We believe that insight into key early history and the child’s early defensive patterns and adaptations to the original family system helpfully illuminates what each partner brings into the couple relationship but is not usually sufficient to bring about enduring change. Changes in couples occur through repeated experiences of new patterns of feeling, thinking and relating. Partners’ recognizing and taking individual responsibility for their parts in the destructive, regressive cycles of conflict and blame, expanding their capacities think about their own and their partner’s minds, taking the partner’s perspective and expressing and asking for empathy and understanding all contribute to the possibilities for new relational experiences to emerge in the therapy.
Creating a sense of safety in the therapy and maintaining a bi-lateral alliance is key to these changes unfolding. The therapeutic alliance emerges from recognizing and validating each partner’s current distress and its relationship to early defensive and adaptive behavioral and emotional patterns. Within a safe environment partners are helped to recognize when early unconscious (implicit) memories are triggered by something in the present interaction, influencing behaviors, emotions and perceptions usually without any awareness of their connection to past relational experiences. The therapist needs to stabilize, calm and contain strong feelings to engage the couple’s reflective and introspective capacities to differentiate the present situation from the past, or the partner from parents or unacceptable parts of the self. Viewing the couple as a separate entity, created by the partners, and with needs and processes that go beyond those of the two individuals that comprise it, promotes a sense of collaboration rather than competition or conflict and opens up other avenues for intervention.