The Art of Relating

Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW

Demystifying Couples Counseling

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I think that people have no idea what to expect when they go to couples and marriage counseling. As someone whose practice consists of roughly half couples and half individuals I have a pretty good idea of the common fears. Individuals worry that they will be told it is all their fault. Some people worry that the therapist and the partner will “gang” up on them. Some worry that they may have to face the inevitable, that they are finished as a couple, and therapy will set that event in motion. Or, perhaps they are afraid because they feel their partner already has one foot out the door and they are just wanting the therapist to give them permission to go without the guilt. Also, while these fears are certainly understandable, this is not the way it goes down in the sessions. I wish I had a dime for every time a woman came into my office, wanting to talk about problems in her relationship, but insisting that there is “no way” she could ever get her husband to come. So, I thought it would be a good idea to paint a more accurate picture of what transpires in the sessions and what you can expect to happen.

First and foremost, most therapists work to present an even-handedness in the sessions. We all know from years of experience that a dysfunctional relationship takes two people to keep going. Whether you know it or not, both people are doing things that are contributing to the relationship not functioning properly in the realm of communication. For example, one person gets loud and intense when upset and the other person refuses to talk, becoming stuck in this pattern. It is quite simple. The person who is loud and intense must change their delivery to be heard and the one that refuses to talk must start talking again. Getting off track by trying to figure out which came first, the chicken of the egg, is pointless. Both individuals have something to improve upon to get the communication flowing again. So, in the beginning it is my job to catch and name the obvious things getting in the way of communication and make suggestions to attend to them.

Second, as I like to say, short of bank robbery or murder, there is no right or wrong, so to speak. By the time couples come to my office they are equally feeling invalidated and misunderstood. So, short of a few situations, no one is at fault. However, if you are doing something that is a glaringly obvious block to good communication and a healthy relationship, it may appear in the beginning as if too much of the focus is on you. That’s not about fault, rather it is simply a common block to relating well together. These include things such as yelling, refusing to talk to your partner when he or she tries to tell you how they are feeling or anything else you may be doing that would obviously affect your partner (or anyone else) in a negative manor. So, the obvious things will get attention first, but never fear, as the subtler things each person does that works to block communication will be identified. Remember the therapist doesn’t know you. However, these subtle dynamics always play out during the therapy sessions.

Finally, everyone receives some sound instruction on how to handle arguments in a constructive way that will ultimately increase your emotional intimacy with each other. You will learn how to break when things get heated, come back at a specified time to relay your feelings and how to let your partner know they have finally been heard regarding what is bothering them. Also, couples are unhappy when they feel disconnected. Therefore, it is my job to spot all things working against feeling connected.
I’m not a fan of separate bedrooms, loud snoring or not. I’m not a fan of the partners never having a “date night”, even if they think they don’t have the time to make this a priority. I’m not a fan of them having the absence of something they enjoy doing together. As you can see, this is all straight forward. I work to ascertain the blocks to communication, I teach you how to handle differences in a healthy manor and work to increase your feeling of connectedness. Just remember that we therapists are not really that scary. A relationship will only last so long if the partners feel disconnected and the communication is not working properly. If you can identify with this, don’t wait for things to get out of hand. The longer it goes on like that the harder it is to find your way back together.

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Therapist and Relationship Coach in private practice. For a free consultation call 314-374-8396.