The Monkeyship Theory

(Bert speaking:)

Came across this old post recently, which Steve and I wrote together more than a year ago.  I was surprised how true it remains for me/us today.  So I’m running it again, with some tweaks.

* * *

Lately Steve’s seeing more and more couples.

Not sure why.  He never trained as a couples therapist, and he 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, couples work 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 hide;

~ which of their motives they’re aware of, and which are unconscious; 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 for you to control, you mean.

Yes.  Forget about controlling it in the room.  I couldn’t control it inside my own head.  Couldn’t organize it mentally.

I also hated the tension.  Many couples were so frustrated or angry at each other that sessions with them felt like watching someone juggle live hand grenades.  I kept waiting for some KABOOM that would blow the office into matchsticks.

So 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 and over.

I remember.

But you didn’t listen.

Well, we do have to make a living.

Yeah.  I didn’t care.  My priority was anxiety management.

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

Both happened after he created his Monkeyships Theory.

Steve, define monkeyship.

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

And the theory.

That nearly all relationship problems are monkeyship problems, since eventually all relationships turn, well, monkeyish.

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

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

Yes.  Noticing how people are trying to control each other does clarify how they got into trouble in the first place.

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

Steve, explain that.

Well, I realized my job wasn’t so much to fix or change anything as to help the partners 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 do you know about control?) 

And then get them to practice.

And this really works.

Better with some couples than others, frankly.  Its success depends mainly on how willing they are to stop playing blame tennis and look hard at themselves. 

And when they do, what do they see?

That control is the secret motive behind most of their behavior.  That they’ve been trying to transform their partner into the partner they want, instead of accepting the one they have.  

“Don’t be who you are.  Be who I need you to be.”

Yes.  That’s the theme song of any monkeyship.         

For partners who can move past that theme song, surrendering control offers a path out of monkeyship and towards mutuality.

Which is?

What relationship is meant to be: a place where both partners can be themselves with each other, and where they come to see that what’s good for their partner is — surprise — also good for them.

* * *

For more on control and relationships, check out The split-level relationship and Monkeytraps and how to spot them.


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