This article first appeared in the November/December 1996 issue.


WE ALL BRING SOME PARTICULAR BIASES, INCLINATIONS or special sensitivities to our work as therapists. As someone with a parallel life as a jazz drummer, I hear the rhythms beneath the problems of couples and turn to the dimension of time as a potential resource for change. Not that one needs to be a drummer to note that couples often present with problems around time. Aside from the common complaint of not having enough time, problems may include differences between partners over their priorities in allocating time, about each other’s pace (of completing household responsibilities, showering, making love), over their concern, or lack of concern, for punctuality or in their temporal focus whether they reflect on the past, enjoy the present or plan for the future.

I’ve often found that one of the most efficient ways to reveal the core patterns of closeness and power distribution between partners is to attend to how the couple handles time from the moment-to-moment rhythms of partners’ speech and silence to how they’ve created and maintained their particular daily and weekly rhythms of joint and separate activities, as well as the degree to which they agree on the sequence and timing of future goals. And I often find that framing (or reframing) a couple’s struggles in terms of problems and differences around the dimension of time allows the partners to approach change with less mutual antagonism. Time problems are never the whole story: I view this as just one vantage point among many that I may take in trying to assist a couple.

From the outset, listening to time and rhythm seemed a useful way to understand some of Cindy and David’s difficulties. Cindy, a 34-year-old former advertising executive and competitive athlete, had recently started a new career as a physical therapist in private practice. She and David, a 35-year-old stockbroker, had lived together in David’s place for half of their three years as a couple. Now they were about to move to an apartment they had both chosen and were arguing a lot about what Cindy called “lifestyle issues.” For instance, Cindy saw David as “taking forever” to fix things around the house or to decide on buying a new appliance, while David saw Cindy as “impulsive” and “pressured.” In addition, Cindy was disturbed when David spent money on fancy foods and services (home massages, grocery delivery, house cleaning), noting that she was much more practical about money and concerned about saving it. David argued that because he earned the greater proportion of their income, he was entitled to spend it, and that they had plenty of money for him to enjoy life now. Cindy was more worried about the future. She felt that David’s sense of entitlement to spend wasn’t fair and that they should be making decisions together. David retorted that Cindy’s “insecurities” were needlessly restricting him from spending his own money. In addition, he thought that by spending money on certain amenities (such as someone to clean the apartment) they would have more time for enjoyable activities together. Cindy and David informed me that they had recently ended an eight-month couples therapy. That treatment, they said, focused too much on their individual histories in a way that left both feeling at fault, without helping them to resolve their current difficulties. I was recommended to them as a therapist with a more “problem-solving” orientation. Although I regularly inquire about family-of-origin issues to assist in resolving current dilemmas, I willingly accepted the couple’s here-and-now, problem-solving focus as a place to start.

To broaden my understanding of how each partner related to the dimension of time, I inquired about their respective work lives what each liked, what each found frustrating, and what special strengths and abilities each brought to the job. Cindy loved the independence of her new career, away from the time pressures of corporate life, because it allowed her to focus on the “physical dimension” full-time and because she enjoyed assisting her clients to experience both “immediate results and long-term gains.” David spoke of how time for reflection, away from the jangling phones, was the key to realizing his talent for generating unique financial strategies. I noted that they both seemed to agree on the value of avoiding waste, but Cindy was concerned about avoiding wasting money, while David focused more on how not to waste time. In addition, I wondered if in some way what they were calling “lifestyle issues” reflected differences in each partner’s pace of doing things Cindy being more fast-paced and David more slow-paced as well as in the primary time perspective each was advocating for their lives together. Regarding the latter, Cindy appeared more future oriented, wishing to save and plan, and David, perhaps in part as a counterbalance to the future-oriented approach to money necessary in his career, gravitated to a more present orientation, wishing to enjoy today the things that money could buy. I also suggested that, as couples sometimes do, they may have become polarized with each other around a pace and time perspective. In actuality, in their respective descriptions of what they enjoyed about their careers and their times together, each seemed to value both the present and future.

