Ties That Bind

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Shortly after my last blog entry my father became ill and then died on December 1st, 2014. Since November my practice has been all but closed due to my need to repeatedly travel between Portland and Rockville, Maryland where dad lived. I am very slowly returning to full-time practice as I write this. As many of you already understand, my experience is a journey of both beauty and pain as I attend to the life and the legacy of my father. He is my first parent to die.

Dad’s life and death are relevant to my practice with couples in many respects. Perhaps I’ll write more about this in the future. Here are a few particulars that stand out now.

To begin with, my father,
H.D. Johns, was also a therapist and he is my original mentor in the art of psychotherapy. The tributes I’ve heard these last few months to dad’s skill as a therapist, from former students and clients alike, are stunning. A few comments were nearly word for word identical in their praise for his uncanny ability to understand someone’s experience. One of dad’s colleagues said to me, “Your father was a natural therapist. He was the best I’ve ever seen.”

Many years ago, when I was first embarking on my career, dad told me a story about his early days studying therapy at the Menninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas. Like a lot of young therapists he was working hard to help people change problematic behaviors. Before particularly difficult sessions dad would sometimes pray, “God, please help me change this person.”

Anxious about his abilities at first, something eventually shifted inside my father and his prayer changed: “God, please help me
understand this person.” Placing understanding as the foundation of his therapeutic work made all the difference; clients naturally began to make decisions to improve their lives the more clearly dad could express accurate understanding for their unique experiences. Dad also strove to never “contest” a person’s subjective experience; he validated clients’ experiences as relevant.

Collaborative Couple Therapy is a refreshing fit for me. Its originator,
Dan Wile, Ph. D., has created a therapeutic model that inherently deepens a therapist’s understanding of each individual within the couple relationship while simultaneously strengthening intimacy within the couple. Dan’s respect for individual experience, intentionally exemplified by not “rebuking” clients in even the smallest ways, echoes my father’s intention to never contest a person’s subjective experience. When I ‘double’ for clients they sometimes respond with, “I never realized I felt that way until you spoke for me.”

Understanding your partner and being understood, through collaborative and intimate conversation, is a powerful map for couples to heal their relationships and for individuals to grow and thrive. That is a thing of beauty! —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