Using CQ (couple intelligence) in couples counseling

By Les Barbanell, Ed.D.
July 21, 2019 - Last updated: July 20, 2019

Couples counselingIn The Analytic Attitude, Roy Shaefer, Ph.D., reminded us that the therapist’s flaunting of intelligence with patients can be distancing, if not anti-therapeutic. Interpersonal relational models of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counseling, have elevated the role of authenticity over intellect.

Might the principle of “relating” rather than “impressing” also apply to the intimate partner milieu? At first blush, it appears cognitive skills (IQ) are an advantage during discussions of differences and ensuing conflict scenarios.

However, the persistent use of metaphors, analogies, affirmations, hypotheticals and clichés to win an argument, can be off-putting, increase tension and derail conflict resolution.

Social intelligence (SQ) is an asset for prospective soulmates. Interpersonal competence, multi-cultural awareness and political and economic savvy are stimulating and engaging, particularly during the early stages of a relationship.

However, those attributes are of limited value when previously dismissed issues begin to surface. In conflict situations, social intelligence is at best only peripherally relevant.

Since the mid-’90s, emotional intelligence (EI) has entered everyday parlance. Presumably, professionals and non-professionals would agree that high EI is an advantage if not a pre-requisite to maintaining relationship harmony.

The powerful role of empathy is underscored by the frequent complaint that, “He gives great advice but doesn’t have a clue where I’m at emotionally.”

Alas, emotional attunement does not always translate into effective reconciliation skills. Other factors come into play, such as the ability to recognize the significance of past experiences, especially trauma, and “hidden forces” as contributors to conflict impasses.

In addition, high EI partners are not immune to the ubiquitous win-lose mentality, blaming and labeling. As a facilitator of conflict resolution, emotional intelligence is an asset indeed, but, not necessarily a panacea.

The relateability of both partners in the dyad and their capacity for conflict management depends on a mélange of the IQ, SQ and EI. However, even when these variations of intelligence are at optimal levels, their mutual endeavor to neutralize the “saboteurs of love” is handicapped by two major factors.

The first is the complex nature of the relationship itself and the unpredictability as to how two unique personalities will coalesce. The second is the likelihood that the conflict intervention styles of both individuals are more often than not incompatible. For couples to survive and thrive, the win-lose, ego-involved mentality needs to be supplanted by a learning mindset and the “tools of engagement” vis a vis conflict situations needs to be expanded.

Couple intelligence: A new dimension

Couple intelligence (CQ) is a measure of the capacity for an emotional attachment throughout the phases of the “love cycle” – the Romantic, Discovery and Recovery phase, respectively. CQ incorporates the intellectual capabilities (IQ), interpersonal skills (SQ) and emotional awareness (EI) of two interacting individuals. Although the components of these intelligences and CQ overlap, CQ entails a multitude of distinguishing features discussed below.

Mutual learning mindset (MLM)

MLM is an attitude shift that exists to offset “the blame game” and other ego-based maneuvers that are particularly present in the beginning stages of couple counseling and/or individual sessions focusing on an intimate partner.

The task as a therapist is to facilitate the shift and, when the couple is “the patient,” utilize individual sessions as necessary to reach this objective.

Self-focus enhancement

The motivation for self-reflection, subsequent self-awareness, self-disclosure and self-improvement is not a priority for many individuals, especially when their focus of attention is their partners’ flaws. Our task is to enhance their self-reflection capabilities.

Other-focus sensitivity

Individuals that score high on this CQ item listen attentively to the needs, wishes, opinions and desires of their partners and respond in a manner that lets the partner feel understood and not alone. Low scores promulgate me-think,  a common complaint by women in relation to their male partners.

No-fault conflict

No-fault conflict is the recognition and acceptance that most conflict scenarios are co-created and both partners share responsibility for their resolution. When couples perceive conflict in this manner, they are able to combine their resources moving forward.


When discussions of conflict reach an impasse the absence of humility is typically a causative agent. Conversely, when both parties absorb the multiple benefits of humility and renounce their “need to be right,” progress is likely.

Using emotions as tools

Avoiding so-called negative emotions (and actions) is common among couples. Many view anger, aggression and confrontation in a pejorative manner, not realizing that important “information” is suppressed by their avoidance. Their expression can be beneficial. Positive emotions (and actions) also have a dual nature. Selflessness without self-focus fosters an imbalanced, often “fake” interpersonal connection that eventually leads to a breakup.

Give-receive balance

Couples consciously or unwittingly “agree” to a give-receive balance. When one is a perennial “giver” and has difficulty receiving, the need for power and control over the other is problematic and can be disastrous. Well-functioning couples negotiate the give-receive balance and other aspects of power and space.


Couplethink represents the capacity to establish thinking and acting beyond one’s own frame of reference. It is a “marriage” of self and other focus with regard to daily activities and decision-making. It is the antidote to me-think (narcissistic tendencies) and groupthink (over-valued beliefs that infiltrate the couple system in a negative manner).

Hidden forces

From the perspective of philosopher George Santayana, it can be said that couples who deny the existence of hidden forces are likely to be destroyed by them. This is a critical item on the relateability scale I use to measure CQ. More than a few couples are aware of the presence of subliminal forces (“You remind me of my father”) but underestimate their importance.

Past influences

On occasion, a patient will ask, “Does everything have to do with childhood?” My response is typically, “Usually, but not always. Sometimes past (recent) adult relationships are also a factor to be considered.” The capacity to make past-present “connections” is an essential ingredient inherent in insight-oriented therapies, particularly when psychological, emotional and/or physical trauma is involved.

In conclusion, CQ is a composite of an individual’s ability to acquire and apply knowledge and emotional skills to the actions and reactions of a partner, especially within the context of a conflict situation. CCQ (also scorable) represents the combined CQ of partners and their capacity to function as a couple.

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Les Barbanell, Ed.D., is a psychologist/ author practicing in Fort Lee, N.J. His website is and his email is

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