Couple Dynamics: The Talker and the Quiet One

I had an unusual request via email from a couple in England who had seen my website and were interested in couples counseling. Jasper and his wife were visiting family in Vancouver on their way to holiday in Thailand. I was intrigued by the request and agreed to meet them for a two-hour session. I was skeptical that they would even come.

Surprisingly, Jasper and Melinda did come. They left their daughter with her grandparents and came alone. They said they have been fighting a lot and had fought all the way here.

It quickly became clear that he was the ‘Talker’ and she was the ‘Quiet One’. I facilitated a dialogue between them. I could see that the more he talked the more she silently retreated within herself. The further she retreated the more he talked. The more he talked the more he leaned forward. The more he leaned forward and talked, the more she pulled back and said little. Each was distressed and frustrated. In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy this dynamic is termed the Negative Interactive Cycle. Once it gets going it gains momentum. It is difficult for the couple to break out of it. Each needs to do something different but they usually don’t know what.

At this point I usually facilitate reflective listening between the couple so they can have a new way to handle the same old stuff. Due to time constraints and the fact that I probably would never see this couple again, I decided that I would try an experiment. I told the couple that when each one talked I would feed the other the words to say in response. In other words, I would supply accurate reflective listening.

As the dialogue preceded it be came clear that when Jasper felt lonely and disconnected from Melinda he would talk a lot to her but he would not tell her that he felt lonely. He talked of other things, sometimes blaming her and analyzing her. Feeling bad about herself Melinda would retreat inside and wonder, “What does he want from me?” She would try to figure it out by herself. Through the reflective listening what each one felt was made explicit. When Jasper reflective listened to Melinda she felt heard and understood. She started talking. He was surprised and pleased. He talked less and she talked more. When Melinda realized that Jasper felt lonely she reached out to him. At one point when she was talking freely I looked at him sitting back on the couch happily listening to her and said, “Do you see how freely she is talking?” He only nodded with a smile on his face because he did not want to stop her. When Melinda reflective listened to Jasper, he knew she finally understood his loneliness so he didn’t need to say more.

What I was really pleased about was that the couple did not mechanically parrot my words. They repeated exactly what I said but they put their own inflection into the words. What they said and how they said it was congruent with how they felt.

At the end of the session, as I was writing out the receipt in the waiting room, I could see them out of the corner of my eye, still in my office hugging and kissing . I gave them some handouts and wished them well.

After a few months I decided to follow up with an email. I was curious to see if such a session could have a significant impact. We therapists often work in the dark.

Jasper quickly responded and told me that they had been doing really well since the session. He said they had not done any of the exercises that I had given them. They had put them in a drawer in case they needed them sometime in the future

. He thanked me.

The couple was emotionally connected again.

With care and concern
Dr. Bea

The names and circumstances of the people in this post have been altered.

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