Couple Counseling: What is the Most Common Problem?

Couples Therapy

The problems couples face are often caused by what is actually normal growth in their relationship. Couples grow through stages in a relationship, and when it happens that each partner is at a different stage, the result is often pain and confusion.  It is at these times that couples most often come to therapy, and it is often the biggest problem for couples. Couples therapy can help by guiding both partners to an understanding of what is going on between them and helping them both grow together.


I am certified by the Couples Institute in California in couples therapy. I use the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy to help many of my clients. This is an approach to relationship counseling and therapy developed in the 1980s by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, of the Couples Institute in California.

This approach focuses on the development and growth of each partner individually in addition to the development and growth of the relationship. It identifies a number of stages in the evolution of every couple’s relationship. The first two stages of couple growth are Symbiosis and Differentiation.

Symbiosis – The Initial Stage

All couples start out here – feeling romantic, delighting in their newfound similarities, wanting to spend all their time together. This brings about important bonding, your becoming a couple.

Differentiation – The Second Stage

As time goes on, usually within the first two years, Differentiation begins: one person, or both, need to identify themselves as who they are as an individual person. Now is when you recognize that you have differences in feelings and thoughts than your partner, that you don’t always agree.  You may want to go out and explore their world, have time with old friends or start a new hobby.

When Stages Happen at Different Times

If this isn’t happening at the same for both people, the one not moving into this second stage often feels hurt or abandoned. “Why am I not enough for you anymore? Why can’t we be together all the time like we were when we were so happy?”  The resulting confusion, unhappiness, and stress is the most common time for couples to seek couple counseling.

A Real Problem Caused by Normal Growth

There’s that common problem I was talking about: the normal growth of one person moving to the second stage of the relationship while the other is still in the first stage. The person feeling left and hurt is in the first stage, Symbiosis, and the other has moved into the second stage, Differentiation. It would be so much easier if both people moved from the first stage to the next, but it often doesn’t always happen that way. So they show up in a therapist office, wondering what went “wrong.” Actually, nothing went wrong, they are growing as a couple, but unevenly.

Understanding What is Happening

Learning about these normal stages of growth helps enormously in understanding and normalizing what is happening for both people, and these are taught without judging either person.  There are lots of reasons why people go through these stages at different times, and that can be understood by looking at their relationships with their important childhood caregivers, usually their parents. For our purposes here, suffice it to say it is normal, but when one person is at one stage and the other moving into another, it’s a stressful time for the couple. There are more stages to normal couple growth which I can explain elsewhere.

Learning the Skills

In couple therapy, you both can learn the skills of the second stage: Differentiation.  These skills include you each acknowledging and stating your own feelings, needs, thoughts, and preferences even when they are not the same as your partner’s.  You learn you can maintain your own perspective and not attempt to change your partner’s to match your own. You can agree that as a couple you really are two different people. Being heard and being understood as a separate but still loved and accepted person is a wonderful experience, different than the first stage, but equally bonding.  It brings you two together in a new way, with new respect and clarity of who your partner really is and being seen as you really are. It can be exciting and enhance intimacy.

Of course, there can be conflict, and learning how to deal with conflict rather than being afraid to face it is another skill of living in an honest and vibrant relationship.

What does the therapist do in couple therapy?

  • Provide a safe environment where both people are able to speak  and be heard, and  where both sides come to  be understood and validated
  • Show how your backgrounds  (yes, your baggage) are being triggered and affecting the present, and what to do about it.
  • Help each person explore their feelings and thoughts without being blocked by taking their partners’ opinions. Learn to do this at home without the therapist being present.
  • Get clarity about what is going on so the couple can understand themselves and progress.
  • Discover patterns that are destructive or at least not productive.
  • Provide ideas about what to focus on between sessions.
  • Specific advice and guidance for your particular relationship

Do therapists ever get annoyed at or tired of their clients?

Yes, I think so.

