Couples' Intensives are a series of 6-8, two- to three-hour therapy sessions for couples who are experiencing distance in their relationship and who are at a loss about how to become close again. Couples are encouraged to share their relationship stories in order to begin the process of reconnecting with each other.
Understanding Relationship Dynamics
By encouraging couples to share key information, a detailed picture of relationship dynamics are assessed. Most relationships reach a stalemate when couples find themselves in an emotional dance around a central conflict—sometimes more than one. They are often hypersensitive to each other on these matters and can have a reaction to the first hint of that behavior or issue, causing them to become polarized.
As both partners react in opposition, benign conversation turns into an escalating conflict. In Relational Life Therapy, we call this “the more, the more" (Real, 2007, 2022). One example of this can be the more needy one partner is, the more the other partner pulls away, or the more one partner shuts down, the more the other partner becomes boundaryless.
Once a couple’s unique relationship dynamic is identified, their communication style with each other is observed. Each person has a communication pattern; some are successful, others are not. The distance in the relationship is determined by examining the "Losing Strategies" that a couple uses to communicate with one another. Couples are taught how to repair their relationship by using skill building exercises known as "Winning Strategies" (Real, 2007, 2022). The diagram below shows a circle representing the repeated cycles of relationships - harmony (intimacy), disharmony (losing strategies) and repair (winning strategies).
The Family Legacy
Almost all relationship dynamics originate from what we learned in our family of origin. Each person repeats their own negative patterns based on trauma and past legacies from their family.
When couples are in conflict, family of origin issues often come to the surface. As an exercise to move forward, each person in the couple is asked to describe significant or outstanding memories from their childhood. Through a series of questions, the memories reveal why each person retreats into habits of losing strategies and why they are sensitive to certain behaviors and issues in their relationship.
Consider Diane and Michael, a couple attending a Couples’ Intensive Workshop. Throughout Diane’s childhood, her mother was needy and her father was withdrawn. Diane became enmeshed, often assuming the role of the peacemaker between her parents. While she felt good because she was favoured as a child, she also felt abandoned because her own emotional needs were not being met. As an adult, she re-enacted this familiar role by marrying Michael, who like her father, resisted and distanced from her emotional caretaking. The more he distanced himself from her, the more she felt the need to give, and became needy like her mother.
In speaking about his memories, Michael shared that he had the role of the “clown” growing up in his family. His mother was need-less and want-less, and his father was overbearing and needy. In his case, Michael used humour to distract the family from their father’s control and anger. While this created some lightness in the family, it didn’t make up for his father’s angry intrusiveness. The impact of his father’s grandiose behaviour not only shut his mother down, it also kept Michael from expressing his own emotional needs.
Michael married Diane, who was attracted to his light-heartedness. The more she gave to him emotionally, the less he received it willingly, and, in turn, the more she felt abandoned. The more abandoned she felt, the more he joked. Diane became boundaryless in her generosity, which Michael saw as being intrusive and needy like his father. She also became critical because he never took her seriously. In essence, Diane played out the role of his father in her boundaryless behaviour, and Michael played out the role of her father in his walled-off state.
Michael and Diane are an example of how a couple can get locked in an emotional dance where their needs for connection are not being met. They became more mindful of how each other’s childhood wounds were being re-enacted in their adult relationship. This gave them the opportunity to feel more compassion for how they each had to adapt to their wounding, and how, mistakenly, they used their adaptive skills as adults. This consciousness-raising illuminated the need to learn new skills to function as more healthy, mature and wise adults in their relationship.
The Outcome of the Couples' Intensives
With the relationship dynamics identified and the roots of this behavior uncovered, the obstacles in speaking to one another were understood and each partner articulated their needs in a way that could be heard. Each partner was taught how to make requests directly and to listen without defending, rationalizing, blaming, or retaliating. With practise, the couple learned how to ask more clearly for what they needed, how to listen more openly, remember the love they felt for each other, and in so doing became closer and more of a team.
Most importantly, they learned to use communication skills and focused on what each could do to help the other give more of what each needed, becoming more of an ‘us’ rather than focusing on themselves as individuals. These skills were practised throughout the Couples' Intensive Series.
Michael learned that in his walled-off state, he was unaccountable and grandiose. In the therapy, he learned how to negotiate his needs and wants rather than resorting to his knee jerk response of using humour. Once he practised this, he became more adept at being considerate and compassionate of Diane's needs. Consequently, she felt supported and her self-esteem was more intact.
Likewise, Diane learned how to speak more relationally by articulating her needs more directly and within appropriate boundaries, so that she was not off-putting, intrusive, or controlling. She learned the importance of meeting some of her own needs and not relying solely on Michael. This helped Diane take responsibility for her self-esteem. She learned that she is enough and she matters. Instead of being critical and judgmental, Diane learned to be more grateful and to communicate her appreciation of Michael’s efforts. This empowered Michael to "show up" in the relationship.
Michael and Diane’s overall intimacy improved, and they felt more relationally connected.
In conclusion, the Couples' Intensives are a beneficial experience for couples. The series improves self-awareness, communications skills, and the overall health of the relationship creating a team approach. This experience is a mindful awakening about intimacy and connection.
For more information about the Couples' Intensive Series, please contact Clare Mézes, M.Sc., RP.