I love this image, because it helps me remember who is sitting in front of me in a couples therapy session. The picture could also show two little boys or two little girls–gender doesn’t change the approach. I do better treatment when I am reminded that there are two children here who desperately want me (and their partner) to understand what it has been like to be them. They are watching and listening to EVERYTHING that is going on in my office to determine if it is going to be a safe place to be.
These children inside my adult clients are going to begin telling me stories from the first moment they start to talk, and I must be very attentive to their exact words. Often in the first couple of sessions they will reveal important words or phrases in language typical of a child under age six that precisely describe the childhood experiences they have in common with each other that were a critical element in their nonconscious attraction to each other. These child-like words or phrases encapsulate the couple’s experience of themselves and others in a remarkably succinct way that has usually never been verbalized between them. They will often express astonishment as the similarity of their emotional experience of life is revealed. They are counting on us as their therapists to treat these revelations with care, no judgments or diagnoses, and an eagerness to know them better.
Perhaps some examples would be useful. In the case of one couple who had both lived through significant abandonment as children, the complaint of one partner was stated early in treatment as, “You’re never home!” That phrase became an important catalyst in building empathy between them. In another case, the phrase that held the key to healing was “I just have to wait.” This couple were both raised in an environment where the caretakers were always too busy or otherwise unavailable to meet their needs. Sometimes the revealing statements are mirror images of each other. One couple I treated had the complementary phrases “I have to leave” and “I get left” that became the script of their marital dramas with each other.
Creating an atmosphere of safety in treatment allows the children inside our clients to risk being fully heard, usually in ways that come straight out of their right brains and foster a type of visceral understanding they have never experienced before. These moments of healing require that the therapist model in-depth curiosity that is open-ended, non-blaming, and emotionally supportive. The brains of the two people sitting in front of us purposely–although primarily nonconsciously–chose each other in order to open their deeply held pain to real-time experiencing and permanent healing. That can only happen if the “children” feel safe.