Cover Stories

Finding a way forward together

Lynne Shallcross July 12, 2011

Finding a way forward togetherWhen Kim Olver set out to find 100 happy couples to profile for a book, it turned into a much tougher task than she had ever anticipated. It also affirmed for her the genuine need for a book about making relationships work.

“It took me two years to find 100 happy couples willing to take my anonymous online assessment,” says Olver, whose book Secrets of Happy Couples was published earlier this year. “I believe there was a lot that contributed to that challenge. I think there are a lot of couples out there who are merely existing. They aren’t particularly happy, but they stay together. I also think people are busy and didn’t want to get involved. Some were interested until they saw the personal nature of the questions and then dropped out. And I think trust was a factor. Could their partner find out what their responses were?”

The theme of Olver’s book turned out to be that each of us holds the key to our own happiness in our relationships, which is a premise of William Glasser’s choice theory. In Olver’s opinion, counselors can boost couples’ happiness levels by helping them embrace and practice that lesson. “When people stop looking to their partner to change so their life can improve and instead start looking inside themselves to decide what needs to be adjusted, then they can be much happier. They are focused on something they control — themselves — instead of something they have no control over — their partner,” says Olver, a member of the American Counseling Association who runs a private practice in Chicago and serves as executive director-in-training for the William Glasser Institute.

Helping clients find happiness and fulfillment in relationships isn’t relevant only to counselors who specialize in couples counseling, says Thelma Duffey, professor and chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Counseling. “People don’t live in a vacuum, and problems rarely exist in isolation,” says Duffey, a member of ACA who also runs a private practice in San Antonio. “It is helpful when counselors have an understanding of the dynamics that affect people in their various relationships, particularly their important ones. Couples counseling training can be useful in this regard. Also, it is helpful when counselors working with individuals can look at a larger context. A couples counseling perspective supports this focus.”

Also required of effective counselors is an open-mindedness to the ever-changing dynamics that define who today’s couples are and what they look like, Olver says. “Research shows the younger generation is saying they are more ready to be parents than to commit to a marital relationship. I think couples counseling will need to evolve more in the direction of relationship counseling than marriage counseling. A therapist needs to be flexible enough to think of all possible relationship choices.”

Jill D. Duba, associate professor and coordinator of Western Kentucky University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program, agrees. Acknowledging diversity in relationships and remaining open to hear every client’s story is key, she says, no matter the life stage, disability, sexual orientation or other difference from couple to couple.

When Duba, a member of ACA, became program coordinator, she revised the program so that courses on couples counseling and family systems were required. “My belief is that every individual is a relational being, period — whether they’re struggling to be in a relationship or they’re [already in one],” says Duba, who is also a member of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. “It’s imperative that a therapist knows something about how relationships work, how they don’t work and what are some things to look for.”

Duba points to Glasser’s reality therapy, which contends that people’s problems and unhappiness can almost always be traced back to their struggles in relationships. “[Relationships] are a function of who we are, and if we’re going to go out there and help people become whole, we have to know something about how [clients] perform and get along with others,” Duba says. “We have to be able to do that kind of counseling.”

A question of commitment

Olver says the issues that bring couples through a counselor’s door are wide ranging. Sometimes, there are power struggles over finances, with one person desiring to spend a little more and the other wanting to pull back. The recent recession and accompanying job losses have made issues involving household finances that much more volatile,
she says.

“I also find that the sex issue is on the table still,” Olver says. “Often, one person in the couple would like to have more sex than the other person would.” Outside relationships are another common point of contention, Olver says, whether one member of the couple has a close relationship with a coworker of the opposite sex or maintains connection with a former boyfriend or girlfriend via e-mail or social media. The tension most often springs from one partner feeling threatened by the romantic potential of the other partner’s outside relationship, Olver says, even if that friendship is strictly platonic.

An overarching theme Olver sees in her work with couples is that people enter into relationships and then often begin trying to mold or change their partner’s behavior or character. “Instead of learning how to accept that as the total package, they either consciously or unconsciously work over time at getting the person to become who they want them to be,” she says. “It’s really about not accepting the other person as they are.”