Both partners agreed wholeheartedly with these descriptions, which they considered a “less blaming” way of thinking about their arguments. Moreover, each was able to reflect on how the other’s pace was one of the qualities that originally attracted them to one another. David loved Cindy’s high energy and enthusiasm, and Cindy found David’s reflective, slower pace comforting and calming at times. I then wondered aloud whether the differences in time perspective underlying their power struggles about money also revealed a more pervasive conflict around closeness and commitment to the future. At the phrase “commitment to the future,” Cindy rolled her eyes and David smiled nervously, noting, “Commitment is definitely a biggie.”

In the following sessions, it emerged that Cindy wanted to get married soon and David did not. David’s unwillingness to commit to marriage had understandably intensified Cindy’s concerns about the future; but in typically circular fashion, he responded to her intensified concern with the future by becoming even more focused on the present. Although he believed he would eventually want to marry Cindy, David was uncomfortable with what he perceived to be Cindy’s “emotional dependency.” He wanted to see that change before they married. He said to Cindy, “You want to control all my time. I have no time to myself. I need more ‘think time,’ more time just to be inside my head. But you seem to want constant affection. And you get so angry when I come home a few minutes late. I feel like I’m living in a prison sometimes a prison where the walls are time.”

Cindy countered that David had never asked for “think time,” so she always assumed, when she saw him sitting on the couch alone, with a faraway look on his face, that he was unhappy, and so she would try to cheer him up. Then, when he’d show displeasure at her efforts, she would perceive it as his lack of affection for her, and this did make her feel insecure. But, she claimed, she didn’t start out feeling that way. I pointed out the circularity of this pattern and both agreed.

As far as his coming home late, Cindy felt that punctuality was a matter of respect for one’s partner, and that she only expected him to let her know if he’d be late and when he’d arrive. David said that he didn’t mean to disrespect her, but to call and tell her that he’d be home a few minutes late (and both agreed it was always a matter of minutes, not hours) would set up another deadline. What he wanted after a day of work in which, as he said, “timing is everything, deadlines prevail and the clock rules my life,” was to be able to stroll home from the office, “floating,” even if briefly, in a sense of timelessness. David emphasized that it wasn’t more time alone that he wanted, just freedom from another deadline.

When described in this way, Cindy said she could understand David’s desire for “think time.” She knew David was frustrated with having to respond so much to time pressures set by others, although she was not convinced that he would make it home by the same time without her prompting. Cindy was also skeptical that these time issues had much to do with David’s discomfort about getting married, but he insisted that the “time thing” was extremely important for him.

I suggested that in the following week David ask Cindy for as much think time as he felt he needed, that she give it (as long as he told her the parameters of when he’d start and finish) and that David keep a log of how much time he took and how he felt as a result of it. This would establish David’s “baseline” needs for time apart, and the couple could negotiate a compromise from there. I also suggested that Cindy stop asking David when he would be home, so both partners could see what would happen naturally to the rhythms of their evenings if David included some “float time.” Would it put them totally out of synch? Improve their time together? That was the experiment for the week.

In the following session, both partners were beaming and more relaxed. David reported that, to his surprise, he ended up with enough think time just keeping to his usual patterns. The difference this week was that he let Cindy know when he was going into think time and she allowed him to do so. It turned out he needed only about 30 minutes a day. In addition, he found that, without the pressure to be home by an exact time, he could enjoy his “float time” and fit most of his “think time” into his trip home from work.

Cindy reported (with a great deal of surprise) that David whom she had come to see as “aloof” by nature actually did arrive home roughly at the same time as before. By the end of the week, he had also started to initiate more affectionate contact with her, and in new ways. David was surprised to hear about that. “I did? What did I do? I wasn’t trying!” he said. Like a number of other couples with whom I’ve worked directly on changing the temporal foundation of their relationships, Cindy and David had experienced a spontaneous shift around a major issue that of closeness and who initiates it. This shift followed almost effortlessly from a relatively small change in how they managed their daily rhythms.

