One of the hallmarks of marriage and family counseling is the idea that everything is connected. When a family is in a stressful situation, the stress might rear its head as a child acting out, as a relationship in turmoil, siblings fighting, or it can emerge in any other sort of relationship or individual. Further, when something is affecting the couple or marriage, it will likely affect any children or individuals from the family of origin.
This sort of interconnectedness is often called “systems” thinking or theory. Troubles go up and down, left and right in the hierarchy of the family, and it only follows then that coming around to support the family in therapy should include a multi-pronged approach.
When I work with couples and families, often they come in trying to say who the problem is, rather than what the problem is. In most instances, anything somebody has done can be boiled down to a symptom of a larger issue within the system.
A lack of affection from one individual might stem from a lack of trust in the relationship on both parts. Someone constantly blaming someone can be the symptom of neither partner listening. Rather than the “problem” residing in one person or the other, I like to frame it as the relationship that needs mending.
When sitting with a couple, I’ll often tell them, “I’m not here to fix you or fix you,” looking to both of them, “but rather I want to work on that space between you two.” I had a professor in grad school who said it best when he said, “In relationships, 1 + 1 = 3, two individuals and a relationship.” Families, not individuals, hold the dysfunction.
If you and your partner or spouse are having relational problems, first of all, welcome to a very large and normal club! Seeking out help for this problem is a sign that a not-insignificant part of you is still heavily invested in this relationship, and that is fertile soil for growth and nourishment. Also, this means that you’re going to have to put in some hard work.
Couples counseling can look very different, depending on what is going on for you, and whether kids, parents, work, larger political stresses, or other factors are involved. So many factors can affect you as an individual and your relationship.
Further, navigating these stressors when you and your partner are not getting along can be extra challenging, and having a counselor come in and help you navigate that space between you two can be the first step towards improving your relationship. Depending on the counselor, your sessions can look very different.
In general, you can think of couples and family counseling as going from two different angles. First of all, are you in such a hard spot that you need immediate skills to deescalate the situation? This is often the case when couples first step into my office. It is not far off to say that couples often would have been better off coming in six months to a year earlier.
The thought of entering couples counseling can be very humbling, but know that so many couples benefit from it and so many have gone through it! That old married couple that gets along so well and functions like a well-oiled machine? They’ve definitely had their bumps along the way, and likely have gone into counseling at some point as well. That might be part of the reason they’re working as a team so well today! So once you’ve decided to come in, we may need to give you some tools to try and make things smoother in the short term. However, this likely just clears some of the debris from recent fights and struggles to be able to get at some of the root causes.
Rebuilding the House
At this point, I want you to imagine a house. This house represents your relationship you’ve built with your partner. Maybe the roof is leaking, there’s some plumbing issues, and it could use a fresh coat of paint. Or maybe the damage is more severe; walls are leaning, windows are broken, and the foundation is cracked or non-existent. Perhaps a tornado has come through and completely demolished the house entirely.
You look around at what used to be, and you wonder how things ever got this bad. You can see the pieces of what used to build up your house, but many of those are broken and scattered about. Okay, so maybe that’s a little dramatic and you’re not that bad off (or maybe you are – I don’t know!), but the idea is that couples come in at various different points in their relationship.
Sometimes I’m a plumber and fix some pipes, sometimes I’m helping you construct a whole new house. If you’re coming in and everything is a mess, doing some little things to help deescalate the situation will give you the capacity to clear out the debris.
Before you start working on rebuilding the house together, you’ll need to figure out how to clean up together first. Once this is done, you can move onto the foundation. We’ll look at it and decide what repairs it needs. Or maybe the problem we find is that you built a house on no foundation in the first place, and you set about building two different types of houses from the get go that could never stand up together. Either way, what we can do is work together to build a new foundation that is stronger than ever.
Rebuilding the foundation of relationships can be a painful experience, to put it bluntly. Another metaphor for this is first aid vs. surgery. First aid has its place – out in the field, you need to be able to make it back to the hospital to have surgery done. However, once we’ve cleared the debris and gotten you ready for surgery, surgery involves cutting in and digging out the gunk.
In my experience, the gunk often involves deep-seeded attachment needs that are not being met. Just as we attach to our parents as children, we seek out a partner we trust and can hold onto. Along the way, some things can affect this attachment and cause distrust. Emotions, then, become the sea we swim in and are what we can work with. Often times, anger is the main emotion being expressed, but under that is an underlying hurt or sadness.
