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Academy Workshop 10: Couples Therapy in Advanced Cancer
Tuesday, 5 November 2013, 08:00 - 17:30
Penn Room I

Speakers: David Kissane and Talia Zaider

Illness has been described as an “uninvited guest” (Rolland, 1994) entering the relational life of the couple. Well functioning couples use their relationship to soothe distress and to metabolize and give meaning to illness experiences. It has been well documented that when patients and their partners struggle to communicate openly about illness-related concerns and to sustain closeness through the cancer journey, they are more likely to experience high distress and poor adjustment. Assessing the relational strengths and vulnerabilities of a couple in a collaborative and non-blaming way, and applying focused interventions to shore up resilience is a complex task given the multi-faceted nature of a couples’ relational life and history.


In the setting of advanced cancer and palliative care, an existentially informed approach to couples therapy has particular utility. Our approach seeks to foster intimacy in the couple facing advanced illness, making due allowance for the impact that illness has had on multiple aspects of the couple’s relational life (e.g,. communication, sexual activity, reciprocity) . Our meaning-centered response to existential stressors reviews key sources of meaning, affirming the accomplishments and worth of each person, and helping the couple honor and discover meaning potential in their relationship and in their shared history. Talking about the challenges of the illness and its treatment, the impact of loss and death is explored while, in parallel, promoting a focus on the living that remains. Strategies grounded in systemic couples therapy are used to address impasses in communication, promote insight into family-of-origin influences on each partner’s response to illness and grief, support the couple’s capacity for mutual support, and encourage acceptance of both relational and clinical realities. Our workshop is experientially oriented, with case examples, videos and role-play used to present our theoretical model across a range of challenging scenarios, including longstanding relational conflict, unresolved attachment injuries, death talk, coping with grief and depression, and celebrating what has been and continues through the shared and intimate expression of the couple’s life.

Target Audience: Clinicians interested in improving their skills in supporting couples in the setting of advanced cancer. Suitable for psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, oncologists, palliative care physicians, general practitioners, counselors, and family therapists.


Chair: Talia Zaider PhD, New York, New York, USA