Couple Frame vs. Individual Frame

I have written many times about the radical intersubjective stance that Neurodynamic Couples Therapy takes regarding the treatment of couple relationships.  In essence, we are treating what happens between the partners–not individual psychologies.  The theory holds that it takes two brains in each other’s presence to access the affective material that has been generating the couple’s conflicts in order to heal historical wounds.  The individual psychologies heal and change through the couple work.

A couple has been living their particular affective material together long before they enter our offices.  Thus, we see the couple frame as providing immediate access to the deeper right-brain issues that need work, as opposed to the slower, initially left-brain process of the individual frame.  In alternative therapy nomenclature, transference is already alive and very active between partners in couple treatment, whereas it may take some time to fully develop in individual treatment.

When the therapist begins to feel pressure to see partners individually–either from within or by request from the couple–this should signal curiosity about why their intersubjective system needs to temporarily break (maybe escape) the couple frame.  Perhaps they are reliving childhood history by desiring special attention from the therapist.  Perhaps they are afraid of the power of the emotions they are experiencing during their conflicts.  Perhaps they believe they can only get understood if their partner isn’t present.  Or perhaps one partner has a secret they feel compelled to share with the therapist alone.  Any of these possibilities for avoiding the couple frame should be explored before any change to the treatment is implemented.

Some therapists believe that certain partners get so triggered and dysregulated by the feelings unearthed in the couple frame that a temporary transition to the individual frame is necessary to save the treatment.  I respect that this possibility exists, but I have experienced that much helpful work can result from sticking with the dysregulation to explore and fully understand how the couple’s system is using one partner’s dysregulation to relive the past.

Some therapists use individual sessions to attempt to improve their alliance with one or both partners.  Neurodynamic couple therapists are much more concerned about helping the partners build a safe alliance between the two of them that turns conflicts into healing interactions than they are about individual alliances.  The healing team requires all three.

When I have persevered in maintaining the couple frame, partners are often astounded to discover how alike their experiences and their feelings about them have been.  They experience tremendous relief and release from their fears of being hated and misunderstood.  The key to this success is that the therapist’s descriptions of the partners’ experiences and explorations of their internal responses to what happened to them in the past are empathic and non-pathologizing.  No one gets “thrown under the bus”–even the partners’ childhood caretakers.  Everyone is characterized as humanly vulnerable and existing on a continuum of capacities to tolerate feeling states.

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