People come to therapy for all different types of reasons, and while couples may come to therapy with specific goals in mind, there typically is an underlying factor that is at the root of all of those issues: communication. It seems like a simple word with a simple meaning, but it actually plays a much bigger role in all relationships than we may think. While working with couples and getting to know them more throughout our sessions, I make sure to keep their main goals at the forefront of everything that we do, while still working on other factors that may impact them achieving those goals, like communication.
Even when couples feel like their communication is not a major issue for them, it may be affecting other areas in ways they do not realize. I utilize different types of modalities throughout my work with clients and it can be very dependent on who the clients are, but I tend to lean on the Gottman Method throughout my work with couples a lot. With that, one main area I make sure to touch on with most couples I work with is the “Four Horsemen” of conflict. I’m sure people are familiar with the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” but in this instance it is used to describe methods of communication that typically lead to more negative experiences and unhealthy dynamics within that relationship. Those four are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. I like to address this in some of the first few sessions with the couple as this can help them to start identifying their own patterns and then, in turn, start to help them work on changing those habits and communicating in healthier, more positive ways. We start by discussing what each of the four different behaviors mean and examples of them, and then I have clients identify which patterns they typically see themselves drawn to, as well as what patterns they might notice their partner do. Once people understand what those patterns are for themselves, it can be easier to identify and notice when they may be more defensive, critical, etc. and that can make it a little easier to work on changing those patterns and communicating in a more effective way.
In my opinion, I believe it’s also important to start with basic communication strategies. One of those is making sure the couples I see are actively listening to one another. Again, this is something that people may feel that they do well or don’t have a problem with, but a lot of the time, we are not listening as well as we think we are. Being an active listener means you are participating in the conversation, either verbally or nonverbally, and striving to understand what the other person is truly trying to communicate. One of my favorite phrases that I use continuously throughout my sessions is “listen to understand rather than listen to respond.” People typically have or are thinking about what they want to say next in the back of their mind when their partner or whoever else is speaking versus actually listening to what the other person is trying to say to them or trying to get them to understand. Being an active listener means asking questions if you don’t understand something or feel like you misinterpreted what they might’ve been saying. It’s okay to double check to make sure you understand, as that continues to show the other person you are actively trying to make sure you understand what they are trying to. This is called Reflective listening and is where you repeat back what you feel like the other person was saying to you to make sure that you interpreted it in the way they wanted you to. This can be a helpful tool when feeling like you or your partner are not on the same page or having more miscommunications throughout conversations.
While these are just a few of the strategies and topics I make sure to bring up throughout sessions with the couples I see, it also very much depends on the main goals and concerns clients want to discuss and focus on. I say “typically” throughout a lot of this because, as I’ve said, every one and every couple is different, so while these are a few of the main tools I like to cover, it can change depending on the clients needs and wants throughout our sessions. I will also usually see couples separately a few times throughout our sessions to dive deeper into some individual aspects that may be impacting the relationship as a whole. With all that being said, my main priority is making sure couples I see feel comfortable throughout the whole process and feel like they are getting what they need out of therapy. It’s important for couples to come into sessions with the understanding that this is a process and things do not change overnight, but they can change by the constant effort both people are putting into their relationship.
Emily Blair, ALMFT