The Romantic Model With this romantic model comes an unprecedented set of expectations. Partners want their relationship to be:
Perel describes the scope of expectations like this:
There is no other unit that speaks of the one and only, that talks about the soul mate, that wants to combine the soul mate with the same person with whom you raise the children, and the same person with whom you do renovations, and the same person with whom you weather unemployment and storms.
The bottom line, according to Perel, is that the survival of the family unit now depends on the health and strength of the emotional connection between the partners. This Master Class goes inside three clinical demonstrations—that feel like intimate conversations—where Perel works with skill and insight to rebuild and strengthen that all-important connection in the wake of infidelities, betrayal and sexual trauma.
Couples therapists stand at the leading edge of this change. According to Perel, the norms of couplehood have changed even more rapidly than those of the culture as a whole. The last 10 years have seen dramatic shifts in new ideas of what a couple is as well as the novel issues partners bring into the consulting room. These include:
What these changes mean, says Perel, is that therapists today are seeing different kinds of couples than they saw 10 years ago and those couples are wrestling with issues that may be novel for partners and therapists alike. This Master Class offers insights, approaches and preparation that will help therapists with that work.
Perel’s approach to couples therapy is inclusive. Perel trained with Salvador Minuchin and points to his influence in her systems-orientated approach. She also has been influenced by the multi-modal approach of Michele Scheinkman. As she demonstrates in this Master Class—when a problem is before her, Perel does not think only of the brain and neural circuitry or of attachment as the right place to start. She takes a broader view and the flexibility to navigate as she feels her way to the best approach for the specific couple before her. She explains:
I think intrapersonally, the experience, the meaning-making. And I am thinking also interpersonally—about the transactions, the dynamic, sequence and escalations. I’m interested in the ‘what I do that makes you be the way you are that makes me be the opposite of what I really want to be with you.’
Perel believes the freedom to work without a rigid sense of what’s right or limited to a single model holds the greatest possibility of helping couples address today’s issues. She invites couples therapists to go beyond a single model, investigate multiple approaches, choose five clinicians to learn from their work and seek out others whose expertise is different than their own.
Perel practices what she recommends and throughout this class she integrates insights and practices from others who have influenced her, taught her or worked with her. They include Terry Real, Hedy Schleifer, Bill Doherty, Diana Fosha and others.
In the three sessions featured in this Master Class, Perel uses a variety of approaches, interventions and strategies and in the analysis segments, she explains her choices as well as how other therapists can use them in their work. Here are some of them to look for:
Her goal in these sessions is to move partners to a moment where they can experience each other in a new way—to give them a sense of possibility and hope for the future and to let them leave with a story that’s different than the one they came in with.
Articulate the Romantic Model of marriage, the broad cultural changes that have led to it, and the challenges it presents to the family and partners.
Psychologists, Counselors, Social Workers, Case Managers, Addiction Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Nurses, Educators and other Mental Health ProfessionalsCopyright : 09/18/2017
What to listen for in this session. Note how Perel moves very quickly at the beginning. She knows that this couple is so discouraged from being stuck and talking about the sex they don’t have, that it’s important to do something different. Perel explains in the analysis that when she was in training, someone told her not to ask what’s wrong. Instead, ask how it would look—who they would be if this were the last day of therapy. Perel says, this is what she does. Perel says.
She also thought about play and how it’s healing. So she took the risk and suggested some things they could try and each of them takes the risk too. She explains:
The first thing I think about when I see stuckness is where do I introduce something completely new—a new experience? Since she always sees him in a certain way, what if I close her eyes? She'll see something else. In fact, she'll have to listen more. She'll have to sense more. She'll have to experience touch more, so that was really that. I had her close her eyes, cover them and she had the scarf on almost till the end.
The husband embraces another of the other ideas Perel tossed out—assuming a character. In fact he already has one—Jean-Claude, who only speaks French which his wife does not understand. Perel says that’s not a problem; she’ll translate. And she goes on to say:
She doesn't need the words…By not understanding you, she will actually
see you differently. She will feel you differently, and all of that is equivalent to communication. Bonjour, Jean-Claude!
Already now, the couple and she are joined therapeutically, Perel says. They’re laughing and there is an implicit contract about how to move forward. She observes that work like this is always a co-creation between the partners and the therapist and cautions that it can fall apart at any moment along the way.
