Encounter-centered Couples Therapy: A Path to Relational Maturity
By Hedy Schleifer, MA, LMHC
“All of life is in the Encounter” ~Martin Buber
Encounter-centered Couples Therapy (EcCT) represents the crystalization of my 35 years of experience as a psychotherapist, using 20 of these years to work intensively with couples in a clinical couples laboratory. EcCT is an integrative relational model at the intersection of philosophy, clinical theory, organizational methodology and relational neurobiology. It aims at assisting couples to experience the most alive and joyful connection with each other while helping each other grow and develop their relational intelligence on the path to relational maturity. It inspires couples to become not just a good couple or a solid couple but a creative couple.
I am writing this article at a time when after a period of absence from my work to attend to a health crisis of my husband of 48 years Yumi, I am back in the saddle doing my beloved life’s work: Teaching couples and therapists about the art and power of connection. As I look back to see how EcCT was born, it is easy with this kind of hindsight to connect the dots. I discovered that there were six major steps in the history that revealed EcCT to me.
It all started many years ago when I became aware of a sense of frustration and occasional despair about my own marriage and my uneven and ineffective work with couples. Neither my personal relationship, nor my work with relationships in couplehood was working as I thought it should. And so out of the dissatisfaction with both my marriage and my couples work I searched further.
This led me to becoming trained in Imago Relationship Therapy and the transformation of my practice exclusively into a “couples laboratory.” “Getting the Love you Want”, a training for therapists and a workshop for couples created by Harville Hendrix, became a helpful and useful handbook to live by. Professionally, I let go of all my individual clients in my private practice. I let them know that the future was calling me to inquire about couples works and to explore the relational paradigm. And I started from scratch. By then I had been a individual, and marriage and family therapist for 15 years, and for the first time in my career, I created a couples clinical laboratory in which I was teaching what I was learning in the “living laboratory” of my marriage. For the first time there was coherence between my personal relational life and my work with couples. It was the beginning of living what the educator Parker Palmer calls an “undivided life” in his book “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.”
From the alignment between the personal and the professional came step three: the discovery of the realm of communion. What Yumi and I discovered in our “living laboratory” as we practiced the Imago conscious dialogue, was that whenever a dialogue really worked for us, we had unbeknownst to ourselves stepped into a different realm of connection. For the first time, we began to see a core distinction: the distinction between communication and communion, between the transfer of data and information and the dimension of unity and wholeness, between the meeting of the minds and the connection of the souls. The book by Martin Buber called “I and Thou” became a profound inspiration to deepen our comprehension of the realm of communion.
As Yumi and I lived increasingly in the realm of communion, our bond became mightier. Simultaneously I led couples more and more into the realm of communion. During these moments of communion between two people, I intuitively felt something that has now been empirically proven. I intuited a window of opportunity for the brain to stay available for new synaptic connections. It seemed that if we stayed open long enough, feeling every single emotion in connection with the other, and giving each other the sense of feeling-felt, level 3 learning was inevitable. Level 3 learning is deep, lasting, transformational change, where there is a before and there is an after. This unique window of opportunity with the synaptic process in the brain has been researched and given a name: it is called the process of memory reconsolidation. A groundbreaking book about memory reconsolidation and how the brain can alter and even eliminate old painful memories is the book called “Unlocking the Emotional Brain” by Ecker, Ticic and Hulley.
With this intuitive understanding of the brain’s capacity for the creation of new neuro-pathways came step four. My session with couples got longer and longer. I was watching the power of connection at work in front of me. I was observing the healing impact of the authentic presence of the other. I was witnessing the process of limbic resonance, limbic regulation as well as limbic revision. A wonderful book that describes this process in the most poetic way is the book by the three psychiatrists Lewis, Lannon and Amini “A General Theory of Love.” From these observations in my clinical couples laboratory, the Intensive Sessions for couples were born. These sessions first went on for a full day, and then for two days. I called the Intensive sessions Connection Quest.
Out of the Connection Quest Intensive came step five. In being inspired by Jim Collins‘s book “Good to Great”, I was encouraged to let the synergy of everything I knew emerge out of me in one simple guiding principle. Jim Collins calls this synergy “the hedgehog concept.” The name “hedgehog concept” is based on an ancient Greek parable: The Hedgehog and the Fox. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin uses this Greek parable to divide the world into two basic groups: hedgehogs and foxes: In his book “The Hedgehog and the Fox” he says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexities. The hedgehogs simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guide everything. What emerged as I allowed the “hedgehog concept” to reveal itself to me were “three invisible connectors”: the space, the bridge and the encounter. The core idea was that when a couple embraces the relational space between them, crosses the bridge between their worlds, and creates the conditions for a genuine, authentic encounter, it is as if a magnetic force turns them towards each other. It has been so consistent that I have coined it “the Law of the Magnets”
It is teaching the “three invisible connectors” to couples, as a guiding principle, which led to step six: the birth of Encounter-centered Couples Therapy. Increasingly I trust the genius that lies in the space between the couple, the relational space, that when held safe and sacred allows for the essential human being in each partner to reveal themselves in their full potential.
II- THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF AN EcCT SESSION:
Here is what I would like every couple and every person to take with them after they meet with me for an EcCT Intensive couple session.
What I would like every single couple to leave with is for each of them to know in a whole new way that what they are is a magnificent human being, with more power, intelligence, depth, creativity, resourcefulness, imagination, spirit and a host of other human qualities, than they ever even dreamed they have.
- I want them to leave knowing that the “survival dance” that they have been dancing for such a long time is “not” who they are in their essence.
- I want them to leave with renewed faith and confidence in their human essence, and in their capacity to be alive and connected.
- I want them to leave knowing that coping is not living: coping is done in isolation and living is done in connection.
- I want them to leave knowing that living in connection requires a continuous big YES! and requires the continuous consciousness that the “survival dance” is a downward pull, and that the “Yes to life” is an upward trend needing constant and disciplined attention, focus and investment.
- I want them to leave knowing that their own world is a multi-layered, rich, unique terrain with a splendid landscape, with an infinite amount of neighborhoods, all of them worthy of being visited; neighborhoods of the present, of the past and of the future.
- I want them to leave knowing the regulating impact of their presence in the world of their partner. I want them to be in touch with the magnetism of their essential personhood.
- I want them to leave knowing that no matter what, no matter what, no matter what, each of them has done over the course of their life the very best they could under the circumstances, and therefore deservers full understanding and compassion, especially in the places where they have struggled alone.
- I want them to leave knowing that just sitting, and breathing, and holding hands, and softly gazing into each other’s eyes, and saying “Oh! It’s YOU!!!!!”, is wired into us from the time we are born, and is essential to our daily living.
III- GENERATIVE METAPHORS:
EcCT presents the couple with generative metaphors that serve as powerful images to anchor the journey of relational transformation.
- The guiding principle of EcCT is the embrace of “three invisible connectors”: the Space, the Bridge, the Encounter
- Connecting with one’s partner is “Crossing the Bridge” to their world
- Curiosity is bringing “new eyes” to the inner landscape of the partner
- Listening with compassions is being a “visitor” and learning the culture of the “other”
- Speaking intentionally is being a “host” and showing the geography of one’s soul
- A topic or issue is a “neighborhood” in one’s world
- Connecting is becoming bi-lingual by learning the language of the partner
- Adaptive patterns are the “survival dance” or the “hijack by extra-terrestrials” to whom the relationship has given room-and-board
- Complementary reactive energies are the “universal club of Turtles and the Hailstorms”
IV- SEQUENCE OF EVENTS FOR THE JOURNEY OF A COUPLE:
EcCT follows a specific sequence of events which leads the couple from rupture to repair.
Here is how the sequence of events works:
- Let’s first and foremost start by giving the status quo a shock. Let’s start with “the future calling us” and putting our “wildest dreams” on the horizon.
- Let’s then move to the past, and to the “downward pull.” Let’s get acquainted with the survival patterns that create an automatic, energetic, reactive “survival dance.” Let’s externalize it, language it, and laugh with it.
- Let’s then say YES! to learning a new way of relating. Yes! to a new path, a new discipline, and a new guiding principle.
- Let’s then move to the essence of the human being. Let’s welcome the “precious neighborhoods” in our world where we feel alive, vibrant, generative, soulful, creative, inspired, fertile.
- Let’s then go to the neighborhoods of childhood where the implicit memories live. Let’s create an opportunity for memory reconsolidation with the juxtaposition of implicit messages and the current reality of someone there to give us full, loving, attentive presence.
- Let’s then enter the dangerous territory, where the relational nightmare lives. Let’s visit the toughest neighborhoods with memory reconsolidation in mind. Let’s enter the traumatic, raw emotions while at the same time pointing our attention to “Look who is with you today.” In the service of memory reconsolidation let’s take the Time Machine to enter the home of the child, and set things straight.
- Let’s also interweave the journey with doing present timing rituals that balance the attention such as play, appreciations, gratitude, Languages of Love, sweet love names etc… All of these are designed to balance the attention so that real, deep learning can take place.