No matter the specific issue plaguing the couple, Olver’s first order of business is asking both partners if they are truly committed to working on the relationship. Many people come to counseling in a last-ditch effort to fix long-term problems, Olver says, and they aren’t always committed to doing what is necessary to save the relationship. If only one of the individuals says she or he is committed to salvaging the relationship, Olver will work with that person because she believes strongly that one partner’s efforts can ultimately change the relationship for the better.

Olver next educates the couple on whose behavior each person can control. People spend much of their time trying to change the behavior of others, Olver says, but in counseling, she aims to help clients realize they need to focus on making self-adjustments because they are the only ones they are directly capable of changing. “The idea is the only person you can control is yourself,” she says. “It takes the idea off of, ‘If [my partner] would just …'”

Next, Olver asks the couple what brings them into counseling. She lets each person have the floor to speak, then asks the person to listen to his or her partner, and then gives the person a chance to rebut. It’s crucial that the counselor remain neutral in this part of the process, Olver says. “There can’t be an ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds logical’ to what someone says. Neither one of them is right or wrong. They’re both right from where they come from, and that’s really critical.”

After all the complaints are on the table, Olver asks the couple to flip things around and tell her what’s right with their relationship and why they’d like to see it survive and thrive. The underlying goal, Olver explains, is to help the couple get in touch with their internal motivations for working on the relationship. Olver has the couple address the negatives in their relationship first before moving into the positives because she wants these positive aspects to be more present in the couple’s mind as they move through the session. “That’s where I want their attention focused as we move forward,” she says.

Olver then asks each person to think of one thing he or she could do in the upcoming week that would greatly benefit the relationship and then tells the couple to commit to following through on that action every day. She points out that this technique is different from traditional marriage counseling, in which the counselor might offer a recommendation to the couple based on the information they have provided. Olver stays out of the process, allowing the couple to decide what the next steps will be.

Olver uses Glasser’s choice theory in her work with couples because it steers clear of external control and encourages clients to make changes based on their own motivations. If the counselor makes a recommendation to the couple, it might sound as if the counselor is subtly siding with one partner or the other, even if that is not the counselor’s intention, Olver explains.

When Olver meets with the couple the following week, she says it’s immediately apparent whether both followed through on their “homework.” If they did, it frequently seems as if a “magic” change has taken place, Olver says, and the couple is often “good to go” after that. She explains to the couple some of the steps and techniques she used with them in the first counseling session so they will have them at their own disposal in the future if need be.

If only one partner completed the homework, Olver again raises the question of commitment to the partner who didn’t follow through. If the person isn’t committed to working on the relationship, Olver says she will move forward and work with the other half of the couple who is.

According to Olver, that invested client has three options moving forward: change, acceptance or leaving the relationship. Unless safety is an issue for the client, Olver recommends that leaving be the last resort. Oftentimes, clients have spent many years trying to change their partners. In working with the one person, Olver turns the focus on how that client can change himself or herself in order to change the relationship.

Olver recalls one client who was very frustrated with her husband’s workaholism and felt unloved because he worked such long hours. Through therapy, she was able to see that her husband was working hard and giving up his free time to get them out of debt because he loved her. “Once she was able to shift her perception from ‘That behavior means he doesn’t love me’ to ‘He really does,’ their relationship really changed,” Olver says.

Clients can also choose to come to terms with whatever is bothering them about their partner, accepting that it’s part of the whole package of the person whom they love. Part of acceptance, Olver says, is taking off the “complaining lenses” and putting on “appreciation lenses.” Sometimes, Olver asks clients to write down the things they don’t like about their partner. Then she asks them to consider how those “bad” things might potentially be helping them in some way. Clients achieve that acceptance when they can recognize that their partner is a whole person. Even when it feels like one bad aspect makes up 95 percent of that person, in reality, it’s only a small part of who that person is.

