The following excerpt comes from our book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The “Couple Relationships” chapter explores the power of patterns that develop in love relationships which can either lead to disconnection or further connection. Counsellors can learn to interrupt these patterns and facilitate deepening intimacy and trust.
There are many theoretical frameworks to guide a counselling practice. However, some common factors seem to contribute to successful couple counselling experiences regardless of the framework (Davis et al., 2012). First, counsellors need to be able to connect with each person without taking sides. Second, an attitude of hope for positive change is required to motivate the work. Finally, counsellors need to provide clear guidance toward healthier interactions, focusing on the processes that shape patterns in the relationship, rather than on individual experiences.
We also need a map for supporting change over the course of a counselling process. The map I use contains the four principles described below, and they are useful to follow with every couple. These principles do build on each other, although I often return to them as I work through a process of counselling with any couple. My hope is that anyone working with couples can relate to these principles and weave them into their own practice.
1. Build a balanced connection with each person and the relationship
It can be a challenge to find a balance in the therapeutic relationship with a couple. Because of the intense emotions that can come up when focusing on such an important relationship, each partner wants the counsellor to side with them – to validate their perspective and feelings while convincing the other person to join their side. This can feel like a triangular tug of war, and a counsellor may struggle with how to connect with each person without taking sides or alienating anyone.
It takes courage for couples to unpack their stuck patterns and learn to let themselves and each other really see the vulnerability and needs that underlie them.
2. Identify patterns of strength and connection
If a couple is feeling disconnected or stressed, they are often neglecting to spend time together or missing opportunities for positive connection. Bringing these experiences forward helps remind the couple of what is possible and expands their view of the relationship beyond problem-filled interactions. This injects hope into the whole process and can provide important resources throughout the work ahead.
3. Identify and understand patterns of disconnection
When there are disconnecting patterns in a relationship, spouses tend to get stuck in these interactions more frequently over time. Couples need guidance to practice pausing and stepping out of the pattern entirely, and they need support to dig into their sore spots and injuries in order to dismantle or transform them.
4. Create new experiences of intimacy
People fear feeling alone, unloved, or not good enough, and they will naturally develop automatic ways of protecting themselves against these feelings. The intensity of these protective reactions often means the old patterns will resurface under stress. Couples need significant support and repeated opportunities to practice doing something different and to trust new ways of interacting. These new patterns create a foundation for healing injuries, building intimacy, and deepening the relationship over time.
It takes courage for couples to unpack their stuck patterns and learn to let themselves and each other really see the vulnerability and needs that underlie them. When partners experience each other as open, accessible, and willing to learn how to offer positive connection, the risks become well worth it. For counsellors, having a clear map allows us to be confident guides in the sometimes stormy weather of couple counselling. Everyone does better with connection to positive, secure attachment relationships, and when we have the privilege of witnessing people do this work, we all benefit.
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