There is a broad range of how therapists do couples counseling. This will answer how I do therapy. I’ve divided this up in several parts to answer the question from different angles: metaphor, structural, and concrete interventions.
In therapy with me, you will engage in a practice. Just like throwing a football isn’t intuitive for most people, doing the hard work of relationship repair may also not be intuitive. Society tells us we should “just know” how to do relationships. Movies tell us how falling in love “works”. They rarely talk about staying in love. They definitely don’t talk about repairing wounds. I’m here to tell you that it takes practice.
Here is my metaphor for couples therapy: As we meet in the room and you understand more about each other’s intentions, a window of possibility opens up on the wall, showing what could be in your future. In the small window you see a scene of a sunny, verdant meadow with the smell of wild flowers and the sounds of birds chirping. You long to be surrounded by it.
After some time of learning how to listen deeply to each other, you’ll wonder if both of you can walk out into the meadow yourselves. Then you’ll realize that the window isn’t a window- it’s a door. And you’ll be excited to walk out the door with your spouse or partner and then it’ll rain. You’ll come back disappointed, and I’ll say,”It’s okay. Let’s find out what happened.” Then we’ll work some more, then you’ll say,”Hey, let’s go out again!” Then you’ll have a good 5 minutes! You’ll come back and say,”Yay! We had a good 5 minutes!” and come back and we’ll talk about what worked and what didn’t work. Eventually, you’ll go out into your future together and never have to return.
The first three meetings will be structured. If you need affair recovery, that will happen prior to couples counseling. Here are the stages:
First meeting - I’ll ask you what’s been happening with you, and where you guys seem to get stuck. I’ll try to understand what your fighting pattern is (that includes if you get stuck giving each other the silent treatment). Then, I’ll ask what the precipitating event that told you,”You should go to therapy.” Finally, I’ll ask about your origin story. Because even though you’re here to heal wounds, it’s the love between you that you want to restore. I want to hear about that important piece.
Between the first and second meetings, I’ll have you answer questionnaires. There is an online questionnaire that lets me know what is going on with you. I’m parachuting into your relationship and I don’t know how you’re feeling about each other. This will help me minimize surprises.
The second meeting will have 3 parts. I’ll meet with each of you individually to go over the results of your inventory, then I’ll go over some family history questions. Then I’ll ask you about goals you have for the therapy. Then in the last 10 minutes, I’ll talk to both of you about your shared goals.
The 3rd meeting is where everything begins. If I don’t have a good idea of how you fight, I’ll ask you to reenact a fight of moderate intensity. But by this time, I’ll usually have some idea of how you fight, so I’ll ask you both where the most painful or stuck places are. We’ll start the counseling there.
I’m an interventional couples counselor. My couples counseling is very different than my individual therapy methods. Here’s what it means in a nutshell:
I intervene to generate safety in the relationship so that people can access vulnerable emotions. Both of you spewing anger at each other isn’t productive, so I help people talk about ways in which you are hurt.
I help you make sense of the pattern of behavior that both of you are in. Every couple that comes in has a fighting pattern. You’ll have one too. Knowing that pattern will eventually help you stop it before it happens.
Generate clarity. Both of you probably have things going on inside that aren’t understood by your partner. I help you divulge those things, whether they’re feelings or an understanding of the world. This is an important piece so both of you can grapple with what’s in front of you in a real way.
I help you orient to each other. Sometimes, with anger flying so fast and furiously, you may not realize that your partner isn’t actually mad sometimes. Or you may be suspicious when they say nice things. Looking them in the eyes may help you orient and really know what they intend.
I help you calm your systems. It probably doesn’t surprise you to know that being pissed doesn’t help abate the arguing. I’ll help you calm your own selves as well as calm the space in between you two.
I’ll help you listen deeply. What does that mean? Listening deeply means that you’re intending to understand what your partner means when they’re speaking. You’re not thinking about your next comeback while they’re talking. You’re asking questions. You’re open to understanding.
I’ll help you ask for what you need without getting triggered. This is a later stage. When you are able to calm, listen deeply, and do all of the things above, you’ll be ready to do this.
If you’re in the Western Twin Cities area and you have questions about couples counseling, feel free to call me at: 612-230-7171. or Contact Me. For more about Marriage / Couples Counseling, please go to my page on Marriage Counseling.