Counter-Transference in a Couples Session

I’ve been struggling a little more lately on how to work with the counter-transference that comes up during a couples session. In working with individuals, I do a fairly good job remembering that everything happening between the client and myself can be processed, and usually where some of our best work comes from.  But even with believing that concept, I still slip out of the heightened awareness of our process too easily. I start to notice I’m feeling dread about seeing certain clients, or drained after our sessions. It takes a while for me to wake up and remember that I’m feeling this way because something is happening between the client and myself that I’m not naming or processing in the room with them. I’ve had some zingers from clients in couples sessions recently, and I leave feeling so crappy from those sessions. I mostly know what to do with those in individual sessions but don’t know yet how to process them with couples.

A friend introduced me to a book recently called The Intimate Edge, by Darlene Bregman Ehernberg that has helped me start to think of answers to this question. Here was the process of that conversation:

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Friend: “You should read this book, it’s incredible.”

Me: “Ugh, no. I don’t want to read another therapy book right now.”

Friend: “Let’s read it for our book club.”

Me: “Is this going to be a bunch of psychoanalytic Freud crap?” (my friend comes heavily from a psychoanalytic background and lived and trained in NYC until a few months ago)

Friend: “No, read it!”

Me: “Fine, but I’m not going to like it.”

 

Ok, so the book is incredible. It was like a defibrillator to my brain, shocking me back to the reality that I haven’t been using the “between” the client and myself nearly enough. All of a sudden the clients I’ve been dreading for next week, I have a burst of energy for. Ehrenberg reminded me that instead of just compassion and reflecting, I can also use myself in the room and how I’m feeling with a client. This interpersonal, relational way of working was my entire grad school training, but it’s so easy for me to slip out of using myself in this way. And Ehrenberg uses this tool to the maximum, much more so than most therapists I’ve read or seen.

My question now is, how can I use this with couples? When I have one part of a couple that is acting out, rolling their eyes, snapping at me, or acting inappropriate in the room, I want to use this interpersonal work. It’s a tough balance, though, because we have so little time with the couple and often times I already feel like I spend too much time focused on one partner before making it dyadic (between the two of them).

Whenever a client is acting out or reacting strongly to me, I always pause and explore the trigger. But the moment tends to pass quickly. Here’s how the conversation typically goes right now:

Me: “What just happened there? It seems like I might have triggered you just then?”

Client: “No, no, I’m just stressed from my week.”

Me: “Are you sure? I definitely want to know if I hit a raw spot just there.”

Client: “No …” and moves on to talking about stress with partner.

I move on with them, getting back into the couples dynamic.

But by moving on, and accepting their excuse, I am missing something that really is happening for them.  I also could be missing a way they are protecting themselves from me, and their partner. Ehrenberg conceptualizes how clients protect themselves and test their relationships with us by looking at their pain as them deadening themselves to the feeling of desire. They cut off their connection to their own desire in a multitude of different ways, because to feel desire and have it unmet has been so profoundly painful for them. I think this could be an important portal to deeper work with clients, because it is so fundamental to attachment. If they cut off from feeling their desire to be loved and connected in a deep way, it would have a direct effect on their ability to attach with their partners.

I’m playing with how this lens could be used to help our Withdrawers especially, or our clients with disorganized attachment patterns. At some point they will enact that with us, and then how can we use that in the room without it just becoming an individual session? Please share your thoughts if this is work you’ve thought about!

 

Ehrenberg, D. B. (1992) The Intimate Edge, Extending The Reach of Psychoanalytic Interaction. New York, New York. Norton & Company, Inc.