What Happens When couples Step Back From Interactions?
Setting the Scene
Imagine this scene: Judy and Mike are experiencing a lot of difficulty in their marriage. They decide to get some help from a therapist to figure things out and develop some new tools for managing their conflicts. Opening scene of their first visit:
Therapist: (Well here’s the new couple in my waiting room. Hey, they’re arguing already, they didn’t even wait for me). “Excuse me, let me show you to my office.”
Mike: “After you, DEAR.”
Judy: “Mike, grow up. We are here to help you with your obvious lack of communication skills.”
Mike: “Oh, excuse me, I thought we were here to deal with your anger issues – remember, our last therapist thought you had father issues.”
Judy: (Eyes close) “No Mike, she said my unresponsive, blaming father, was well, just like you, and gee what a surprise I may have reactions to the fact that you are selfish and self-centered.”
Therapist: (Maybe this is a good time to think about a referral). “Let me stop you. Let’s get into my office, then I’ll get both your stories.”
They all walk into the therapist’s office. The therapist hears one complaint after another, and thinks (Yikes, this is a case for Gus, Master Gottman Therapist). Gus has the ability to, without using any words, simply look at clients and get them to stop criticizing each other. The couple only has to look at Gus and realize that their argument is escalating and that is not good. They realize that the biggest predictors of divorce are the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. These are pervasive and consistent patterns of negative interactions defined as: 1. Blaming 2. Defensiveness 3. Withdrawal (Stonewalling) and 4. Contempt (belligerence).
Learning from Gus
So, who is Gus? Some figment of my imagination? No, Gus isn’t a figment of my imagination, he was real. So here is the true story of Gus.
Some years ago a couple I was working with had been struggling with arguing and bickering. We identified and had been working with the patterns of the Four Horsemen in their interactions. They had some successes, but struggled with relapsing into old patterns of blame and criticism. In our last session they reported that they had made a breakthrough in their relationship. I waited with anxious anticipation after asking them what made the difference? I thought to myself, what did I do or say that made the difference? What tool did I give them that helped them to manage their conflicts? One can never tell for sure what things seem to click.
Here’s what they said. “The thing that really helped us was our dog Gus.” What? I thought, your dog? “Yea , every time we started to fight, Gus would get scared and go in the other room and just look at us. We realized we needed to stop being so mean to each other. Ever since we realized Gus was getting upset, we have been able to stop, before things got nasty.”
Hmm, one upped by a dog. But there is a great lesson here. Next time you start to get into it with your partner, try to imagine how this interaction might impact an observer, animal or human. It is looking in from what a psychologist would call, the “observing ego”, an ability to be detached, stepping out of oneself to observe from a neutral stance.
This ability to objectively look in on a situation that you are involved in is referred to by Dan Wile, as “Stepping on the platform”. You step outside the interaction and observe what is happening. When you can do that, you can observe the scene with objectivity and see where things are headed. That’s what Gottman Method Therapists are trained to do with couples, but frankly, I think Gus can teach us something, and he didn’t even go to graduate school.