The job of the therapist is to use yourself as an instrument, and be aware of how you ( your instrument) reacts. If you feel angry, irritated or bored with a client, very likely other people would also. So you use the information you’ve received, by your own reaction, in some manner that would be helpful to the client. The trick here is note your feelings to yourself, think about why the client is probably acting the way he is, and not express them as they are felt, for example – not speak angrily. The therapist’s job is to find a way to explain to the the client, so he can understand, how he is creating this reaction in another person without sounding critical. Then it’s the therapist’s job to help the client understand what is going on within himself.

Similarly, if, as therapist, you are “tiring” of your client, or getting bored, it is a signal (to me anyway) that the client is not being authentic, or is not going anywhere useful, i.e. being repetitive. This too can be communicated to the client without judgement and in a clarifying way to help the client in self awareness.

This takes skill, more than simple self control, because you as therapist have to know how to reach that particular client.

What you say may be experienced by the client as a confrontation but one that includes having the therapist’s arm around you, metaphorically.

Transpersonal Psychotherapy

I have been a psychotherapist for 40 years and have done energy work for most of that time. Now, as a Holy Fire III Reiki Master, I am letting the Madison community  know that I enjoy combining Reiki healing work with psychotherapy for many of my clients who are open and interested in both.

Usually people are happy to put forth “to my highest good” as their intention in their energy work, and therefore the energy work expands on the psychotherapy they are presently involved in and enhances their growth. Because the source of the information that is made available is beyond what I or my clients consciously are aware of, these sessions can be especially provocative and useful.

I have also been helpful for people have difficulties with illnesses, injuries and ongoing health problems.  I am happy to accept clients who are only looking for energy healing and not interested in taking on a  course of psychotherapy.

Why you care so much about what your therapist thinks of you.

Because you are in transference with this therapist. That means, you experience the therapist as if he or she is a parent to you, and all of us want our parents to love and approve of us. Your therapist is a stand in parent to you.

In fact, “working in the transference” means to a savvy therapist , that giving their support, approval , validation, etc, is very healing to their clients. Therapists should know this and do this. I keenly remember how much it meant to me to have my therapist value and like me. I have said that her words were “mainlined directly to the two year old in me.” That was so very healing, and I never forgot it, so I do the same for my clients. I work in the transference, meaning everything I say and do with my clients is with the awareness that I am a stand in parent and have the opportunity to re-parent, to heal, the child within the grown up who is my client.

So what you are asking about is pretty much true for all psychotherapy clients, and the stronger the transference, normally, the stronger the need for a loving parent to give the child within the adult client the esteem building care they needed and can still profit from. I hope your therapist understands this. It is why so many people say that in therapy “ the relationship heals.”

I have other blogs about transference. You might be interested in this phenomena since it effects everyone in therapy.

Good luck to you. I hope you are getting what you deserve.

Couple Therapy – Helpful Hints for Success

It is clear to me almost the first session which couples are going to get what they want out of couple therapy relatively quickly and who is going to be coming for a long time. It has to do with a willingness to be open to new ideas, a willingness to make changes and to learn new things, and a willingness to make the effort to have this happen.

Another huge piece is to stop blaming your partner and for what’s wrong in the relationship and look to yourself to see what you can do differently.

It takes a certain amount of strength in self, ego strength some people call it, to be able to do this without collapsing on the one hand or blowing up on the other. Good couple therapists know this and provide vehicles for the couple to build personal strength so that they can grow, as partners, in their communication and caring for one another.

The Therapist / Client Relationship

Snakes live in the forest. Every day they travel over rough ground – pebbles, rocks, fallen trees with uneven bark. Every Spring they get a new skin, and it happens this way:  the old skin stretches and loosens. It eventually detaches, over time, from the snakes body, and  the new skin  shows up underneath.

The old skin never falls off until the new skin has had the time to toughen up and manage the rough terrain the snake goes through. When It first appears, the new skin is delicate and pink, but by the time it is ready to protect the snake from it’s daily environment, it has become brown and strong.

