Staemmler’s Schemes of Interaction
Staemmler’s Schemes of Interaction are powerful tools we often use with couples who tend to trigger each other. The diagram below shows how Staemmler’s second scheme works.
Meanings and Behaviours
- Meanings: We make meaning of the things that happen in our relationship: specifically the things our partners do or say, our partner’s behaviours.
- Behaviours: We behave or speak in certain ways, ways that are seen by our partner, and to which our partner attaches meanings.
The behaviours of each partner, and the meanings attributed to them by the other partner, are in constant flux; and in constant reaction to a wide range of factors, only some of which are in their awareness.
How the Interactions Go…
- Partner 1 behaves in a particular way.
- Partner 2 interprets this behaviour in their own personal (and private) manner, and from that ascribes some meaning to it (positive or negative) and responds accordingly.
- Based on that meaning, Partner 2 behaves in a particular way.
- Partner 1 in turn interprets this behaviour in their own personal (and private) manner, and from that ascribes some meaning to it (positive or negative) and responds accordingly.
- Based on that meaning, Partner 1 behaves in a particular way… and so the cycle repeats itself.
In a healthy interaction, these meanings and behaviours probably will not escalate into an argument. Each person is able to regulate themselves and find out more information about the meanings of their partner’s behaviours: the effect is positive and the couple grows closer.
However, when things are off balance, the cycle triggers negative meanings (and hence negative behaviours) in each partner, which in turn triggers more negative meanings. These meaning are usually about each individual’s negative view of themselves and/or their partner.
Not surprisingly, partners rapidly move apart as the cycle of triggering escalates in intensity and in frequency. They may each be left bewildered and dismayed at the prospect of ever working things out in the relationship, of ever coming close again.
These partners have usually fallen back onto old individualistic patterns of coping – no longer feeling safe in the relationship and no longer trusting their partner.
Meanings Informed by Many Factors
What makes the construction of meanings so powerful is that they are informed by many factors, which provide “evidence” that we believe to be true.
Factors such as culture, gender, peer influence, family of origin and even inter-generational factors can all come into play in the construction of our meanings. These of course may not be the same for our partner. This fact can lead to us holding a fixed position in an argument.
And to make things even more complex, only some of these factors that inform our meaning making are conscious – others are out of our awareness.
So, fuelled by the complexities of meaning making, the situation between the partners can escalate until they have lost any feeling of closeness and intimacy. In survival mode, neither is able to remember the relationship and what it needs to flourish.
Working with the Model
We work with the Couple Interactions model experientially. That is, we watch it in action.
It’s a model that is deceptively simple. (Some people, initially, consider it far too simple!)
However, when we work with a couple and can see the actual meanings and the actual behaviours playing out (often out of the awareness of the couple themselves) it can be surprising how rich the work becomes: we are uncovering layers of habitual self-defence and self-protection.
Here’s an example of meaning-making within a heterosexual relationship. It’s a simplification, intended to show how the model works, but variations of this play out in many relationships.
In this example we explore the difference in motivation for a sexual advance between a man and a woman. (This example is common but by no means always true.)
The Man’s Meanings
For this man, a sexual approach is a means of feeling loved and appreciated and so is a way of moving closer to his partner. This could happen at any point in a relationship (e.g. on the first date or after an argument).
The Woman’s Meanings
However, for this woman, a sexual advance is a means by which she expresses an already existing feeling of intimacy. Therefore the woman may not feel comfortable with a sexual approach if she is not currently feeling close and intimate with the man.
Clash of Meanings for the Behaviour “Sexual Approach”
The Meanings are:
- Man: A means for inducing a missing feeling of intimacy or a missing feeling that I am good enough for her.
- Woman: An expression of an already existing feeling of intimacy, and that I am valued by him as a person.
Both meanings are equally valid. Each person in this example has different motivations and meanings associated with the sexual advance. If we imagine the other person is like us, then we may make up meanings that are not true for the other.
The woman may feel that after an argument, sexual contact is inappropriate until they have found a resolution and a feeling of intimacy has returned. If under these circumstances the man makes a sexual advance she may feel this is only to fulfil a physical need, and not about reconnecting in their relationship.
He on the other hand may be trying to move closer after the argument to confirm he is loved by her and that their connection is strong. If she rejects his advance he may feel that she does not love or care for him or even want to return to a feeling of intimacy.
Source of Misunderstanding
If we imagine we have the same motivation as our partner we can misunderstand the situation and blame them for our discomfort. This sort of misunderstanding can fuel further alienation. The cycle continues…
So What Can the Couple Do?
It’s important for the couple to find a way to examine meanings in a non-judgemental way.
This works at two levels: on the problem itself; and also in seeing that both partners have a commitment to the relationship and to its future.
Understanding our partner’s behaviours and meanings is often rewarding and exciting. Much energy can be tied up in shame and blame, which when understood and released can be fed back into more constructive work on the relationship.
The fixed beliefs and blaming of our partner are ways of keeping the relationship stuck. We as therapists spend time unpicking the meanings that each partner makes of behaviours and in this process much is learned and discovered about self and other. This is rewarding work because issues that may have felt unchangeable now seem not so. New choices for behaviours become available.
Couples can start to show their care for each other and for the relationship again. Trust begins to redevelop when we believe the other person wants to understand what is happening for us and why we feel the way we do.
With trust, blame starts to take a back seat in the relationship and the cycle of meanings can be changed into something that feeds the relationship in a positive way.
Couple or Two Individuals?
Imagine the cycle of meaning-making bringing you closer to your partner. When you see behaviours you can check if the meaning you make up is in fact true or you can start to see new meanings which bring you closer to your partner.
In the end it often comes down to the couple versus the two individuals. If each individual is there to defend a position – because they feel misunderstood or attacked – they will feel they are against their partner. The potential for the couple, however, is to feel that the relationship is a shared safe place. There needs to be a willingness to closely examine ourselves to see how we hold destructive dynamics in place.
There is no limit to the difficulties that can be worked through if both partners see the value and growth potential in a good relationship. And, ironically, these values and growth are not just in the service of the relationship but serve each of the individuals as well.
(Frank Staemmler’s schemes of interaction are presented in his paper in Robert Lee’s book The Secret Language of Intimacy.)