Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two Couples

("Two Couples" was printed in the fall, 2010 "Illinois Psychologist," the newsletter of the Illinois Psychological Association)

As the year anniversary of their marital therapy approached, the couple and I reviewed how far they’d come. At the beginning, it wasn’t at all certain that one spouse, acutely suicidal, would survive the year, or that their severely troubled marriage would. Neither the suicidal spouse nor the troubled marriage is safe for certain, but both are much better now.

During the year, I have at various times accepted, supported, and challenged the narrative of self and history presented by each or both spouses. I have used “bottom-up” emotion-focused therapy (learned from Sue Johnson), behavioral interventions, and “top-down” psychodynamic interpretations. One spouse had to go through what seemed like a volcano of rage and pain, sometimes abusing the other spouse, and I had to simultaneously endorse the feelings and experiences that led to that state while helping to stop the abuse and leading that spouse toward a higher level of self-integration. I have offered understanding and support for the other spouse’s distancing and disengagement while challenging that spouse to take steps of risk toward being more authentically available. I have, at various times, included in our talk therapy, or supplemented it, with mindfulness, hypnotherapy, spiritual counseling, humor and metaphor. I have consulted with each partner’s individual therapist.

This couple came to me after having seen a marital therapist on their insurance plan who thought she could fix them in twelve sessions, or something like that. The suicidal partner had been seen by an individual therapist working on the same lines. One of the first things I had to do was find an individual therapist for that partner who would allow that partner’s feelings and experience to actually enter the room.

This couple are not even bothering to submit their marital therapy bills to their insurance company. And if I had been asked, on a pre-authorization, to submit a treatment plan describing how I planned to work with them over a finite number of sessions, I don’t see how I could have done it.

Another couple is brand new to me and marital therapy. Brought to the brink of divorce by an infidelity, they are emotionally all over the place. The betrayed partner started a recent session by forcefully asserting that the marriage was over, and ended it by almost whispering that marital repair was the goal. The unfaithful partner, full of guilt and remorse, is challenged to make sense out of behavior that was more lived than reflected on when it was happening. Both partners, full of pain, have to understand their own contributions to what happened, even as they revise their individual and shared narratives of their marriage. Both yearn for stability which neither is able to commit to, right now, and I have to help them accept that uncertainty as they work through the issues that have suddenly become the most important in their lives.

This couple does intend to use their insurance, and I will be asked to complete a treatment plan. How about if I say: “I will empathize with each partner in such a way as to understand that partner’s experience of their relationship and the impact of the other partner’s behavior on them, and convey that in intensive conversation with both partners together in such a way as to help them integrate these perspectives into their conscious reconstruction of their relationship, supporting them in the meanwhile through a period of intensive uncertainty while encouraging each partner to discover and acknowledge what is authentically his or her truest wish for their relationship.”

What do you think the insurance company will make of that?