Affective Reconstructive Approach to Couple Therapy
Name of the Strategy or Intervention
Affective reconstruction (Snyder 1999) refers to the interpretation of persistent maladaptive relationship patterns having their source in previous developmental experiences. Affective reconstruction reflects an insight-oriented approach to couple therapy and presumes that an important source of couples’ current difficulties frequently includes previous relationship injuries resulting in sustained interpersonal vulnerabilities and related defensive strategies interfering with emotional intimacy. Hence, therapeutic approaches that fail to address developmental experiences giving rise to these vulnerabilities and their associated reactivities deprive individuals of a rich resource for understanding both their own and their partner’s behaviors that could help them to depersonalize the hurtful aspects of the couple’s interactions and to adopt an empathic stance.
Diverse approaches to examining maladaptive relationship patterns can be placed on a continuum from traditional psychoanalytic techniques rooted primarily in object relations theory to schema-based interventions derived from cognitive theory. These approaches vary in the extent to which they emphasize the unconscious nature of individuals’ relational patterns, the developmental period during which these maladaptive patterns are acquired, and the extent to which interpersonal anxieties derive from frustration of innate drives. However, these approaches all share the assumption that maladaptive relationship patterns are likely to continue until they are understood in a developmental context. This new understanding and exploration serve to reduce the couple’s attendant anxiety in current interactions and permit them to develop alternative, healthier relationship patterns.
Drawing on earlier psychodynamic formulations, Snyder and Wills (1989) articulated an insight-oriented approach to couple therapy emphasizing affective reconstruction of previous relationship injuries resulting in sustained interpersonal vulnerabilities and related defensive strategies interfering with emotional intimacy. In affective reconstruction, developmental origins of interpersonal themes and their manifestation in a couple’s relationship are explored using techniques roughly akin to traditional interpretive strategies promoting insight, but emphasizing interpersonal schemas and relationship dispositions rather than instinctual impulses or drive derivatives (Snyder 1999; Snyder and Mitchell 2008). Previous relationships, their affective components, and strategies for emotional gratification and anxiety containment are reconstructed with a focus on identifying for each partner consistencies in their interpersonal conflicts and coping styles across relationships. In addition, ways in which previous coping strategies vital to prior relationships represent distortions or inappropriate solutions for emotional intimacy and satisfaction in the current relationship are articulated.
Rationale for the Strategy or Intervention
Affective reconstruction builds on strengths of earlier relational models of individual psychotherapy by capitalizing on features unique to conjoint couple therapy. First, in couple therapy data reflecting current expression of persistent dysfunctional patterns of interpersonal relating are not confined to the individual’s interactions with the therapist but extend more visibly and importantly to in vivo observations of the individual and his or her significant other. Thus, core conflictual relationship themes having greatest relevance to each partner are more likely to be apparent than in the context of individual therapy. Second, individuals’ understanding of maladaptive relationship themes and their reformulation of these in less pejorative terms may extend beyond their own dynamics to a more benevolent reinterpretation of their partner’s more hurtful behaviors. That is, both individuals can be helped to understand that, whereas certain relational coping strategies may have been adaptive or even essential in previous relationships, the same interpersonal strategies interfere with emotional intimacy and satisfaction in the present relationship. Finally, in couple therapy the “corrective emotional experience” (Alexander 1956) of disrupting previous pathogenic interpersonal strategies and promoting more functional relational patterns has an opportunity to emerge not only between the individual and therapist, but between the individual and his or her partner. Thus, interpretation of maladaptive interpersonal themes in the context of couple therapy affords unique opportunities for affective reconstruction of these patterns in individuals’ primary emotional relationships.
Description of the Strategy or Intervention
An essential prerequisite to affective reconstruction of relational themes is a thorough knowledge of each partner’s relational history. Critical information includes not only the pattern of relationships within the family of origin, but also relational themes in the family extending to prior generations. Beyond the family, intimate relationships with significant others of both genders from adolescence through the current time offer key information regarding such issues as perceived acceptance and valuation by others, trust and disappointment, stability and resilience of relationships to interpersonal injury, levels of attachment and respect for autonomy, and similar relational themes. Some of this information may be gleaned from earlier interventions linked to establishing appropriate boundaries with families of origin, discussion of partners’ expectancies regarding parenting responsibilities acquired during their own childhood and adolescence, or disclosures of traumatic experiences with significant others previous to the current relationship. Alternatively, in anticipating focused work on developmental issues, the therapy may adopt more structured clinical or self-report techniques.
