Coaching Couples with ORSC

Sandra and Maddie on coaching couples with ORSC

An Interview with Sandra Cain and Maddie Weinreich

So many romantic relationships begin with the highest of hopes. Yet when it comes to the practical day-to-day details of being together, the ideals of an intimate partnership can be hard to sustain. Maddie Weinreich is a systems coach with a particular fondness for coaching intimate relationships. In an interview with another senior CRR Global faculty member, Sandra Cain, Maddie discusses how systems inspired coaching can help make love last.

Although Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™) is frequently thought of as a team coaching skillset, it adapts to support any type of relationship. When Maddie first took this training, she immediately wanted to use it to coach couples.

Personal relationships are often the most significant ones in our lives, but couples lack the skills to make them work.

“You sleep six inches away from somebody, but you’re not making the most of that relationship,” Maddie says. “People struggle to have a partner, they get a partner, and then they complain about their partner.”


High hopes vs. practical realities


Couples commit to each other with the best of intentions. Wedding vows, made at a high point, are often the North Star of a relationship.

“Of course that’s our high dream, our best possible scenario – ‘I will always be faithful. I will always love you and cherish you, and put you before everybody else,’” says Sandra. “Until life happens!”

Interview Transcript

Sandra Cain and Maddie Weinreich Talk Couples Coaching

SC: Alright, so today I’m here with Maddie Weinrich to talk about coaching couples and partnerships. Thanks, Maddie, for being here.

MW: You’re welcome. I’m so excited to be here. I love talking about couples coaching.

SC: Oh, good! You’re in the right place, you know. When I think about coaching couples, I always think of you. You and I have known each other a long time. We went through this training together – the ORSC training together – and I just know you were so excited to work with couples when most of us weren’t. So I really am dying to know – what is so compelling for you about working with couples and intimate couples?

MW: Well, you know, it’s really interesting. It’s actually how I got into systems coaching because I was an individual coach. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh couples could really use this.”
You sleep six inches away from somebody – why are you not making the most of that relationship, you know? People struggle to have a partner, and then they get a partner, and then they complain about their partner. So I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to do couples for couples to do coaching?” Then I discovered the ORSC program, and so that was my initial entry into systems coaching – with couples.

SC: Oh, that’s really interesting. So you were looking for a way to support couples before you even knew about ORSC.

MW: Yes.

SC: Oh, wow! So, I love what you said – you know we sleep six inches apart from each other, and we don’t communicate well, or we have all these perpetual issues, and don’t know how to do it better. There’s no relationship school other than really what you see in your own family system, mostly. So, what are some of the patterns that you notice that happen with couples, like repeatable problems?

MW: Well, almost every couple comes with the complaint “We have communication problems.” That’s, that’s usually what they call it, regardless of what’s going on. One person wants one thing and [the other] wants something different. They have different styles, different approaches, a different sense of timing. It’s basically they have differences. When they first got together – that’s what brought them together, often –  is their differences. “Oh, I like him because he’s so outgoing.” And then after you know him for a while it’s like, “I can’t believe he’s always out there talking to other people.” There’s this kind of thing that happens when we get with somebody. It’s a match at first, and then all of a sudden, we’re like – why can’t they be more like me?

SC: Right.

MW: That’s what happens. There’s kind of a convincing that tries to happen. And people think “It’s gotta be my way.”  “No, it’s gotta be my way.” And so there’s this power struggle that often emerges.

SC: It’s good language for it. It really is like a power struggle, isn’t it? And we’re drawn to the difference in the beginning and over time we just want everybody to change. Just be more like me, you know, it’s a great paradox of how humans are wired. So you know, you name some of the patterns and themes that you see and perpetual problems really in the ORSC language. Right? What are you finding are useful approaches from this model? I know there’s a lot that you can do, but I’m guessing there’s a few things you probably go to pretty frequently.

