Intimate Partners

In this second part of a two-part article the author describes a series of structured exercises that enable some couples to interrupt their repetitive power struggles and transform their partnership  


When it comes to loving we all do it in ways that are familiar and find it hard to imagine that there may be other options—other ways of being in a close relationship. In many instances, though, the familiar ways of loving are painful. If, for example, the members of a couple "polarize"—so that each is disavowing certain parts of the self, projecting them onto the partner, and then condemning those qualities in the partner the marriage becomes suffused with misunderstanding and conflict. The mates feel trapped, for their way of relating to each other is extremely ungratifying and they have no idea of how to change things.

How, in fact, can changes in the relationship be brought about? Opinions on this subject differ. Some experts believe that in order to improve a troubled marriage, the problems of each partner must be addressed separately.

Other marital experts disagree. They believe that the individual issues of each spouse are far less important than is the way in which the partners interact. The couple has created, as every couple does, unspoken rules that regulate their existence together—but the rules they have created cause them pain. What must be addressed, according to this view, is the dysfunctional rules of the relationship, not the individual partners themselves. But how can the rules of the marital system be changed?

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.

"The collusion between the partners," Johnson explains, "has to translate into behavior. In order for the husband to accept the negative projection, in response to the unconscious cues that she's sending him he must act in ways that fit her perception that these painful, horrible, self-accusatory ideas are not anything emanating from within her own head; they are all coming from within his. One way of looking at this is, by the way, to see him as behaving protectively—helping her to turn an internal conflict, which she finds intolerable, into a fight that is going on between them." Most of us can appreciate the reasons why a person might find it easier to fight an enemy outside than to confront the enemy within.

So long as the pair of them continue to operate within this kind of relational system, however, their interpersonal difficulties cannot—almost by definition—be resolved. The rules by which they're operating won't permit it. She must continue to provoke him to provoke her to provoke him to provoke her ... to go round and round in a vicious circle, in which neither person can possibly connect with the other, because his or her own repudiated, dissociated feelings stand directly in the way.

The agreement that when one is committed to speak the other is committed to listen interrupts the usual interaction between the partners and impedes the continuous flowing together of what is self and what is other—the blurring of personal boundaries that takes place in projective-identification situations. The task compels the members of the couple to face each other as separate, autonomous people. Merely being in such a circumstance can be experienced by both participants as something surprisingly different and gratifying.

Imagine, for example, the impact that this assignment might have upon couples who are in pursuer-distancer relationships. She who chases (I use this pronoun because it is more commonly the woman) is dependent upon him who runs away to express autonomy needs for both of them. Similarly he who is in flight from emotional connectedness must be assured that someone is still after him—otherwise he might have to accept responsibility for his own feelings of vulnerability, which she expresses for both of them. They have divided the ambivalence—the needs of the self and the needs of the relationship—right down the middle of their emotional attachment.

The pursuer has split off, denied, and dissociated any self of her own; she perceives needs for autonomy as selfish and bad, and can recognize them only as they exist in her mate. The distancer obliges by needing ever greater areas of individual turf—and the more she chases after him for closeness, the greater is his need for space. Intimacy is, as he perceives it, something that could swallow a person alive—a state that, moreover, only his partner desires. The distancer cannot experience the wish for emotional communion as his own, for it would make him feel too much at risk, vulnerable to rejection and abandonment.

The rules of this couple's system command that the pursuer chase after the distancer forever, but that she or he never catch up. They enjoin the distancer, moreover, to keep on running—so long as he (or she) never really gets away. Clearly, maintaining the polarization requires a collusion between the members of the couple to express the thoughts, feelings, qualities, attributes, and so forth that are being strenuously denied by the mate. When, therefore, the pursuer is forced (by the rules of the task) to talk only about herself, she is compelled to stop chasing and focus upon the person she is, inside. She cannot continue recycling her usual remarks, which tend to center upon the partner (particularly his shortcomings) and on things that are happening in the relationship.

In complying with the rules of the exercise she must concentrate on trying to be an autonomous person, and doing so in the presence of her mate. It is to be hoped that she, while carrying out the task, will learn that being herself (rather than continually pursuing someone who continually eludes her) is what makes closeness to the partner possible.

The distancer, halted in his headlong flight from intimacy, is made to learn what happens when he does give her his attention—for he has been commanded to listen to her for that full half hour and not to run away. And he, in turn gets to do what he knows how to do best—that is, behave autonomously—but this time to do so in the company of the partner. The distancer experiences (perhaps for the first time ever) talking about himself and his own concerns without feeling guilty about excluding or rejecting the intimacy-seeking spouse—or that he's in danger of having her engulf him.

Her wishes for intimacy have often, by the way, been one-sided. For the most part, she has set the subjects around which their intimate relating is to take place. And on those occasions when he has tried to talk to her about matters that don't concern her or the relationship—that have to do with him alone—she has usually cut him off rather quickly. Although she desires closeness more than anything else in the world, the pursuer wants it at her own time and in her own way. She needs him to be there for her, but she has trouble hearing things that remind her of his separateness and independence. They have similar problems—aspects of the great problem, which we all find so difficult, of dealing with human aloneness.

The members of the couple often discover that although the exercise is autonomy-enhancing, the process of going through it makes them feel unaccountably intimate.

