Couples and family counselling

Why do couples and family members come to counselling, what issues do they bring and how might these issues have originated?

Couples and family members come to counselling for many different reasons. If we think of the life cycle of the couple and, later the family, they come together bringing with them patterns rooted in childhood, their family of origin and its environment. The family is the social system in terms of values and being aware of others in the world, they communicate rules and transfer generational messages. The way the couple evolves will determine how the family works together, who makes the rules, how they are enforced, and when they are changed.

The couple come together with high expectations and idealised preconceptions. Boundaries within the family system are very important; a healthy family will negotiate rules that go between the family and developed needs from family members. The family cycle can change through external events such as a death, redundancy, bereavement, crimes, affairs, imprisonment, addiction, self harm, autism, handicap, moving house etc.  Many couples and families will carry on in their relationship "Minding the Gap" (when couples become disillusioned and disappointed with their relationship, but carry on by finding their own interests or ways of coping on a daily basis). When something happens like one of the previously mentioned events, things come to a head, and this is often when couples and families will ask for help.

What issues do they bring? Attachment styles play an important factor in understanding the different ways in which people relate to each other, and relating to one another is a very important factor in how people live together as a couple or in families. Attachment theory describes the way in which parents and their children develop bonds that reflect the interactions between them. Parents who are often unavailable to their children, or who do not accurately, sensitively or reliably respond to their child's signals of distress or connection, have children who are described as insecurely attached.

If a parent cannot relate to, and share interests with their children, the child will grow up without the value of attachment-related experiences, and will not have an understanding or perspective of important relationships in their lives.

The messages that we receive from our parents both verbal and non verbal, things like, "not being good to show your emotions", "you should do certain things in a certain way", and how we value others, along with life experience, including living conditions and peer pressure, will all have an effect on how a family functions as a unit.

In a well functioning family the rules are overt and negotiable. When a family come to counselling they will have a dysfunctional family system, they either have Enmeshed Boundaries, where there is a high level of chronic anxiety, a fusion of boundaries, confused and covert rules, the system is static, and rules rigid. Alternatively they have Walled Boundaries where the level of anxiety is high, the roles and boundaries are rigid, there is a loss of freedom or spontaneity and loneliness. Where there is addiction in the family all the members become co-dependent. The therapist's job is to facilitate the family in trying to regulate their family system.

There are lots of creative ways of working with couples and families to help them to understand each other better. Creative interventions like genograms, life lines, house of values, guided imagery, sand tray work and many others, all of which can help the family to work together.

Working with couples and families can be very interesting and rewarding, working with the "Relationship" not with the individuals.

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