Grover Family Therapy

Family Counselor in Hendersonville, NC

Couples and Family Therapy through Attachment-Informed Experientialism

    My personal model of therapy is an integration of the experiential approach combined with the findings of attachment theory. The core idea of the experiential modality is that our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors emerge from powerful impulses that originate from deep within ourselves. I believe that attachment theory corroborates this notion with the working model construct, which suggests that our experiences are interpreted and organized through the lens of an attachment style. I feel that these two approaches fit well together because they provide not only a “how” to direct me in my work as a therapist, but also with a “why” that offers enough explanatory power to satisfy my need to understand the etiology of the problems from which my clients may suffer.

    The experiential modality is not well defined—in fact, many of its proponents seem to actively discourage efforts towards definition. However, in my studies, I have found a few common themes that have made the approach, or at least my conception thereof, attractive to me. First, there is an emphasis on experience as king. Carl Whitaker (1988) held to the maxim that “nothing worth knowing can be taught” which, to him, meant that his clients could not be changed through any endowment of knowledge. Rather, they needed to be led to experience the problematic aspects of their lives in new ways if they were to have change. Second, writings on experiential therapy agree that the use of the self of the therapist should be the primary therapeutic intervention (Kempler, 1968; Whitaker & Bumberry, 1988; Vanaerschot, 2007). Effective experiential therapists involve themselves personally with client-systems and use their own genuine experiences of them as a catalyst for change. Finally, experiential therapy works very closely with feeling or emotion (Mahrer, 2007a) as it is seen as the most accurate reflection of the client’s impulse.

    When a person has an experience, it is accompanied by an implicit emotional response that we use to make meaning out of the experience. These visceral reactions are a person’s “impulse world” (Whitaker and Bumberry, 1988) and are an emergent property of the deep parts of the self that make the person who they are. Attachment theory offers a compelling explanation as to the nature of this impulse world. John Bowlby (1980) said, “every situation we meet with in life is constructed in terms of representational models we have of the world about us and of ourselves (pg. 229).” He suggests that we use these representational models to evaluate and interpret our experiences. Later researchers (Collins, 1996) have shown this to be true. Both early in life, and continually throughout (Collins & Read, 1994), we develop unconscious working models that we use to evaluate and predict how things will play out in our lives. Attachment theory and experiential theory both agree that our response to experience comes from a subconscious, involuntary part of ourselves. They dovetail nicely, as the former has much to say about the source of these responses but little about what to do with them, and the latter provides ideas about how help clients change their responses.

The Nature of Individual and Family Problems

    Problems emerge when a person denies or suppresses their feelings and impulses rather than allowing themselves to experience them in a genuine way (Kempler, 1968). The different attachment styles expounded in the literature (Collins. 1996) suggest some reasons for this response. A person may learn, for example, that they ought to avoid connection with others and will thus suppress emotions in order to prevent anxiety. Or, conversely, a person may learn that they must be preoccupied with others in order to maintain a connection, and will thus suppress or deny impulses that they might conceive of as selfish or negative toward the object of their attachment. Only those who have learned a secure attachment style will feel that they can safely remain in alignment with their impulse world. Others will feel betrayed by their impulses and will feel anxiety, fear, anger, jealously, and other such emotions because of this conflict. These emotions obscure the more frightful impulses that emerge and prevent us from perceiving the real underlying issues.

    The problems which that stem from the suppression and denial of impulse are compounded in interpersonal settings like families and couples. As they interact, the parties will connect only encounter only with each other’s secondary emotions and will become locked in patterns of self-protection and avoidance (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1978). Nichols (date2013) describes this pattern aptly as, “shadow dancing with the projections of each other’s defenses (page146)”. Even people who, individually, are able to accept and genuinely experience their impulse world may be drawn into an unhealthy working model in a particular relationship if their interactions teach them to do so (Collins and Read, 1994). Bowlby (1988) suggests that every meaningful interaction molds our beliefs about the availability and supportiveness of those around us.

