I’m working with a couple who report very different versions of their interactions with each other. I trust the wife’s report more than the husband’s, but I don’t know how to figure out what really goes on between them. How can I determine who is more accurate?
The dilemma you describe comes up frequently in working with couples, and it illustrates an important capacity that we need to develop as clinicians. It is natural to begin with a view that there is a right, true, or accurate version of a particular situation or interaction. However, you will learn with clinical experience that each person in an interaction experiences it in slightly different ways, and sometimes in dramatically different ways. This requires us to develop a capacity to hold different perspectives on the same interaction. I will begin my discussion with some suggestions about this issue in working with couples, then address how it also applies when working with clients who feel hurt, angry, or misunderstood by us and when working with colleagues or supervisors.
Couples who enter therapy often present with each member of the couple invested in his or her position, trying to enlist the support of the therapist to convince their partner that their position is correct or superior. The therapist’s countertransference response is often to feel compelled to take the role of a judge and developing a verdict on the conflict. However, with rare exceptions for situations related to physical safety, the couple’s conflict is due to differences between the individuals and their ability to communicate and listen to each other.
The first step in helping a couple in this situation is for you to understand the perspective of each individual in the couple and to hold their perspectives, even if widely divergent, as valid and important. Your capacity to hold multiple perspectives can help shift the focus of the couple from a quest to identify who is right to an appreciation for each individual’s unique emotions, needs, and motivations. For example, a couple may begin a session with the wife reporting an argument in which the husband yelled at her, and the husband reporting that he didn’t raise his voice but only asked his wife to move her car into the garage. You can help both clients feel heard and understood by pointing out that the wife felt criticized and bullied, even though her husband may not have intended to criticize her, and the husband felt ignored when his wife objected to his request.
The ability to be interested in different perspectives is more difficult to attain and express when you are one of the parties in the situation or interaction. When a client reports something you said that she felt was unempathetic or when a client reports feeling hurt or angry with you, it is natural to identify distortions in the client’s perspective and attempt to correct her point of view. You will learn that this is rarely if ever successful. You need to hold your point of view without defensiveness while encouraging the client to tell you more about her experience of the recent interaction between you. Similarly, when you talk about a mutual client with a colleague who views the client very differently than you or when you experience a conflict with your supervisor about the direction of treatment with your client, you need to be able to express your point of view while being open to and respectful of that of your colleague or supervisor.
You may wonder how to develop the capacity to hold multiple perspectives and how long it will take. Anything that helps you identify and reflect on your emotions and thoughts will facilitate this capacity, which is sometimes referred to as an observing ego or mindful self-awareness. Some helpful ways to work on this are to seek psychotherapy from a psychodynamic or other depth psychology orientation and to engage in meditation or other mindfulness practices. It is a capacity that is an area of continual personal growth, since different clinical situations will pose different challenges to our tendency to look for the one right or accurate view. You will find it easier over time, though, as you make it a priority in your professional growth.
I hope you find this discussion helpful in working with clients, colleagues, and supervisors. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.