Family History within the Relationship:
Each person brings to the relationship the history of the
family they grew up within. This history includes their role
within the family unit, imparted value systems, messages
around gender roles, positive experiences and traumas. It is
each person’s responsibility to educate the other
regarding their family history so that misunderstandings are
minimized and the two together can make conscious decisions
entailing the life view and values they would like to
establish for their new family unit. Sometimes, the influence
of the history is not clear cut. It is the therapist’s job to
help the couple
understand how their individual backgrounds are
impacting on the relationship, promote compassion, and help
the couple clarify what they would like to occur within their
family. Sometimes, this involves the use of questionnaires and
assignments to help the individuals ascertain the much needed
information to illicit change. Once the couple arrives at
agreements, the next step is to implement strategies to
sustain the unique relationship they have defined.
Relational Patterns: Couples evolve
relational patterns, modes of interacting, based on
cultural/family background, birth order and personality. While
these differences or similarities in approaching life may have
been what initially attracted you to the other person over
time they may become limiting or non-productive. The hope in
any relationship is that both individuals learn and grow
together and from one another. Below are three typical
patterns couples adopt. In therapy the objective is to help
the couple achieve a more balanced means of interacting
with one another. Initially, this requires assessment on the
therapist and couple’s part as to the pattern the couple has
adopted. This often becomes apparent via observation of the
interactions during the course of counseling sessions or the
couple’s report of their relational style. Once the pattern
has been identified the therapist can make suggestions as to
how each individual can modify their own behavior and support
changes in their partner. This process takes time and
patience. Old habits die hard.
Approach/Avoidance or Distancer/Pursuer:
In this pattern one person, the pursuer, takes the lead in
coming forward to bring up issues, press for resolution of
problems, and often initiates the family schedule/running of
the household. There is a need on this individual’s part not
to let anything slide, they do not fear conflict but instead
may experience anxiety that things will fall between the
cracks and hence life will unravel. They assume more
responsibility within the relationship than is necessary or
healthy. The distancer typical avoids dealing with issues
head on. They tend to wait for things to resolve themselves.
These individuals dislike conflict. Their approach is less
hurried and more pragmatic than their partners. They may
openly admit they procrastinate. The objective here is to
help the pursuer temper their anxiety, ask for deadline
dates from their partner, and encourage their partner’s
input. The distancer’s job is to learn to come forward and
initiate conversation, take responsibility for activating
change, and voice his/her opinions and preferences.
Approach/Approach or Pursuer/Pursuer:
In this pattern both people have a need to assert themselves
in determining the parameters of the relationship, how
problems are solved, what takes priority, and what is best
for their family. Both individuals have a need to be to
be heard, see things get done promptly, and be “right.”
The often results in a standoff in terms of accomplishing
objectives and arriving at solutions as each individual
struggles to be recognized, appreciated and valued within
the relationship. They mistakenly believe this happens when
their way is the chosen way. The objective is to help the
couple express their appreciation and valuing of each other
in another way other than struggling. The therapist helps
the couple learn negotiation skills and the value of
compromise. Sustaining and enhancing the relationship
becomes as equally important as the needs of the individual.
In this pattern both people avoid the tasks of the
relationship whether it be financial issues, allocation of
household jobs, discussion of feelings, personal goals, or
family values. Neither one is comfortable with conflict or
expressing their needs. Things just seem to happen. While
this does not result in a satisfying relationship; often one
of parallel lives, the couple does not have the skills or
role modeling from their families as to how to address
problems as they arise or communicate their desires or
wishes. In therapy it is the therapist’s role to help the
couple learn communication skills, facilitate discussion of
feelings, and help the individuals within the relationship
to define their personal needs and wants. The couple’s job
is to learn how to talk and listen, and tolerate
their initial discomfort and anxiety while mastering new
Communication Patterns (non-productive):
Each individual comes into a relationship with their own
personal style of communicating. Some of these patterns were
learned within their nuclear family while others were adapted
as a means of coping over the years. Within the relationship
these means of communicating can become restrictive and even
damaging. The therapist works with the couple to identify
their individual/personal communication style. The next
step is for each person to take responsibility for curbing
their old behavior and employing new communications skills
as suggested by the therapist or requested by their partner.
Below is a list of common non-productive communication
Too little information, being vague.
Not listening, interrupting.
Too much information, overwhelming the
Making assumptions, placing your feelings
Bringing up past history.
Focusing on the other person’s behavior
rather than your feelings and behavior.
Using attacking language, talking in
absolutes (“always” or “never”).
Mindreading, expecting the other person
inherently knows what you need or want.
Not asking for the information or
clarification that you need.
Being defensive, needing to be the
Communication Skills (productive):
One of the primary reasons couples seek out counseling is to
enhance their communication skills. They know something is
wrong, but not quite sure what it is or what they need to do
instead. With the fast growing changes in our lives and
current expectations we have of achieving healthier
relationships there is a growing need and desire to learn
how to communicate in a more effective, respectful, caring
manner. The therapist works with the couple via education,
role modeling, and support in employing productive
communication skills. Below is a list of valuable
Clarity, providing relevant information
in a straight forward manner.
Being present focused, what is happening
in the here and know.
Receptive/Reflective listening, not being
defensive, interrupting, sensitive to other person’s
Asking questions, clarification,
genuinely curious about the other person’s view.
Speaking from your viewpoint, taking
responsibility for your actions and feelings, “I
Expressing your needs and want, do not
expect others to read your mind.
Taking a problem solving approach, life
Negotiating and Compromise, flexibility
and desire for “win-win” outcome.
Respectful language, come from a place of
Timing, enough time, appropriate place
for conversation, and clear headset.
* The format for couples counseling
sessions consists of an initial meeting with the couple to
review their concerns. Then I may schedule one or two
individual sessions with each person to gain insight into
their personal history and family background before bringing
the couple back to together to proceed with their objectives