1. The arrival of a baby and the efforts of child-raising: The fatigue and the increase of routines bring out “negative” personality traits of each partner that had not been very apparent before, and these traits may bring a partner (or both) to start doubting whether they chose “the right person”. Also, the typical decrease of interest for sex by the woman, as she tends to the baby’s needs, is very difficult for most men; they tend to react by being more distant and seeking fulfillment outside the family, e.g. by overworking or extra-marital flirts.

2. The decrease of the erotic aspect of their relationship: If the couple has become only a parental team and no longer lovers and confidants, each will be (differently) frustrated. Their two frustrations are hard to talk about without making things worse. Frequent quarrels may result, as each tries to assert oneself on other issues and get recognition from the other – which doesn’t work. Sometimes, on the contrary, there is too much avoidance of confrontation, which brings stagnation of their communication, with resulting boredom and distancing, so that the question “Why are we together?” looms.

3. More and more arguments. The differences between the 2 personalities, which were attractive at the beginning, now cause big conflicts for numerous issues. The partners cannot understand why this keeps happening, cannot discuss the issues calmly, cannot come to a resolution or a new, common way of considering an issue. Must they just “sweep under the carpet” the hurt feelings that their arguments have brought?

4. For older couples, when all their children have left home: An atmosphere of emptiness may come, with anguishing questions such as: “Can our sexuality or sensuality – rendered dormant as parents – be revived?”, “What do we still have to say to each other?”, “Do we have enough common interests?”, or the most disturbing of all: “Shouldn’t we just separate, since there is nothing dynamic or attractive left between us?”

Usually the woman in a (heterosexual) couple has the role of taking care of relationship quality. The male partner is typically satisfied with an amount and type of communication that is frustrating for the female partner. Therefore, disappointed by the results of her own efforts, she will usually be the one who pushes to get outside professional help – and the male partner often resists. It can felt by him as a personal failure, a devaluation; there may be a deep, un-verbalized shame which brings him to avoid exposing his “failure” to anyone imagined as a judge. (In fact, we do not judge the content of what the partners tell us, or try to fit someone into a diagnosis; our emphasis is on how they feel toward each other and to help get better communication going between them about all those feelings.)
The female partner also has some fears and is not eager to show certain aspects of herself where she feels she has acted badly, but her fears tend less to prevent getting help at all. In any case, we open up such topics and get both partners to express “negative” feelings or thoughts regarding the sessions. Sometimes, a very reluctant partner can first be seen once alone, which will enable his or her skeptical / pessimistic / suspicious / anxious tendencies to be moderated; clear information on reality may decrease that partner’s negative fantasizing.

Do you work on present behaviors or on old childhood difficulties or traumas?

We work on both. In the first phase, we deal with the communication behavior which has made it quasi impossible to speak to each other well about any somewhat thorny issue. We intervene to change this starting in the 2nd session, by setting up an “Imago Dialogue” between them; this structured conversation is the central tool of our “toolbox”. Each partner is brought to speak of oneself in a way that is designed for several purposes: a) to bring the listener into deep, emotional empathy for the speaker – instead of closing down because of feeling attacked – and b) to help the speaker be more aware of what is going on inside him/herself regarding the trigger that the listening partner unknowingly pulled. During their Imago Dialogue, we coach both speaker and listener to behave differently than usual, both verbally and non-verbally, for the 30-60 minutes of this Dialogue. This short experience of behavior change can produce a deep feeling of peacefulness. We give concrete instructions for extending this behavior change on their own via Homework dialogues between sessions, once they are ready.

A later, second phase consists in a set of moments when, during an Imago Dialogue in a session, the very safe atmosphere allows certain feelings or charged memories of difficult situations in his/her past (the recent past, as in a previous couple relationship; or the more distant past, as in adolescence or childhood), which under normal conditions are hardly accessible, to come spontaneously to the surface, and so working on those feelings or situations can then be very fruitfully done. During these moments, we also help the listening partner give supportive responses to the speaking partner.

Results: The listening partner may gain in understanding and empathy for the speaking one. There is a gift of quality of presence that the speaker receives during these key moments of work on his/her past. Having lived these moments helps both partners grasp what is actually going on deep within the emotional life of each when their clashes, quarrels, distancing, withdrawal, etc. happen. Such reactions do not stop, but sometimes will offer an opportunity for practicing the new skills learned. Example: when an emotional escalation begins in a conversation, instead of automatically letting the ping-pong game of escalation take over, they can remember the knowledge gained from the work on the past and its connections to the present, and/or use the behavior skills learned in the work on communication behavior change in order to stop the escalation and even become aware of other meanings that the situation contains. In this way, growth can happen instead of just re-wounding of both partners.

It does, and our toolbox contains specific ways to develop a couple’s communication about sexuality, but we do not force the couple to work on their sexuality. At the start of each session we ask the partners to choose the themes they want to work on. In case they feel much too vulnerable to expose their sexuality yet, they propose other themes. However, if we get the impression that unspoken sexual difficulties might be contributing to negative communication patterns they are suffering from, we voice this as a hypothesis and suggest possibly exploring these difficulties using the toolbox. Some couples prefer to speak only in private about sexuality; after experiencing a Dialogue tool with us that could also be used for a sexual issue of theirs, they might freely make that choice and get started at home. Since communicating in the structured, safe way of Imago Dialogue respects what is fragile in each partner and so does not bring a partner or both to close down like free-for-all style discussions risk doing, this cautious and slow but steady and reliable path toward more sexual communication is what we propose.

We see an affair as an escape from the difficulties of intimacy of the couple. An escape drains needed creative energy away from the couple’s development. (In fact, there are many other escapes from the challenges of the couple: addictive use of digital devices or social media sites, workaholism, obsessive child-care,….) If an infidelity is revealed during the therapy, we work using a sequence of Imago Dialogues to increase each partner’s capabilities of speaking to one another about the meanings it has; at least 3 sessions are usually needed. Although this work is easier if the relationship with the third ceases, this may take some time. Imago work on infidelity brings many benefits to both partners and averts impulsive break-up with all its damage.