Couple’s counseling is a delicate maneuvering of a relationship from an undesired state to a desired state. Sounds simple enough. But how a couple gets to this desired place and what this desired place will look like is not so simple.
Ideally, the couple would agree upon common goals and set a plan in place to work together toward these goals. Ironically, the couple is likely in counseling because they have not been able to find mutually satisfying common goals and their “team work” is riddled with dissention. One or both partners find themselves feeling powerless to change the situation in a positive way.
For this reason, it is necessary to make some adjustments to the ideal journey in order to fit the couple’s current ability, readiness, and willingness. This is where it can be helpful to first work with couples on differentiating how each person is going to contribute to the growth of the relationship and how they are going to maintain their progress despite the potential lack of progress on the part of their partner.
The Serenity Prayer says it best: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
When each person can come to terms with the fact that they cannot control or change their partner, they can begin asking,
“Given how my partner is currently behaving, how can I take care of myself so that what I bring to the relationship is constructive and influential in a positive way?”
Each person must learn how to accept their partner (remember that “for better, for worse” line in your vows?), and address the areas in their own life where they are allowing their partner’s behavior or attributes to cause undue bother. This requires that each person increase their individual coping skills in order to deal with the current state of the relationship.
Three main coping skills for dealing with an unhealthy relationship include:
- boundary setting/keeping
- and self-soothing.
Let’s use an example to grasp the concept:
Teresa and John have attended several marital counseling sessions. Teresa has been bothered by John’s lack of progress because he does not engage in therapy homework outside of session. She buries her distress inside because she does not think John is a safe person with whom to share her concerns. After a few days, she explodes at John when he asks her where the television remote is.
Teresa listens to a guided imagery tape daily and uses deep breathing to remain calm throughout the week. She brings her concern up to John and her counselor in session. A discussion ensues. John explains that he did not attempt to do the therapy homework because he did not understand exactly how to do it, which made him feel stupid. The counselor clarifies the instructions and helps the couple further understand how to practice outside of session. Teresa asks John if he will initiate their mutual homework outside of session, and he agrees.
It is not forgotten that some individuals must set temporary, and sometimes permanent, boundaries with their partner in order to protect their own physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual safety. However, if one deems that it is possible to safely remain in the relationship, one must ask how they can do this in a productive way.