The easing of tensions around time encouraged them to work at their power struggle around money. David recognized he had been invoking a “buck stops here” model that since he earned most of the income, he should get to make the final decisions. He agreed with Cindy to suspend this approach in the spirit of more equal decision-making and fairness.

Both partners also felt that there was more to talk about regarding affection and commitment. David confirmed Cindy’s belief that he saw her as a “bottomless pit” when it came to affection and referred (in the kind of shorthand code couples use) to “that stuff with your father.” She countered that his “stuff with his mother” made him “freak out” about getting physically close. Given that they had spontaneously introduced the past as an issue, I asked if we might spend some time discussing how each of them experienced the giving and receiving of affection in their respective families of origin. They agreed to this and over the next few sessions we distilled from their accounts of family experiences and past relationships the psychological “questions” about closeness that each had brought to the current relationship, which each could help the other resolve.

At this point, the therapy encompassed overlapping, mutually reinforcing, time frames: While we clarified Cindy and David’s interlocking family-of-origin issues around intimacy, we also worked to increase closeness through more creative use of time. As an example of the latter, I introduced them to what I call the “Sixty-Second Pleasure Point” exercise, in which the partners brainstorm about all of the fun, pleasurable things they could do with each other in sixty seconds or less. They came up with a full list of things they could do when physically together, as well as things they could do when apart call and say “I love you and I’m thinking of you,” share some news or tell each other something funny. I then suggested they distribute 10 of these pleasure points across the day a few in the morning, two during the day, a few more at night. I then asked them if they could each recall, when they were children, what they would do when they would see a line of dots, as in a coloring book. Both simultaneously smiled and said, “Connect them!” I suggested that they might find, if they tried this next week, that they would automatically “connect the dots” of these pleasure points and experience an “arc of pleasure and connection” across the day, without changing their busy schedules much at all.

The following week, they reported the pleasure-point exercise did indeed bring them together in an effortless way. With genuine shock, David described finding that Cindy felt much more loved, even on the days when all he did was call once to say “I love you and wish I was with you.” Cindy just shook her head, saying, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! I don’t need so much affection!” He turned to me and said, in the lingo of his profession, “I really like these low-investment, high-yield approaches!”

Progress for Cindy and David was not a smooth, uninterrupted arc. They had a few incidents in which Cindy launched into a list of concerns about the apartment the moment David walked in, he withdrew and tried to assert his “think time,” she felt insulted and they fought. I suggested that they create a nightly ritual, a temporal “decompression chamber,” to assist with the transition between being apart during the day and together in the evening. The couple organized and successfully put into practice a half-hour depressurizing sequence that included an affectionate greeting, followed by David’s think time, followed by an update from Cindy and joint problem-solving, then a transition out into the rest of their night’s activities.

Other incidents over the weeks centered on initiation of affection. I suggested that only David could instigate change in this area. My thoughts here were twofold: first, to interrupt the sequence they had gotten into (Cindy approaching, David rebuffing), David would logically need to make the first affectionate move; second, because David had had upsetting sexualized experiences with his mother that had led him to have trepidation about receiving spontaneous affection, I thought he might overcome this through a structured activity in which he was in control of initiating contact. I suggested that he engage in a “ritual of reassurance” for Cindy on a daily basis. I emphasized the importance of a rhythm of reassurance that he needed to do this ritual with her at the same time each day and that the rhythmic quality would automatically weave itself into Cindy’s expectations. This would make it easier for David to remember to do it. David protested; he reminded us that Cindy’s need for reassurance seemed partly to stem from a problematic relationship with her father, and said, “I feel like I’m being asked to do something to correct something that is not my fault, that I didn’t cause!” I agreed with him, but pointed out that only he could change the current sequence between them, because as soon as Cindy had to ask for it, David’s reassurance lost much of its value.

