Sometimes when a couple comes in for marital counseling they both, on some level, (and perhaps only unconsciously) want the counselor to take their side and help them change their spouse. This is an interesting dynamic and one which, if I succumbed to, would actually not be good for either spouse or for their marriage. So what I seek to do is tricky: I seek to be on everyone’s side, and also no one’s side. What I mean is that I seek to be there for both spouses individually, but also be there for the marriage.1
This is what makes marital counseling significantly more complicated than individual counseling. In individual counseling there is, by definition, only one client and I am there solely for them. However, with couples counseling I am there for each individual, but I am also there for the couple (which at times in the counseling process might feel like I am there for neither of the spouses). It is very much a “both/and” dynamic.2
Sometimes when a couple comes in for counseling there is enough tension, hurt feelings and pain that it is difficult to make much progress towards healing with both parties present. When this is the case I usually see them each individually while working towards being able to do constructive marital sessions in the future. This can be confusing and/or downright uncomfortable for couples at first because it can feel like the opposite of why they are coming to therapy: “You’re supposed to help us fix our relationship! How can we do that if you’re seeing us separately?” or “I thought you were going to help my spouse change ___________ . Why do you want to see me?”
Spouses do truly hurt each other and at times there clearly is a “guilty party”, but the nature of how relationships work is such that even if the injuring party makes drastic changes, if the injured party does not also make changes there is a high likelihood that things will eventually return to old, harmful patterns. A classic example of this is the area of alcohol addiction treatment. The counseling field has learned that helping someone become and stay sober is not just about that individual’s addiction. There are also family dynamics that play a part in whether or not the alcohol addict continues in their sobriety. This is another both/and area. The alcohol addict is responsible for their behavior, and yet they are effected by others who have responsibility for their own behaviors. As you can imagine in the area of marital difficulties, this can get tricky.
Part of what can be so hard for spouses is that they can think that if there is something that might be good for them to change then they must be doing something wrong. The reality is, the choices that one has been making thus far are often fine morally but in the context of this particular relationship it can be more enjoyable and helpful for both parties if some changes are made. This relates to one of the core principles of how I approach couples counseling: I don’t believe that either spouse has to be the “bad” one. It has been my experience that most behaviors, including hurtful ones, do not have as their ultimate goal the hurting of the other. Usually our hurtful behaviors are attempts to bring about things that are genuinely good for us such as being safe, accepted, loved, etc. However, this does not change the fact that the action was hurtful. When we have harmed another we must work to be able to genuinely apologize and in some cases make restitution. But if we do not learn what is the underlying “good thing” that we are aiming for with our hurtful behavior we’ll never learn a better way of filling our needs and we’ll stay stuck in patterns of relating that hurt others and ourselves.
- Photo by Ed Yourdon. ↩
- Both/and is a term I am familiar with from theology. It refers to concepts that can seem in tension or opposition to each other, but yet are still true. For example, “God is sovereign, and we also make our own choices”. In reference to couples work we could say, “that I am here for both spouses and I am here for the couple”. There is a tension there, but these are not mutually exclusive goals. ↩