In this post, I will be describing two opposed ideas; Insight-oriented therapy, and Coup D’oeil. Insight-oriented treatment is based on the idea that the more insight you have into what motivates you, the more “on-purpose” and deliberate you can eventually become in your life.
Insight ostensibly comes only after extensive exploration with a therapist over many weeks, months… or even years.
Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins put it best…ain’t nobody got time for that…
When I was in school at Antioch University, I remember one of our supervisors asking us to position ourselves next to each other, creating a human continuum around how deeply we believed that “insight” was a vital component of change in therapy.
We were socially-conditioned to highly valued “insight”… and we were somewhat scolded for doing so.
Postmodern therapy was all the rage at Antioch (and probably still is to this day). And Post-Modern thinking was radically different than insight-oriented therapy.
Many of these thought leaders believe that “insight'” bestowed on clients from “expert” therapists is an “oppression,” particularly when it reinforces socially constructed norms that are deemed unwelcome and intrusive.
Postmodern therapists prized “not-knowing” and considered the client as the only expert on their own “lived experience.”
We were taught that a therapist should be subordinated to the role of a collaborative “helper” and should not assume a “knowing stance.” Some postmodern therapists even questioned the very idea of clinical diagnosis as a “cultural construct.”
Many openly challenged widely held ideas such as “success” and “mental health.” And some went as far as to say that there was no objective reality…reality itself was a social construct.
I lost my patience with postmodernism at this point. I once impolitely taunted one of my professors by asking, “If I stepped out in front of a moving bus, would I be hit by a 10-ton passenger bus… or a social construct?”
There was a time when insight-oriented therapy was the very definition of therapy. But Postmodern therapy swept all that away. It’s like that old joke…
“How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?…Only one… but it’s very expensive, takes years, and the lightbulb really must want to change.”
The Post-Modern thought-leaders had a point. There are pressing social justice issues in mental health, and many insight-oriented therapies were elitist preoccupations for the wealthy, worried-well.
Coup D’Oeil (pronounced Ku Day) is a French idiom, which means a “stroke of the eye” or a knowing “glance.” Von Clausewitz applied this term to the strategic ideas of Napoleon.
For him, Coup D’Oeil was “the rapid discovery of a truth which to the ordinary mind is not visible at all…or only becomes so after long examination and reflection” (which I suppose takes us back to it’s opposite, insight-orientation).
Coup D’oeil involves, in part, the skill of fast-paced pattern recognition, but also intuition, courage, and confidence.
As applied to a couples therapy retreat, Coup D’oeil is the ability of a couples therapist to master the details of any attachment injuries, enduring vulnerabilities, and genetic predispositions from the couple’s families of origin narrative for clinical use later with appropriate therapeutic interventions.
But we also get it from “knowing” the clinical research. Research informs practice.
Biographers of Napoleon Bonaparte talk about his ability to size up a situation with a single coup D’oeil, that is to say, to “take in” the field, and make a perfect battlefield decision with a knowing “glance.”
Napoleon usually had a commanding knowledge of his battlefield situation. He knew how other past generals handled similar circumstances, he knew his opponent, the technology, geography, resources, etc.
Napoleon had a “knowing stance.” He was able to take in a situation quickly and “know” what to do as a felt sense. But one of the ways he did this was always to be on the move and watching for the perfect Coup D’Oeil opportunity.
“Learn to retreat and advance from every position you take.” Carl Whitaker (a famous maverick thinker in modern therapy).
Coup D’Oeil in the context of couples therapy profoundly interests me. It is the rapid discovery of a couple’s truth.
The elements of successful Coup D’oeil are first, a firm knowledge of history (so much for the utility of “not-knowing”). In science-based couples therapy, this “firm knowledge of history” is secured through a careful clinical assessment.
We want to know as much as possible in advance of meeting the couple.
Couples can have their own Coup D’oeil experience, and they don’t even need a couples therapist.
New research by one of my favorite researchers, Eli Finkel, shows how 21 minutes a year can help you “glance” at your marital conflict with an entirely new perspective.
Dr. Finkel discovered that a brief, 7-minute writing exercise could increase marital satisfaction. In this exercise, couples are asked to write about their last argument from a benevolent, neutral perspective. They were asked to imagine that this “neutral” perspective was utterly charitable, and only wanted the best for both spouses in the relationship.
Psychologists call this phenomenon a ‘reappraisal’ and believe that this “neutral” perspective (Coup D’oeil?) encourages partners to look at their conflicts differently over time. The study showed that doing this brief exercise only three times a year prevented couples from becoming dissatisfied with their relationship.
Professor Eli Finkel, the study’s first author, was perhaps a bit too modest about his discovery:
“I don’t want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention…Marriage tends to be healthy for people, but the quality of the marriage is much more important than its mere existence. Having a high-quality marriage is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and health. From that perspective, participating in a seven-minute writing exercise three times a year has to be one of the best investments married people can make.”
The study included 120 couples, tracked over two years. For the first year, the researchers focused on tracking marital satisfaction. Marital satisfaction dropped in the first year, as we might reliably expect.
Then, in the second year, half of the couples were given the 7-minute writing exercise to do on three occasions. The study indicated that all the couples still fought just as much as before during their second year.
However, the couples who had done the writing intervention were not as severely impacted as the couples who did not do the writing exercise. Therefore they maintained a higher level of marital satisfaction throughout their second year, while the other group experienced yet another drop in marital satisfaction.
Imagine that…an investment of only 21 minutes a year results is a measurably higher quality marriage. This was a rapidly acquired insight, from a series of 3 brief, 7-minute Coup D’oeil moments.
Don’t get me wrong. Insight-oriented therapies and Postmodern therapies have both made valuable contributions to couples therapy.
I regularly borrow ideas from Solution-focused and Narrative therapy in my practice.
A good couples therapist will beg, borrow, and steal good ideas from anywhere. My quibble with Post-Modernism is their emphasis on “not knowing.”
Perhaps Napoleon himself can help me resolve my slight discomfort with the Postmodern therapy thinkers.
Napoleon famously described that he never sought to impose his will on the battlefield. Instead, he remained prepared for a Coup D’oeil moment by having a prepared mind.
The key idea is that a good couples therapist is prepared in advance. And that means being prepared for changing circumstances as well.
“I had few really definite ideas, and the reason for this was that, instead of obstinately seeking to control circumstances…I obeyed them…Thus it happened that most of the time, to tell the truth, I had no definite plans…but only projects.” Napoleon.
A good science-based couples therapist may know what the couple wants to work on, and may “know” some other useful insights. But like Napoleon, a good therapist holds their knowledge lightly and yields to circumstances.
We can only work with the people in the room, and try to advance our “projects.”
Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595-1601.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.