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Unread July 30th, 2004, 08:11 PM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Default Working with Couples - Part Two

Gestalt Approach to Couples - Part Two

To continue on working with the couple from a Gestalt therapy perspective, we could begin with a simple visual gestalt of the whole as being more than the sum of the parts. The initial gestalt visual experience of this is to see a circle of dots as one large dot, and in this visual experiment the view of the couple would be that of the two dots together being also a one - where the whole is more than the sum of parts. The two dots and that which is between. And in dialogical terms it is this between that is the Divine, God.

It was later dialogically minded theorists such as Hycner and Yontef who introduced these concepts to Gestalt therapy in their writing, for the initial work of PHG rarely strays into this area, even though Laura Perls, Fritz and Paul Goodman were aware of and influenced by Martin Buber.

So whether or not Gestalt therapists are inclined to include the Divine aspect of this oneness of a couple, the theory by itself offers a description of the self which breaks the reductionist, separate, Newtonian view of the self and offers this radical view, particularly in the early ‘50s, of an organism/environment field.

Such a view interestingly enough, had already been presented two hundred years earlier in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic and scientist whom a well known early gestalt therapist and phenomenologist, Wislon van Dusen has written about in his books Natural Depth in Man and The Presence of Other Worlds.

Field theory - theoretical metaphor or lived reality

The description above of the couple as a self in Gestalt therapy can make sense intellectually and may even be seen by some as a useful theoretical metaphor. Yet the initial experience of a couple is that they are two separate people and even if we can experience patterns of them functioning organismically, they nonetheless present to our eyes and ears as separate selves.

So our physical lived experience tends to not always represent what we might theorise of believe.

Some authors (Parlett) have posited this very notion about the field theory model (or I should say models) which underpins Gestalt therapy. Field theory, as described by some Gestalt therapy writers, presents a holistic perspective wherein all things are connected in a web of connection and nothing can be viewed as separate as of itself - everything is of this field.

For many this is an intellectual conceptualisation of reality - a model borrowed from physics by Lewin to map and theorise about reality, but this of course may not be reality itself. Malcolm Parlett discusses this in his writing on field theory, and he postulates that Sheldrake’s notion of an actual morphogenic field may be the next step to the actuality of field theory as a lived reality and not a theoretical metaphor.

However the original authors, PHG, describe the organism/environment field as a lived reality and posit that the view of the separate self is an illusion, a creation. So we see that the view of field theory and the view of the couple in Gestalt therapy is not homogeneous but heterogeneous and reflects the different perspectives of different authors.

There is not one singular field theory of Gestalt therapy and added to this, gestalt therapists differ as to the extent they live by what they believe. At times this is a hypocrisy and at other times this is a simply a developmental process from knowing about something, to then more deeply understanding something and then finally living this.

And I use hypocrisy as a positive sense also. As soon as we start out to live towards an ideal state we are of course not there yet and in this sense are hypocrites. In gestalt process terms we could say we are hypocritising. The Polsters use the term exhibitionist for this state of behavior - and they don’t mean “showing off” but that you feel on exhibit as the behavior is still not fully incorporated into your sense of self. A good example is when you first ride a bike and wobble all over the place - you feel on exhibit and embarrassed and not really a bike rider (ie a hypocrite). The problem is more if we stay at this state and this becomes a frozen gestalt.

Theory into practice.

So gestalt therapists who approach couples work will initially wonder what is the reality of this work - and if we look to our theory the actual reality of what is a couple will vary depending on the author and how they hold and apply and live the theorizing they are doing. And then the therapist themselves will of course look and see clearly two separate people, in fact two people who seem very very separate at times - so much so because they differ so much and argue and may actually be about to separate.

To look at two people in couples work and see that they are also a gestalt - a whole - a self, is at times almost the totally opposite experience for the therapist - like being asked to believe the world is round when standing in the middle of a vast open plane.

As we do this work as gestalt therapists the USE of the theory linked to the experience of being a therapist is that the theory helps us to at first hold to a knowingness. We know at some level this couple is a self. Just knowing this starts us looking not only at each individual but also orients us to the couple as a whole. For example it is easy to see the different polarities and contact episodes which start to play out for each individual - such as - “I want to get close to you but I am hurt and angry and vulnerable and want to protect myself and hurt you“. This is easy to see and read as we become more experienced in holding what IS and staying with paradoxical nature.

Then as we start to see this and know this paradoxical nature can exist for the couple as a self we might see for example the couple self stating “ we want to come here for therapy but are afraid of what might happen”

This knowingness can lead us to start understanding that there are two “realities” at play here - that of the reality clearly evident to our senses of the TWO people and then this more subtle reality of the self of the couple and we start to understand that although this is not visible reality it is reality nonetheless.

