HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Susan GanttPh.D., ABPP, CGP, FAGPA, FAPA is the Director of the Systems-Centered Training and Research Institute. She is a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta and works for Emory University School of Medicine where she coordinates group psychotherapy training. She trains, supervises and consults in the practice of SCT in the USA and Europe
  • Yvonne AgazarianEd.D., CGP, DFGAPA, FAPA, developed the Theory of Living Human Systems; she founded the Systems-centered Training and Research Institute and works as a therapist, consultant and trainer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she teaches, trains, and supervises Systems-Centered therapists internationally
  • phases of system development
  • subsystems within the marriage
  • driving and restraining forces
  • rules of the system
  • Systems-Centered Training with Couples


This paper is a brief introduction of the systems-centered perspective on couples therapy. It has also introduced the sequence of systems-centered interventions that are designed to build the system which enables the couple to meet their goals. These interventions are sequenced within the different phases of system development. The first step in systems-centered couples therapy is to create a positive climate by requiring the couple to recall the pleasure relationship that preceded their current displeasure. Once this has been successfully established, the system of the marriage and the subsystems within the marriage are introduced as the context in which therapy will take place. Observing that the four sub-systems (business, parenting, intimacy and interpersonal relationships) allow the couple to recognize that they have different goals and require different roles. This enables the couple to recognize that sometimes what appears to be serious incompatibility is actually simply coming together in incompatible roles. Helping them to build a force field that demonstrates their driving and restraining forces towards successful role interactions not only introduces methods for repair when they approach each other from incompatible roles, but also introduces the system fact that roles are not people, they are systems that in themselves are either driving or restraining forces depending on the context. Re-conceptualizing marriage as a system also introduces the idea that although the couple develops the norms of the system, once the norms are developed, the norms themselves are the major determinates of the couples behavior and experience. In a sense, the couple are like puppets on the strings of the system they have built together. Understanding this dynamic helps the couples not to take personally their own or others behavior when they mean to do one thing and find they are doing another. Reducing personalizing also reduces the allocation of blame to the other or to themselves. Conceptualizing marriage as a system, with each member of the couple a subsystem in it, enables the systems-centered therapist to build a structure that the couple can use to change both the marriage system and themselves by acquiring the skills that enable them to reverse the roles that are restraining forces to a satisfactory marriage and releasing the drive towards their interpersonal pleasure.

**Key-words: ** Systems-Centered Training with Couples, phases of system development, subsystems within the marriage, driving and restraining forces, rules of the system.


Couples come to therapy because their relationship is not what they had thought it would be when they first got married.  Instead of the good feelings they had at the beginning, full of hope that life would be better with their partner than it was without, the couple finds themselves preoccupied with blaming and complaining thoughts.  They come to therapy, hoping for change. All too often, however, they are focused on their partner changing. They do not yet know that their problem is that they are taking the frustrations in their marriage just personally.

The system-centered (SCT) approach assumes that most human anguish arises by taking life just personally so that people then become self-centered and lose awareness of the larger picture.  When one shifts from being self-centered to systems-centered, one’s responses to frustrations, difficulties and tragedies, as well as to satisfactions, achievements and triumphs, are not just personal, but also human and shared.

To manage the human tendency to take things just personally, the SCT therapist intervenes at the very beginning of the session by introducing the idea of marriage as a system.  The therapist explains that the work of SCT therapy will be with the system of their marriage that they have unwittingly co-operated with each other to create. The therapist also explains that once a marriage system is established, it has more influence on the experience and behavior of the people in it than they themselves do. This re-orientation introduces the idea that rather than trying to change each other, they will need to work together to change the marriage system that governs them both.

Introducing the SCT model right from the beginning immediately shifts away from the familiar recitation of difficulties, where each spouse or partner blames the other or themselves.  Establishing this goal of re-building the system begins the process of moving from self-centered (where we are pulled to repetitions from our past and there is often contention for who is right or wrong) to systems-centered where the focus is building the kind of system in which one wants to live.

The first step in SCT therapy will be to find out which areas of their marriage work best. SCT identifies the four sub-systems of parenting, business, interpersonal, sexual intimacy. The couple identifies the sub-system in which they work best together, and then work together to learn more about how they make it work. It may take the whole session for the couple to cooperate with a systems-centered focus, or it may take only a few minutes.

