Couples Therapy – A Process Model

by Geraldine Sheedy

Introduction

My interest in relationship and the dynamics of relating have been a fascination for me  for as long as I can remember. It was this fascination that led me to the Resnick Process Model of couples counselling in 2002. Since that time this Process Model of Couples Counselling has continued to inspire me, both personally and professionally, and greatly supports my Couples Therapy work. Over time this work has evolved from initially working with couples to currently providing training to therapists in Couples Therapy. The following article outlines the basic premise and principles of this model.

Process Model

The model of Couples Therapy which I work with is a process model. A process model of Couples Therapy focuses not on ‘what’ the couple do, but on the ‘how’ (i.e.  ‘how’ do they do what they do, rather than ‘what’ do they do). By focusing on the ‘how’, learning can be applied to many different areas of the couple’s life. The ‘what’ on the other hand (i.e. the content)   changes daily. The content is the vehicle by which we get to the process. John Gottman (1999) contends that couples never ever finish their issues. Instead with good therapy the issues become easier or quicker to deal with.

Even if a problem of content could be magically solved in the course of the therapy hour another one will appear. Thus it is more useful for the couple to learn about their process. Our goal as therapists is to help couples to develop an awareness of their process, thus giving them endless opportunities for change in the future. It can however be a challenge for the therapist not to succumb to the temptation of getting into what the couple is talking about.  It may be very inviting and seductive to get drawn into the content of their conversation, losing sight of the process.

One example of this may be the couple who argue over who drives the car. They present the following week arguing about who does the dishes or puts away the shopping. The next week the argument centres  around who decides where they go on holiday. If, week after week, the therapy focuses on solving each of these issues (i.e. the content), the underlying issues never get resolved or dealt with. However, if we allow the details of the story to take us to the next layer of exploration (i.e. the process) then we can focus on how   they do what they do. Therapy helps the couple to address what underlies what they do. In a case like the one above we may discover for example underlying power issues to be dealt with.

Circle of Relating

The underlying principle of the Resnick Process Model of Coupling is the ‘circle of relating’. There are five stages identified on this circle through which couples move. These include Contact, Intimacy, Confluence, Isolation and Withdrawal. This model contends that all couples move through these stages (isolation perhaps being the exception) on a continual basis. Each individual in the couple will have a particular tendency to occupy or be more comfortable with one particular stage on the circle, although they move through all stages. All places on the circle are healthy. Sometimes withdrawal is the best place to be. Sometimes intimacy is the best place to be. The right one is the one that is right for the individual’s rhythm.

The place at which each member of the couple is will determine how they interact, how they can meet and the quality of their relating. For example a typical partner in the couple may come in at the withdrawn place. S/he may be terrified that if s/he comes into more contact with the other that they will become confluent, and they may get lost in the ‘us’. The withdrawal stage is necessary in order to replenish, but it is important that both members of the couple are able to come out of this place also. The other partner may be in a similar place or at another stage on the circle. Another common dynamic is for one or both members of a couple to come in at the confluence place. S/he may be terrified that s/he will end up on their own (i.e. withdrawn or isolated) thus they give up a sense of wholeness and merge with the other. They may do this by taking on the characteristics of the other or trying to make the other like them.

The issue for the therapist is to identify the place at which the couple is at and what each member of the couple has the support for at that moment. The therapist also remains vigilant to how a client may interrupt moving from one of these places on the cycle to another. They may hold back from moving into a stage or jump into one of the stages prematurely.

Core Needs

One of the first steps of couple counselling is defining what the couple’s core needs are. Core needs are the things I know about myself that I cannot compromise on. The basic things that make me feel good in the world. Examples of core needs in a relationship may include: physical contact, emotional responsiveness, monogamy, etc. These vary for everyone. Therapists support couples in identifying what their core needs are and assist them in defining which core needs are being met and which core needs are not being met. Core needs can change over time, as what one wants from life changes over time. People evolve over time and these changes may or may not conflict with each other. An example of changing core needs may be in the case of a 25 year old man. One of his core needs may be to focus on his career and work development at that juncture in his life. This same person may at a later stage have differing core needs (e.g. to focus on having a family).

