Couples counselling: what’s the point?

Is there anything I can do or say?

Not everyone responds to the same channel of communication. If one half of a couple feels loved by someone doing the washing and hanging it out according to the weather and their partner feels loved when expressed in touch, hugs and hand holding, it is important we behave in ways that enliven the loving attachment.

Yet couples often arrive in relationship therapy with confusion and bewilderment about why they are even together at all. Sometimes they really have left it to the last chance saloon and their first and only consultation is to declare ‘been there and tried that and its over!’

When a couple sit down (in their separate chairs) in the office, the necessity is to orientate them into their own body and acknowledge their adult independence and autonomy. Just one choice at a time that is a new or different and a conscious decision to feel it is acceptable to be separate may interrupt the fight/flight for space battle.

I have helped couples notice that the unconscious ‘picking’ of an argument often serves a purpose to gain a separate space for refuelling. The problem is that in gaining space through discord and estrangement the autonomic nervous system is still in negative arousal and the cognitive process leads to thoughts of justification. This can sabotage the space of renewal and simultaneously become fuel on the burning fire of resentment.

When the couple do sidle into the same room, the energy is about defensive and attacking communications. The reactive momentum is directed at criticism, judgment and justification. The body may be aversive to touch or screaming silently to be comforted and held. Something needs to change.

So the two people learn how to be in the same room (practising this in the office) being in their own body and taking responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and action – without blaming the other person. Separateness is vital.

It begins with the breath. Before either person begins their line of attack or is rigid in their seat with anxiety that they are about to be blamed, the breath is the key to changing state. Mostly couples are perplexed that I invite them to take the attention off the conflict and onto their own state of being, right here, right now.

A couple of people in conflict meeting with a therapist are likely to be flooding with adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones. There is zero benefit to be gained by putting them on the starting grid of who can convince me, the therapist that you have been wronged the most!

“Im angry and my chest hurts and I cannot sit still” may take several sessions to achieve which is very different from “I’m furious and its your fault because you did ……” !

The breath is first noticed. Nothing is changed. The feet are grounded on the floor, with equal weight and so the knees are above the ankles. There is the releasing of any unnecessary tension from the thighs and the back is supported all the way up to the back of the neck for the head to feel supported.

Next the individual can count inwardly to notice the easy flowing in-breath and out-breath and if there is any difference in the inhalation and exhalation without changing it.

Why this emphasis on arriving, separate chairs and noticing one’s own breath? Simply, it is to remind or demonstrate to the individual that the only control they have is the influence they each have of their own thoughts, feelings and actions.

Learning how to de-escalate requires self awareness and compassion. Every person in a relationship has learned how to be so from their earliest beginnings. We repeat or rebel against this. There are inner world templates that have been formed from thousands of minutes of interaction before we can remember and before our language developed. What we have assimilated is how transmission patterns of attachment behaviours were created even before we were born to our parents.

Inter-generational patterns shape our brain function and our behaviours. The environment of people and place can trigger changes in our genes. Session 1 – first point of contact relationally, in the office, is awareness of difference! There will be different levels of physiological stress markers dependent upon personal history for each individual. The positive emphasis in therapy is the brain’s neuroplasticity and how relevant it is that change is possible.

As neurons that fire together wire together, there needs to be intention and actions that are repeated which bring different and positive outcomes. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tests out beliefs and validates that personal responsibility is effortful and brings results. In couples therapy which results are valued?

We can learn/earn good social connections and healthy intimate relationships and it will take time. Epigenetic research now indicates it can be two generations of effortful change. Someone has got to start moving from threat to basic trust of reliability and repair and resilience which enables secure attachment.

I was at an evening social dance and several of the people that had asked me onto the dance floor were skilled at doing the moves and yet did not make eye contact. When I mentioned this, the level of discomfort was too much for three out of four dance partners. The fourth was quick to retort ‘so you want to feel special do you?’ My answer was a resounding and unembarrassed ‘yes’.

So how can a couple who are struggling recalibrate begin to change habitual ways of behaving towards each other?

John Gottman is an acclaimed couples therapist researcher and clinician and has micro analysed interactions of couples, bringing to light profound insights. At the most basic level, there needs to be in words (of communication), five positive praise/affirming/complementary phrases to two negative statements. Of course the sky is the limit on finding the positive. Are British couples reticent and reserved, shy, lazy, ignorant or plain scared of praising their partner ?

Whatever the couple’s shared history, there is a necessity to pay attention to how the individual constructs their values and beliefs about closeness, intimacy and separateness.

In dynamic change couples work, there are many creative tasks we do in the office and in ‘homework’ so that the couple identify their change and prime the brain for looking for improvements and not just more of the same. Divorce will always remain an option but is does not have to be a foregone conclusion. Contact BodyMindTherapy Clinic if you’re interested in how couples therapy may be able to help you.

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