Experienced couple therapists know that “communication problems” are almost never the real problem.  Formulating within the Developmental Model allows us to identify where each partner is held up in their relational development.  People who say “we can’t communicate” are often holding onto lifelong symbiotic fantasies or, at best, are at the early stages of differentiation and dealing with difference inexpertly.  Such couples often want closeness without really doing the work of tolerating the emotional vulnerability necessary for intimacy.

The impasse can often show up in one of four ways is:

  • an inability to be accountable
  • self-protective reactivity
  • lack of motivation
  • lack of ownership over regressive responses.  

If a couple is severely stuck, all four forms can be present.  Partners will use strategies such as blame, resentful compliance, confusion, a “poor me”/victim stance or withdrawal as ways to cope. 

Our role as therapists is to support the growth of the emotional capacities required to feel more internally solid so partners can show up as they truly are rather than ineffectively defending themselves or denying their inner states and pointing the finger at their partner.

Picture a couple where one partner held the hope (symbiotic fantasy) that her mate would notice her, read her distress and provide her with the comfort and care she craved after a hard day at work, without her ever having to say a word.  So at the end of each day she would wait in silent expectation, and when he inevitably failed to read her mind, she would withdraw emotionally and physically, feeling hurt, disappointed and self-righteously resentful.  Now imagine how this behaviour impacts on her partner – he feels confused, anxious and hurt.  Typically, he is no more differentiated than she is, so he inevitably believes that she intends to make him feel that way (another symbiotic assumption) and, rather than talking about it, withdraws into a self-righteously resentful sulk of his own.  It doesn’t take very many iterations of this cycle for the atmosphere in the home to feel very heavy and unpleasant. 

When working with a couple like this our role is to help each partner take individual responsibility for their part in the cycle.  The DM offers us great ways to do this by naming the pattern we see that is not working, catching those pivotal moments when defences surface, holding each partner accountable and creating a boundary around each individual while still staying connected to their partner.  This allows for the beginnings of differentiation to surface as two defined individuals now exist within a relationship rather than one fused relational entity.

However, a word of warning.  Developmental growth is anxiety-provoking, especially when it comes after a period of developmental stagnation (e.g. staying stuck in Symbiosis for 10 or even 20 years).  So, when supporting partners to move forward they are likely to become triggered and their defensive patterns will emerge and can be turned towards us as therapists.  Questions such as “why are you picking on me?”, “what about him/her?”, “why is it always my fault?” can come firing our direction.

When clients react this way, they can appeal to our own areas of vulnerability such as our fear of conflict, desire to be empathic, fear of being a bad therapist (imposter syndrome).  To remain therapeutic we need to use our own differentiation skills and lean into our belief In our goodwill and our expertise, staying true to our assessment and judgement (while still being open to client feedback). 

For example, if you coached this woman in the case above to talk about the vulnerable feelings underlying her hostility and, further, to take responsibility for how her silent response impacted on her mate and apologize to him, she may be quite challenged at first.  But if you persisted and she spoke vulnerability about her hunger for connection at the end of a workday, it is likely that she (and we) would see a very different response from her partner – one of concern and care, one that precisely meets the needs she has been so inexpert at communicating.

Ellyn Bader emphasizes the importance of slowing down at these pivotal moments of vulnerability.  Vulnerability makes people uncomfortable and they will need guidance to stay in the moment and savour these new ways of interacting.  Ellyn encourages us as therapists to make room for non-verbal empathy behaviours to enable deeper connection suggesting therapists try things like

  • telling couples to slow down their verbal responses (the importance of silence)
  • encouraging deep breathing
  • modulating to a gentle tone
  • inviting the couple to hold eye gaze

Ellyn highlights that there is a typical sequence in which partners find ways to hide from their vulnerabilities and that we can successfully intervene to transform these stuck patterns.  Our role as DM therapists is to:

  • Describe non-judgementally what we are seeing each person do in their personalized flight/fight/freeze self-protective strategies
  • Connect the dysfunctional “communication patterns” with early coping learnings
  • Assist each partner to “own” (take responsibility for) their contribution to the impasse
  • Structure change in the here and now by experimenting and offering positive encouragement and support in sessions
  • Follow-up next session to see if they were able to maintain their new behaviours
  • Check that they feel understood and that they understand their partners more deeply
  • Highlight the relief this creates relief and
  • Reassure them that new neural pathways will be forming to enable healthier relating to resolve those “communication” problems

When we can accomplish these tasks for clients then we can be confident we know what to SAY and DO when clients present with “communication problems”.

Paula Dennan