A Dialogue on Working as a Couple with Couples, with Robin Shohet & Joan Wilmot
Interviewed by Rudolf Jarosewitsch & Mirjam Busch
Rudolf: How did you come to work together as a couple?
Robin: It started 20 years ago, when somebody who had been in a group I had run said that he wanted to come and see me with his wife. I remember telling him, I think I would like to work with my partner. It started with me feeling “could I do this?” and I needed Joan to be with me to work with them.
Joan: I remember our sessions with them. Very early on we realised she was apparently very depressed and he was apparently fine and we understood that she was probably carrying his depression. It was astonishing, as we worked with them, she blossomed and he became depressed. We realised that relationships were systemic. For example if one partner is very aggressive and one mild, we need to see the aggression in the mild one and vice versa.
Robin: The second couple we worked with at one point had a system going where the man had commandeered all the growth and the woman the stagnation. I found myself in a session feeling I could do this work on my own, I did not need Joan. Both the people were looking at me and I would respond to them without referring to Joan. Joan was feeling completely redundant until she realised that what she was feeling was systemic. At that point she said , “of course the female is redundant here”.
She just dropped it in and I thought, ‘oh shit’. I had allowed myself to believe it was personal. We were back on board with the system. From that moment onwards I understood, if I think I am doing good work and she is not, or vice versa …
Joan: .. or if we start arguing with each other ..
Robin: .. we are picking up the dynamic. We use it and don’t identify with it. What happened earlier was that I was identifying with ‘I am good’ and believing it, as opposed to ‘that’s interesting, I notice I am better than her at the moment; this must reflect something about the couple in front of us’. That comment that you dropped in was a wake-up call. If now I feel irritated, I believe there must be some anger that is not being expressed in the couple system.
Joan: We learned by doing it, from our relationship and from our own therapy.
Another thing that we were discovering – this happened more at the beginning – that the couple’s issues and ours would appear to be the same. I would wonder, ‘how am I going to be any use what so ever?’ However, I always noticed that if I stayed present, they had a different version of our issue. You don’t step away from your experience but it transforms into something useful. Being in it and not of it or not drowning in it. I would notice within the 10 minutes I would keep focusing on them to see how my struggle informed their work rather than colluding or over-identifying.
Robin: Another thing we do in terms of techniques, is we talk to each other in the session. I would say, “Well Joan, what are we doing? I feel like I don’t want to be here.” And Joan might say, “I wonder if one of the couple doesn’t want to be here?”
Joan: Sometimes we are taking on one of the couples’ issues. They can be free of it for a while and we take it on.
Robin: We either dialogue or sometimes we become the couple, use their line. Perhaps I take on the woman and you take on the man, as much as the other way around, and we start to replay them and they watch us.
Joan: Or sometimes one of us will fall into the state of one of the couple, again catch the disease. And the other would say, “I don’t agree with you right now” or “That was a rather sharp intervention, I wonder, is there something in you that is like her or him?” We actually self-supervise or supervise each other.
Rudolf: In the session?
Joan: In the session. I would be vulnerable in that way, having the witness, knowing that this will inform the work. They are always delighted. Either they learn something about themselves or they discover why they have been stuck with their partner and not being able to convey something. Seeing us grappling they would be more willing to be more vulnerable.
Robin: Another is how we work. We tend to do individual work with the partner watching. So they can see how we deal with them, rather than focusing on the two of them. This is a perfectly valuable way of doing things, different from having them communicate with each other.
Joan: We have changed a bit on that. We used to get them to talk to each other and do work together. I think, it just moves around. More recently we seem to have been doing that. I remember, we used to say: There are three people in the room, each member of the couple and the relationship. We have sometimes get them to blame each other, or things. — We seem to be doing less of that right now.
Robin: We do individual work. It is very powerful for the other person to see us work compassionately with their partner. That’s just a style. It’s interesting, the only bit of input we ever had on couples’ work was with a Gestalt person who very much focused on the two of them communicating with each other.
