It’s all about the couple dance. It is NOT about who is right, or who is wrong. I always try to remember I am counselling for the relationship, and that the relationship is my client. Otherwise it is easy to get lost in the individual issues.
It took a long time, maybe 5 years of counselling couples to really be able to see the relationship as the focus, and I find supervisees take some time to stop wanting to “fix” individual issues, rather than work with the couple dynamics. Or the couple dance, as I like to call it. It IS like a dance: she moves this way, he moves that, which causes her to move over there….And so forth.
Most couples who have been together for a while can tell you what their dance is like. They’ll say something like, “Well HE is the one who always comes back to make peace, or break the ice after a fight.” Or “I always go off my head when he says that! And then he gets mad too. It will go on like that for about half the day.” So the dance is the clue when counselling couples.
But for you, as the couple therapist, you must keep your eye on each person in the room, but not losing track of who does what, and when. And then to be curious about why…. It is your job to help the clients get to the bottom of the reasons for doing the stuff they do automatically, and sometimes like a broken record. So you slow it down, you help them spell it out.
Then it can get a bit scary.
Because what happens then is you explore the thoughts and the feelings that drive the dance. And most human beings feel a bit vulnerable when you look at this stuff. It’s a bit crazy though. Because the main reason people become a couple is because they felt close, and intimate, and connected at the beginning of the relationship. They felt safe. At home. Then life happened. Hurts occurred. Imperfection became apparent. Misunderstandings and power battles happened. All normal. But no one seems prepared for that. And then they come to counselling and you give them the opportunity and safety to get real about the painful bits, the not-so satisfying-you-are-a-bitch/bastard bits.
Yep. People can get a bit heated as you uncover the layers of “But you were meant to meet all my needs” disappointments. And your job is to hold all that. To make use of the messiness of fractured communication, broken promises and shattered dreams. To make sweet compost from the rotting fruit of months or years of hurt. Your job is also to help clarify if hope is possible. Not to rescue, or decide for them what is best. You do need to keep them safe, and sometimes that means working a bit differently, but still it is the couple’s work, not yours.
You get to keep moving back and forth in a way that helps two people to get real again, and then to see if they want to rebuild. Or grow in a new way. All of that requires you, the therapist, to respect and honour that each person is doing the best they can, usually. You might get frustrated, angry or sad. You might swing between relief and grief, hope and horror. But you will need to “hold” what happens in the room: for them and for you. And you will need to stay with the relationship, not having loyalty to one partner over another. We’re back to the dance!
I have found that focussing on the dance is the foundation of most couple work. So this post is the foundation of other posts which will follow, and they will build on that premise. Meanwhile, watch out for patterns. Respect them. Get curious. Don’t blame. Sometimes toes get trodden on but dance lessons can make most people move a little better….