Although acknowledging that it’s wonderful when both members of a couple do their homework and work out their problems together, Olver says much can be accomplished even when only one person is invested in improving the relationship. Oftentimes, she says, one person in the couple is unhappy, while the other person minimizes those feelings or is oblivious to them. That’s not necessarily because the person doesn’t love the partner who is unhappy, Olver says, but rather because that person doesn’t perceive the relationship as being in trouble.

“This is when seeing one part of the couple is appropriate,” she says. “One person can adjust his or her behaviors, expectations and desires, and/or perceptions, all of which will significantly change a relationship. A relationship is a system. Change any part of that system, and the rest must adjust to compensate for the new change.”

Identifying blind spots

One of the tools Duffey relies on in couples counseling is the Enneagram personality typology. In helping describe the various ways people perceive the world and automatically respond to stressful events, the Enneagram can increase clients’ awareness of their thought patterns, beliefs and behaviors, she says. “I like using the Enneagram in couples counseling because it offers a neat way for people to gain insight into themselves and to learn more about their partners,” says Duffey, the Association for Creativity in Counseling’s representative to the ACA Governing Council and editor of the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. “It can help couples identify the strengths, challenges and motivating beliefs that often drive each person’s choices and behaviors. One of the significant markers of successful couples counseling is the willingness of both people to invest in their relationship. When two people are invested in maintaining their relationship, this understanding can go a long way in helping to make that happen.”

As described by Duffey, the Enneagram is a typology consisting of nine personality types, three subtypes and nine levels of psychological development, with people falling on a continuum within each type. The relevance of the Enneagram to couples work lies in its ability to move couples out of their automatic way of responding during conflicts and to look at situations from another’s perspective, she says. “When we are able to step outside of ourselves and consider the other person’s experience of the situation, we are better able to see our impact on others. This can only be a good thing for couples wishing to invest in their relationships,” Duffey says. The Enneagram also provides a framework for counselors to assess and plan interventions on the basis of the couple’s types and levels of development.

Assessing each person’s current level of functioning is a key component to the tool, Duffey says, because it influences the individual’s response in challenging situations. “The Enneagram can help people identify their blind spots and Achilles’ heels and develop more productive ways of thinking and responding to situations that affect both people in the relationship.”

“Couples counseling is not typically smooth or easy,” Duffey continues. “There are many variables that contribute to its success.” For one, she says, clients need to possess enough self-awareness to tell themselves the truth about the role they play in certain situations. They also need to care about their impact on the other person and develop empathy. Partners capable of reflecting on their behaviors and motivations are generally able to make adjustments that communicate to the other person that they care. “I have found the Enneagram to be a helpful tool in this work,” Duffey says. “Couples report the good feeling that can come when they become more personally accountable, generous and, at the end of the day, more satisfied in knowing they are doing their part to make their relationship a good one.”

In Olver’s office, clients take a compatibility survey that highlights areas in which the couple is alike — and not so alike. Couples answer questions geared toward determining how high each person scores on the five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. “Then couples look at where they are compatible and where their challenges may come in and work at negotiating the problem areas,” she says.

Another exercise Olver finds helpful involves two large rubber bands knotted together in the middle. Olver then asks the couple to place a piece of paper between them and to draw a dime-sized dot on their respective ends of the paper. She next instructs the couple to center the knot of the rubber band over the dot closest to them. “As you might imagine, there are many possible outcomes,” Olver says. “Some people will pull hard to win, some give up and let their partner win, and some cheat. Occasionally, they work out a compromise, but that doesn’t usually happen until I ask them to think of as many ways as they can to come up with a way they both could win.”

“Some solutions involve taking turns, folding the paper so the dots come together, opening the knot on the rubber band to encompass both dots or creating a third dot that’s in between the original two,” she continues. “After couples see how many solutions there are when they decide to work together for both their good, I ask them to brainstorm a way for both of them to be satisfied in an area where they have been experiencing disagreement. They can often move past blocks in this way. I call this the win/win/win solution. Both partners win because they are happy with the solution, and their relationship becomes stronger for going through the process.”

