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.]

A+B=C (The Downward Slope)

This is an old psychology formula that makes good sense. “A” is the Activating event or the trigger that gets stuff rolling. “B” is the Belief system or judgment(s) that makes things worse (or possibly better, depending on your beliefs). “C” is the Consequence or outcomes.

This is how the formula works. Mostly the A or activating event (the thing that triggers you) just happens. You can’t control most circumstances and you are not immune to being hurt or upset. It is the B or belief system that produces the C or consequence.

Here is an example from a couple I saw a couple of weeks ago. The male partner was enraged for what he experienced the weekend just prior. This is the A – what he thought his wife did to him. He accused her of shaming him in front of his friends at a really fun party. This is the B – that he felt judged and that he should not be. The C was his rage and hurt and his spiteful behaviour for days following.

This is what went on: she asked him not to drink any more beer that night. He was getting pretty loud and acting “drunk-ish,” she said. She was worried by his disinhibition: flirting, bragging, over-laughing. She asked him quietly to stop the beer, she said. He thinks she publicly shamed him.

A bit later in the session, I asked about his thought processes and what triggered him. “I don’t need her to control me. She is not so perfect. I like to loosen up with my friends. She is so uptight.” That is the B or the belief systems that fueled his fire.

The B (or belief system) produced the C (or consequence) of several days of his swearing and anger, and spitefully threatening a divorce. Her C was to disappear from his sight, visit with her friends in the evenings, make him a Nespresso in the morning.

Here is what I said: “Your problem might be beer – I don’t know that – but it certainly is your belief system. You think that your partner is ruining your life. Where did you get that idea from?”

It still surprises me how hard we hold on to our unhelpful convictions. He needed to be right. He needed her to be wrong. He needed me to validate his narrative.

And then he saw it, reluctantly and thoroughly. He said, “I guess if I didn’t feel ‘small’ with her, I could have handled this differently. Maybe not right away but certainly within a couple of hours.” He apologized to her. She gladly accepted.

Now the therapy begins. He has to sort through his bloated belief system and find out something truer about himself and his partner. (More to come.)

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

Bark, Bitch and Belittle: the bitterness of microaggressions in intimate relationships

A microaggression is a term used for commonplace verbal or behavioural indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any person or group. That’s part of what Wikipedia says, and I believe it because I see it.

But mostly microaggressions are unseen by the aggressor. It is just what happens and no one stops to look at it. There is no interruption or time out. So the bitterness just carries on because it is viewed as ordinary.

Oftentimes, to end the bitterness, one or both will attempt an apology. Apologies are often superficial, social constraints. (I have written about how to apologize in another posting.) Mostly, as I see it, the attempt at an apology maintains the structure of continuing microaggressions.

This is what I see. A husband has been barking (shouting), bitching (criticizing) and belittle-ing (demeaning) his partner of 7 years. And it is unremitting and it has become the background to everything that goes on between them. And then something happens: she has an affair or an emotional breakdown. And she is impugned to be promiscuous, or weak, or her having faulty genetic wiring.

Then the triangle happens. The community (family, church, neighbourhood, etc.) colludes with the barker, rallying against the weaker member. The community offers reprobation and saccharine consolation in about equal measure. Oftentimes, the actions of the community push her back into acquiescing to her bully spouse. If she does not comply, she will be further judged or ostracized or perhaps hospitalized.

I love my job. I get to see what others can’t. I get to see through the eyes of the bully what he or she sees and I get to show him another way of seeing and being. And I get to see through the eyes of the bullied and see hopefully and realistically what can change.

Someone once said, “I see men as trees walking,” as if she sees “through a glass darkly.” It is good to help people look again and, perhaps, see for the first time.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]