David came up with a “reassurance mantra,” passed it by Cindy to gauge its potency and tried it out all the next week, with great effect. David was impressed with how small but regular amounts of affection were sufficient to provide Cindy with reassurance that he was committed to the relationship, and she responded by becoming more flexible about time spent together versus apart. Not long afterward, the couple was talking seriously about marriage for the first time; finally, David proposed. Ten sessions after we had begun, the therapy’s rhythm went from once a week to once a month and then ended with an open door, as always with my patients.

I have no doubt that Cindy and David could have been helped without interventions that so directly mined the resource of time. From another standpoint, one could say it was not time per se that proved so important, but tried-and-true couples therapy interventions, such as work with genograms, rituals, gender beliefs; identifying power struggles; interrupting polarizing complementarities and escalations; gentle paradox; and humor. Because time is omnipresent every act has a duration, a sequence, a frequency, a pace and a location point on the calendar and clock, and repeated patterns often become regular and rhythmic one can always choose to focus on the temporal dimension or on other aspects of these acts and patterns. Like all lenses, the lens of time is a construction that captures part, not all, of the couple’s experiences and presentation to others. But in the spirit of the field’s current quest to develop brief approaches to couples therapy, attention to the temporal dimension of a couple’s life can provide an efficient means to generate significant change in relatively little time.

Case Commentary

by Kitty LaPerriere

Years of noticing the difference between watching a therapeutic interview, either live or on tape, and reading the therapist’s subsequent description of what transpired have made be cautious in responding to case studies. Typically, much of what happens in the therapy room is not captured in the case narrative. Even though the most significant elements of the healing bond may be hard to convey, they may be essential to the quality of the outcome.

Fraenkel entered this treatment mindful that the couple had reached a dead end with their previous therapist. He accepted the couple’s idea that the historic exploration had caused trouble and agreed to their wish for a here-and-now, problem-solving approach. Is this his preferred mode? Would he ever, after allowing for tactical requirements, look for a different path, if he felt it was indicated?

Is the 10-session format one he chooses for this type of situation? What guides his choice? None of these questions is addressed in this case, but it does appear that his brief format fits the stated wishes of the couple and the current view of what constitutes acceptable therapy; it also represents a good fit between therapist and couple.

Fraenkel reports on a course of task-oriented, briskly moving work. He is consistent without being rigid and clearly in possession of a useful array of couples therapy techniques. I particularly appreciated his bringing his jazz-drummer self into the room. In addition to providing a rationale for the ubiquitous concept of time as an organizer of interpersonal patterns, I imagine his jazz connection may have allowed Fraenkel to be more fully present with these clients, making him a real person and not just a purveyor of the latest therapeutic model. If rhythm, time, speech and silences are what moves him, the couple that can join him on that beat may well get his best efforts. Here, it helped an astonishingly quick achievement of one of the important tasks of couples therapy: the alignment of two people as joint, cooperative problem solvers rather than polarizing antagonists. This may have been made easier by the fact that the couple is on the hopeful slope of a relationship, looking toward commitment and not entrapped in a long history of embattlement.

How would I approach this clinical situation, if I were the therapist? Knowing nothing of Cindy and David’s families of origin, their ethnic background or their lives, it’s hard to say. I would probably have explored some underlying issues more cautiously and extensively. Relating their ages to the differences of time and rhythm observed earlier, I might have checked out their expectations about having children. Moving out of David’s place to an apartment that was new to both of them suggested increasing mutual commitment. Cindy’s job shift toward lower pressure, lower pay work might be a precursor to parenthood. I might have encouraged them to explore ways of dealing with unequal financial contributions, and the risk of the ensuing unequal relationship power, beyond David’s reassurance to “be more fair.” The question of how to combine autonomy and separateness with warmth and openness is crucial in any couple. It also carries heavy gender loading: women almost always prioritize explicit relationship affirmation more than men do. I might have spent more time helping Cindy and David develop a clear framework for negotiating the rules of the relationship. Since I also consider premarital therapy a great opportunity to review such developmental tasks as managing closeness and distance, acquiring comfort and mutuality of affection and exploring the inner and outer boundaries of family of origin issues, it is likely I would have spent time on all of these facets of their relationship. But how do I know? Perhaps Fraenkel chose the exactly right amount of involvement and depth Cindy and David were up for. This is, after all, a happy time for them. I, too, might have sent them on their way once they got over having cold feet, assuring them of my ever-open door and wishing them Godspeed.

