Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Three Ring Circus: The Thrill of Couples Counseling

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 s/he 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. 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 twelve years. She has been married for thirty years.


  1. Maeve speaking: We didn't have couples counseling in the first century, and Jesus and I had such a short time together, all things considered. But we made the most of that time, and had some rip-snorting fights. Imagine throwing figs at your partner in the Temple porticoes. (This after he blasted said fig tree, and I restored it!) If you want to know more about our brief, intense marriage, it's all in The Passion of Mary Magdalen.

  2. What great imagery. I've been under the big top, although I think it takes a talented counselor to bring those concerned to the center ring--not sure my ex and I ever got to that point.

    I can see how this applies to every relationship that experiences conflict. Very interesting to be in a situation right now which feels like a circus and could use a good ringmaster--at the least the applause of one.

    Thank you!

  3. Love the metaphor, love this blog. Hats off to the ringmaster!

  4. Having had two series of couple counseling--the first woefully unsuccessful, the second very successful--I"d say from experience that this metaphor really does work, and

    Couples counseling in the hands of a skilled counselor, which is the way this reads, is an investment that any couple should consider, unless they are already blissfully happy together.

    Couples counseling can also be hard work, but if the relationship is worth saving (my first was not), it is effort well-spent.

  5. This is a beautiful metaphor for what you do and what you are a witness to. I may never view human interaction the same way again.

  6. I love metaphors for couples counseling. And this Three Ring Circus is a grand one, Elizabeth. Bless you for what you do.

    A few years ago when Mr Mouse and I were having couples counseling, the therapist explained that many of her male clients are farmers and work with animals regularly. We're in a rural area. Many of the men, though skilled with horses and cattle, are not so great dealing with human females. The divorce rate is high, as is the suicide rate among men. One of her male clients had an epiphany in which he exclaimed, "Oh, I get it! My first wife was a farm horse and my current wife is a thoroughbred racehorse!" Mr Mouse and I just looked at each other knowingly ;^) We don't need that metaphor anymore and he can see me as something other than an unfamiliar breed. But it was an enormous turning point for us. Good counselors are worth their weight in gold.

  7. Elizabeth, I needed to read things, all things considered in my life right now. If we lived closer...

    Thank you,