We therapists seem to be rather fond of metaphors. I’m not sure what that’s all about. Nevertheless, a fairly popular one for marriage/relationships is that of a dance. We call it the “Marriage Dance”. So just what are we getting at with this “dance” analogy anyway? It turns out that aside from the natural appeals to an eloquent romantic image and teamwork, we’re trying to bring a systemic perspective to the counseling. As therapists trained in marriage and family therapy, we are “systemic” in orientation. As the Minnesota Association for Marriage and Family Therapy puts it:
MFTs broaden the traditional emphasis on the individual and attend to the nature and role of individuals in their primary relationship networks. This unique training and focus differentiate MFTs from other mental health professionals.
Here’s what I usually tell clients. I am systemic. This means that when I look at the two of you, I’m not going to assign blame to one of you as “the problem”. As in, “oh he/she’s the problem. They’re too sensitive, or not sensitive enough. We need to fix him/her”. Nope – instead there’s a focus on the context, the relationship, the push/pull, give and take. It’s the marriage dance , we don’t need to fix the dancers (or find a new ‘dance partner’), we just change the steps. We change how he steps here, and automatically this changes how she steps there.
I not only operate from this perspective, but find it gives a number of benefits. For starters, it avoids pathologizing anyone as “the problem”. This approach levels the playing field of what would otherwise be an inherent power differential operating to induce change in the one down “problem partner” at least partially by coercion or manipulation. Nobody likes to be the problem, and no one likes to change because they have to. Systemically, we can avoid the trap of this whole setup, by simply acknowledging that spouses are not opponents (really!), but both contributing to the dance and working together to maintain it or change it.
Another advantage to the systemic perspective is that is shifts us from a victim stance to a more independent empowered posture. Suddenly, we are no longer helpless to the aggravating whims of our partner deciding to behave or not. Instead of being captured by circumstance, we get to take the initiative, and as in a dance – our partner can not help but do something different in response to our change. We truly do have the power!
These very real (and true incidentally) advantages can be quite liberating.