The genogram is another helpful tool that Duba uses with couples. One couple with whom Duba worked had been married approximately 35 years. Their marriage had gone well but then suddenly started turning in a negative direction, complete with high anxiety and numerous arguments. In talking with the couple, Duba keyed in on how the wife repeatedly brought up stories concerning her childhood and feelings of insecurity. So Duba turned to the genogram for help.

As the wife worked through the genogram, it became clear that much of her anxious behavior as an adult — which would in turn upset her husband — was rooted in circumstances she had experienced as a child. The husband watched and listened intently as his wife shared these stories, and he mentioned afterward that the exercise helped him to better understand his wife and her triggers. Duba was also able to work through some of those issues with the wife, including encouraging her to develop self-soothing strategies so she could remain present for her husband even when she began feeling anxious.

Theoretical approaches

Counselors point to a variety of theories that guide their work with couples. Olver tends toward choice theory and reality therapy. With reality therapy, she says counselors can help clients assess whether their behaviors are moving them toward the things they really want. “Ask them, ‘What do you want, what are you doing to get it, is there anything you’re doing that’s getting in the way, and is it going to work?'”

Olver describes choice theory as an internal motivation psychology as opposed to something the counselor imposes on the client. With this approach, she says, counselors can “go under the surface to find out what does the person want that they’re using this behavior to get? They may not be honest about it with the counselor or they may not be sure what it is, but when someone is misbehaving, I always ask myself, ‘What is this person trying to get?'”

Stemming from choice theory, Olver developed another model she calls Inside Out Empowerment that deals with subconscious motivations. Counselors can use the approach to get at the subconscious material that might be holding clients back from happiness, she says. “Sometimes, it simply involves asking clients to be still enough to listen to that little voice inside their head,” she says. “We all have this voice that talks to us and, often, it is not a supportive one. This subconscious voice carries messages of how we are not good enough for the things we want. One question I use a lot is, ‘If you stopped doing the destructive things in your relationship you have been doing, what do you think will change that you might not like?’ Another way is to ask, ‘If you make the changes you say you want to make, what would you have to give up?’ These are not common questions, and sometimes the answers are surprising and seem to come from a place deep inside ourselves.”

Duffey was trained in systems theory, which she says assists counselors in conceptualizing the dynamics of couples and families. Through the years, she has also incorporated relational-cultural theory (RCT). “RCT, which is in some ways a philosophy of human development, offers a helpful perspective when working with couples,” she says. “It discusses how we all have a desire to form connections with others. Still, many of us behave in ways that keep us from enjoying the very connection we desire. RCT theorists describe this as the central relational paradox.” The theory acknowledges that all relationships suffer disconnections, Duffey says, but problems arise when those disconnections become chronic. “The good news is people can develop more supportive ways of relating to one another, and couples are able to move out of isolation and into reconnection,” she says. “This is the thrust of couples counseling from an RCT perspective.”

Duba uses John Gottman’s “Sound Marital House” model, which emphasizes friendship as an essential piece of the marital foundation. Gottman’s research has found that couples will likely struggle with problems perpetually throughout their time together, Duba says, but the health of the relationship is based in how the couple talks about those problems more so than in finding a solution to them.

Duba is certified in reality therapy and is pursuing a certification through the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology, but she is also very systemic in how she sees couples. “It’s very important to understand how each individual developed from childhood, how they came to know their reality as a child and how that fits into this new system of the relationship,” she says. This is pertinent especially in situations in which couples are experiencing values-driven conflicts. Those values have developed over time, she says, so to expect immediate change or compromise is unfair. Instead, Duba invites conversations with couples in which each person can express his or her point of view and where that view originated. “Having clients develop insight is really important,” she says.

Safety first

Domestic violence is clearly a difficult and tragic situation for clients to find themselves in. It can also prove to be a difficult and confusing situation for their counselors. Ryan Carlson, associate director of the Together Project at the Marriage and Family Research Institute at the University of Central Florida (UCF), says the topic is controversial in counseling circles because, on the one hand, advocates often believe that any violence within a relationship context centers around issues of power and control and, therefore, that counselors shouldn’t be working with the couple. “From the opposite perspective, counselors want to help everyone,” says Carlson, a doctoral student in counselor education at UCF. “We don’t like the idea that there might not be any hope for the couple.”