MW: Yes. Most couples – when they come to me, they’re triggering each other. In ORSC language, we … that’s often one of the things I’ll talk about is to explain what triggering is, how we get activated by something. Maybe we say something we didn’t mean, or we go “deer in the headlights” – like there’s lots of ways we get triggered. And what happens is one person’s trigger is interacting with the other person’s trigger, and the grownups have left the building. So, it triggered aspects that could be like a rebel teenager with a little kid, and that’s who’s having the conversation, and the adult function has kind of left and vacated the premises. So, the detriggering is something I often do early on with couples, and just a basic designed alliance.

MW: Who designs an alliance? Nobody. We don’t know about that. So, taking them through that process of talking about: what are the things you want to work on? And when we work on it, how do you want to be together? Most couples, I don’t know any couples who’ve had that kind of conversation about designing how they want to be when they have a difficult conversation.

SC: It made me think of wedding vows, for some reason. I’ve never really thought about it this way, but you know, when people have wedding vows, they say lovely things to each other, you know. “I promise this, I commit to this,” a big smile on their faces, I’m saying this, right? It’s such a beautiful thing, but it’s not really a designed alliance, it’s a declaration of something, and there’s – I’m laughing at it, too – it’s like there’s something missing even in our vows, right? Because of course that’s our high dream, our best possible scenario – “I will always be faithful. I will always love you and cherish you, and put you before everybody else” until life happens.

MW: Until you do something that bothers me.

SC: “You, really, you know, you left that out of the fridge again? The milk – it’s on the table, right? Yeah.”

MW: I think vows are intentions. I think that’s often the North Star and those vows are made at that point in a relationship that’s usually a high. It’s a high point. They’re deciding – it’s a new beginning, and it’s like, well for this beginning, this is what I intend, this is what I want, this is who I want to be, this is how I want to show up. And then life happens and things happen, and kids come, and jobs and illness and all kinds of things happen, and those are changes in the relationship, or chapter changes. And sometimes we don’t know how to navigate that. You know you mentioned that most of us learn relationship from what we see from our parents, and how good were they at relationship? They did the best we could. But they didn’t have research or John Gottman or studies that have been done about couples. And now we have that information and there are skills that can be built. So, that’s the good news about coaching, is that you can make it be different than it is, if you want to.

SC: Well, you know, it is so often is that difference in realities right? Like, “I’m frustrated, ‘cause you always put your shoes in the walkway.” Right? Like, the tactical daily reality drives me crazy, and my partner is in a whole different space, you know? It’s like I don’t even notice that my shoes are there, you know? And so, my list of problems and complaints gets longer and longer, you know. And of course we talk about getting behind the complaints in our coursework, what’s really underneath that, what’s the low dream and what might be the tenderness there? Because if I just keep talking about the shoes: in that way, that’s not gonna problem solve, but if I talk more from my heart about what’s important to me – maybe about tidiness, or where that comes from – from the heart – my hand is even on my heart as I’m thinking it, right?  So sometimes, it’s that clash in different levels of reality that’s really at stake.

MW: There’s often a longing, like you said, behind that  – there’s a tenderness, there’s a heart, there’s a sweetness, there’s a softness. There’s an intention or a wanting something for the relationship that isn’t happening. So, the thing we do is we blame our partner, or we complain about our partner. That’s what we’re taught – not just at home, but culture, the news and everything is about blaming each other. And so to help people reel that back in a little bit, and connect with what is it that they really want, and really give them the opportunity to listen to each other, because often when couples are fighting, they’re not listening to each other, they’re just taking a stand for their position for what they want, and they’re trying to often convince – not in a kind way or an inviting way, but often in a demanding way, like “You should make me happy. You should do this. You should do that.” A lot of the time, there’s a fair bit of shooting that goes on a relationship.

SC: Well, and there is a sense of “If I’m right, then you have to be wrong.” It’s when we’re really activated, right? It’s – there’s no middle ground, like when I’m really upset about something, that’s it. The world gets very black and white to me, and I lose all the color that might be there, and I just want to get my way.

