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  • Michael Elliott,

The Art and Soul of Couples and Family Therapy

The Art and Soul of Couples and Family Therapy

It's late, late afternoon. The young artist stands on a small footbridge anticipating the disappearing moment. Nearby the old scientist, despite himself, also waits. The sun, in an apparent willingness, slowly glides to the destiny of its dying act. She hopes for a green flash, but it isn't necessary for fulfillment is achieved as the few clouds in the dusk sky begin to light up like fire. The sun sets. She tears...

"Why are you crying?" The scientist asks her.

"The sunset is beautiful," she responds.

"Oh my dear, you need not cry," he explains.

"You see the sun does not set. The sun is always still in the sky. Quite simply, we are on the backside of the earth that is rotating away from and out of view of the sun. Rest assured we will rotate back into its view as we have more times than we wish to count. But, you need not cry for the sun has never set and will never do so in your lifetime."

A recent book in Neuroscience and Attachment Theory, uses the word ART as an acronym for "Affect Regulation Therapy." Apparently, affect dysregulation - understood through attachment distortions and identified in the emotional brain - is now being regulated in the practice of psychotherapy. The Networker Magazine - the well-known monthly publication for Psychotherapy and formerly the popular magazine for the field of Marriage and Family Therapy - commonly promotes articles by, and debates among, admired neuroscientists and experts in attachment theory and brain/mind understanding. Neuroscience, biochemistry, and other medical model analyses seem to be more in vogue than “good old” couples and family therapy which has been co-opted by a resurgence of Attachment Theory as the basis for understanding what needs to be healed in psychotherapy and thus in relationship. While the medical model remains useful, especially as the field continues to move toward scientific inquiry, evidence-based outcome studies, and experimental designs, we may have lost focus on the artistry of working with couples and families. Depth, the soul of the work, artistry, and the importance of a "sense of" necessary to recognize things like beauty at a sunset, has not received much attention of late. In fact, it seems a trend towards ignoring the art and soul of couples and family therapy exists today.

This article is an attempt to re-root Couples and Family Therapy in its artistic and soulful origins. The root or archi of the field, viewed through the neuroscience lens, would seemingly be regressive if science is synonymous with progress and increased conceptual knowledge. In spite of Family Therapy's original mechanistic theory of cybernetics, homeostasis, feedback loops, etc., some of its founders were artists who could, at times, see the family as a system and, at other times, as a mosaic. We fondly remember Satir's kind and graceful movement and the uniqueness of Whitaker's Psychotherapy of the Absurd. If we take archi as radical, that is, radius or circling back to the origin, might Family Therapy rekindle its own soulful and artistic voice as opposed to being a mere echo of the medical community? Gaston Bachelard (1994), the great French philosopher of the imagination quoting Jean Lescure, extols “An artist does not create the way he lives, he lives the way he creates” (p. xxxiii). It is in the work of the radical thinker and Soul Psychologist James Hillman and the radical practitioner of Family Therapy Carl Whitaker that we turn to for help in understanding these ideas.

Hillman and Stroud (2007): The Apollonic knowledge drive expressed in the sciences serves to harness the planet’s spirits for human benefit. Anything is justified that increases knowledge. Imagination says otherwise. To imagination, dream, reverie, the world speaks with intimations [not information] of a soul in things. (p. 334)

Whitaker (1988), when questioned about how he "knows" in therapy, said “I don't really know. A lot of these things are clinical hunches. I don't know where they come from” (p. 219).

