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Section 11 (Web #25)
Managing warring couples is not for the faint-hearted, says Nick Duffell. When the client is a relationship, therapists need to harness the energy that is flying around the room and be able to work creatively with it
I like working with couples. I like the immediacy, I like the intensity and I like the fact that, given the right amount of skill, willingness and grace, you can help change things for the benefit of a whole family, sometimes in very few sessions. But I know that not all counsellors and therapists feel comfortable seeing couples. I still remember the feelings of total inadequacy I had when, several years ago, armed with my newlywon counselling diploma, I started at a high-street counselling centre in a suburban town and faced my first couple. (Unknown to me, most requests for therapy at the clinic were for couple counselling.) Although I had been well trained to take on a person's internal conflict or their lack of meaning in life, I was sorely tested when faced with a real live couple's heated conflict, in what I had hoped would be an ambience of reason in my consulting room.
Another illusion shattered! I had to learn on my feet — and fast. I don't know how I achieved it, but I still remember my first success with a couple, when one day, as I was leaving work, a man in a white van hooted at me in the traffic and said, 'You saved my marriage, mate!' Of course I didn't, but I had helped him and his wife not to feel utter failures, and I gave them some context for why things were going wrong between them. I had encouraged them to begin to think about what they were trying to achieve as men and women that was similar or different from their parents, and I gave them some basic tools for handling their disagreements. They made the commitment to save their marriage, and together we made the first steps a reality. The fact that I myself was undergoing a painful divorce helped me to have empathy, but I also felt a bit of a fraud sitting on this side of the couch. Eventually, that shame led me to seriously question what being a couple really entailed, to do lots of reading and attending workshops, and finally to get some more relevant training. I became a couple therapist.
But perhaps the outstanding difference, and the one that causes many therapists to avoid couple work, is very simply this: that a couple is such a powerful entity. Generally, couples present for counselling full of disappointment, wracked with emotions, plagued by acting out, torn apart by conflict, or utterly stuck. It can be quite a handful to have that in your nice peaceful therapy room.
However, as in many things, the nature of the problem contains the seeds of its own solution. The power of the couple means that couple-workers have to apply more powerful interventions than they may be used to in individual work. Some counsellors, particularly those from the person-centred end of the spectrum, struggle with this. Often it seems that they are being asked to be too penetrative, and — having developed a style that is mostly receptive — this goes against the grain. But consider this very strong statement from master family therapist Karl Whittaker: 'With couples, one is usually being the patient and one the therapist and every once in a while, they'll flip round and go the other way. I'll tell them, "This worked out fine during the first period of your marriage, but now you've got to an impasse, you're locked, just the way a therapist and his patient often get. And I'm taking over. You're just a couple of amateurs and you've failed.'"
A Normalising Intervention
He normalises their good intentions for conflict and maintains that couples need and deserve help in this process. He normalises that, when they were first in love, the powerful forces of attraction meant that they were being their best and did not notice the human faults of the other, nor what they had projected onto their partner. It is a deeply human but very powerful intervention.
It is precisely because of the power that couples bring that the coupleworker has the potential to harness it and work with it creatively. This means in fact that couplework can actually go much deeper than individual work. Moreover, since relationships are generally replete with disowned and projected elements from each partner, the therapist — being just outside the system — is well placed to see, while the protagonists, presenting in their relationship rather than their individual selves, find it much harder to hide. Following these leads, the couple worker can encourage relevant and useful information to emerge at the right time to explain previously baffling disappointments, expectations and impasses. So couple work can also go much faster than individual work.
In his recently published autobiography, ex-US president Bill Clinton claims to have repaired his marriage, to have discovered the root conditions that motivated his catastrophic acting-out, and to have put his life on an entirely new footing — simply through undergoing several months of couple therapy.
“Personal Reflection” Journaling Activity #11
The preceding section contained information regarding couples at war. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice. Affix extra paper for your Journaling entries to the end of this Manual.
What does Whittaker define as the “first, powerful tool of couplework?” To select and enter your answer, go to the Answer Booklet.
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