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Anyone who conducts workshops knows that they are great learning experiences, not just for the students, but also for the instructor. This was especially true of the Marriage Meeting Program workshop I taught at Alliant International University in San Francisco last Friday.
What a joy it was to spend four hours with such a fine, bright group of psychologists and psychology doctoral students. They came to learn about Marriage Meetings and to share wisdom and insights about couple therapy.
I presented guidelines for conducting Marriage Meetings, then explained how to conduct each of the four parts of the agenda for the meetings. Everyone role-played in pairs. So they now know how it feels to participate in each part of the meeting. That means they can better explain to their clients how to hold productive meetings.
Marriage Meetings are most appropriate for couples whose relationship is relatively healthy. Most people who come to therapy are not initially ready to conduct successful meetings. First they need to improve their communication skills and level of trust in their spouse or partner.
One psychologist said she could think of two couples she currently sees who are likely to benefit from holding Marriage Meetings. I was pleased to hear this, because our job as therapists is to help launch our clients to the place where they can do fine without the need for ongoing therapy sessions. The best therapy happens when clients learn, in effect, to be their own therapist.
Couples Therapy Demonstration
Because of privacy is usually a necessary factor for effective psychotherapy, rarely if ever do therapists have the opportunity to observe each other working. With this in mind, I like to include a demonstration of couples therapy, acted out by participants, as part of my Marriage Meeting Workshop.
Class participants played the roles of wife, husband, and therapist and chose a problem for the couple to bring to the session: The wife was upset with her husband for often undermining her attempt to discipline their child. In the simulated session, she expressed anger toward her husband for taking their young son out to play catch in the back yard when he was supposed to stay in his room for a time out she had just given him.
The couple quickly escalated into criticizing each other and defending themselves against their partner’s verbal attacks. The husband insisted the wife hadn’t told her about the time out; she was sure that she had and “he never listens.” He criticized his wife, saying, “First she complains I don’t spend enough time with my son. Now she criticizes me for spending quality time with him.” The psychologist who played the husband showed contemptuous behavior, complete with eye rolling and an exasperated tone of voice.
The therapist moved the conversation in a new directions, saying, “We’re not going to resolve that today.” She asked them to tell her about what they liked about each other when they first met and went on dates together.
They responded by talking about the fun they used to have together. He slipped in a complaint about her not being much fun these days, but the therapist brought them back to what they like about each other currently. The husband said his wife is a great mother. The wife said her husband is a terrific cook. He reminded her that she likes it when he bar-be-ques. Her face lit up as she said she “loves his bar-be-ques.”
The therapist then told the the couple to think of a recreational activity they both like and to schedule a date to do it together during the week.
After the role-play, I asked the observers: “What do you think the therapist did well? Here are some responses:
She provided structure. She actively intervened to make the discussion more constructive discussion.
She validated feelings expressed by the partners.
After hearing the partners’ complaints and validating their feelings, she encouraged them to recall what they like about each other.
She assigned homework to the couple designed to restore good feelings.
The spontaneous applause from the group after the role-play ended confirmed that the psychologist who played the therapist did a fine job. As there is always room for improvement, I then asked, “Does anyone have a suggestion?” When no one responded, I gave mine.
I suggested that she tell the couple what they are doing well. For example, she might say, “I can tell that both of you are devoted to Timmy and to raising him well.”
The psychologist who played the therapist nodded in agreement.
Much education and training we receive is about what’s wrong. Problems, diagnoses, mental illness terminology. That has its place, of course. Yet, we must not forget what too often is a missing ingredient of good therapy: the need to build on the strengths our clients and patients already possess.
We are all bigger than whatever is troubling us at the moment. Therapists who take a holistic approach will communicate to clients that each one is a whole person, with strengths, accomplishments, and good character traits. Our clients take in this information, which provides fuel for hope and positive changes.
I am grateful to Alliant International University for the opportunity to teach there, to the wonderful workshop participants, and for the valuable shared learning.