New clients presenting for therapy often expect the therapist to fix their problems, and in an attempt to justify our sessional rates, therapists like myself can be seduced to expertly search for what is missing or broken in a couple’s relationship. So not only do the partners or individuals have their agendas, but we also start to unconsciously map what we feel the couple needs to change based on what they tell us at the start of the therapeutic relationship. However, I am discovering through letting go of mine and the clients’ hidden agendas that working toward immediate change in couple therapy might be counterproductive and make matters worse.
Over time, I have curiously observed the underlying agenda that my couple clients bring to therapy, i.e. a partner hoping to change the other or the need to change the things that are not working due to communication issues, sex/intimacy, and money matters or serious individual problems. With time, I am also learning not to assume that what they tell me during the first session is all there is to their visit. Usually, as our work progresses, it is not uncommon to notice a new pattern emerging or new information coming to light.
Usually, during a crisis, a couple’s perspectives on their relationship and each other become negatively affected and depending on how long the relationship has been in crisis, they may blame or resent each other.
As part of my diagnostic approach to the couple’s process and formulation, I strive to explore the positive parts of the couple or relationship. I aspire and encourage them to work with what is good in the relationship while maintaining curiosity and openness to change the bits that are not so good – supposing that is what they want.
One of the practical ways I do this is to ask the couple to consider their roles in their relationship through various lenses and identify the different intersections. For example, with my prompt, they may identify four or five different ways their relationship intersects. They may say something like the following:
(a) We are lovers
(b) We are friends and enjoy recreational and social intimacy
(c) We are a team – we share chores and bills and contribute to the running of our home
(d) We are parents – have biological or adopted children or pet parents.
(e) We are individuals – we attempt to balance our individuality with emotional connectedness
After the couple has identified some or all of the ways their relationship intersects, I then ask them to score how well they think they are thriving in each area. On a scale of 1 – 10 (10 being the highest positive score), they ascribe a score to each of these roles. For example, a couple I worked with many months ago, say Amara and Jude (names have been changed for anonymity), scored all the above roles highly, between 7-9 out of 10, except for their parenting relationship. Another couple that I saw scored highly in all of their other roles except their sexual/lover relationship, where they ascribed a score of 3.
By getting the couples to explore their relationship through these various lenses, they uncover the 5 Whats: what still works in their relationship, what is subject to change, what is the reality versus the ideal, what is not working, and what is acceptable. This approach helps us understand the areas of commonality or differences, which helps me tailor my interventions appropriately. It also helps me as the therapist to understand some of the underlying challenges that the couple brings and how I can collaborate with them to facilitate the change that is possible. I integrate this approach with a robust assessment process, in which I explore all aspects of the relationship and its history. It has helped me gain a new perspective and enabled the couple to broaden theirs.
The views and opinions expressed in these blog posts are held by the author(s) and are for general interest in the field. These blog entries do not attempt give advice to the reader, they are for educational and information purposes only.