You and I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and I’m still like that in conflict. Now, I’ve been able to move through it a little faster than I did many years ago. Of course I can actually watch myself go, “You’re crazy right now, Sandra, like back up the truck a little bit, you know what’s trying to happen here” – or soften a little, but not every time! I think that working with couples isn’t about conflict never happens, it’s about how do they become more conscious, maybe more skillful when it does happen, right?

MW: Yeah, and how can they recover a little quicker with what it’s about? The other thing I just want to underline that you said is – just because we’re couples’ coaches or relationship coaches doesn’t mean we don’t have stuff going on in our own relationships.

SC: It’s true.

MW: We’re human. And I think that actually makes us better coaches because we live in that. If we’re in a long-term relationship, we can understand how hard it is to pivot, or how hard it is to recover, or how hard it is to listen to the other when we have our point of view that we’re trying to get across.

SC: Right? So I’m curious for you, what you know about this, and neither of us are therapists. But I’m curious what you know, or what you’ve learned over time. How do you think couples coaching is different than couples therapy?

MW: It’s a great question, and I think a lot of people don’t know about couples coaching. They know therapy, they know about counseling, and there’s a place for couples therapy and couples counseling – that’s really important, you know. I appreciate those things. Often, couples therapy is about going back in time. It’s about finding out – where did you learn these things? You understand the why of why you did something, and then if that’s done in front of your partner, they understand where you learned it and why you do it, where it came from. So there’s more empathetic understanding that can happen, and couples therapy is kind of like that. It’s digging into the past so that you can understand why you do the things you do.

Now, couples coaching is more about “Here you are. This is what’s going on. What do you want to do about it? So how do you want to be with it now? But also – how do you want to pivot forward? How do you want to go forward?” It’s empowering for a couple to go to couples coaching, because, first of all, we hold the relationship as the client. We’re not holding that one person’s got a problem, and the other person doesn’t. It’s more like there’s something that wants to change or emerge in the relationship. As the coach, we’re looking at both people equally. We’re looking at the relationship between the two of them. That’s a different focus than focusing on each individual. So often when couples come, and they realize they’re not going to be blamed for the problem – for whatever’s happening – or if they are blamed, we’re going to work with that and find a better way to be. It’s really about “how can we?” It’s a responsibility. How can we be the architects, the designers of our relationship? It’s a little bit of a burden when you realize that you’re responsible for creating the relationship that you want.

SC: Love that – it’s not just the other person that’s responsible.

MW: No. We think it is, and we try to go there over and over again. “If only you would make me happy, we would have a better relationship.” But it’s really, “How do we together forge that? How do we create that together? Co-create, co-design?” Once couples realize they have the power to do that and the responsibility to do that, it gets kind of exciting.

SC: Yeah, there’s more forward looking, like you said, instead of backward looking in that case, too. It’s the distinction about therapy looking back and coaching looking now and forward. It’s not … I just want to say it to anyone listening – it’s not a clear black and white kind of thing, right? Those things blend. There’s overlap of coaching and therapy, and there’s many different modes of therapy, and certainly different models of coaching. What I’ve learned from the ORSC model is – I’m looking at the dynamic between people – whether it’s two people or a team. But with two people it’s really different, because it’s just them. With the team, you know, it’s many people, and I’m looking at what’s happening between all of them, but with two, if I can really tune into – they’re just two people expressing something that’s happening between them, they’re using words. We’re putting language to something that’s a felt experience, right? So how do we train ourselves, as coaches, to look at my hand going back and forth in that infinity loop. Right? It’s like, that’s what I’m most interested in with partnerships or couples, and it takes time to build that muscle. It’s very easy to get pulled into one or the other, right? I mean, what have you learned about not taking sides?

MW: Well, as a systems coach, that’s our stance. It doesn’t mean I don’t take sides occasionally, you know.

SC: We’re human. Yeah.

