Relationships are one of the most common topics people focus on in counselling. Adult couple relationships in particular are a frequent focus, and counsellors often discover there are unique challenges when we have two people as our counselling “client” rather than just one.
I teach and supervise many counsellors who work with couples, and there are some common themes that come up as challenges. One is the pull to feel more aligned with one of the partners, and the second is difficulty interrupting or managing the persistent emotions in the room.
When couples are in distress, there are typically strong emotional patterns that are quite difficult to change and are often resistant to outside influence. This can knock even the most experienced counsellors off their centre and into an unbalanced place.
Some of the common experiences of feeling unbalanced for counsellors are:
- Overwhelm and performance anxiety. Counsellors like to make a difference, but the persistent and repetitive nature of emotional patterns can leave everyone feeling stuck. This may cause a counsellor to feel an anxious urgency and responsibility to “fix” the relationship.
- Self-criticism. When we place too much responsibility to change the relationship on ourselves, we can get shaken in our confidence and stuck in self-blame. This is often when a counsellor declares they shouldn’t do couples work at all.
- Personal connection to the story. When we sit with couples, our own experiences of disappointment, longing, or being treated unfairly will come alive in us. At times like these, we can’t help feeling pulled to the side of one person or the other. Or we may want to push away from the relationship entirely.
- Our own protective reactions take over. Just like the couple in front of us, we will have our own familiar ways of coping when we feel the pull of the pattern. These reactions could be joining in the fight and becoming confrontational, withdrawing, shutting down and becoming a passive observer, or going into an overfunctioning state of working much harder than the couple to change something in their relationship.
When we sit with couples, our own experiences of disappointment, longing, or being treated unfairly will come alive in us.
When we learn to recognize the signs that we are becoming unbalanced, we can better shift our stance to avoid getting stuck in unhelpful counselling patterns.
The power of having the couple relationship right in the room means we can work experientially with the emotional pattern as it comes up and practice taking the risk of doing something different right in the moment. A key capacity couples and counsellors need to develop is an expanded ability to become and remain open to the emotions that are driving our reactive patterns.
Some strategies counsellors can use to strengthen these capacities are:
- Build a balanced connection with the couple by creating talking and listening space for each partner. Be sure to get each person’s perspective by asking them both the same questions as often as possible. Work hard to understand each person’s point of view. Pay attention when one partner is naturally more talkative than the other and make sure you manage how long each gets to speak.
- Externalize the emotional and behavioural pattern that you observe when the couple interacts. Use the couple’s language to describe the pattern that repeats and affects both partners. This externalization of the experience will invite couples to see the problem together and help you understand each person’s contribution to the pattern.
- A key couples counselling skill is the art of respectful interruption. This may feel like it breaks cultural or societal rules, so it is important to ask for permission to interrupt whoever is talking and slow things down at the beginning of the process. Simply letting people know that you might ask them to pause so that you can redirect the focus is a good way to do this.
- Recognize and practice being open to your own emotions. Working with couples requires comfort with intense emotions in the room, as well as recognizing the subtle shifts in emotional energy. Having access to your own counsellor, consultant, or supervisor is often important for sorting through the emotional intensity.
Recognize and practice being open to your own emotions.
Counselling couples requires comfort with emotional intensity, a willingness to actively guide the focus of the conversation, and a large capacity for holding hope in the possibility of changing deeply ingrained patterns. Although this is not easy work, the opportunity to change relationship patterns while they are happening means it has the potential to be incredibly rewarding.
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