Rudolf: We do this too. We also focus on one person at a time and find this very powerful. What we notice is that their patterns are connected. For once there is a mirror on a different level, and then the patterns are interlocked. When we can separate both stories, then we get some breathing space.
Robin: It gives breathing space. She can watch when I work with him, she is the witness and does not get re-stimulated.
Robin: Usually one of us – which shows how universal the themes are – will identify with one, and the other will identify with the other. Often it’s me who identifies with the woman and you with the man, which is interesting in itself. Sometimes I feel I am quite hard with the man because I have sided with the woman. And you are quite hard with the woman.
Joan: I think, we give our own sex a bit of a harder time. It’s like I know those games.
Mirjam: You see through them. And it’s not only that we see through them, sometimes we lack compassion for our own sex, because we lack compassion for our own contribution to the issue. It’s easier to be compassionate with the other.
Joan: It’s a mixture of being quicker on the game and less compassionate on myself.
Rudolf: I have actually learned to become more compassionate with men since I work with Mirjam. I used to be harder on men, so I was very touched how compassionate she could see a man, when I had not much patience.
Joan: We just worked with a lesbian couple. I don’t know whether we identify with a style of defensiveness sometimes. You identified with one and I identified with her partner. That’s interesting to notice. I could explain one person to her partner easily, but I didn’t understand the other person very well at all. Then I was a useful challenge, because I said, “I need to understand you better, because I can’t. I understand why she doesn’t understand you sometimes.”
Mirjam: You model sometimes a new role. You trying to make sense reached the other person.
Robin: What I am interested in is, they are a gay couple, and yet we have the same issue, Joan understood one and I understood the other. Which makes me think, the whole bloody thing is nothing to do with you two, us two, it’s universal patterns that are being replayed through us again and again and again and again. We have our own particular slight variation of it, it’s the same issue: one wanted to get close and the other felt smothered.
Joan: One was terrified of abandonment and the other one was terrified of rejection.
Robin: With every couple, we begin to think, it’s probably about 3 themes.
Rudolf: What are they?
Joan: One was abandonment and rejection.
Robin: One wants to get close and the other withdraws. Classically it’s the woman who wants to get close and the man withdraws. With the two women it was the same issue.
Joan: One wants sex and the other one doesn’t.
Robin: Which is a variation of that. —
I am wondering if there are any other themes. Because if neither of them wants to get close they just piss off, and if both of them want to get close they get on with things.
Joan: One wanted a child and the other one didn’t. They split up. Sometimes we think, couples come to split up.
Robin: The other thing I do – and I couldn’t do it without her – I am perfectly outrageous in the first three minutes.
Joan: You did that with the couple we saw three or four years ago. What did you say to him?
Robin: I said, “listen, I have to be straight with you, I don’t like you.” He took it. What was amazing was that he changed, and we got to like each other. He really valued it, because I said it without any judgment, like “you’ve got a blue shirt on”. “I looked out of the window, I saw you out there and thought ‘I don’t like you’”. The woman felt very supported by that.
Joan: And he knew what you meant. It was in his family history. He was more interested in the truth.
Robin: That’s the way I can be very outrageous, where I get the person more interested in the truth than its being personal.
Joan: I don’t think I have ever done that. I am less outrageous.
Robin: But her being there is very supportive. She can hold it in some way. If she thinks that I am just projecting my own stuff on it, she would say, “no Robin, that isn’t ok, I don’t agree with you or what you are talking about”. And I know if she doesn’t do that, that some way she feels I have been able to express without my agenda. I say to people, “Look, I’m gonna tell you straight, you are not going to make it”, and I say, “I am telling you now, because I may never see it so clearly again. This is just my opinion, and I don’t mind if you think it is absolute rubbish. But it could be the most valuable thing I can say to you.” Or I might say, “I think you are a great couple. I don’t care what presenting issues you’ve got, I can just get a sense of you’ve really got something going for you. It doesn’t mean to say that you will necessarily make it. But I am just telling you what I think.” And I say it immediately. That’s an incredibly powerful thing to do. I have to be so careful, because it could be my own agenda. I don’t think that I am on that level, I am allowing myself to just give an impression, and she is a very important part of the safety to be able to do that.