The Nature of Change

    The experiential theory of change is that people will change when their experience changes. Here, experience refers to the process of attributing meaning to an interaction between the self and the environment (Vanaerschot, 2007). This means that an experience is not only to shake someone’s hand, it is the entire resultant response. The way the skin of their hand feels against our own, if it is rough or smooth, if it is callused like our father’s or oily like a shifty character from a book we read once. We check the firmness of the other’s grip, is it strong to contest our own grip or weak because they do not sense the need to compete as we do. Do they make eye-contact as they shake, is their posture erect, do they smile at us? And, most importantly, how do we feel about all of these things and what meaning do we ascribe to them? All of this together occur in a millisecond and without any conscious direction and they, taken together, are what constitute an experience.

    Gendlin (1970) speaks of two levels of interaction. The first is a “felt-sense” which is the unbidden response to an environmental stimulus like the handshake described above. These types of responses play out almost like a computer algorithm in the way that they function. Inputs are automatically assessed based a set of criteria and outputs are generated in the form of emotional impulses that direct a response. No executive intervention is required for the generation and governance of these impulses—but unless they can be changed, the client’s response to the experience will remain the same.

    The construct of working models from attachment theory describe this algorithmic response perfectly. “Working models are highly accessible cognitive constructs that will be automatically activated in memory in response to attachment-relevant events. Once activated, they are predicted to have a direct impact on social information processing . . . and on emotional response patterns (Collins, 1996). The felt-sense of the experiential model grows out of the working models of attachment. People’s felt-responses correlate with their attachment style. For example, Collins and Read (1994) found that couples they studied tended to have emotional responses that correlated to their attachment style, more negative for those with insecure attachment styles and more positive for those in secure relationships.

    Change occurs when a person’s felt response changes. This happens in the second mode of interaction described by Gendlin (1970), an interaction between the felt-sense and the symbolic. This is a process wherein a person examines their felt response to a stimulus using their executive mind. When we investigate a felt-response through our conscious mind, we are examining an implicit construct through an explicit lens. This requires that we adapt the signal into something that can be thought about, which is done using symbolic thought. When we process a thing symbolically, we are forced to create explicit meaning where there may have been none before. Before, the responses were shadows but in the processing of them, we make them flesh.

    Whitaker refers to this process of attaching meaning to our implicit responses as deepening our experience (Whitaker & Bumberry, 1988). He holds that as a person examines their experience in this way, they can experience the world in a “broader and deeper manner” and will find more satisfaction and joy in their relationships. Collins and Read (1994) echo this prognostic hope through an attachment lens. They argue that the impact of our working models can be mediated by the subjective interpretation of a situation and of one’s own emotional response. Further, they suggest that we can learn attach to others in new, more secure, ways through this type of effort.

Change in Families

    Secure attachment is essential for healthy family functioning (Johnson & Denton, 2002). In order for a family to change, they must begin to examine and change their reaction to those experiences that elicit an insecure attachment response. Else, they will find themselves stuck and unable to relate to each other (Becvar & Becvar, date2013). Whitaker & Bumberry (1988) offer some hallmarks of healthy family functioning towards which a family ought to strive. Healthy families ought to be dynamic and ready to change, they ought to be free to love and to hate each other, and free to flow between separation and togetherness. An important hallmark is a clear separation between generations, which means that parents have no need to prove their power and that they will be free from jealousy and insecurity towards their children.

Clinical Application

Treatment Goals

    The primary treatment goal of this therapeutic modality is a deeper and more expansive range of life experience (Whitaker & Bumberry, 1988). This deepened experience requires the development of a healthy “affective climate”, or therapeutic bond, between the client and the therapist. By building a secure and healthy interpersonal relationship with the client, the therapist makes new experience, and therefore change, possible (Brisch & Kronenberg, 2012).  This is accomplished byOnce a powerful therapeutic bond has been established, a therapist can incite change by creating encouraging situations where the client experiences the types of felt-senses that are leading to problematic responses and are then led tohelping them process them the response through their symbolic machinery. Using this process, clients can develop a level of congruence between their felt-sense and the symbolic meaning that they ascribe to it (Vanaerschot, 2007). Essentially, the goal is for the client to know and understand the what’s and why’s that underlie their feelings and also the ways that their behaviors relate to their emotional experience. In relational cases, the need for understanding is broadenedbroader, as the clients will not only need to understand themselves, but the experiences of their partners and/or family members as well.

