Over many years working integratively with couples (Nielsen, 2016), I’ve discovered some metaphors that make my comments to clients more memorable and that explain and normalize the experience of couple distress and couple therapy. In this short essay, written for clinicians, I describe four of them. By comparing events in therapy to others that are more familiar, they help build an alliance in a setting that otherwise might seem distressingly foreign and incomprehensible.

To Set the Stage: Lessons

Early in therapy, I often compare conjoint couple sessions to lessons. I tell clients, “Just as when you take music, dance or sports lessons, it’s not sufficient to talk about what you do, it’s essential to show your teacher or coach what you’re doing so that he or she can help.” Having couples talk to each other while I observe and try to help is the starting point for repairing and strengthening their relationships. I refer to it as Couple Therapy 1.0.

After couples are talking to each other, the next crucial step is to focus on their maladaptive dance. All schools of couple therapy do this, though in different ways. The key is not to get bogged down in weekly discussions of “the problem du jour.” In most cases, problem solving will have to wait until the process improves.

While this focus makes logical sense to many clients, most humans have trouble with the idea that a “system” has “emergent properties” (here destructive and amplifying ones) that can’t be blamed entirely on one person. The following metaphors can help clients comprehend the systemic nature of their problems.

To Explain Mutual Causation & Destructiveness: Chemical Reactions

            To explain how both partners usually contribute to their problems and to reduce mutual blaming, I compare the partners to two colorless reagents in separate beakers that, when mixed, become drastically altered: perhaps becoming explosively hot, ice cold, or foul smelling. One of the reagents might think, “I was just fine before: not hot, cold, or smelly. This sudden change, in which I don’t even recognize myself, must be due to that other damn chemical!” This metaphor powerfully illustrates how group process is not reducible to individual behavior and is experience-near for individuals who are feeling blamelessly victimized by their partners.

To Normalize Pursuit & Off-Putting Demands: Hungry Diners & Unresponsive Waiters

            Escalation commonly consists of one or both partners speaking increasingly loudly, impatiently, and aggressively, perhaps while nagging, guilt-tripping, or swearing. These ineffective attempts to influence a partner tend to occur and intensify when the partner appears unresponsive. Therapists can normalize these counterproductive behaviors by explaining them in systemic terms. One metaphor I frequently use is of a hungry person calling for an unresponsive waiter. At first, the diner waits respectfully, then tries to signal non-verbally, then calls out in a calm voice, and finally might resort to yelling. Often, it is more accurate to characterize both partners as hungry diners, even though one may superficially appear to be an unresponsive waiter.

To Normalize Distancing & Flight: Firefighters Battling Forest Fires

            Just as escalating pursuit can seem appropriate in some situations, so can flight. Withdrawal becomes more comprehensible and acceptable if one remembers that firefighters facing a raging forest fire must sometimes retreat temporarily.


      For more discussion of metaphors and of my integrative approach to couple therapy, check out my textbook and articles listed below. In writing for clinicians, my goal has been to describe and illustrate the best of the diverse approaches to couple work, to show how these can be integrated and sequenced, and to do this in a way that avoids subsequent “theoretical brain freeze” (a closing metaphor!) when clinicians are faced with the demanding complexity of therapeutic encounters.




Nielsen, A. C. (2016). A roadmap for couple therapy: Integrating systemic, psychodynamic, and behavioral approaches. New York: Routledge. https://www.amazon.com/Roadmap-Couple-Therapy-Integrating-Psychodynamic/dp/0415818087/ref=sr_1_1?crid=314IRI69KL9I0&keywords=a+roadmap+for+couple+therapy&qid=1567528614&s=gateway&sprefix=%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-1

Nielsen, A. C. (2017). From Couple Therapy 1.0 to a comprehensive model: A roadmap for sequencing and integrating systemic, psychodynamic, and behavioral approaches. Family Process, 56, 540-557. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1545-5300

Nielsen, A. C. (2017). Psychodynamic couple therapy: A practical synthesis. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43, 685-699. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/jmft.12236.