(THE BOOK) Chapter 27: Monkeyships

I’m a couples therapist who used to be scared of couples.

There’s just so much going on in a couples session, so many levels and variables to be aware of.   I was constantly asking myself questions like

~ What are these people actually saying?  What are they holding back?

~ Which feelings can they express to each other?  Which ones do they hide?

~ Which of their motives are conscious, and which are unconscious?

~ Are they reacting to their current situation, or experiencing old feelings from past experiences or unhealed wounds?

It was a lot of work.  

And it made Bert anxious as hell.  

Then things changed for me.

I began studying control, and developed what I call the Monkeyship Theory.

The theory has three tenets:

(1) A monkeyship is any relationship that turns dysfunctional because the partners are trying to control each other.

(2) All relationships get monkeyish from time to time.

(3) Most relationship problems are really control struggles in disguise.

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 sessions, sort of like an Etch-a-Sketch magnet rearranges iron filings.  Identifying underlying control issues (You’re rude to my mother./You won’t share control of our money./Hold on, she’s my daughter too) clarified how the couple got into trouble in the first place.

Second, it gave me a way to help them get out of trouble.

I realized my job wasn’t so much to fix them or change anything as to help the partners notice what they were already doing – what they tried to control and how they went about it.

I did this mainly by pointing out what I was seeing and hearing.

Mary, you just interrupted John again.  Were you aware of that?  Does it happen a lot?

John, you look hurt.  What’s coming up for you right now?

When you apologize I get the sense that sorry is not how you really feel.  Am I right?  

For many couples just noticing their patterns and hidden messages helps to defuse tension and redefine conflicts.  Once they see what they’re doing, they have a choice of whether to keep doing it or not.  This alone can feel empowering.

After they learn to spot their own patterns, the next step is to teach them alternatives to control.

There are three, I tell them:

~ Surrender, which is the ability to stop trying to control what you can’t control anyway,

~ Responsibility, which is the ability to shift your attention from externals (people, places, things) to internals (your own thoughts, feelings, behavior) and to base your choices on what you feel and need.

~ Intimacy, or the ability to be fully yourself with another person and permit them to do the same with you.

Once they understand the alternatives, the job is to get them to practice.

This approach 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.

Those with the courage to do so usually discover that they’ve been trying to change their partner into the partner they want, instead of accepting the partner they have.

And that, without realizing it, they’ve been dancing to the toxic theme song of all monkeyships:

Don’t be who you are.  

Be who I need you to be.



5 responses to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 27: Monkeyships

  • Al

    With hindsight I can see how I had expectations of my first partner based on my unmet needs. I wanted someone to make up for a missing Dad. Yet I wasn’t aware of this, in fact I prided myself on how tolerant I was…in truth I kind of had a hidden set of criteria against which I measured my partner. Of course I’d keep myself hidden, my real feelings, after all, telepathy was another quality I expected him to have..!
    While I didn’t argue, I’d fester inside blaming him…
    It does boil down to concern testing on being/looking after yourself, and let go of expectations if others to have any chance of a healthy relationship I’ve learnt…
    Thanks for very clear post.
    Al 😀

  • longing for stars

    Steve, what if you try to surrender, really make the decision to do so and it even starts working but the other person reacts to what you had been doing before, imposes such strict conditions on the relationship that you feel that you have no breathing space left. You actually feel like you have been totally erased and abandonned. You wanted to surrender, you were trying to, and it was even yielding results. Maybe the other person did not see the change…? And now, it seems like they want you to surrender again, but you feel like you can not. It feels too dangerous and like self-betrayal.
    BTW, this might have happened in my therapy… I am not sure about it, but it is a possibility.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Without more details I can’t be sure what sort of relationship you’re describing (either the personal one or the therapeutic).

      But it’s obviously true that some people are not to be trusted, that they’re both able and willing to exploit a relationship, to satisfy themselves even at the expense of their partner, and not healthy enough to response to healthy surrender by reciprocating. Narcissists, for example, or abusers of all stripes, or people who are just immature emotionally.

      I wouldn’t recommend risking surrender or openness or vulnerability with such people. It’d be the emotional equivalent of taking a knife to a gunfight.

  • longing for stars

    Thank you Steve. I really appreciate the reply. Yes, it was the therapy relationship. The feelings of not being able to breath, being erased and abandoned were mine. They could have occurred because of past trauma and abandonment (in a sort of transference), but to me it felt like reliving the whole thing. There was no space left to discuss all this with her, so I am working with a consultant therapist to try to understand it. But it is complicated to sift through the layers of my history and the therapy.

    I know that I had had a hard time trusting her earlier and then I got to a point where I had decided to “surrender”. That came after a big rupture with her. But a few months after that, therapy changed completely, which lead to the feelings I have described above. During those intermediate months, after the surrender and before the changes, I really felt the positive effects of the surrender. I felt more open, more warmth in my relationships, more interest in people and definitely more hopeful.

    I am still trying to find out what happened. But one theory I had was that all this happened because of my earlier mistrust and the issues that lead to the rupture because I am sure that nothing big happened when the changes were made. Maybe I surrendered too late… But no matter what, I have gotten so hurt that I now do not feel like surrendering again.

    Generally speaking though, I guess a good question would be how is it that one knows who is a good person to surrender to and who is not?

    • Steve Hauptman

      Maybe this is a language problem, but I’m not sure what we’re talking about here.

      I don’t think in terms of surrendering to a person. I may surrender to events, or outcomes, or situations beyond my control.

      With other people I’m more likely to work on detaching — i.e., not trying to control what they do, feel or think. For example, I’ll try to detach from the opinion of a judgmental person, or the behavior of a gossip, or the defensive reaction of someone with whom I share my feelings.

      I think of detachment, acceptance and trust as forms of surrender, ways of trying not to control what I can’t control anyway. But the phrase “a good person to surrender to” sort of creeps me out.

      If what you’re really asking is “How do I decide who to trust?”, my answer is: Ask your stomach. Listen to your radar. Trust your gut.

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