Couple’s Therapy and the Other People in the Room

by Scott Friedman, Psy. D.

There is an old joke about a clergy person who is talking with a couple about their relationship problems. First he listens to the male who tells him it’s all the woman’s fault and that she does not understand him. The clergy person responds: “you’re right”. Next he listens to the woman who tells him it’s all the man’s fault and that he does not understand her. The clergy person responds: “you’re right”. Next a person who has been watching this situation approaches the clergy person and says: “First you said the male was right, and then you said the female was right. They can’t both be right”. The clergy person thinks for a minute and says: “you’re right”.

They all are right—from their own perspective or point of view. How does that happen? We will get back to this.

When a couple (regardless of sexual orientation) comes to therapy, they tell me their problems and most often say they need “help with communication skills”. While that often is the case, I first begin by educating the couple about “the other people in the room”. We all see each other both realistically and through the lens of our significant past relationships—“the other people in the room”. For example, a man grows up with a father who tended to be controlling and intrusive. He goes on a business trip and one evening; he and his partner are talking by cell phone. His partner asks about his day and who he is going out to have dinner with. This reflexively triggers anger in the man who sees his partner, not as being friendly, or interested in how things are going, but as controlling, intrusive, and perhaps mistrustful. He emotionally experienced his wife’s question as having the same intent as his father—to be intrusive, nosey, controlling---his father was “the other person in the room” that impacted the conversation and how his wife was experienced and heard by her husband. In psychology we call that “transference” or unconsciously, reflexively, without awareness transferring on to another person traits, characteristics and motivations that really were those of someone else—in this case his fathers’. Social psychologists call this “attribution error” as we attribute or put onto another person motivations and traits that we are convinced they have but we are in error.

This is not to say that he and his wife never are critical of one another. What it highlights is how we are absolutely convinced sometimes that the other person is acting in a certain way based on “the other person in the room” and not them. This gets us back to the couple, the bystander and the clergy person—they all are “right” based on their perceptions of events, their childhood experiences, and their transferring the ways others treated them onto people in their current life.

Couple’s therapy then is not only about communication, conflict management, but recognizing how these transferences impact expectations and how the couple see and relate to one another. A related issue I would add that is critical in couple’s therapy is uncovering and dealing with the spoken, unspoken and unrecognized expectation the partners have of one another. Some of these are based on their parent role models: The man should be this way; the woman should be this way. Couple’s therapy is about increasing understanding of oneself, your partner and the process that goes on between both of you.