- And finally throughout the journey let’s write many learnings in a journal, in order to continuously integrate into language the new, current, flexible alive messages, creating a solid bridge between the amygdala and the hippocampus.
V- PREPARATION TO SEE THE COUPLE AND PREPARATION OF THE ROOM:
I have been asked by students of EcCT: “How do you prepare yourself to meet a couple, and how do you prepare the room that you will see them in?
This question makes me think about the saying by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see.” I am remembering the story that was told about Gandhi and the mother with the child addicted to chocolate. After sending the mother away, and asking her to come back after two weeks, he simply said to the boy, looking at him deep in the eyes, and with the most attuned stance: “Stop eating chocolate”. The mother was stunned; “Is it to say this to my boy that you sent me back on the long journey home to come back two weeks later?” she asked. “Two weeks ago I too was eating chocolate” said Ghandi.
I am continuously amazed at the integration of the personal and the professional. I now went back to work, after a year and a half during which I did not see couples. My only focus for that whole entire time was to be increasingly present to my husband Yumi, who was in a challenging health crisis. I wanted him to know at all times that I was on his side of the bridge, and that he was not alone in his struggle.
My capacity to stay on the other side of the bridge increased. It was as if I was holding a yoga pose called “Visitor in your world.” And just like in yoga, I was holding the pose and breathing. And my Visitor muscle kept stretching. But I came to realize that the muscle I was stretching to be present with Yumi wasn’t only the capacity to be a Visitor during an official crossing the bridge session, but rather I was learning to be a Visitor as “a ground of being.” It was for me a time to explore the landscape of Yumi’s world in my heart, sitting with him in silence, just thinking about him, his story, his needs, and bringing the best of me to the table.
And I realize now that I was also learning the next level of saying YES! Yes! to our relationship just as it was at the time. Yes! to the man that Yumi was at the time. Yes! to our life just as it was at the time. I chose him again and again to be my new husband, just as he was, and I chose to say YES! to him and to marry him again. My wise father used to say: “Who is the happy person…..the one who chooses what IS.”
And now I am working again with couples. And I can see that what has grown in me is my capacity to be present, my patience, my deep trust in the flow of life, my capacity to be over the bridge to each partner in the couple, as well as my YES! muscle for them. What has also grown in me is my unwavering knowledge that we are wired for healing in connection. I have watched Yumi come back to life, and get all of himself back: his zest for life, his strength, his cognition, his movement….everything. And so I am even more relaxed about the human potential for restoration, repair and regeneration.
And all that I am saying brings me back to what the educator Parker Palmer means, when he says “One soul, one role.” I am more aware than ever before, that our own journey of grounding ourselves, the places we dare to go in our own life, our own commitment to stay connected no matter what, is the solid and fertile soil to which we invite the couples we see to heal, to grow and to blossom.
Now that I am working with couples again, I find that the new relational muscles that I developed during that time give me a chance to be even more present and attuned to teaching couples.
Interestingly I learned during our challenging time last year not only about our inner spaces but also about our outer spaces. I saw how important it was to continuously bring “beauty and order” wherever we were. And so also the concept of “beauty and order” deepened in me. On the morning of the two-day Intensive, I arrive a half an hour earlier than the couple I am seeing just to arrange little things in the room, tiny things that make a difference. The room is orderly and clean but I “hedyize” it. I am bringing my own energy to the chairs, Kleenex box, water glasses, coasters….. And as I touch the things in the room, and order them, I bless the journey of the couple.
VI- TRAINING IN EcCT
I have developed a training in EcCT in which the therapist learns basic distinctions:
- The distinction between the Relational Paradigm and the Individual Paradigm.
- The distinction between the “therapist as expert”, and the couple’s “relational space as expert”.
- The distinction between the therapist’s “survival dance” and the authentic, coherent stance of the therapist.
- The distinction between Content (Words and Themes) and Process (Energy and Space).
- The distinction between the dialogical domain of communication, and the realm of the “encounter” and communion.
- The distinction between the couple having an insight and mobilizing them to “live” the change.
In learning EcCT the therapist acquires the expertise to become a guide/mentor/witness to the couple and teaches the couple basic distinctions:
- The distinction between “Coping” in isolation, and “Living” in connection.
- The distinction between the unconscious, reactive “Survival Dance”, and the intentional embrace of the “Encounter”.
- The distinction between conflict as an obstacle and conflict as a launching pad for growth.
- The distinction between being an “accidental tourist” or an invited, welcomed “guest” in the world of one’s partner
- The distinction between romance and “into-me-see”.
- The distinction between a relationship as a problem to be solved, or relationship as an adventure to be “lived”.