This weekend, while my husband and I were taking a walk on the seawall, I noticed a couple who were paddling together in a kayak. As I watched them work together in a gentle synchronicity, I recalled a metaphor that I often use when engaged in couple’s, or relationship, therapy that I refer to as “The Canoe”.
The ‘canoe’ metaphor goes something like this: When couples come into therapy for the first time, and I listen to them describe the issues that brought them to my office, I often imagine them sitting in a canoe together on a lake. (For the sake of simplification, the lake in my imagination is always calm, despite the fact that more often than not, in the canoe, at the time of our first session, it rarely is! Thus, at this initial stage, it’s the ‘action’ inside the canoe that I typically focus on.) As I consider the couple in their canoe, I try to imagine the positions each of them have chosen for themselves. For example, both might be seated, but at either end from each other. In this seating arrangement, one could argue that there’s balance, but there’s also likely some noticeable tension, and perhaps very little co-operation or warmth experienced between them.
In another scenario, one partner may have chosen to sit on one end of the canoe, and the other, in a desperate attempt to connect with the typically avoidant partner, might be sitting right next to them. And, as a result, the intensity inherent in that choice could (and often does) ‘up-end’ the canoe and sink them both. By the end of therapy, however, the two individuals, now aided by healthier relationship skills, are often sitting closer to the middle of the metaphoric canoe – but not on top of each other – and are in a place of deeper connection and co-operation with one another than they were previously…sort of like the couple that I saw in their kayak this weekend.
Over my years in clinical practice, this metaphor has grown to include several other, and increasingly complex, layers. But I wanted to share the ‘skeleton’ of it as an illustration of how metaphors can be a useful tools in our attempt to understand the ‘bigger picture’ in situations that can sometimes be fraught with negative emotional energy and complications. And, this one in particular, as I mentioned, has been very useful to me when engaged in relationship or couple’s therapy, but it can be just as relevant when applied to other forms of both personal and professional relationships.
So, as both an interesting – and potentially revealing – exercise you might want to take note of where you sit in canoes of your various relationships in your life. And, while you’re at it, you might want to bring along a life jacket!