5. The Fifth C- Container - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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5. The Fifth C- Container

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Therapy Interruptus

Therapy Interruptus and Clinical Practice,
Building Client Investment from First Contact through the First Session
by Ronald Mah

• The strength, resiliency, definition, rules, expectations, and damage of the relationship as conceptualized as a container help provide guidance to therapy.
• The couple or family as a container may be reparable or have suffered so much damage as to be irreparable.
• Each partner in the couple or member in the family needs to respectively and overtly examine the definition, rules, and expectations of his or her couple or family container in comparison to his or her partner's or other family members.
• Problems in relationships may come from different definitions of the container's requirements and allowances.

The final three C's are important to therapy, but have particular relevance to couple therapy.  Marriage or the couple can be conceptualized as a container that holds the commitments, contracts, hopes, and dreams of the pair.  The family is a container for its members, in particular for the children to grow and develop.  The individual can also be seen as a container of emotions, thoughts, experiences, values, and more.  The container may be conceptualized as the person's psychic strength and stability.  The container is defined by rules, expectations, and boundaries.  The container can withstand attacks, stress, and injuries if it is strong and resilient.  Both members of a couple bring into the container, the strengths and weaknesses of their life experiences, personalities, and cultures.  The parent or parents (or other leader) of a family set the family container with their attributes acquired prior to connecting.  New elements enter the system throughout the history of the family.  The stronger the initial ingredients, the more likely the container will be strong.  The more appropriate the design of the container to the demands of the individual's life, the couple, or the family the more likely the container will work.  The couple continues to build the container through their shared history and investment.  Their investment is of energy, love, hope, dreams, and especially trust.  As long as both members accept and abide by the definitions of the container, the relationship stays stable.  Strong containers can endure or recover from substantial stresses, traumas, and affronts.  A strong container may be able to withstand external pressures or assaults such as unemployment, problems with friends or other family members, financial issues, economic instability, and so on.  A strong container also has to withstand internally created pressures or assaults created by a problematic partner, family member, of life circumstances.  The couple may come for therapy because of damage to their marital or couples container because of an extra-marital or extra-couple sexual relationship.  The family may seek therapy because the container is not strong or flexible enough to withstand children's behavior problems or have caused such problems.  Other behaviors may constitute betrayals that damage the container as well.  Some marital or couples containers have cultural or individually negotiated provisions for affairs or extramarital relationships: open relationships, polygamy, or the keeping of mistresses.  Children may be expected to follow certain edicts that when violated are also considered betrayal.  An individual may hold specific personal behavior as betrayal of the internalized sense of self.  However, the expressed container may not be the same as the implied emotional container for an individual, couple, or family, nor may different members hold the same sense of the container.

The container of a couple or the family may be so damaged by a severe injury such as an affair or by continued assaults, that it may be shattered or damaged beyond repair.  Betrayal in a committed monogamous relationship is probably the greatest assault upon the couple's container.  Through the work of therapy, both individuals may change and grow.  They can become stronger, have clearer healthier values, continue to love each other (or love even more), and even develop greater respect.  Love as the definer of the couple’s container is arguably a fairly modern development.  Historically, the couple’s container has been defined in terms of economic, political, and physical security.  Many couple's relationships remain primarily financial arrangements.  Sometimes the emotional aspect of the container suffers so much damage that it becomes irreparable.  The betrayal is too great, the damage too severe, or the history too deep.  And, one or both partners may have to move on from the corrupted container.  Either or both can possibly build a new vessel with another partner.  The therapist should assess the condition is the container of the couple for one partner.  And for the other partner.  What is the extent of the damage?  Is the container reparable?  Despite more unity, continued love, even acceptance, and respect, after two plus years of couple therapy, a woman who's husband had fathered a child in an affair found that the sacred container/sacred marriage could not be repaired.  "If he could have been this man then, it would have been different.  But now it's too late."  The container had been irreparably shattered.

