HOW COUPLES COUNSELING WORKS

The purpose of couples counselling is to help partners learn more about each other and acquire healthy problem-solving skills. The couple should set therapeutic goals and with my guidance develop a plan for therapy so each person knows what to expect. In couples therapy, positive results often depend on the couple’s motivation and dedication to the process.

As treatment progresses, each partner may become a better listener and communicator. Partners also often learn to support each other in new ways. But it is not uncommon for conflict to arise in therapy sessions. My responsibility is to remain neutral and not take sides. My primary focus is on the relationship between you, not you as individuals although this is an important secondary consideration.

Relationship counselling is generally held once a week. The schedule can vary depending on the couple’s goals and whether each partner is also attending individual or group therapy sessions.

Marriage counselling is often short-term, though healing a relationship may take more time.

THERAPY DETAILS

Getting to know you

It is useful to collect some basic information at the start of the first session, such as the number of years the couple has been together, the current living situation, special health issues, prior counselling experiences, employment, and special interests. How you relate and communicate with each other. This session also offers the couple a chance to become comfortable with the therapist.

Setting Goals and Why I’m not a Referee

Couples often arrive at the session believing that each partner will be laying out his or her “position” and the therapist will act as a referee to decide who is right. But it is NOT a matter of one person being right or wrong, since both partners make sense from their perspective. Rather, you will be learning new methods of communication so you can better understand each other in these sessions and incorporate this process into your daily relationship at home. It is important to remember that this process will only work if you are willing to try on some new ideas. By pointing out the importance of the “we” and not the “me” in their relationship, you will begin to understand that both of you should participate by making changes. This means that counselling is a joint venture to better understand the relationship rather than an adversarial one.

There are several exercises we will try to explore different aspects of your relationship and provide insights into each other’s feelings, hopes and fears.

Summarizing the Session and Preparing for the Future

To end the session, each partner is asked for their thoughts about the session and what they can personally do before the next appointment to improve the relationship. This helps us all plan for the future.

You might also be given some homework to:

  • Offer each other at least one formal daily appreciation.
  • Avoid “atomic bomb” issues when they are at home and save these issues for therapy sessions.
  • Avoid talking to friends or family about your conflicts since others are likely to support only one’s point of view and that will further emotionally separate the couple.

Future Sessions

In future sessions, couples need to continue learning to understand each other’s desires, feelings, and thoughts.

As couples listen and express more positive feelings, they develop trust and feel closer. Neural scientists find this physically changes brain structure, with more “loving cells” being created and fewer cells holding anger and through this daily repetition of positive behaviours, our old brain [limbic system] repaints its image of our partners, and we again become a source of pleasure for each other.

“Do unto others as they would like you to do unto them.”

Showing appreciation in a relationship is like the sun and rain to a flower. It triggers the happy neurons in the limbic system and brings couples closer together. The following is a simple exercise to foster positive changes:

  • Face one another and look at each other
  • The first partner (the sender) should state one thing he or she likes about his or her partner. For example, “I really love your sense of humour and how you enliven parties with your jokes.”
  • The second partner (the receiver) mirrors this appreciation. “So you really appreciate how I have a sense of humour and entertain friends at a party?”
  • Then we ask the sender to deepen the appreciation by using the sentence stem, “This is so special to me because…” He or she says, “This is so special to me because it makes me feel warm and cosy and I am proud I married you.” The receiver again mirrors the comment.
  • The process is repeated with the second partner offering an appreciation.

Most couples who come to therapy have not heard appreciations from their partner for months or years, so this exercise sets the tone for rebuilding warm feelings and trust. You might like to offer at least one appreciation each day at home and prepare one to begin each therapy session. Appreciations should NOT be wrapped in frustrations, such as, “I appreciate that you finally took out the trash.”

A conscious relationship requires each person to recognize their own role and reactivity levels when conflicts arise, as well as to become aware of their partner’s thoughts and feelings. After living with conflicts for so long and having to defend their own ego against attacks, I will encourage you to truly listen and understand what your partner is thinking and feeling.

The following exercise works amazingly well to help you get into the mind of your partner:

  • Face your partner.  Offer a one-sentence “guess” as to why you think your partner decided to come to this appointment. For example, “I think you came to this session so the therapist can teach me how to be nice to you.”
  • Regardless of whether it is true, the receiver mirrors it: “So you think I came to therapy so you’ll learn how to be nice to me?”
  • The sender keeps adding more reasons, such as, “I think you are also here because you love me and want our marriage to survive.” This, too, is mirrored by the partner.
  • After the sender completes all his or her guesses and each are mirrored, the receiver is then asked to add to or correct the sender’s guesses. The partner may say, “It is true I’m here to save our marriage, but it’s not a matter of being nice to me. It is more a matter of learning how to talk to each other.”

This guessing game for both partners becomes a vehicle for looking into each other’s minds in a safe way. It also reveals some of the major issues that can be explored in future sessions. The process helps you both understand how their own behaviour has a positive or negative impact on the relationship.

Talking to the couple about basic brain functions and how the 100 billion neurons in our brains make decisions helps us to think of therapy as a conscious exercise. You should become detectives trying to figure out how to help “this couple,” who happens to be themselves, just as they might be athletes learning how to build their muscles in the gym.

The neurons housed in the analytical area of your brain, the neocortex helps you find the way to our office, read a map or play a chess game but other neurons in your emotional part of your brain, the limbic system, which you use to experience joy, love, and ecstasy, as well as anger, sadness, loneliness, and fear is working alongside.

We let them know that when John says to Jane: “That’s no way to load the dishwasher,” he may be thinking he is speaking from his analytical brain to hers, but in fact, he is stirring her limbic system. She reacts emotionally and, in turn, stirs his emotions. This small incident can blowup into their War of the Roses.

THERAPY PROCESS

I usually interview a couple together during the first meeting before seeing them separately. This helps me understand the dynamic between the two of you.

During the first meeting we would discuss the issues you have concerns over and reach agreement on the therapy goals, both jointly and separately that you are aiming to achieve from the therapy.

Based on your therapy goals, we would address one of the issues, for example say, Active Listening and practice ways in which this can be improved and you may be given some homework to take away and practice with in your own time.

The next session usually starts with a review of how the ‘homework’ went and what other issues may have arisen in the meantime.

We would usually meet once a week. Each individually on separate days usually as this doesn’t involve hanging around.   I can also meet in your home for joint sessions if you prefer.

Sessions last from 60 to 90 mins.

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