Then as we understand this other reality is in operation, we can begin to relate to the couple “self” as well as the two individual selves which present. We may ask the couple questions and look at what the couple actually do in physical space and how they are and what they say AS A ONE.

We may see the couple come in and say they are both nervous to be here and yet feel desperate and so are here anyway. They might be sitting far apart. One person may say eventually the problem we (COUPLE) are here with is that YOU (SEPERATE) hurt me (SEPERATE) by being with another. This is of course such a common theme for couples -how be as a one and seperate, with seperate connections and relationships.

The other person may say I didn’t mean to and you never listened to me. They may move further apart. Then each person might start living a more paradoxical reality and say things like - you hurt me and I don’t want to be with you anymore, you bad person (of course the language might be more colorful :-)

And the other person may likewise say - I am very angry at you because how long do you want me to suffer for this, I just feel like leaving you again.

And as each individual expresses these polarities of contact and withdrawal, we may start to notice the couple itself has moved much closer physically and emotionally and is in more full contact and not at all about to even consider leaving the room at this point.

So we start to actually know and understand that there is a couple “self” here in the room. And as we begin to live this more and more we may start to ask simple questions of the couple as a whole and not just each separate individual - like asking “ what moves you apart here and what brings you closer together” and inquire about how they experience these apparent polarities of separateness and union - “how can you bring your separate sense of self more FULLY into this coupling?”

A Tibetan Buddhist metaphor.

In the Tibetan book of the Dead, Carl Jung in the introduction talks about these different realities and offers the challenging paradox of he following Tibetan Buddhist lived reality -

“When you discover the void-ness of thine own self to be Buddha-hood
And at the same time thine own consciousness
Thou shall dwell in the Divine Mind of the Buddha.”

The shift within couples work to a profound yet simple lived reality of working with each individual AND the couple as a whole is not only a theoretical construct. This is a lived reality which challenges our very notion of being a separate self. This calls out the “voidness of thine own mind” of Tibetan Buddhism. And this state of reality is scary for us all as we feel we are losing our selves. Yet the Tibetan Buddhists ask that we live a paradoxical reality and also experience “ at the same time thine own consciousness”

Hence if we translate this Tibetan wisdom to the couples work, we work with the couple as a self (void) AND as two people (own self).

And then the third part of this mystical equation can come into play -
“ we live in the Divine Mind of the Buddha”

And as poets ,mystics, painters and couples know, this is an eternal dance - as a Swedenborgian minister said to me “marriage is like your relationship with God - we struggle to get closer!”
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Unread August 26th, 2004, 12:41 AM
Brendan Toohey Brendan Toohey is offline
Join Date: Jul 2004
Posts: 11
Arrow Re: Working with Couples - Part Two

Hi Brian,

I am resonating with some of your writtings. I am liking this view of couples for it's ability to create awareness rather that guilt or shame when problems are assigned to an 'it' rather than 'I- Thou. Creating a collective view of an issue between the couple generates insight which seems to have a lightness rather than the more heavy biding war of who own's the problem. I am intersted in the moving together, moving apart dance that I see in myself in relationship and for others that will present in counselling. Seems like there is lots of emphasis on the moving together aspect such as 'we want to stay together please help us', but less emphasis on the moving apart. I become excited by the oppertunities of disscussing the more unspoken aspect of how we move away from one another. From a paradoxical theory of change pespective change will be difficult until identification of where one is now is brought to light. As a counsellor I feel I am invited into the paradox of help us stay together when intuitively I feel at times it is the conlfuence of the couple that can bring on strong pushing away of one another. I am interested in your thoughts on bringing into the light the intergrating of the need to be seperate as a vechile that paradoxically brings oneness about. I feel this need to be seperate is often discussed in terms of vulnerability's or fears of being hurt but less from the perspective of the organisms need to move back and digest contact. It seems obvious that we will have different rates of digestion but this often seems to become a fixed gestalt (such as projection of ones fears onto the seperation, thus exaggerating the stage of the cycle. causing stuckness) rather than being seen as birds flapping their wings at different rates does not mean that one flies and one does not it's just a different movement.
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Unread August 27th, 2004, 06:44 PM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Smile Re: Working with Couples - Part Two

Hi Brendan

Your writing excites me in a number of ways ...

What I am most drawn to in what you write is the whole notion of paradox and how his plays outs....and being willing to play with paradox..

notions like... I find myself more in knowing you as a seperate person....I feel in union with you as I experience our individuality...our differences unite.... our sameness drives us apart...

and couples say even less predictable and paradoxical things like.... I miss our fights since you've left...

I guess this is what intigues me in what you write... and I like the metaphor of the birds flapping their wings seperately while flying together... these are the mysterious equations of love which I am interested in when working as a therapist andI find I tune into these paradoxical states much more with my heart than with my head... and how do I learn with my heart...head learning seems so much easier...

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