by Serge and Anne Ginger
Our first workshop on couples took place exactly forty years ago, in 1959. Our reference was then the ‛ Triadic Psychodrama “ (Anne Ancelin-Schützenberger), associating Moreno’s psychodrama, group dynamics (Lewin) and post-Freudian group psychoanalysis. After ten years of work nourished by those three combined approaches, we discovered Gestalt therapy in the United States and, in 1970, we imported it to France, adapting it to the French cultural context. We are still teaching it within the Paris School of Gestalt (Ecole Parisienne de Gestalt, or E. P. G.).
Every year, we organise one or several intensive residential workshops in group psychotherapy, for couples only (married or not, stable or temporary, heterosexual or homosexual — the requisite being that both partners have shared a private life for a certain time and have registered together to the same workshop). Of course, we accompany couples outside of these workshop also. Furthermore, we organise advanced training workshops for graduated and experimented Gestalt Therapists, who wish to specialise themselves in accompanying couples.
We will review here some thoughts stemming from a long clinical practice, limiting ourselves to our reference period in Gestalt Therapy.
The couples’ request
Which are the main situations we are faced with?
The problems arising are essentially:
We wish to underline our involvement in a «prevention therapy»: we do not wish to limit ourselves to receiving couples in difficulty; we encourage «normal» couples to periodically come and review their situation, clear out latent conflicts, enrich and diversify their relation, avoid drowning in routine… We believe, as Perls, that therapy is too good to be limited to ailing people and we affirm not only the right to happiness, but «the duty to happiness» (family and social duty to shine around).
We have no prejudice regarding the future of couples: the solution may be to overcome current problems or, on the contrary, to face them and envisage separation. In this case, it should not be brutal, but elaborated optimally. Thus the «success» of a couple therapy may just as well be maintaining the couple (and improving its functioning) than a concerted separation. No traditional «happy end» programmed in advance.
We are extremely vigilant with couples presenting an important age difference, for example a 20-years difference. It is not rare that problems arise insidiously, after several years of harmonious couple life, namely when the younger partner matures and claims more autonomy, or when the older partner can no longer keep up with the younger partner. Here prevention is necessary.
What are the main motives for couples to consult?
First of all, we need to emphasise that there is a great variety of work conditions. As an indication, here is a series of possible settings — some are very classical, others more original, yet sometimes presenting a particular interest:
We shall not comment here on each of these formulas in details, but simply share some brief remarks:
This formula, however, is encountered rather frequently in practice:
A couple of therapists receiving a couple of clients is a classical and logical formula, but can this couple of therapists be a real couple of people sharing their daily lives?
There are certain traps in this instance:
As for alternation between couple sessions and individual sessions, we will refer to this at length further on, as this formula seems to present many advantages, provided a certain number of precautions are taken.
Another interesting formula seems to be the intensive residential session, such as a couple «retreat» for an entire week, for example, away from the marital home and its numerous obligations, with daily sessions of therapeutic work and long face-to-face periods for the couple. This formula has been developed in French, namely by Noël and Marie-Noëlle Salathé, in Switzerland. Amongst other benefits, this formula avoids endless couple therapies — which have the reverse effect of chronicizing, instead of overcoming, problems.
Finally group therapy allows for much enrichment:
Couple therapy has its specificities:
It is generally a short or medium-term therapy. It cannot go on forever without prejudice to the daily life of the couple (and potential children). One is pressed by the social reality of the here-and-now. It is therefore not a question of trying to «solve» everyone’s problems ! One cannot venture into in-depth therapy for several years, reviewing in particular each partner’s respective childhood problems, archaic parental relations, potential childhood traumas, etc.
This implies an «intervention therapy», where the therapist does not hesitate to re-centre the exchanges around the current (real and fantasy) life of the couple. Yet it is not «directive» for that matter! What we mean is that the therapist does not give instructions nor advice; he does not push the couple towards this or that solution, but intervenes to reframe exchanges, to «avoid avoidance», refuge in the past or irresponsibility.
In this way, this seems a Gestaltist approach to us: one starts from the here-and-now, from the deep emotional feeling in each person, favouring the expression of needs, encouraging each member to face his or her own present responsibilities — even if it is clear that the past has left a deep imprint on each partner. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reminds us that «any interpretation nourishes the symptom», instead of dissolving it. Thus, when Andrew realises that his mother has constantly over-protected him and has left no space for his «trampled» father, that he has never been allowed to take initiatives or risks, this may explain partly his current impotence; this will in no way help him to overcome it, on the contrary, he will merely have found a justification for his disorders — for which he no longer feels responsible. The question raised is: What can he do today to overcome this difficulty?
