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I came across an excellent article recently that resonated with me as a couples therapist at so many levels. You can access the article here: It is in Psychotherapy Networker and it is called Shame and Blame in Couples Therapy.

If you have been working as a couples therapist for any length of time you will have met this type of dynamic in the therapy room. It is written by Tracy Dalgleish and Sara Schwarzbaum and they are EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) trained and they refer to the pursuer/withdrawer dynamic. In the case they present in the article they introduce a heterosexual couple Emily and Matt.

Emily has requests, desires and expectations of Matt and is in a familiar position of being the one that has to do it all. She wants to be seen understood and cared for by him. However how she communicates that to him is to criticise him, belittle him and blame him. This then evokes Matt’s feelings of never being good enough so then rather than moving towards Emily in a more caring and understanding way he gets defensive with her and probably does even less in the relationship to avoid getting it wrong or because it feels like whatever he does it is never good enough.

From the lens of the vulnerability cycle you can see the vulnerabilities and the survival strategies in play (note that the survival strategies show as regressive behaviour so it can feel that you are trying to get through to two toddlers both having a tandrum!). And from Terry Real’s RLT approach he will refer to this as the more the more. The more she angrily pursues the more he withdraws and does less. The more he withdraws and does less the more she angrily pursues.

The therapist works with the couple to help them understand their negative cycle. And would have I have no doubt emphasised to the couple how each of them need to be curious about their own side of the dynamic. However as commonly happens you can have one partner is hell bent on painting their partner as the problem and works on getting the therapist to see it from this viewpoint. This then can land them in quite a dysregulated state and the client can feel that you are then against them as you are not seeing it in the same way as they experience it.

And then the client storms out of the session. You as the therapist are left there with the remaining partner left with a mixture of fury, embarrassment, sadness and maybe even despair. As a newly emerging couples therapist know that it isn’t a case of “if this happens”, this will happen to you at some point if you are doing your job well.

This article then moves on to the benefit that can come after this session if the client is willing to come back in at a later date (not immediately as they will still be too dysregulated). The honesty of the therapist about her own feelings breaks the cycle of defensiveness (parallel process with Matt) and then the curiosity of the therapist towards Emily’s feelings  allow her to move more towards vulnerability rather than blame.

In this case the couple were able to stay with the difficulties and work through them with the therapist. This isn’t always the case and as a couples therapist we have to hold the fact that sometimes the couples will not come back. This can be really hard….which brings me to another important aspect of this article which is the therapist using her consultation group to support her through a very difficult experience.

I would recommend that you read this article at least a couple of times. It is a great example of the negative cycle that plays out in a couple, of dealing with a blaming partner, working with dyregulation, encountering rupture and repair and the importance of having a really good support system around you for your professional work.

These are all aspects that are common through all models of couples therapy and they are all highlighted in the Institute of Couples Therapy Training.

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