Role of the Therapist

    In the experiential modality, the therapist is not an expert on the client’s psychopathologies. Rather, he is a coach or a teacher-guide (Mahrer, 2007b) who works to bring about situations where a client’s implicit experience comes close enough to the surface to be explicitly examined. The therapist accomplishes this by interacting with the client in a genuine way and by sharing his genuine experience of the way that a client is impactingaffecting him (Kempler, 1968). Whitaker shares, “As a therapist, my investment is in being involved in a real experience with the family, not in trying to change them. The confrontation is more of a sharing of perspective, not a manipulation. My effort is to be honest with them, leaving them free to decide what to do with it (Whitaker & Bumberry, 1988).

    Leaving the clients free to do what they want with the shared experience of therapy is another important element of the role of the therapist. As a coach or teacher, the therapist’s task is only to expose the experience for the client to wrestle with, not to be the one to direct change. Virginia Satir, as an example, expressed no interest in changing people, but rather wished find their rhythms and to join with them (Simon, 19891985). The experiential process is, at its core, a humanistic modality. ThusThus, it holds the client as the agent of change and has faith in them that they will grow in appropriate ways if only given a healthy space in which to do so. Whitaker (1988) suggests that if a therapist feels the need to take responsibly for a client’s change it signals a lack of faith on the part of the therapist that the client is capable of becoming a complete person.

    While the therapist does not need to take direct responsibility for a client’s change, they ought to assume the responsibility of creating a relational environment in which change is possible. DeMaria, Weeks, and Hof (1999) suggest that this is best done by adopting different “therapeutic stances” that will allow the therapist to interface with different client systems in a way that meshes with the client’s own style of attachment. They suggest four different stances, modeled on the four different attachment styles: confronting, authoritative, reflective, and nurturing. For example, a client system involving untenable behavior such  substance abuse or interpersonal violence will react more favorably to an authoritative stance over a nurturing stance.

    For an experiential therapist, whose primary therapeutic instrument is an authentic self-presentation, to engage in different therapeutic stances will demand a high-level of self-awareness. To be successful, the therapist must nurture in himself openness and understanding of the different motivations and modes of thought that waft through his consciousness. He must learn to seize particular strands of self and to wear them with honesty for fifty minutes at a time. The danger is that he may begin to act rather than to be, which would inhibit growth rather than encourage it.  


    There is no formal assessment process in experiential therapy. In initial interviews, the therapist gains perspective into the client’s problems by being sensitive to the way they impinge on him (Kempler, 1968). The way that the therapist experiences the client is the primary tool for assessment of the problem. Further, Mahrer (2007a) suggests that, when interviewing, therapists need to be sensitive to the feelings behind the client’s verbalizations rather than becoming entangled in the referred-to content of the dialog. These feelings will be more valuable in their diagnostic utility than a discussion of concrete facts, as they are more indicative of the felt-senses of the client.

    While experiential therapy traditionally focuses on the here and now over the past, seeing it as an occasionally necessary deviation (Kempler, 1968). The need to understand the way that our attachment styles fit with our lived experience indicate a need to delve into the past in order to understand how our working models developed as they did. I feel that this assessment of past relationships and of the lessons one may have learned therein, are crucial to the broadening of one’s experience. Thus, in my integration of the two, I feel I put a larger emphasis on the past than is typical for the experiential modality.

      It will be important for the therapist to be observant of the way the clients relate both to each other and to the therapist. As the therapeutic stance is a key part of the treatment of the client system, the therapist must correctly assess the client’s attachment style. Adult attachment style can be assessed using standard metrics, such as the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) or also by a narrative interview process by the therapist. This process can also begin to shed some light on the structure of the client’s working models.

