We watch “Dancing with the Stars” and shows like it to be inspired by the artistry of the contestants. But some of the celebrity contestants, sincere though they may be, inspire our sympathy rather than our admiration.
When a couple comes into my office for the first time, they bring with them their “dysfunctional relationship dance,” with wounded hearts rather than sore feet. Allow me to introduce you to the three phases of helping a couple turn an injury-prone relationship dance into an intimate one.
The First Phase: Showing them how their current dance is working (or not)
When a couple enters therapy, each partner begins by telling me about their innocent words and actions, and their partner’s “irrational” responses. What each partner is describing is their own steps in the couple’s mutual relationship dance. These are the only steps they know how to take, the only way they know how to ask for and offer love in their relationship.
The first phase of our work together is to help them see how each of their dance steps is influencing the steps of their partner and the dance as a whole. As they begin to understand how they are trapped in a cycle of mutual reactivity, I can now introduce the second phase of our work together.
The Second Phase: Showing them the hidden driver of the dysfunctional dance
Each partner learned his or her dance steps, their “survival dance,” in the context of their family of origin. They learned how to keep connected to their caregivers while simultaneously protecting themselves from being hurt by these very same people.
My work at this point is to validate and normalize each partner’s survival dance — “Given your growing-up story, of course you learned to dance — to connect and to protect — in this way!” The pattern of steps they brought to their relational dance was their best effort to remain safe and secure. How sad that the only dance steps they know are the very steps that are hurting their partner and sabotaging the whole dance! How can they be helped to change their steps?
The Third Phase: Showing them new, better steps
This third phase requires the biggest risk but offers the biggest reward. Now I show each of them how to:
- Tell their partner about their own sadness, fear and even hopelessness
- Ask their partner to “hold them tight,” to please remain accessible, responsive and engaged; and
- Invite their partner to learn a new dance, one that will bring healing, closeness and joy rather than pain.
Taking the risk to be vulnerable with each other, both partners are now face-to-face on the dance floor, wounded (yet hopeful) heart to wounded (yet hopeful) heart. The therapist/dance instructor holds both partners gently inside of a “sacred space” where the couple can, in time, transform their injury-prone dance into an intimate one.
Would you like to make your relationship dance less injurious and more intimate? Please feel free to write or call — it will be my privilege to be your dance instructor!