Case Commentary

by Philip Guerin

The author of the case study is to be complimented on having relieved this couple’s distress without doing their relationship damage in the process. Cindy and David’s problem is a developmental vulnerability: one of them is commitment-shy, the other is commitment-hungry a common state of affairs among courting couples who wait a long time to formalize their relationship.

Since psychotherapy can do damage to the tenuous bond of this kind of relationship, the first thing I would do in this case would be to warn them of the possible negative consequences of couples therapy. To a developmentally sensitive relationship like theirs, in which the commitment is tentative, the intense scrutiny of therapy can prove fatal. If, in spite of my warning, Cindy and David wanted to continue, I would make a time-limited contract with them for a maximum of six sessions and a follow-up. My goal would be to give them a framework for viewing their relationship that would help them either commit to each other and get on with it or choose another set of life options.

In the initial session with this couple, after the usual genograms and life-stress evaluation, I would ask about their previous attempts at therapy and get permission to contact those therapists. I would be scanning for factors that complicated Cindy and David’s relationship, and would divide the issues presented into the categories of partnership, companionship and intimacy, to give myself an organizational matrix for treatment planning and to help clarify with them how their relationship works. This part of the evaluation can be accomplished in the first session, provided you give it 60 minutes.

The next two sessions would be with Cindy and David separately. In the session with Cindy, I would begin by investigating with her the source of the internal pressures she is feeling to close the deal. Are most of her friends already married? Is she trying to please her parents? Are her feelings of love for David so intense that she can’t bear the thought of losing him? I would encourage her to make the connections between her internal feelings and her behavior with David. This might help her to see how her emotional intensity turns into a pursuit of David that is working against her. Teaching her how to contain her anxiety and reduce her pursuit of David is important, not only for the here-and-now, but also for the future. The patterns exhibited by Cindy and David have a natural history of recycling. It is learning to modulate and manage these patterns, not making them disappear, that is important. I would encourage Cindy to fashion a thought-out position for herself that emphasizes her assets as a person, her belief that she and David fit as a couple and her readiness to commit now to a future together, giving David a time frame (six months) either to join her or to agree to disagree.

The individual session with David would focus on his reaction to relationship pressure and pursuit. I would explore with David how his parents and close friends feel about his relationship with Cindy, with an eye toward finding hidden relationship triangles in his life that might be strongly influencing him. I would ask about his thoughts on the best way to form a marital partnership, if he is emotionally ready at this time to form such a partnership and if he believes Cindy is the “one.”

The agenda for the remaining three conjoint sessions would be partially decided at the close of their individual sessions and refined with both of them at the beginning of the fourth session. In Cindy and David’s case, their differences around commitment would head the list. In my experience, the most important commitment is to the process of trying to make the relationship work. Notions of commitment of undying love often fail in times of conflict. On the other hand, a commitment to “endless trying” can be honored throughout the periods of extensive warfare that are also part of the natural history of most meaningful marriages. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As part of the discussion of these matters with Cindy and David, I would predict that one of them would probably try harder than the other, and challenge them as to which one of them will most likely fill that spot. This, then, becomes a perfect segue into a consideration of Cindy’s over-responsibility and their “time problems” as described by the author.

The fifth session would be devoted to a consideration of their differences around money, sex, personal disclosure and how to spend relationship time. The challenge will be for Cindy and David to find a way to blend their differences into a fabric of complementary strength, rather than polarizing them into continuous conflict.