A possible solution, Carlson says, lies in creating partnerships between counselors and domestic violence experts so that each couple is assured of receiving the appropriate treatment for their specific situation. This idea was an integral part of the Together Project, a federally funded study geared toward providing relationship education to low-income married couples. From the start of the study, Carlson and his colleagues used a domestic violence screening protocol, which they had developed, with each couple. Whenever the protocol indicated a couple might be dealing with domestic violence, a local domestic violence expert would intervene and recommend whether safety concerns needed to take precedence over counseling.

The decision was often based on whether power and control were intertwined with the violence, Carlson says. When power and control issues are present, the first priority has to be safety, he emphasizes. But when the violence isn’t tied to power and control — when it is related instead to a lack of anger management or poor conflict-resolution skills — there’s a greater possibility that counseling can help alleviate the couple’s problems. In carrying out the study, the path forward was a collaborative decision between Carlson’s colleagues and domestic violence experts.

Although the protocol and attention to domestic violence were part of a study, Carlson says the project also has relevance for counselors working in private practice. “The point is to be aware. There is always the chance that [violence] exists within the couple, and if you don’t ask about it, they’re probably not going to tell you,” says Carlson, a member of ACA and IAMFC. If a counselor is working with a couple and doesn’t know about the threat of domestic violence, the counselor is likely to treat both individuals as if they are on a level playing field in the relationship. If a true power differential exists in the relationship, Carlson warns that the counselor could place certain clients at risk by asking them to talk honestly and openly in session, possibly inciting a violent reaction from their partner outside of session.

Counselors must inquire about violence within the relationship, preferably asking each partner separately if possible, Carlson says. If one of the partners acknowledges domestic violence, the counselor needs a plan of action and, here, collaboration is key, he says. Counselors should attempt to form relationships with local domestic violence providers who can offer assistance and guidance concerning whether persons being victimized in relationships need safety and shelter more than they need counseling. If that isn’t possible, Carlson recommends that counselors ask supervisors or colleagues to provide another perspective.

Carlson admits that uncovering violence in a relationship is tricky for the counselor. Particularly if power and control are involved in the situation, the counselor doesn’t want the perpetrator to know the victim has disclosed any information. And if client safety is the greatest need, the counselor must be careful in how he or she suggests that counseling be terminated. To avoid alerting the aggressor that the victim has disclosed information, Carlson says a counselor might explain to the couple that the presenting issues are more individual in nature and that the best route would be individual counseling before continuing with couples counseling.

In situations in which the violence isn’t a product of power or control and the counselor has collaborated with someone else in determining to move forward with the couple in counseling, Carlson recommends talking openly with the couple about instances of violence. He also advises asking the aggressor to acknowledge that violence is never a healthy or appropriate way to resolve conflict.

A variety of exercises can help couples resolve conflict more peacefully, Carlson says. Sharing the simple tool of a time-out with couples is useful, he says, as is educating them about their escalation signs so they can take a break and address issues later on when they’re not feeling overheated. PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) and PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) are two curricula that Carlson recommends to help couples reconnect, hear and understand each other better.

Family of origin can also play a role in how couples deal with anger, Carlson says. “For example, one member of the couple may have grown up in a family where conflict was handled by yelling, screaming, threatening and other escalating behaviors. Therefore, this person may not know how to handle conflicting points of view any other way. Counselors can help couples identify and share with each other how anger was handled in their families and discuss how each member of the couple would like to see anger and conflict handled in their own relationship.”

Lessons from marriage veterans

Although research exists on couples who have been married for 25 years, Duba says there is very little research that addresses couples who have been together for 40 years or more. So, about five years ago, she decided to conduct a study focused on that population. Duba believes the successful relationship characteristics — and the unavoidable bumps in the road — she gleaned from those couples can offer valuable insight to counselors.

