Couple counselling and communication issues
“If only he would listen…". "If only she would let me get a word in edgeways…”.
These - and other rather more colourful comments - will often be heard in the room of a relationship counsellor. The phrases support a widely-held assumption that poor communication is an issue which often sits at the heart of many relationship difficulties. The irony is that, for some couples, problems arise not because too few words are spoken - but because of too many. The challenge is how to deal with this.
When problems in a relationship - such as poor communication - become entrenched, couple counselling may help. The starting point for the partners will be to actually agree to walk into the counselling room.
Although work with a relationship therapist may represent the last throw of the dice for some couples, it is not unusual for one person to be much less willing to take this step than a partner. Even when faced with a potential breakdown in a much-valued relationship, some clients will be reluctant to step into the counselling room. There will be many understandable fears underpinning that hesitation. This can include that fear of the unknown: just what will happen when the door closes and the session starts?
As with individual one-to-one work, relationship counselling can take many different forms. Simplistic generalisations and conceptualisations may not match the complexity of some couple situations, and it is important to fit the work to the needs of the particular partners. Nevertheless, in many cases there can be a similar structure to the counselling work. There may be a marked split between the opening sessions when the couple may try to explain, explore and understand their relationship; and then a later tranche when change becomes the focus of the work. That change may relate to behaviour, approach or thinking processes.
In order to bring about change, something different needs to happen between the couple. For there to be a shift in the relationship, it may be helpful to introduce a new behaviour pattern or approach to dealing with a troublesome issue. As far as communication challenges are concerned, one such change can be to recognise the importance of listening rather than talking or responding.
The relationship therapist may suggest different techniques to aid the process of active listening. One may be the very simple strategic device by which one partner agrees to listen for a set period of time without making any form of interruption.
Yet, occasionally, even a genuine commitment from one partner to listen in silence may not be enough. Silence, with the absence of criticism from another, may not be sufficient for someone who has always felt that he or she has not been heard to actually speak out and say what is in her or his mind. For some people, non-verbal interventions from their partner can be as intimidating and deafening as any angry shout or exclamation.
This silent interruption can take many forms such as a scowl, a rolling of the eyes, or an irritated tapping of the fingers. If this practice of subtle interference is identified and acknowledged in the counselling room, the therapist can suggest experiments to try to combat this sabotage. For example, one strategy may be for the listener to be seated out of eye range of the speaker. This enables the speaker to just concentrate on voicing that which needs to be said rather than being deflected by any visual responses.
If there is a good client/counsellor alliance, the counselling room can become a safe space to allow both parties to play with this type of technique. Many of these are straightforward ideas but can still prove challenging for individuals; this can certainly be the case when an immediate angry retort is the expected response rather than silent listening. Well-honed habits which have persisted for a long time in the life of the relationship will take some effort to change for both the speaker and the listener.
The therapist can help both parties to explore the change process. The earlier reference to ‘playing’ is a deliberate one. If the clients/counsellor relationship is working well, some of these types of exercise can actually have a fun element. The counselling room can be a place for smiles and laughter as well as more serious and difficult responses.
There are many different ways in which couple counselling can help individuals to strengthen their relationship. Even where problems seem intractable, relationship therapy can help individuals identifying new ways of being together as well. Couple counselling can help partners rediscover that closeness and intimacy which originally brought the couple together.
That can certainly include successfully resolving communication issues even if the starting point for that particular issue is that frustrated comment that: “If only he would listen… if only she would let me get a word in edgeways…”!
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About Geoff Boutle
Geoff Boutle is a BACP senior accredited therapist working in private practice in Chichester and Bognor Regis.