The sixth and final session of this initial therapeutic involvement would involve an in-depth discussion of their thoughts and feelings about relationship intimacy in general and their version of it, looking at the intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects of their intimacy. However, most of the time would be used in exploring their sexual compatibility, or lack thereof, and how that influences the quality of their emotional bond.

In closing out the final session, I would review the assets and limitations of their relationship, along with what each of them could work on as individuals and as a couple. For example, Cindy could work on calming down her anxiety and seeking emotional support from her extended family or social network. To some degree, this behavior would create a pressure vacuum in the relationship. On his part, David could attempt to move into this vacuum by taking initiative in the relationship, spending time with Cindy that focused on her needs. In addition, he could explore his relationship with his mother and its influence on his commitment allergy. This would best be done by spending one-on-one time with his mother and monitoring his feelings and behavior.

I would instruct Cindy and David during the six week hiatus before the follow-up session to keep any intense communication to a minimum, maintain an emotionally light atmosphere, schedule daily “alone time” and do more play than relationship work together. Six weeks later, the follow-up session would review what they had learned from the sessions and from their work on themselves during the break. At that point, based on the information provided, we would make a decision about the need for further clinical sessions.

Author’s Response

I appreciate LaPerriere’s comment about the difficulty of evaluating a therapy from a written case study. Edited narratives do not capture all elements of a case; they are told to illustrate a point or two, and the main point of this one was to highlight the dimension of time in couples’ difficulties and as a resource for change. A second, less emphasized, point of this case study was to demonstrate that, if engaged judiciously and self-critically, the therapist’s special inclinations, interests or sensitivities in this case, my interest in rhythm and time can serve as a source of ideas that supplement con-sensually supported theory and practice. Mindful of Guerin’s comment that therapy can harm clients, one way to avoid turning one’s interests and sensitivities into distorting biases that lead clients on the therapist’s idiosyncratic journey is to present one’s ideas to clients in a spirit of tentative, joint explorations, rather than as foregone conclusions. (Another is to test the general applicability of one’s ideas by developing and empirically testing theory, work which I’ve described elsewhere in reference to time and rhythm in couples.) Thus, in answer to LaPerriere’s question of whether I would “look for a different path” if I felt it was indicated, I would answer heartily, “yes,” and add that I engage the couple as my collaborators (really, customers) in choosing these other paths.

Typically, as I did with Cindy and David, I listen carefully to clients’ ideas about what they want to focus on, and, as was the case with them, also what they don’t want to focus on, and why. I tell them some about how I work, including that I invite them to tell me if they feel the therapy is not meeting their needs and expectations, so that we can change course as needed. I then outline at least two different ways we might get started. From a temporal perspective, the two “ways” are usually a “past-to-present” frame, in which we would examine the impact on the present relationship of each partner’s family and culture of origin, as well as the impact of each partner’s experiences in prior intimate relationships; or a “present-to-future” frame, in which we would focus more on creating changes in communication, perceptions and action sequences, often through activities conducted by the couple during the week. I then let the couple choose how they want to begin the work, noting that we can start with one approach and move to another or engage both approaches simultaneously. Asking couple partners to decide together how they would like to work in therapy often seems to galvanize their ownership of and commitment to the therapy, and may partially address Guerin’s point that “the most important commitment is to the process of trying to make the relationship work.” Although I do not typically warn couples that “therapy can prove fatal” to their relationship, as Guerin does, I believe that, by inviting couples to decide how they would like to work and inviting them to share their concerns about the impact of therapy in an ongoing manner, I may achieve a similar outcome: allowing us to develop a safe, respectful, trustworthy relationship within which many different ideas about time or anything else can be explored for their benefit.

Peter Fraenkel

Peter Fraenkel, PhD, is a couple therapist, psychologist, associate professor of psychology at City College of New York, and professional drummer who studied with Aretha’s drummer. He received the 2012 American Family Therapy Award for Innovative Contribution to Family Therapy, and is the author of Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track, and Last Chance Couple Therapy: Bringing Couples Back from the Brink.