For interpretation of maladaptive relationship themes to be effective with couples, the therapist needs to attend carefully to both partners’ preparedness to examine their own enduring relational dispositions. Unlike individual therapy in which clients often accept at least partial responsibility for their own distress, persons entering couple therapy often focus on their partner’s negative behaviors and resist examining their own contributions to relationship difficulties – particularly those linked to more enduring personality characteristics. Distressed couples often suffer from a long history of exchanging pejorative attributions for each other’s behaviors, furthering their initial resistance to clinical interventions emphasizing early maladaptive schemas underlying relationship distress. Consequently, examining developmental sources of relationship distress demands a prerequisite foundation of emotional safety, partners’ trust in the therapeutic process, the couple’s ability to respond empathically to feelings of vulnerability exposed by their partner, and an introspective stance initially prompted by examining dysfunctional relationship expectancies and attributions residing at a more conscious level.
In affective reconstruction, previous relationships are initially explored without explicit linkage to current relational difficulties, in order to reduce anxiety and resistance during this exploration phase. Often, individuals are readily able to formulate connections between prior relationships and current interpersonal struggles; when this occurs, it is typically useful for the therapist to listen empathically, encouraging the individual to remain “intently curious” about their own relational history but to refrain from premature interpretations that may be incorrect, incomplete, or excessively self-critical. Just as important is for the individual’s partner to adopt an accepting, empathic tone during the other’s developmental exploration, encouraging self-disclosure in a supportive but noninterpretive manner.
Provided with relevant developmental history, the therapist encourages each partner to identify significant relational themes, particularly with respect to previous relationship disappointments and injuries. Gradually, as the couple continues to explore tensions and unsatisfying patterns in their own relationship, both partners can be encouraged to examine ways in which exaggerated emotional responses to current situations have at least partial basis in affective dispositions and related coping styles acquired in the developmental context. Developing a shared formulation of core relationship themes is a critical antecedent to subsequent linkage of these themes to current relationship exchanges. Both individuals can be helped to understand that, whereas certain relational coping strategies may have been adaptive or even essential in previous relationships, the same interpersonal strategies interfere with emotional intimacy and satisfaction in the present relationship.
In couple therapy, the therapist’s direct access to exchanges between partners affords a unique opportunity for linking enduring relationship themes to current relationship events. Rather than interpreting transferential exchanges between either partner and the therapist, the focus is on partners’ own exchanges in the immediate moment. Interpretations emphasize linking each partner’s exaggerated affect and maladaptive responses to his or her own relationship history, emphasizing the repetition of relationship patterns and their maintaining factors in the present context. Guidelines for examining cyclical maladaptive patterns in the context of individual therapy (Binder and Strupp 1991; Luborsky 1984) readily lend themselves to couples work. How does the immediate conflict between partners relate to core relationship themes explored earlier in the therapy? What are each person’s feelings toward the other and their desired response? What impact do they wish to have on the other in this moment? How do their perceptions regarding their partner’s inner experience relate to their attitudes toward themselves? What fantasies do they have regarding their partner’s possible responses? What kinds of responses from their partner would they anticipate being helpful in modifying their core beliefs about their partner, themselves, and this relationship?
Specific therapeutic techniques relevant to examining core relationship themes in individual therapy (Luborsky 1984; Strupp and Binder 1984) apply to affective reconstruction in couple therapy as well. For example, it is essential that the therapist recognize each partner’s core relationship themes, that developmental interpretations link relational themes to a current relationship conflict, and that therapy focuses on a few select relationship themes until some degree of resolution and alternative interpersonal strategies are enabled. It is also important that the extent and complexity of interpretations take into account (a) the affective functioning of the individual and his or her ability to make constructive use of the interpretation, (b) the level of insight and how near the individual is to being aware of the content of the proposed interpretation, and (c) the level of relationship functioning and the extent to which developmental interpretations can be incorporated in a mutually supportive manner.
