FAQ: Can counselling help a couple to separate?
“Couples counselling works to prevent a couple from separating…”
The statement, above, is a common myth about couple counselling.
Some people misunderstand the purpose of couple counselling, thinking that its purpose is to keep a couple staying in their relationship. However, this is a false impression about couple counselling (at least it is about the systemic/psychodynamic couple counselling that is offered by Dean Richardson).
Aims of Couple Counselling.
Some of the aims of couple therapy are much more complicated than just a simple goal of staying-together. Outside of counselling, sometimes a couple wishes to separate – and wishes to do so with anger and blaming – but because of the relationship’s responsibilities (e.g. children) a couple have to continue seeing each other. They may need a way to manage their separation – if not with any friendliness then at least with a modicum of tolerance. That’s not an easy process – for obvious emotional reasons – but the couple can make use of a professional’s experience in helping relationships end with a negotiated friendliness – or at least a respectful-enough amicability.
Talking from a systemic/family-counselling approach (which is my core framework for couple’s therapy), the focus of couple counselling will be to follow what the couple wish from therapy; some couples will wish to work to keep their relationship together, other couples will wish to separate, and many couples will not know which they want and may change their minds (sometimes several times) during therapy. All of these are perfectly normal and legitimate states for couples ending a relationship.
So, yes, couple counselling can help a couple to separate … and, if the couple wishes, and with some effort on everyone’s part, it does.
What is Couple Counselling?
My name is Dean Richardson and I’m a qualified systemic/psychodynamic couple counselling therapist.
Talking from a systemicSystemic therapy is a branch of psychotherapy that works with families and couples in intimate and platonic relationships to nurture change and development. It tends to view change in terms of the systems of interaction between family members.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_therapy approach, couple counselling is a therapy that works with a couple’s relationship, rather than offering therapy for two individuals.
What does this mean? For example…
A therapist trained only in individual therapy may meet with a couple, and may first focus upon one partner (listening to them & offering interventions with one person), and may offer an intervention to that one partner: ‘how did you feel about his affair?’ (this is called an open question – it invites the individual to say more about a matter). The therapist may then turn to the other partner to repeat the process but from the other partner’s perspective.
A therapist trained in couple therapy, however, will practice neutrality whilst listening to the couple reporting their issues in the way that they wish (perhaps equally, perhaps one partner dominates the other before the counsellor intervenes), then may offer an intervention that addresses the relationship, rather than the individuals: ‘Who first noticed that the relationship was breaking down?’ (this is called a circular question – it invites both partners to discuss the intervention).
The couple counsellor is focussed on the problems between the individuals (the relationship) and is concerned with helping the couple to think about what contributes to the problems of the relationship (and what contributes to better experiences) and as the couple learn how their relationship system works the counsellor invites the couple to think about what aspects of their ‘system’ they might want to change.
Example of a system: partner ‘A’ arrives home from work, partner ‘B’ has been at home all day. Both partners want to be asked how their day went, but neither partner is willing to give the other partner the time to listen to them first. An argument ensues.
In systemic therapy, the couple counsellor would learn about this system by listening to the couple report their problems with examples. The counsellor would help the couple learn about this system and with their agreement would support the couple in hypothesising how the system could be changed.
The couple counsellor does not impose normative views nor offer corrective suggestions (‘what another couple would do is …’) but works with the couple to help them be creative to come up with ideas on how they might change the behaviour for themselves.
The Assessment Sessions – finding the focus of the counselling work.
The focus of a couple’s therapy will be what the couple want to change about the relationship including their behaviour within their relationship. My role as a couples counsellor includes working with couples whose focus for their couple counselling work is to not stay together.
In the assessment for couple counselling, the couple and I will discuss what the couple wants from counselling … and separation is a legitimate option for couples entering therapy. Sometimes the decision to separate is made at the beginning of counselling, sometimes it’s made during counselling. Either is a legitimate option for couples therapy
Few couples want to separate amicably. There may be emotional pain and a wish to not be seen as the one who caused the breakup – “it was the other person’s fault” may be a comforting thought, but it may also not be accurate.
However, a couple’s relationship may have created responsibilities – there is more than the couple themselves to consider. There may be children involved and other family responsibilities to negotiate.
Using a divorce lawyer is one option to help the couple negotiate – but couple counselling is also an option.
The counsellor’s position is to remain neutral during the therapy and by not taking sides he is ethically able to help the couple notice imbalances in their behaviour. This can be a helpful resource to a couple who are trying to remain balanced (very difficult to do at times) during their separation..
Separating / Staying together / Unsure?
I have worked with couples who wish to work to stay together, and with couples of wish to separate.
I have also worked with couples who, at the time of the assessment and for several months after, did not know what they wanted to do with their relationship. Part of the counselling process there was to discover what our focus for the therapy was going to be.
Also, the focus that is agreed upon in the assessment is not set in stone. Sometimes, during the course of counselling, one (or both) partner(s) may change their mind … or begin to find their voice … and begin talking about wishing to separate. Vice versa, a couple wishing to separate can change their minds during the therapy. In these situations a review of the original focus is perfectly legitimate and the counsellor will assist the couple to manage the changing of minds.
When mixed-agendas appear (partner “A” wishes to stay together, partner “B” wishes to separate) the couple counsellor will assist the couple in working with those differing agendas to find a focus that the couple can agree upon. When a couple change their mind and wish to change their focus of their work (ie separating instead of staying together, and vice versa) the counsellor will help the couple work with that change too.
Couple Counselling & Divorce.
Couples who have engaged in marriage or a civil-partnership may decide that they wish to formally separate. Of course, solicitors will be involved for the legal matters but the couple can still meet weekly with me to discuss matters about their separation. It is often the case that an individual wishes to leave a relationship by “saving face” … and there can be pressure to denigrate their partner (because doing so helps the individual to appear or feel better than the partner).
Couples counselling can assist with the separation processes so that both partners leave the relationship in a neutral (perhaps even friendly – though not essential) position.
Advice on Separating.
Couple counselling can be helpful when a couple decide to end their relationship and need help in separating out the emotions and building blocks that originally joined them together.
My qualification is in systemic and psychodynamicPsychodynamics is the theory and systematic study of the psychological forces that underlie human behavior, especially the dynamic relations between conscious motivation and unconscious motivation.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychodynamics couples counselling (similar to the training that Relate (ex “Marriage Guidance Council”) counsellors receive. Therefore, I do not give advice nor directions on how to separate.
Instead I help facilitate the couple in finding their own solutions to how they wish to separate.
I do this by remaining neutral in the relationship and being curious about many things. This can help the couple in discovering new information about their relationship, how they operate, and how things go wrong. With such discoveries, the couple can put into place difference behaviours that can be helpful in relieving some of the distresses of separating.