Re-writing My Rules For Couples Therapy

One of my self-imposed rules in working with couples is that if one partner has an unhealthy relationship with a behaviour, substance or alcohol, that needs to be addressed before we can start work.  Recently, I had to face my rigid approach and modify my rule book.

Fred and Ginger came to see me. (Can you tell that I have changed the names?).  Although not married, they were in a long-term, five-year, committed relationship. They claimed to love each other and yet it felt like they were in a toxic relationship given the frequency and intensity of their arguments.  The only dance this Fred and Ginger were doing was a self-destructive one.

Fred admitted at the outset that he had a problem with alcohol.  The more they argued, the more he drunk. The more he drunk, the more they argued.  Most of the arguments were centred on whether Ginger had been unfaithful to him on their holiday in Greece last summer, which she vehemently denied. 

So I named my rule.  Fred had to address his relationship with alcohol before our work could begin.  I felt I was on secure ground given Fred was not in denial about the drink. I explained that our couples work might intensify the level of his (and their) distress and lead him to drink more.

We met again.  And again.  During those early sessions, we discussed the possibility of Fred joining a 12-step meeting and entering rehab.  But he hadn’t done so.  I wheeled out all my favourite phrases such as “Nothing changes if nothing changes. ”They kept coming back to therapy and yet nothing changed. Eventually I was faced with the reality of my self-imposed rule. Should I refuse to treat this couple further until Fred had entered rehab? 

Intellectually, my rule made sense to me.  Practically, would it serve my client? Our weekly sessions were the only safe and contained space which this couple had, especially Ginger.  If I withdrew from our relationship to honour my decree, might I be abandoning my client? 

I realised that some of my rush to send Fred to rehab was not just based on my belief that he needed to remove his primary coping mechanism. I didn’t want to tolerate the mess or sit with the discomfort.  In a nutshell, the sessions were messy and difficult. 

If Fred could sort out his drinking, it would make my work easier.  I would have an oven ready couple to do the “perfect” piece of work with.   Fred’s drinking was not only impacting his relationship but it was also impeding the success of my work.  I am not proud that my ego took centre stage here.   When did the work of serving my clients become based on my success?  And who gets to define “success?”

After exploring this in supervision, I decided to loosen my rule. It was not serving any of us. I was not prepared to walk away from my client. I felt congruent and authentic in letting them know that I felt as if I had one hand tied behind my back and I shared my dilemma. However, I was prepared to walk beside them for as long as it took.

All three of us needed to sit with the stuckness while building our therapeutic alliance.  And that’s exactly what we did.  I was able to refer both Fred and Ginger to their own individual therapists which enabled them to understand more as to how each of them had got to this place.  I learned to let go of my desire to make “progress” in each session.  If they were coming back, I had to assume that they were getting something out of it.

Lo and behold, the moment came when Fred decided to enter rehab. 

I have learned rules of engagement with our clients are fine, per se.  But there is always a context.  I learned that the work doesn’t begin when my pre-conditions for therapy are met.  In this case, it began the moment they walked through my office door. We all needed to get stuck long enough to experience that nothing changes if nothing changes.  After that, everything changed. 

Gavin Sharpe
LDPRT Alumni

(The clients have been anonymised and the story tweaked to ensure client confidentially)

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.

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