Couple therapy is very different than individual therapy in that you are treating the relationship primarily rather than just two individuals. That is why it was such a problem that in the second "couple therapy" session, Steven did not come to the second session with Tamara. At this point, I had two choices: see Tamara alone or send her away.
I did see her, but before I did, I informed her the research literature has shown that one-partner “couple therapy” may result in a negative outcome for the couple (Wilcoxon & Fenell, 1983). Understanding the possible impact, she agreed to stay and to focus on her specifically and tried to leave Steven out of it as much as possible.
As a result we uncovered her issues with desire for respect and being liked. I explained the often inverse relationship with the two -- that someone who is highly respected is not always liked, and someone is well-liked is not always respected. Sometimes what gets you liked by others can also diminish their respect for you, and vise-versa.
What also became apparent was the use of the animals in the relationship to cut the tension between the two. Couples often do this with animals, but also use other means such as television, alcohol, or even their own children to help them avoid any tension. A little is OK, but too much can drive a wedge in the relationship. In the third session, Tamara brings her cat to the session -- an act I labeled as "passive-aggressive."
A passive-aggressive act is typically an aggressive act done in some non-assertive manner. Here the aggressive act is that Tamara brings her cat (Kozy Mel) to the third session even though I asked her to come "without Jimmy Chew [the dog], without any animals." Then she claims she thought it only applied to Jimmy Chew. Passive-aggressive acts are typical when people feel powerless in a relationship; yet wish to express their power and/or anger in a situation. As it turns out, this passive-aggressive assertion of power with me turned out to be typical in her relationship with Steven. Because of the cultural expectations of women, her own upbringing, and the dynamic in their relationship, Tamara had learned to put her own power aside so that she can be liked and not ruffle feathers. But also because also wants respect for her intelligence and capability, she is in conflict. So, she uses indirect or passive-aggressive means to assert her power that can end up being destructive to the relationship.
Talking about this seemed to make Steven uncomfortable. He even mocked the quote by Rosanne Barr that I paraphrased but actually reads, “The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.” This is going to clearly upset the dynamic in the relationship, but speaking up for what she wants is something Tamara needs to be doing more. And, Steven needs to do his part by taking her seriously, listening to her, and accepting her influence. Once this happens the relationship will thrive.
A post-script: what you may not have seen was the clear love and respect that Tamara and Steven did have for each other. Though we did uncover issues that were getting in the way of the relationship moving forward, they also had far more strengths that we could use to support their bond. And, I am happy to report that Tamara and Steven are getting married!