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On the last track, we discussed the “Address with Respect” problem solving technique I use with couples in therapy. The five steps in this technique are discussion, agenda setting, brainstorming, agreement and compromise, and follow-up.
On this track, we will discuss dealing with core impasses in couples therapy by using the vulnerability cycle model. We will specifically discuss core impasses, the vulnerability cycle, survival positions, and diagramming the vulnerability cycle. I have found that helping clients identify their vulnerability cycle can enhance the process of learning more effective communication strategies.
Scheinkman and Fishbane state that core impasses are experienced as such a difficult entanglement because core impasses involve the activation of vulnerabilities and survival strategies. This activation complicates the couple’s ability to work together. During this activation, partners may experience emotional overlap between the events with their partner, and experiences in their past. Clearly, such core impasses may also arise from tensions related to power imbalances within the couple.
In the vulnerability cycle model proposed by Scheinkman and Fishbane, when an event in the relationship, or an external event, trigger one of these vulnerabilities, the individual tends to perceive risk and anticipate pain. Once the vulnerability has been triggered, the individual reacts in an automatic way.
For example, Roy and Dinah, both 25, had been married for two years when Dinah began graduate school. The amount of work Dinah needed to do for school greatly reduced the amount of time she was able to spend with Roy. Roy began to feel neglected and rejected by Dinah, and reacted by angrily pursuing her for attention. He would instigate arguments that often resulted in him verbally abusing Dinah. Dinah reacted by withdrawing and becoming depressed, which made her even less available to Roy. Of course, this triggered Roy’s feelings of neglect even more.
Over time, these patterns may become mottos that the individual adapts when under stress; “If I take care of my spouse and don’t complain, they’ll stop hurting me.” Clearly, Roy’s survival position involved reacting with anger. Dinah’s survival position involved withdrawing into herself. These conflicting patterns entangled Roy and Dinah in a core impasse.
Diagramming the Vulnerability Cycle
As part of their treatment plan for Roy and Dinah, Scheinkman and Fishbane constructed a Vulnerability Cycle Diagram depicting Roy and Dinah’s impasse. The diagramming process began by drawing a circle to represent Dinah on one side of a sheet of paper. Next, the therapists drew a square on the other side of the paper to represent Roy. The outside of both the circle and square represent each partner’s specific vulnerability. The inside half represents each partner’s survival position.
In Roy and Dinah’s case, Scheinkman and Fishbane labeled the inner half of the circle “withdrawal”, and the inner half of the square “angrily pursuing”. Scheinkman and Fishbane then drew arrows on the diagram to illustrate to Roy and Dinah how their vulnerabilities and survival positions interacted.
To extend the Vulnerability Cycle Diagram, Scheinkman and Fishbane suggest including five elements to the diagram.
By deconstructing Roy and Dinah’s... core impasse according to the vulnerability cycle model, Scheinkman and Fishbane were able to create a ‘snapshot’ of the processes behind the impasse. The vulnerability cycle diagram helped both Roy and Dinah better understand their conflict. Scheinkman and Fishbane found that providing this diagram assisted Roy and Dinah in beginning a productive discussion about the concerns they both had about the state of their relationship. Would your Roy and Dinah benefit from constructing a vulnerability cycle diagram to deconstruct their core impasse?
On this track, we have discussed dealing with core impasses in couples therapy by using the vulnerability cycle model. We specifically discussed core impasses, the vulnerability cycle, survival positions, and diagramming the vulnerability cycle.
On the next track, we will discuss preserving and protecting friendship within marriage. We will specifically discuss five roadblocks to friendship in marriage. These five roadblocks are, there’s no time, “we’re not friends, we’re married”, “we don’t talk like friends anymore”, the ravages of conflict, and reckless words.
- Scheinkman CSW, Michele and Mona Dekoven Fishbane PhD. The Vulnerability Cycle: Working with Impasses in Couple Therapy.; Family Process; Dec 2004; Vol 43, No. 4; p. 279.
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