Authors: Jessica ChenFeng and Aimee Galick

There were probably many times when we hijacked our therapy with couples.  We are both marriage and family therapists (MFTs) and had been seeing clients for a few years before we joined the Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy (SERT) research group at Loma Linda University as doctoral students.  Of course we, like most therapists, were not intentionally hijacking the work, but let us explain. couples therapy

The MFT field has numerous wonderful models and theories for how to best work with couples, most with the intention of helping couples be less conflictual and closer.  I (Jessica) was enjoying my practice of Bowenian theories and applying Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy ideas to my couples.  I (Aimee) practiced Structural Family therapy and worked almost exclusively with couples in a rural community setting.  However there was a critical piece missing in our practice that we were blindly unaware of. Understanding how gender discourses, how we and others are socialized to have subconscious beliefs about gender, can impact the process of therapy and structure couple’s interactions in ways that are unhelpful.  Little did we know that these implicit beliefs informed the way we shaped the therapy process and thus, hijacked our work.

Our Backgrounds

As a second generation Taiwanese American heterosexual woman raised in a fairly conservative Asian American Christian context, I (Jessica) had my own internalized notions about gender roles, and more significantly, I had underdeveloped awareness of my own gender and cultural identity.  I did not know at the time, my social context informed me that men should display more masculine, logical, assertive ways of being in relationship and conversely, that women should exude a level of emotionality, femininity, and social grace.

As a white, heterosexual woman with European ancestry, I (Aimee) was raised in a context where traditional gender roles were upheld implicitly.  There were explicit messages to be an independent and strong female, to be educated so you wouldn’t have to rely on a man.  At the same time there were many implicit messages to defer and accommodate to men and be relational.  I had a strong sense that a woman should be thinking about and attending to relationships, especially intimate ones.  I grew up feeling confused by the explicit messages, but could never put her finger on it until I learned about dominant gender discourses and power.

The Mistake We Made

Carrying these unknown assumptions, we probably reinforced the gender discourses we found in our study, including “men should be the authority,” “women should be responsible for relationship,” and “women should protect men from shame.”  Of course most of us would read these and think “I would never support the affirmation of these ideas in my couples!”  We certainly thought the same.  However, when we watched our own recorded sessions and analyzed several transcripts of our own and other therapists’ couples work, we found that our unexamined assumptions about gender did lead us to affirm these disempowering discourses.

What the Mistakes Looked Like in Therapy

One primary reason we kept reinforcing such gender discourses is that we assumed equality in couple relationships and underestimated the power of gender to organize heterosexual relationships.  As a result, we did not pay attention to:

  • Who answered particular questions. When a question such as “how is your relationship going?” was asked it was common for the female partner to respond, perhaps because she felt responsible for the relationship.  Therapists often responded by asking her more about the relationship and not asking the male partner what he thinks, essentially communicating that she is the expert on the topic.
  • Whose experience and reality was validated. When it came to negotiating what the “problem” was that brought couples to therapy, males were often much more vocal about their perspectives.  This may be related to the discourse of men should be the authority.   Male partners often also blamed their female partner for the problems, which is likely related to the belief that she should be responsible for the relationship.  Most therapists seemed to give up in the face of male partners’ insistence that their perceptions of reality be implicitly accepted.
  • Who was asked to change.  As a result of validating the man’s experiences and perceptions and the woman being quick to take responsibility for the relationship, she was often the one asked to change in order to fix the problems.

How Not to Hijack Couple Therapy

We were so surprised by what we found in studying these transcripts and our own therapy sessions.  Being in the SERT research group and developing this awareness we’ve learned that to truly support couples in moving towards a more mutual and shared dynamic, we too must engage in continual self-examination, growth, and pursuit of mutuality in our gender identity and beliefs.  Some ideas of what we can do in the therapy session include:

  • Suspending our judgment/assessment of “what’s really going on” until we have heard the perspectives of both partners
  • Remembering that “what really happened” may not be as important as how partners relate to one another in relation to that event
  • Paying attention to who speaks first and who speaks over others
  • Noting our own ways of privileging male or female ways of being; ways that we could be privileging male ways of being include trying to get clients to be more assertive, rational, less emotional, and less dependent on others

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We believe that to work well with couples and with gender issues, we need to continually engage in raising our own critical consciousness. Analyzing transcripts of your own work is one way to do this. As an AFTA member to read more about this study and how to avoid high-jacking your own sessions visit and sign in as a member to download a copy of the book. If you are not an AFTA member, we invite you to read the other wonderful articles, in addition to our own, in this particular book by visiting the AFTA SpringerBriefs or  Amazon.  We hope that you’ll join us in this pursuit of consciously moving couples towards mutual support.


Authors’ bio:

Jessica ChenFeng, Ph.D., LMFT is an Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at California State University, Northridge.

Aimee Galick, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at University of Louisiana at Monroe.