At a fundamental level, couple counselling provides an opportunity for a couple to explore their relationship with a therapist who facilitates the exploration. Couples have said to me that they really value the dedicated time, space and support to talk about feelings and difficulties that don’t feel safe to share with each other elsewhere. What else couple counselling does is more provisional and it’s perhaps helpful to think about what couple counselling can do?
First of all, I’d like to make it clear what, in my opinion, couple counselling doesn’t do. Couple counselling is not about the counsellor determining whether a couple should split up or stay together. Nor is it about the counsellor telling either individual how to behave or taking sides. (There are exceptions to this if one of the partners is coercive or violent.) The more behavioural approaches to couple counselling often provide communication exercises and homework between sessions, humanistic and psychodynamic approaches tend not to do this.
I think a key element of what couple counselling can do, is to give a couple the opportunity to see their relationship from a more objective position, to help a couple step away and see themselves as if looking in from the outside. People are often familiar with repeating patterns in the interactions with their partners. They know which situations end in a row or sulking or tears – “you always …,” “you never …” but they can’t necessarily recognise the dynamic that underpins the patterns. How they both act in a way that means these situations keep playing out in the same way again and again. They know that over time painful feelings have built up, such as hurt and resentment, frustration and fear, disdain and humiliation. These feelings can reach a point where one or both partners question whether they can carry on living like this or would it be better to break up. Then they come to couple counselling.
A couple counsellor can notice and comment on what they see being enacted between the partners in the session. They and the couple can think about how this dynamic can play out in the relationship and the way it impacts how they feel about each other. This close attention from the therapist can make couple counselling challenging, each partner becomes aware that their behaviour is coming under scrutiny. They may be fearful of owning their own behaviour and ashamed about revealing aspects of themselves, aspects that may be protecting them and hiding feelings of weakness, vulnerability or lack of self-worth that probably originate from their past.
A therapist can encourage both partners to be more compassionate with themselves and each other, to let go of the feeling that their partner is a potential threat and they need to defend themselves. A couple can then begin to see their partner as someone who is on their side, who is on the same team but perhaps brings a different perspective.
Hopefully a couple can recognise the dance between them and acknowledge the relationship they have created together is a shared responsibility, both the positive and negative parts. This means that the project of creating a more satisfying relationship, or a constructive separation, can also be shared and is perhaps more possible than they imagined at their first counselling session.
Further reading by Angela Rogers –