Joan: I want to add I think we do excellent work, and I don’t know if it makes any difference. Maybe it gives them another couple of years of a better relationship.
Robin: We raise their awareness.
Joan: We raise their awareness and become part of their spiritual journey. And their spiritual journey definitely deepens.
Robin: But we don’t know whether our work works.
Mirjam: It’s a bit like sowing seeds. Sometimes I sow the seeds, and they need to take care of those. If they carelessly walk all over each other’s gardens, I can’t do anything about it.
Joan: It’s not my job to keep harvesting.
Mirjam: There is tremendous amount of work that needs to be self-generated and self-directed by couples. There are profound moments of meeting, which have a huge impact and yet can get lost again in old patterns. When patterns become more important than the living relationship, couples become stuck.
Robin: What would be worth saying is the work of this woman Byron Katie (www.thework.org). Once or twice we brought that in with couples. We could dialogue about at some stage. Maybe we should tell the story about you in Amsterdam.
Joan: Ok, we’ll do that. I’m thinking, the lovely side of it is what you’ve mentioned. Couples have their stories that they are busy with and interlocking their stories and frightening each other. I think, ‘The Work’ shows us that it’s just a story. It’s fine if the story works for you, keep it. But if it doesn’t work, why are you staying attached to it? I think couples do frighten each other with their stories, with the framing of what they see as the other person’s behaviour or the couple’s behaviour, like ‘we are a useless couple’.
Rudolf: My observation is, it gives people a sense of identity. We call it patterns. Sometimes it seems easier to hang on to old patterns. Having to without them is scary. That’s what I got from the four questions that Byron Katie proposes, like the fourth question, ‘what would you do without it’? How would you be without this problem or story or belief ? This comes up in our work. They say they want to get rid of this problem, but do they really? What does it do for them? Sometimes working with the paradox can be powerful, to see what they get from it. This is a decision that only they can take.
Robin: Let’s tell the Amsterdam story: We go to Amsterdam. I have done two weeks of training with Byron Katie. I take Joan along, and she says, “I am filling in a sheet on you”. A sheet is where you sat everything that annoys you about another, how they should be different and what you think they are like.
Joan: I had gone to Amsterdam because I wanted to support you. I have got mixed feelings about this form. I think, I can’t lose. The kids are nicely settled with someone else, we haven’t had a weekend away, Amsterdam is a place I wanted to go to for years, it’s beautiful, and some of my dear friends had come as well. I thought it was a winner. The workshop was a nice little extra.
Rudolf: This was a workshop with Byron Katie?
Robin: A weekend workshop. She has these work sheets, and Joan said , “I am doing one on you, I am going to go up there to work on you.” There were 350 people there.
Joan: I thought, I’ll work on our sexual relationship, which is our big stumbling point. There is no point coming all this way not to go for the gold.
Robin: I go, “well”, Katie has this thing about my business, your business, God’s business. It’s not my business. It’s your business. So I go: “Good luck to you”, and I am going, “oh, oh.” She doesn’t get up first. Katie works with someone else.
Joan: Someone got there first. I said, “I am going, I am not going to hold back.” I watched this woman work. I thought, it was interesting. I could see the technique, but I had already seen it on tape and tried it out for myself. I forgot what the woman was working on, something I could not particularly identify with. I didn’t think, ‘oh God, that’s me’. She was a bit slow getting the turn around. She was very much more wanting to blame and project. Gradually she did. So I was not thinking I was hugely identified, ‘oh gosh, that’s my story’. The work was coming to an end, at some point I was getting geared up to go up front. I looked at my sheet: ‘Robin should be this and shouldn’t be that’, I thought, this is history. I was totally unattached to it. It was like the whole history of our relationship had melted away. I could go up there, but there was nothing to work on. I stayed in that empty place. There was nothing in my head, there was no rattle and shake.