Introducing this framework to married couples both interrupts the tendency to replicate negative interactions and instead establishes a positive working climate.

The theory behind the practice

The systems-centered methods were developed by applying the theory of living human systems and implementing its assumptions about how living human systems develop and change (Agazarian, 1992, 1997; Agazarian and Gantt, 2000).   A key concept in the theory is that the discrimination and integration of differences is a necessary and sufficient condition for the survival, development and transformation of all living humans systems.

Recognizing and integrating differences is not always easy - we are always more comfortable recognizing and integrating similarities.  Developing the marital system necessitates integrating the differences between partners so differences can be used as resources for the marriage rather than becoming bones of contention. Learning to recognize these differences simply as differences reduces the tendency we all have to take differences personally.  The primary method SCT introduces that potentiates managing differences differently is the method of functional subgrouping where the work is to join on a similarity before adding tolerable differences (Agazarian, 1997).  This is applied in couples therapy by teaching the couple to reflect or join their partner’s contribution before adding their own contribution that builds on their partner. The couple also learns to ask if there is room for a difference rather than just changing the subject.

As an integrative theory, SCT draws from many other theories, the key ones of which are noted below.

Howard and Scott

Howard and Scott (1965) in their theory of stress assume that all human stress can be understood as the result of behaviors that block the way to reaching goals. As we will address later, stress occurs when the problems in the marriage system itself, block meeting the goals of the four marriage sub-systems that SCT identifies:parenting, business, intimacy and interpersonal..


Lewin (1951) also addressed the blocks (he called them barriers) that get in the way of goal-oriented drives. He postulated a balance of driving and restraining forces that maintained the equilibrium. He also demonstrated that if restraining forces are reduced, the drive towards the goal is automatically released. Most important, SCT interventions are oriented to reducing restraining forces, building on Lewin’s finding that it is easier to move towards the goal by reducing the restraining forces than it is by increasing the driving forces. Systems-centered couples therapy focuses on weakening the restraining forces that get in the way of the drive towards the inherent goals in all living human systems: survival, development and transformation.

SCT couples work immediately starts to weaken common restraining forces such as the tendency toward explaining problems rather than exploring them, an emphasis on pathology and blaming,, negative frames, a bad climate and emphasis on individual problems and personalizing the system that they created together. SCT also assumes that a major restraining force to reaching system goals is the blocks in communication (savi reference).

Shannon and Weaver

Shannon and Weaver (xxxx) defined communication in terms of channels that contain information. By equating information and energy, when communication is compromised, not only is the information necessary for problem-solving reduced, but so too is the energy that all systems need to reach their goals.

Within the communication channel, Shannon called the restraining forces “noise” (a good way to think of noise in the communication channel is that it is like static on a phone). Most important for SCT is that Shannon defined noise as ambiguities and redundancies which are readily translated into vagueness and repetitiveness in language. Thus one of the SCT methods for reducing the problems in the marriage system is to reduce the vagueness and repetitive language – as well as contradictions when, for example, one partner pre-empts the other with a “yes …. But ….” (Simon & Agazarian, 19xx)

Successful communications meet the goal of transferring information.  How a system functions and what information is actually communicated in turn determines what resources are then available for the system to meet its goals. For SCT, it is not only important to orient clients to ‘how’ they communicate “what” they communicate, but also to establish a climate in which defensiveness is reduced. This is established a soon as possible by accenting the positive (driving forces) of what they already do well together. This is different from many approaches in which the dissatisfactions of each for the other are the initial focus.

Beginning the therapy and Introducing the Framework

Accenting the positive

Accenting the positive is an important orientation in SCT couples therapy. Things that are working are often overlooked in the dissatisfaction of the frustrations in the marriage. Drawing their attention to their successes puts a different slant on things, shifts the world from half-empty to half-full.

For this reason, the first step in setting the climate in SCT is to restore the memory of pleasure that the couple once had together. Thus the therapist asks them to recall the times when they first met and liked each other. At this point the therapist watches carefully to see if they show any pleasure on their faces. When they do, the therapist then asks them to recall a particular episode that they remember that gave them pleasure, and asks them to tell each other about it. When they do, the climate between them changes – and the therapist judges that they are ready to take the next step. The therapist then describes to them the four sub-systems in their marriage, and asks them to choose the one in which they have most success.

