Collaborative Couple Therapy Explained

Couples counseling is the sole focus of my private practice and for some time now I’ve wanted to write a succinct description of the primary model I work from: Collaborative Couple Therapy (CCT). Recently I spoke to a group of local therapists about my work with CCT and I provided the following primer as a foundation for my talk. It may be a little wonkish but I hope it provides some helpful information.

Originated by Daniel Wile, Ph.D., Collaborative Couple Therapy suggests that most relationship problems emerge from a
loss of voice: An inability to adequately express one’s leading edge feelings, in other words, the authentic, often vulnerable, thoughts and feelings we all have from moment to moment. CCT attributes loss of voice to a lack of entitlement from freely expressing these authentic, vulnerable feelings due to self-critical beliefs. Inhibited from acknowledging uncomfortable feelings like shame, anxiety, self-doubt, or even desire during conflict, people often resort to fighting with or withdrawing from their partners.

The foundational task of CCT is to help couples have intimate conversations about their problems through relating with each other as allies and confidants. In a collaborative conversation partners talk with each other as if observing the problem from a
platform, suspended high above the fray, looking down at the situation and people with compassionate curiosity, awareness, and reflection. To facilitate these conversations, the therapist often speaks for both members of the couple at strategic moments to model and promote platform conversations within the couple and between the therapist and each individual. The method for doing this is called doubling (adapted from Jacob Moreno’s Psychodrama Therapy).

The ongoing question for the CCT therapist is, “How can I help this couple have an intimate conversation about their present dilemma?” CCT
solves the moment, rather than specific complaints, by gently returning to each individual’s expression of her leading edge feeling to her partner. Leading edge feelings are what is most “alive” or relevant for each person in the present moment. In this way, even arguments are an opportunity to deepen emotional intimacy when we permit ourselves to reveal our hidden and sometimes haunting feelings and vulnerabilities. --Doug

Solving The Moment Not The Problem

I have experience learning and applying several therapeutic models that build on my body of knowledge as a therapist. Quality models usually have commonalities. The differences are often where the therapist repeatedly places her attention.

Solution Focused Therapy (SFT) has a bias: If you remain focused on the problem, you stay stuck in the problem. SFT reminds us of a truism that is easy to forget. Focusing primarily on the problem is easy to do, however, precisely because the problem is painful, it grabs our attention, and we want it to stop.

Collaborative Couple Therapy (CCT) has its own foundational tenants. One of these is solve the moment not the problem. Solving the moment encourages us to repeatedly place attention on how we relate with our partners about the problem.

In solving the moment we share our feelings about the problem with our mate (i.e., our hopes, confusion, sadness) and do our best to compassionately acknowledge each other’s perspectives. We fold the problem into the relationship as something to relate with together, as collaborative confidants, rather than using the problem against each other. Through sharing and receiving each other’s hearts in this way, our problems can become vehicles for deeper intimacy.

“But what about the problem?”, you might ask. “Don’t we want to solve it?” Of course . . . and solutions come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps we will just get more relaxed about disagreeing. Or, perhaps someone will feel moved by the vulnerable heart of her lover and adjust her perspective. Solving the moment trusts that solutions reveal themselves when we can safely reveal our inner turmoils, and our deepest desires, with the one we love. --Doug

'Doubling Down' On "Doubling" In Collaborative Couple Therapy

Recently I wrote about one aspect of a training experience with Dan Wile, Ph.D., the originator of Collaborative Couple Therapy. As stated then, I will continue to write about Dan’s work as I deepen my understanding. I believe there is a subtlety to his model that is powerfully transformative. In the mean time I was struck by an additional insight from my experience in the November consulting group. In my original entry I wrote “Dan’s perspective is compassionate and particularly attentive to not ‘rebuking’ clients in even the smallest way.” I now have a more nuanced understanding of this.

Inherent in Dan’s methodology, I think, is a faith that individuals have the
capacity to generate compassion for each other (and for ourselves) through the process of experiencing “confiding” and “intimate” conversations. Whatever the outcome of any particular conversation, I think Dan trusts this human capacity within all of us. (For the therapist to behave otherwise would certainly not model trust.) Collaborative Couple Therapy never works in opposition to the client’s perspective because of that trust. At her best, the therapist remains perpetually curious about the client’s experience, persistently refining understanding of that perspective in the ebb and flow of the conversation. This is gentle and patient route finding, deftly navigating shoals and eddies, allowing the river to reveal itself on its own terms. In that revealing, compassionate understanding naturally blooms. Great stuff!

Dan Wile & Collaborative Couple Therapy

In September I participated in a two day intensive training in "Collaborative Couple Therapy” with its originator, Dan Wile, Ph.D. I had heard a lot of positive things about Dan, although I had never read any of his books. I was so impressed by the experience that I flew down to Oakland, California, Dan's home, to participate in a therapist consultation he conducts. These monthly three hour meetings are an opportunity for therapists to refine their skills employing Dan's methodology for helping couples.

There are many therapeutic perspectives that help couples navigate difficulties in relationship. All of these perspectives are imperfect from the standpoint that people and their intimate relationships are unique. Many of these differing perspectives have shared beliefs and assumptions, however. Differences are often about where the therapist's attention and emphasis are primarily placed. The structure that any particular therapist uses has much to do with his own psychological perspective.

From my perspective, Dan Wile’s Collaborative Couple Therapy deeply resonates with me. I look forward to writing more about Dan's view in subsequent articles as I further my understanding. For now I'd like to give a very small taste of the content from the November consultation.

"Doubling" is one of Dan's concepts that supports "intimate conversations" between partners during a therapy session. When a therapist doubles she literally speaks for each member of the couple as a way to better clarify and understand the emotion each is feeling. In Dan's own words,
I "speak as if I were that person talking to the other partner. I translate that person's angry, defensive, or avoidant comment into a collaborative, confiding one.”* This structure can quickly build confidence in a client that the therapist understands his perspective while simultaneously modeling behavior that invites each member of the couple to better understand himself and other. Fundamentally, Dan's perspective is compassionate and particularly attentive to not "rebuking" clients in even the smallest way. More on all of this in future blogs. --Doug