I think the short answer is, “It depends on the couple”. No two couples share the same match of personalities, the same relationship and family history, the same life events, the same working lives. A good counsellor is flexible and adapts the way they work to their clients’ needs.
However, the most important part of the relationship counsellor’s work is to listen. Many couples who sit down in my counselling room have long ago stopped listening to each other. My job is to make sure that each partner feels listened to and that I, at least, understand where they are coming from. It doesn’t mean I have to agree, or even like what they are saying, but the counselling room is the one place where every client should feel heard, and that their thoughts are valued.
Couples come to counselling because they are in crisis: whether they find it impossible to talk without arguing, or retreat into hurt silence instead, they have lost the ability to communicate openly and as friends. My role is to ‘hold’ the couple so that they feel safe to talk to each other. I provide a ‘safe place’ where they can say how they are feeling and what they need from their partner. Couples who are unhappy find it hard to ‘soothe’ each other, to soak up the other’s hurt. The counselling room is a place where emotions can be expressed safely in a non-judgmental space.
A big part of effective counselling is about helping a couple to find ways to talk to each other again. Many clients expect their partner to be able to read their mind – they can’t, and it takes time and practice to have the confidence to say what they need openly. Couples make harsh comments and hurl insults when they are unhappy and some lose all sense of what it’s not okay to say. Learning to be respectful of each other, even under pressure, is a slow process, and I work to help that happen.
It may sound strange to suggest that a good counsellor is also a bit of a detective. Couples arrive in the counselling room with differing ideas about what is wrong with their relationship – frequently convinced that ‘their other half’ is what’s wrong – but the personality of their partner is often only a small part of the picture. Clients don’t give enough weight to the effects of a different upbringing, the baggage of previous relationships, the stress of challenging life events. It’s a big part of my work to help them to bring to light all the factors which are causing their problems. I care about my clients, but I need to stand outside the emotion and reflect on what’s really going on for them.
I hope that I help couples develop the ability to step outside their relationship too, and look at their own role in it. We can only change ourselves. We can’t change our partner. It’s only when we understand what pushes our own buttons, and why, that we can start to change how we act – and that changes how our partner reacts. I need to give clients the confidence to express what they need in a way their partner can relate to and accept.
And that will be the focus of my next blog.