Text: Alejandra Misiolek
In the previous post we discussed why couples always fight over the same things.
In this post we are going to have a look at how couples counselling sessions would look like.
Carol and John, the couple we introduced in the previous post, have been together for 10 years. Their central conflict is John´s feeling he is always going after her and Carol´s feeling of being overwhelmed by him.
- The first couples counselling session is about exploring the dynamic in the context of their relationship. We need to understand how this dynamic has been created, how they both contributed to it and why has it been difficult for them to solve it. In other words, what are the factors that maintain it?
Therapist: How did you meet?
John: we met on a dating app, we went on a date, and we fell in love very quickly, so we started dating.
Carol: Well, it took me some time to fall in love, for me it was a process, I don´t remember it as falling in love at first sight…
Therapist: That´s interesting that you remember it differently, I guess you also experienced it differently.
Carol: I remember not really feeling convinced at the beginning.
Therapist: And what do you think that convinced you to try a relationship with John?
Carol: He was somehow always there, and it was both annoying and comfortable at the same time.
John: Yeah, and I still am, and you never appreciate!
Therapist: John, you seem angry about that. Is that right?
John: It never changed, I never felt like she is really there although we have been married for 10 years!
Therapist: And how do you think that you managed that over those years?
John: I don´t know, I guess trying to make her see that.
Therapist: And how did you try to make her see that?
Carol: If I could interrupt here, I know exactly how. He is either rebuking that or making himself a victim!
Therapist: Ok, and how do you position yourself when you feel he is doing that?
Carol: it makes me feel like I don´t want to be with him and I need my space.
Therapist: So, this is when you withdraw?
Here we can see how we managed, in a nutshell, to see what the central conflict is like and how it has been created.
- After the first exploratory sessions, we start working on the pattern they bring to counselling. One way of approaching it would be through an example of a fight over the same thing.
Therapist: Can we try to have a closer look at an example of a fight that you tend to have?
John: Like yesterday, that Carol said she would come back home at 7pm and she wasn´t back till 9pm and didn´t say anything. And I was waiting for her like an idiot with dinner.
Carol: I already told you that I couldn´t, something urgent popped up at work.
Therapist: Let´s stop here for a moment and have a closer look at what happened. Let´s start with John. How did you feel when Carol was not at home at the time, she said she would be?
John: I felt like here we go again…
Therapist: What do you mean?
John: Like she has done it many times so far.
Therapist: Done what? Come late?
John: yes, but also other things like she doesn’t care.
Therapist: Doesn´t care about what?
John: About me and about what she promised. Like the other day when I asked her to remember to buy milk and she didn’t and I didn´t have breakfast.
Therapist: I understand that it happened on more occasions and that your anger is related to other situation but to simplify the process, let´s try to concentrate only on what happened the other day. So, you say that you felt like she didn´t care and that thought made you feel angry?
Therapist And what did you do about it?
John: I called her like ten times and she didn´t pick up.
Therapist: Ok, I guess that it didn’t help you to feel like she cares, right?
Therapist: And what happened when Carol came back home?
Carol: He shouted at me like crazy and he threw the dinner to the garbage! Like he is a 5-year-old!
Therapist: Carol, we will talk about your perspective in a second. Now, let´s stay with John. I see that you had a strong reaction.
John: Yes, I lost my nerves because I expected her to say sorry and instead, she stayed there paralyzed.
Therapist: Ok, so now let´s have a look at Carol´s perspective. Carol, what happened?
Carol: There was an emergency at work that I had to attend, and I thought John would understand, he is not a child, he can stay home alone, besides, we didn´t have any plans or anything!
Therapist: So when you had to stay at work, you thought it shouldn´t be a problem for him?
Carol: I thought that it shouldn´t but I had a thought that he might get angry, because he always does…
Therapist: Did you think of letting him know?
Carol: I did but I didn’t because I feel pushed, I would so love to feel free and I feel like I don´t have to tell him about every move I make so as not to hurt him, it is unbearable.
Therapist: I sense that part of you didn´t because you wanted to claim your freedom?
Therapist: And when you got back home, how did you feel about John’s waiting for you and the dinner?
Carol: As I said, he behaved like a five-year-old with a tantrum. Moreover, when I saw the 10 missed calls, i felt like I couldn´t breathe!
Therapist: How about we try to understand the perspective of the other person now. Carol, you are saying that you feel like you don´t have space and you feel overwhelmed, is that right?
Carol: Yes, totally.
Therapist: And when you feel this way, what do you tend to do?
Carol: I freeze and withdraw.
Therapist: Like as if you were trying to claim your space?
Therapist: And John, when Carol withdraws, you feel like she doesn´t care about you, is that right?
John: Yes, and it hurts.
Therapist: Carol, can you see that although your withdrawal feels fair and feels like the only thing you can think of to deal with feeling overwhelmed, it triggers John´s feeling of abandonment?
Carol: I guess…
Therapist: You mentioned that he behaves like a 5-year-old. John, does it feel for you as if you were a child again abandoned by your father, like it happened to you?
John: It might.
Therapist: It makes perfect sense that what Carol does triggers these very striong feelings that you shared with us in the session where we talked about your story. But I am also wondering if you can try and see that acting as you do, you are not helping Carol to be more present but just the opposite?
John: I think it makes sense.
Therapist: I am glad you are both making an effort to understand each other´s perspective. It is very important. Do you think you could practice doing it before our next session and we will see together if and how it changes your dynamic?
Was that helpful to see how couples therapy works? Are you interested in trying couples counselling? Find our more here.