|Carl Webster - Marriage Counselling, Psychologist and Psychotherapist 0424 650 630
Does Couple Counselling Work?
It often takes a crisis to get both parties to agree to do
counselling. The short answer to does it work is that if both
parties are willing to commit to the process and work on the
relationship. Research suggests that change can take a number
of sessions depending on the problems involved.
Couple counselling may involve working through fears,
misunderstandings, resentments, defences and tackling old
habits such as anger or shutting down. Often both partners have
to improve their ability to self soothe and keep themselves calm,
rather than expecting their partner to simply just do what they
want them to. Couple therapy is about learning to feel more
connected with oneself and then be able to connect more openly
and honestly with the partner.
Being open, honest and saying what we want may make us feel
afraid of increasing conflict or losing the relationship, but the
alternative is usually worse. There may also be family of origin
issues to understand where a partner learnt to handle
themselves, their emotions and their relationships in particular
(often unhelpful) ways. Finding a new partner won't necessarily
mean that old mistakes and patterns aren't repeated.
"Many people have the an attitude that if only they could get more 'love'
and attention, they would feel and function better.......[however] ...the
most needy people have achieved the least emotional separation from
their families [ie their parents or prime carers]'
Kerr and Bowen in Family Evaluation (1988)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Attacking or criticism that is personal, that usually begins with “YOU this or YOU that…….” Our mind is very good at being
critical (picking out the negative) and less good at being appreciative. We tend to criticize and judge our partner when we
are not happy, when we feel our needs are not being met, when we feel threatened or attacked. We use criticism as a way
of attacking and blaming our partner for how we feel and defending ourselves if we also feel attacked. Criticism (saying
what we think) is easy compared to saying how we feel and what we want. You are entitled to complain but try being
assertive and begin with ‘I’ instead of ‘You. Eg I am unhappy that, I feel angry when you talk to me like that, I don’t like it
when you……., I don’t want us to yell……………., I would like us to talk about this……………
We often become defensive when we feel criticized, threatened or blamed. We go into justifying our
actions/behavior/feelings often by various versions of “well it’s your fault”, or “I am right and you are wrong”, or “I can’t
help the way I am’. We need to be able to listen to our partner’s complaints or feelings while taking a breath and relaxing
ourself (yes it’s difficult). We need to listen and acknowledge what is being said and how our partner feels and consider
how we may have contributed to that as well as other circumstances. In other words don’t get on the defensive, learn to
say : ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling that way” and “ I’m sorry if I have caused you to feel like that, I didn’t mean to.” Or “I feel
attacked when you criticize me”
Contempt is when we fail to show respect to our partner. We may belittle, put down, be sarcastic, call names, roll our eyes,
ignore and find ways of basically saying ‘F……You’. We are usually feeling angry and resentful when we show contempt but
are avoiding admitting we are angry and why we are angry (because we feel hurt in some way). We need to own up to being
angry and pissed off and again use “I’ statements to communicate how we feel and what we want as well as what we are
Stonewalling is a version of contempt and defensiveness. It takes various forms and is about ignoring our partner. We may
given them the silent treatment, refuse to discuss the problems and feelings on both sides and refuse to negotiate. Our
agenda may be about defending ourselves and aiming to punish and inflict hurt on the other. (holding onto our anger often
leads to desire for revenge. If you need time out, or time to think, be prepared to say so and set a later time for
Intimacy with oneself
The ability to be 'present' ie in touch with and aware of
one's inner process (thoughts, feelings and physical
reactions) and being willing to self-confront and
Intimacy with another
To be present, self soothe and self confront while
disclosing personal thoughts and feelings and at the same
time be able to listen and empathise without defensiveness
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
"The most important trusting relationship is the
relationship one has with oneself"
David Schnarch, sex therapist and author of Intimacy and Desire 2009.
Quote from Constructing the Sexual Crucible 91, P 131.
WORKING THROUGH A CONFLICT
When conflict has tended to end up with both partners feeling hurt, the first step is to learn to process what has happened.
- LISTENING to each other and speaking one at at time
- SOOTHING yourself (when you feel yourself getting aroused). This may involve one or both parties asking for TIME
OUT at certain times when they are feeling overly tense, anxious, emotional or angry.
- AVOIDING sentences beginning with YOU. Say “I FEEL……” No matter how you feel, trying to talk in a GENTLE, CALM
and CONSIDERATE way. Avoid saying things in a way that puts the other down, insults them, or makes assumptions.
- UNDERSTANDING how the other person feels and why what they are saying is important to them (ie what the issue
MEANS to them). So ask them to tell you all about it and what it means to them.
- NOT trying to resolve things at first, but rather having a discussion
- VALIDATING or acknowledging the other person for making an effort
- ADMITTING when you have said or done hurtful things (ie saying I’m sorry)
MOVING TOWARDS WORKING TOGETHER/MUTUAL CARING
This involves all of the above and especially
- using humour, affection and interest
- being willing to be influenced (compromise)
- repairing wounds as quickly as possible
- maintaining and expressing a high level of fondness and admiration
- thinking of WE as much as ME
Therapy can help with:
• Creating a supportive and safe environment
• Discussing and negotiating around difficult issues
• Learning to feel and express primary emotions (fear,
sadness, anger, love, joy, surprise, hurt) and recognise secondary,
reactive feelings (eg some types of anger, anxiety and shame)
• Recognise how previous emotional experience (often from
growing up &/or traumatic events) affects us in being able to
relate or not relate to our partner
• Building true intimacy based on love, trust and respect.