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Effectiveness of using Rehearsals for Growth with a couple and their family in crisis (2013)

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

The “L” couple came to me for family therapy, both to work through marital discord and to overcome significant difficulties in raising their five children, ages 7 to 16. The parents, Ethan and Charlotte, never married, had been together for 18 years and had five children together.  Jimmy, the eldest, is 16, has special needs, mute, and intellectually challenged. Second born Jennie is 15, then Ronnie who is 13, and twin girls, Iris and Jasmine, who are 7 years old. Therapy continued for about two months, but it was apparent even earlier that problems in the marital subsystem needed to be addressed to continue productive family therapy. Accordingly, family sessions were interspersed with two periods of couples therapy, each lasting about a month.

The critical issue between the couple was Ethan’s discovery one year ago of an affair Charlotte was having, though now ended. News of the affair was brought to my attention not by the parents, but by their daughter Jennie in an individual session with me. The goal for therapy at that point was to help Ethan regain trust in Charlotte and strengthen intimacy and communication between them so they could restore balance and harmony to their relationship and to the family.

Therapy with the couple started by using the RfG exercise How We Met; this was extremely helpful in informing me about their Puerto Rican cultural rituals and celebration, as well as expectations they had for their marriage at that time. For example, having children without marrying is common in their shared culture, and having children out of wedlock was not considered unusual or taboo in any way. Before their having children, I discovered they had dated, but Charlotte was seeing other men during that time, which Ethan revealed was extremely distressing for him. It took Charlotte about eight sessions to actually admit to her affair. Once the affair was in the open the door opened for them to create change and growth in their relationship.

Charlotte was guarded and reticent to speak in sessions. Using Stories from Feelings gave her a chance to release her repressed emotions and feel she was being heard and understood by Ethan. The subject of her stories revolved around stress because she was overwhelmed by working full time and mothering five children. After the exercise, a productive discussion ensued about how angry she was that Ethan works on weekends, leaving her stuck by herself with the kids. It helped them share feelings about needs and expectations in raising the kids, and brought them closer to one another emotionally.

Very evident in working with the couple was how often Charlotte blocked Ethan’s efforts to be close to her or to compliment her. Stop and Go worked well to demonstrate to the couple how they block each other, and how blocking was preventing intimacy and communication between them. This exercise created a good amount of laughter and at the end of the exercise, when Ethan tried to hug her, she did not resist.

When the couple presented as polarized and guarded, I used ice-breakers like Mirrors, Gibberish, No, You Didn’t, Poet’s Corner, or You Will, I Won’t to bring them fully into sessions, able to engage. This added fun to therapy and helped them see that humor is important in their relationship and for their family.RfG methods were used both with the parents alone and with the family. The couple was diligent in taking what they garnered in therapy and applying it to their daily lives. The children loved coming to therapy and often entered the sessions speaking gibberish or wanting to do some theatrical improv. The family has interwoven structure and rules with humor and more shared time together in playful activities. The chaotic and unruly behavior of the five children at the beginning of therapy had become by its conclusion a more balanced and productive therapy experience.

The greatest successes for the couple have been their ability to reconnect emotionally, and to discuss, process and resolve trust issues.  After being in therapy for five months they married, and are still being seen to work through the challenges of raising teenagers! RfG methods were a consistent part of weekly therapy, and helped this couple regain trust, work through power struggles in their parenting, and realize how playful interaction and physical contact can increase communication, bring security and safety back into their relationship, and create a more nurturing and loving marital and family bonds. As therapy continues, these exercises will be used and expanded upon, and will remain a valuable tool for the therapist with this family and many others.