People have wondered for years, says pioneering family therapist Virginia Satir, how to get both partners to stand on their own two feet.

To demonstrate three typical "pairs" positions, Satir will ask for six volunteers from a workshop audience.

First the therapist -- who sculpts families and other groups with a gusto comparable to that of Julia Child sculpting food -- arranges three pairs: two men, two women and a man and a woman. Those are the only possible combinations, she says. "We think there's more because we give them lots of labels -- mother, sister, wife, boss, teacher. But that's what's underneath."

Then she asks participants to arrange themselves in the one-up, one-down positions typical in a hierarchical system, where those on top -- "the top dogs" -- know what is best for those on the bottom.

In the first pair, a woman kneels in a placating position before a man who is pointing at her. "Let's call this teaching. That's the teaching that goes, 'I will teach you by showing you everything that's wrong.' That's very common." Parents whose children give them an obscene finger gesture have often, she says, spent a lot of time pointing the finger of blame.

In the second kneeling-and-standing pair, one woman pats the other woman on the head. " 'You are the nice girl, to whom all nice things will come.' This, too, often passes for love."

In the third pair, one man kneels in prayer position before another. "This person is providing the other a means by which to worship."

"These relationships never happen without an agreement," says Satir. "Both people have to agree that one can be top dog." The top dogs often experience loneliness and isolation; the bottom dogs often feel weak, dependent and worthless -- "shot through with victimization, with feeling someone else has to do things for them."

Fear keeps them in position, but "in a fear-dominated life all of fear's second cousins come out -- anger, resentment, doubt and all the rest. Whatever I say about a heterosexual pair is true of any pair -- homosexual, siblings, whatever. The functions may differ, but the ingredients are the same.

"Relationships for a long time have been based on these kinds of formulas," says Satir. "That's why people can be physically close and at the same time not feel close at all."

Asking the kneeling partners to topple over so that the top dogs have to hold them up, she says, "This is a relationship in which people mistake dependency and power for intimacy. How do we manage the power and at the same time get the closeness?"

Couples cannot share deep feelings, she stresses, when each is not standing on his or her own two feet. "In all the couples I've seen who've had problems," says Satir, who has been practicing therapy for nearly 50 years and family therapy for 30, "I've never found a pairing of equality. When there's one-up, one-down, there's got to be manipulation, strategy, lies and loneliness."

What happened in the women's movement, she says, was that a lot of wives who had previously kowtowed to their top-dog husbands got up, "but the woman often came up with her finger pointing. Or she just walked right out the door. Or he got down -- and she got disgusted and maybe walked out, or looked around for somebody who could stand up. More and more what's happening now is that both partners are relieved to be standing on their own two feet."