Difference

Frequently the problem for couples may not be that a difference exists between them but may lie in the way in which the couple deal with difference. If there is no room for difference this results in confluence. Confluence can come about in two ways. One may result in a person ‘becoming like the other’ and the second may result in ‘the other becoming like you’. However for a relationship to work it needs enough similarities to support it and enough difference to maintain connection and interest. Couples can connect with difference as well as similarities. Difference is not the same as conflict. The only way difference becomes conflict is when one person tries to get rid of the difference. They may try to get rid of it by changing themselves or changing the other. Conflict is the resistance to trying to eradicate difference.

An important question we need to ask our clients is ‘Is it okay to have difference?’ In couples counselling, therapists frequently try to eradicate the difference. However difference can also be connective and it is important as therapists that we don’t lose the connective function of difference. The differences need to connect, to touch each other. We need to engage the difference and let what happens happen. Difference is necessary and nourishing. If differences are only seen as a criticism then the richness of difference is lost. Allowing difference to stand consumes a huge portion of couples therapy as not all difference can be worked out.

How to be in relationship with another and continue to maintain a sense of self?

How to be in relationship with another and  continue to maintain a sense of self’. This is frequently the dilemma which underlies client’s problems in couples therapy. Many couples struggle with the challenge of being in partnership with another without losing a sense of their own ‘self-hood’. Balance always requires movement. Thus how to become connected and maintain a self requires movement. If you freeze frame a relationship then it won’t work. Individuals need to connect and then disconnect in order to re-connect again. The prevailing model of marriage would have you believe that this natural flow doesn’t happen. This culture contends that there is something wrong with you if you don’t settle down and ‘fuse’ with someone. It then further asserts that there is something wrong with you if the ‘fusion’ doesn’t work. Life however is about the dance between –  the push to self-ness and the pull to union/oneness.

The question for the therapist to then address is how individuals in the couple move between connecting, disconnecting and re-connecting again. This can result in many different issues arising for the couple including the following:

  • What happens to me when my partner wants to ‘disconnect’ (e.g. do I feel rejected, ignored etc)
  • How can I ‘disconnect’ without hurting the other?
  • If we ‘disconnect’, will we ever be able to ‘reconnect’?

It is important that issues such as the above are addressed in order for couples to negotiate the territory of being in relationship and maintaining a sense of self.

Being Authentic

In this process model of couples therapy the role of the therapist is to support the couple in being authentic with each other. This implies that each member of the couple can be themselves and not try to fit into a role or character that is imposed on them. Things happen along the way that interrupt our ability to be authentic. Therapy thus enables individuals to experiment with being more authentic. From an early age we are taught to not be authentic (e.g. you must always be polite etc.). Being authentic involves putting out what’s going on for you. Sometimes fear of hurting the other can inhibit one from being authentic. Another common fear is that one has to solve their dilemma before they put it out. It is important in this model to encourage couples to state what is going on for them, even when they don’t know the answer.

In Conclusion

One of the greatest strengths of this Process Model of Couples Therapy is the way in which it supports the couple wherever they are at. This alone can be hugely affirming for a couple, especially if one or other is reluctant or feeling blamed. It can take great courage to make it to the therapy room. This Process Model allows the therapist to strike a balance between supporting the client and challenging them. Thus when the therapist can meet the couple, their hopes and fears, joys and suffering, longings and laughter, resistance and effort,  this can be encouraging and motivating for clients.

Geraldine Sheedy will hold Couples Therapy Training Workshops around Ireland in Autumn/Winter 2006. In March 2007, Drs Bob & Rita Resnick will be returning to Ireland to teach their Couples Therapy Workshop at SouthWest Counselling Centre Killarney.

Geraldine Sheedy, MIACP, PsSI, is Director of SouthWest Counselling Centre Killarney, in addition to working as a Couples Therapist and Couples Therapy Trainer.

References:

Gottmann, J. & Silver N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Orion Books Ltd.

Resnick, R and Resnick, R.F. Resnick Model of Coupling 1460 7th St, Suite 300, Santa Monica, CA, 90401. (June 1997)