Couples and marriage counseling involves brining up these emotions, unpacking them, seeing where they came from, and acknowledging them in yourself and in your partner. At that point, then, you can work towards creating a new pattern of relating that fosters the growth of positive emotions. Once we’ve dug out the gunk of the negative, we can sew it back up and let the positive grow.
Tips for Right Now in Your Relationship
At this point, this might sound like your relationship. You might be wondering what some of those things are that you can work on right now until you can get in to see a counselor, so I’d like to share a couple helpful tips around language right here.
First of all, remove the “but” from your vocabulary. Often when we are trying to have a discussion with our partners or family members, we will say something like “I love you, but I’m just really mad right now,” or “I can understand where you are coming from, but I need you to hear me out too.”
That little word “but” completely negates everything that comes before it. So rather than softening the blow, it exacerbates it. That first sentence is heard as “I don’t love you and I’m really mad right now” and the second becomes “I can’t understand you, understand me!”
In reality, this is not your intention, and again that space between has caused a problem in communication of your intent. (Note even as I type this, I initially wrote this as “this is not your intention, but rather that space between…” so I just want to acknowledge this is a tough and useful skill to use!)
So something to replace that “but” with? “And” or “also.” That first sentence comes out as, “I love you. Also, I’m really mad right now.” The second becomes “I understand you and I need you to hear me out, too.” This is not our normal go-to in the English language, but this little tweak after a little practice can drastically change the shape and direction of your arguments. Even doing this consciously as a couple, knowing your partner is altering his or her language, softens the way our brains take the message in.
Another little tweak is to restrict your use of the phrase “I feel that….” Feelings are powerful. Feelings are not something that we are allowed to negate. Feelings are a tool we use to try and win arguments. However, feelings are not really feelings when the word “feel” is followed by “that” or “like.” “I feel that you’re not listening to me,” “I feel like you’re holding me back,” “I feel that your mother is not supportive of us.”
Now reading these without any emotional content behind them, they might all sound fine. However, when you say “feel that” or “feel like,” unless you’re following it up with a metaphor for your emotional state (“I feel like a leaf in the wind”), what you’re really saying is a thought or an opinion and conveying to your partner that this something that cannot be negated because you’re wrapping it in a “feeling” rather than a thought.
Further, you’re not giving your partner the ability to truly connect with your emotional experience, either. There are two remedies to this one. One is to simply state that you “think that” rather than “feel that.” This gives more honesty to your thoughts, which are important, too, and allows them to be discussed rather than accepted or rejected. The other is to focus on what the emotion really is behind what you are saying. Looking at the previous examples, alternatives can become “I feel unheard,” “I feel stuck,” and “I feel unsupported.” Note, this also takes the agency out of your partner’s hands and allows them to recognize your own experience without feeling attacked.
With both of these language tips, just the process of trying to change your language will likely have the side effect of making you more careful and less reactionary with your word choice, thereby slowing down arguments and creating space for discussions.
Thus far we have largely talked about what couples counseling looks like and some tips to help you. However, as a couple, you sit in the larger context of your family as a whole as well! Going back to the idea of a multi-pronged approach, helping your relationship will help your family, also helping your family can help your relationship.
I am surprising no one when I say that raising kids is stressful. Between the time, the money, the emotions, and the biology, raising children can cause many stresses. When you’re dealing with those, relational issues can fall by the wayside. Also, your relational issues can cause issues to come out in the children as well. I will often talk to parents of children I work with about how kids are “emotional sponges,” and even if you do a perfect job of never arguing around them, they can pick up on the unsaid things through non-verbal cues and just the way you talk about each other. Family counseling, then, whether that is to help children feel better or to help repair relationships within the family can be immensely beneficial for everyone involved.
Family counseling can often look a lot like couples and marriage counseling as well. Working together, we will start to deescalate the situation at first, then work towards building up the foundations again. Much of the time, people feel unheard and having a third party come in and work with you to give a voice to everyone involved can provide much more closure to long standing issues. In general, people are coming from a good place and somewhere along the way their messages are getting mixed up and muddied, so they are not received well.
So to sum it up – relationships affect families and families affect relationships. Shocking, I know. Sometimes the answer is to do these sorts of therapies together in conjunction, completely surrounding the family with positivity and growth. No one member is usually the issue, but rather the in-betweens and the relationships need improvement. These can be concrete ways of communicating or better understanding the deep-seeded iceberg of emotional content we only express the tip of. By coming into couples and family counseling together, you too can improve your entire family dynamic.
“Field gazing,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Log cabin in the woods,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pexels.com, CC0 License; “Family on a pier,” courtesy of pixabay.com, pexels.com, CC0 License