It’s never the therapist’s job to pull he skin off a snake.

 

The Therapist’s Job

I’ve been asked how much therapists really ‘get it’ about how much they effect their clients’ daily lives with what they say and do. I say it depends on the quality of the therapist. It doesn’t hurt if the therapist has been in therapy themselves and experienced the power of transference.

Good therapists know very well how significant they are to their clients, certainly want to avoid their clients’ losing them, and pay attention to what they say and do. Good therapists put themselves into a “good parent mode” when they are working, and are careful about balancing nurturing and challenging interventions that are intended to promote growth.  Even the way a phrase is delivered can make an important impression.  It’s part of the therapist’s job not to be overly tired, and certainly not irritable, from their own life.

I often feel as it I have the ‘client’s life in my hands’ knowing full well how powerful my words and actions can be for them. Doing therapy is not a casual business. That’s why therapists are tired after a day of sessions. They have been working hard, mentally and emotionally, to give each client their best.

In Psychotherapy: How to deal with your therapist and your feelings.

I have been asked by clients what to do with their feelings of attraction to their therapist, past or present.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling usually, and often makes a client feel one down –  because an ethical therapist won’t reciprocate and the client feels alone in their attraction. The therapeutic relationship is a natural place for clients to sometimes develop romantic feelings for the therapist. After all, the client is being listened to deeply, possibly understood more fully than ever before, and hopefully truly helped.

The informed therapist doesn’t take the client’s feelings personally, and is most concerned with treating the client respectfully about their feelings, and also reassure the client that the relationship will always remain therapist/ client. It’s important for the client to know that the therapist will never take advantage of the client’s feelings and allow any other kind of relationship to develop, besides therapeutic, in session, either during therapy or afterward.

Feeling  attracted to your  therapist is often a part of positive transference.

Inside the Couple Bubble: Learning it’s OK to be Different People.

The beginning of good relationships is all about finding out how similar you are and being inside each other’s pockets, or wanting to be, all the time. That’s the passion that cements you as a couple, and it’s usually a wonderful, falling in love time.

But it doesn’t last, not for any couple, and trying to hold onto it when you need to be growing to the next natural stage in couple love development only causes upset.  Of course, it can feel scary and anxiety provoking:  What’s changing here? Why is anything changing? We were great, and now you want to spend time with your old friends? You disagree with me… about what??

This second , natural stage of development for couples includes recognizing that you are two different people, with different interests and even emotional reactions. Often it includes  wanting  to be  on your own more of the time. It’s a time of redefining your self-dom and when it is working well, it comes with the delight of having your partner see you as yourself, the uniques you who is not just a mirror of your partner. It includes being able to speak your different opinions describing your differing feelings and being heard and accepted as yourself. Essential too is being able to hear your partner as being different from you – listening to their perspective and their feelings and working out  what needs to be agreed on, which isn’t everything.

This second stage of couple growth can be difficult to navigate particularly when one person is ready to step forward into it,  and the other is not.  The person who is not ready can easily feel abandoned, frightened, and try to prevent their partner from what feels like moving apart from them.  This is when many people come to couple therapy, and the right therapist can be a lot of help.

Rather than being afraid, I urge you to see this as a growth step that will lead to a much deeper and closer intimacy for you and your partner.

Consultation Group for Therapists led by Ann Veilleux LICSW

I am in the process of gathering a few therapists for a small consultation group that will meet in my office at the Quarry Arts Building. I am keeping it small, likely 3 to 4 therapists and me, so there is ample time for everyone’s participation. The group members will bring cases they wish to discuss and get assistance about. I’ve found that to be an excellent way to learn. There will be time for additional discussion about therapy in general as regards the case presented.  I will charge a nominal fee for my time, depending on how many people are involved. If you would prefer one on one consultation, that can also be arranged.
I have had 40 years of experience in private practice in Madison, and my expertise is presented in the articles and blog entries on this site. If you have questions or are interested in joining, don’t hesitate to call: 608 535 9266.