As a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist I see a multitude of couples in crisis. As John Gottman, renowned marriage researcher notes, “The time between when a couple first notices trouble in their marriage and the time they seek professional help is six years.” Clearly what this tells us is that when couples finally make to the office, things have been bad for a long time. Insults have already been slung, defenses have solidified, criticisms have been stockpiled, walls have been built, and contempt may have even settled in. For those of you familiar with John Gottman’s work, you will recognize what Gottman dubs “The Four Horseman of the Apocolypse,” otherwise known as the four telling factors that characterize a marriage that is headed toward failure.
And sometimes, it feels as if there is nothing that can turn things around. While a skilled therapist may point out negative patterns, suggest alternative communication styles, attempt to reduce stress, and provide encouragement, the couple may simply be stuck, unable to step back from the anger and pain they feel to recognize the very negative pattern that perpetuates it.
It seems as if the minute the couple sits in the same room together, they are already angry, before either one has even said a word. And yet, neither one seems to be able to let it go.
So what is there were some intervention that put the couple in a position where they had to let go of the anger to be effective? Interestingly, this is exactly what we see in the case of a troubled child. As long as the child is sick, and the parents have to come together to help the child — such as in the case of an addiction – their anger will tend to abate. Of course no one wishes for a sick child.
But when couples come together to work with a horse, in a way, it is not that different from working with a resistant child. There is no guarantee that the horse will listen, and no guarantee that the couple will be effective — that is unless they work together. However, there is a much larger issue at state here.
While working together may provide some initial effectiveness with the horse, we cannot escape the fact that the horse is a flight animal, bound by a delicate system of nerves designed to detect anger, fear, and anxiety. So let’s say that the couple does manage to communicate with some clarity, but the anger hasn’t left. In this case, the horse will attempt to respond, but eventually his fear will simply take over, and he will likely try to escape the situation. He may bolt, run, or even act out defensively, by kicking or biting. This, after all, is the only way a horse knows how to handle fear — run away, and when you can’t run away, fight back.
Of course, while the therapist can draw the couple’s attention to the way in which their behavior — and underlying feelings — are affecting the horse, it is up to the couple to change it. And unless they do, the horse will not respond differently.
Every time I’ve used equine therapy as an intervention for couples, an interesting thing happens — the couple develops an affection for the horse. While this affection seems to facilitate therapeutic interventions, it also is rather infrequent in traditional therapy.
In a metaphoric way, when the couple realizes that they like the same thing — the horse — they also seem to recognize that they like each other when with the horse, and maybe even after. And in marital therapy, especially with couples in crisis mode, this is an essential component.
Gottman Institute Youtube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/TheGottmanInstitute
Horse and couple photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 15 Feb 2013