I am a big fan of utilizing the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. It was after reading “In Quest of the Mythical Mate” by Dr. Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson in graduate school that I became deeply fascinated with the process that all couples go through in the course of their relationship. This model looks at neuroscience, attachment styles, levels of differentiation, and trauma, to compassionately address conflicts at their root.
My work with couples also focuses on utilizing mindfulness practices in the room. Couples may invariably argue in the therapy session, however, when this happens it is my aim to bring greater awareness to what’s happening within each partner’s physiology. The prefrontal cortex goes “offline” so to speak, whenever we are triggered enough to enter “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, making it difficult to address conflicts, speak rationally, or move forward with progress. Learning to regulate one’s nervous system is a very important step in all couples work.
Additionally, it is my own observation that couples work is ultimately very individual work. Many couples may come to therapy seeking a “quick fix” or hoping that the therapist will work their magic and make everything better. Yet it is only when individuals differentiate, learn to soothe their our own upsets and nervous systems, that they can become fully available to or even aware of their partner’s experience. For example, if one partner is triggered in their limbic system and goes into “fight” mode, they may escalate an argument trying to get their partner who is in “flight” mode to see their point of view. The more one partner shuts down, the more irate the other partner becomes. Sound familiar?
Recognizing what is happening on a physiological level and learning to calm your own nervous system, bringing it back into parasympathetic mode, will allow you to connect with your partner in a state that they can actually hear you in. Trying to tackle difficult issues or conflicts when you are not in this place is a moot point. It may take time to learn how to regulate your nervous system and may require work outside of the therapy room. I may suggest other practices that bring you into alignment with your own nervous system, such as yoga, meditation, journaling, or deep breathing exercises. Of course you can always say “no” to these practices, but again, couples work is individual work so I would invite you to try and be open to some homework along the way. Attachment styles will also be explored, as these are often the drivers of how you experience your nervous system in any given argument or conflict.
Couples work is meaningful, rewarding work in my eyes. I believe that we live in a “throw away” society that encourages us to stay at a superficial level in our relationships or trade them in when the going gets tough. I also believe that many divorces or separations could be avoided if couples could explore more about how their interactions play out on a very basic physiological level, and learned how to regulate and differentiate themselves.
As a caveat, I also recognize that not all couples will successfully stay together. Couples therapy can also be an opportunity to part amicably, especially when children are involved. Co-parenting can take a lot of skill, great communication, and a willingness to see the other person’s point of view. The same aforementioned issues play out with co-parenting dynamics, sometimes to an even greater degree. I also offer co-parenting counseling to help navigate the difficulties of raising children after a split. My style is warm, direct, at times playful and humorous, and always compassionate.