As a couples therapist, I've had the honor of working with many couples in therapy over the years. And, I've noticed that a common relationship dynamic in couples seeking therapy is that partners have developed negative beliefs about each other, because they've interpreted each other's characteristics as character flaws.
These negative beliefs are often expressed in therapy (and in the relationship) as judgmental or critical statements about the partner's habits or tendencies. Over time, partners' beliefs become conclusions about the other's identity--their core being. Once this has occurred, it is difficult for individuals to recognize evidence that contradicts their conclusions. Therefore, criticism and resentment are likely to be present, to some degree, in the couple's interactions.
Through understanding one another, partners are able to reframe their negative beliefs. For example, they can go from believing:
- "she is lazy," to "she values spending time together over completing tasks."
- "he's a snob," to "he'd rather have quality over quantity."
- "he's anti-social" to "he's an introvert"
- "she's no fun," to "she needs to get organized and mentally prepared in order to enjoy an activity"
The process of moving from judgment to acceptance involves presence.
Today, I am sharing some thoughts on the role of presence and understanding in creating an experience of love for couples in therapy.
For couples, negative beliefs can become engrained over time, as partners begin and continue to see their loved one's behavior and habits from their own frame of reference, without realizing what's happening. They take their interpretations as truth, and as a result, neglect to present them to their partner to be confirmed or altered through dialogue.
These negative beliefs can be present whether couples have been married for 1 year, or 20 years. The length of the relationship does not matter, because these negative beliefs are a result of a lack of understanding about one's partner as well as the influence of one's own perspectives and preferences on relationship interactions.
As a side note: This process can happen with both negative and positive beliefs. People can attribute skills, knowledge, and benevolence to partners that they later learn--usually through disappointment--did not exist.
If these negative beliefs have been present for a long time, the process of developing new beliefs can be confusing and arduous for couples. Therapy that allows both members of a couple to recognize their personal preferences as well as their partner's, can establish a new framework and new language for creating beliefs based on understanding. These new beliefs are developed with the partner, through communication that involves curiosity and acceptance.
Two existing frameworks that I've used in couples therapy are the Five Love Languages and the Myer's Briggs Type Indicator personality profile. These are popular with couples and therapists, because they create a powerful experience in therapy as partners re-discover each other, without blame. After all, the process of understanding self and other often provides a sense of relief and hope. And, new frameworks create a context that takes partners outside of their individual and automatic ways of interpreting behavior, making it easier to relinquish judgment in favor of connection.
Therapy as a Place for Presence
Understanding requires presence. Presence as an experience that moves partners to be with each other, instead of with their thoughts about each other. Presence means partners have left their thoughts--"suspended" them (Senge, 2004), in order to participate--to be here, now.
Glennon Doyle Melton (2016) says:
I'd always assumed that in love was some perfect storm of feelings that some couples were just lucky enough to have. But now I wonder, is love not a feeling but a place between two present people? A sacred place created when two people decide it's safe enough to let their real selves surface and touch each other? Is that why it's called in love? Because you have to visit there? (p. 189)
Therapy is the perfect place for couples to create a sacred place together, as they learn to be present--to see each other and be influenced by new understandings of one another.
Although new frameworks for understanding are helpful for developing this sacred place, they are not required. The only thing required is two present people.
For this reason, we therapists, amidst theory, interventions, and frameworks, must remain facilitators of presence.
In presence, love exists, because people are participating not from a place of deciding or directing, but from a place of humanity.
Have you ever felt it? Have you ever been so present with another that you loved them? It can happen with anyone. When we can hear their story--their side--something within us knows that we could be them. That their story is our story. That kind of presence is love.
It then makes sense that within a relationship, partners feel more in love when they are communicating.
The Present Therapist
In therapy, therapists move in and out of this kind of presence, this kind of love. If we must treat or diagnose, then we’re in our cognitive mind--in our thoughts about our clients and the categories we’ve created for them. The more we are in presence, the more healing for our clients, because we are with them rather than for them. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say that we can be with our clients, even while we are for them.
How to Help Couples Cultivate Presence
How can you facilitate presence?
Here are a few components that I've identified as essential or facilitating presence in couples therapy:
Co-construction: Allowing for the therapeutic conversation to be co-constructed by each member of the couple.
Acceptance: Helping partners recognize when they are speaking from assumptions and conclusions; encouraging and giving opportunities for partners to ask questions in these circumstances in order to test their assumptions.
Curiosity: Modeling curiosity, rather than conclusions, in the way you conduct therapy (i.e. through asking questions, sharing your thoughts and ideas, tentatively holding conclusions, etc.).
Vulnerability: Acknowledging and validating vulnerable moments, so that vulnerability is nurtured.
Ambiguity: Allowing ambiguity to be welcomed and honored in therapy, between therapist and clients, as well as within the couple relationship; not rushing toward answers or solutions.
Alertness: Actively re-directing unproductive talk toward the seeking of understanding.
Through facilitating presence with our clients, we create an environment of safety that prepares couples for discovering unknown realities about each other and guides them toward a more present relationship. Our work is sacred. We can help couples have an experience of love.
Let me know in the comments below, or e-mail me:
- What stood out to you most from this article?
- What is one thought you have about love and presence in the therapy room?