Relationships: the web and the well
As a relationship therapist I’m often asked by individuals and couples to describe my approach to relationship issues, in other words explain what theories underlie my counselling. I find it refreshing that clients want to take an interest in this, and sometimes they will want to explore this further by reading papers or books on relationship counselling. It’s fair to say that all counsellors have their own particular slant on therapy, and there is some good evidence to suggest that what really matters most is the quality of the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and client, but I also believe that clear but flexible therapeutic theories indicate a sound and ethical base from which the counsellor can work.
Two approaches that couple counsellors often use are the psychodynamic approach, “the well” and the systemic approach, “the web”.
The psychodynamic approach is now quite well known as the approach that developed from pioneering work done by Freud in the late 19th and early 20th century. The major underlying principle is that our actions are determined by unconscious as well as conscious motivations, and it is the unconscious motivations that need to be explored and understood to help us as individuals and couples achieve balance and happiness in our lives. These unconscious motivations evolve from infancy and childhood, where the developing child builds an ‘internal working model’ of relationships and how they function. Some of these early relationships are marked by distress or damage and produce conflict in a person, resulting in significant parts of a person’s self being denied or repressed.
Couple relationships provide an opportunity to begin to deal with the unresolved conflicts of these early relationships (see my article “Attachment in Couple Relationships”). Unconsciously, we are driven to repeat the dynamics of early relationships, in part so that we can get in touch with the experience and find a better way of dealing with it in the present. There can also be a pressure to repeat the dynamics in an attempt to convert the couple relationship into an ideal relationship, and when and if the relationship fails to live up to these inevitable pressures arguments and high degrees of conflict can ensue (see my articles Couple Fit and Relationship Breakup).
The psychodynamic approach of the couple counsellor is to elicit in the couple relationship what might be a mixture of unresolved early conflicts kept hidden in the unconscious that have been activated and are playing out in the couple relationship; the person is emotionally and psychologically in “the well” of his or her early life. We can often hear a person speak from the bottom of that well when they tell themselves or their partners what they must, should or ought to do (or tell themselves these things). These are sometimes called introjections or the super ego, and are messages, conditioned responses, or injunctions from a long time ago.
In couple work, of course, there are two wells present (and often metaphorical wells from grandparents too) so the counsellor and the couple work to explore all this and make what is unconscious more conscious, thus couple relationships can become more enriching.
The psychodynamic approach is known as an “intrapsychic” approach, that is it is concerned with the selfhood of a person; the systemic approach has been called an essentially “interpsychic” approach and is concerned with the person-in-relationship. Relationships are not static, but develop over time and are themselves made up of numerous relationships that a person has with multiple systems he or she encounters, thus creating a “web” of relational patterns over time. Parts of this web interact with parts of another person’s web, influencing them to change and develop; there is also a resistance (called “homeostasis”) to any change, which makes it hard often for better things to happen in any couple or family system.
From this perspective, most of what we encounter is a construction, and because it is a construction created, for example, by a peer group, society, or a family it can change. We discover what a person wants and means in a relationship through discourse or conversation, though each and every conversation is influenced by culture, society, parents; these are sometime called the GRRAACCES where the word can stand for gender, race, religion, age, achievement, culture, class, education, spirituality, sexuality and so on; these personal GRRAACCESS reciprocally impact on couples and in multiple ways restrict or assist the couple relationship-the couple relationship and the person is seen in the context of all the things that impact on them. Individuals and couples can almost literally get stuck in a web of systems that have influenced them for decades.
Couples can enter counselling with constructions that are preventing the relationship from moving forwards; in the therapeutic setting the counsellor and the couple will gently unpack this web, thus partners can find their relationships less hampered by the systems that they have been subject to.
Case study: Tom and Zena
Tom and Zena were in their early 30s and came to counselling with problems relating to differences around parenting. Zena was 17 weeks pregnant, and they had discovered that they had widely different views on parenting styles; Zena’s style was influenced by her grandmother (“Grandmother Zena”) who had lived all her life in Naples and had a relaxed, liberal approach to parenting. Tom was strongly influenced by his fathers approach, which was shaped, he felt, from his father’s strict parenting style. Tom’s father was a staff sergeant in the army. This combined “web” of multiple influences was explored by the counsellor, and in one session Tom, in distress, disclosed to Zena that he was deeply worried she was going to leave him. Zena denied that she would, but the counsellor was curious as to where this sudden distress came from and asked some questions about Tom’s past and his experiences of loss (“the well”). Tom’s birth mother had died over 25 years ago, whilst pregnant with what would have been his sister. Tom’s father had married again, and Tom had a strong and loving relationship with his stepmother, but carried within him an unconscious message that when close family members became pregnant they would leave him (or die). This was worked through in the counselling, and Tom and Zena began to discuss parenting in a more open, relaxed manner.
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