According to the therapist Stuart Johnson—who was for many years the director of family therapy at the Yale Psychiatric Institute, and now maintains a flourishing private practice in New Haven—the use of behavioral tasks can prove enormously helpful in initiating movement in a positive direction. For while many couples are well aware that they are replicating unhealthy patterns from the past, they simply don't know how to behave in different ways. What these partners need, according to Johnson, is "a taste of the honey" of being in a totally different kind of emotional relationship.
Behavioral tasks get couples into this new kind of relational world—one in which being a whole, separate, and autonomous person, and being able to remain close to your whole, separate, and autonomous partner, are not perceived as incompatible.
For those couples who are capable of carrying out these structured exercises (and many mates are not, because the power struggle between them is too intense to permit collaboration), they can utterly transform the intimate partnership. I must warn the reader, however, that while the tasks seem deceptively non-challenging, they are constructed in such a way as to make shifts in the emotional system inevitable. These innocent-appearing exercises are in fact remarkably effective stratagems for initiating change—for sorting the self, the other, and the entire relationship out. They should therefore be handled with care.
Task 1: Listening and Talking
The directions for carrying out the first task are the following: The members of the couple are asked to select a particular hour during the forthcoming week, and to agree that this time is to be spent together, with no interruptions allowed. They decide—perhaps by the flip of a coin—who will be entitled to the first half hour of that time. The mate who goes first (the wife, let us say) is then in charge of the family microphone, and must talk about herself only. She is not permitted to say anything at all about her spouse or their relationship.
The other partner is to listen attentively but to make no verbal response whatsoever. After the half hour is over, the speaker and the listener switch positions. The second partner talks, and the first one gives him her complete attention, with no interruptions allowed. Any discussion of the mate or of the marriage is, as before, forbidden.
At the end of the hour, when both partners have talked and both have listened, the homework is complete. (The following week the two may want to reverse the order in which they speak.) A final and very important part of the exercise, however, is that when it is finished, no discussion of it is to take place. The members of the couple are simply to resume their lives, without comment.
If the mates are in therapy, their homework assignment is discussed during the next session. Couples who want to try carrying out the task on their own can approximate this by agreeing to postpone all discussion of the exercise for at least three days. Because the rules of the task prohibit the ongoing, back-and-forth interchange between the spouses, the usual operation of a projective-identification system is (for that one hour, at least) blocked. In a projective-identification situation it takes both members of the couple to tango—it is almost impossible for any mate to tango alone. If, for example, a wife perceives her own feelings of inferiority and inadequacy as being her husband's thoughts and feelings about her, she needs to sustain the projection by experiencing her self-accusations as accusations and reproaches coming from her mate. She must (albeit quite unconsciously) provoke him to treat her like an incompetent dodo, thus enabling her to fight the bad feelings as they become manifest in him, instead of experiencing them as painful feelings that exist within herself.