Duba interviewed 30 couples within an approximately 30-mile radius of Bowling Green, Ky. Each individual filled out a marital satisfaction inventory that covered topics such as marital interaction, communication, gender orientation, children and finances. After the questionnaires were mailed to her, Duba went to each couple’s home to conduct an oral history review.

Something that stood out from the interviews was the importance each couple placed on faith, which Duba acknowledges could be due to the fairly religious makeup of the area. But it’s also possible, she says, that faith might genuinely be an integral component of enduring marriages, regardless of where couples reside. The couples she interviewed credited their faith with helping them persevere through child rearing, financial struggles and adjustments to marriage, Duba says. She also found that happiness with gender role orientation was significant and highly related to marital satisfaction.

The most challenging times for the couples tended to be the first year of marriage, the years when they were raising children and when a spouse first retired, Duba says. The couples recalled the initial year of marriage being tough both financially and because they were often leaving their families of origin for the first time. Although admitting the first year of marriage was stressful, Duba says the couples also thought that period of their lives brought them closer together as spouses because they had to rely on each other. “Many of them said, ‘He or she was all I had,'” Duba recalls.

The couples also talked about how child rearing allowed them less time to spend together and put stress on their relationship, especially when the children became teenagers. The transition into retirement presented another common rough patch for couples. Duba heard complaints of how the husband’s return home disrupted the wife’s routine. Or in other cases, the wife had returned to work after the children left home, and she didn’t want to quit her job just because her husband had retired. “It was definitely an adjustment period,” Duba says.

Commonalities Duba uncovered that seemed to keep the couples’ marriages going included humor, praying together, a commitment to giving and taking, hard work and a determined mind-set. “Many of them said, ‘I promised I would marry him, and I was determined to keep my promise.’ It may have been related to religious values, but the word promise was a common thread.” The presence of hope was another factor, Duba adds. Many of the couples told her that even during the challenging times, “I knew we would get through it.”

In conducting the research, Duba found it especially poignant that even 40 years into marriage, all of the couples spoke fondly of how they met. “I thought that was phenomenal,” she says. “Despite any struggles, they still saw the good stuff. They didn’t lose sight of those great memories. That was apparent.”

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.

Couples counseling on campus

About two years ago, Christopher Adams conducted an informal poll of college counseling center directors to see if they offered couples and family counseling. Almost 90 percent of those who responded said they offered couples counseling, but most weren’t sure if students and campus staff members knew of its availability, possibly due to poor marketing and advertising, says Adams, who will be starting as an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, Mass., in the fall.

Couples counseling is increasingly needed on college campuses, Adams says, because the student body is changing, with more students seeking postsecondary education later in life and more students who are already cohabitating with partners. “I think [college] counselors need to have some awareness of that and realize students might benefit from different treatment modalities, including couples counseling,” says Adams, a member of ACA who has worked in college counseling centers for about four years.

Adams knows from personal experience how important couples counseling can be to a student. He was already married when he began his graduate studies and understands the difficulty of juggling classes with existing work, family and relationship responsibilities. “You can have a married or dating couple doing fine, but if school gets stressful and you don’t have an outlet for that stress, it can spill into the relationship,” Adams says. “And then that stress from the relationship can spill into school, and it can become a cycle.”

Although the specific technique used will depend on the problem each couple brings to counseling, Adams says thinking systemically and taking into account contextual issues is important when working with couples on campus. He also advises college counselors to draw from behaviorally oriented theories to strengthen couples’ communication skills, solution-focused approaches to assist couples in figuring out where they want to go and emotion-focused theories to help partners understand and validate each other’s emotional experiences.

Adams recommends that college counselors who want to offer couples counseling get additional training and seek supervision, in addition to remaining mindful of how cultural variations might influence what is considered appropriate counseling. College counselors must also make sure they are operating within their school’s guidelines, he says, because some schools require that all clients be students at the school.

To college counseling centers that are already providing couples counseling services, Adams offers some straightforward advice: Advertise and let as many members of your campus as possible know that this valuable resource is available to them.

— Lynne Shallcross