In the analysis, Perel explains, that during most of her training, diagnosis was made by gathering info and then thinking through what the problem could be. Influenced by Minuchin, she prefers to rely on a systemic diagnosis which begins with an intervention. Then the way the system—in this case, the couple—responds to it provides the diagnosis. That is what is happening happens in this session.
In the second segment, we see Perel moving back and forth between the partners, feeling her way into their senses of safety and excitement as well as the differences between Scott and Jean-Claude—both for the husband and for the wife.
Esther invites him to explain who “put him the basement” who locked him up. He says it was his mother and father. Perel uses her “say more” strategy to get at the intimate details of Scott’s story and he explains the whole family dysfunction concluding:
So I shamed myself whenever I felt sexual and tried to be only intellectual. In fact, I shut down all of my emotions.
In the analysis, Perel says she was, at that point, thinking about these two characters as “parts” and wanting to learn more about them when the wife says that holding Scott’s hand felt very different than holding Jean-Claude’s. That is important information for Perel to know.
What we have here, she says is the classic split between safe, good and not sexual versus bad and sexy. The work will be integrating safety and sexuality and it turns out this is the work for both of them.
She also discusses how issues can actually be embodied and believes that is what is happening when the wife experiences such a big difference between holding Scott’s hand and Jean-Claude’s hand.
In the third segment, Perel begins by challenging the split—Scott, good; Jean-Claude bad. Moving back and forth between them, she explores this split.
Then she asks the wife to tell Jean-Claude in her own words why she loves him and Perel begins to learn more about the wife’s script from childhood that says she is “too much”—a message that she now carries as “she is too much sexually for Scott.”
Throughout this segment, Perel uses her strategy of throwing out a storyline, asking the partner to make it their own by repeating it in his or her own words. Also throughout this segment and those following, Perel talks about sexuality using the language of pleasure—something she is known for doing effortlessly.
In the fourth segment, Perel talks about the power of role-play—especially when a couple has been stuck as these partners were. It allows them to escape the narrowness of their perspective and to ask for what they want from the other.
Perel also uses a touching exercise to help them experience not only healing the split between safety and sexuality but to get a taste of the joy, the openness, the play, the freedom, the pleasure of being sexual. This, says Perel, is the work of healing sexual trauma in couples.
At the end of this segment, Perel validates their new experience and verbally reinforces their new behavior:
I saw the way you stroked her as Jean-Claude. It's all inside of you. You are not incompatible, mismatched…I don't know where you got that story but it's not ... (To the wife) You don't know what stuff goes into this guy's head but it may not be nearly that different from yours.
In the analysis, Perel talks about the “bad boy” as a sexual fantasy which she sees as a code language through which a therapist can learn a lot. Sexual fantasy is
In the wife’s sexual fantasy of the bad boy, this holds true. The wife sees her own problem as being “too much,” so her solution is someone who is big and tough and can take care of himself. She is expressing her need to be met by someone for whom she is not only NOT “too much” but exactly what he’s looking for.
In preparation for more integration, Perel challenges the notion that she is “too much.”
Maybe your parents were wrong.
The fifth segment opens as the wife’s fear floods her. She talks about swinging between wanting closeness to avoidance—Get away from me. Then she starts talking about being independent and not wanting to need. Perel cuts her off, telling her to stop speaking while her husband kisses her.
When Jean-Claude is kissing her, the wife breaks off to complain to him that this is what she wanted all along. Perel cuts her off again: You can’t do that. Then Perel instructs the husband to say to his wife when she does complain: You’re not welcome here. This is the first installment in equipping them to help each other stay in the new place of erotic experience that is an integration of safety and sexuality.
In the next segment, Perel helps them dig into another way than the either safety OR sexuality understanding has kept them stuck for so long. She helps them unpack their experience of the “icky” sex that felt incestuous so they can understand it. That understanding is the first step in behavior change, says Perel.
Perel then turns to the husband to again challenge the notion that Jean-Claude is bad and moves them back into the touching and the experience of the fullness that’s possible when they connect with safe and sexy integrated.
These last two segments are a great illustration of the 3-step process of learning a new behavior that Perel models and then coaches all three couples in. The steps are
And in the final piece of work, Perel coaches them as they experience this new reality fully. This is the experience that Perel wants for couples—a taste of what’s possible, the hope-filled beginning of the new story that she wants them to carry out of the session.
And because this is a new behavior that will need to be reinforced, she shows them how they can call each other back to this experience.
To the husband: Tell her, go put on some lipstick.