Family and Couples Therapy is theatre, drama, a work of art. We simply cannot reduce a marriage, family, or relationship down to a series of data collections to be prodded and poked with scientific experimentation. The Cartesian method, comforting in its resolution of doubt and in many respects a root of modern reductionistic science, gives power and authority to the mind/brain (for Descartes the pineal gland) and privileges the ego's insistence on conceptualization. Yet in this rigorous “science only” approach we risk a loss of the image or imaginal so critical to the art of practice. Bacherlard (1994), in noting the impossibility of any synthesis between concept and image, says, “In scientific thought, the concept functions better when it is divorced from any trace of imagery” (p. 6) and “It is a contradiction in terms to try to study the imagination objectively, since one receives the image only if one admires it” (p. 7). Finally, Bachelard and Gaudin (1987) tell us, “Anyone who devotes his whole mind to the concept and his whole soul to the image is well aware that concepts and images develop along two divergent lines…..all efforts to make them cooperate are doomed to disappointment” (p. 5-6). This may be likened to understanding a "Starry Starry Night" by measuring the lines and shades or the chemical makeup of the paint. Further, we might diagnose Van Gogh as bi-polar with an attachment disturbance. One might well argue that if we understood the paints chemical makeup, its measurable substance, the way it was painted (colors, lines and shades), or that had Van Gogh been properly diagnosed and treated with Lithium, Lamictal, Depakote, etc., we may have more great works of art today. However, what is the “sense of” art appreciation, and its immediacy, when looking at Van Gogh's painting? And could it be that he was destined to die young in the Greek “sense of” tragedy and beauty? One can hear James Hillman's voice loud and clear, “fate trivializes; destiny gives a sense of importance” (Conference, in Defense of Jung, 2005). It is in this “sense of” where we encounter the limits of the scientific and medical models as art and soul take a central role to our practice.

The scientific method utilizes an assessment procedure, known in Jungian circles as focused attention (Clairemont de Castillejo, 1973). This method has been employed as a way to process, reflect upon, scrutinize, dissect, and measure gathered data or information. It is essentially like pointing a high-powered scope on the data with an extreme focus. The method allows for continued growth, progress, re-tooling, and re-visioning objective findings by including new data or information in a continual process. However, as Romanyshyn (2007) noted, “re-search that proceeds in depth and from the depths is about finding what has been lost, forgotten, neglected, marginalized, or otherwise left behind” (p. xi) and

Whitaker (1989), on Symbolic Experiential Family Therapy, wrote, I’ve come to look at symbolic therapy as being similar to the infrastructure of a city. It’s looking at the stuff that runs underneath the streets and buildings that is important…This subterranean world…not being directly observable…has a broad, general sort of impact on a whole variety of homes, offices and businesses. The effect is pervasive…Our personal subterranean worlds are dominated by the flow of impulses and evolving symbols. (p. 73)

Therefore, we find that the focused attention orientation in neuroscience, brain research,

and laboratory data collection has neglected the necessary diffuse awareness (Clairemont de

Castillejo, 1973) in relationship and family (and individual) therapy that has slipped into the

shadow and with it “the instinct of truth” (Von Franz, 2007, p. 174), intuition, rhythmic knowing,

and pre-cognitive, pre-intentional, pre-conceptual, sensuous affective sensibility (Stanford

Encyclopedia of Philosophy On-line). Hence, the practice of Couples and Family Therapy as

well as Psychotherapy, along with their theories and techniques, depends more and more upon

measurable quantitative data to justify itself to governing institutions and the general public.

However, the importance of a soul based relationship between client (family, couple or

individual) and therapist disappears with an exclusively quantitative, i.e. conceptual, application.

To ignore the conceptual and its importance in support of diffuse awareness would be to simply

shine Apollo’s light in the other direction. The quantitative necessarily must remain. Therefore,

we readily acknowledge scientific concepts, repeatable experimental designs, evidence-based

outcomes, and measurement as valuable and important. However, a sense of soul is necessary to

articulate the limitation of scientific investigation and its evolving lopsidedness in Couples and

Family Therapy, specifically, and the practice of psychotherapy, in general. We are interested in

diffuse awareness as a way of restoring art and soul to the practice. Borrowing from, philosopher

and phenomenologist, Ed Casey (2007), we need to both stare and glance in order to see that

which is realized through conceptualization (by staring) and that which is only seen as a

dissolving trace (by glancing) never quite making it to concept or discovery and yet is known as

prior to beginnings; for to speak of the soul of the client/therapist relationship as the basic

measure of accountability that is always/already prior to any assessment, we simply cannot use

quantifiable, experimental, or measurable data. Measurement is complex; or a complex; or the

complex of suppressing the complex which minimizes complexity. Therefore, it is with

recognition of the value and limitation of measurement that we propose a rekindling of the

ineffable and its importance to our work as psychotherapists.

We turn to participation rather than interpretation (of data), as a paradigm shift whereby evaluation becomes a valuing or involved appreciation of what is happening. Participation is in the here-and-now as a “compassionate passivity” that refrains from imposing intention so that “thing-in-itself” presents itself to us. This way of participation and evaluation is unlike scientific observation in which “definitional knowledge aborts unborn thoughts” (Doll, 1987). The scientific method then would benefit from aligning itself with the "mythic home."

