Couples Counseling: A 3-Ring Circus

06/17/2010 08:23 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I work with couples, I feel like I am under the Big Top. There may not be elephants, clowns or trapeze artists (not literally, anyway) but there are definitely three rings. The work is exciting and keeps me on my toes. As counselor/ringmaster I have to be aware of what is happening in all three rings at all times.

The ring on my right features one person and the ring on the left, the other. The ring in the middle is where the mystery unfolds, for it belongs to both people. In the beginning the center ring is often either utterly deserted or bloody with the carnage of past gladiatorial battles that may erupt again any moment.

As ringmaster, I have (figuratively only!) a whistle, a spotlight and a bullhorn. I use the whistle to halt attacks. Attacks are not the same as discussion (even heated discussion) which can lead to negotiation and resolution. My first task is to ensure safety, so that the couple can find the courage to risk revelation and connection. The spotlight brings focus to one person or the other or to a particular issue or dynamic. The metaphorical bullhorn is not to make my voice heard but to help adjust volume. Often one person is speaking more softly, literally and figuratively, and needs to be amplified. Another person may be having difficulty hearing the other, because his or her own volume needs to be lowered a bit.

In the first session or two, I am often turning the spotlight back and forth to the two outer rings so that I can hear each person's story fully, without interruption. Although it seems like not much is happening in the center ring, slowly, in the half light, another as yet unspoken story is gestating. Even when the spotlight is on one person, I have to be intensely aware of the other. If all goes well, the one who is out of the spotlight joins me as a listener, begins to become a witness, not just someone waiting his or her turn. One man recently remarked, "I have heard her say most of these things before, but when a third person is present, I hear differently."

At first, each person tends to direct what they're saying to me. By the second or third session, my most oft repeated phrase is, "Talk to each other now." And yes it is thrilling to watch initial reluctance (each one keeping one eye on me) shift to full engagement. Then the spotlights converge on the center ring, and I sit in back in the shadows, watching and listening until I am needed. Sometimes something will come up from one or another person's past, and the spotlight is theirs again, often with help and encouragement from the other person.

By the third or fourth session, the couple is spending considerable time in the center ring, albeit sometimes circling each other warily. But now curiosity is beginning to come into play: curiosity about this other person who is surprising you at every turn, because the truth he or she is daring to tell does not match the assumptions you've always made; curiosity about yourself, questioning why you react the way you do instead of blindly defending your reaction; and curiosity about how things work or don't work, how life could be less painful and more delightful. Now the clowns can come in to lighten things up, now the laughter begins as the couple looks at their own and each other's absurdities with amusement and amazement instead of shame and rage.

When a couple heals their relationship, each person's own old wounds begin to heal, too. Then anything can happen in that center ring with enough practice. The couple can become trapeze artists and fly through the air with the greatest of ease trusting that their partner, and/or the strong net they woven together, will catch them.

Then the ringmaster applauds, tips her hat, and leaves the tent.

Elizabeth Cunningham has been in private practice as a counselor for 12 years. She has been married for 30 years.