(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

Bert speaking:)

Steve’s seeing more and more couples lately.

Not sure why, since he never trained as a couples therapist and doesn’t advertise himself as one.  But couples apparently like his approach, because they keep sending him new couples to work with.

Which at one time would have pissed me off.

Because I hated couples work. 

It scared me.

It scared me for two reasons.  First, there was too damned much going on in the room. 

Steve, explain.

Well, work with couples means paying attention to many levels and variables at once.  Like

~ what the partners say, and what they don’t say;

~ which feelings they express, and which they feel they must hide;

~ which of their goals and motives are conscious, and which remain out of awareness; and

~ what’s happening between them here and now, as opposed to  whatever past experiences (often buried, usually painful) are getting triggered.

Right.  All that felt overwhelming.  It was just too much. 

Too much to control, you mean.

Yes.  Couldn’t control it mentally.  Couldn’t organize it in my head.

And then I hated the tension.  Many couples were so angry at each other that sessions with them felt like watching someone juggle live hand grenades.  I kept waiting for some emotional KABOOM to blow the whole office into matchsticks.

You couldn’t control the emotional situation either.

Right.  I couldn’t control either their feelings or my own feelings about not being able to control how they felt.

All of which explains why, for years, whenever someone called Steve to request couples counseling I’d immediately climb up onto his shoulder and whisper Just say no over and over.

He didn’t listen, though.

Well, we had to make a living.

I know.  Didn’t care about that.  My priority was not feeling scared. 

But I’m glad he didn’t listen.   Because over time he learned something important about how to help couples.  And I even started to feel safe. 

Both these things happened after he came up with his Monkeyships Theory.

Steve explain what a monkeyship is.

It’s any relationship that becomes dysfunctional because both partners are struggling for control.

And the theory?

Simply that most (maybe all) relationship problems are monkeyship problems, since at one time or another all relationships turn, well, monkeyish.

This theory helped me feel safer with couples work in two ways. 

First, focusing on the idea of control helped me to observe and organize what was happening in each session, like a magnet rearranges iron filings.  

Yes.  Noticing how people try to control each other really clarifies how they get into trouble in the first place. 

More importantly, it gave Steve a way to help them get out of trouble.

 I realized my job wasn’t so much to fix or change any couple’s interaction as to help them notice how they were trying to get control.  I did this by pointing out what I was seeing and hearing.

Once they could spot their own patterns, the next step was to teach them the three alternatives to control — surrender, responsibility and intimacy (see the end of “What you damned well better know about control”).   And then get them to practice.

This sort of therapy is no quick fix, and it works better with some couples than others.  Its success depends mainly on how willing they are to stop playing blame tennis and look hard at themselves. 

For those who can do that, the alternatives offer a path out of monkeyship and towards what relationship is meant to be: a place where both partners can be themselves with each other, and where both come to see that what’s good for their partner is — surprise — also good for them. 

(To be continued.  This is the first in a series of posts on control and relationships.)


Want more?

“Did you know that of the over one million marriages that will end in divorce this year, two thirds to three quarters of those divorces will be filed for by women?

“What is this so-called, ‘Walk-away Wife’ syndrome all about?”

Click here to read “The Walk-Away Wife Syndrome” by Michelle Weiner-Davis, taken from her Divorce Busting website.  

Describes a pattern I’ve seen again and again.  Essential reading, especially for husbands in unhappy marriages.

12 responses to “Monkeyships

  • Khursheed

    Great.. the image of 2 monkeys, 1 removing lice or whatever it is, from the other’s head comes to mind.. an act of love as i saw it 🙂 Wonder if we can bring that image into couples tx.

    As for “What is this so-called, ‘Walk-away Wife’ syndrome all about?” – probably d fact that she doesnt NEED to depend on the male( at various levels, financial, physical, but more importantly, emotional) as much as in earlier times. At least thats what i feel n have seen in the couples’ cases ive worked with. 🙂

    • fritzfreud

      Re: lice: I see the goal of couples therapy as creating faith in mutuality, the belief that “What’s good for you is good for me, and vice versa.” So sure, on a practical level this could play out as “I remove your lice, you remove mine.” 🙂

      Re: the walk-away syndrome: I see it as the codependent wife’s version of hitting bottom. She finally realizes her Plan A isn’t working and will never work, that selflessly giving and giving doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll eventually get back what she needs. (Some husbands are perfectly happy to live on that one-way street. Other husbands don’t even realize that’s where they live.) The wife’s left no choice but to suffer silently, nag endlessly, self-medicate, or walk away. Often that last choice is the only healthy one available
      I’ll be writing more about all this in an upcoming post titled “The Split-Level Relationship.”

  • john

    Great post Steve, It really gives me stuff to think about and work with,

  • billcontiphd

    I really can relate to Bert’s dilemma around couples’ work. I find myself caught up in the couples’ control game and take upon myself the expectation that I should be containing/CONTROLLING this potentially volatile/dangerous situation, feeling how one of their children must feel as this couple fights. I stopped accepting couples as a result.

    • fritzfreud

      I sympathize. I came from a failry dysfunctional family myself, so my own countertransference was pretty deadly for a while.

  • antiSWer

    Your blog has been a revelation for me. I’ve been reading Cheri Huber lately, who talks a lot about acceptance and your blog has really helped spell it out for me. It’s work that I need to do, as well as ideas I would benefit from bringing into my own work.

    I need to make peace with my monkey…

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks. Don’t know Cheri Huber’s work, but I’ll look for it.

      As for needing to make peace with your monkey (and I seem to be saying this a lot lately), you and me both.

  • Monkeyships, part 2: The more you try to control somebody… « Monkeytraps

    […] you could use the catchy term explained here last time: monkeyships, relationships bent out of shape by control […]

  • Monkeyships, part 5: Scratch a codependent « Monkeytraps

    […] is the last of a five-part series.  The first four were about how control warps relationships [Monkeyships], the Second Paradox of Control [The more you try to control somebody], how control blocks healthy […]

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    […] you could use the catchy term explained here last time: monkeyships, relationships bent out of shape by control […]

  • Monkeyships (2): Addiction for two | Monkey House

    […] you could use the catchy term explained here last time: monkeyships, relationships bent out of shape by control […]

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