Couple Therapy with Individual Partners

Couple therapy is usually both persons in the same sessions working towards a common goal.

At times, it can be helpful for the therapist to visit with the individual partners and couples often request this. They have their own reasons, as do the therapists. And some of the reasons to meet individually have merit. For example, it might be helpful for one partner to talk through their “family of origin” without the other being there. Though, I have found it is helpful to have the less active partner to listen to the narrative again, even though they think they know it all.

But there are problems with the therapist visiting with individual partners and it is important to understand this prior to going one-on-one.

Triangles are a problem. “He said, she said” is what it usually sounds like. It can come back this way: “Did you really suggest that my husband leave me? Or were you working to have him finally make a decision about being with me?” “Hmm,” I muse. “Now how do I handle this?”

Spousal secrets are a big deal. “Please don’t tell Jack about what I am about to say…” I usually say something like, “I have a terrible memory of what I am supposed to forget. Are you sure you want to tell me?” They usually do tell me anyway and then we figure out how to disclose or the marriage-saving reasons to keep it a secret.

There are occasions when the partner uses the individual appointment to appraise the therapist of the spouse’s presumed faults. EG, “Did you know that Bob was diagnosed as ADD by our previous therapist? I think that is why he doesn’t help in the kitchen.”

Therapy is powerful. Deep listening results in feeling deeply understood and sometimes this results in a kind of fusion making for confusion. When the focus is on the individual, the person can experience herself differently than as a part of a couple. And say different things.

A few other thoughts when this situation arises: sometimes (seldom?), I will recommend the person wishing individual contact to visit with another counsellor while I continue with the couple work. This is helpful sometimes but it does result in another kind of triangle and a great deal of costly overlap. 

I also recommend that my clients understand the power of triangles. I have some articles on my website that I think are helpful and there is lots more on the web. When both parties figure out how doing individual work with their couple’s therapist can be a problem, they can often move forward with information and understanding. And that helps.

I think I have opened up a conversation without many conclusions in this blog. But I do want you, my client-friends, to be aware of some of this. Let’s talk about it during our next sessions.

My best to you.  

Fighting Fairly / Fighting Foolishly

Conflict is normal, but fighting, arguing, swearing, shutting down (and the like) are optional. Conflict makes for change. Barking, bitching and belittling result in no-change and no improvement. Using accepted rules for fighting can reduce the disdain to simple conflict and this might make life more palatable and problems more solvable.

Here are some ideas to consider when you fight. These principles have been around the psychology world (and all over the web) for a long time and they have many sources. So the ideas are not mine alone, though I have fine-tuned some of the ideas. Here we go.

First off, before you do anything, ask yourself why you feel upset.

This is important. It energizes a non-reactive part of the brain. Even for a moment, thinking will help you move to the discussion rather than destruction. Are you angry because your partner left the mustard on the counter? Or are you upset because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework, and this is just one more piece of evidence that they hate you? Take time to think about your feelings before starting an argument.

Discuss one issue at a time.

This is hard if you are focused to defeat the person you say you like. “You shouldn’t be spending so much money without talking to me” can quickly turn into “You don’t care about our family”. Now you need to resolve two problems instead of one. Plus, when an argument starts to get off-topic, it can easily become about everything a person has ever done wrong, from your point of view. We’ve all done a lot wrong, so this can be especially cumbersome.

Give up on degrading language — it makes you look weak and ill-informed.

Discuss the issue, not the person. No put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Degrading language is an attempt to dominate your partner through coercion and to make them an “other.” It is bigotry and weak. Degradation will just lead to more character attacks while the original issue is ignored until the next quarrel.

Don’t bring up the past unless it is the “good past.”

Typically we bring up the worst of our partners and shared history when we fight. But what would happen if someone brought out the best in the other or the relationship? What if someone said, “Do you remember the first time we went to Hawaii and we sat on the beach until 2 in the morning?” Or if one said, “I remember how we solved a problem like this before. Talking really worked for us.”

Express your feelings with words and take responsibility for them.

“I feel angry.” “I feel hurt when you ignore my phone calls.” “I feel scared when you yell.” These are good ways to express how you feel. Starting with “I” is a good technique to help you take responsibility for your feelings (no, you can’t say whatever you want as long as it starts with “I”). (Somewhere on my website you fill find a “conversation crutch” where you say “I feel _______ because _______” in under 20 words. Shoot this is a good technique.)

Take turns talking.

This can be tough but be careful not to interrupt, give advice or even express support — just listen. If this rule is difficult to follow, try setting a timer allowing 2 or 3 minutes for each person to speak without interruption. And don’t spend your partner’s minutes thinking about what you want to say next. Listen!

No stonewalling.

Sometimes some people get passive-aggressive towards their partner by hiding behind fury and refusing to speak. This is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more aggrieved — and that can produce another problem.

