Couples and Family Counseling

Why is Couples and Family Counseling So Important?

Divorce is widespread and has a significant effect on family, children, and divorced spouses. Knowing this, I have expanded my practice to include couples and family counseling services. Over the last 30 years, 50% of all marriages have resulted in divorce. Yet, this rate has slowed down in recent years. The highest divorce rate was in 1980 when there were 23 divorces for every 1,000 marriages in the United States. In 2014, the divorce rate saw a significant decrease to 17.6 divorces for every 1,000 marriages and then 16.9 in 2015. (Fleicher, 2017).

The effects of divorce can vary from child to child, and a child’s reaction to divorce relates to age of the child. Some children are resilient and can experience divorce as an adjustment rather than a crisis. But, some children have difficulty dealing with the significant changes caused by divorce. They may have a hard time coping with the different parenting styles between mother and father. They may struggle with new living arrangements such as residing in two houses. Going to a different school, leaving old friends and/or making new friends can also create stress. For children, divorce has shown to result in poor academic performance, less social activity, feelings of guilt and anger. It has also results in emotional sensitivity, destruction of property, and loss of faith in the family.

Yet, children of divorce improve when they have had counseling. Individual counseling has been effective with emotional regulation. Counseling groups help develop effective coping mechanisms. This is particularly true when all the children in the group are of the same age or developmental stage. (Beekman, 1986).

What is the Difference Between Couples/Family Counseling and Individual Counseling?

I I find that counseling couples and families is much more challenging than counseling individual clients. But, it is very rewarding because the counseling benefits the individuals, couple, family, and community at large. It is for this reason that I have chosen couples/family therapy as an expertise. In this type of counseling, I work with three entities: each individual and then the couple “relationship” itself. If I am working with a family, then there are even more entities. They include each member of the family as well as the dyad relationships between siblings, parent and child, husband and wife, and the family unit itself. When a couple requests counseling for their family, I communicate that the family cannot effectively function unless the couple themselves can communicate and resolve conflict. Also, the couple will not be able to function or co-parent appropriately unless each adult is emotionally and psychologically healthy. Because of this, I often recommend that the individual receives counseling along with couples counseling (including the parenting sessions) when treating families.

Each type of relationship in the family unit/systems is unique. They have different roles, expectations, and developmental tasks. For example, it may be difficult for a mother and teen to separate when the teen goes away to college. Unconsciously, the mother may have difficulty letting go. She may continue care taking tasks for her adult child or uphold rigid parental rules through the teen years. This prevents the young adult from experimenting with independence. As the teen becomes a college student they may struggle with managing their own self-care (such as cooking, laundry, or money management) or making new friends. This can this cause developmental delays with each family member and problems with the parent-child dyad. It can also cause marital discord and discontentment from other children/siblings in the family. The father may disagree with how the adult child was raised and may have expected more time with his wife once the adult child left for college. Thus, the symptoms of one person or the “relationship” can affect the functioning of the whole family.

What leads to Satisfaction in Relationships?

Although there are different relationships of the family unit, all relationships have the same factors that promote healthy interaction, emotional closeness, and a positive connection between individuals. The major factors in healthy relationships are effective communication, understanding of expectations, fair negotiating, bargaining, and effective conflict resolution. For practicality, I will use the dyad relationship of a couple as an example. Sex, money, and in-law issues have been common identifiers of couple discord. But, these issues can be resolved if there is effective communication, bargaining, and conflict resolution. Couples must understand their own personality and the personality of their significant other. This includes how their personality differences interact, or co-exist, and affect the relationship. Again, individual counseling may be as important as couples counseling when couples are having difficulty or conflict. Often, couples do not start either type of counseling until it is too late. Problems surface as fighting, isolation, infidelity, and possible termination of the relationship.

What Goes Wrong in Relationships?

When we look at what contributes to infidelity in a marriage, we can understand the problems that occur in the couple. Usually, partners “cheat” because they either felt their marriage was sexually unsatisfying, or they wished to have more sex than they were having now. However, there are two significant emotional factors contributing to infidelity: Spouses were either emotionally unsatisfied in their current relationship or wished to gain more emotional connection or validation. Thus, they sought these needs in another intimate relationship. Infidelity is most likely to occur within two years of marriage and 36% will cheat with a coworker. In one third of all marriages, both spouses admit to cheating. Surprisingly, the less likely reasons for engaging in affairs was falling out of love with their partner or falling in love with a new partner. (Whitbourne & Krauss, n.d.).

Perhaps difficulty in couples' relationships arise within the first two years of the relationship because couples have different expectations of their partner and their long-term relationship. If conflicted couples do not seek counseling within their first two years, and don’t communicate their feelings or resolve their differences/conflicts, they lose their emotional connection. Thus, they will seek intimacy and validation with someone who can relate to them daily, such as a coworker.

Counseling Intervention: How Do You Resolve Conflict and Reconnect?

Conflict causes tension and emotional distance between partners. Conflict resolutions starts with effective communication. Effective communication consists of the assertive expression of feelings, active listening, and having empathy for the other person’s feelings. By examining their own needs and feelings, and those of their partner, couples can understand the differences in their expectations and learn to compromise. Then conflict can be resolved.

I employ a common communication exercise. Each person shares their feelings/thoughts and listens to the feelings/thoughts of their significant other. Asserting one’s feelings is easier than hearing the feelings of others. Empathy cannot happen unless a person actively listens to and understands the view point of their partner. But, people tend to become defensive when they feel they are being blamed or attacked. They will interrupt their partner in response rather than listen. Thus, it is important to verbalize feelings to the other partner in a way that it will be heard. If a person has difficulty empathizing with their partner, I utilize the “Empty Chair” method. A partner would verbalize his/her feelings to a spouse, then play the role of the spouse and carry on a dialogue.

