In my last two posts I described how a therapist must think and behave in order to establish a safe treatment. Today we’re going to turn to the guidance the therapist must provide to help a couple be safe towards each other, although what is stated here must also be in the conceptualization and words of the therapist, as well. The first element in establishing safety in a couple’s relationship is their ability to maintain desire and commitment to each other.
In essence, this step answers the question, “Do you really WANT to be with each other as life partners?” If one or both of the partners is ambivalent about staying in the relationship, that issue must be addressed first in order for the therapy to safely proceed. I often ask an ambivalent partner, “What would it take for you to decide whether you want to commit to this relationship?” or “Let’s hear from the side of you that wants to be in the relationship and then the side of you that does not.” The answers can bring up illuminating discussions.
Sometimes ambivalence in the relationship is part of a nonconscious drama that is being enacted in order to force childhood feelings to the surface. Sometimes the ambivalence is split out between the partners, with one pulling against the connection and one trying to hold it together. Whatever the manifestation of ambivalent desire or lack of commitment, the therapist must maintain a nonjudgmental and curious stance in order to fully explore emotions that are trying to push up through the expression of ambivalence. Quite often the hesitation to commit is not about the partner but instead about relationships in general. Many people feel danger surrounding any unconflicted expression of desire, and those feelings will come to the surface in an atmosphere of safe exploration.
All threats to divorce must be interrupted and labeled as unsafe to the process of therapy. Those children in your clients’ heads who are watching and hearing everything hear the threat to leave as, “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to put you up for adoption!” The feelings that are fueling threats to abandon the partner must be given voice, but the threats themselves are not safe to the child brain. If one partner truly wants to leave the relationship, she or he must be encouraged to clearly express that desire without blame, and then the couple can be helped to engage in a safe ending.
Ambivalence toward the relationship is often a refusal to take responsibility for making a conscious decision to stay or go. Both partners must be helped to clearly state their own desire to be with their partner and the commitment to stay in the relationship. This is absolutely necessary for the children in their heads to feel safe with treatment.