This post has been authored by Stephanie Wijkstrom MS, LPC, NBCC as part of our guest post series. Learn more about Stephanie at the bottom of this post.
Therapy Techniques for Effective Couples Counseling
One of the greatest challenges many therapists cite as a hurdle in working with couples is the thought that marriage counseling has to ‘blow up.’ We all know couples therapy is one of the more challenging types of therapy to provide. Marriage counselors are trained to enter the lion’s den of heated emotion. The conversations being had in the therapy office are between two, often hostile or detached people.
What the more seasoned therapists among us know is that the emotion of anger must be integrated into the therapy room. Anger is an effective tool that can be used to help the couple learn how to manage their conflict, emotions, and to further enhance their relationship.
Anyone who has worked with couples has experienced one or both persons in the relationship churning through a difficult topic and becoming hostile with each other during the process. We watch them trample on each other’s defenses and their mutual irritation ascends the mountain of stumbling blocks before nose-diving off the edge of caring.
At that moment, we as therapists may begin to panic. We may find ourselves internally allying with one of the individuals. We ask ourselves “how in the world could he or she say that?!” These internal responses for us, while understandable, do nothing to assist or alter the dynamics at play on our couches.
When doing marriage counseling, we must be masters of refrain. We cannot let ourselves display our innate emotions. Rather, we have to view the ascension of the emotional climate as an opportunity to provide in the moment skills training to our clients.
In this post, I am going to be sharing some helpful strategies we, as therapists, should implement in response to our clients’ anger. Moments of anger, such as these, provide opportunities for our couples to yield negative emotions into more constructive interplays.
When the pulse of anger begins to tremble, we should first pause to give them the therapeutic space to enact their dialogue for a moment or two. The only time we should immediately intervene is if there is a safety concern.
The next step would be to interject, but before we do, take a cleansing breath to become aware of your own emotional state. After that, you can begin engaging with your clients, to do so, you can say, “I think this is a great opportunity for us to take a look at the communication dynamics that are happening between you. This is a therapy moment and a chance for us to change the way you both relate to each other and increase the likelihood that you both are heard and understood.”
Approach the Feeling with Interest (and even enthusiasm)
This first step in relating to the couples emotion is very important if we panic or become irritated with their expression of emotion, then there is a very real likelihood the argument is going to go further down the funnel of aggressiveness. Remember the tenants of Non-Violent communication, we become angry and hostile when we have no other way of knowing how to get our needs met.
We then label the interaction as hostile, “I see this becoming a hostile interaction, The more you speak defensively and with heated emotions, then the more you become __________________.” Remember you’re not calling either person hostile, you are modeling the for the couple to become inquisitive about their patterns and to expand their understanding of exactly what is happening between them.
Now we must instill our client’s situation with hope, “I don’t think this is what either of you means to happen here.”
State Needs and Feelings Constructively
Now you must coach the couple on how they can frame their defensive statements in terms of a need. The more you practice unearthing the hidden needs behind your couples anger, the quicker you can identify the softer and more approachable unmet needs of your clients. These unmet, approachable needs can be more readily digested within the couple’s communication and can lead to therapeutic breakthroughs.
Usually, at this point, it is helpful to provide some psychoeducation about emotional hyperarousal, including “fight or flight” response and how heightened emotions play into our challenges with problem-solving. We can also assist our couples in developing an arsenal of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing (which is an excellent tool) to downregulate emotions.
We should also prepare our clients for when they are at home and about to escalate a disagreement. Coaching our couples on how to identify cues that their emotional state is elevated allows them to take a step back before conflict escalates to an unmanageable space.
As you continue to practice these therapeutic tools in session, you will begin to see how the above process is one of the most productive ways to coach couples. This process teaches couples how to respond to both their own feelings and each other’s feelings (regardless of whether those feelings are anger, hurt, and frustration) in ways that help the couple enhance their relationship.
Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC is the Founder of The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, an integrative counseling center providing therapy and wellness services to individuals, couples, and families of Western Pennsylvania. Stephanie’s clinical focus is on relationships and providing marriage and family counseling. Stephanie is a most proud of her happy marriage and loves being a wife to her brilliant, witty, and ever-patient husband. When she isn’t working or spending time with her family she is passionate about yoga, meditation, and biking.
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