COUPLES COUNSELLING - WORKING WITH THE RELATIONSHIP
Relationships heal. In counselling healing takes place in the relationship between counsellor and client. In Couples Counselling the potential for healing lies in the relationship between the couple.
The relationship between the couple is therefore itself a form of counselling, a place where the couple can work our their issues. In this article I am going to concentrate on that relationship.
What then is the role of the couples counsellor? Just as in one-to-one counselling, the counsellor's role is to help the client understand and work through the client's issues, so in Couples Counselling, the counsellor's role is to help the couple understand and work through their relationship.
In is natural to assume that as couples counsellors we are dealing with two separate people. And of course we are. What do Anne and Bill need? What are their issues? What are the areas of conflict between them? But seeing a couple as two separate people is only half the story. And that viewpoint can easily exacerbate the conflict between them.
I believe it is more helpful to see the relationship between the couple as an entity in itself with a life of its own. Something which grows, develops, changes, which has its own seasons, its crises and its resolution. It is another dynamic, a Third Force, in Couples Counselling.
All forms of life have a pattern, a pattern which develops in time. This is as true of a couple's relationship, as it is of their individual lives. If we understand this pattern we can help our couple to appreciate the changing nature of their relationship and the meaning of the particular crisis they have reached.
People are naturally attracted to each other because they share the same issues. If these issues are unresolved they tend to project them onto their partners and then blame them when they fail to see the issues reflected in themselves. It is at these times of crisis that they come to us for help.
The crises are the opportunity to work out the issues that exist in both partners and they are part of the development of their relationship which the couple have the potential to work out for themselves. However without the insight to realise that they themselves have these issues, the couple will inevitably work against, instead of with, their relationship.
Anne and Bill had been living together for four years. According to Anne the problem in their relationship was that Bill could not show emotional or physical affection to her. She laid the blame on Bill's mother whom she described as cold and emotionally detached. She thought our counselling should concentrate on Bill's relationship with his mother.
Anne said she had enjoyed an idyllic childhood with warm, caring parents. In our sessions she came across as outgoing and confident and did most of the talking. Bill said very little. He accepted that he was to blame for their lack of physical closeness and appeared confused, not knowing how to help the situation.
It was clear that the two of them were growing further apart, Bill coming home late from work and bringing work home with him. Anne complained that they never spent time together and were leading separate lives. However when we looked more closely at what was happening, it turned out that when they were together at weekends Anne would decorate the bathroom or find other jobs to do instead of spending time with Bill.
And when Bill tried to get physically close to her, she would turn her back on him. In a later session Anne said that she had had a relationship at University which had ended with her partner leaving her while she was pregnant. At the time she thought of committing suicide and she had an abortion which she had never mentioned to her parents or to Bill. Since then she had suffered from bulimia.
Unsurprisingly this couple shared the same issues and they saw their own problems reflected in their partner's behaviour. They came to see this and helped each other to gradually work through their fear of rejection and intimacy and developed a much closer relationship.
By understanding the nature and potential of the couple's relationship we can help clients like Anne and Bill work with their relationship. In a subsequent article I will look at ways of bringing about the changes in the couples' relationship and reframing their attitudes towards each other.
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