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Couples Counseling

Sue Hallowell, LICSW

I have been treating couples for over 30 years and am also Clinical Director of the Hallowell Center in New York City. We also have Hallowell Centers in Sudbury Mass., San Francisco California, and Seattle Washington. The Hallowell Centers provide comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and other learning issues using a strength based approach.

Almost every person who comes to my office for couples therapy has the same underlying belief, that if my partner would change our relationship would be ok. Even if this isn’t overtly said those who don’t believe it are few and far between. As long as this is the assumption the progress of the couples therapy is limited. For a couples therapy to be successful each person has to be curious about, and take responsibility, for the role how they play in disrupting the relationship. The truth is that we focus on what we can do to change the other person’s behavior, when in fact we can only change our own behavior. How much people are willing to focus on their own behavior really predicts how successful the therapy will be.

We all view our partners emotions and behaviors from our own lens based on our own temperament, neurology, psychology and history. Even the most psychologically minded of us fall into this trap. This  causes us to make assumptions  about what they say and do that may not be true, but we act as our assumptions are the truth. For a couples therapy to be successful each person must  become  open to their partners perspective and way of processing the world and to take that into account when we interpret and react to them.

Another impediment to successful couples work is when clients focus on the other person’s behavior, telling them what they do and why they do it. When anyone is told how they behave and why the natural instinct is to defend yourself and to argue with the criticism.  This sets up a cycle of criticize and defend. When members of the couple learn to speak from a place of impact ……”.I feel frightened when you yell at me and call me names” instead of accusation “you are a bully who yells at me because you are out of control” it can stop this vicious cycle and lead to real discussion. It is much harder to fight against someones feelings than their accusations.

I think the most successful couples begin to understand the difference between intention and impact and can hold the importance of each. It is true that when we are hurt by or angry at our partner, understanding their intention or the cause of their words or action can help us put our feelings into perspective and not take things so personally. However  that is not enough to lead to change. The other part of the equation is to for the “offending partner” to understand that even if their intention wasn’t to cause pain it still impacts their partner in negative ways and that to move on they need to take responsibility for that. When couples take both the intention and impact into consideration they are more able to find solutions that lead to both feeling more satisfied in the relationship.

Finally, I think that the biggest mistake couples make in couples therapy, is wanting to focus only on the problems in the relationship. From my own years of practice I have learned that it is as important to help couples focus on and remember what is good about the relationship as it is to focus on what isn’t good. Being part of a couple that is struggling is hard and for many it is tempting to give up. By helping clients reclaim the joy in the relationship it helps motivate them to do the really hard work that is necessary to make the relationship more functional and hopefully happy again.

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