The couple then identify their most satisfying sub-system and its roles (e.g parenting system and mother and father roles or business system and business partner roles) and talk together about their satisfactions.  Right away this strengthens the climate by creating a norm of recognizing the positive aspects of their relationship.  This is in line with the findings that there is a higher positive to negative communication ratio in successful marriages (Gottman, 1994; Simon, 1993).  Introducing the schema of subsystems and roles not only interrupts the familiar dysfunctional communication patterns but also provides a way of orienting to the importance of context in their marriage. Changing from one set of roles in their marriage to another is always a change in context.  Learning to attend to context decreases the inevitable tendency that all of us have as human beings to take personally someone else’s behavior or even our own feelings rather than seeing them as a normal consequence of the context.

Attending to context requires changing behaviors according to the role that is relevant for the goal of the context. One behaves very differently when in the role of business partner than when in the role of lover.  Orienting to the functional roles in a marriage or partnership interrupts the tendency to interpret the present in terms of childhood difficulties. Systems-centered therapists discourage a couple from working on how each imports into the marriage maladaptive role relationships from the past, until after the couple is able to communicate in ways that create an empathic, reality-oriented, problem-solving approach with each other.

The four roles in systems-centered couples therapy

SCT thinks about systems as a hierarchy of systems: each system in the context of the system above it, and each system as the context for the system below it (Agazarian, 1997).  For example, the marriage system serves as the context for four subsystems:  parenting, business, intimacy and interpersonal. In a conventional marriage, the parenting system is the context for the roles of father and mother, the business system is the context for the roles of business partners, the intimacy system is the context for the roles of man and the woman, and the interpersonal system is the context in which the couple potentially enhances each other’s lives through their interactions.

These sub-systems are introduced to the couple. The couple is asked to pick the system in which they are most successful. Parenthetically, the one that couples choose most often as their most successful is the parenting system.It is probably no accident that parenting enables them to relate out of themselves and towards a small person whose welfare touches the heart of each concerned.

When agreement on their most successful system is difficult, then the SCT therapist works with the couple to come to a decision.  This is not the preferred route so early in the work as a positive climate for problem-solving and decision-making has not yet been built.  However, it does give the couples therapist the opportunity to start communication training with the couple, even though communication training is more easily introduced in the context of what they do well together to make the system work.

Below is a more detailed account of the four subsystems with examples of how they are introduced to the couple.

Introducing these four systems and he goals of these sub-systems, and the roles that the couples play in each, are almost always intuitively familiar to a couple, and typically they become curious. As soon as the couple is curious, they have switched on their ‘researcher’ and are no longer taking their marriage or relationship just personally. The next step in this procedure is to have the couples choose the system that they feel works best for them.

The business system

The goal of the business system is to manage the marriage. Marriage is a business which requires maintenance: managing the money, paying the bills, bringing in income, deciding what to buy, how much to spend, or any of the jobs that go with the goal of living together and running a household together. The role relationship between the business partners has to be negotiated. For example, what activities will they manage together or delegate to one or the other and who will do what? Who will manage the finances, balance the checkbook, pay the bills, do the shopping, get the meals, manage the house? How will they decide whereto go on vacation or when to buy a new car? How well the business is managed depends upon on how well the business partner work together and how clearly they keep the common goal in mind.  Experiencing managing the business of the marriage  as a partnership is often difficult, in that roles are easily stereotyped:  traditionally the husband manages the money and the wife manages the house.

Learning to attend to roles in context decreases the inevitable tendency that all of us have to take personally someone else’s behavior rather than seeing them as a normal consequence of the challenges in the context.  For instance, working  out business issues together either singularly or alone is often frustrating.  Recognizing this makes it less likely that one partner will blame the other partner for the frustrations that are inevitable in solving the business of living together.

A common  source of conflict is when the partners come together from incompatible roles.


Husband.  “I’d like us to tighten our belts a bit, we’re not keeping to our budget.”

_Wife (in the role of mother). ‘But Johnny has to be able to go to camp this summer.” :  _


Wife: Sorry, jut mixed my role. What can we cut down on so that Johnny can still go to camp this summer? Or would you like to review the whole picture first?

Experiencing managing the business of the marriage as a partnership is often difficult, in that the roles are easily stereotyped, so that the man manages the money and the woman the house.


Husband role.  “I’d like us to tighten our belts a bit, we’re not keeping to our budget.”

