Working With Couples: A Snapshot

During the last few months I seem to be seeing more couples (and a family-which has some similarities) and thought this would make a good topic for my next blog.

When couples attend, they are usually in a fair amount of distress and there is often a sense of urgency about the issues faced. An individual coming to counselling can generally allow themselves time to explore issues and make changes (or not) but for couples’ things have often reached a make or break phase. Which is a shame. I wish couples would attend counselling more as a regular tune up and check in, before problems became major, as a maintenance idea or concept. But I guess we all get busy in our lives, especially once the kids arrive and we just bumble through as best we can. Until things reach a level of unbearable.

So couples often present in a fair level of emotional pain. Or at least one of the couple, and they have managed to drag the other along. At this stage they have had years of developing certain patterns of behaving and responding and these can be difficult to challenge. And I have to say, nothing can change much if both are not on board. These patterns are interactional, never one sided. And of course I am not talking about obvious Domestic Violence or Abuse of power and control (emotional or physical or any other sort), there I do feel the perpetrator has to take full responsibility for their actions. I can’t see a couple if Abuse is present. The perpetrator first needs to address this and the partner has to feel safe, in all ways, before any further meetings are possible.

Of course all couples counselling is about feeling safe enough, for both members of the couple. Safe enough with each other, to explore underneath the hurt and anger and sense of abandonment or betrayal (or what ever painful feelings exist). Safe enough to be vulnerable with each other, to share what is really going on. But this usually does not happen straight away. It actually takes a fair amount of bravery from the couple and this is also where I usually come in. Part of my job is to try to create a safe or safer space for couples to re-connect and share. And of course this is not always possible. Some couples are in too much pain to be able to trust each other, what ever I say or do.

In general our aim together is to “track and explore how emotions direct the couples dance and how the dance then shapes key emotions” (Becoming an Emotionally Focussed Couple Therapist, Susan Johnson, 2005).  By the dance, I mean the negative interactions. And the way I see it is that most of those emotions will have something to do with very basic needs for love and acceptance. Some of the deep needs that have often not been met enough in childhood, so we still look for them from other people, especially our partners. Couples (and not only couples. Most of us do it at times) often state things like “He should be….” Or “ she doesn’t give me…..”. Having expectations that the other will meet their needs, while the only place these can really be met is in yourself and by yourself. So part of couples counselling is about clients learning a level of self-responsibility.

The other part is about tracking the negative interactions and seeing if there is any space for them to be stopped before they escalate. Or if there are different ways to start interacting. Who of the couple generally initiates the conversations that lead to conflict, who addresses the issues, who pursues, who withdraws/becomes silent. Who gets angry? How does it go? Does it lead to a fight and then nothing gets resolved or does it just lead to silence or ignoring with the same outcome?

Of course there are also communication skills that can be improved. So there are lots of bits to couples counselling. Often we also end up exploring the messages they received from parents and society about what being a couple and what love should look like. And then I might start challenging some of these. Are they really true?? Who says so? Does it really fit for them?. Our society and the media especially can give such a fake view of how things “should” be. That forever after love that doesn’t really exist except with a lot of effort and acceptance about what the other cannot provide for us. Those perfect families in the adds-which also don’t really exist.

The last thing I also like to open up for couples is the consideration that unfortunately we live in a world where men do have privilege, and often unknowingly feel that privilege- to expect to still live the way they want to. In my experience it is often (but of course not always )the woman who sacrifices most for the children and the family. And this need to be acknowledged, if this is occurring. Woman always recognise it when I mention it, men often do not. And this makes sense, they have the most to lose if they really see it for what it is (at least it feels like that). But actually both would gain by acknowledging the unspoken, working on more fairness and equality and ultimately feeling closer and more connected.

Also wanting to add: Please check out my new online course- Exploring Couple hood.see full details under groups and under couples services.