Robin: For two months I experienced that I was living with a new person. She is back into her old ways now. But for two months it was extraordinary, and I got a glimpse of what it must be to be enlightened. I would ask her, “would you like to do this?”, and she would say “yes”. And it was just ‘yes’. Or “would you like to do that?” “No”. It wasn’t ‘no, you shouldn’t have asked me’ or ‘no, I resent it’, it was just ‘yes’, ‘no’. Everything was just simple. I remember I had asked her to do me a favour, and she said ‘no’, and I was thinking, that’s beautiful, there was no resentment. Because when we say ‘no’ we feel guilty. We carry 30 years of history with us. So when I say ‘no’, it’s not just, ‘no now’, it’s ‘no, and you shouldn’t have …’. I remember thinking, that’s really fine. Even though I wanted her to do something, I could totally accept it. It was just the simplicity, what struck me was that no therapy got anywhere close to that.
Joan: It’s almost like the therapy prepared me. What had caught my eye about The Work was she said, “you don’t let go of anything, it lets go of you”. You can’t let go of anything, and I felt thank God for that. I had been trying all those years to better myself. And he’s saying, “for God’s sake, go and get some more therapy”. It was all part of the game. If only I could improve myself. Of course, the soul doesn’t want that. And I think the fact that I wasn’t that attached to the workshop. I had gone along, but I was having a good time anyway. Somehow I managed to catch myself out, not already in a failure and attached place. Having tried in therapy and failed. It was a very easy state.
Robin: She was incredibly easy for me.
Joan: I am not sure what this has to do with couple work. It was a nice clearance.
Robin: It is in one sense because she got to the stage through Katie of being able to let go of her stories about me, which was very liberating for her, but also for me. The stories just dropped off her. What we tend to do, which is relevant to couples work, is work on the stories or work on letting go of the stories, as opposed to ego working on itself. Because the ego is making up the story. It is like stuffing myself with food and reading diet books in the hope that they will make me slimmer. As I read them I am putting chocolates into my mouth. It’s the magical hope that reading the diet book will actually make this chocolate go through my system quicker. Something bizarre like that. What happened was, she just throw the diet book and the chocolates out of the window. And there we were. She was not caught in diet books or chocolate. It was remarkable. It was difficult for me, because in some sense I wasn’t in that place. It was my own difficulties, there was nothing about her. It was amazing, and I’m sorry I couldn’t match it.
Joan: When I looked at The Work I thought, I can’t see how this relates to couple work at all. It seems to me if this is his business and my business. It has been very important to me the third entity in the room i.e. the relationship. It seemed at first to be the opposite of a relationship, because you had to keep going back to your own business. Paradoxically, by being much more in my own business and out of his, I felt more intimate with him. It came full circle. That was the delight.
I feel that my spiritual journey is as a couple. I’d rather lose spirituality than lose the couple, the relationship. It was a very upside down way that came back to what I did.
Robin: She couldn’t stand the idea of Katie’s stuff: my business, your business. well, what about our business? She only could get to our business when she was really in her business.
Joan: That was very affirming of coupleship.
Rudolf: Thank you very much for your time.
Robin: It has been a pleasure. I can feel how you guys work, and how we have similar ideas without you saying explicitly.
Joan: So tell me how you two work and how long you have been doing it?
Robin Shohet is co-author with Peter Hawkins of ‘Supervision in the Helping Professions’, OUP 1989, 2nd edition 2000. He is a practising psychotherapist and organisational consultant, and is currently researching the place of forgiveness in organisations and communities.
Joan Wilmot is a co-founder of the Centre for Staff Team Development, practising for 28 years first as a social worker and as director of a therapeutic community and subsequently as psychotherapist, couples therapist, team consultant, supervisor and trainer.
Copyright © 12/2000 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Integrative Dialogue #13, Dec2000