The Existential-Humanistic Perspective as Applied to Couple’s Therapy

by Bob Edelstein on June 1, 1995

The Existential-Humanistic perspective involves the exploration of how we can live our lives more consciously. This perspective explores an unfolding process of discovering oneself. It assumes we are responsible for how we exist in the world and how we respond to the conditions presented to us.

In couple’s therapy, this perspective offers the unique opportunity for both partners to explore one of the ‘givens of existence’ of this orientation: the dichotomy of isolation versus relationship. We are all simultaneously alone and relating to others. The couple’s relationship embodies this dichotomy.

The Existential-Humanistic perspective also values self-actualization as fundamentally good for the individual. If the individual is self-actualized, both the couple and society as a whole benefit.

Therefore, as an Existential-Humanistic therapist, I am interested in exploring how the individual members of the couple inhibit themselves from living more of the life they want to lead. I am interested in discovering what strengths they draw on to move in the direction of a fuller life. I find out how each member of the couple views their partner and their relationship as a hindrance or as a support to living this fuller life. I focus on the individual experience of each person in regard to what they want and hope for out of life, what they fear and dread about the future, and how their relationship is an integral part of all of these wants, hopes and fears.

In this perspective, I, as the therapist, need to be skilled and sensitive to being with the lived experience of both partners. I need to support each of them to fully express their individual experience, and to fully receive and listen to their partner’s individual experience. I must also simultaneously respect my own lived experience and expression of that. The reason for this is based on the existential belief that people are their experience of living, which is always more than any concept formed about who they are as a person.

As a therapist, I am being with the lived experience of each member of the couple by being attentive to what is going on in the present moment. I let their individual stories and the story of them as a couple unfold by their words and gestures. My intention is to facilitate an understanding and expression of what each member of the couple needs from themselves, their partner, and me in the present moment. This includes addressing past and future material if it is what is most alive and vital for either of them. As this process unfolds, I operate with the belief that if human beings stay open, present and involved in their life concerns, they will find they have the capacity to resolve them.

An integral part of the Existential-Humanistic perspective is the identifying of the resistance to a deeper knowing of oneself. In couple’s therapy, this includes a resistance to a deeper knowing of one’s partner as well. My aim as the therapist is to encourage them to share their concerns and appreciations as honestly and openly as possible. I would provide support for each individual to listen fully to their partner. My aim is to point out how one partner is not disclosing fully to himself and/or to his partner, or how the other partner is not being receptive to what is being said. My goal in this is to deepen awareness, not to force one partner to share more than they want to, or force the other partner to agree with the content of what is being shared.

As heartfelt as I can, my intention is to take in what each person is expressing, as well as being aware of my own issues and resistances. I listen to what is going on inside of myself to determine how I intervene. I believe I can trust that what emerges in myself, both partners, and between the three of us, will ultimately be beneficial to us all. As each of us learns to discover and express our truths, something else, something more, will emerge. My experience is `that this process feels gratifying and releasing to all concerned, even if painful recognitions occur. This is part of the natural, creative discovery and renewal process which is inherent in being human.

My task is to be a role model and create an atmosphere which supports the following belief: if each member of the couple learns to state their truths fresh in the moment and receive their partner’s truths, fresh in the moment, they will both shift inside of themselves and between each other. Solutions will naturally be found as one’s internal perceptions and feelings change and/or one’s external world and relationships change.

As part of the process of being open to each other in the present moment, each member of the couple, as well as the couple as an entity, becomes less solidified in their need for their identity to be fixed. Instead, they are more open to life being a dynamic process of living inside themselves and with each other, rather than a static event.

The following questions arise as important to address: how accessible am I to myself and how much of this inner knowing do I express to my partner? How open am I to my partner, and affirming of their expression of their own inner knowing? This shift in awareness allows the couple to change from defining and defending their already thought-out positions to living a life of self-discovery and self-exploration within the mutual support and validation of each other.

An additional aspect of this therapy is identifying each person’s existential themes as they emerge. Existential themes are the themes of one’s living, or ways of being in the world that can inhibit or enhance one’s full range of living. Existential themes emerge from questions such as: Who I am in the world? How I am perceived by the world? How do I feel the world operates?

It is the working through of these existential themes that creates a genuine recognition that any definition of oneself in the world is arbitrary. Therefore, in ways that one’s life is not working, one can genuinely change to a healthier self-definition. This is an vital part of what leads to fuller living.

Each of us has a number of different themes. For example, the husband may have as one of his themes the perception that he is never enough for what life demands of him. The wife may have as one of her themes that she is not intelligent enough for people to respect her. Therefore, as part of the therapy, the couple must identify their own pre-conceived expectations. Using the examples given, the husband will expect the wife to be too demanding, and the wife will perceive the husband as not respecting her intelligence. Neither of these may be the case, but both partners, because of their themes, may assume them to be so. What needs to be sorted out is when is this a mutual reality, and when is it happening in just one partner’s subjective experience.

Over the course of couples therapy these life themes are expressed and understood. A closeness evolves as each individual is with their partner’s struggles and vulnerabilities. Intimacy is the direct result of this mutual self-discovery and self-disclosure.

In conclusion, couples successfully working within the Existential-Humanistic perspective in therapy find that they each communicate and negotiate better with one another. They experience more intimacy and connection with each other and within themselves. They are more aware and respectful of their own and their partner’s existential themes. Finally, they are more accepting and appreciative of a process-oriented, open-ended view of life.


(c) Bob Edelstein. This article appeared in the Oregon Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Newsletter, Summer Quarter 1995.