If your counselor relies on any of the following, you may wish to find another who is more resourceful at couples work.
As shown in the classic Bob Newhart skit, these are suggestions that seem obvious, and in fact have probably already been thought of by the couple, and perhaps even tried. However, such plans often fail because they are only resident in the mind on a cognitive level, which is not readily accessible by people when they are triggered and thus reliant on their automatic impulses.
Experienced couple counsellors know not to follow their clients into the rabbit hole of the content of an argument, but to help them focus on the process of how they deal with each other. That is, the real anxiety of the relationship is not about how the toothpaste tube is squeezed, but about the attachment concerns or identity issues or other deeper meaning that underlies the interaction. Without following the process, solving surface problems is a “whack-a-mole” game where another problem inevitably pops up.
There is a time for basic problem-solving, but most often we would spend time considering the underlying significance of situations and problems from a psychodynamic perspective. Once people feel heard and understood – and understand themselves better – they are more ready to accept, devise, implement, and practice solutions rather than remaining stuck in adversarial positions.
An inexperienced counsellor may project their personal frustration or their own anxiety about their job performance onto the couple’s conflict and push for a premature solution. Gottman often cites that 2/3 of marital conflicts will never really be resolved, and this is something that a good couples counsellor will help couples come to terms with.
But even with solvable problems, allowing the couple to move too quickly towards a solution can also prematurely derail their own personal development. Sometimes, due to a power imbalance or a dependency, one partner is too ready to cave in to protect themselves or the relationship, while another may put on pressure for a quick solution favorable to themselves.
Instead, encouraging each partner to tolerate the tension of differentiation while they elicit and respect the position of the other helps them be able to find their way together in this and in future scenarios. Actually, the deferment of a solution is a great opportunity for growth in self-regulation and empathy.
Learning to compromise is not a bad thing for couples. However, a counselor simply pushing toward this will face several problems.
First of all, it’s not an appropriate role for the counsellor to direct the outcome like some sort of judge or referee. That would merely reflect the counsellor’s biases, and not respect the priorities of the couple.
Then, there are too many times when the middle ground is not an optimal outcome, and each partner giving in halfway will not be a lasting solution. If each forced to give up something vital, they may feel the loss of some essential value or dream, and will remain unsatisfied in the long run, as well as losing trust in the counsellor and the process.
Occasionally, highly polarized clients who pick up on a repeated use of compromise may “game the system” by staking extreme positions in order to gain more at the bargaining table. Meeting such demands halfway would not be sensible or fair. Extreme positioning may arise from various individual factors that require special handling. A good therapist is able to notice symptoms of addiction, personality disorders, mania, depression, or other psychiatric disorders that interfere with abilities to interact, forestalling abuse.
While this is often true in a very general sense, it is not just that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, where different languages are used. Different sexes, or partners from different families or backgrounds not only use different wording, but they have differing values and expectations.
Problems in interpersonal relations are not usually due to the poor transfer of information. Rather, it is often in the lack of acknowledgement and appreciation of the emotional import of that information. We use particular but counterintuitive approaches to keep a connection between clients during anxious stages of differentiation.
We take the approach that feelings of affection, desire and commitment are often the product or result of a good relationship, not the basis or cause of one. That is, over the long term, what you experience with your partner, what they say and do around you, is the key to how they “make” you feel, and thus how you feel about them. This starts with basic behavioral psychology, including the Gottman methods of ratios of interaction, turning towards bids, awareness and avoidance of “four horsemen” behaviors, and so on. In specific cases, we will harness the emotional energy by putting people in touch with their own attachment styles and needs, using techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy.
This rejection either pushes the chastised individual away from the process of therapy, or else dissociates (splits) the person into a “proper” outer shell who tries to do what is expected, and an unsatisfied inner self who remains defiant in the face of unrecognized and unmet needs or desires. Rather than being told what to do, a more effective and durable intervention for most people is to be put in touch with their existing core values so they can guide themselves towards the person they wish to be.
That is, we begin from the “person-centered” or humanistic principle that people are inherently good, and each person makes the best choice they can at any given moment. Our role is to help each person discover the broader context of their choices, and help them expand those so that they can act in a way that integrates their highest and best selves with the entire person.
This is often a very valuable part of individual therapy, and definitely has a place in couples work. However, non-directive “Rogerian” empathizing alone must be used very carefully when working with couples who are already far apart. It requires a very delicate combination of validating each one with subtle reframing so as not to alienate the other, in order to avoid “triangulation” or the appearance of favoritism.
Inexperienced individual counsellors, while maintaining the therapeutic alliance with “unconditional positive regard”, may fall into being seen as validating any blaming. Or, they may just resort to a simpler view of the couple as a set of two incompatible individuals who just do not “belong together”, rather than a relationship system that is interdependent, interactive, and amenable to change.
Indeed, when a client is also working with an individual counsellor, a good couple’s counsellor recognizes if their emphasis on individual development and personal growth may work at cross purposes to the progress of the relationship.