To the wife: Ask him to help you stay, to help you be in the present….
And when the wires get crossed, you say ‘Speak to me in French.’
Articulate the purpose of four strategies or interventions that Esther Perel regularly uses in her sessions.
Analyze difference between a fantasy and a fetish and how to work with each clinically.
Psychologists, Counselors, Social Workers, Case Managers, Addiction Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Nurses, Educators and other Mental Health ProfessionalsCopyright : 05/17/2017
What to listen for in the session. Notice how Perel moves slowly in the first parts of this session as she feels her way. Note also how she is disciplined about holding her own reactions in check. While there is much to react to in this story of serial affairs and the damage they caused, her initial work is to be open and curious. She says:
If I stay anthropological not clinical, I am much better able to just listen
In this session, Perel calls upon many of the tools and approaches that characterize her work as discussed in Part 1.
In the first segment, the couple tells their story and Perel listens, asks for “more” and does not react even when they disagree about whether his behavior is a compulsion or an addiction. As she says in the analysis, Perel initially felt the need for two things:
She confirms that she is going slowly, feeling her way. Because this is a one-time three-hour session, Perel is looking for an intervention that can make a difference, helping this couple leave with a different narrative than the one they came into the session with.
In the second segment of the session, Perel focuses on the husband. He talks about his commitment to being a good husband and a good father and how he learned what not to do from his father. Perel’s use of “say more” allows him to expand and go deeper into his story, in his own words, with his own focus. That gives her insights into the deeper, intimate meaning of his story and ideas about where she might go with him to facilitate a new dynamic for the couple.
In the analysis, Perel explains that, while he was talking, she was holding several things in her awareness:
Perel and Simon also discuss how there is much in this session that could be triggering. Perel asserts the need for the therapist not to be reactive but remain open, invite more and listen. Perel shares how she maintains this openness by taking an anthropological, not a clinical, stance.
Perel says she was clear at this point that she would address his toxic shame and self-pity as part of her work because they posed a real block to the healing in this marriage. She observes:
When someone is caught in shame they cannot access the guilt, which is connected to conscience. And it’s that guilt that lets him feel the responsibility for what he did and to speak from that place.
The segment ends with Perel challenging the husband around shame which he suggests is part of his new healing experience. Perel is firm with him: It’s not a new thing. It was there before…You made sure never to feel it.
In the third segment, Perel focuses on the wife and articulates a question that must be answered if she is to move forward.
Does the fact that her husband has been unfaithful to her for their entire marriage invalidate everything that has been good between them for the last 40 years?...
Perel highlights the importance of the question—and the answer.
….does it change everything or does it have to find its own place?…because what you believed is true AND there was also another reality….This AND that.
Before moving on, Perel checks to make sure the wife is open to the fact that both realities are true—that one does not cancel out the other. She does.
In the analysis, Perel explains why establishing both realities as true is critical:
The wife had a very coherent narrative for 40 years and then it was shattered. Now she not only doubts her husband, she doubts herself because her story, her history, what she knew— no longer made sense.
Perel continues, observing that the wife’s ability to say that her husband had demons and that what he did had nothing to do with her or their life together—is as much for herself as for him.
Her need to have some thread of compassion for him, to see some dignity in him is also for her—so she can have some dignity in staying and begin to write a new story for herself.
Finally, Perel observes that she was still moving slowly in the session, looking for the intervention that could get this couple unstuck and dignify the wife’s choice to stay.
The fourth segment of the session begins when the husband, speaking out of his relatively new understanding of himself and his behavior, says of his wife:
I would say that during the last four to six weeks, she’s finally started to see my side of the story.
This was a key moment, Perel said, because she knew what she wanted to accomplish with the husband in order to help the couple move forward and the marriage to heal. He needs to learn to step outside of himself.
From that point, she observes, she was clear about how the session needed to unfold and so she began on a path that that would include:
“The question of trust is completely premature.” Perel’s words mark another important moment in this segment. With them, she firmly stops a debate that has gone on between the partners about whether she can trust him not to do this again. This moment also provides an opening for reframing the issue of trust. Perel goes on to
Again, Perel puts forward a storyline— what the wife really wants is to trust that her husband will be present with her in her hurt, shame, anger and love as she rebuilds her life staying with him As the segment ends, both the husband and wife agree with that proposition.
