Early Stages of Couples Therapy

Define Yourself Clearly to Your Clients

Last month we started working on your own definition of what you offer to the couples in your practice. This month we will talk about what you expect from your clients and how you tell them.

Clarity on your expectations is a process of self-definition. This means you bring your own differentiation into the therapy. It is not easy to define what you expect from your clients–they represent a diverse group. And how can you describe your expectations of future clients, people you haven't even met yet?

At first, when you write down your expectations, you might discover, like we did, that they are incomplete, ill-formed, vague, contradictory, unrealistic, incompatible, or impossible for all couples. Some expectations will be general and others will be unique for a given couple. Don't let that stop you from proceeding. This process will make you stronger and clearer when you are working with challenging couples or problems.

Just like last month, take some time to write down what you expect from your couples. Begin by making a list of three or four expectations you hold. Some basics might be:

1. Come to sessions prepared with an agenda having thought about it or built on what we did the week before.
2. Do the homework I give you…It is not given lightly.
3. Each partner strives to get clear about individual goals to become a more effective partner.

Work and rework your own list until you are satisfied that it represents your most important expectations. Then rewrite it into a few paragraphs you can say to your clients. Don't be surprised if this causes you some frustration and some anxiety. It's a tough assignment.

A very brief summary of our expectations is described below. The entire document is too long to describe the entire list to the couples in person, but we do convey some of the most relevant points in the session. This allows us to individualize our mutual roles. At the end of the first session, we hand them a printed copy or email them the entire document.

After expressing your expectations to your clients, ask for their reactions and take some time to process them. When most people are confused, troubled, or feeling overwhelmed, they want to be led. Giving them this introduction makes the therapy more collaborative and lets them know they are going to do more than just vent.

About a year ago, a new couple came to see Ellyn. They had a long history of being hostile to each other. Both partners also had a history of drug abuse. Clarity about couples' participation in their treatment made it easier for Ellyn to set up two requirements for treatment. First, each partner had to be drug tested every week with the results sent directly from the lab to Ellyn.

Second, before she would even agree to taking them on, each partner had agree to do one positive behavior consistently that was requested by the other for two weeks. The woman asked her partner to bring home “take out” dinner each Wednesday and spend the evening with her instead of in front of the TV. He requested that she say twice during the week that she appreciated his earning enough money to support their two children. Only after all these criteria were met did Ellyn agree to start treatment. She also made it clear that the drug testing would continue for many months because she did not want to be guessing about whether they were lying or whether they were truly drug free, especially when they started accusing one another.

Ellyn was aware of the pitfalls of working without clear expectations. This made it easier to start the treatment process on a more productive footing.

Above all else, when describing the client's role, the more their individual goals focus on reducing their ineffective defenses and replacing them with effective behaviors and attitudes, the easier your work will be.

Here's an abbreviated version of our expectations at The Couples Institute.

How Couples Get the Most From Their Couples Therapy

My primary role is to help you improve your responses to each other without violating your core values or deeply held principles.

Preparing For Our Sessions

The major aim of therapy is to increase your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the patterns of interaction between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply new knowledge to break old ineffective patterns and develop better ones.

The key tasks of couples therapy are to increase your clarity about:
1. The kind of life you want to build together and individually;
2. The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you want to create;
3. Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be; and
4. The skills and knowledge necessary to do the above tasks.

What To Avoid For Our Sessions

A common yet unproductive pattern in couples therapy is focusing on whatever problem happens to be on someone's mind at the moment. This is a reactive and mostly ineffective approach to working things through.

The second unproductive pattern is for you to show up and say, “I don't know what to talk about, do you?” While this blank slate approach may open some interesting doors, it is a hit or miss process.

The third major unproductive pattern is discussing whatever fight you are in at the moment or whatever fight you had since our last meeting. Discussing these fights or arguments without a larger context of what you wish to learn from the experience is often an exercise in spinning your wheels.

Over time, repeating these patterns will lead to the plaintive question, “Are we getting anywhere?” By the time that question is asked, the answer is painfully obvious.

What To Do Instead

You can't create a flourishing relationship by only fixing what's wrong. But it's a start. To create sustained improvement in your relationship you need:
1. A vision of the life you want to build together and individually;
2. To strengthen appropriate attitudes and skills;
3. Communication skills to work as a team;
4. The motivation to persist; and
5. Time to review progress.

To create the relationship you really desire, there will be some difficult trade offs and tough choices for each person.

The document then goes on to describe the difficult tradeoffs that most couples go through in improving their relationship. Also included are some helpful concepts about couples therapy, personal development, and what it takes to create a flourishing relationship. You can read it here: Get The Most.

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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