Relationship Counselling - the volatile couple
Gold Coast Marriage Counsellor Jiselle Saranghi describes relationship counselling as it happens -:
It was definitely a war zone; my impulse was to duck for cover as the verbal missiles were being fired fast and furiously at each other. They sat facing each other, while I was in the middle on the side as is the customary set up for my couple work.
I let them continue for a little while hoping they might run out of steam. When it was evident the attack was escalating I took a deep breath and prepared to intervene and take back control of the session.
Without saying a word I stretched out my hands in each direction signalling a truce. It took a few minutes but I finally managed to get order back so we could continue.
The funny thing is that this is one of favourite type of couples to work with and this couple in particular I have great affection for. They have been together since they were very young and they have 3 young children ranging in age from 10 to 16.The energy and the passion that is always there means their relationship is very much alive and brimming with possibility. I don’t doubt for a second their love for each other but that will mean nothing if they continue down the path of attack and counter attack!
The challenge for me is how to best harness their energy so that it becomes a positive force to rebuild their relationship.
The model that I work with in couple therapy is Imago Relationship Therapy. This therapy provides the perfect structure to hold clients safely while they explore their issues.
Imago’s premise is that the conflict in our relationships is ‘our growth trying to happen’. What this means is that our partners are our best teachers for our own personal growth and healing even though it might not seem like it at the time!
It is a beautiful model to work within and works equally well for the volatile couple as it does for the quieter and more introverted ones.
Back to the war zone and my current volatile couple.
My strategy is to call frequent cease-fires.
Mini mindfulness exercises are filtered throughout the session as I ask them to Stop, Pause, close their eyes and feel their feet on the floor. I then ask them to focus on their breath and to follow the air as it moves in and out of their body. I remind them while their eyes are closed to remember why they are here and that they are on the same team. At the end of the day they do want the same things for their life together.
I also reminded them of their intention that they set at the start of the session. Their intention was to really listen to each other and hear what the other had to say even though this may be difficult at times.
Learning to self soothe and contain are important tools to learn if this is to happen.
While either of them is in a heightened emotional state (freeze, flight, fight) it is pointless to try and engage with each other. No meaningful listening can ever occur while in this state. Recognising this is an important learning for all couples. There is a time to call a halt in all heated discussions and agreeing to resume at a later date is evidence of a mature relationship.
This couple is not there yet! To their credit they are well aware that at this stage they cannot do it on their own. Engaging me as a trained professional is actually testament to how much they value their marriage, their family and their future together.
The session was finally able to proceed when the couple were in a calmer and more receptive place. The next step was to coach them on how to reframe their words so that they were more palatable to each other and their message was more likely to be received.
This process is repeated many times. My role is to assist them to deepen their dialogue so that they can access the feelings under the content while holding the space for them.
Today, however they were pretty insistent on sparring with each other and it was hard for me to intervene. I despaired of them being able to reach any meaningful connection or understandings. It felt like I was watching two young children squabbling, both insistent on scoring points against each other.
But then it happened!
In the last ten minutes of this session there was an energy shift and something really lovely occurred.
The husband stopped directing the tirade against his wife, he owned his feelings of jealousy and dropped below the top angry emotion to the hurt underneath. The wife suddenly got that this wasn’t about her. She withdrew from the battle and moved towards her husband with love and understanding. His willingness to be vulnerable shifted everything. The peace flag went up and in that moment I was witness to their tender reconnection. I was again reminded of why I love this work.
- Disengage from the dialogue if emotions become too heightened. Agree to reconvene at an agreed later date.
- Practice the Stop, Pause and Breathe practice when feeling emotionally overwhelmed
- Try to remember that you and your partner are on the same team and not opposing ones. Remind yourself that you both want the same thing. Connection
- Be brave enough to be vulnerable.
- Book a session with an Imago Relationship Therapist and learn how to 'Dialogue'.