MW: We’re human, we have things that we can relate to. I love what you said about the dynamic, because that’s really what we’re focusing on is – how are they being together?” And if, when we’re having conversations, we can uncover – what’s the pattern? What’s the dance? One of you does this, and then the other does that, and what’s the pattern that happens? We can start to say, well, where might you want to break up that pattern. Where might you want to do so try something a little different. A lot of what happens in couples coaching is skill building. They learn skills, and they practice things, and they go home and try it out and see what happens. Does it make the relationship better? Does it keep it the same? Does it make it worse? And then they come back, and we kind of regroup. But it really is about – who are they being together? How are they being together? Is this who they want to be? Is this how they want to be? And we show, I show them options. We have all the ORSC tools. They’re all good for couples, and taking them through some of our activities really makes a difference. They start to see each other in a different way. We have this Land’s Work visualization that we take them through, and they realize, “Oh, I thought I knew you so well, but I didn’t know that that’s what went on in your Land, or that’s what happens in your world.” And so, when they learn new information, or learn something about each other, it opens up new doorways to their relationship.

SC: That’s actually really critical, because if there’s nothing new they won’t change, right? And if they’re not open to something new, nothing will change. I worked with a partnership years ago that I remember because it was very – one of them deferred to the other. It’s like, “Well, whatever they say is right, whatever they say is right.” And I was fascinated, but first I was a little annoyed, right? Because of my own stuff. I’m like, “What is happening?” And then I got really curious like, “Wow, this is just who they are together” – like they’re showing me who they are together. This is a micro-version of what it’s like when I’m not there. And I was actually, in a way kind of honored because they were so honest that this is how it is. It was really interesting to start to look at that dynamic and reflect that back. You know, “I noticed a pattern here where you know one of you really just defers to the other. What’s that like?” Just for them to have somebody name that and reflect it back. New information, right? Really, really interesting. They were tough in a lot of ways, they were really entrenched. So, I would just look for those moments where I could – like you were saying – disrupt their pattern of how they were, and give them some new information to see what they do with it.

MW: That’s what goes on.

SC: I imagine you’ve had some that you’ve had to refer out with therapists or some other modality. What do you see happening where you you say maybe coaching isn’t the right fit?

MW: Well sometimes you don’t know till we get into it. We ask if there are addictions or alcoholism, and sometimes people don’t know that they’re alcoholic or addicted to something until we start doing the coaching, and it doesn’t go anywhere. And then all of a sudden it might pop up. Then the coaching is really about helping them get the proper help that they need. For addictions or alcoholism, it’s referring to a counselor.

Lately, Sandra, I’ve been noticing the impact of anxiety on couples. I worked with one couple, and the coaching was going nowhere every week. Every time we got together, it was the same kind of thing. Usually if that happens, I’m thinking, “Is there some addiction? What’s going on?” And sometimes it’s an issue of mental health. It could be depression that’s not being addressed or  they’re not having medication or not seeing a therapist, or … I think anxiety is just so rampant in our society these days and it’s impacting individuals, but I’m really starting to see the impact on couples. And so the conversation then becomes about how do you work with that anxiety? How can you get help? Where’s the help that you need? Then we just help them get that. They could still do coaching as well, as long as whoever’s got that going on gets some support. There’ve also been times I’ve needed to refer out because of domestic violence. And you know, I’ve heard, “We just we slap each other around a little bit,” and my antennae go up. I’m like, “Wait! What? Tell me about that. What’s going on?” and you know, they’ll say that, and I’ll say, “Well, how would you know if this was domestic violence or not?”

And so the assignment is – go out, research that and come back. We have more conversations, and then I have referrals. I have therapists that I can send people off to, people I know, who I trust, who I know would do good work with them. Just educate them, help them, help them through that. And again, we can still do coaching, or they could come back to coaching after they’ve done that.

It’s like when something just doesn’t work – when you’re doing coaching or using the ORSC tools and skills, the system usually shifts, it moves, it has some movement, something happens. If nothing’s happening, that’s when my antennae start to go up.

