Developmental Assists in Couples Therapy

Working with couples is a wonderful opportunity to help families in transition. Couples often come in for help in one of two scenarios: when it’s long overdue, and they’ve been stuck for years or decades, or when there is a huge transition happening that shakes them up personally and flips the comfort zone of their relationship on its head. For example, I have recently enjoyed the benefits and challenges of working with a number of older couples around how the transitions that come along with retirement impact their coupleship. Couples therapy requires implementing developmental assists.

One of my favorite early assignments with couples in transition is to have them start practicing a seemingly simple daily mindfulness practice called the “daily double,” which requires both partners to begin twice a day appreciating something little or big their partner does. I insist that each session we begin with a good fifteen minutes of appreciations, especially if they carry a lot of anger, resentment or hostility.

Skillful and meaningful appreciation is not easy or quick. It involves thoughtfully looking at how your partner has helped you, made life easier or better for you, and then- here’s the key – vulnerably, honestly, and thoroughly detailing why it matters that their partner has helped in that way. Of course, angry, resentful partners are terrible at this to start; they fumble around, parrot the words they think I want them to say, and want to move on quick to “solving the real problems of the marriage”, as if to say, “Katherine, please fix my partner and help them see the error of their ways!”

Teaching couples to communicate gratitude and appreciation may seem small. It’s not. It’s huge. These are critical developmental skills that partners often lack because they never either experienced being appreciated, nor were they shown how to appreciate family members in their own families. Telling their partner that they appreciate them requires risk taking for these clients. Appreciation also builds the emotional muscle of revealing oneself as well, which allows each partner to share the meaning of being cared for, feeling loved, or important or noticed.

In my workshop on Developmental Assists at the 2018 MAMFT Annual Conference, we will talk about helping clients build further differentiation and intimacy capacity, we’ll talk much further about these concepts and learn more interventions to build differentiated intimacy in couples. See you there!

Katherine Waddell is a Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Couples Center of the Pioneer Valley. Katherine teaches and trains therapists, offering workshops and supervision in the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy (Ellyn Bader/Peter Pearson) across the USA.

Posted in Couples/Marriage Counseling and tagged .