Wife (in housewife and malcontent role) “But we have to eat!”


Husband role “woops, I think we just mixed roles. I came up with a solution before we found out what the problem is.  Let’s take a look at the larger picture so that we can see where it will hurt the least .”

There are many potential sources of conflict.  There may be an implicit assumption that the husband is better at managing money than the wife. If this is a useful assumption, all is well. If it is not, then it is a source of conflict..


Wife: You seem to think that I can’t work with money.  What about the fact that I got out taxes in on time when you got over-whelmed in work


Husband: Sorry – I went back into my old role – you’re right – you not only did a great job on saving my bacon on the taxes but you also did a terrific job with getting all the totals.

The parenting system

The goal of the parenting system is to “import babies and export socialized adults!”  The traditional roles are mother and father. This is often the most challenging of the role relationships, and also often the most successful.  When parenting is chosen as the system in which the couple have most success, there is ample opportunity for the couple to see that each person in the pair puts their parenting role, with its responsibilities and challenges in attunement, ahead of their personal goals. For example, it seldom works for one partner to “come on” to the mother when she is bathing the baby! When the two can understand that this is simply an example of incompatible roles and not incompatibility, it is relatively easy to work it through.


Mother: Look at baby – he’s having a ball with his ducks in the bath.

Father (in the role of lover, reaching round to hold her breast) “How about hurrying up and putting him to bed so we can have a ball?”.


Mother ”woops, we are in conflicting roles – how about we both put him to bed and then go up?”

The Intimacy System

The third system is the intimacy system.  The goal of the intimacy system is to have a rewarding love relationship, good sex, and good companionship. The roles are that of man and woman (in our conventional marriage example). However, whether the role partnership is between a man and a woman, or between the same sex, the goals are the same: A courting relationship often starts in intimacy and is often the source of greatest disappointment. For those who entered the marriage in love, there is the challenge of making the shift from the bliss of the early stages of romance to the later stages of having to negotiate a love relationship. It is easy to partner with someone when there are no differences (and when in love one is blind to the differences) and much more difficult to build a love relationship when frustrating differences emerge. Unfortunately, sex alone does not solve the yearnings for intimacy. It is through the process of separating and individuating that satisfactory role relationships emerge in the intimacy system. (It is tough for a couple in love to realize that one cannot have the relationship one wants but only the relationship that one can make.  This requires the ability to separate and individuate to allow each other to come close and also to move away which will not always be in the same rhythm as the other.  It is through the process of separating and individuating that satisfactory role relationships that couples can make the relationship they can have.)


He:  Darling, turn round

She: I’ve got a headache!

He sighs and turns away.


He: (turning back). I love you.  Let’s talk sometime soon to see how our lovemaking can be more of something we can both look forward to.


She: If you really loved me you wouldn’t do that.

He: What’s love got to do with drinking out of the milk carton?


She: Woops – I guess my emotional blackmailer role isn’t working. I really hate it when you do that – but then, there are also things I do that you hate too.

He: Good catch.  It’s true. We do know now that hating differences and surviving the hatred is just part of making a marriage.

Interpersonal System

The goal of the interpersonal system is to develop a climate in which the system itself, and each member of the system can survive, develop and transform in ways that reflect the system potential.SCT assumes that who one is depends more upon the context that one is in than it does upon one’s individual potential.  It is easy to check the validity of this when we think of how different the roles are that we play in different contexts (love, play, fight, work).  Developing the interpersonal system, therefore, is necessary for a satisfying marriage. Fundamental to the role requirements is the ability to understand the other’s point of view.  With couples in difficulty, this is often a challenge, as they tend to speak in “you” language, rather than “I’ language, and to take each other personally.  Shifting into an awareness of each other, living in a system that both are creating, requires attunement, empathy and compassion.


He or she:  It seems to me that we are able to do things better together than when we try to solve things by ourselves.

He or She: It’s altogether different knowing we can rely on each other

He or she:. It doesn’t always work though.

He or she:: No – it didn’t last night.

He or she: (laughs) right, that was a real mess!


He or she: One of the things I still find difficult is making room for you when I’m talking about me!

He or she: I think it helps when I don’t just sit and listen, but also tell you what I’m thinking while you do.


He or she: I do want you to understand what I feel.

He or she: It helps when you find the words that help me to understand.