From a psychodynamic perspective, cognitive linkage of relational themes from early development to the current context is frequently insufficient for reconstructing or modifying these interpersonal patterns. The affective component of interpretation is seen in the reconstruction of these critical emotional experiences in the immediate context; new understanding by both partners often promotes more empathic responses toward both themselves and the other, facilitating more satisfactory resolutions to conflict. Often the individuals must be encouraged to work through previous relationship injuries, grieving losses and unmet needs, expressing ambivalence or anger toward previous critical others in the safety of the conjoint therapy, and acquiring increased differentiation of prior relationships from the present one. Similar to individual therapy adopting a relational model, the therapist serves as an auxiliary processor helping to “detoxify, manage, and digest” the partners’ relationship themes in a manner that promotes interpersonal growth (Messer and Warren 1995, p. 141).
Affective reconstruction makes possible but does not inevitably lead to changes in maladaptive relationship patterns. In addition to interpretive strategies, interventions must promote partner interactions that counteract early maladaptive schemas. Thus, the couple therapist allows partners’ maladaptive patterns to be enacted within limits, but then assists both partners in examining exaggerated affective components of their present exchange. Partners’ exaggerated responses are framed as acquired coping strategies that interfere with higher relationship values. Interpretations of the developmental context underlying the current unsatisfactory exchange help both partners to depersonalize the noxious effects of the other’s behavior, to feel less wounded, and consequently to be less reactive in a reciprocally negative manner.
Both individuals are encouraged to be less anxious and less condemning of both their own and their partner’s affect, and are helped to explore and then express their own affect in less aggressive or antagonistic fashion. Throughout this process, each individual plays a critical therapeutic role by learning to offer a secure context in facilitating their partner’s affective self-disclosures in a softened, more vulnerable manner. The couple therapist models empathic understanding for both partners and encourages new patterns of responding that enhance relationship intimacy. That is, by facilitating the nonoccurrence of expected traumatic experiences in the couple’s relationship, both individuals are able to challenge assumptions and expectations comprising underlying maladaptive schemas. Thus, therapeutic change results from the experiential learning in which both partners encounter relationship outcomes different from those expected or feared. In response, partners’ interactions become more adaptive and flexible in matching the objective reality of current conflicts and realizing opportunities for satisfying more of each other’s needs.
Although affective reconstruction seeks to promote new relationship schemas facilitating more empathic and supportive interactions, couples sometimes need additional assistance in restructuring longstanding patterns of relating outside of therapy. In a pluralistic hierarchical model (Snyder 1999) in which structured interventions for strengthening the relationship have previously been pursued, couples already will have been exposed to communication and behavior-exchange techniques characterizing traditional behavioral approaches. Consequently, alternative relationship behaviors can often be negotiated more readily after schema-related anxieties and resistance to changing enduring interaction patterns have been understood and at least partially resolved.
Termination of couple therapy proceeds when the couple has resolved any initial crises potentially precipitating treatment; when partners have acquired information and specific skills essential to maintaining individual as well as relational health; and when partners understand and resolve individual dynamics previously contributing to exaggerated emotional reactivity, and substantially reduce or eliminate distorted responses to their own as well as each other’s dynamics. As evidence of these goals being met evolves, the therapist may suggest terminating or “thinning out” the frequency of sessions – with remaining interventions emphasizing an integrative review and consolidation of therapeutic work that has been accomplished, and preparation for anticipated stresses from within or outside the couple relationship that may challenge individual or relationship functioning in the future.
Empirical Support for the Efficacy of Affective Reconstruction
Snyder and Wills (1989) examined the effectiveness of affective reconstruction as described here, in a study comparing this insight-oriented approach with traditional behavioral therapy in a controlled clinical trial involving 79 distressed couples. The behavioral condition emphasized communication skills training and behavior exchange techniques; the insight-oriented condition emphasized the interpretation and resolution of conflictual emotional processes related to developmental issues, collusive interactions, and maladaptive relationship patterns. At termination after approximately 20 sessions, couples in both treatment modalities showed statistically and clinically significant gains in relationship satisfaction compared to a wait-list control group. Treatment effect sizes at termination for behavioral and insight-oriented conditions were 1.01 and 0.96, respectively, indicating that the average person receiving either couple therapy was better off at termination than approximately 83% of individuals not receiving treatment. Moreover, treatment gains for couples in both therapy conditions were substantially maintained at 6-month follow-up.
