Couples Counseling: Ending the Great Debate

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about working with couples. A large portion of my private psychotherapy practice is comprised of working with couples (both straight and gay). And I very much enjoy this work. It is often quite dynamic, and couples usually find me an active participant.

Quite often couples come into therapy because they are not doing well and may be arguing a lot. Their arguing often tends to take the same shape: what I refer to as the debate mode. Instead of really listening to one another, the two people are engaged in a seemingly endless debate. This happened. No it didn’t, this happened. Not it didn’t. You said this. No I didn’t… Couples caught in this dynamic rarely feel any sense of real resolution. In fact, often these couples are quite despairing and hopeless about their future.

When working with such a couple one of my first goals is to end this debate mode and help instill a process of genuine listening and more emotional communication. I will first point out to the couple what I’m observing. This outside perspective is one of the most important tools that I have to offer a couple. When two people are fighting a lot and immersed in this process, they can’t see the forest from the trees. They easily get lost. So I will point out what I’m seeing and usually make the point that it would waste everyone’s time to continue in this fashion here in therapy.

But pointing out the dynamic is only the first step. From there I introduce a different way of relating and communicating. One that is commonly called “active listening,” but which I offer my own twists. First this process involves each person reflecting back to the other just what they are hearing the other say. The goal at this point is to simply get what the other is saying and not refute or react to it. While this may sound simple, it’s not (especially when people have heated emotions). An example of this might be one person saying “I hear that you are feeling criticized and attacked by me when I comment on…” We then make sure that what that person is reflecting is accurate; that the person speaking really does feel heard. If anything has been left out, then we make sure to add it.

The next step – one that I particularly emphasize – is for that person who is doing the reflecting to add some of his or her feelings about what the other person is saying. Here I make sure that people talk about feelings and not judgments. Feelings do not include a “that” in them: “I feel that…” Nope, that’s not a feeling. So if the speaker has said that she feels criticized, the emotional response I’m looking for is something about how it makes the person feel to hear that their partner is feeling criticized. I often emphasize that this is not about blame or taking responsibility. This stage in the communication is about acknowledging feelings. “I’m sad that you feel criticized.” Or “Of course I don’t want you to feel this way.”

At this point, we have broken the debate cycle about whose reality is really real. And now we are moving more into the realm of feelings. The last part is for the person doing the reflecting to talk about his intent. “I really don’t want to criticize you. But I am upset that you…” After all, he has a point of view too that needs to be heard…and then reflected.

This type of communication is essential for any couple to be able to talk honestly and sincerely and move through their issues. This is not the end goal of therapy; but it is a necessary first step. Couples whom I work with who have developed this way of talking do it on their own (in the session and outside of it) without much further guidance from me. And they tend to notice that they are fighting less and beginning to feel better heard. Their relationship is no longer a great debate

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