Case Study 1 Couple Work

(See example completed Rainbow Map for Michael)


Note: This is a composite example to protect client confidentiality.


Emma and Michael are both in their mid-40s. They have two teenage children, one of whom was experiencing anxiety issues that started when the family relocated to a new area two years previously. They had moved so that the couple could spend less time commuting to their increasingly demanding jobs, but the time saved was instead being spent working longer hours at their respective offices. Michael’s mother had died after a short illness around the time of the move, which Emma said he was reticent to talk about with her.

They both described their once intimate relationship as becoming distant and bitter. Whenever they tried to talk about what was happening, the conversation turned quickly into an argument, and then Michael would walk away. This made Emma even angrier. She would follow him, shouting and demanding answers to her questions. Emma had recently discovered messages on Michael’s phone between him and an old friend in which he had been sharing his worries and feelings about their child, his mother’s death and the problems in their relationship. Emma felt betrayed and exposed. She had given Michael an ultimatum that, unless they attended couple therapy, their relationship was over.

For brevity and because this is only a short introduction to the Rainbow Map and associated concepts, I am going to leave out the host of considerations and thoughts that would precede and accompany its use with clients. These include how and when to introduce it; whether the couple or the therapist should choose which of them experiences it first; how much does dominance and fear play a role in that choice, and whether to use the Rainbow Map at all. Such issues explain why I have, to date, only trained experienced therapists. I have created the Rainbow Map website (www.rainbowmap. org) to provide more information to those interested in the approach and to support practitioners who have been trained to use it and have access to the therapists’ area, which holds resources such as the Rainbow Map Aide Memoire.

The Rainbow Map Aide Memoire is a one-page document that is laid out in the same column format as the Rainbow Map (see next page). It provides examples of emotions, wishes, types of thinking, typical thoughts, sensations and mannerisms for each level of triggering.  It can be used as a prompt to help clients either get started and/or refine their responses. It can also be used to test for the degree of triggering a client might experience in a typical conflict cycle.

I gave Emma and Michael a blank copy of the Rainbow Map on a clipboard and described the main areas to them. I asked which of them would like to try it first. Emma suggested Michael and he agreed. The illustration on the preceding page shows his completed Rainbow Map at the end of the session.

First, I invited him to reflect on what he might be doing when he was typically most relaxed. He said he was most at ease when he was working in their garden at the weekends. I had the Rainbow Map Aide-Memoire and another blank copy of the Rainbow Map in front of me, and together we traversed, left to right, the green untriggered band. Initially Michael found it difficult to describe his emotions when he was feeling relaxed. I shared a few examples from the Aide-Memoire, two of which Michael felt resonated with him, and he then mentioned two others. He found it easier to describe his styles of thinking and typical thoughts when he was untriggered but drew a blank when trying to think of any sensations or mannerisms.

I then asked Michael to think of a recent example of conflict with Emma, without talking about it. First, we focused on the Emotions and Wishes column and, using the Aide-Memoire again, I offered some examples of emotions and wishes that a person might experience as they moved into the yellow hyper-triggering band that marks the earliest and perhaps, from a therapeutic perspective, the most useful part of the client’s experience of their triggering selves (note, around 10% of clients trigger directly down into the hypo-triggering and hypo- triggered states, particularly those worn down by extended periods of conflict and/or conflict avoidance). In this transitional band, the relative influence of the reflective mind wanes as the reactive and interacting brain and body system increasingly direct what is said and done. I always emphasise that these are examples only, and not suggestions; I find that clients generally then create their own descriptions or refinements. Michael, reflecting on the recent example of conflict with Emma, talked about his sense of frustration and exasperation, and how he felt ignored by her.

Emma was, meantime, making occasional notes on her own Rainbow Map but in the main was focused on Michael and what he was saying.

I used the Aide-Memoire to share examples of emotions from the orange shading to red hyper-triggered band to see if any resonated with Michael. He described his anguish and fury. This degree of opening, albeit tentative, by a person who had otherwise been taciturn is a common outcome of working with the Rainbow Map.

I then shared examples from the blue hypo triggering and deep-purple hypo-triggered bands, as typically we do not simply calm down back into the green untriggered band after experiencing an episode of conflict with someone who is close to us. Instead, most clients who experience the Rainbow Map report a period of mild to severe down-regulation before they re-experience themselves as untriggered. For some, that state never exists or is very short lived, as they oscillate between phases of being hyper- and hypo triggered. Again, Michael was able to identify examples from his own experience.

Once we had completed the Emotions and Wishes column, we moved across the Rainbow Map to the Styles of Thinking and Typical Thoughts column and repeated these processes.

Finally, we worked on the Physical Sensations and Mannerisms column, which draws on specific aspects of polyvagal theory. I find that even clients who report never having previously felt a sense of connection with their body have started to discover it through this experience, typically when one small, perhaps previously ignored sensation is first noticed.

Once he had completed the Physical Sensations and Mannerisms column, I asked Michael if he could identify his trigger flag. He said he thought it was clenching his jaw. We talked about how he could use this as his internal signal that he was starting to trigger when he got into conflict with Emma.

We circled the entries across the yellow hyper-triggering band on our respective copies of the map and I suggested to Michael that, when he noticed his trigger flag, he might also be experiencing most of the entries contained within that loop. This often generates conversation and insights into the automatic nature of the behaviours clients notice in themselves and their partner in connection with their conflict or avoidance of conflict. This in turn offers opportunities for conversations that can include forgiveness of self and the other.

Towards the end of the session, which took around 45 minutes, Michael plotted his trigger cycle in the right-hand column. This experience helped him track the trajectory and duration of his typical conflict and recovery cycle. In couple work, this reveals the different nature and duration of each partner’s trigger cycles and how they may be playing into what can often appear to be intractable cycles of conflict. For example, if one client recovers more quickly than the other and wants to move on or seek resolution, their partner, still recovering and unavailable, may react in a way that can trip them both back into another episode of conflict and/or avoidance. Awareness of the different nature and duration of their cycles typically provides openings for conversations that can generate ways to avoid experiencing being triggered themselves and behaving in ways that cause their partner to trigger. This capacity to notice their own reflective mind and reactive brain/ body system typically offers each client an opportunity to catch themselves earlier in a trigger cycle and exert more choice in what they say and do to de-escalate conflict and sustain constructive dialogue.

Couple therapists reading this example may be concerned about the focus of a session being on one partner. Initially, I also had that concern. My own experience, and that of other therapists using the tool, shows that, for both the active and the listening client, time seems to stop, and both become involved. It may be their first experience of noticing and separating out the interactions within and between them, without the need for any awareness or understanding of complex systemic theory. I have also found that some couple therapists decide not to use the Aide-Memoire and simply give each partner a Rainbow Map and a brief explanation of its main parts as a primer for reflection and dialogue about their reflective minds and reactive brain/body systems in connection with their relationship.