As stated by a Jean-Paul Sartre, «what counts is not what has been done with me, but what I have done myself with what others have done with me».
Must we say everything?
We are therefore not in favour of systematic joint investigation of each partner’s deep-seated problems: for us this belongs to individual therapy and not to couple therapy. It is not necessary for the partner to know everything of the other’s childhood, this would present the risk of inducing «therapeutic» or «parental» attitudes of understanding or absolution. This is not the role of a partner! Too great a knowledge of the partner’s past intimacy may even prove harmful. Thus when Matthew learns — during therapy — that his wife has been raped by a neighbour, he flies into a (useless) rage against the latter, then he «understands» his wife’s sexual reluctance and «no longer insists»; furthermore, he finds her «dirtied» by this experience… This revelation will finally lead to separation.
The «myth of transparency» is just as dangerous in the current life of the couple. Is it necessary to «say everything», as the young bride and groom naively promise each other? Is Truth good in itself? Are love and respect for the other not superior values? A popular allegory presents Truth, naked, at the bottom of a well. This is where she should stay protected, and hide!
When Paul admits to sexual unfaithfulness to Laure, his companion, with a view to disclosing «all the truth», he is in fact responding to the egoistic urge to rid himself of a cumbersome secret. By admitting his «sin», he believes he is half-forgiven and implores leniency from his partner. In fact he is ridding himself of his burden by placing it on Laura’s toes! Now she has to prove generous — otherwise she is the one lacking noble-mindedness! In fact he is hurting her twice: she must shoulder his unfaithfulness and furthermore she now feels guilty of her own jealousy! The remaining questions are: is it an occasional acting out, or a deep love that will likely jeopardise their couple? What are the advantages for Laura to have been made aware? True love is centred on the needs of the other.
Of course, we do not erect a rule around this discretion. The only rule that suffers no exception, is that there is no rule without exception! It may well be that the partner prefers to shoulder the truth rather than be ravaged by doubt. Every case deserves prior careful reflection. There are no universal laws: Law was made for man and not man for the law! Let us not be the slaves of principles, but available to each particular case. Gestalt insists on the «right to differ». It is a «therapy of exceptions!». A map is required to travel, but it is not a prison: one may take a short-cut that is not featured… provided one knows where one is and where one is going.
Of course, we are careful to avoid confluence and symmetry: each partner of a couple is a different person: one may love music and the other, sport (the couple will not force themselves to go to the concert or stadium together); one may wish to know everything and the other, prefers ignoring; one may take sexual initiatives in the couple, whereas the other may awaken only when solicited, etc. No need to be identical, nor to hold onto the mythical models of serials where, at the first encounter, both partners simultaneously reach a breathtaking orgasm! Gestalt ceaselessly prompts us to chase out underhand introjections that have nourished our education, without our knowing.
How to live with someone from another species?
Yes! Both sexes are different — more than is usually believed!
Not only their sexual reactions and the usual rhythm of orgasmic satisfaction are often different – of which everyone is aware through readings and experience — but also their perception of the world differs. On the basis of average statistics, and whilst not losing from sight the often considerable individual differences, we know that:
Nature has stimulated her attention to babies’ cries and to smells, as well as to the early development of language: at nine years old, girls show an average verbal lead of 18 months over boys and, as adults, women talk (always as an average) 20 minutes per phone call… against six minutes for men (hence the current trend of women’s cellular phones). It is to be reminded, however, that in 96% of all cases, men are the ones responsible for interrupting a conversation!
Meanwhile, testosterone (produced 20 times more in man than in woman – although essential in woman, since it is the female testosterone that generates her sexual desire) ensures in man (and in any male) the development of:
Studies in psycho-neurology have confirmed that woman is no more emotional than man; she simply expresses her emotions (anxiety, depression) much more, whilst man has a tendency to suppress them (anger, desire).
During couple therapy, it is useful to recall once in a while the fundamental differences in hormonal and neurobiological functioning in general, which overstep cultural conditionings. The point is not to reach a grey and dull compromise, but to develop one’s own natural colours; neither is it a matter of making «mutual concessions», resulting in mutual impoverishment, or reaching an agreement, but of «agreeing on disagreements!».
