Image Design by Claudia Palmira used w/permission
Source: Image Design by Claudia Palmira used w/permission

This guest post is written by Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT. She is an experienced practitioner of Psychodrama, a creative and, in many respects, visionary technique for conducting individual, group and couples therapy. She writes:

Psychodrama is a therapeutic method created almost 100 years ago by an innovative Eastern European psychiatrist named Jacob Moreno.  This experiential treatment, often used in group settings, creates breakthroughs for couples as well.

As Moreno was developing psychodrama, he wrote a poem called Invitation to An Encounter.  In it, he described “a meeting of two” where each person reverses perspective with his/her partner to gain empathy. He wrote, “Then I will look at you with your eyes/and you will look at me with mine.”

One of the biggest challenges that couples have in therapy is breaking out of dysfunctional patterns.  Our brains are wired in ways that resist change. There is evidence that experiential therapies—such as psychodrama—create new neural pathways, the cornerstone of changed behavior.  Here are a few psychodrama techniques that can facilitate change in couples work:

Role Reversal — this is the most vital technique in psychodrama.  In order to “look at you with your eyes,” partners will be directed to switch seats in a couples session and play the role of the other. This is done to help partners gain understanding of each other and increase empathy.  It is particularly useful when a couple is stuck in a negative pattern. For example, if one person is in the role of the pursuer while the other often is the rejector, switching roles helps each understand how his/her behavior negatively affects the other. Reversing roles shifts perspective and helps free us from entrenched patterns.

The Double — the double is a technique that helps people connect more deeply with their emotions. When used in couples therapy, the therapist (also known as the director) stands behind one partner and in the first person, says what s/he suspects the inner feelings of that partner are. For example, in a session a wife may complain about her husband’s long work day. The therapist might double for her and say, “I’m angry that you have the freedom to escape to work while I sometimes feel trapped at home with our kids.” The wife then would have the opportunity to repeat the statement to her partner, if it resonates with her, or correct it if it felt inaccurate.  An advanced form of doubling is when one partner doubles for the other, helping to identify the other’s emotions. The receiving partner gains the experience of being understood and feeling heard.

The Encounter — the couple sits facing one another and talks through a conflict.  The therapist/director utilizes the doubling technique equally with each of the participants.  Role reversal is also employed. As a result of this experience, both partners feel understood and gain realization that most conflicts are not black and white. The technique is a trust builder; it reduces the belief, if it exists, that one’s partner is an adversary.

The Empty Chair — an empty chair is placed in between the couple. This chair represents anyone else who may be unconsciously present in the couples’ relationship.  In intimate relationships, we often react to each other based on our historical relationships.  For example, if the therapist intuits that a husband is reacting to his wife with intense anger that is displaced from his relationship with his mother, the therapist may ask him to pretend his mother is sitting in the empty chair. The husband then would have an opportunity to say whatever he could not have said to his mother as a child. The ‘empty chair’ technique helps partners gain awareness of how unresolved emotions from another relationship negatively affect their current romantic relationship. Directing repressed emotions to the appropriate historical relationship eases the burden in the current romantic relationship. Witnessing this exercise also helps the wife gain empathy for her husband’s relational challenges.

In the end, we are all looking to be heard and understood and do the same for our partners.  These psychodrama techniques all help partners achieve goals of increased empathy, better communication, and shifting of negative patterns.

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Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT (www.valeriesimon.net) is a psychotherapist and certified practitioner and trainer of psychodrama. In her private practice in Manhattan, called The Inner Stage, she sees individuals, couples, and families.  She also runs experiential intensives, therapy groups, workshops, and training groups. She leads an annual four-day psychodrama retreat in Tuscany, Italy.  This year’s retreat, entitled Actualizing the Authentic Self, is scheduled for October 5-8, 2017 (www.restart-retreats.com). On November 7, 2017, Valerie will be guest presenter at FACTS, on Psychodrama and Couples Work

©2017 Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT

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