However, at 4 years following treatment, 38% of the behavioral couples had experienced divorce, in contrast to only 3% of couples treated in the insight-oriented condition (Snyder et al. 1991a). Based on these findings, Snyder and colleagues suggested an important distinction between acquisition of relationship skills through instruction or rehearsal versus interference with implementation of these skills on a motivational or affective basis. They argued that partners’ views toward each other’s behavior “are modified to a greater degree and in a more persistent manner once individuals come to understand and resolve emotional conflicts they bring to the marriage from their own family and relationship histories” (Snyder et al. 1991b, p. 148).
Finally, Snyder (1999) has argued that affective reconstruction comprises a critical component of couple therapy from a pluralistic perspective. Whereas some couples demonstrate a capacity to implement and maintain important relationship changes without undertaking such reconstructive work, others will remain significantly if not permanently mired in recurrent maladaptive interactions until they understand and resolve the developmental origins of exaggerated or distorted emotional responses to their own concerns or those of their partner. For some couples, affective reconstruction yields rapid and dramatic breakthroughs and resolution of longstanding dysfunctional patterns of interrelating. For others, insights are more gradual and the gains more circumscribed. Affective reconstruction becomes critical to couple therapy when partners’ difficulties arise in part from previous relationship injuries resulting in sustained interpersonal vulnerabilities and related defensive strategies interfering with emotional intimacy. Partners’ ability to benefit from insight into these vulnerabilities and defensive strategies may be optimized when affective reconstruction is embedded within a broader, comprehensive therapeutic strategy building upon structural, behavioral, and cognitive interventions earlier in the therapeutic sequence.
Bob and Sharon entered couple therapy after 15 years of marriage, reporting increasing emotional detachment and brief but hurtful arguments when either partner felt misunderstood or unappreciated by the other. The couple had two daughters, ages 13 and 11, to whom Sharon felt quite close but Bob often felt estranged. Both partners were successful professionals in the healthcare field and described effective communication strategies with coworkers. In their marriage, however, a pronounced demand-withdraw pattern undermined their efforts to engage and resolve relationship issues.
In discussing their families of origin, Sharon reported a family that was emotionally close but highly avoidant of conflict. Tensions with Bob felt threatening to her, and she was unable to tolerate even his modest expressions of frustration or unhappiness. When Bob expressed discontent with Sharon or their marriage, she felt deeply wounded and unloved, retreating for days into minimal interactions. By contrast, Bob’s family was characterized by recurring high conflict and a dominant, emotionally abusive father. Bob had grown up often feeling marginalized and powerless, with little opportunity to express his own feelings and needs. Sharon’s withdrawal in response to his complaints felt punitive.
Exploring these dynamics in couple therapy helped each partner to alter their interpretation of the other’s behaviors, and these new understandings helped them to resist their respective tendencies to withdraw or escalate. Sharon worked hard to expand her tolerance for Bob’s occasional expressions of discontent and he, in turn, worked to regulate more effectively when and how he communicated his concerns or frustrations to Sharon. Understanding Sharon’s retreat as a reflection of her own anxieties rather than a ploy to punish him helped Bob to tolerate her needs to suspend difficult discussions until they could both adopt softened perspectives on their differences and engage these in a less defensive or antagonistic manner. Sharon came to understand the intensity of Bob’s feelings as reflecting deep needs for closeness and his own anxious response to her withdrawal, rather than as a rejection or punishment of her.
Bob’s and Sharon’s enduring dispositions to lapse into escalation or withdrawal persisted, but at a much lower frequency and intensity than before the couple therapy. Moreover, their new understanding of this interactional pattern helped them to recognize it earlier in the cycle to dampen its escalation, and to recover more quickly and engage in corrective strategies when old patterns resurfaced.
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