If required, one can underline the best known differences, enumerated by John Gray:
Games and exercises
We sometimes use some games or exercises to highlight these differences in the perception of daily life: thus for example, we may ask each partner to write his/her account of yesterday’s evening together, and then compare both accounts; we may ask each partner to draw a rough sketch of their flat or house, and to pencil in red the places «where I feel at home»; in green, those places which are more the domain of my partner; in yellow, parts invested equally by both members of the couple. Comparing drawings often yields surprises…
During workshops for couples we like to propose the classical experience of «trust walk», two by two, where, for some ten minutes, one member of the couple accompanies or leads, with open eyes, the partner who keeps his/her eyes shut. In this way, attitudes of over-protection or abandonment, of «capturing» (unconsciously forbidding any meeting with a stranger), risk-taking attitudes, etc, may be observed. This classical game is enriched by the two following sequences: same exercise again but with a different partner (not from the couple); then a third sequence with one’s usual partner again. Every sequence is followed by a verbal exchange two by two then, within the larger group, with a few comments. This simple and amusing game is often very revealing of the couple’s relation.
Thus couple therapy proves to be both active and interactive: if one generally abstains from giving advice, one may at least give information or suggests readings especially on the topic of sex (where school information often remains notoriously insufficient), and in the field of neuro-psychology (where scientific discoveries are particularly numerous and the evolution of concepts very rapid).
As is the practice in sex therapy, we sometimes suggests «homework», such as, for example:
An «incarnate» therapist, with «controlled involvement»
Couple therapy is also interactive with the therapist: s/he’s not neutral, but practices «controlled involvement», fundamental in Gestalt therapy in general and especially in couple therapies. Sharing his feeling, his «counter-transference», or rather his personal responses – ‛resonance“ as coined by Mony ELKAIM — proves to be particularly enriching. Of course the therapist does not express all that he feels, but only what seems to him to have a mobilising impact on the client. This is controlled authenticity: I do not say everything I think or feel; but everything I say, I think and feel. Thus the therapist will allow himself, if need be, to very partially uncovering his own experience («self disclosure»), whilst emphasising the right to be mistaken, or even «the duty to imperfection», i.e. of humanity.
The therapist’s experience is indispensable but, as opposed to what is sometimes heard, he may perfectly well accompany someone where he has never been himself: otherwise how could I accompany the dying? Or more simply, a pregnant woman — if I am a man? In fact the reverse is sometimes delicate: accompanying someone on a road I’ve too often travelled. If I recognise myself too much in the other, I risk projecting onto him my own problems (my experience of women, of illness, of concentration camps, of death…).
This personal involvement results in likes and dislikes due to quite temporary preferences for the attitude of one or the other partner in the couple. Here again we do not seek in vain to remain neutral, but rather to remain watchful and conscious, in an awareness of each and every moment. It is a question of managing and taking advantage of the «games of alliances», rather than avoiding them. These may be put in words and analysed in common. We will also try to vary alliances, especially when working in co-therapy. The strategies may be elaborated during regular supervision sessions.
If it is illusory to try and remain neutral, it is important to grant as much time and attention to each partner. This sometimes leads to balancing out the relational situation. This is quite often the case when one has followed a client in individual therapy who requests couple therapy after a certain number of sessions, and with the agreement of his partner. Evidently if one agrees to this request, the situation is dissymetrical: I am polluted by the unilateral information that have fed my prejudices. Thus Mathilda would often talk to me about her husband, a domestic tyrant, both authoritarian and demanding, who held her under his thumb. What was not my surprise when I had the first interview with this man – who seemed timid and withdrawn… reporting to be paralysed by the continuous demands of his wife!
When dealing with such a request, we always start by a series of interviews, alone with the yet unknown partner; this is to ensure ourselves of his true personal motivation to undergo couple therapy and to «intimately familiarise» himself with his own personality. Evidently, we are particularly vigilant to keep everything each of partners discloses secret, without forgetting to remind this fact on several occasions. When trust is established on both parts, and only then, may we initiate a joint therapy of the couple, alone or with a co-therapist — whether of the same gender or not.
In fact we often carry out an alternating therapy of individual sessions and then sessions with both members of the couple together. Experience shows that different things are said in different settings, when there is a sufficient guarantee for secrecy. Thus one or the other — and quite often both – partner(s) tell us of secret extra-marital adventures or relations, and sometimes of painful experiences (sexual abuse) which had never been disclosed to the other partner (nor to anyone else, usually). As we mentioned earlier, we do not regard this type of revelation as indispensable within the couple itself. Neither is it indispensable in the secret setting of therapy but, quite often it enables us to better assess the situation; furthermore, these confessions relieve the client and de-dramatise the situation.