SC: Well, the thing that stood out to me about that is that you asked them how they would know if it was, right? Especially long-term relationships – and I mean, that’s all I’ve really ever had, so I guess I don’t … I can only speak for that – I’ve been with my partner for a long time – things just become normal. So much can become normal over time and people may not even realize what they’re dealing with is… I’m not gonna say, not normal, cause it’s normal that people fight. It’s normal to have conflict. But the way that they do it is so harmful, you know, that can be abusive. Or it’s such an imbalance of power, whether it’s financial power – one person makes more money – or verbal power – one person’s more eloquent with their words or faster. You know, there’s all kinds of powers that people can have, but that is, that’s really interesting that you asked them to go research it, and they were willing to do that.

MW: Oh, yeah. And I researched it, too.

SC: I bet.

MW: I was like, “Wait a second. I feel like I’m out of my league here.” When that happens as a coach. It’s really good to have supervision, to have coaches that you work with or colleagues that you can talk to about these things, so that you can  run it by them and get more insights into it. Just checking it out like – “How would I… how do I know I’m over my head?” “Well, what’s happening?” “Just I feel like there’s I’m not having any impact. The coaching isn’t having any impact.” That what starts to give me the clues for that. Having them research it is very interesting because they learn things. Like you said, when you’re in it you don’t realize it. But if you start to research it or research … alcoholism is something that people have researched as well. They realize. “Oh, my gosh, I was using. I’ve been using alcohol because I’m depressed.” Oh, okay, alcoholism depression. Let’s help you get … Let’s get you the help that you need so you could be supported in your healing. That’s usually what people want. If they’re coming to coaching, they usually want something. They want to be better. So there’s a motivation that’s there.

SC: Right. There’s also… you put it on them. Which is what I really want to highlight in this, because you could have just as easily done that research yourself and come back and declared something. It is not really a coaching approach, although at times we may have to just say, I don’t think coaching is the right approach for you. I think you might need a different kind of support. But what really stood out is that they said they wanted to research that, they took it on themselves. So that’s actually a very good sign in a relationship dealing with some difficulty.

MW: Yeah. I have … I have seen lots of different kinds of recovery. They’ve come to coaching. They’ve gone off and done other things. Maybe they’ve come back to coaching and yeah, I’ve seen it really work. It’s what you said – revealing the system to itself we call it – reflecting back. “Hey, I notice you’re coming to the coaching, and nothing’s changed. What’s that like for you?” That’s what we do as systems coaches, and then we start to question and have those conversations, and then they can go somewhere with it. They can do something with it.

SC: Right again. That’s that kind of now and forward-looking with coaching versus some therapies that are looking back – Where did this pattern start? Where did it originate? What’s the healing that needs to be done there? It’s interesting, you know, cause the ORSC model does – it was created by two women who have a therapeutic background so there’s some places where we dance on that line. But I do think there’s good clarity. I mean, the bottom line for me has always been: If I feel like I’m in over my head, I’m in over my head. I trust my instinct on that. Whether I’ve been coaching six months or 20 years. If I feel like this is out of my scope or my skillset, don’t fake it. Don’t pretend that it is, cause it just gets worse. It gets more uncomfortable and awkward, and you get more in your own head about what’s going on, and you can’t really be with your clients, right?

MW: Yeah, and it’s important to raise the conversation.

SC: That’s it.

MW: And that takes a little guts on our part as the coach, you know. We say the thing that isn’t often said, and you know, it’s what they do with it that – we trust they’ll figure out what they need to do with it.

SC: Right. What are some of the main things that you design with your clients when you do that kind of designed partnership alliance, or coaching alliance? You don’t have to say everything, but just other few things that stand out as really useful to make sure that you say upfront, or work with them upfront on, before you can start coaching.

MW: Oh, yeah. So I don’t keep secrets with one about the other. I don’t have individual meetings with one or the other. If I’m working with a team, I might interview everyone on the team, but when I’m working with a couple everything happens together, in front of each other. So those things are really, really important. Usually, I say – “How do you want me to say things to you?” Just about every couple I work with says, “Be direct. Don’t hold back, don’t sugarcoat it. Tell us what you see, what you hear, what you sense and what you notice.” So I do offer to do that. That’s really the biggest thing – I don’t keep secrets with one about the other. There’s not a power play to get my attention as the coach, or for me to take sides. I always hold them together in their relationship.