Hillman (2008) offers a clear account, How does the poet enter the world around us? With Imagination! Imagination is not elsewhere. It is the imaginative eye. The mythic home is the actual world around us as imagination gives it to us. The world filled with enigmatic potentials which the arts resonate with and reply to. (Seminar on The Art, Philosophy and Practice of Psychotherapy)

Whitaker (1989) writes, The whole business of symbolic therapy is difficult to talk about in a non-symbolic way. It's like talking about love. You can find words to represent only a rather surface level of it. Talking in metaphor, as the poets have discovered, may offer the only hope. (p. 73)

Herein immersion is necessary for the artful practice of Couples and Family Therapy; Immersion into the family drama thereby leaving the comfort of the theatre seat. No longer a member of the audience, one steps onto the stage as an improvisational agent of change. When Whitaker poked and prodded, it was because the family was playing possum. He did not probe and poke for purposes of dissection and sterile insight. And when the family changed, Carl was often as surprised and excited as the unsure hovering predator when the "dead possum" seizes the moment and darts away. In "Midnight Musings of a Family Therapist" Whitaker, more than once, recounts therapy cases where he has very little idea what he is doing only to find out about profound change in his clients, sometimes years later. And though Whitaker questioned whether or not he had anything to do with the transformation, when reading about it, one is left with a “sense of” certainty that Carl had a “sense of” his impact. Can Whitaker's practice be scientifically validated? I think not. But there is little doubt of his artful work and its beauty:

Dad: Well, what should we talk about?

Carl: I'm not really sure.

Dad: Do you have any more questions to ask us? Do you need to know any more


Carl: No. No thanks. I feel comfortable like this.


Mom: Do you think we should continue where we left off last time, or would you prefer that we move to a new topic?

Carl: It's fine with me either way.


Dad: Well, I for one would like a little direction. After all, we're paying you for your

expertise, not just to sit there.

Carl: I'm not really interested in telling you what's important for you to talk about. You know yourself better than I do. My experience tells me that what I think isn't very important right now. What you choose to do with each other is what's crucial.

Dad: What value are you to us then? Why do we need you?

Carl: I'm not sure that you do. I'm here to try to augment your effort to be more alive with each other. It would be flat-out stupid of me to try to tell you how to live. My patterns of living are no more valid than yours. You need to get the game started. (p. 65-66)

Likewise, Hillman discourages interpreting the dream by instead immersing oneself in the image allowing it to speak its own language letting the indeterminacy take hold. Just as Bachelard (1994) discovered that the “images science must reject have an irresistible force, and that they tempt him [the scientist] to further study” (p. xxxvi), Hillman encourages us not to leap to conceptual formulations rather we must respect the autonomy of the imagination. He suggests being “sensitive and sensible,” and “like an author, let the characters in our theatre of the night speak for themselves” (2007, p. 329). Just as Whitaker respects the family to find its own vital existence, Hillman (2007) approaches the imagination with a respectful reverie:

“Stave off the knowledge drive, the ancient Apollonic urge to read the dream for

enlightenment, prediction. A ‘warning dream,’ a ‘blessing dream,’ a ‘bad dream.’ You

don’t know what it wants, why it came, what it means. Watch out for conceptual

formulations. (p. 327)

Surely, we enter the consulting room at times with the Apollonian focused attention attitude, seeking knowledge, clarification, and objective findings. Other times we, like Nietzsche, immerse ourselves in the dark, erotic, drunken pleasure (and pain) of Dionysian joy (and suffering) and aesthetic appreciation, no longer removed way of scientific observation, but instead engaged with full body involvement in the theatre of family life. Even if that involvement is an involved non-participation by refusing to know "the truth," or what is right, or what science and brain research tells us. We can find support of the idea of “sense of” or sensibility in Merleau-Ponty's Sense and Nonsense (1964) whereby “sense of” as perception is contrasted with nonsense of as formative conceptual knowledge. The “living body,” as Merleau-Ponty calls it, is the basis for awareness and if the mind unconceals truth exclusively by way of deduction, the bodily involvement is neglected. To suggest that one can go no further than the measurable physical body and its stimulus/response process of causality is to overlook the living body. Merleau- Ponty resists the idea that knowing the external world is simply an introject manifested in conscious reflection. He insists that perception is an epistemology of the body. However, this body is not the momentary or physical body, rather it is an operational body. Whereas Husserl’s reduction, which can never be complete because the reflective activity is always reflecting, returns one to the experiencing subject (the one reflecting), Merleau-Ponty finds that the incomplete reduction is because the subject is not transcendental, but one that emerges from nature. The living body precedes the subject, thus any effort to find the living body in reflection alone is incomplete. However, “in perception I discover a sense which I did not constitute,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online) thus there is always a living body at work whether or not it is reflected in reflection.

