Sarah and Mitchell Martin – An illustration of the common relationship issues faced by young millennial couples
Early on a mid-January Saturday, Sarah and Mitchell Martin were each getting started with their plans for the day.
Sarah again caught herself thinking through their ongoing resolution to improve their relationship and increase the amount of quality time they could spend together.
A busy career-oriented couple, Sarah and Mitchell struggled to find the time they needed to connect in a deep way.
Frustration frequently emerged as an unhealthy type of argument filled with resentment and negative statements toward one another. Each had a different idea of what it might look like to work on strengthening their relationship, leaning on attempts to gradually persuade the other to employ their preferred strategy.
After each shared their concerns with close friends, Sarah and Mitchell agreed to pursue couples therapy, something that invoked feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and reluctance for each of them. They struggled to make sense out of how it could be helpful to spend countless hours dwelling on problems rather than simply trying to move forward.
As the first session approached, they realized they had something important in common; it was the nervousness and unpredictability that seemed to grow as the date neared.
What Sarah and Mitchell discovered during their first session on a cloudy February afternoon couldn’t be more different from what they had imagined.
Together, they had concluded that they are more similar than different, bring valuable strengths to their relationship, and had managed to overlook important successes in the midst of preoccupation with problems.
To their surprise, it was these strengths and successes that helped guide them through the journey into their preferred future that therapy became over the next six months.
Shifting the paradigm
Beginning in the late mid-1900s, portrayals of therapy in film and television reinforced the stereotypical image of an unpleasant experience revolving around pathology, complex developmental and relational interpretations, and an overwhelming fixation on early childhood experiences.
This problem-focused view of the therapeutic process is what many families anticipate prior to their first experience in session.
However, what they find there is often quite different.
Solution-focused brief therapy
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) was initially developed by Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer in the late 1970s at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee.
One of several therapeutic modalities developed during a period of discontentment with psychoanalysis, SFBT is a future-oriented approach that targets successes and possibilities rather than past problems.
It values the individual, couple, or family as the expert on their own life circumstances and the therapist as a newcomer who provides support from the sidelines as they learn about the family’s life and preferred future.
SFBT is a goal-focused approach, suggesting that goals are fluid and changing based on the family’s interpretation of their situation, as well as their evolving vision for the future.
The therapist uses a linguistic style known as solution-building to elicit more information about each of these items. Throughout this process, solution-focused therapists employ several techniques to facilitate a search for hidden solutions.
SFBT sessions typically begin with an exploration of what has improved or has gone well since the previous session.
This is referred to as pre-session or intersession change and helps draw our attention to specific times when the problem is not occurring. These times, known as exceptions, serve as powerful tools for identifying individual and family strengths, resilience, and shared interests.
Those strengths act as the foundation of a search for past or present ways of coping that have led to improvement in one of several life domains, such as personal, familial, social, or vocational experiences.
Through scaling questions, the therapist helps family members regularly gauge their current and preferred satisfaction in each domain. Those responses, combined with the exceptions, strengths, and early solutions discovered together, are used to help the family illustrate how they see themselves and their interactions in their preferred future.
A carefully constructed miracle question helps to clarify their preferred future by highlighting what family members might notice if a problem-eliminating miracle secretly happened overnight.
Ongoing feedback, compliments, and recognition of progress by the therapist help empower family members to engage in weekly experiments, which involve taking steps toward the preferred future and reflecting on those steps in session.
Identify the important building blocks for a healthy future
A focus on each family’s desired future, exploration of their unique solutions, emphasis on times when the problem does not occur, and an empowering linguistic approach help SFBT stand out among related types of therapy as a strength-based option for families seeking a future-oriented therapeutic experience.
Much like other postmodern therapeutic modalities, SFBT values subjective experience, personal narratives, and strengths as important building blocks for a healthy future.
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More by Andrew J Wilton