In the analysis, Perel and Simon expand on the subject of trust and betrayal. Perel introduces the concept of “primary naiveté” explaining that once that is destroyed, there’s no going back. Trust becomes more cautious, more qualified and more mature. And while it’s possible to achieve a place of “secondary naiveté” over time, it’s achieved by trusting with eyes open.
In the fifth segment, Perel returns to focus on the husband and begins the process of educating, challenging and laying the foundation for coaching him.
She interrupts a complaint by taking his word “honesty” and re-focusing it—away from him and onto his wife’s experience. …this is a different story of honesty. Perel explains that he must deal with the fact that the level of compartmentalization he has lived with his whole life is inconceivable to his wife and that she now lives with the question: Who was I with?
In the sixth segment, Perel is laser-focused on the stuckness. The wife confirms that her husband talks much more about what happened to him than what happened to her. I’m sensing that, Perel says. That is off-balance.
And she firmly cuts him off when he moves back into justification, explaining, focusing on self. She asks him to listen to what his wife says and to repeat it so they are sure he heard her. Again she nterrupts him when he “buts” or digresses into too much self-talk.
When he mentions his wife’s anger, she redirects again. While acknowledging how important it is to be on his own healing trajectory and experiencing himself as whole for the first time in his life, Perel makes the following points:
Then Perel makes a promise to him—If you can attend to her primary concern (the pain and shame), you will create the space for her to attend to your trajectory (healing and wholeness).
Perel explains that his work right now, if he wants to heal this marriage, is to be present with his wife in the anger, pain and shame that he caused.
He tries and practices with help from Perel, who suggests at one point that he try being present to her with the one thing that’s always been good between them—touch. Then he reaches for her and both start to cry holding each other. Touch. Don’t talk, Perel repeats as they experience this moment of hope and real connection that she has been moving them toward in this session.
Assess the difference between shame and guilt and describe how each affects a person as well as the couple or family system.
Articulate the long-term traumatic effects of the childhood dynamic known as “the unholy triangle” comprised of 1) a violent, abusive father 2) a victimized wounded mother, and 3) a sensitive boy caught in between them.
Psychologists, Counselors, Social Workers, Case Managers, Addiction Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Nurses, Educators and other Mental Health ProfessionalsCopyright : 05/26/2017
What to listen for in this session
After introducing themselves, they tell the story of the benign birthday “surprise” tour which had to be abandoned when it triggered the partner with a trauma history, but it is clear they have talked little about the history behind the response. Perel says later she is curious about how the norms for how much or little to share were set. At the end of the segment, they talk about another trauma manifestation they’d both like to change— that the partner with a trauma history often flinches when his partner touches him. When the touch-focused partner reiterates that he wants to learn more about how his partner thinks so he can avoid triggering him, Perel replies Maybe he should learn from you.
In the analysis, Perel and Simon discuss trauma in relationships and whether this couple’s situation is unique. Perel explains that it is not and goes on to say how common it is to have only the manifestations of trauma in a relationship without any trauma history disclosed or even known.
Based on what she hears in this segment, including the constant use of the word “safe,” Perel is clear that this session needs a strong, solid, tender container and it is her responsibility to provide it. She comments that she asks fewer questions than usual because of the trauma except for when she wants to know more:
When I hear things like ‘He knows a little.’ I ask ‘What is a little?’ because it’s important to hear the intimate meanings behind the words.
In the analysis, Perel and Simon discuss how there is agreement in the field about the need to avoid re-traumatization but there is also vigorous debate about how much revelation is too much and what is not enough. She comments that people often present their approaches about this as if they have the definitive answer. Her approach is different:
With trauma like this, I think you feel it out, rather than come in with your certainty.
She also goes into detail on the pacing and approach she uses in this session. Because of the trauma history, she maintains a rhythmic and slow pace. She talks less, asks fewer questions, and is less directive than she might otherwise be. She pays special attention to checking the boundaries—between the partners and between them and herself.
She already has a clear sense of real imbalance in the relationship, so the questions she does ask are about the couple’s complementarity and power dynamic.
In the third segment she begins to normalize some of the feelings and reactions related to the partner’s past trauma. He asks and she respond that these reactions are normal for someone with his history. This is where some modeling begins. Perel does some work to help the traumatized partner integrate his words with affect and his body. She then works individually with the other partner who for the first time in this session, acknowledges that he has his own vulnerabilities.
This is the pattern for the rest of the session—individual work with one partner alternating with the other. She points out that while working with one partner, she is also modeling for the other.
