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Transformative Systemic Change in the Couple Therapy Experience

Pond at Satir Institute

I just returned from a 10-day intensive residential training program at the Satir Institute of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. It was a fantastic experience and one that I will forever remember and integrate into my couple’s therapy practice. I traveled to the Satir Institute to become a better therapist and I left a better person from the experience.

While I was there I read a phrase that was at the bottom of a banner posted at the institute, “Peace within, peace between, peace among”. This is a good phrase when considering systemic change through the course of therapy and it’s one of my take-aways from my time at the Institute.

So, what does the phrase mean to this therapist? It means that the therapist will need to help the couple create change within three systems. First, the therapist needs to help the couple change at the intrapsychic level, the “peace within”. This is done by helping each partner experience the “self” at an increasingly deeper level. When someone can truly connect with the “self”, they are able to be more authentic with their partner and relate to him or her more intimately.

There are six levels of experience within the self, (Satir, et al, 1991) which is a useful way for the therapist to engage the inner process work with the couple. As each partner engages on the levels of experience, they get closer to the core of self. These levels of experience are 1) feelings, 2) feelings about feelings, 3) perceptions, 4) expectations, 5) yearnings and at the deepest level, the 6) self.

Second, change must occur at the interpersonal level, the “peace between”. Using the insights of the self, couples can examine and change their problematic coping responses between one another. Couples entering therapy will often define the problem as difficulty in communication. Though it may be helpful for the therapist to offer communication strategies for early sessions, it does little to improve the relationship long term. If the therapist relies only on this, they are doing little to help the future relationship of the couple because the “problem is not the problem”. The underlying dynamics in the relationship need to be treated to create lasting change for the couple.

The third system is the family of origin, part of the “peace among”. We all bring beliefs, values, fears and hurts from our family of origin into our intimate relationships as adults. The therapist can help the couple understand the automatic responses from the past that are not useful in the current relationship, and the resources that were needed from difficult experiences, so that the understanding can create new opportunities to create a more intimate relationship between the partners.

Spending time at the Satir Institute confirmed for me what I believe to be a core element of therapy. Good therapy needs to be a place of compassion, initiated and directed by the therapist and joined by the couple. When compassion is present, the couple can have a new relational experience with oneself, with their partner and their family. Peace within, peace between, peace among.

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