Application of Rehearsals for Growth to the Martin Family

by Debra Dean-Ciriani, MS, LMFT, RfG-CP

As an MFT working predominantly from a Structural Family Therapy perspective, I first saw the Martin family in September of 2010. The IP was their 11 year old son, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and, they reported, was causing all the problems in the family.

The first session was with the entire family that consisted of the father, mother, and four children, ages 6 months to 13. From the beginning, it was clear that the family was in crisis, and that it was not only their 11 year old son who was contributing to the problems. The children were wild and did not take directives from their parents, which most often led into conflict between the parents over how to discipline the children.

After a couple of sessions to join with the family and create an assessment of family dynamics and problems in the parental hierarchy, I met with the parents as a couple. I first had them narrate the actual story of “How We Met,” and they delighted in recounting their very romantic courtship. This opened the door for them to talk about how their families of origin had reacted to their relationship and eventual marriage, and segued into conversation about what each had expected for their marriage and from their partner in marriage. Not surprisingly, they found they did not agree on many things, and they both realized they had not really ever talked about their expectations.

A few sessions later I asked them to participate in “Tug of War” and “Mirrors”, after which we identified, discussed and processed how they differ on issues of control and equality. Dad did not like the “power up” posture in either of the exercises, while mom said she liked making sure she won at “Tug of War”, and being the leader in “Mirrors.”

Further discussion revealed that the mother runs the household and the children, while the breadwinner father is subordinate at home. Dad enforces few consequences for the children’s negative behavior, but anytime he does try to be firm with the children, mom criticizes his decision, often in front of them. We discussed the importance of both supporting the other’s consequences given and carried out for their children’s negative behavior, disagreeing only in private.

When repeating the “Tug of War” exercise several times they became progressively more playful and engaged, with the mother letting go of control and enjoying the exercise rather than trying to win. During “Presents,” the mother’s desire to have a vacation from the children was revealed. They had not had a vacation together since they married; in session they discussed where and when they would go for a romantic getaway, holding hands and laughing a lot. Yet also at this particular session, both spouses expressed their feelings of isolation in the marriage, blaming each other for not “being there” enough.

The couple sessions with were crucial in helping them find a middle ground for their parenting and, more importantly, their spousal relationship. Enacting “Hands Through Puppets,” they realized how they had physically drawn away from each other and were able to laugh at themselves, but also grasp that with four children in the picture they had ceased being intimate. Both of them desired a return to intimacy, and just touching each other in this exercise brought them closer and able to discuss their desire to restore intimacy and fun into their marriage. They laughed a lot during the exercise, and after were able to express their feelings of loneliness and isolation in their marriage. As the wife welled up with tears, her husband took her hand, which led to them embracing.

When the children joined the sessions again I started with “Gibberish”. I find it amazing how much easier this is for the youngest children, and gets progressively harder as the ages go up. “Gibberish” broke the tension within the family, and eventually became their preferred way of starting our sessions. Mom, who could not say one gibberish word at the first attempt, eventually got the hang of it and allowed herself to be in the moment with her family. I also had the parents do “Mirrors” with the children, where again mom wanted to control. When paired with her mother the 13-year-old daughter yelled at her, saying it was her turn, and saying, “stop trying to control everything like you always do!” After some processing, Mom did stop trying to control, and their Mirrors enactments ended up being more playful than confrontational.

After achieving their treatment goals, the Martin family terminated treatment shortly before moving to another state. They wrote me months later to say they were doing well, reporting that they now laugh more, talk a lot more, and had become experts at speaking gibberish! Using a variety of RfG techniques throughout this family’s treatment had helped them define and establish healthy boundaries, restore intimacy, increase healthy verbal interaction between the spousal couple, and improve the family dynamics. With the parents now co-equal and at the top of the parental hierarchy, the family had met their goals for creating change and growth, and restoring balance and harmony in the family.