A Solution-Based Approach to Couple's Counseling
I recently posted this and it got a good bit of attention:
So I thought I’d share my general approach towards couple’s counseling.
I like to take a “solution focused” approach as opposed to a “problem focused” approach to couple’s counseling. It also can be applied without a counselor.
“Problem focused” is where I say, “What seems to be the problem?”
And you then respond by walking me through your individual interpretation of the intentions of your spouse behind particular actions or inactions in the past.
This is problematic because it can turn this time together into some like a courtroom. This causes two problems:
- This will frame the conversation around a cycle of attack-blame-defend. A person can only actively listen for about 10 secs in a contentious conversation. After that, their mind will immediately start preparing a rebuttal. That’s a waste of everyone’s times. It keeps you where you are at. We have to change it up. This less a courtroom and more a workshop.
- The “problem focused” approach also makes me into something that I rather not be. In that scenario, you guys present your case and then I become a judge who hands out rulings. Undoubtedly, this will make one of you feel ganged up on and you’ll shut down or look for someone to take your side elsewhere.
A “solution focus” takes the side of the marriage, not the individual.
It’s less focused on how you each have failed each other in the past and more focused on how you as an individual can take responsibility for improving your marriage moving forward.
So I’d like to start with you considering this question:
What is your vision for a happier marriage?
A month from now?
Describe it in what it IS as oppose to what it ISN’T. Imagine what a week looks like in that happier marriage. Write down. What do the mornings, evenings, and weekends look like? What projects are you and your spouse working on together? Etc etc.
It’s a hard question but it is THE question you need to be able to answer. You can’t just stop doing bad things. You must turn from and turn to. You have to a positive vision for where you want to go. No one is a mind-reader. Unmet expectations are often unspoken expectations or spoken in such a way that they go unheard.
Let me slightly diverge to some notes on communication…
Are you minimizing or maximizing?
Most marriages problems are rooted in emotional responses to forms of communication. In arguments, it’s common to have one spouse play the role of maximizer and the other as a minimizer. The role can be an issue of an individual’s temperament but often is tied to particular argument. They’ll minimize in one argument but maximize in another.
The maximizer will emotionally overwhelm the minimizer by stressing all the negatives of a situation and catastrophizing the possible outcomes if a solution isn’t immediately arrived at.
The minimizer will emotionally frustrate the maximizer by downplaying their concerns regarding the situation and will come across as disengaged.
If both spouses remain in these roles, the argument will end in deadlock. No ground will be made. Tension will remain, even if it subsides underneath the surface.
Once you realize that you’re minimizing, you need to stop downplaying their emotional response and instead verbally acknowledge how they are feeling without matching their intensity:
Ex. “You’re frustrated and worried about our health/finances/children/etc. I’m here for us. I want you feel safe and at peace.”
Once you realize that you’re maximizing, you need turn down the intensity and verbally acknowledge some of the positive things about your spouse:
“I know you are working hard and things aren’t as hopeless as they feel.
Minimizers need up their emotional involvement in situation. Maximizers need to tone down their emotional response to the situation. You are the only who can control your emotions. It’s your responsibility. If you correct and control your emotions, it will help create space for your spouse to more easily correct and control their emotions.
Are you hearing or listening?
A lot of arguments are about one thing on the surface and another at their core. If you learn to not just hear but actively listen, you’ll grow in identifying the underlying issue needing to be addressed.
Remember that under all spousal criticism is an unmet hope or longing.
Her being fuming mad that you didn’t take out the trash for the fourth week in a row when you said you would isn’t just about trash. It’s about you being a man who gets things done. It’s about you being a man of your word. She dreamed of being married to respectable man.
Him being cold towards you because when he came home you kept scrolling on social media instead of giving him a hug isn’t just about social media. It’s about you being excited to see him. It’s about you desiring him and being thankful that he works hard. He dreamed of being married to a woman who respects him.
Criticism, as painful as they can be, are the hood you have to lift up to get to the deeper problems within a relationship.
Find the specific underlying issue can be hard. It may be easier to start by identifying what the general category the issue belongs to. Most arguments fall into three main categories:
A fight about power/control
A fight about closeness/care
A fight about respect/recognition
Now, let’s circle back to your vision for a happier marriage. Here are some steps…
Write out your vision of a happier marriage and then share it with your spouse
Identify who you are in an argument adjust to avoid ending up in deadlock
Listen to criticism and trying to identify the underlying issues
Lastly, as you arrive at a shared vision of a happier marriage ask these questions:
What can I as an individual do improve the marriage?
One small thing that I can immediately start to do to move that direction?
What are some things am I doing wrong?