It is widely acknowledged by therapists that couples therapy is the most challenging type of counselling. We ask SACAP educators whether it’s worth it.
The job of managing marital combat while you’re sitting in the middle of two colliding couples, and its attendant risks (one spouse feeling you’re allied to the other, for instance) has been compared by therapists to piloting a helicopter in a hurricane.
Compounding the problem, it would seem, is the method traditionally used in marital counselling – in other words, the conjoint-counselling approach with one therapist and two spouses together in a room. Increasingly, a therapy approach that combines both individual and couples therapy and that takes into account how people interact with each other in a bigger-picture contextual sense is being advocated as the most effective way forward when it comes to saving marriages. Importantly, the emphasis in such “applied psychology” shifts from the purely theoretical to the practical – counsellors trained at The South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP), for instance, are equipped with hard skills on how to deal with individuals in both one-on-one and group environments in a multitude of real-life settings – and, as such, the counsellor becomes a facilitator rather than a mediator: more a go-between than a hostage negotiator, in other words.
According to former SACAP educator, Alexa Russell, a qualified Social Worker who specialises in family therapy, perspective is key when it comes to relationship counselling, particularly in a South African context: “We have such a matrix of social constructs operating in this country – race, class, gender, culture – that it is essential that the therapist make no assumptions whatsoever about what a couple values. If, as a therapist, you don’t understand the worldview of your clients within their specific context, it can be a very frustrating process for all involved.”
Another area of high frustration, says Russell, is the “mixed agenda” couple – where divorce is on the table for one of the parties but not necessarily for the other. “In such cases it is the job of the counsellor to decide whether the couple has come in to try to stay together or to break up.” Frequently, says Russell, one of the couple knows he or she wants out of the marriage, hasn’t told the partner and is essentially bringing the therapist on board to help soften the blow. “For this reason, working with both parties individually helps ease what can be a traumatic process, especially in cases where one partner is left shell-shocked, bitter and angry by a spouse’s desire to leave.”
One of the counselling methods that is proving promising in couples therapy, says Carey Bremridge, a Clinical Psychologist who lectured in Family Work and Relationship Counselling at SACAP, is based on the attachment theory of parenting and how the effects of upbringing are carried over into adult relationships. Two-thirds of the population is securely attached, while the remaining third is divided between avoidant and anxious attachment styles, explains Bremridge. A person with a secure attachment style is comfortable being close to others, has fewer insecurities and enjoys expressing and receiving love with ease: “They trust easily, believe in true love, and have the most success in romantic relationships.”
People with an anxious attachment style, however, desperately crave love, but never quite believe the other person loves them enough. “They’re at risk of being demanding and needy of their partners,” says Bremridge. “Their actions and words continually challenge their partners to prove love or fidelity.”
Finally, individuals with an avoidant attachment style learned from childhood that you cannot turn to other people for love or security, because they never experienced it as children. “These people will likely approach love cynically,” explains Bremridge. “A gift given to them by their partners, for instance, no matter how genuinely intended, will be received with a lack of emotion and dismissed as meaningless.”
Getting individuals to understand not only their own attachment styles but also that of their partners is a constructive process that helps both parties see that good relationships – like secure attachments – are ones that are engaged and emotionally responsive, says Bremridge. Also key is the fact that reaching back a generation to focus on one’s upbringing essentially “shifts the blame”, allowing warring parties to see their spouses less as “cause”, more as “effect”, which, in turn, helps to instill empathy, one of the communication cornerstones of healthy partnerships.
Russell stresses the importance that marriage counsellors be always mindful that they are addressing the “how” (or the process) of what is most at stake rather than the “content” (or the details). “Getting caught up in specific stories without addressing the storyline behind them can end up feeling like a boxing match rather than an attempt at resolution,” she says.
Mainly, though, the counsellor’s job is to help the couple truly think through what can be a life-altering decision. By effectively “slowing down” the marriage, they help each participant look at it from different angles, including what their own role in it is. “You can’t divorce yourself,” says Russell. “If people end a marriage without looking at their own contributions to the problems, they are leaving with a big blind spot.” And the divorce rate in second marriages is even higher than first marriages.
So, counsellors unanimously agree, the viability of any couples therapy is dependent upon each spouse’s answer to two questions: are you willing to focus on yourself? And are you prepared to do so for an hour a week in the presence of your partner? If the answer to either question is “no,” the couple should not be in marital therapy. Instead, say the experts, each spouse should be attending individual therapy. “It is unrealistic for another person to optimally meet every single one of our needs – emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual and creative,” Russell points out. “As such we need to be responsible for cultivating intimate relationships that are protected and take responsibility for the areas where we need other input. One of the wisest things I ever heard was a soon-to-be groom saying to his fiancé that she still needed to prioritise time with her girlfriends as he couldn’t take on the role that they filled in her world.”
Interested in learning more about counselling? SACAP offers a range of courses, including part-time and full-time as well as distance learning options. For more information, enquire now.