SC: Why do you think there’s such a clear request for you to not hold back? I could imagine there’s times when it’s a little tender between a couple. I know you, and I know your style so  I’m factoring that in too, but if that’s a consistent thing you’re hearing people say is, “Don’t hold back. Be straight with us.” What do you think they’re longing for that they don’t have?

MW: Well, here it is. They have to pay to go to coaching. It’s not covered by their health insurance. They want to get their money’s worth, and you know that’s kind of the silly thing, but it’s a true thing, and : I don’t know that people have ever had their relationship reflected back to them, unless they’ve been to a therapist or a counselor or something like that. And here we’re looking at them, we’re saying, “You know, I notice when you two look at each other, your faces soften, or it seems like there’s a lot of warmth between the two of you,” And no one’s…their cousins don’t tell you that. Your kids certainly don’t. Parents might not tell them that. So it’s really the fact that we’re starting to show them what we see, hear and sense.

They want to hear it all. They’re like, “Oh, really? Oh, oh, you think we’re very connected? Oh, I guess we are.” Or “You think we’re … what’s the word? Prickly? It’s kind of prickly between us? You’re right. It is prickly between us.” So by saying that, noticing that, or using a word – and we don’t have to be right – but we put something out there that we notice that we hear or sense or see, and then they feel they can trust the coaching, cause you’re being honest with them. You’re not holding back. You’re not hiding things. You’re really sharing that with them. You’re being the mirror for them, and they do appreciate that. Once they’ve got it in the mirror, whether they like it or not, they can do something about it if they choose to. So then it’s really kind of over to them. “So it’s prickly between the two of you. What’s it like to be in a relationship like that? Do you want to keep doing that? Do you want to do something different? If you want something different. We’ve got tools and activities and skills that can help you to look at it differently or have a different kind of conversation.”

SC: It’s so true, a different kind of conversation. That’s what I tell every new partnership. Every team that I work with. We’re going have different conversations than you normally have, and if you don’t want that, don’t hire a coach. You know? Don’t bring me in. I assume you want that. And it kind of puts people a little bit like – “what does that mean” – you know, on edge. And I don’t mean anything radical. I just mean it’s going to be different. Cause if there’s no… if I don’t bring anything different, nothing’s going to change, and that’s what they really want. I kind of like that little bit of “What?!?” moment that happens. “What does that mean?!”

MW: I do want to underline what you said, too, about if you don’t do something different, nothing’s gonna change. So, by coming to a coach, there’s the opportunity to find many different ways to do it differently, to say it differently, to hear it differently. That’s what I think, we provide as systems coaches and couples coaches. Tools, activity, skills, concepts, ways of looking at research we can offer and share, depending on what’s going on, and we customize it for every couple that comes in. What would help them get to where they want to go to? But also, when they come to coaching they need to have a goal. Like – what do you want to achieve? What do you want to be different in your relationship? We ask that question, we get the agenda. We find out, what do they want to have happen? And then talking to them, we find out, well, what’s a tool that we can use to help them reshape that conversation?

Often it’s, “Oh, we can have that conversation. That’s not so bad. That’s not so scary. We can do that.” Then they go to someplace new together, and then off they go.

SC: You know, it’s part of the simplicity of this is that when couples work with you, they have committed time to talk about the relationship. It’s really understanding how significant that is because in the busy-ness of life, the annoying little things that happen in a partnership and the sweet little things – and hopefully there’s more sweet than annoying – but sometimes there’s not. There’s just a lot of things that happen. How many couples really say, “Let’s have a conversation about what’s going on between us?” You laugh, right? We don’t.

MW: No.

