Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Marriage/Couples Counseling–The First Session

I’m often asked what to expect in the first session I have with a couple. While this is a time for me to understand each partner’s view of their difficulties, I also want to find out if each is committed (here is a link to what I mean by commitment) to their relationship. 

Couples typically share their pain and disappointment with how their relationship changed from mutual attraction and caring to coldness and detachment. Often they will offer examples of how ugly the relationship can be. It’s difficult to hear these stories which demonstrate how harmful conflict can be.

I can control the session from becoming a mutual blaming contest by having each partner offer their view of the relationship. I have each say what they experienced rather than what their partner did to them. I help couples to understand that they are describing symptoms of a flawed relationship not flawed partners. 

Emotional distance is normal when you are hurt or disappointed, yet for your relationship to survive, you must believe you can recover the connection you once enjoyed. One goal of the initial interview is to plant a seed of hope that relationships can improve.

I also use the first session to educate couples about how healthy relationships work. Everyone missed that course in school!  Couples’ suggestions for how their relationship could improve typically involve suggestions for their partner, which are countered by their partner’s suggestions for them.

Instead of allowing the blame game to proceed, I help couples to see how they once attracted their partner, but have created distance through conflict. When they first fell in love, each partner made a great effort to assure their lover that it was safe to care because he or she could be sure that caring would be returned.

Now conflict has created a relationship that does not feel safe. The goal must be to regain the safety you once knew. This begins by interacting differently.

I will may have couples practice talking to each other in a way that invites caring rather than each arguing for their point of view. This means speaking to each other in a vulnerable tone of voice while sending the message of what he or she needs from the relationship. It is very difficult to express a vulnerable message in the first session but can completely change the tone of the relationship.

I will end the session with a challenge. I ask couples to spend the rest of the week communicating their willingness to contribute to an improved relationship. I suggest they find small ways to communicate a willingness to change, even if their partner does not observe this change. This keeps the focus on each taking personal responsibility for the relationship rather than sitting back and waiting for their partner to change.

I hope this offers you a glimpse for what an initial session with me can be. Each session can vary from couple to couple, but in every case I want to focus on how the relationship can improve through an improved connection that requires a mutual commitment to change.