Couples Clinic Marin

Timothy  West, Ph.D., MFT

(415) 892-7330


Getting off to a Good Start

Offices located in Corte Madera,

Marin County, California

Dr. West Marriage Counselor

Timothy  West, Ph.D., MFT

(415) 892-7330

Dr. Timothy West, a Marriage & Family Therapist, provides couples counseling through-out Marin County, California. With offices located in Corte Madera, he also serves the communities of Sausalito, Mill Valley, Tiburon, Greenbrae, Larkspur, Kentfield, Ross, San Anselmo, Fairfax, San Rafael, Terra Linda, and Novato.

Couples Clinic Marin

500 Tamal Plaza, Suite 528

Corte Madera, CA 94925

Getting Off to a Good Start with Your Couples: De-escalating the Conflict

By Timothy West, Ph.D, MFT

Couple counseling is a significant challenge for many therapists.  There are various reasons for this sense of difficulty including lack of experience, inadequate training, poor treatment models, and confusion in handling the sometimes complicated transferences and counter-transferences.  My own opinion however, is that clinicians, no matter what their orientation or experience, can set themselves up for success with a couple by initially focusing on one important task – de-escalating their conflict cycle.

That is, we must undertake the sometimes daunting task of intervening in the couple’s reactive cascade of attacking, defending, and withdrawing which feels so distressful and out of control to them.  It is only when they have learned together the nature of this repetitive, absorbing, secondary pattern of hyper-arousal that they will be able to move toward the corrective experience of primary emotional connection.  As therapists, we need to take control early in treatment, so the couple can take control later on.

My first focus when I meet a couple is to see if I can’t get them to join together about something important.  I ask them together what they need from counseling and what’s been hard for them in the relationship in a general way.  I can often find agreement around therapeutic goals: to argue less, have more fun, revive a healthy sexual relationship, etc.  This is a start.  Getting the couple to experience some kind of co-operation or shared vision early on is essential since you want them to quickly experience the therapy as more positive and hopeful compared to their recent distressed history. 

Research has shown that partners wait an average of six years after the first signs of trouble before they seek treatment.  They are often simply worn out from years of adrenalized conflict.  (Of course co-morbidities such as alcohol or drug abuse, affairs, traumatic histories, and domestic violence must be addressed quickly and collateral treatment arranged for, if needed.  These are very important considerations, but are beyond the scope of this article.)

As soon as possible, I look for ways to validate the couple’s strengths.  To this end, I nearly always ask a couple for an oral history of their relationship, hoping to access memories of happier times and shared victories, and encouraging them to join together in describing how they fell in love and overcame the early challenges of their relationship together.  Often these early events – from the day they met each other, to their wedding and the births of children – can be stories of cooperation and enjoyment.  By sharing about better times, the couple can change their initial presentation as glum, cautious, and distressed to momentary smiles in one or two sessions.  The skillful use of the oral history, by refocusing the couple away from their distress cycle, can give them a sense of hope and validation which has a calming effect on their interactions and opens the door for the revealing of more vulnerable emotion.

As stated above, the therapist needs to take control and guide the couple away from their often unconscious habits of communication which are keeping them gridlocked in distress.  We need to set limits on reactive behaviors such as interrupting, criticism, and contempt which are fueling their escalation.  Couples come to therapy to find safety and relief, so we need to skillfully confront the poor habits of Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” and explain their antidotes.

Timeouts, softened startup, and self-soothing strategies are taught.  They may not master these interventions immediately of course, but I have found that once couples realize that there is a method and structure available that they can use to calm down, this knowledge itself has a calming effect.

Research has shown that couples welcome homework and practical exercises which give them a sense of mastery and validation.  By the third session, I am assigning simple Gottman friendship and positivity building tasks, such as the appreciations exercise, love maps, date nights, and various rituals which can be found in “The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work.”    These experiences begin to build the positive perspective back into the relationship so that the therapeutic container can increasingly become a “safe and secure base” for engendering deeper vulnerability and revealing between the partners in session.

Once a certain degree of de-escalation and trust has been built into the therapy, a most important stage can be entered – that of the couple being able describe together, in some detail, the nature of their reactive cycle. That is, they begin to identify the different steps in their conflict “dance” which they know they are both participating in, and begin to understand how these steps are leading to their alienation.

Take, for example, the case of Mary and Joe.  Joe must learn to understand that when he comes home from work tired and Mary appears resentful and unavailable to him, that instead of telling her how much he would just like to sit down and feel closer to her, he withdraws to the garage thinking she’s about to be critical of him, perhaps even angry.  He learns to admit that he thinks that just being alone for the time being is better than the pain of being told off by his wife.

Mary, for her part, needs to understand that she was hoping that this one time, Joe might come into the kitchen, ask about their daughter and Mary’s new part-time job concerning which she is really eager to share a recent success.  But there wasn’t a word from Joe this time, just the sound of the garage door shutting.  Initially Mary is feeling hurt, but then the heat rises in her cheeks and she is simply indignant, feeling insulted that her husband of all these years doesn’t give her the courtesy of a hello, not even a word to her – she who is succeeding at her new job.

So, Mary must learn to admit that instead of trying to tell Joe how well she did or how much she wants him to be proud of her, she instead gives into her anger and runs to the garage and tells Joe that he’s failing her as a husband, that she’s living with a robot, etc.  This brings Joe even more pain, because he’s struggling at his work, where he actually does feel like a robot.  Mary’s criticism is unbearable to Joe, and he has to protect himself so he yells back that he’ll go to his shop for the night if he can’t get any peace at home.  This terrifies Mary, who has wounding around an absent father, so she withdraws silently and becomes frozen and unavailable for the rest of the evening.  And so it goes.

Because this couple does not yet feel safe enough to reveal their primary sadness and fear to each other, Mary and Joe stay gridlocked in this secondary and repetitive distress cycle which is predictable and absorbing.  As we help create a safe and secure base for them in therapy, they can begin to gradually reveal their vulnerabilities to each other. But this won’t happen in an escalated atmosphere.

Mary and Joe, with the help of the therapist, must first describe the above scenario together, joining together in its understanding, so that the cycle becomes the enemy, not either one of them.  As they gain distance from their distress pattern by describing it collaboratively, there is less reactivity and more room for them to share primary and vulnerable emotions, getting to the “heart of the matter” as Susan Johnson would say.  The therapist is then ready to take the next big step with them by choreographing, gradually and skillfully, a change event by asking Joe and Mary to share their pain and fears directly with each other, perhaps for the first time.  The groundwork has been laid for real connection.

About the author:  Timothy West, Ph.D. MFT, has been specializing in private practice couple counseling for over twenty years.  He is a certified Gottman couple therapist, and has completed advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Sue Johnson and Scott Wooley.  He has given talks in many locations in Marin County and leads a professional consultation group in couple counseling in Corte Madera.

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