SC: We aren’t really taught that either. I mean, I didn’t see my parents ever do that. I’m sure most people haven’t seen that, you know. It’s very radical to actually say, let’s talk together about what you’re noticing. And I also want to build on this this part about how you have learned to look for the dynamic as a new coach of more than one person, you know, partners or teams – but partnerships especially, I think, because they’re more personal. Usually it’s harder for coaches. How have you made that pivot from – I see this in this person, and I see this in this person – to what’s happening between them? What helps you do that?

MW: That is a really cool question, cause I do it more now than I did 20 years ago when I started. I often will just ask them, “What’s going on between you right now? How would you describe what’s here right now?” I might ask – “What’s a metaphor for your relationship?” “If your relationship was a flavor of ice cream, what would it be today?” Right?

SC: Nice.

MW: Those kinds of questions, They might have different metaphors. Then there’s a conversation that they have about their different ice cream metaphors, and I’m noticing, “How are they having that conversation? Are they looking at each other? Is one cutting the other off? Are they finishing each other’s sentences?” That’s where I’m looking, is how are they being together in any given moment in the coaching? Because how they’re being together now is how they’re being in their relationship.

SC: So you get a window into it when you’re working with them, right? That question about ice cream made me smile. I was thinking of Rocky Road, probably a lot of people would say.

MW: Rocky Road. Yeah. Rocky Road is good.

SC: Rocky Road ice cream. One of them says that and one says vanilla, and then it’s like, well, that’s interesting. In this relationship there’s vanilla and Rocky Road.

MW: What do you do with those two, you know? Make a Sunday, put hot fudge sauce on it, who knows? But asking them, putting it over there. It’s really – we have this competency of reading the emotional field, which is really about: “How is any system being in the moment right now in this moment?” The more I use that competency of reading the emotional field, and they start to do it. Or, I say, “What’s here now between the two of you? Or how are you? What’s the weather between the two of you?” There’s so many ways to do that. We’re starting to have them turn towards each other, have a conversation together, look at each other, and then we can witness that dynamic. And that’s, I think, how you get to the relationship dynamic. Tuning into it, having them start to tune into it and turn towards each other rather than being so aware of what’s happening.

SC: That’s our natural state, you know. We do that to protect ourselves. We do that for all kinds of reasons, but especially when there’s conflict or irritability. Right? People – we go to our own stuff, and we want to defend it and argue for it. Make a case for it. And it’s more about – I’m gonna reveal myself – It’s more about being right than actually coming to a solution that works for both of us. You know, when we’re really activated, right? It’s like, I’m the youngest of six kids, and I’m always like, you know, “I wanna be right. I wanna be heard.” That goes way deep for me.

MW: And it lives in couples. They want to be right, and that’s often – “Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be a relationship?” is sometimes a question I’ll ask, but often that’s where the convincing is – the being in a position. People want to be right. “I want you to do it my way. I want you to do it my way.” So yeah, that’s often where it starts.

SC: “And if I’m right, that means you’re wrong.”

MW: Yes!

SC: “You’re right, I’m wrong.” It gets very black and white there, and there’s a harshness to that that doesn’t have room for partnership. It’s very much two separate corners – who’s right and who’s wrong?

MW:  How do you feel when you’re the one who’s wrong? You know, do you feel like empowered? You’re not all get up and go, or so excited to do something. Or, who wants to hang around with somebody who’s wrong, right? You want someone who is partnering with you. “We’re in this together. We’re co-creating or co-designing, or just enjoying each other. You know, that piece from Gottman about five positive to one negative. It’s really an important piece that I share with couples right up front, usually in our first meeting. You need to have five pluses to one minus, because you’re going to have minuses. You’re going to withdraw from that bank account. So, you’ve got to keep putting in consciously and intentionally increasing positivity in the relationship. Once people realize that and start to do simple little things, it can start to turn the relationship in a better direction.

SC: That’s great language, actually. You’ve even simplified it – more five pluses for every one negative, right? Cause those, like a plus can look 15 million ways in in every department, in every relationship, rather. And a minus can look, you know, a million different ways depending on the people, and where their tender points are. So pluses and minuses, that’s really accessible language for clients, isn’t it?