David Abram (1996) summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s living body. This breathing [living] body, as it experiences and inhabits the world, is very different from the objectified body diagrammed in physiology textbooks, with its separable “systems” (the circulatory system, the digestive system, the respiratory system, etc.) laid bare on each page…that complex machine whose broken parts or stuck systems are diagnosed by our medical doctors and “repaired” by our medical technologies. Underneath the anatomized and mechanical body that we have learned to conceive, prior indeed to all our conceptions, dwells the body as it actually experiences things, this poised and animate power that initiates all our projects and suffers all our passions. (p. 45-46)

Hence, instead of explaining the world - and in our case the family, couple, or individual from an outside perspective - one gains understanding from a participation and “lived body” involvement from within it. Our “sense of” holds primacy to all of our conceptualizations including our measurable, scientific discoveries. Sean Hand (1989) expressed, our “intellectual structure of intentionality is preceded by direct sensuous contact” (p. 88).

In an effort to keep an eye on maintaining a depth approach to the practice of Couples and Family Therapy we find that a “sense of” is closely aligned with diffuse awareness which restores the artistic and rhythmic dimension to the work. “Sense of” brings a different awareness to the therapist/client relation, and emphasizes soulfulness in the relation of the work. There is no measurement of soul; only representations based on dissolving traces that are, at least, two steps removed from the measurement process. But by simply pointing to that which cannot be pointed at (for it is always the pointing itself) we respectfully acknowledge its presence in the work. Soul is present in its absence just as rhythm is “blind to concepts” (Levinas, 1989, p. 132). And while concept and rhythm (or a “sense of”) can be simultaneous, they cannot be unified. Further, the simultaneity of presence and absence cannot be grasped as a dialectic for both are immediately there in anonymity, confounding thoughts, reflections, and static images. However, imagination as a way of seeing, as opposed to something seen, reveals an unknown present-centered embodied participation; something (or a no-thing from the position of the conceptual) that Hillman fought for and Whitaker practiced.

Apparently, Hillman and Whitaker never wrote or talked of each other’s work. Both are gone now. Whitaker died in 1995 and Hillman in October of 2011. We intend to keep their legacy alive as the field promotes new discoveries in science, brain research, and the relation of mind, emotion, and environment. Hillman assured us that psychotherapy will always belong to the arts. Whitaker refused to allow the soul of Couples and Family Therapy to lose its radical and unique character. We remain artists in our love for the work. Carl and James would have it no other way.


Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language In a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books: New York, NY.

Bachelard, G., (1994). The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press Books: Boston, Ma.

Bachelard, G. & Gaudin, C. (1987). On poetic imagination and reverie: selections from Gaston Bachelard. Spring Publications: Dallas TX

Bergo, Bettina, "Emmanuel Levinas", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Casey, E. (2007). The Word At A Glance. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, IN.

Claremont De Castillejo, I. (1973). Knowing Woman. Shambhala Publications: Boston, Ma.

Doll, Wm. E. Jr. (1987) Foundations for a Post-Modern Curriculum. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Washington, DC, April 20-24, 1987

Doll, W. (1993). A Postmodern Perspective on Curriculum. Teachers College Press.

Flynn, Bernard, "Maurice Merleau-Ponty", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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Hillman, J. and Stroud, J.H. (2007). Mythic Figures: Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman v.1; v.6. 6.1. Spring Publications: New York, NY.

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Romanyshyn, R. (2007). The Wounded Researcher. Spring Publications: New Orleans La.

Von Franz, M. (1980). Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Inner City Books: Toronto, Canada

Whitaker, C. & Bumberry, W. (1988). Dancing With The Family. Brunner/Mazel: New York, NY

Whitaker, C. (1989). Midnight Musings of a Family Therapist; edited by Margaret O. Ryan. Penguin Books: Markham, Ontario, Canada.


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