He or she: O.K. and it helps when we both try to find the words together

He or she: Understanding feelings takes a lot of hard work!.

Driving and Restraining Forces

When the couple has chosen the system that they feel works best for them, they identify the things that each does that make the system work, and what is it that each does that gets in the way. The therapist will draw their attention to all the ways in which the two work together in ways that succeed, and also to the fact that the easiest way to make a change is to do less of what gets in the way - rather than trying to “improve” what they are doing already.  This introduces the model of the ‘force ‘field” which SCT has adapted from Kurt Lewin (1951).

Several of the examples above are presented below as force fields.  Working with the couple to see their system as a force field enables a couple to easily select their next steps in change: by identifying what restraining forces they need to weaken in order to change their system.

FORCE FIELD (Business System)

Driving Forces     

Mother and father bathing baby together    

Restraining Forces   

Man suggesting sex

FORCE FIELD (Parenting System)

Driving Forces  

Husband working on checkbook

Restraining Forces

Mother concerned about son’s camp

FORCE FIELD (Intimacy System)

Driving Forces

Repairing with “oops, slipped back into my black mailer role”

Restraining Forces

Saying “if you really loved me, you wouldn’t drink out of the milk cartoon”

FORCE FIELD (Interpersonal System)

Driving Forces

I still find it difficult to make room for you when I am talking about you

Restraining Forces

You can say that again.

Incompatible Roles

The process of exploring the way their role-relationships are actually working lays the foundation for addressing one of the most common sources of conflict in marriage which is approaching each other from incompatible roles

For example, as is illustrated above, when one partner approaches the other as a concerned parent while the other is trying to balance a check book, the two roles are incompatible and introduce a conflict which if taken personally by one or both partners will be difficult to resolve. If instead, the partners are able to recognize that the conflict that they have is coming from conflicting roles, not personal incompatibility they are very likely to avoid getting stuck in the conflict. It makes common sense to recognize, for example, that it is not usually a good idea to introduce romance when the other is balancing a check book or cooking the dinner for the family - or when lovemaking, to introduce concerns about the children or about money.

Orienting to these functional roles in a marriage also interrupts the current tendency to interpret the present in terms of childhood difficulties. SCT discourages a couple from working on how each imports into the marriage maladaptive role relationships from the past, until after the couple is able to communicate in ways that create an empathic, reality-oriented, problem-solving approach with each other. Then, and only then, are they encouraged to explore the role-locks that occur in all close relationships, when each brings out the worst in the other.

Roles and Role Locks

Habitual roles are relatively closed sub-systems inside each person that relate more to a past context than to the present.  Habitual roles relate to early adaptations and are characterized by predictable ways of thinking, seeing the world, seeing others, feeling, and behaving (this is often known as the repetition compulsion).  Whenever couples are caught in habitual roles, they have little chance of relating to their current marriage context and taking up their partnership roles together. For example, when Jane fell into her familiar “one-up” role, she would assume she knew what was best, felt disdainful of her partner’s difference and behaved with condescension.  Her role derivation related to being a older sibling. Or her husband’s role of resentful compliance, where Dick felt he had to go along to keep the peace, even though he saw it differently (he had learned this role in his early relationship with his domineering mother).  The idea of habitual roles is one that is easily understood by most couples and in a good climate, it is relatively easy to recognize one’s own roles and to see how they interfere with responding to one’s partner in the present.  It is important to reiterate that the SCT therapist only works with these roles after the couple has undone its flight-fight defenses (phases of development are discussed later in this paper) and have established an empathic, reality-testing communication climate together.

Habitual roles are especially common when the couple begins to work with their reactions to each other’s differences. There are two restraining forces that tend to surface at this time.  One is the masochistic depression which arises when the impulse to retaliate against the partner for his or her differences are turned back on the self in self-blame.  The other is the hostile outrage which discharges the irritation, either in silent, internal obsessive diatribes, or in accusations and abuse.

In the improved communication climate established in working with the positive and the functional roles, it is possible for the couple to recognize their reciprocal role responses. SCT calls these role locks as each other’s roles trigger and induce reciprocal roles in the other. For example, when Jane goes into her “one-up” role, Dick goes “one-down” and compliant. Recognizing the role lock is an important step toward developing the capacity to explore their reactions, rather than acting them out in familiar behavioral patterns.  Common role locks include the blamer and the blamed, the accuser and the culprit, the toe-to-toe shouting match, the silent sulker and the pursuer.