Yelling doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Sometimes arguments are “won” by being the loudest, but the problem only gets worse and each will feel belittled. Men and women do this in about equal proportions. It is not just a female or a male trait. Bullying is not gender-specific. And don’t yell at your kids or your dog — it doesn’t work.

Take a time-out if things get too heated.

If you become flooded by your emotions, tell your partner you need to take a time-out for 15 or 20 minutes. Agree to resume the discussion later. And go off and write your feelings on a 3×5 card and stick it in your jeans. Don’t waste the rest time figuring out new missile strikes against your friend.

Attempt to come to an understanding.

You won’t find a “1-2-3 now you are free” kind of solution. They don’t really exist. People and their problems are just too messy for that. But you can come to an appreciation or respect for the other person’s point of view. If you can’t come to a compromise, merely understanding each other can help soothe negative feelings.

Be careful about quick draw forgiveness.

Some couples avoid conflict with quick apologies and quick forgiveness. What they lose from this is the chance to understand. Reconciliation (balancing the emotional books) requires conciliation (saying what is important to say).

And get some counselling!

If you are in a cycle of conflict (“It seems to never end.”) then find someone who understands and has some skills. We are pretty good! Also, check out my Referral List in the Tools section for others that are equally decent. And if you live in Smithers or Lacombe or Blaine or somewhere where there are few counsellors, these therapists do online therapy through Doxy or Zoom, etc.

[You are invited to make any comment you wish on this post or anything else you see on our website by emailing me at life@theducklows.ca.]

10/10 — A Sanity Prescription

Ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. This is a sanity prescription. 10 minutes talking to yourself, journaling your thoughts, praying or pondering before you get on with the busyness of your day.

Works well in your marriage too. 10 minutes of face-to-face conversation at (say) 7 am and 10 pm. In the morning, sharing your emotional geography as you anticipate your day. And in the evening, catching up your partner on your thoughts and experiences for the hours in between. Researchers tell us that “great couples” have at least 20 minutes of conversational intimacy every day. And in a month, you have enjoyed 4200 minutes (7 hours) of intimacy. More than many couples have in 5 years.

By the way, doing 20/20 is usually way too much. Keep it brief and important.

Here is what you can do in your 10/10. Try an ancient Ignatian discernment practice: consolations and desolations.  If you want to dump the Catholic part, call it roses and thorns. Either way, look at the events that are opportunities (consolations) for growth and wisdom and those interruptions (desolations) that make your worry and ruminate.

This is sanity. It is about thinking rather than ruminating; planning rather than obsessing; creating intimacy rather than avoiding and hiding.

Opening the Office Door: The Ducks In-Person and In-Office

By the middle of summer, we should be opening our doors to in-person counselling. Good news for those tired of staring at computer monitors (like me)! And for those who like the convenience and lack of commute, we are still offering counselling via Doxy and Zoom. Two more open doors!

If you decide at any time that you would feel safer or prefer to meet online, then we shall do that. Reimbursement for telehealth counselling with extended health insurance has not been a problem; however, if your insurance plan disallows a claim you will be responsible for payment.

Here is some info already published on our website that will orient you to our care for you during the pandemic. There are a few other blogs published on the topic as well.

If you wish to meet in person, there are a few cautions to understand and ideas to respond to.

• You will only keep your in-person appointment if you are symptom-free. If you are feeling unwell, please cancel as quickly as you are able. No fee will be assessed for cancelled fees related to sickness. Still, give us 48 hours if you can.

• If you have any symptoms of the coronavirus (self-check), I trust that we can meet online — rebooking can be difficult for you and for me.

• Please wait in your car or outside the office door (enjoy the bench) until you are called/texted/emailed to come inside for our appointment.

• We will provide hand sanitizer when you enter the office.

• Bring your own coffee mug if you wish our Nespresso. Mmm.

• Please bring your own mask if you wish, or if you feel therapy in any way compromises social distancing.

• Please keep a distance of 6 feet or so — no need to bring a noodle; we can approximate. And, sorry to say, no hugs, handshakes or high-5s. Waves and bows work too.

• Please do not bring children or infants to therapy at this time.

• Please take whatever steps you can between appointments to minimize your exposure to covid.

• If you have work that exposes you to other people who are infected, please cancel your appointment and replace it with online therapy. Again, give us as much time as you can.

• If a resident of your home tests positive for the infection, let me know and we continue with online appointments.

All this goes both ways. If Carole or I or anyone in our home or family bubble has covid symptoms, we will contact you as quickly as we can. Then we will discuss other possibilities including using online and screens. If there should be a resurgence of the virus, we will notify you and return to online therapy.

As you can see, we are taking your health seriously. And we are doing it for us too. We want to be able to visit with our grandchildren on our non-workdays and we sure don’t want them infected.

We look forward to working with you.

Paddy and Carole