During the first decades of the 20th century, the dominant concept of psychological suffering identified the individual as the only possible receiver of psychotherapeutic interventions. In other words, therapists used to meet with one person at a time, believing that, by resolving intra-psychic conflicts, the patient would go through a transformative process towards a healthier relational functioning.
Such approach had not yet integrated concepts deriving from other theoretical frameworks such as family therapy, which underwent rapid development thanks to the contribution of the Palo Alto group and to ideas developed by complex systems theorists. The main author pertaining to this group, Gregory Bateson, was among the earliest researchers to notice the work that Milton H. Erickson carried out with his patients, and believed that he was a pioneer of family and couples therapy. Despite the fact that he is often cited regarding hypnosis addressed to single individuals, or his research in the field of the states of consciousness, Erickson had an approach to couples that included both formal and informal hypnotic interventions. By studying his procedures, famous researchers in the field of family therapy, such as Jay Haley, noticed that he implicitly worked considering the symptom not just as an isolated feature of the individual, but as the product of relational dynamics that couples produced in order to keep the balance.
Despite the apparent distance between the popular concept of hypnosis and couples therapy, it is not by chance that Erickson started working in this field. Trained hypnotherapists, in fact, have at least three skill-sets that allow them to improve the effectiveness of their interventions.
The first one concerns the ability to decode body language and implicit communication. This attention to the subtle aspects of interaction allows them to gather clues of the functioning of the couple that can be hidden to the patients themselves.
Furthermore hypnotherapists are able to detect and make use of the functional aspects of the couple, however small, to set change into motion.
Finally, Erickson himself emphasized the concept of utilization of resistance, which allows the therapist to effectively communicate with those who seek help favoring the expression of unconscious processes that can promote the spontaneous surfacing of change.
The application of these principles allowed Erickson and his followers to work with great flexibility adapting processes both to different kinds of couples or to couples in different stages of life. Haley himself, in his book Uncommon Therapies1, writes about how, based on the phase in which the couple was, the topics and principles that Erickson used were different: a very young couple dealing with the management of early conflicts has different needs compared to an older couple that is dealing with the rearing of children.
Despite scientific literature is very poor in this field, the need to treat couples is evident to psychologists and psychotherapists. Since the ‘70s we know that marital maladjustment correlates with psychopathological conditions such as depression2-4 up to the point that some authors think that “a healthy marriage can serve as means of both prevention and treatment for depression5.
A recent study6 by a group of researchers of the “La Sapienza” University of Rome, reviewed the advantages that a hypnotic intervention can have on couples therapy. Such advantages are related both to specific features of the hypnotic state and to the kinds of interventions that can be made with patients under this peculiar state of consciousness.
Hypnotic trance slows the speed of interaction down and thus inhibits automatic responses that the couple may have adopted and stabilized with time. Patients acquire new skills that allow them to better focus on themselves and on the contents of the communication that occurs during sessions. This process enhances their abilities to solve conflicts and reduces rumination on topics related to conflicts. Finally, during the hypnotic state, the responsiveness to the therapist is improved and such phenomenon allows the couple to exploit the useful elements that therapy can offer.
In other words even contemporary authors believe that treating symptoms expressed by one member of a system as the manifestation of the suffering of the entire system is of primary importance and that hypnosis can be a useful tool to deal with and solve issues related to romantic relationships.
  1. Uncommon Therapy. The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. W. W. Norton & Company, New York-London.
  2. Crowther, J. (1985). The relationship between depression and marital maladjustment: A descriptive study. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 173, 227–231.
  3. Friedman, A. (1975). Interaction of drugs with marital therapy in depressive patients. Archives of General Psychiatry, 32, 619–637.
  4. Wishman, M., & Bruce, M. (1999). Marital distress and incidence of major depressive episodes in a community sample. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108, 674–678.
  5. Yapko, M. D. (1999). Hand-me-down blues. How to stop depression from spreading in families. New York: Golden Books.
  6. Loriedo, C., & Torti, C. (2010). Systemic hypnosis with depressed individuals and their families. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 58(2): 222-246.