In the analysis, Perel uses the Vulnerability Cycle to explain the partners’ profound though not uncommon dysfunction:
Perel is very concrete with the couple about how to change this dynamic. She encourages the partner who freezes, to take his time, “reset his dial” to accept the tender touch. To the partner who withdraws, she advises:
Stay steady while he resets his dial. When you stay steady, then you will both have what you want.
From this point on, Perel is clear that her work is to help them recalibrate their relationship for more balance and a start on the road to greater intimacy.
The fourth segment begins with both partners saying that they’ve been much more honest and open since the discovery of the infidelities. Perel turns her attention to work with the caretaking partner. She asks him what is was like to step up and ask for something—which he did in the wake of his partner’s infidelity. And she continues to follow the thread—Where did you learn to refrain from asking, wanting, needing. And he begins to tell his story which is also about his own trauma.
Perel continues to work with him modeling for his husband how to ask questions and learn about his partner. Then she passes the baton to the partner by saying Ask him. From that point on, Perel coaches him.
Her goal is for each partner, she explains, is to have an experience that is the opposite of their usual. The one who is always taking center stage will have to reach out, recognize, give and ask about his partner’s needs. The caretaker will learn to ask for what he wants—not just for crumbs and not only in a crisis—and he must then receive.
The fifth segment increases in intensity as the quiet partner talks about coming out. Perel, in a classic “more” moment, follows his story. When he says he never came out to his father who has since died, Perel has him tell his father now. He said his father answered I know. What’s the big deal? Perel asks for more—What’s it like for you? He said that one part is OK with it. And the other part? asks Perel. He answers: Why don’t you want to get to know me better? and he cries.
Then she turns to his partner who is leaning in and asks if he’d like to come closer and then Do you want to do what you said? (hug him) and he does. Perel picks up the pace turning from one to another coaching each in this new behavior of the partner comforting his care-taking partner.
In the analysis, she talks about the moment when he said: Why don’t you want to get to know me better. This is the line that takes him into the vortex of pain, says Perel and in the unedited session she had him repeat it many times so he can fully go into that place and then experience the release of tears.
She also walks through every step of the breakthroughs in this segment She explains how she’s using the 7 Basic Verbs of Relationships— to ask, to give, to take, to receive, to imagine or play to share and to refuse—and she describes how therapists can use these words in their own work. This is how Perel summarizes the progress to this point:
What this couple asked for when they came in was more of the same—the same behaviors that had kept their relationship unbalanced for 14 years. But now the one who was the giver is learning to ask and receive and the one who took center stage is giving and listening with empathy.
The final section stays with this change and reinforces the shift. Perel works again with the partner who’s suffered sexual abuse encouraging him to say I feel instead of It feels. She explores how he feels when his partner holds his hand and eventually suggests his partner hold his face, locking eyes, and in that experience there is a breakthrough. While his partner assures him he is safe, the tears come.
Perel then begins teaching the partners how to reinforce these new behaviors going forward. In the analysis, she says that the key to effectively reinforcing a new behavior is to say something short and positive in the moment. Quick and direct is best: I like you doing this, That’s nice, Let’s do this again, Thank you, This is right.
She describes the 3-step process of learning new behaviors— imitating, identifying and then internalizing. This practice helps with the internalizing.
In the analysis, Esther and Rich do a deep dive into the topic of couples and sexual trauma. Perel talks about seeing that part of the difficulty for the partner who’d experienced sexual trauma was that whatever “feels good” has been contaminated by the sexual abuse. She does not move any further into that area, but keeps her focus narrow and goes instead for a new embodied experience. She works on a piece of recovery for the partner who’s been traumatized and by doing that in the presence of the other partner she also works on the erotic re-connection of both.
The goal of working on sexual trauma, says Perel, is not only to deal with pain but also to validating sexual pleasure. That is the erotic recovery. If you cannot experience sexual pleasure, then the integration of safety and eroticism in not yet complete.
Articulate 5 of the 7 Basic Verbs of Relationship and explain how to use them to help clients talk about sexuality and relationships.
Articulate two strategies partners can use to reinforce each other’s positive behavior changes and I can explain why they’re effective.
Psychologists, Counselors, Social Workers, Case Managers, Addiction Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Nurses, and other Mental Health ProfessionalsCopyright : 07/29/2014
Addiction Counselors, Counselors, Marriage and Family Therapists, Nurses, Psychologists, Social Workers
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