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Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples
10 CEUs Separation Counseling: Brief Interventions for Divorcing Couples

Section 12 (Web #26)
Three Skills Needed for Couplework

Question 26 | Test | Table of Contents | Couples CEU Courses
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

A Growing Need
But you don't have to be an expresident to be in a difficult jam in your relationship or to get tremendous benefit from couple counselling. Such stories are not exceptional in couplework, and it promises to be one of the most rapidly growing fields for counsellors, for three reasons. The first is that intimate relationships are — and always will be — incredibly challenging for anyone; but currently, couples have lost the fear of separating and are now more subject to the fear of staying together.

This leads us to the second reason. Changes can occur faster within an intimate relationship, if it is made 'conscious', because relationships are built from the ultimate creative raw material — sexual energy, the energy that brought us into life at the first place. Relationships are all about life.

The third reason is the universality of so many of the problems that couples face. Although each story is individual, and cultural differences such as nationality, race and sexual orientation clearly have their effect, the unifying factors of problems in relationship are still astonishingly similar across the board. We suggest that, in terms of unconscious conflict as opposed to real-time difficulties such as step-parenting, there are three broad categories of conflict that couples experience. First, the dilemma between power and vulnerability; second, the baggage and styles of relating brought from families of origin; and third, the polarisation between the genders — which takes its toll even in same-sex couples.

A Surfeit of Feeling
It is no wonder then, that Malidoma & Subonfu Somé, psychological teachers from Africa and newcomers to the West, echo another oft quoted Clintonian remark: that it takes a village to support a couple, because 'there is too much spirit in Relationships'. Spirit, they say, is mostly composed of feeling. Acknowledging this surfeit of 'spirit', we are now in a position to understand one of the major differences between individual and couple therapy. This is that in the latter it is almost never necessary to try to evoke emotions. I often advise students to avoid 'feeling' questions altogether! I learned this when working as a divorce mediator (called Family Conciliator) when we had to get agreements, not process. Since I was training in psychotherapy at the same time, I was always seeing emotional process issues and wanting to get stuck into them. But getting process is child's play in couplework — the real skill lies in managing sessions so that couples experience how conflict can be integrated.

The point is that generally there is already too much emotion in the couple — albeit often located in one partner more than the other. It may well be best to address the imbalance and to take time when genuine feelings — grief, regret, empathy, the ones that heal — emerge. But in general you do not need to evoke emotions in the way that may have become second nature as an individual worker, because you could get caught in a trap and/or sabotage the session.

In addition, as we tell our couple-worker trainees, you have to remember who your client is. It is their relationship, and it is not your responsibility to maintain or repair this. It is theirs. The worker's responsibility is to manage the session and help bring unconscious dynamics into consciousness. For example, when process arises in the couple, the more effective thing is to point out the kind of bonding patterns you can see. Bonding patterns are a dynamic of relating between the child part in one partner and the parent part in the other, marked by an escalating power struggle when disowned vulnerability demands protection. This dynamic, which was first named by Winkelman and Stone and further developed in our own book, causes untold damage in relationships and produces patterns that are incredibly resilient and that, over time, grow into a second skin of relating. Made conscious, they can be overcome by cultivating skilful awareness tempered by humour. One of the main reasons that my wife, Helena, and I developed the Dancing in the Dark workshops for couples is that when these patterns come to light in a group setting, people can laugh at themselves, because they see how many other couples have similar and perverse misery-confirming behaviour patterns. Once they start identifying the patterns and stop taking themselves so seriously, they are onto a winning streak.

A further important skill, which does not come up in individual work, is to learn how to stay neutral between two clients who are both competing for your sympathy and your confirmation that the other is wrong. The danger is losing your power by being coaxed into an alliance with the one for whom you feel the most sympathy. 'She's absolutely right, he's not in touch with his feelings at all,' you find yourself thinking. This is difficult stuff, and if you get caught you are lost, because you lose your power. The couple can then eat you alive.

