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By Chandrama Anderson

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About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and have lived in and around Palo Alto since 1969. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in Silicon Valley for 15 years before becoming a therapist. My background i...  (More)

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Couples: Parallel Play or Interactive Play?

Uploaded: Aug 18, 2014
Young children play alone, enjoying a box as much as the gift that came in that box. Other children may be present, but each child is focused on his or her own activity.

Around age 3-4 children make a shift from parallel play to playing with other children. What about couples?

Think about the last time you went on a date with your partner. How often do you go on dates? If you have children, when is the last time you went away for the weekend?

I see many couples that are engaged in parallel play.

One problem with parallel play is that a small issue between partners may slightly alter the trajectory of their paths, and lead them quite far apart over time if left unaddressed. Obvious problems include lack of connection and intimacy.

All couples have issues of one sort or another. The myth of "happily ever after" can cause couples to think 'we should not have any issues,' or that we are the only ones that have issues, or that if we have to work on our relationship maybe we're with the wrong person. Issues equal problems, until we learn to look at them as learning opportunities and a means to actually be more intimate – more interactive.

In a couples workshop that I assisted in with Kathryn Ford, M.D., developer of the Learning Partners Model, couples were amazed to be in a room with other couples experiencing difficulties. That was a normalizing experience for all of them, and immediately lowered the self-imposed pressure of "What's wrong with us?"

A couple's presenting issues are likely to be about a variety of topics from sex, to arguing, to who keeps house and how it's kept, to money, to fidelity to children to home remodeling, and everything in between.

Therapy graduate programs provide minimal couples therapy training. We are taught that most likely the underlying issues are about money, power and/or sex. And at one level that's true. But I would posit that most couples are actually concerned about love, connection, intimacy, sex, respect, acceptance, being known, safety, and so on – people wonder, if you really know me (i.e., see my Shadow side), will you leave me? Can you love the real me?

So how do we help couples reset and work toward interactive play?

The first thing is to reframe problems as opportunities for growth. Once we move from a problem/broken model to a learning model, the interactions and experiences can become experiments, with a cycle of learning, noticing, tracking oneself and the other, discussing content and process (i.e., what happened, how we felt about it, and what we learned about ourselves and each other), and repeat the cycle of experimenting and discussing how it went.

Find a babysitter and go out and do the things you did when you were dating. Don't talk about your kids on these dates.

Know and believe that you deserve to be happy and well attended to by one another.

Work on the Gremlins in your head (that voice that kibitzes all day, every day) by offering realistic and constructive answers to those assertions.

Put your devices away by 7 or 8 PM and keep them (and TV) out of the bedroom.

Take the 5 Love Languages quiz and give to each other in that language.

Read or listen to books that help couples get and stay on track.

Have sex.

But by all means, play together! Stop working so long (your productivity will actually improve).

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