It usually also makes intuitive sense to a couple, that one person’s habitual role easily triggers a reciprocal role in their partner.  Recognizing that these reciprocal roles are a duet rather than individual problems makes it easier to explore the roles rather than enact them.   Exploring paves the way for learning to undo the role locks that restrict the marriage system (Agazarian, 1997). Role-locks are a core part of every couple’s marital challenges and contain the struggle over power and control, similar to what Gottman (1994) and Johnson, Hunsley, Greenberg, and Schindler (1999) have described as destructive, interactional patterns.

At the system level, role-locks contain the marital conflicts and stabilize and fixate the marriage in predictable patterns of relating.  Weakening the role-locks is at the heart of couples therapy.  Later in the therapy, after the major role locks have been weakened, the work begins with the deeper projective identifications that underlie the role locks and link to the historical origins of the roles and the early attachment patterns.  This is the core of the work in the work phase (described later) that enables increased capacity in the couples system for separation and individuation in their marriage partnership and its roles.

The therapist’s role and weakening the therapist’s restraining forces

Just as marriage is a system built by the two partners in it, so the therapeutic system is built by the three partners in it, the couple and the therapist.  Just as in a marriage, the partners have differentiated roles in the therapeutic system.  The role of all systems-centered therapists is to import the systems-centered structure.  The structure guides the behavior of the members who work within it.  The role of the couple is to choose how to direct their energy within the structure. Thus, each have different roles and different goals.

The therapist manages the structure first by introducing functional subgrouping, importing skills for reducing restraining forces of anxiety and tension and mind-reading and, importantly, introducing the structure of the fork-in-the-road. The therapist points out that there is a fork-in-the-road in every conflict, and asks ‘which fork do you want to explore first?” The couple chooses which fork to explore. Thus, the therapist provides the structure and the couple chooses what to explore and explores so that the energy for change resides in the couple. This reduces the danger of the couple becoming dependent or subservient to the therapist.

One restraining force inevitable for the therapist is the induction into taking sides.  Humanly, it is easier to have empathy with the person in the couple who is more similar to the therapist, and more difficult to feel empathy for the one who is more different.  The SCT structure maintains an ongoing discrimination between similarities and differences, and an awareness that there is a universal human tendency to split away from differences and to join on similarities.  The systems-centered techniques that address this natural challenge is functional subgrouping: the method in which all SCT therapists are trained (Agazarian, 1997).  Thus, guided by the subgrouping structure, the therapist implicitly and deliberately resonates with both sides in every conflict, and judges neither.

Phases of system development

Integral to systems-centered thinking is the assumption that all systems develop over time from simpler to more complex, and that, in living human systems, the development follows a predictable sequence of phases. SCT sees each phase of development as a different context. The phase context influences which restraining forces can be modified by the couple and which restraining forces the couple are not yet ready to reduce. For example, it is premature to reduce role-locks before the couple has learned not to take each other personally (which occurs in the transition phase between flight and fight) or before they have learned to discriminate between perception and projection (when mind-reading is undone in the phase of flight).

SCT phases of system development is a map that applies to all living human systems and charts the developmental path through three major phases. The first phase is oriented around power and control issues with one’s own and others’ authority, and is called the Phase of Authority. The second phase is oriented around the issues of separation and individuation that occur when developing interpersonal intimacy, appropriately called the phase of intimacy.  The third phase, the Work Phase, is oriented towards the challenges of putting into practice the understandings that have been integrated as one works through the first two phases (Agazarian & Gantt, 2003; Agazarian 1999, 1997, 1994, 1981, Bennis & Shepard,1957).

Phase I: Authority.

In the phase of Authority, the major issues are power and control and the struggle to have one’s own way, seeing the other from a compliant or defiant role. The couple may either studiously ignore and avoid their differences (“Don’t Rock the Boat”) or manage by fighting, focused only on fighting about their differences and blaming each other or themselves.  In the middle part of this phase, the work with the role-locks begins and the phase ends with a crisis of hatred in which each person in the couple is convinced that their only problem is the other, and that in order to survive they must ‘kill’ the other. This is where the issues of divorce surface, and in successful therapy, can instead be contained and worked through. (The good news, is that working through hatred leads to insight and intimacy.)