But allowing yourself to consciously bite the baited hook, daring to use the power of the trap itself, allows room for creative interventions, which go very deep. For example: deliberately supporting one partner to effect a change in the power balance. A master of this technique is the post-Jungian, Arnie Mindell[18].

A Light Touch
When done well, creative couplework is definitely rooted in the psychotherapy end of the professional spectrum, but is best when it seems to be done with a very light touch, almost invisibly, so that it seems like basic counselling. This is really skilful relationship psychotherapy. Consequently, we teach our students how to do uncovering work subtly, when it is going to serve the couple by throwing light on their patterns, rather than simply amassing information. Couple counsellors must stay true to the couple's presenting issues, whereas in individual work therapists frequently allow themselves the liberty to roam around many issues, sometimes patiently developing their relationship with the client, sometimes dealing with whatever is presented that day. Coupleworkers do not have that luxury, because very often there is the possibility of separation or divorce if the clients cannot manage their relationship. This intensity can become a burden to the couple worker who ends up wanting to take responsibility for making the relationship work again. While the motivation is understandable, this is a very great trap, which under supervision often reveals itself to be the wish of the child in the worker to keep its parents happy together. But the coupleworker's job is to manage the session, as Whittaker suggests with his phrase 'I'm taking over now.' It's a crucial skill to learn.

As for the psychodynamics of couple work itself, there is again an important distinction from individual therapy: transference is directed less to the worker simply because the two clients are in deep and taxing transference to each other. This involves entirely different dynamics, and means that the use of self — revealing what you yourself have learned both as a professional and as a private person — can be very potent.

But it doesn't mean that the worker should have any less impeccable practice conditions. In fact, even more thought-through boundaries and management procedures are required. Contracting is one of those occasions, which is best accomplished swiftly and professionally at the end of the session but within session time, because couples, out of not wanting to be left alone again with their process, will readily attempt to scupper a smooth ending. But often I will send couples away after a first session without another appointment. This is deliberate; they are not committing to me. They have to commit to their relationship, and I want them to talk together first. It is much better for them to discuss what the session achieved for them, and then to tell me that they want more, rather than for me to immediately attempt to bind them in a therapeutic alliance — because that can end up as my agenda.

Finally, and not to be left out, is the transpersonal dimension to couplework, which contextual couple counsellors employ. One of the great allies we have is the ability to evoke a benign third: the relationship itself, as a separate entity that is more than the sum of two individual people and has its own meaning and purpose. It can be seen as that which contains the soul of the couple, and focuses and reveals its emerging destiny. Sometimes the Third Being can become very mixed up with the actual children, which are what a couple creates on a physical level, and the couple may need to be reminded that there is another being around that needs care and has joy to impart. It is often profoundly helpful for people to realise that they are actually creating something of value together, even if they have no children. If they can put their selfish aims aside, they can imagine what this entity wants them to integrate, to co-create.

When coupleworkers can help couples learn to listen to and follow this voice, ordinary miracles become commonplace.

'It is because of the power that couples bring that the coupleworker has the potential to harness it and work with it creatively. This means that couplework can go deeper than individual work'

'Currently, couples have lost the fear of separating and are more subject to the fear of staying together'
- Duffell, Nick, CPJ: Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal, 14745372, Nov2004, Vol. 15, Issue 9

"Personal Reflection" Journaling Activity #12

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.













Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Chen, S.-Y., Roller, K., & Kottman, T. (2021). Adlerian family play therapy: Healing the attachment trauma of divorce. International Journal of Play Therapy, 30(1), 28–39.

Clyde, T. L., Wikle, J. S., Hawkins, A. J., & James, S. L. (2020). The effects of premarital education promotion policies on U.S. divorce rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 26(1), 105–120.

Weiss, B., Lavner, J. A., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Self- and partner-reported psychopathic traits’ relations with couples’ communication, marital satisfaction trajectories, and divorce in a longitudinal sample. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(3), 239–249.


According to Duffel, what are three important skills needed for couplework? To select and enter your answer, go to the Test.

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