Five Things Guaranteed to Fail in Couples Work

1. Talking about content not process

How a couple talk to each other and treat each other IS their relationship.  That’s what we need to help them focus on.  Typically couples get into conflict about predictable areas – money, sex, parenting, boundaries, time use (too much time at work or a hobby, not enough time on domestic labour etc).  Also typically, there are many workable solutions to the conflicts that people have.  Getting each person to notice HOW they are communicating about this and then to reflect on WHY they are communicating in that way is much more productive than just helping them have the conversation about a particular topic.  Acknowledging and being curious about the meaning of a particular topic, what associations it has for them, is more likely to deepen their understanding of themselves and each other

2. Taking sides

Sometimes one person’s behaviour seems really out of line; abusive, exploitative, dishonest or worse.  In many cases these people are well aware their behaviour is out of order and are expecting you as a therapist to join their partner in judging and blaming them.  Regardless of the invitation, we shouldn’t “take sides”.  If we wish to remain effective we need to find a way to create an alignment with both partners.  This is not the same as condoning abuse.  Rather it is a recipe for being effective in confronting it.  For to be effective  we have to do it through building an alliance with the abuser, not through alienating them further.

3. Ignoring non-verbal communication

Hogan, K., Stubbs, R. (2003) assert that non-verbal communication represents two thirds of how we communicate. So much of what goes on between couples is in the meta-communication of tone, body language and facial expression.   If partner A is talking and partner B is crossing their arms, rolling their eyes and turning away with a sigh, then this should no more be ignored than if they had called their partner a “stupid fool”.  Likewise, people may be trying to do something constructive but their hurt, frustration or fear means that the tone of voice they use makes it sound like a criticism or attack.   If you as a therapist don’t point this behaviour out and hold them accountable for it, the communication will break down in short order.  Our challenge is to get our clients beyond that defended, self-defeating style of communication and get them acknowledging and being curious about the meaning of what’s going on for their partner, independent of whether they happen to agree with it.

4. Treating one kind of reactivity as morally superior to another

Most of our clients have an understanding that when we feel threatened we tend to “fight, freeze or flee”.  Hopefully we as therapists understand that any regression like this is disruptive to intimate relationship.  However it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the person who is submitting or appeasing (which is the pack animal equivalent of a lizard “freezing”) is somehow doing less damage to the relationship than someone who is being aggressive.  Likewise with people who emotionally or physically withdraw (i.e. “flee” from the stress of relationship).  They may sell themselves as “just keeping the peace” but it’s important that we as therapists don’t assume that the apparently calm person is somehow doing better than the person who is visibly agitated.    Leaving aside issues of outright abuse, we need to treat all forms of self-protective reactivity as equally threatening to the connection between partners and also to the individual’s self-respect.

5. Letting your clients be in charge of the session

Some clients have had a lot of therapy, others have jobs where they are powerful and some have had to back their own judgement since they were kids because no-one else was there for them.  These sorts of people can be difficult to direct in individual therapy.  When you have a couple in the room it gets even more challenging as, for some couples, they are hooked into routines of behaviour that are entrenched and easily triggered, no matter how destructive they know them to be.  This can included entrenched avoidance as well as the yelling, fighting, scary kind.  Yet our clients are paying us to provide a fresh perspective, a new way of doing things.  We are not doing our job if we allow the old ways to be reinforced by even one repetition.  We need to be able to supply new ways of seeing themselves and understanding each other and help them translate that into behaving and interacting in ways that take them forward not leave them stuck.