Where to Start When Counselling Couples

Vicki Enns

[Excerpt from Counselling in Relationships]

The following excerpt comes from our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The “Couple Relationships” chapter explores the power of patterns that develop in love relationships which can either lead to disconnection or further connection. Counsellors can learn to interrupt these patterns and facilitate deepening intimacy and trust.

Love may be the most significant human need. The quest for love has inspired countless acts of passion: from creative works of poetry, music, literature, and spiritual texts to the spark that has ignited wars. Seeking happiness typically centers around finding other people with whom to experience love, whether romantic, familial, or platonic. As expressed by Mark Twain (1897), “To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with” (p. 465).

For many in adulthood, this includes entering a couple relationship. Partners may choose to keep their lives quite independent and separate, or they may choose to live together or marry. Some people may choose multiple layers of connection and commitment in polyamorous relationships while others may engage in short-term partnerships.

Globally, there are overall shifts happening in how people engage in couple relationships. The number of people choosing to marry is slowly decreasing, and international divorce rates vary between 30 and 50 percent (Wang & Parker, 2014). There is also a rising number of people who are choosing to remain single. The majority of people, however, continue to want to enter a long-term, committed couple relationship.

There are no guarantees, however, that entering into a couple relationship will provide the safe and nurturing haven most people long for. When relationships are healthy and secure, they contribute to our overall well-being by telling us that we are not alone, that we are lovable and worthy, and that we can turn to someone when we need help or support. Such a relationship serves as a protective factor that adds to longevity and life satisfaction. As an example, research has shown the emotional support of a spouse can significantly and increasingly reduce anxiety later in life (Carr et al., 2016).

We need to slow things down to properly understand the individual experience of each partner and how it impacts and dovetails with the other’s stress and vulnerability.

In contrast, when a relationship is less healthy, with chronic discord or toxic conflict, there is an increased risk for negative mental and physical health outcomes and development of mood and substance disorders. Research consistently points out that negative couple interactions have a greater impact on our health than positive ones (Carr et al., 2016; Fincham & Beach, 2010).

Clearly, the positive or negative qualities of our relationships can be powerful forces affecting our overall health. As counsellors, we have the opportunity to help couples strengthen the positive qualities and manage the negative qualities in their relationship interactions.

Working with couples has become my passion. I love the energy and motivation people bring to the table when they are working on a relationship that really matters to them. However, this doesn’t mean I find it easy – counselling couples is probably when I work the hardest emotionally, mentally, and physically. Yet I feel refueled in my purpose and passion when I am able to work collaboratively with a couple to find solid ground and clarity in their connection with each other while developing a shared vision for the future relationship they want to continue to grow.

In close relationships, emotions are the flashlight that can point out the most important connecting points between partners.

Relationships are one of the most common things for people to focus on in counselling, even when coming as individuals. However, there is a different kind of intensity when the other person in the relationship is in the room. There is more than one person wanting to tell their story, and there is often an urgency underlying their words. There is an added pressure when there is a sense that the stability or security of a cherished relationship may be threatened.

As we learn to listen to what’s going on beneath the presenting story, we typically hear distress calls of “Am I loved?” “Are forgiveness and trust possible?” and “Can I rely on them?” Core attachment needs and longings are brewing underneath whatever fight, disconnection, or disappointment may have prompted them to make an appointment. The intensity of such stress causes each person to react in protective ways, and couples typically find themselves stuck in patterns that can cause pain and perpetuate feelings of disconnection.

In close relationships, emotions are the flashlight that can point out the most important connecting points between partners. As Gottman and Gottman’s (2015) and Johnson’s (2019) research has emphasized, the most effective approaches focus on patterns that are driven by emotionally charged attachment and survival needs. Meili and Jo have a vibrant love story of common passions, and this feels threatened as they discover some differences in how they each feel about their upcoming wedding. Shaken by conflict, Meili moves into a fighting position to try to fix the rupture while Jo feels an urge to flee in order to escape the pain. They both get locked in their points of view, blaming the other for their current state. Suddenly they feel more like enemies than two people planning to celebrate their love.

We need to slow things down to properly understand the individual experience of each partner and how it impacts and dovetails with the other’s stress and vulnerability. Ava and Sam both have a quiet respect for the life they have built together, but they are unaware of how much their words and actions impact each other. They each tend to blame themselves and withdraw when there is tension, not realizing how this increases the disconnection between them.

The good news about patterns in relationships is that they can change. It takes courage for couples to unpack their stuck patterns and learn to let themselves and each other really see the vulnerability and needs that underlie them. When partners experience each other as open, accessible, and willing to learn how to offer positive connection, the risks become well worth it. For counsellors, having a clear map allows us to be confident guides in the sometimes stormy weather of couple counselling. Everyone does better with connection to positive, secure attachment relationships, and when we have the privilege of witnessing people do this work, we all benefit.

Read the full chapter in our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available for pre-order on our website.


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author: Vicki Enns (MMFT, RMFT)
Clinical Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Vicki is a co-author of CTRI’s upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available for pre-order on our website.

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