In marital therapy and couples counseling, I build on my individual therapy approach (see My Approach to Individual Therapy).
In marital therapy and couples counseling, partners typically start with differences that result in conflict and dissatisfaction. In addition to the methods I use in individual therapy, I try to create a safe and productive environment in marital or couples therapy in the following ways:
By compassionately and respectfully understanding EACH partner's perspective:
- Many people come to therapy feeling blamed and/or at fault, and worry that the marital or couples therapist will agree with the other person - the partner - that they are wrong, and not understand their perspective.
- On the contrary, there are typically understandable “human” reasons, motives, needs, and feelings underlying each person’s “side” or “position” in marital conflict, even though the resulting communication, conflict, and behavior often become counterproductive and even destructive. A critical part of my job as a couples or marital therapist is to help couples better communicate with and understand each other, and to decrease emphasis on judging and avoid "taking sides."
By enhancing communication and understanding, often by slowing it down:
- During conflict, interactions often occur very quickly, with partners reacting to each other based on emotions that get triggered by what the other person says or does. Often neither person is aware of the triggers or of the emotions underlying the reactions. And many such reactions occur in rapid succession, moving both partners farther and farther from helpful understanding: a cascade of emotion-laden misunderstandings.
- In marital therapy or couples counseling, I help identify and interrupt such destructive “inter-reactions.” In their place, I encourage and teach couples to communicate more effectively by intentionally taking turns. One way is to encourage couples to notice when they interrupt each other during marital therapy sessions, and to try not to do so. Another is to use a fundamental couples counseling communications exercise. In this exercise, agreed to in advance, one person talks first, and the other person (i) listens for the purpose of understanding, and (ii) then conveys what they understand. In this process, the "listener" doesn't "respond," i.e., they don't talk about what they think about what the first person said, they don't get to disagree or even agree. Rather, they are limited to feeding back what they heard the first person say (with "extra credit" for identifying what the first person seems to be feeling), till the first person is satisfied that they really understand. Then, the the initial "listener" gets to talk, and the first "talker" becomes the listener, and feeds back what they hear and understand.
- Often via this slowed-down communication, (i) trust and confidence is developed by each person that they will be genuinely heard and understood not just by me but also by their partner - in the marital therapy or couples counseling session and, increasingly, outside of it; (ii) there is relief and comfort from being understood; (iii) better, more accurate understanding is developed about the partner, too; (iv) there is enhanced attention to, and understanding by both partners of, the strong feelings that occur during conflict; and (v) opportunities develop for dealing differently and more productively with each person's feelings (for starters, by recognizing, acknowledging, and understanding them rather than simply reacting to them).
- Via the processes above, I help each person better understand self, partner, “reaction” and relationship patterns, and underlying "dynamics" (how partners’ feelings, needs, and drives interact), and encourage related changes - in awareness and understanding, in communication, in behavior, and thus in the relationship.
My approach to marital therapy and couples counseling is consistent with and informed by (i) the work of John and Julie Gottman, international experts on marital relationships and marital therapy. I have attended two days of training with the Gottmans (see their book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, or their DVD: “Making Relationships Work”); and (ii) "Emotion-Focused Marital Therapy" (a workbook for couples using this approach is An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The Two of Us, by Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jennifer Fitzgerald). See Recommended Readings for other books that may also be helpful.
If you are having marital or relationship problems in the Madison WI area, good for you for considering getting help. Please feel free to call me, at 608-271-8799: I would be happy to try to help.