I, You, and 'the Embrace': Tango as Relationship Therapy

"Wait," she says, "You're collapsing into me." Something else becomes clear: I either want to do it all on my own or collapse into her. It is hard to find the balance of standing on my own two feet while being fully integrated into my relationship.

Virginia Satir, the mother of American family therapy, claimed that the goal of marriage therapy was "not to maintain the relationship nor to separate the pair but to help each other to take charge of themselves." This is precisely at the heart of good couple's therapy -- differentiation.

For a period of time the field talked a lot about good communication but found these skills flew out the window during fights at home. The research of John Gottman and colleagues further showed that fights did not matter as much as how quickly you make up. David Schnarch in Passionate Marriage elaborated on this central task of how to hold onto yourself, while your partner holds onto themselves, and you hold onto each other. My aunt and uncle, Rich and Antra Borofsky, well-known gestalt couples therapists in Boston, call this the dance between "I," "You" and "We." In couple's workshops, they act out the shifting dance between all three people in the room. This is precisely tango: "I," "You," and "the embrace."

Efficacy research shows that couples therapy does not tend to keep couples together, though it can do better than no therapy. Couples usually enter therapy after one partner has already decided (consciously or unconsciously) to leave the relationship. A colleague of mine will not start working with a couple until both parties commit to six months of fully being together. If in six months, no improvement has been made, each is free to leave. "Without this commitment," he says, "there's no hope."

Couples therapy can be demanding for the therapist, requiring a great deal of intervention and skill with mixed results. Research shows that pre-marital counseling works best for keeping couples together, as this is the time of high commitment when they can discuss children, finances, dreams.

I had a couple come in ready for divorce because one wanted children and the other did not. "You never discussed this before getting married?" I asked. They shook their heads. It was a case of an I, a You and no We. I imagined them on the tango dance floor, in a distant embrace, each holding onto themselves but not to one another.


Tango has been called an addiction. Many have left their lives in high-powered jobs behind to move to Buenos Aires and spend the rest of their lives dancing tango. The body leads and the mind wants more. "Its an obsession," says Helen the Viking.

The International Association of Tango Therapy champions tango as a remedy for everything from depression and trauma to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and has a few studies to back this up. Researchers at the University of Washington found that when patients with Parkinson's took tango lessons, their balance and gait freezing improved significantly better than from an exercise class alone. Tango's intricate steps helped improve the memory of a sample of Alzheimer's patients in Britain. Cynthia Quiroga Murcia, a psychologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, conducted a study testing 22 men and women's saliva before and after dancing tango. She and her colleagues found increased testosterone and decreased cortisol (a stress hormone) in men and women.. In filling out mood questionnaires before and after, participants felt calmer, sexier and more closely bonded. Other dances did not have this same effect. Helen the Viking, and our guide to all things tango, says "It's because of the embrace."

At the end of our three months, my partner and I return to the open-air milonga in Parque Lezama. The melancholic music of longing plays on a gramophone. A woman in her eighties wearing a blue chiffon dress and her tuxedo-clad companion hold each other. Their feet move in playful improvisation. Trusting the unknown and being fully present allows for this spontaneity, humor, and playfulness to naturally emerge. Tango, like relationships, involves a great deal of improvisation.

In our time here, my partner and I manage to find a way to one other. I step into the unknown and trust her to lead me. We don't know where we're going or what we will bump into, but we keep on moving. We switch between leader and follower, each on our own individual axis, gently leaning into an embrace.

Photos by Amelia Borofsky

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Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky, Psy.D., is a community and clinical psychologist based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. She teaches at Hawaii Pacific University and writes about health across different cultures.

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