In this first phase the couple’s work is to surface and explore  the tendency to take up the roles of being compliant or defiant with each other, when either or both of the couple experiences the other as telling them what to do.  Exploring these tendencies, and understanding how they invite each other into maladaptive role-locks, gives them a fork-in-the-road between acting out their nonfunctional roles, or discovering how to step out of them and back into the functional roles in their marriage. The fulcrum event is the crisis of hatred. SCT suggests that there are two major challenges in marriage: surviving the hatred and surviving the love!  Surviving the hatred and legitimizing aggression allows the couple to address the separation and individuation that arise in the phase of intimacy.

Phase II: Intimacy

In the second phase (called the phase of intimacy) the couple begins to come into reality. The work of building a relationship is very different from the honeymoon period in which each has found his or her soul mate.  In reality, however, they have to discover differences, and that is when the trouble begins (and often what brings them into therapy). The reality is that we human beings hate differences as much as we love similarities. In this phase, the couple comes to recognize that sometimes they hate and sometimes they love, and both experiences are part of a good marriage.

The work of separation-individuation requires recognizing differences in the apparently similar and similarities in the apparently different. These challenges will play out differently in every partnership. For some, it is hard to bear the differences between themselves and the other, and will tend to yearn for ever more closeness. This may result in an unrecognized symbiotic relationship, if both find it difficult to separate, or may result in a relationship in which one feels smothered and is forever pulling away while the other responds with ever-more desperate bids for closeness. On the over-individuation dimensions, the difficulty in recognizing similarities leaves the other feeling rejected. This is particularly true for couples where one wants to be emotionally understood and the other doesn’t want to be continually bothered. When both couples over-emphasis differences, the couple compromise on a distant and relatively unrelated marriage. In SCT the couple is carefully prepared, through exploration of role-locks with themselves, for recognition and acceptance of these childhood yearning for containment, soothing and love on the enchanted side, and the alienation and hopelessness for those who experienced a childhood in which they were forever alone.

Phase III: Work, play and lov e .

In the third and working phase of marriage, the couple comes into the reality that they can never have the fantasy relationship that they want, but only the relationship they can make.  When couples survive this transition, they are in a better position to love and work and play with each other and come together from a separated and individuated position.

It is in this phase that the interpersonal system is developed and in the process of developing it, the couple comes to understand deeper levels of their role locks and the projective identifications that fuel them.  Whereas role-locks are first addressed in the phase of authority, and again in the phase of intimacy, it is in this working phase that the couples address their early attachment roles underlying the role locks.

SCT has a specific sequence for this work. The therapist first asks each member of the couple to find a name for the role that ‘takes them over’. Then they are asked to determine how old they were when they first learned the role, and with whom. (Early role locks are typically developed with a significant other, most often the parents, and even more often, the mother). The therapist then frames the role-lock as a solution to an interpersonal issue: that the significant other communicates to the child how to behave so that there can be an experience of love between them. Even though the child (and often also the adult) resents the compromise, understanding that love is the reward for compromise lays the foundation for recognizing that all interpersonal relationships require compromise. The next step is often a surprise. It requires each member of the couple to address their early memories from two roles: the role of the adult and the role of the child. In the adult role, they then discover how to hold the child so that the ‘child’ feels contained and held. As soon as the ‘child’ feels secure, the ‘adult’ is encouraged to ask things that he or she wants to know about the early role relationship. It is important for the ‘adult’ to keep an open mind, as the ‘child’s’ answers are often a surprise. The greatest surprise is that the adult re-discovers the pleasure in the relationship that has often been masked by the more familiar blame and resentment The goal is to convert the oft-told tale of parental failure into a coherent narrative. (ref attachment lit)

The final step in discovering the derivation of the intractable role is the system  requirement to put it into context. The ‘child’ is asked what he or she knows about the relationship that their parent had with his or her parent. The outcome of this aspect of the work builds an understanding of the larger picture, the generational etiology of the roles in the family that they were born into and assigned, not by people, but the norms that govern the system hierarchy.


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Read the next article:

ARTICLE 5/ ISSUE 5, October 2014

The therapeutic relationship and the unpredictable in the ecology of the family session

, Katia Charalabaki, Psychiatrist, Family Psychotherapist, coordinating director of Family Therapy Unit of Attica Psychiatric Hospital
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