Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste. ~ Benjamin Franklin
Have you been feeling “not-exactly-happy” with your relationship lately? Do you and your relationship partner have “communication problems?” Do you or your partner have “one foot out the door?” Are you wondering whether getting a second opinion from a professional might be in order? This article explores some things to think about before making that step. The idea here is to set your expectations, open your eyes before going in, and give your efforts, should you decide to go for it, the best chance they can have.
Truly effective couples counseling addresses shared problems where each partner agrees that they contribute to the situation and want help in addressing their problems on a mutual basis. Quite honestly, this is a pretty rare occurrence in my experience. Most couples come in with a different, less-than-mutual going-in position, which makes things difficult on everyone and may make the process unworkable.
Therefore, before engaging in true couples counseling with any individual (“one-sided couples counseling”) or couple, there are some things I like to know. In a sense, what are we working with here? Maybe it’s the psychologist in me, but I like to assess the situation pretty thoroughly before making recommendations and setting off in a particular direction. The theme here is to “serve no couples counseling before it’s time.”
The first thing I like to know is where each person stands in terms of their relationship. I ask each person to specify whether they are “leaning in,” “leaning out,” or neutral regarding the relationship.*
Often, one person is leaning in and the other out. If both partners are leaning in, then we move on to the next question (see below). If one person is leaning out, then that becomes the focus of the work until that person makes a decision about the whole thing. This might be done individually with me or another therapist, or in the presence of the leaning-in partner. If both partners are leaning out, then this becomes a whole ‘nuther discussion about what to do next: stay as roommates living apart together, co-habitate as co-parents, reconsider their leanings, meet with a divorce mediator to get a clear picture of life after divorce, etc.
If and when both partners get to the point of leaning in, at least well enough, then comes the second assessment question. I ask each person to specify whether they are “leaning in,” “leaning out,” or neutral regarding couples counseling.* Typically, at least one partner is leaning in or we wouldn’t be meeting. It’s not unusual, however, for one partner to be leaning in regarding the relationship, and yet leaning out regarding doing the work involved with counseling. Maybe they believe they can do it on their own, their problems aren’t really that bad, being in counseling means their relationship is doomed, or any of many other reasons. In this case, this then becomes the focus of the work until something is resolved. Again, the theme is to “serve no couples counseling before it’s time.”
OK, let’s say we’ve gotten past all those questions and issues and we’ve agreed to at least try couples counseling. Are we free and clear yet? Well, no, not exactly. There are a couple more things I’d like to know about the persons sitting in front of me.
Can each of these persons accept the “fact” that each of the 7.5 billion people on the planet (at the time of writing) are different? That men and women are often different? That people have experienced different nature and nurture processes in their life? That each person’s brain is wired in a different manner? And so on. If they can’t accept this, then they will have great difficulty navigating the differences between themselves and their partner. See this article for more on this. They will also have less of a chance to benefit from true couples counseling, which often involves how to identify, learning to navigate, and possibly even appreciate differences.
Alright, let’s say we’ve jumped the developmental hurdle of understanding that one person is different from another (whew!). What’s next? Surely we can start the process now! But wait, there’s more!
Can each person in the partnership recognize, understand, and take responsibility for their contributions to the rough spots in the relationship? D’oh! So close! And yet. By simply asking what each person’s contributions* are, I can get a pretty good read on the answer to this question. Quite often, one or both persons come to my office ready to spell out in excruciating detail just how their partner has contributed to the mess they find themselves in. Great! And we wonder why there’s trouble in paradise. Queue the rolling of eyes.
As a corollary to this last point, I often find that one or both persons come to me thinking that I’m some sort of judge to whom they need to present evidence of just how awful their partner has been. “There it is! See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!” SMH (shaking my head). Guilty! Guilty of not understanding the process here. So, a bit of unlearning and re-learning needs to go on before we settle into true couples counseling, where I am a mentor, counselor, sounding board, guide, etc., instead of a divorce court judge.
Well, that’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? If we’ve gotten this far, a couple stands a much better chance of being successful in the couples counseling process. Of course, “success” can mean any of several things. There’s no guarantee that couples counseling will turn a relationship into a “happily ever after” situation. I guess I’ll end on that final point. “Success” can come in the form of being fully informed as to who you are, who you’re partner is, what are the positives and negatives of the relationship, what things might change vs. probably not, what baggage needs work to make this or one’s next relationship more satisfying, etc. In my opinion, this is a worthwhile investment.
* These points borrow heavily from the Discernment Counseling concepts developed by William Doherty, PhD.
Copyright 2018 Daniel J. Metevier