Background for Couples Therapy: An Investigation of Theoretical Underpinnings

 

To help readers understand the theoretical paper, we offer a brief summary of the couple’s history and current situation:

BACKGROUND

Joe and Amy met in college. He was drawn to Amy’s smile, her admiration of his artistic talent, and her attentiveness to his concerns. Amy was drawn to Joe’s stability, his relaxed manner, and his dependability. Amy pressured Joe to marry right after graduation from college. At age 23, Amy started graduate school and Joe, age 25, began to work as a photographer. Four years later, the couple had their first baby girl, followed a few years later by their second.

Amy’s mother was intrusive, very anxious, and an alcoholic. The oldest of three girls, a parentified Amy took care of her younger sisters. She describes feeling lonely and scared by her out-of-control mother, and unable to rely on her constantly travelling father.

Joe’s mother was critical and his father was passive. While there was little conflict in the family’s relationships, there was tremendous distance. No one discussed feelings, and Joe learned to withdraw and shut down in the face of criticism.

The vignettes introduce us to the couple at ages 37 and 39. Amy presents as anxious, controlling, vigilant and overfunctioning. Amy carries herself as being competent and in control, and relates in an intense and anxious manner. She is a middle school teacher at a magnet school. She has very high standards for herself as a teacher and a mom. Amy does too much, resents it, and is exhausted.

Joe, 39, appears to be a nice guy, calm, coherent and logical, with an easygoing manner. He is working as a photographer and has a flexible schedule. He is creative, and can spend many hours in front of the computer crafting his images, but he is not focused on details – he is not a good bookkeeper and has trouble juggling multiple roles.

Joe’s work requires week-long travel four times a year. It was during one such work week that he began an affair with a colleague, Jennifer, also on assignment. Jennifer was single, younger, and idealized Joe. He found this relationship to be enlivening and affirming, and they had a powerful sexual chemistry that had dwindled in his relationship with Amy. At home, Joe left his cell phone out one day, and Amy noticed a text message that popped up. Glancing at the phone, she saw that it was a sexual message from Jennifer, checking on the plans with Joe for their upcoming travel week.

SESSION SEGMENTS

As the vignette begins, Amy appears anxious, flooded, and angry. She is berating and shaming Joe – clearly not for the first time – for his affair and generally irresponsible behavior. Joe, slouching in his chair and looking away from the therapist and Amy, defensively intellectualizes the conflict between them, the affair, and his desire to leave Amy. Joe is unaware of his own feelings and has trouble expressing himself. He has tried hard to please Amy but feels inadequate and incompetent with her. The two vignettes show the couple at the beginning of the treatment and then at a session during the midphase.

Using this couple’s background and vignette’s, Barbara Shapard’s paper discusses some theoretical underpinnings of the work on understanding and repairing this very deep trauma to the couple.

Click here to return to the working paper…