Russell Collins, Psy.D.
I have a fundamental belief that determines my approach to working with couples: relationships run into trouble because partners have stopped seeing each other clearly. Instead, they are living in a world inhabited by ghosts from the past – both the ancient evolutionary past still alive in the primitive parts of the brain, and the more recent developmental past of their childhoods.
The work of therapy, in my view, is to build a bridge of empathy between partners, to allow each to see the other as he or she is – flawed but vulnerable, self-protective but eager for true connection and love. This is very challenging work for many couples, who may have solidified a harsh set of judgments about each other in order to defend themselves from pain. Yet it is among the most rewarding experiences a therapist can have - to see a couple deeply connected and loving again, after years of unhappiness together.
As a mediator, I also have a practical agenda for couples that is not the norm in psychotherapy. After couples have begun to do the work of seeing and hearing each other more deeply and empathically, there are often very practical issues that can undermine the effort of rebuilding the relationship. "Yes, I understand that you felt deeply hurt when I missed our anniversary for a business trip. AND my business demands I travel on short notice." "No, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings and disrespect you by not having dinner on the table when you got home. AND I still have a firm belief and sense of fairness that says we should share the housework evenly." I call this second aspect – the one that comes after the AND - the domain of negotiation. And I consider it as important as the domain of feelings, which is typically the only one addressed in therapy. The failure to separate these two domains causes havoc in many relationships. I believe the failure to address BOTH domains in couples therapy is often a fatal flaw.
As a result, the process of couples therapy, as I practice it, begins with a careful exploration of the issues that have you struggling as partners - whether that means arguing or judging each other harshly or just feeling separate and alone. In the course of this phase, we will look at the ways in which each partner's vulnerabilities and reactions trigger the vulnerabilities and reactions of the other. As you both begin to see how the cycle of unhappiness is maintained, a kind of relaxation takes place that naturally softens the relationship and lets the familar warmth of caring and friendship re-emerge. Now the work of negotiating the difficulties and differences of daily life begins - the part that comes after the AND - but in a context of mutual understanding and compromise. The final phase of therapy consists of coaching in the skills that researchers have identified as the "magic bullet" solutions for long-term relationship health: validation, acceptance, and respect.