mind. For instance, one common automatic question or slogan in a therapist's mind is, "What family of origin issues could create the problem this person is having?" If that's one of the main questions you automatically ask, your therapy will go in a certain direction. Or, "What unconscious purpose does this serve?" Thinking that, your mind and your therapy will go in another direction. So there's the set of slogans and questions already in your mind. When I'm put off by a client's behavior, I can lose certain of my slogans that lead me to be compassionate.
RW: How does that happen?
DW: When I'm feeling okay, one of the questions I ask myself is, "What's the hidden reasonableness in what's going on?" But when I'm reacting to the person, I don't ask myself that—I just think the person is totally unreasonable. I lose the ability to do therapy, since therapy requires my appreciating how both partners' positions make sense. It's a temporary loss, because I get up in the tower of the airport as soon as I can, so I can notice what is happening and regain my ability to do therapy. Yeah, so in any given session, particularly with a difficult situation to handle, or with partners who might feel provocative, I can lose and regain my ability to do therapy repeatedly throughout the session. Hopefully I keep my mouth shut when I've lost the ability and only talk when I have it.
RW: And this is just like the couples—gaining and losing the ability to connect with each other over time.
DW: Exactly, yes.
RW: Well, we're just about out of time. Is there anything else you'd like to add to this?
DW: You're a great interviewer—the questions you've asked got me more clearly in touch with my own theory. So between the two of us, we created a momentum where I became more able to get at it than if you'd asked other kinds of questions that would have taken me away from my theory.
RW: Thank you so much. We collaborated.
DW: Yes, we collaborated.

Copyright © 2009 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published September 2009.
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Dan Wile Dan Wile, PhD is the developer of Collaborative Couples Therapy, and the author of Couples Therapy: a Nontraditional Approach, After the Honeymoon: How Conflict Can Improve Your Relationship, and After the Fight: Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship, as well as over 20 articles and chapters. John Gottman, the preeminent researcher on couples therapy has described Dr. Wile as "a genius and the greatest living couples therapist." His website is www.danwile.com.

Ruth Wetherford Dr. Ruth Wetherford is a San Francisco–based psychologist who has been practicing psychotherapy and teaching for the past 30 years. She specializes in family of origin work with individuals, guided imagery and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Her website is www.drruthwetherford.com.

CE credits: 1.5

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe Wile's approach to working with couples in conflict
  • Explain Wile's perspective on the role of non-defensiveness
  • Apply Wile's empathy techniques to your own work with couples

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here