This is known as the ‘fix-my-partner’ couple.
The ‘problem’ might be that the partner is depressed, has a sexual difficulty, gets angry or has had an affair.
The other partner will give the message that they have only come to support their mate with this issue, not because there is anything they could possibly need to look at in their own behaviour!
It immediately creates a one up/one down dynamic within the couple’s relationship, in which one partner seems to be more powerful than the other. The ‘victim’ partner may have come because they are compliant, feel guilty or agree that they are the one with the problem.
But they may also have a vague sense that it’s not quite as simple as that but they can’t quite say why.
A repair shop not couple therapy
Couple therapist and author Robert Taibbi says that he feels more like a repair shop than a couple therapist in these situations. In his book Doing Couple Therapy he compares them to family therapy sessions where the parents literally drop off their 8-year-old ‘problem child’ and wait in the car outside.
My experience seeing couples is that things are rarely as simple as they seem at the beginning and that the issue being brought is always about the relationship dynamics between the two partners rather than a problem only one of them has.
While I will attend to the issue they are bringing – John’s depression or Jane’s lack of interest in sex – I am also interested in how they relate to each other and how this pattern may be creating or sustaining the problem.
One of the goals of the therapy, says Taibbi, is to enable the ‘one-down’ partner to voice his or her thoughts and feelings and to move out of the victim role. It is also important to encourage the ‘powerful’ partner to become curious about their role in what is going on and how their behaviour could actually be part of the problem.
Everything is relational
While seeing a couple I try to hold in my mind the concept that everything they are bringing is relational. In other words, an individual’s ‘problem’ is almost always reflecting something in the other partner.
This flows from the idea that we unconsciously seek out partners who, in certain key areas, reflect something we have disowned in ourselves. So, a depressed person may be attractive to someone who has disowned their own sadness or depression. Or a person with a sexual difficulty that prevents sexual intimacy may also be manifesting a fear of intimacy that the ‘powerful’ partner shares but is unaware of.
It is also striking how, when we get to know a little about the partners’ parents, we find out that the current dynamic is echoing something from the past. For example, Jane’s frustration with John’s depression mirrors her father’s annoyance at her mother’s sadness. Or John’s anger at her infidelities mirrors the many affairs his mother had.
Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon at creative commons on flickr.com