Interact Journal Integrative Ideas for the Process-Oriented Psychotherapist

Categories Supervision Dialogs

On enmeshed couples

They are so enmeshed. I’ve done everything I know from teaching I-messages and using the session to practice negotiating, to directing them to use language that takes responsibility. Nothing changes.

Some pairs of people are too enmeshed to work with as a couple. They are so intertwined, that one can’t raise an eyebrow without a reaction from the other. Each brings their partner into therapy as a representative of their shadow-side, refuses to own it, and asks you to fix it. If this is the case here, do not be seduced into working within the ordinary couple’s frame of communi-cation skills and conflict resolution. In order to do couple’s work, you need to think of the two of them as one thing in order to work with their process but they need to perceive themselves as two individuals. 

All each one wants is for the other person to change.

  • One way to enact this process in the room is by treating them as two individuals. If they won’t be seen alone because of time, money or other constraints, do individual work with each of them while the partner is in the room. Work individually only. Work with one while the other witnesses.
  • Wait until some movement toward individuation occurs before inviting couple’s work again.

Witnessing usually generates intimacy and a feeling of empathy. Supporting one’s partner becomes a lot more attractive when a person perceives that their partner’s Enemy is not themselves but something else, Out There, somewhere. 

How about I work with one of them for twenty minutes or so and then turn to the other and say something like, “How was that for you to see your partner doing that?”

Yes. Working from the idea that people respond toward their partners as they did toward their parents, another possibility is to work deeply with one of them on some unresolved childhood issue and then bring the resolution back into the current relationship. For example,

If, in the course of some individual work, one of them discovers they need to tell a parent some assertive truth, invite them to say whatever it is to the parent as if the parent were in the room. Either right then or later after the work is through, direct them to, 

“Now turn to your partner and say those same words to him.”

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