Most of us were trained to believe that we needed to be extremely careful when helping clients face the really difficult truths in their lives--especially their own obnoxious, selfish, or self-defeating actions. Better to err on the side of going slow, creating safety, and remaining neutral than to come across as pushy or disrespectful. Nevertheless, my own experience as a couples therapist has taught me that we aren't doing clients a favor by soft-pedaling difficult issues, despite what my early supervisors tried to instill in me. The approach I've developed, Relationship Life Therapy (RLT), is based on the premise that it's disrespectful to clients not to let them in on the truth about what we witness regularly in our offices as they play out their relationships in front of us: the ways they deal with their partners are often self-centered, unfeeling, and counterproductive.
In some ways, the guiding principle of RLT is to be able to say to clients what we might otherwise say only to our colleagues in our supervision group or around the water cooler after a tough session. Instead of confiding, when they're out of earshot, something like, "I can't believe what a witch she is to him. He's such a Caspar Milquetoast," I believe that's what you need to say--skillfully and respectfully--in the session with the couple.
Some would call this approach confrontational, but I think that term is misleadingly adversarial and addresses only half the process. I think the quality of directness I'm talking about is better described as joining through the truth. There are two parts to this approach: the first is to hold a mirror up to our clients to help them see themselves and their role in the dysfunctional dance of their relationship as accurately and fully as possible; the second, which is where the real nuance and clinical skill comes in, is to show them the difficult truths about themselves in a way that leaves them feeling not only that we're on their side, but that we're actually rooting for them.
RLT is an approach that stands somewhere between traditional psychotherapy, with its emphasis on creating a nonjudgmental, accepting, holding environment to bring about change, and the more rough-and-tumble, challenging, psychoeducational discipline of life coaching. For want of a better term, I'd call the approach illustrated in the case I'm about to describe as a form of therapeutic coaching. It's based on the idea that we can coach clients toward intimacy, teach them how to be more psychologically evolved, and mentor them into transforming their characters.
Coaching a Perfectionist
David takes a seat on the couch in my office, alongside his wife, Sarah. He fiddles with his yarmulke the way another man might fidget with his tie. At 42, he's handsome and well-built. He radiates strength, self-confidence, trustworthiness. And yet . . . the yarmulke adjustment. As he glances sideways at Sarah, he seems nervous. A month into their therapy, it's become apparent to me that, while it may not have always been true, at this juncture, David fears his wife--and not without reason.
Sarah is 40 and describes herself as "small but mighty." Petite, blonde, with ice-blue, fiercely intelligent eyes, she can be a force to be reckoned with. Looking at me square in the face, she declares, "We've been having a hard time this week." Pausing to put her story in context, she says, "This is the story of a small thing turning into a big thing, and then turning into a really big thing."
"Tell me," I say.
"A few weeks ago, we get an e-mail from our daughter's old school. There's a dinner and they'd like us to come. Our daughter went there for many years; David was on their board. It was an important part of the family. So I tell him, 'I think we should go.' Then he gives me all the reasons why we shouldn't: 'It's just a fundraiser. They just want money.'
"A week later, I bring it up again and say I think it's really important to go--and, again, he launches into the same lecture. So now, I'm frustrated. Do I feel listened to? I do not."
David shifts on the couch, about to say something, but one look from Sarah is enough to stop him. I decide to let that go and keep listening. "This repeats a few times," Sarah continues. "Wife proposes; husband disposes."