After each person has a turn, I implement different counseling interventions. These focus directly on communication skill-building between a couple or between family members. Techniques include:

  • Non-judgement brainstorming
  • Fair fighting
  • Reframing of content
  • Restatement or interrupting of events
  • Reflection of feelings
  • Recognition of patterns of miscommunications and misinterpretations.

These techniques help us reexamine and redefine the issues, and then draw conclusions and develop goals.

A technique I use to determine family dynamics and define roles of the family member is family sculpting. I ask family members to take turns physically arranging family members in the therapy room. I ask the family members to position themselves as to how they see the family, then show how they would like the family situation to be. I may ask family members to “resculpt” and reposition family members according to different situations and then “resculpt” again in later sessions to assess progress or reenact/resculpt an actual or preferred scenario.

Couples must respect their personality differences. Yet, certain traits like stubbornness, holding grudges, or being unforgiving can hinder conflict resolution. Also, psychological symptoms of one partner, such as anxiety and depression, can affect the needs in the relationship (i.e., low energy and isolation are symptoms of depression). So, it may be necessary for couples to take part in their own individual counseling.  Each must resolve their own issues before conflicts can be resolved as a couple.

Which Modalities are Used for Couples/Family Counseling?

Psychoanalytic Theory

This theory comes from the psychoanalytic approach of Sigmund Freud. The focus is on problematic relationships adults had with their parents during childhood. In couples counseling, I show how these issues are played out unconsciously later in life in adult relationships.

Fictional Example:
Alice’s father was an alcoholic and was absent for the family because he was out drinking. Alice missed her father since he relapsed. Alice’s husband, John, had a mother who pushed his father to work long hours so there would be more income to cover the bills. John now works long hours to support his family. However, John unconsciously resents Alice like his father resented his mother for working long hours. Alice is unconsciously angry with John because he does not spend time with their kids. This relates to her own feelings of paternal neglect. The couple argue about their expectations of family and financial responsibilities. They are unaware of how their early childhood family issues are affecting their expectations.

Counseling involves gaining insight into how the past impacts each of them, their relationship, and their family dynamics. The couple can gain an understanding of their behavior and where it comes from without blaming the other, and then make the necessary changes in their marriage.

Structural-Strategic Theory

This theory was developed by Jay Haley and focuses on present issues that need changing, rather than past experiences. With this modality, I provide brief therapy identifying steps necessary to change behavior and attain goals.

I examine why difficulties in the couple’s relationships continue by looking at belief systems that contribute to dysfunctional dynamics and affect behavior.

Fictional Example: 
John continues his extended work hours thinking that he is being responsible. Alice wants her husband to lessen his work hours so that their children do not feel the same paternal neglect she felt. However, their children may not feel paternal neglect. The structure of their family is unhealthy and needs correction for optimal functioning.

I examine the framework of their current family expectations and roles, using Salvador Minuchin’s structural theory, by interpreting the dynamics of their childhood family relationships. This includes the rules and qualities of the relationships between each member.

Fictional Example:
Alice thought that her children would feel neglected when their father worked, like she felt neglected when her father when out drinking. However, the circumstances were different. Their children did not feel neglected when their father, John, was away from home working some evenings. John learned that his wife was not pushing him to work more hours and would rather he spend more time at home than at work.

Counseling interventions can include goal setting and changing the structure of the relationships by teaching strategies for acting differently.

Fictional Example:
Both Alice and John can learn that John is not neglecting his children if he works extended hours. Thus, John continued to work the hours needed to financially provide for his family. He gained the support of his wife, and there was less marital conflict.

Family Systems Theory

One family member's development and behavior interconnects with the others in the family. The identified client problem is a symptom of the individual’s maladjustments and a symptom of how the family functions. The client’s problems serve a function or purpose for the family, but may be unintentionally maintained by family processes and contribute to the family’s inability to operate effectively. This usually occurs during individual or family developmental transitions. A good example is the mother who took care of all the emotional, social, and physical needs of her adolescent child. Later, the adult child was unable to maintain independence or to adjust socially in college. Thus, the adult child may return home and the mother continues to take care of the needs of her adult child. The delay of the developmental transitions not only affects the mother and the adult child, but also the marital relationship of the parents. The husband, or father of the adult child may have expected to have more time with his wife once their child left home to college.

My counseling interventions includes examining the developmental tasks of the family and the developmental stages of each family member. Then finding out how the maladjustment and symptoms of one member contributes to the maladjustment of another family member, thus creating malfunction in the whole family system. Correcting and completing the development tasks of each family member leads to improved functioning in the whole family system.


References

Fleicher, Myra. (2017). State of divorce rate in US in 2017. Retrieved from: www.commdiginew.com/life/family/state-of-the-divorce-ragte-in-the-united-states-2017-77350

Beekman, Nancy. (1986). Helping Children Cope with Divorce: The School Cousenlor’s Role. Retrieved from: https://www.ericdigests.org/pre-925/divorce.htm

Family Means Counseling and Therapy. What are the Effect of Divorce on Children? (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.familymeans.org/effects-of-divorce-on-children

Whitbourne, Susan Krauss. (n.d.). Eight Reasons why people cheat on their spouses. Retrieved from: www.psychologytoday.cpm/us/blog/fufulment-any-age/201209the-eight-reasons-people-cheat-their-spouse