Working with Couples: A Gestalt Approach

Gestalt therapy has offered a rather distinctive paradigm from which to view the person and reality. While later theorists such as Yontef, Latner, Parlett and Wheeler have cited field theory (particularly that of Kurt Lewin) as a key pillar or philosophical underpinning to Gestalt therapy, it is the original text of Perls, Hefferleine and Goodman (PHG) which offers a very startling and vibrant and easily missed description of all selves, be they individual, couple or group.

From the beginning of the theoretical half of the book they outline a view of the self as intrinsically part of an overall organism/environment field. In a manner which goes to the heart of many of the mystical writings in describing the experience of self, the self is seen as indistinguishable and a priori at one with the all that is.

“Let us call this interacting of organism and environment in any function the ‘organism/environment field’; and let us remember no matter how we theorize about impulses, drives etc., it is always to such an interacting field that we are referring, and not to an isolated animal. Where the organism is mobile in a great field and has a complicate internal structure, like an animal, it seems plausible to speak of it by itself – as, for instance, the skin and what is contained in it – but this simply an illusion due to the fact that the motion through space and the internal detail call attention to themselves against the relative stability and simplicity of the background” PHG pg 228

Any separateness in sensing the self is an illusion – at best an experience of self build upon the functioning of a separate ego sense of self which develops later. As the child starts to discriminate self and not self, such ego functions develop and as the child learns to language this, this languaging of self and ego may be called the personality.

Using one of the two definitions of the self found in this book, that of self is a system of contacts in the organism/environment field, there is the scope to move beyond the separate ego sense of self to many selves which arise and come into being and then fade back into the ground.

Hence when two or more people become systematised in their contact with each other, they are a self.

This description and more still this experience of self opens to then seeing and experiencing a couple, particularly those who are partnered or married, as an ongoing self, as much and more than the ego sense of self.

The notion of the couple as an organism in the organism/environment field offers a uniquely beautiful way to enter into contact with a couple in therapy for we then look to the organismic functions of growth and balance not only of the individual persons but of the couple as a whole.

In essence we realise with the couple we are contacting and dealing with is One Life. They appear as two people of course but when we accept this view of the couple as one, then a richer more fuller tapestry presents.

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