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May 02, 2016

Couples Counseling

There’s an expression within the therapy community related to couples coming into therapy six years too late.  In general, couples tend to procrastinate, deal with , ignore, deny and generally stall from doing anything about their marital problems until they are in an all-out crisis mode.   When they come into my office I can just feel the anger, fear and volatility in the room as they take their chairs and settle in. 

As I watch this drama unfold I’m trying to be my best therapist self, telling them that I am working for both of them and that I try my best to not take sides.  All the while I’m scanning and assessing each of them for some beginning clues as to what is coming next. 

For me, couples counseling is like the wild west.  There are some outlaws, there are some good and bad men and women, and then there are those who are caught in the crossfire trying to dodge the bullets.  I never know that much about what is going on in the relationship until they are both in my office.  If the person who sets up the appointment attempts to tell me what is happening in the relationship I ask that they wait till they are both present.  Otherwise, I feel that person is going to try and form an alliance with me on the phone and the spouse who is not present will feel left out and behind the curve. 

After reviewing their intake paperwork I will just open up the session with my “I’m working for the two of you speech” and then I ask each of them to tell me what is the biggest thing that is going on in their relationship at the time.  It’s not the most elegant way to start a session, but I find that both parties really want to get out the biggest transgression that is currently happening – sort of “I’m going to tell Dad what you did”.  I let this spill out and my office gets emotionally coated with all of their stuff.  So now at least I know what was the final straw that brought them in oftentimes,  six years too late. 

If we go back to the idea of couples waiting six years too late to come in for therapy, I believe that what they are presenting to me today has been going on in some way, shape or form, for a long time.  So the couples presenting issue is an off-shoot of what has been happening over and over.  They are beginning to provide a road map of sorts in my wild west town analogy.  They are painting a picture for me of the pain, hurt, betrayals, fears, resentments, and at worst their disgust of the other.  And they are giving me clues to the patterns of poor communication and the lack of rejoining and repairing skills.

I’ve had couples come in and present what is going on in their relationship and after more discussions and investigations on my part I’m thinking to myself – How in the world am I going to help them come up with a way out of this?  I have the tools and experience and I have had successes helping couples through this maze,  but sometimes I just look at everything that a couple tells me and I just don’t even know how they lasted through the car ride to my office.   Through their telling of their story I am assessing for risk if there is simmering anger or volatility,  I’m looking for warning signs that this couple may be well behaved in my office, but once they get home the gloves come off. 

It certainly can be overwhelming and that’s why a lot of therapist don’t do couples counseling – it’s a lot of work!  For me it is a big challenge because I’m having to use all of my clinical skills on steroids to try and communicate my ideas and insights about their relationship- often to two very different individuals – at the same time.  It’s like being a multitasker, an air traffic controller and empathic grounded caregiver all at once.  

Brian D. Doss, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, says the average couple is unhappy for six years before seeking couples counseling — at which point relationship problems are very difficult to fix. Thomas Bradbury, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, compares a troubled couple to a man with a broken leg. Seek help straight away and you’ll heal up just fine. Hobble around injured for months or years, and a full recovery becomes nearly impossible, as by that time, Professor Bradbury says, the therapist has to attend not only to the psychological equivalent of the broken bone “but also to the swelling and bruising, the sore hip and foot, and the infection that ensued.”  NYTimes, Weil 3/2012

I see in their faces the disillusionment especially after an affair, I see the heartache, the sense of being lost and at times hopelessness.  I see the dreams they had for the relationship fade right before my eyes as they relate how long they have been together and what it was like between the two of them early in their relationship.   I also see at times the glimmer of love, the earnest desire for healing and the desire to forgive, but not wanting to go there just yet.

It is a beautiful and tumultuous event to witness as two people who once loved each other so deeply are now so torn and barely able to be civil to one another.   I have a front row seat to one of the most significant times in their lives – as they decide whether or not to stay together.   For me this is an honor and a privilege that they are putting their confidences in me to help them through this experience.   But it can be overwhelming because in many ways they are listening intently to everything I say about the prognosis of their relationship which is on life support.

But even tho they are limping along, most are willing to do some work.   I will be asking the couple where they see the strengths in the relationship – what is working for them and what has been successful instead of just focusing on the negative.  And, I help them see from my objective vantage point the strengths within the relationship, for example, how they have both come together to deal with a family emergency or trauma.  But I believe it is necessary to point out the systematic flaws such as blaming each other and not listening to the others needs and not respecting feelings.  Through this process they are walking away with some real skills and perspectives that they can use to try and repair and heal their relationship.

I try and not take their stuff home with me, but I do wonder how the couple is doing?  Are they working on the homework assignments?  Are they using the skills I’ve modeled for them in session and had them rehearse for me?  Were they even paying attention or did they just want to run out of my office screaming?  Are they reading the books and gaining insights?  I can’t walk this path for them, but I can do my best to set up a scenario that gives them the tools to determine for themselves if this is the right choice to stay together.  I make it very clear that it is their agenda that I follow, not my own.  So they are outlining what they want to work on and what is important to them.  Certainly I point out things that I am seeing and picking up on, but I don’t have a vested interest if they remain together or not – that is their own path.

I think couples know when they come into counseling six years too late if they want to stay together or not.  There are some who are coming in looking for what I’ve heard is the “counselor's endorsement” that they should get divorced, or they are looking for me to be the judge and jury to “convict” one or the other for their “crimes” – which I never do by the way.  Or, they are just looking to get their card punched – “Well we went to counseling and it didn’t work!”.   But thankfully many are looking to figure out a way to stay together and not always just for the kids' sake.  They truly love the man or woman who was once their best friend and they want them back.  They want back the easiness, the casual flirtations and the I love you’s that have long since faded like a lingering perfume.           They want to feel whole again and to know they are loved, trusted and respected. 

With every couple I tell them that I believe this hope exists within their relationship – that the Love, Trust and Respect can still be nurtured and healed if that is their desire.   This is my way of extending myself, sort of me sticking my neck out and saying I will work at helping you revive this relationship if you work at it as well.

The message to myself as the therapist is “It’s not my job to save them from themselves”.  And my message to the couple is “if it is for your best and highest good, you will find a way to work at and heal this relationship”.  The big message here is don’t wait till you are running out of ways to play nice with your partner – go seek out help from a professional.

The hope and promise of a brighter tomorrow exists within our dreams today.  RJ

Helpful Resources:

Men, Women and Relationships: Making peace with the opposite sex - John Gray

The Five Love Languages: How to express heartfelt communication to your mate - Chapman

Why Can’t You Read My Mind - Bernstein
Robert Jackman, LCPC is a counselor in private practice in St. Charles, IL.  He works with adults, couples and adolescents with a special emphasis on positive psychology, encouragement of the authentic self, and healing from codependency and trauma. In addition he is a volunteer staffer with Victories for Men, a non-profit group dedicated to helping men develop deeper self-understanding, better relationships and brighter lives. He can be reached

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