Working with Highly Reactive Couples
The chapters in Part II have been devoted to basic approaches and techniques for working with typical couples in therapy, including communication, confl ict, cognitions, and emotions. However, there is one particular type of couple interactioncharacterized by an extreme level of emotional reactivity-where applying some of these principles and interventions may not be appropriate or effective. In this chapter, we will describe this type of couple interaction and the therapeutic processes that are more likely to produce a positive outcome. Couples who are highly reactive, aggressive, angry, and judgmental in their interaction often present the greatest challenge to a conjoint therapist (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998; Paolino & McCrady, 1978). Attempts to modify the couple process are diffi cult, emotionally draining, and often unsuccessful. Because the emotional reactivity is so reciprocally driven by both partners, the homeostatic persistence of the dynamic is very strong. This type of couple interaction pattern is characterized by narcissistic vulnerability and deep attachment wounds. Narcissistic vulnerability “is manifested by a propensity to react to actual or imagined rejection or disapproval with conscious or unconscious self-fragmentation, identity diffusion, and/ or diminished self-esteem” (Feldman, 1982, p. 417). Each spouse expects the other to be totally devoted to the gratifi cation of his or her own narcissistic needs (Feldman, 1982). However, the narcissistic wounds, characterized by egocentric or psychic pain, inhibit or prevent an individual from being able to be sensitive to the needs or the perspectives of another. It is not that the individual does not care about the other person’s needs, but it is as if they are out of emotional oxygen and they cannot recognize or meet the needs of the other until they get the emotional oxygen they need (Chamberlain & Steurer, 2011). Working with such couples can be challenging because both spouses feel wounded and have a very diffi cult time recognizing and responding to the emotional needs of the other. Over the years, a couple may work with a number of different therapists without success trying to heal narcissistic vulnerability and pain.