MW: Exactly. Exactly. It’s easy to follow.

SC: Right?  Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this. It’s always fascinating. You know, you and I are relationship nerds. We love to talk about this and go deeper on the topic of – especially couples in partnership. So thank you, this is lovely.

MW: And thank you so much for having me. It’s been just delightful chatting with you about couples. Thanks, Sandra.

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As couples change jobs, have children, and encounter illness or other life stresses, the relationship becomes more challenging to navigate. Maddie notes that most of us learn our relationship skills from watching our parents. While these role models did the best they could, they may not have had the understanding or skills to function well together as a couple.

The good news is that people in intimate relationships tend to be highly invested. They care deeply and want to make the relationship work.

“There’s often longing, tenderness, heart, intention – wanting something for the relationship that isn’t happening,” Maddie says. “We blame our partner, or we complain about our partner. That’s what we’re taught, and not just at home. Culture and the news are all about blaming each other.”

“Coaching helps people to reel that back in and connect with what they really want.”


Communication issues and power struggles


Many clients come to Maddie with similar issues.

“‘We have communication problems.’ That’s usually what they call it,” Maddie says. “They have different styles, different approaches, a different sense of timing.”

The same qualities that first draw us to a partner often begin to irritate us later on. Each partner wants to have things their own way, and that conflict turns into a power struggle.

“Most couples are triggering each other,“ Maddie says. “What happens is that one person’s trigger will interact with the other person’s trigger, and suddenly the grownups have left the building.”


Learning to listen


When couples are fighting, they’re not listening to each other. Instead, they dig into their own position and try to prove themselves right.

“It’s not done in a kind or inviting way, but often in a demanding way,” Maddie says. “Like – “You should make me happy. You should do this. You should do that.” There’s a fair bit of “shoulding’ that goes on!”

Working with couples isn’t about avoiding conflict altogether. Instead, couples learn how to be more conscious and skillful in dealing with conflict when it does appear.


The relationship is the client


One major feature in systems coaching is that the coach works with the relationship itself, rather than deciding who is right or wrong.

“We’re not holding that one person has a problem, and the other person doesn’t. It’s more like there’s something that wants to change or emerge in the relationship,” Maddie says. “As the coach, we see both people equally. We’re looking at the relationship between the two of them.”

Instead of assigning blame, systems coaching invites both partners to take responsibility for what happens between them. Maddie likens it to becoming the architects or designers of the relationship.

create the relationship you want

Coaching is different than therapy


While therapy looks more at the past, coaching is more focused on what is happening in the moment and going forward. The assumption is that the relationship has the ability to heal itself. Rather than providing direction, couples coaching holds up a mirror so that the partners can see what they are like in relationship and make their own adjustments.

Often, it’s about developing an awareness of what is happening between you. Many ORSC tools and skills focus on shifting the way that people look at a situation, so that they begin to see alternate points of view.

“I’ve learned from the ORSC model to look at the dynamic between people – whether it’s two people or a team,” Maddie says.”With just two people expressing something that’s happening between them, we’re putting language to something that’s a felt experience. We are training ourselves, as coaches, to look at that infinity loop. It takes time to build that muscle.”


Maddie Weinreich, MCC, ORSCC, is recognized for her decades of coaching team effectiveness, transformational leadership and organizational development. She has a passion for empowering couples to become the architects of their own relationships. Maddie believes that when you give relationships the attention they deserve, the whole system will flourish – whether a team or an intimate partnership.

Sandra Cain, PCC, ORSCC, is a faculty leader at CRR Global who has coached relationship for over two decades. She also leads and supports the ORSC experiential courses that grow participants’ skills, competency and confidence in expertly coaching teams and relationships of any kind.

For over 20 years, organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) has helped every type of relationship thrive by taking a systems-inspired approach. Whether you’re working with partners, families, team members or even global organizations, this skillset adjusts to support relationship in any context.

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