With her husband, Tony's (The HBO series, "The Sopranos") continued affairs, Carmela Sopranos' container of the marriage was significantly damaged.  However, despite knowledge of the affairs and realizing that he would probably continue to have extra-marital relationships, she decided that the container of the marriage was relatively intact.  With everything else, she decided that he still fulfilled the core requirements of the marriage she needed.  He provided for the family financially, afforded her a lavish lifestyle, attended the appropriate family and social functions, and fulfilled the father role.  Her key condition was that he not let the affairs enter into the family consciousness.  They needed to remind outside of her overt knowledge, and they needed to happen without affecting her daily living.  In other words, Carmela accepted Tony's indiscretions as long as she and others in the family did not have them shoved in their faces.  With these conditions, the implicit contract for the marriage would be honored.  Although, she wanted a more expansive marital container that included emotional intimacy and monogamy, Carmela accepted a more limited container.  In some cultures such as ancient China and 18th-century Mormons, polygamy was allowed.  In others, concubines had more or less official status in the family and society.  They were within the container of marriages.

Couples may have intuitive or implicit rather than verbalized conceptualizations of the container of the marriage or couple.  The partners may have overtly discussed the parameters of being a couple or being married.  Or, they may have stumbled across unspoken expectations during the course of their courtship and established clear boundaries as a result.  However, there may be other expectations, rules, and boundaries that had never been spoken of or much less resolved that one or the other may hold as paramount to being a couple.  Often, these aspects of the marital or couples container because they are unanticipated evoke unarticulated exceptions that otherwise would be experienced as obvious violations.  Arthur and Nancy were both professionals with high paying high status careers.  When they married, they agreed that when they had children Nancy would continue to work, but also have primary responsibility to manage the household and manage the children.  When they had children, they reaffirmed that they would be her priority.  She was a mom first so taking care of the children was obvious.  She was a partner in the household, so earning income for the family was essential too.  Balancing multiple responsibilities, accumulated stressed diminished her sexual drive over time.  Sex with her husband Arthur became a lesser priority, then a rarity and eventually, non-existent.  Because Nancy no longer had sex with him, Arthur felt that the container/contract of the marriage had been violated.  Without ever expressing it overtly, Arthur held that marriage included his wife being sexually available upon request.  He had always assumed that Nancy concurred with this rule.  When she wasn't available for sex upon request, he felt betrayed.  As a result, he felt entitled to have his "needs met" and had an affair.  Upon discovering his affair, Nancy was outraged that he had violated the container/contract of the marriage.  Arthur and Nancy had largely overlapping containers/contracts of the marriage that had also had significant differences.  The differences could be characterized as two different cultural definitions.  Couple therapy needed to facilitate the couple identifying and owning the differing definitions and find if they could come to one common container/contract of the marriage.

Couple therapy needed to uncover how the affair came to happen.  Both partners re-affirmed that they entered the marriage committed to monogamy.  Arthur and Nancy thought they had discussed all the relevant marital expectations and rules before marriage.  Although both of them planned for Nancy to be the primary child caregiver, neither one anticipated Nancy would de-prioritize sex with Arthur in order to fulfill that role.  Yet as Nancy explained in therapy, it was obvious that the children's needs were of the highest priority with work and income also being important.  Arthur didn't disagree.  With prompting, she realized that unconsciously, her marital container had transitioned to a family or child development container.  Sex with Arthur was essential in the marital container but an extra or optional activity in the family container.  Arthur admitted to messing up but mixed with his remorse was righteous anger of the betrayed.  Nancy was angered and incredulous that he could feel betrayed when he had the affair… not her!  Therapy helped Arthur realize he accepted that children were added to the plate… to Nancy's plate or container.  However, in his sense of the marital container he expected Nancy to meet his needs as before.  He did not expect to be bumped down or off sexually.  He didn't realize the marital container had transitioned to another stage.  As it happened he could not articulate how rejected he felt.  He had a growing sense of deprivation, probably not just of sex but also of importance in the relationship.  With the accompanying sense of entitlement, he invoked an implicit exception to marital monogamy that violated his and their joint container.  Couple therapy needed to sort out not just the damage to the container, but the original and evolving definitions of the container itself.  Only after working through this and whether the container they jointly accepted was reparable, could Arthur and Nancy begin to or try to heal.  Assessment of the couple’s container may be of how each partner perceives how damaged or intact it is currently.  Assessment, however as in the therapy for Arthur and Nancy may be of how each define the container of the relationship.  Therapy may need to determine if the partners' definitions are similar or dissimilar, and therefore, if each partner's sense of damage may be similar or dissimilar.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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