What Usually Happens in a Couples Counseling Session?
Our Definition of Marriage Counseling Has Changed
As society has changed, the term marriage counseling itself has come to be defined more broadly. It now includes counseling sought by couples who are in many different states of personal and legal commitment. Couples frequently seek counseling before marriage (pre-marital counseling) or before increasing their commitment (planning to live together, marry, or have children). The complex melding of second families is another situation in which couples counseling can be very productive.
When Do Couples Usually Seek Counseling?
Most counseling is sought in times of upheaval and crisis. Couples come for treatment when one or both partners feel misunderstood, frustrated and/or deeply disappointed. Frequently these feelings have been present for quite some time and a lot of hurt and anger has been generated. Each person has the upsetting sense that he or she is no longer part of an understanding relationship; they both feel misunderstood and terribly alone.
Not infrequently, one member of the couple wants to seek counseling and the other doesn’t. The unwilling partner feels pressured to “try it” or “come along and see what it’s like.” This reluctance to engage in counseling is not uncommon and is often the result of misperceptions about the process and goals of couples counseling. Many people mistakenly expect the therapist to take on the role of a judge or referee who criticizes and makes rules which they will then be expected to follow. Another common concern involves the expectation that one partner will continually shout at the other during the therapy session. Were this to occur, it would recreate in the therapy session the same destructive situation that is happening at home. With these expectations, it isn’t really at all surprising that someone wouldn’t want to participate. Fortunately, these are not accurate representations of the process of couples counseling.
How Do the Sessions Unfold?
The therapist does not take sides, nor does he or she make rules. Instead, the therapist works to understand the needs and desires of both parties and to help them develop better ways to understand and meet each other’s needs.
When I work with a couple I always question them about the positive things in their relationship as well as the areas of difficulty. I find that good things are often forgotten and discarded when a couple is in turmoil. There are usually many strengths in relationships and it is very important that these be built upon and nourished while the problem areas are also being addressed.
I don’t see the actual session as an appropriate place for partners to shout at each other for extended periods of time or to simply “vent” their frustrations. Were this to happen, it would result in a repetition of what is already not working instead of assisting in the development of better communication skills. It is very important that each party be helped and encouraged to express his or her angry and frustrated feelings. But it is even more important that this expression be communicative in nature and not primarily attacking. Learning to “fight fairly” is frequently an important part of the counseling process.
Poor communication is often at the core of unresolved problems. The more the couple tries to explain their feelings to each other, the more misunderstood each of them feels. In these situations, the therapist seeks to facilitate communication by working to understand two things: 1) what is being said; and, 2) how what is being said is actually being heard by the other party. The clarification of what is actually being said and how it differs from what is actually being heard is a major component of successful couples counseling.
Unconscious expectations are also frequent sources of great disappointment and frustration between couples. Without realizing it, we have many images and ideas of what constitutes a “good relationship” and how husbands and wives (or partners) are “supposed” to behave. When we commit to another person, we assume, sometimes without realizing it, that our mate will naturally fulfill these unspoken expectations of which we ourselves are only vaguely aware. I often ask couples about their expectations and about the structure of their families of origin. Frequently, as clients begin to describe the roles and expectations which existed in their original family, they recognize many similarities in the expectations they have of their spouse. Once recognized, these expectations can be openly re-evaluated and discussed.
As frustration and disappointment mount in a relationship, couples tend to find themselves at opposite poles and when they attempt to talk things over they “lock horns”. Learning to listen to each other and to seek alternative solutions is important for the future growth of the relationship. Counseling seeks to help resolve issues of the present and also works to develop negotiating techniques that the couple can use in the future.
What if the Relationship Doesn’t Continue?
No discussion of couples counseling would be complete without the recognition that not all couples are able to successfully resolve their differences. Sometimes separation is the best resolution possible. In my opinion, this doesn’t mean that the counseling failed. The purpose of counseling is to promote respect and understanding between two people; this doesn’t necessarily mean they will want to stay together in a love relationship.
It has been my experience that when people really feel they understand why a relationship didn’t work, and they can respectfully acknowledge the differences between them, no matter how great those differences may be, it is much easier to say goodbye and move forward. We are all familiar with the very painful situation in which someone divorces one person and remarries only to have the same kinds of difficulties arise all over again. I believe that this occurs when that person doesn’t understand what went wrong in the original relationship and simply tries again, without realizing what needs to be different the next time around.