How couples deal with their differences is generally the gateway issue to what the issues are. Engaging with difference means equal rights are being offered to each individual within the couple. Remember, difference is the way of the world these days. Yet, unless this rhythm is acknowledged and permitted then conversation goes nowhere. If difference remains unacknowledged and disrespected it cannot be dealt with.

Most couples try to change differences inside the relationship (attempting to influence/change other). Difference then turns into conflict.

Conflict occurs out of how the couple deal with difference and not the difference itself. How individuals interact within the relationship is a gateway to couples getting what they need.  Let’s also remember that we don’t always get what we want or need.


One of the goals of couples therapy is to uncover where there is compatibility.  What are the individual core needs? (this is no easy task as some individuals may not know what their core needs are).  What are the shared core needs?  (again a tough one as most couples don’t even discuss these). What are the values, individual and co-created? (another one that’s probably never discussed)

Core needs and core values differ. Needs can be compromised and an individual can be OK about that. However core values, if compromised, can be damaging to the individual.


There cannot be collaborative engagement of needs while there is a hierarchy. When there is a hierarchy there is a hiatus to contact:

  1. Characterisation of other – when one or both begin to characterise the other in the conversation they are out of their jurisdiction. Besides, if you talk about other you never get to talk about what you want to talk about!
  1. Commenting or being critical of others’ point of view
  1. Correction of others’ point of view also brings trouble. People will either shut up or argue
  1. Prologues & epilogues – usually well intended but they are setting the stage to get the other person to agree. Prologue also includes characterisation of other person (see point 1!) Prologue and epilogue will inevitably stuff up any possibility of a reasonable response and discussion

There are three very basic conditions for contact:

  1. Movement
  2. Awareness of differences
  3. Expression of primary experiences

ALL of these conditions are required for contact to be whole. If there is monitoring there will be no intimacy in the contact.


Supporting different styles of contact allows for softening, opening and compassion along with leaning in to self and other. The pathway for collaboration can be paved by staying with the reality and experience of each; by acknowledging and allowing difference to stand and by ensuring each person has ‘air time’ as well as listening time.

For me, it’s important to remember not to get into content and story – this simply distracts from the process of what’s really happening. To remain aware that each individual has to be honest about self – not about other – is imperative. It matters not, to me, if the experience in the contact is sweet or sour. What is important is staying with what is and allow unfolding into the space.

It’s my task to have an effective ‘how’ to support couples in the way couples deal with their differences and recognise that while boundaries separate us they can also connect us. The Gestalt collaborative model looks at the whole system and has potential to open up possibilities.

Remember – each individual is 100% responsible for their contribution to the co-creation.

My thanks to Bob & Rita Resnick for their wonderful couples therapy training course. You can find out more about Bob & Rita on their website – Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles http://gatla.org


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