How Couples Counselling / Marriage Therapy Works

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

13th century Persian Poet Jalaluddin Rumi cuts straight into the essence of what I try to do in my work with couples who come to me seeking counselling. Often when a couple falls in love, there does not seem to be any barriers. But slowly, they develop as a kind of protective mechanism. But this protection can often keep us from the intimacy and enjoyment that resulted in this feeling of love. Beyond the feeling of love that is enjoyed during a honeymoon cruise, there is another kind of love waiting to develop. This kind of love is not just a passive feeling, but something more mature. It feels more like a working ship than a love boat. But there comes a kind of satisfaction and contentment that is not possible on a pleasure cruise.

Enacting this deeper, more mature kind of love in the places that it is needed most is one of the greatest things we can do with the precious time we spend in this life. A couple’s relationship provides the opportunity to shift love from a passive feeling we experience to the direct activities of removing the barriers between our selves.

Dr. John Gottman’s “Love Maps”

The first principal of Dr. John Gottman’s best-seller “Seven Principals For Making Marriage Work” is his concept of “love maps”. In this area, Gottman encourages the couple to get to know each other more intimately by knowing each other’s world spaces. Focusing here has the effect of drawing a couple towards each other. It also can also uncover wounds. When this happens, what I see is not a crisis, but an opportunity. This opportunity is in the here and now. Meeting it with immediacy allows the couple to get closer.

You have seen a herd of goats
going down to the water.

The lame and dreamy goat
brings up the rear.

There are worried faces about that one,
but now they’re laughing,

because look, as they return,
that one is leading.

There are many different ways of knowing.
The lame goat’s kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.

Learn from the lame goat,
and lead the herd home.

One of the theorists that Gottman acknowledges in the area of marital therapy who focuses on immediacy is Dr. Dan Wile. Regarding Wile, Gottman writes: “I love Wile’s writing and thinking. They are entirely consistent with many of my research findings. I think that Wile is a genius and the greatest living marital therapist.” Wile’s approach to couples therapy is one that I also wholeheartedly embrace. As a former student of Dr. Wile, I have had the opportunity to know and see first hand his approach that I now use with not only couples, but also within the context of other relationships such as parenting.

Relationship Fights are Places for Invites

In working with a relationship last week that began to get heated, I said to them smiling, “Oh, good! -look at the passion emerging between the two of you. This is exactly what we want!”. While this had a bit of a cooling effect, the warmth between the couple remained. From Wile’s point of view, conflicts are actually attempts by the couple to get closer in a place where neither knows how to get closer. I explained this concept to the couple and proceeded to encourage them throughout the session to empathize with each other not by instructing, but by doing so myself. One of them had entered the session with a pessimistic view of the counselling process. But he left eager to do the homework that I assigned him at the end of the session. I was sincerely glad to hear his initial misgivings about counselling because I suspected that he had not met with someone using my approach.

Dr. Dan Wile’s Collaborative Couple Approach

At the core of Wile’s approach is the therapists’ attempts to reframe client statements in a way that invites the other partner to join in a collaborative effort to meet the needs of each person in the relationship. In this way, the therapist focuses attention on the process, and not just on the content of the material the couple brings into the therapy room. Inviting partners to incorporate fights into their relationship often comes as a refreshing surprise to clients and broadens the possibilities within the relationship. it also encourages couples to understand the motivations and intentions behind each other’s actions. When this happens, new possibilities emerge from the new understanding that transpires. But this approach requires a therapist who is both comfortable enough with conflict and nimble enough to switch “love maps” from moment to moment as they emerge from two different observational perspectives.

Before couples are able to get into a more dynamic collaborative space where they are able to shift to a shared observational perspective, there are two preceding primary elements that Wile addresses. The first of which is clarification. It is important that the therapist spend a good deal of time clarifying and understanding the point of view of each person in the relationship and checking to be certain that it is understood correctly. The second element that Wile suggests that couples therapists address is something of a therapeutic summary that indicates how each party feels they are in a frustrating, difficult and confusing position where there are no good options. This element has the effect of humanizing each side of the relationship equation. Once each side is humanized, the possibility of harmonizing begins to emerge.

Someone On My Side

This approach allows the therapist to side not with one party or the other, but with both parties, each in turn. Which is something that many people often want in a conflict: someone to side with them. But this siding with one side or the other comes in the form of restating. Here is a simple example:

Debbie: “When you yelled at me, you made me feel scared” can be restated by the therapist in this way: “I think what you are trying to say is, and correct me if I am wrong: (speaking for Debbie to Bob) ‘Bob, when you yelled at me, I felt scared’”.

This effectively moves attention from the blame for the cause of the feeling and shifts focus onto the experience of the blamer. Wile’s technique of ‘doubling’ is attributed to the psychodrama used by Jacob Moreno. This ‘doubling’ in my mind is the digging, or the ‘work’ of the couples therapist: To be able to go within the experience of one party and restate things that they say to the other. This not only removes the blame, but also prioritizes individual experience over and above any kind of explicit or implicit rules that may be bearing on the relationship. The capacity to do this allows the therapist to reduce the possibility of triggering wounds that typically undermine a partners ability to respond with the kind of understanding and confirmation that each partner wants and needs. This approach attempts to meet couples in the here and now while drawing them from adversarial cycles of communication into collaborative ones.

Feeling Understood

Solomon writes “When mates feel understood and confirmed by each other, they experienced the relationship as a haven from the stressful world outside. The mental health field must include ways of helping to resolve issues that interfere with the maintenance of committed relationships”. If the work of digging is the uncovering of material between the couple that needs to be related, then the gold would be each member of the couple being met in the shadowy places where they feel most alienated, isolated and alone. Met by the person with whom they are most intimately involved. In keeping with this metaphor used in Jungian circles of looking for the gold in the shadow, we will conclude with a Rumi poem:

Some commentary on I was a hidden treasure,
and I desired to be known.

Tear down this house.
A hundred thousand new houses can be built
from the transparent yellow carnelian
buried beneath it, and the only way to get to that
is to do the work of demolition,
and then the digging beneath the foundation.

With that value in hand all the new construction
will be done without effort. And anyway, sooner or later,
the house will fall on its own.

The jewel treasure will be uncovered,
but it will not be yours then.
The buried wealth is your pay
for doing the demolition,
the pick and shovel work.

If you wait and just let it happen,
you will bite your hand and say,
I did not do as I knew I should have.

This is a rented house.
You do not own the deed.

You have a lease, and you have set up
a little shop where you barely make a living
sewing patches on torn clothing.

Yet only a few feet underneath
are two veins, pure red and bright gold carnelian.

Quick. Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.
You have got to quit this seamstress work.

What does the patch-sewing mean, you ask.
Eating and drinking. The heavy cloak
of the body is always getting torn.

You patch it with food
and other restless ego-satisfactions.

Rip up one board from the floor
and look into the basement.
You may see two glints in the dirt.

Jalāl, -D. R., & Barks, C. (1995). The essential Rumi. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Solomon, M. F. (1989). Narcissism and intimacy: Love and marriage in an age of confusion. New York: Norton.

Wile, D. B. (1981). Couples therapy, a nontraditional approach. New York: Wiley.

Wile, D. B. (1993). After the fight: Using your disagreements to build a stronger relationship. New York: Guilford Press.

Wile, D.B. (in preparation). Solving the Moment: Theory and Method of Collaborative Couple Therapy. Available online at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s