Preferred Interventions

    The use of the therapist’s experience of the client as a mirror is the preferred intervention in this model. Whitaker believed that any thoughts, feelings, or emotions that broke into his consciousness during a session belonged as much to the client as they did to himself (Whitaker and Bumberry, 1988). The ability to be aware enough of these experiences to be able to share them however, requires that the therapist be deeply in tune with his own emotional processes. The goal of this sharing of experience is to increase the affective intensity and the anxiety of the client. Keith (date1998) saw this as a way to increase ambiguity to a point that a client’s defensive responses begin to crack. Encased in their defenses, Keith suggests, keeps a client trapped inside of sanity (in-sanity), and inhibits genuine experience. Bold encounters adn consistent confrontation are ways to contaminate (Whitaker & Bumberry, 1988) the client’s current perspective and to elicit a felt-sense (Vanaerschot, 2007). Once a felt-sense, or working model, is exposed, it can be probed for possibilities or potentialities for experiencing (Mahrer, 1989). Further, Whitaker (1988) suggests that, even if deepened experience cannot be achieved now, such interventions seed the unconscious mind in ways that may bear fruit at a later time.

Expected Outcome

    Mahrer (2007b) suggests two goals for experiential treatment. The first is for a client to become the new person that they are capable of becoming. And secondSecond is that the new person will be essentially free of the painful situations and feelings that had been problematic before. I expect that, as a client symbolically processes their felt experience, that they will be better able to subjectively process their attachment responses and will be able to live more deliberately. They will learn to account for their attachment styles and will have the insight and skill to reorganize their relationships towards secure attachment.

In Practice

    I use this theory in practice from the very first interview. I feel a very keen need to understand my clients as well as I can before I feel I can make any statements about them. I feel that the change I have seen in my clients has been largely due to moments when I saw something genuine in them and called it out. In a recent session, for example, I worked with one member of a couple that was having trouble empathizing with feelings of rejection and of being discarded that she had elicited from her partner through certain actions. She said, “I don’t want to be dismissive but . . .” and then proceeded to completely dismiss his experience. I felt that this action was disingenuous and contaminated her perspective by saying, “I thought you didn’t want to be dismissive”. The way I experienced her suggested that she was dancing around some emotion that she could not embrace. I pressed her, increasing her anxiety so that the feeling became more apparent to her. She said that she had a hard time admitting fault in herself because she hated the feeling of being wrong—that it made her feel bad. I asked what the feeling was and, after she had struggled with it for several seconds I said, “shame” and she nodded and wilted, as though a great tension had been released. My interest in attachment led me to ask where she had learned in the past to feel shame and we drew into a conversation of how her mother had been consistently dismissive towards her and had charged her with caring for her little brother on her own so that she could be more involved in herself.

    I think that one of the reasons I value this approach is because of how vital it makes me feel as a therapist. In this modality, my experiences and opinions matter to the client. I see myself in my clients, and the things I see (for once in my life) feel valuable and important. It allows me to feel powerful in ways that I could not if I were forced to lean on formulaic treatments that rely on checklists and specifically ordered interventions. I recognize this as, at least in part, self-serving, but I am not beyond thinking that I need to be getting something out of therapy if the process is to have long-term worth to me.  

    This experiential-attachment model is very different from the approach that I thought I would take to therapy before I began. My initial model centered on the solution-focused and cognitive-behavioral approaches primarily because they seemed, at the time, to be fast, efficient, and effective. However, as I practiced, I found that I was far too interested in my clients to stay within the narrow range of solution-focused interaction and that I felt I was not honoring my client’s by ignoring their lived experiences in favor of solutions. Further, though the cognitive-behavioral approach still looks good to me on paper, I am always left feeling as though there has been something left unaddressed if I lean too heavily thereupon. A deep and intimate investigation into a client’s lived experience feels valuable to me. I feel that I can help them to better understand the ways that they experience themselves and the way that they attach themselves to others.


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