Thus we may adopt different rhythms:
In all instances, we take care to maintain a balance between both members of the couple. When we work as a couple, each of us can follow one of the partners but, after a certain time, a switch may prove enriching. In such a case, we duly advise the clients that we are strictly respecting secrecy on what one says about the other, but that both co-therapists freely share their information and feelings. Here again there may be some motivated exceptions.
A Gestaltist approach
During couple sessions, we adopt a Gestaltist positioning : centred on the how as much as on the what, on movements and postures as much as on what is said, we pay attention to emotional manifestations and not only to rationalisations, and to the current process of the here and now of the session as much as to reports on previous external facts. We suggest repeating certain sentences and amplifying certain spontaneous movements, in order to see them better and in order for the client to confer his own meaning on them — without neglecting the characteristic polysemy of any language, whether verbal or gestural.
We suggest to our clients to speak to each other and not to the therapist(s). But from time to time, we share our feedback. At certain times we suggest a change of roles between partners (generally with a swap of places). As we have already stressed, we avoid spending too much time on childhood memories — which we keep if necessary for individual sessions. On the other hand, we obviously accept that partners talk about present relations in the family… and mother-in-laws are often put on stage!
As we have already mentioned, we pay special attention to the themes of personal responsibility as well as to the various mechanisms of «resistance»:
1. Excessive confluence in the couple, which never separates or where one answers for the other
Introjections of principles and prejudices which are far from always proving to be true:
2. Projection of one’s experience on the partner: «he surely wants to…», «he doesn’t like it when…»
3. Retroflection of anger or desire (generating suppressed anger!)
4. Deflection and avoidance: in humour, in activism, in silence, in escaping
5. Proflection: «isn’t that so that…?», «what would you think of…» (instead of expressing directly one’s thought or one’s desire).
We take into account the ambivalence inherent in all human beings and couples:
desire to change and fear of changing: the couple has established itself in the provisional and relative «comfort» of ironed out mechanisms, and challenging the family’s balance is not without danger for the whole «system».
I remember a young woman, Alice, who had come to participate in a monthly therapy group (a monthly residential weekend) upon the request of her elderly husband — who complained of her frigidity and who had therefore intimated that she should «undergo treatment». During the third session, Alice reports with strong emotions the rape which she was victim of during adolescence, and which she had never disclosed to anyone. We re-enact the scene — as a symbolic psychodrama —, she expresses her shame and anger; she physically fights with her «rapist»; I also suggest that she switches role and plays the aggressor (so that she does not set herself in the role of the victim). A long psycho-corporal work is done around this dramatic event. The day after she phones me, thrilled: «At last, I’ve reached orgasm, it’s wonderful!»
But the story does not end here: the husband also phones! He is furious: «What have you done to my wife? Who taught her to make love? What is going on in your groups? This is a scandal!» A few months later he asks for a divorce: «I am sure my wife betrayed me! I had married a sweet little girl and here she is, taking all sorts of liberties! She has become totally autonomous and no longer listens to me!…» The (neurotic) balance was broken and the couple fell apart. Maybe it is not to be regretted in this specific case (!)… but the risks do exist.
As mentioned by Robert Neuburger (1995) , «Any external intervention on the couple, even with a therapeutic aim, may be experienced as a violence, especially if it is based on the idea of helping one of the partners and if it overlooks the power of the ties of belonging.»
The whole is different from the sum of its parts. The couple is more than the sum of two people. It is not the traditional «two shall become one» of the Bible! This would reduce each partner to a half! The new arithmetic is: 1 + 1 = 3. Each person plus the couple as an autonomous entity which «leads its own life».
And why not 1 + 1 = 7? Meaning: me, you, us; you in me, me in you (the images of the other that we harbour); the ideal couple in my mind, the ideal couple in yours. A created, fantasised, mythified couple.
The couple leads its life: it is not a definitive and stable state. It lives, it changes, it grows, it sufferers, it is sick… and sometimes, independently from its «components» — who may be feeling very well! For example, each partner may have initiated an outside relation steeped in joy… and the couple is suffering or dying.
Among the prevention measures, we suggest a yearly «honeymoon» for every couple: a period of a few days away from the marital home and its obligations, without children (to be entrusted to the family, to friends or to a holiday institution); with nothing else to do but to meet each other face-to-face, make love, review the situation, «renegotiate the contract» each year point by point: What is working? What is no longer valid? What are our projects for the relation this year? A time to focus on «us».
By the way, I am ending this chapter (which we are readjusting together, paragraph by paragraph). I’m ending this chapter here, because we are preparing our suitcases: tomorrow morning, we are leaving for our traditional annual honeymoon…