Being separate persons in each other's presence promotes a sense of closeness. This experience contravenes the unspoken rule that people in a projective-identification system live by, which is: If you are autonomous you cannot be intimate and if you are intimate you cannot be an autonomous person. "It puts them," Johnson explains, "into a kind of emotional system that neither one has, usually, ever seen before—one in which independent personhood and closeness to the partner are synonymous."

Having been there, if only for the hour of working on this task, the couple begins to realize that such a relational world could possibly exist.

Task 2: Odd Day, Even Day

On first hearing, the instructions for the second task may sound eccentric. This assignment is to be added to the last one, rather than replacing it. If, however, the members of the couple feel that they have milked the first exercise for all that they needed or wanted from it, they can drop it as they proceed with the Odd Day, Even Day task.

The instructions to be followed are these: The couple divides up the days of the week between them. For example, the wife may take Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while her husband takes Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday, their day off, they are free to (in Johnson's words) "practice their pathology"—that is, to let their tried-and-true, recurring cycle run its familiar course.

On her days of the week the wife is the person in charge of the intimacy in the relationship; on his days the husband takes control. Each partner, on his or her day, must make one intimacy request; the mate has agreed ahead of time to meet it. Beyond that, while both are certainly permitted to express other intimate needs, the mate is under no obligation to respond positively to more than the one intimate need on alternate days.

It is important to add that each mate's intimacy requests must be non-cosmic—that is, not "Love me forever." The intimate need communicated should be on the modest side, Stuart Johnson suggests. "The request ought to be something readily achievable," he advises, "which can be performed on that same day, and not carried over to the next one." It should be something that a partner can do.

There is no straightforward way that a husband can respond if his wife says to him, "I want you to adore me." If she makes such a request, she is commanding him to behave spontaneously. It is senseless to ask him to have certain feelings that by their very nature can only be spontaneous and that, furthermore, cannot be spontaneous in this situation, because she has requested that he have them. Paradoxical communications of this sort ("I want you to tell me about how much you love me") tend to place the other person in a highly uncomfortable position and usually bring little satisfaction to the person making the request—who, naturally, wonders if that expression of love really did come from the other's heart.

If one spouse says to the other, "I want you to be particularly tender and loving to me," he or she must also give the partner clear directives about what actions being tender and loving would translate into. One person might, for example, explain "being tender and loving" this way: "I want you to spend the next hour talking with me about some of the things that are on my mind." Another might say, "I'd like to go out for a walk, just the two of us." Still another might say "I can't think of anything else I'd like more at this moment than having you give me a five-minute massage."

Requests such as "Rub my back" and "Help me to think through the problem that I'm having at the office" and "Let me choose the movie that we go out to see tonight" are readily achievable ones, which are most appropriate to make. Needless to say, it would be self-defeating to make requests that would produce untenable conflicts in the partner. It would be unwise, for example, for a husband to ask for fifteen minutes of his wife's time just as she is rushing out the door on her way to an important appointment.

I should add that many couples will want to define certain problem areas in their relationship as off limits for the Odd Day, Even Day task. Such proscribed topics will most frequently have to do with sex or money—the two most highly charged marital issues, around which power struggles are very likely to be taking place. When a subject is put under ban by pre-arrangement, intimacy requests relating to it are not to be tendered.

It is, generally speaking, counterproductive to attack the most distressing, painful issues directly. Instead of charging head on through the heavily defended front door of the relationship, it is far easier to enter (one small, relatively non-threatening step at a time) through a more accessible side entrance.

The Odd Day, Even Day task is, it should be mentioned, a variation on a therapeutic assignment first used by the famous Italian analyst Mara Selvini Palazzoli. It was developed by Palazzoli and her Milanese colleagues as a device for breaking up struggles being waged for control of the parenting of a child. Each of the adults locked in the power struggle was certain that he or she knew how a child should be nurtured and disciplined; each believed that the mate, blind to the real facts of the rearing process, was interfering in misguided or downright malevolent ways. As a way of dealing with this impasse, the Italian clinicians put first the mother and then the father in complete control of parenting, on alternating days.

What this rotation of command served to demonstrate to the parents, by means of their own experience, was that they could co-exist in a system in which neither one of them was in perpetual and complete authority. Instead of having to compete continually in an unresolvable and, to their child, destructive contest, they could share control of parenting, by shifting the leadership on a daily basis.

The rules of the Odd Day, Even Day task, as adapted for use by couples, serve to block the desperate power struggles that are ubiquitous in troubled relational systems. In such unhealthy systems the partners usually assume that there is only one kind of intimate attachment: you can be the controller or you can be the one who is under the control of the mate.

The carrying out of the task, however, puts the couple into a different kind of emotional framework. They cannot maintain the ongoing, determined battle for ascendancy, because the rules of the task decree that control of the intimacy in the relationship will oscillate back and forth between them. The partners are thus able to achieve by mutual agreement that neither could ever quite attain on his or her own—a sense of being in undisputed charge, at least during certain designated time periods. Taking turns gives to both what neither person could manage to get separately.

Many people take the position that they can be intimate with the spouse as long as they are totally in control of that intimacy. "In other words," Johnson says, "they are willing to be intimate so long as they're not vulnerable which is an absolute impossibility." Real connection with another human being involves vulnerability—opening oneself to the other person, and not trying to maintain control over what he or she does or says. Intimacy requests, which are simple statements of personal needs, are small steps in the direction of letting mates know that vulnerability can be safe.