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Couple Counseling


by Roger Fritz, 2002

When you're counseling a couple, you have three clients: each of the individuals, and the relationship between them. Each individual might need personal work, and communication, negotiation, and relationship tools might be needed for the relationship.

Begin by introducing yourself, welcoming the clients, congratulating them on taking this step, and asking if they've done counseling before. Explain in a few sentences that you regard yourself as their assistant, guide and coach, and are here to help them with what they want to do.

Ask them how they decided to come in, what precipitated it. Ask, what brings you here? Get a clear picture of the presenting problem, using empathy and summarizing. Use the summaries to point out things the couple have in common. Ask them to rate their relationship on a 1-10 scale, and then ask them what's good about the relationship that they rated it above one. Ask what solutions have been attempted, what changes are sought ("What would you like to accomplish?" "If things could be different, how would you like them to be?"), what recent changes there have been, and about the history of this problem in the family of origin. (Weeks & Treat, 1992, p. 14) Ask how long the couple's been together, where their parents live, how many children they have, how they met, where they work.

Don't send them home with nothing to do. End by asking them if they could do one thing different this week, what would they like to do? Don't call it homework, call it an experiment.

Along the way, use the basic counseling tools of empathy, summarizing, humor, praising strengths, and questioning to clarify (by asking for specifics), challenge and look for pockets of feeling. Reframe the negative to positive. Normalize to ease fears.

Balance is critical. The clients should feel that they get roughly equal amounts of time, attention, and opportunity to express themselves. Each should feel that the counselor is respecting their partner. Moral balance (accepting them equally, judging neither) is maintained with systemic thinking. No one in a system is right or wrong.

Phase one in couple counseling might be thought of as facilitating communication, and modeling and teaching communication skills. This includes teaching them to find the positive in negative feelings, to acknowlege each other and to clarify common goals, and to communicate desires without criticism, blame or contempt.

Phase two might be thought of as moving on to negotiation skills. (An excellent technique for people who resist negotiation is the Mediation Technique in Appendix 3.) The couple might need to begin by negotiating an agreement to fight fair, if they aren't doing that already. Fighting fair involves agreements about such things as voice tone, raised voices, and the use of threats, criticism and contempt. If they're already fighting fair, they can move on to negotiating boundaries. Which is what negotiation is for.

Boundary issues have to do with who lives where, when, who is allowed to give input on what issues, who is present in certain locations, and how time is spent. (Hudson & O'Hanlon, 1991, p. 131) They also have to do with fears and taboos.

Phase three might be thought of as changing the patterns the couple's fallen into, usually with homework. Emphasize that the homework is an experiment. Changing patterns is powered by systemic thinking. An important general principle is that the more longstanding the difficulties, the smaller the steps that will need to be taken in getting back on track. (Hudson & O'Hanlon, 1991, p. 79)

Here are some examples of experiments: Have each person keep a secret list of things their partner does right. Have a person write a continuous letter to resolve old feelings. Have people rebuild healthy rituals. Have the two people reverse roles for awhile. Pat Hudson was seeing a couple where the wife complained that the husband payed more attention to the dog than to her. So Pat had her be the dog. "Don't sit in the other room waiting for him to seek you out. Take action!" (Hudson & O'Hanlon, 1991, p. 109)

Phase four might be thought of as building love. To build love, recognize your partner has a different and valid map of love. What does love look like and sound like to each partner? Get each partner to do more of what looks like love to the other. (Hudson & O'Hanlon, 1991, pp. 157-158) It sounds simple, but there can be a lot of negotiation and feelings involved.

When one partner won't cooperate or is destructive, one needs a hierarchy of interventions. First, make it clear that there's a problem, and it's serious. Ask the person to stop. Second, change the pattern. Get an agreement that a drunk will let his wife drive him home in exchange for her stopping haranguing him about it. Third, make the boundaries and limits crystal clear. The confronter might begin by saying how much the partner is loved, how much the relationship means. And then they need to make it clear that there are escalating consequences. And that the final consequence is the end of the relationship. Fourth, when couples are rebuilding a relationship after one has done something inappropriate, apologizing isn't enough. Action must be taken to make amends. "What can I do to make it up to you?" (Hudson & O'Hanlon, 1991, pp. 111-124)

"As part of our research, we carefully checked the amount of time couples spent fighting versus interacting positively-- touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, etc. Across the board we found there was a very specific ratio that exists between the amount of positivity and negativity in a stable marriage, whether it is marked by validation, volatility, or conflict avoidance.

"That magic ratio is five to one. In other words, as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between a husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable. It was based on this ratio that we were able to predict whether couples were likely to divorce: in very unhappy couples, there tended to be more negative than positive interactions" (Gottman, 1994, p. 57).

The secret to making a relationship work is not so mysterious: it lies in treating each other well. The underlying attitude to make that work is for both people to accept the other as he or she is. That's not easy to do, but it's vital. If one person is unaccepting, they're likely to cross the fine line between complaining (which is positive) and criticism (which is destructive). "You idiot, you don't love me anymore," is a contemptuous thing to say, because it includes name-calling and blaming. "You never pay any attention to me," is a criticism, because it casts blame (something's wrong and it's your fault). "I feel sad because I feel like we haven't been connecting lately," is a complaint. "I miss you. I'd really like it if we could spend some time together soon," is a request.

Here's a version you can download:

Download Couples_Therapy.txt