Uncontrolling Couples Therapy

By Lon Marshall

Resolution to couples conflict is a better fit if it comes from them.

Several years ago, Consumer Reports came out with surveys measuring customer satisfaction for individual Psychotherapy, and Couples Therapy. Those who reported about their experiences in individual therapy were very satisfied. A high percentage of individuals found Psychotherapy helpful and would recommend it to others. Couples Therapy was a different story; a majority found it unhelpful and would not recommend it.

This troubled me. It did not match what I was witnessing in my practice, where over half of my caseload is with couples. I have worked with eight to ten thousand couples in my 30 years of practice. I generally have found that couples are reaching their goals for therapy and are happy with the outcomes.

I thought about this for a long time. Why were couples not finding therapy helpful in most settings, and why was I getting different results?

What I decided is that individuals were finding therapy helpful because they were affirmed, accepted, and encouraged. Mental health professionals are trained to do individual therapy. I decided the problem was that therapists were using individual therapy skills to do couples therapy. Couples Therapy is a different animal. There are two people with differing opinions. Therapy intensifies if you allow them to express their feelings and describe what they see as the problem; specifically, the other person, who is sitting there.

I think there are two elements that are important to successful Couples Therapy. One, the therapist needs to be very active and involved with the couple. There needs to be intervention, involvement between and within the interaction. Two, that interaction must be uncontrolling, persuasive, invitational, making sure to allow the participants to use their own resources to resolve the conflict.

I want to take a moment to reflect on the purpose of this essay and those in this book. These essays are about the intersection of Therapy and Open and Relational Theology. As I understand it, Open and Relational Theology has the view that God is active in our lives, partnering with us. There is intervention, and action on God’s part. God is close not distant; involved, not passive. At the same time, God is uncontrolling, persuasive, and inviting us into relationship. God is a Spirit. We have bodies in time and space. We are to use our resources to be free agents of peace in this physical world.

Over my years of practice, I have called this an incarnational therapy. This is how God revealed in Jesus is present to us, and works with us, and through us. My attempt is to imitate Jesus. And this does not take the form of teaching or telling couples what to do. It is through a process of questions imagining new possibilities where couples are invited to create their own resolution.

My experience has taught me couples come to therapy with similar expectations. I believe it is universal to anticipate the opportunity to tell the therapist what your partner is doing to contribute to the problem and to articulate what you want from your partner. This is what couples have been doing before seeking help from an outside source to no avail. That does not work before coming to therapy and it will not work in therapy. What it does is set up a debate between partners. One person describing how the other is at fault and the other defending their position and returning accusations.

The therapist must understand what does not work and seek to intervene in this pattern of interaction. Early on the therapist can do this with invitations to imagine different outcomes or patterns of interaction, but couples are often determined to tell the therapist what their partner is doing to cause the problem. The therapist must intervene to prevent this type of interaction. This can be done graciously. It is primarily done by invitation and persuasion. It is very important for the therapist to be vigilant and active in this way.

The couples who have resolved their problems and achieved satisfaction in their relationships have done so by making a subtle shift. I have learned by watching them for 30 years. The shift is simple but not easy. Successful couples can move from “this is what I want my partner to know I need,” to “I wonder what I could do that my partner would like.” When both partners can do this simultaneously, then something special can happen.

Therapists can encourage this process by asking helpful questions. Twentieth Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has said, “It is a mistake to look for an explanation, when a description of what works will do.” Some questions are better than others. Therapists must craft the most helpful questions. Good questions help couples describe what works or might work. Wittgenstein also said that “All we have is misunderstanding… there are just more and less helpful misunderstandings.” As therapists seeking to be active and involved, yet uncontrolling, persuasive and relational, we seek descriptions over explanations and encourage the most helpful misunderstandings.

One of the most helpful types of questions is exception-finding questions. This is where the therapist asks about past success. “When was the last time you got along a bit better?” “What are your better days like?” “What was it that attracted you to each other?” “What percentage of the time are you able to resolve differences?” All of these questions can be followed up with curious questions about how that happened, and what it would take to replicate these unique outcomes.

Another helpful type of question is future-oriented questions. “Describe the kind of communication you would like in your relationship.” “Suppose when you leave here you talk together about how helpful this meeting was. What would need to happen for that to come true?” “What if a Miracle happens tonight while you are sleeping? The miracle is that the reason you have come here is fixed, taken care of… When you wake up what will be the first thing you notice?” These questions can be followed up with more questions like, “And what would happen next?” “And what difference would that make to your partner?” and, “When your partner is doing that, how will you respond?”

Scaling questions are another type of useful tool for helping couples with active intervention and uncontrolling invitation. Percentages or Likert scale questions can often be helpful. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready do you think you are to hold empathy for your partner and begin the healing process?” “How much of this miracle is already happening on a scale of 1 to 10?” “What needs to happen to go from a 5 to a 5.5?” What would your wife notice about you when she thinks it’s improved from a 3 to a 4?”

You have probably noticed that the location of expertise has changed places in this model. Instead of the therapist being an expert that dispenses knowledge to the couple, the couple becomes the experts about their own relationship and what is needed. This again is modeling Open and Relational Theology. God is not singlehandedly rescuing us when we are in trouble. Instead, our creator and suffering servant is cooperating with us to bring about Shalom.

Lon Marshall is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist. He is the architect and founder of Cornerstone Brief Therapy in Coralville Iowa. His caring methods have been recognized for their ability to bring about positive change. He has a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He also is a peacemaker with his conference Mennonite Conflict Transformation team.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love