Posted by: ellyn on Jul 12, 2010
When I mentioned the Paper Exercise in last month’s newsletter, many of you wrote back and asked for more information about it.
The Paper Exercise is an exercise that Pete and I adapted from Susan Campbell’s book, The Couples Journey. The exercise sounds a bit contrived, but it is so revealing of couples’ dynamics that it is worthwhile learning to use it. It can be used either diagnostically or as an intervention into the couples’ system.
Setting up the exercise
You will need a piece of plain white 8 ½ x 11 paper. Hold it in your hand, look into the eyes of one partner, and say, “This piece of paper represents something important to you. I’d like you to take a minute and think about what this piece of paper represents to you. You can think of anything that’s important to you except for your kids and your marriage.”
Then pause and continue to look into the eyes of that partner giving him a few seconds to think about what it is you’ve asked him to do. You want him to have time to process the request.
Then turn to the second partner and say, “This piece of paper represents something important to you and I’d like you to take a minute and think about what it represents to you. It can be anything that’s important to you except for your kids or your marriage.” Then pause again, giving time for that partner to think about it. Next, ask the couple to hold the piece of paper between them. Make sure each person has a hand on one end of the paper.
Then say to them, “I’d like you to hold this paper between you and I’m going to give you up to five minutes to decide who gets this paper without ripping or tearing it. You can do it verbally or non-verbally. You can do it any way you like, but at the end of the five minutes, I’d like you to decide who gets the paper without ripping or tearing it.”
Then be quiet and watch them. Usually I’ll back my chair up a little.
You might even consider tape-recording this when you do it.
Anyway, you watch and you time it. A lot of couples will try to engage you in answering questions, because you’ve created a projective type of situation that’s unsettling for them and they’re going to want you to structure it for them.
They’ll ask you all kinds of things. I keep responding to them, “You can do it any way you choose and you’ll have up to five minutes to decide who gets the paper without ripping or tearing it.” That’s all I say to them. And then I observe for the 5 minutes, especially watching for six categories. Watching for these will illuminate major areas of developmental weakness for the couple.
Summary List of Diagnostic Areas
Do the partners self-define? Is self-differentiation present in one, two or neither partner?
How do they manage boundaries? Are their boundaries rigid, overly permeable or clearly expressed?
Do they show awareness that their partner is separate and different from them? Do they explore what matters to the other? This is a measure of other-differentiation.
How do they manage conflict? Is it avoided, escalated or acknowledged and handled?
Do they have the capacity to negotiate and move the conflict forward?
Is each partner able to give and/or receive?
After the couple completes the exercise, be sure to inquire how each partner feels about the outcome. Then, you can give them feedback about where you saw each of them break down. You can also give positive strokes for strengths the exercise revealed.
This exercise is so rich. When you become fluid using it, you will learn an enormous amount about any couple in just a very few minutes! And you will come to recognize predictable patterns in couples without a base of differentiation.
Remember you can use this blog to share your comments and experiences using this exercise.
In our book, In Quest of the Mythical Mate, we give common examples and transcripts of responses from couples at most of the different developmental stages. For more information about it or to order a copy, click In Quest of the Mythical Mate.
I also have an entire lesson on this in my internet training program. For more information about that, visit Couples Therapy Training.
I love seeing comments from readers and will look forward to your observations about working with this exercise.
Until next time,