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Relational Ethics in Couples Therapy

Watching couples who once loved each other denigrate, humiliate and act to destroy the once cherished other, is painful. It is an interaction frequently presented in couples therapy where, each blames the other and, in dialogical philosopher Martin Buber’s terms, is an I-it perspective where the other is perceived through the lens of one’s own needs or distortions. The conversation focusses on how each has been wronged, by their family of origin, friends, work and their partner and the goal becomes assertion and protection of self at the expense of all others.

Relational Ethics

Fishbane (2023) proposes a different perspective, that of relational ethics, where the clinician encourages clients to consider how they have wronged the other or acted in ways that do not align with their own higher values. This approach includes fairness and responsibility, voice and listening. Buber terms this, the adoption of the I-thou mode, where the person sees the fullness and humanity of the other.

Fishbane’s paper explores the relational view of the self and relational ethics developed in philosophy, psychology, feminist theory, neurobiology, and couple and family therapy. It identifies features of relational ethics and their practical application that can be effectively incorporated into the practitioner’s couples therapy approach and is applicable both to those who wish to improve a relationship and others who may choose to separate. In either case it encourages awareness of how their conduct will impact them and others around them.

The Practical Application in Couples Therapy

Managing the therapeutic relationship, which is intrinsically unequal, is central as each party often comes seeking support for their perspective and an ally in the battle with the partner. Fishbane encourages a stance of multi-directed partiality (Boszormeyi-Nagy and Krasner) where each person feels heard and valued and abusive or offensive behaviour is resisted.

The practitioner maps the cycle of reactivity, the vulnerability cycle, where each person’s vulnerabilities are triggered by hurt from the other and responded to by survival strategies that activate the partner’s vulnerabilities and survival strategies in an endless cycle. The goal is to help the couple move from a linear, blaming stance to a circular one where each take responsibility and can identify their contribution. In transforming the cycle, the practitioner is sensitive to inequalities and works to establish fairness and mutual responsibility. Exploration of the sequence may lead to exploration of family of origin experiences which perpetuate it, while an appreciation of the neurobiology of reactivity is both de-shaming and empowering.

The paper includes approaches to dealing with difference in the relationship, power and hurt and repair, each within the frame of relational ethics. The concepts are explicated through a case study.

In Conclusion

Fishbane’s paper does not pretend to be a magic solution for couples’ therapists, but it does provide a perspective which supports warring couples to become aware of how their conduct affects others and encourages them to ‘reach for their higher self and live in accordance with their own values of respect, fairness, and responsibility’. It is also a much more enjoyable place for a practitioner to occupy.


Fishbane M. D. (2023). Couple relational ethics: From theory to lived practice. Family Process, 62, 446–468.

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