Sally admitted to being a bitch. She would easily berate her husband. There were many things about him that infuriated her. His lack of responsibility with money and his lack of career drive was one of those things. Sally would quickly reach her limit in conversations, blowing up at him. She hated the repetitive nature of the situations. He would offer what she considered to be his paltry excuses, and she felt like she was pushing him, rather than him having any drive himself. He seemed to be quite incompetent to her, and would not respect spending limits or other agreements they made. He was clearly passive aggressive, and essentially disrespectful of boundaries.
However, she was the client, and it was her that I needed to work with. Often when dealing with one person in a marriage, a large laundry list of grievances will be brought by them. These are valid, as are their feelings about the issues. However, what matters, and what I focus the client on, is where their responsibility is. I bring it back to them, to what they need to do differently. Often they are so focused on the other person’s faults that they see their own as secondary. All their efforts go into changing their partner.
In Sally’s case, bringing it back to her revealed a number of things. Firstly, her explosions were quite emotionally violent, and contributed to an atmosphere of alienation.
Secondly, when not exploding, she was in avoidance mode. When she felt strongly about something she would either sob too much to be able to talk, or she would stop herself saying anything before the tears came out. In this way, she prevented herself talking through important issues, and would freeze herself emotionally. This resulted in her freezing him out, not responding to his affection for instance. These were important themes to work with, and were her part of the negative dynamic. It’s important to not get caught up with the stories people tell about their marriages and partners. The important information is what they do to contribute to the dynamic.
This is the Gestalt emphasis on responsibility; it takes an especially strong focus on this from the therapist to bring it back to the client. In her case, we started with her response to him when he did approach her in a warm and friendly way. She would pull back. In this was her resentment, and also her feeling of ungroundedness - she couldn’t manage the feelings that came up, both positive and negative, and hold onto herself.
In couples, it is very important to work with what is called differentiation - the capacity to be fully yourself, and at the same time, be close to the other. Gestalt pays attention to boundaries, and this helps to do this. In this case, she was not able to be close, and yet stay in touch with herself, and her feelings. So I suggested an experiment. I would play her husband, and she would simply work to stay grounded in her feelings. I asked for a particular phrase that he used, when being friendly. I repeated this to her, and supported her to stay present, breathe, and then talk about her feelings.
This was very basic work, yet this is often the kind of support people need in their relationships. The embodied experiment is important, rather than just talking about it. The Gestalt ‘safe emergency’ allows us to bring up the difficult and provocative situation, but bring lots of support into it, so something different can happen. The result of this, over a number of sessions, was that Sally learned to hold onto herself. She took the support from the sessions, and could start to support herself in these situations, to just remain with herself. Before even learning to communicate what was happening for her, she first needed to get to first base.
In Gestalt work we are satisfied to work very slowly, as it is in the slow work, with plenty of support, that integration occurs. Simply confronting someone with their responsibility is too harsh on its own. What is necessary is providing the kind of support they don’t have, in order that they can indeed take the steps towards responsibility and differentiation.
Posted by Steve Vinay Gunther