Monthly Archives: February 2022

One size does not fit all in couples counseling

By Sara Schwarzbaum February 8, 2022

Our field needs competent and effective couples counselors now more than ever. Couples’ distress is a public health issue affecting families and communities. But many counselors did not receive enough training in their graduate school days to work effectively with couples, and now they are scrambling to choose from the myriad available trainings to find the best fit. 

More and more counselors are considering becoming skilled at working with couples in distress, but it’s not always easy to figure out what training to invest in. In this article, I describe why framework integration is important in couples counseling and spell out a three-stage model for achieving it, using a case example as a guide.

Proponents of most couples counseling frameworks seek to provide answers to the following questions, and the answers constitute the elements of the particular model:  

  • How do problems develop in a couple? 
  • Why do problems develop in a couple?
  • How do couples change? 
  • What is the role of the counselor in the process of change?

There are advantages and disadvantages to adhering to only one model. 

Having a road map helps the couples counselor figure out what to focus attention on and makes the work less overwhelming. For example, a framework helps the counselor think of the questions to ask, the goals of the counseling process and the interventions to achieve those goals. A model also often makes it easier to find a community of like-minded counselors, providing a forum for discussions in which counselors feel less isolated doing this difficult work.

But adherence to one framework also has its limitations. For instance, it’s tempting to make the couple fit into the theory. A model gives structure, but it does not necessarily provide the freedom to adapt to the needs of a particular couple. 

With so many variables to take into consideration, how could one model possibly be a good fit for all couples? Still, model integration is not easy. The more tools a couples counselor possesses, the more freedom the counselor will have to implement what’s most needed in a certain situation. But having multiple tools can be disorienting. Counselors faced with too many options may be tempted to cling to one theory precisely because it’s easier and less confusing and can be less isolating.

After decades of experience working with couples in distress, teaching couples counseling frameworks and supervising counselors who work with couples, I have come to firmly believe that one size does not fit all in couples counseling. The treatment must be personalized, individualized and, most importantly, sequenced according to the stage of the treatment process. 

Why is framework integration important?

Several compelling reasons encourage the use of an integrative approach.

First, many approaches to couples counseling use different terms to describe similar phenomena. These differences are, in part, a result of the lack of cross-fertilization between proponents who favor a certain approach. Different models emphasize their uniqueness and their differences, but they often overlap considerably in what they deem important. 

Second, no single approach is comprehensive enough to deal with the variety of problems that contemporary couples present to their counselors. Some models concentrate on a particular period of time. Some focus on the future vision of the couple when their problems would be solved (Gottman method, solution-focused and narrative), some on the present interactional patterns (systemic) and some on the past or intergenerational transmission process (Bowenian, psychodynamic). Each model focuses on either thinking (cognitive behavioral), feeling (emotionally focused approach) or behavior as the door of entry into the change process. And some models focus on the developmental aspects of each member of the couple, regardless of whether the couple decide to stay together (developmental). 

Third, errors and failures in couples counseling can generally be attributed to the application of a pure form of a framework. At some point, every framework, when applied single-handedly or in its pure form, fails to help some couples. The moment of integration inevitably comes when counselors start asking themselves, “What else could I have done with this couple?” This question is the prompt that counselors need to reach outside a model and look for alternatives.

Fourth, one of the most important aspects of a treatment with a couple is the therapeutic alliance. Sometimes, the application of a pure model risks rupturing the alliance. When this happens, another model could be used to restore the alliance so that the process of couples counseling can continue successfully. Consider the following examples: 

An intergenerational counselor versed in the model founded by Murray Bowen is likely to do a genogram fairly early in the process, but one member of the couple doesn’t buy in to the idea that a connection exists between family-of-origin issues and the couple’s current impasses and may refuse to talk about family of origin. 

Many couples counselors think the honest and vulnerable expression of feelings is the most important factor in a treatment with a couple. However, one partner does not feel safe expressing vulnerable feelings in front of the other partner or does not believe in the value of expressing feelings because “it would make me look weak.” 

Proponents of postmodern frameworks (solution-focused or narrative therapy) consider the couple to be the experts in solving their own problems and frequently use interventive questioning. What if the couple think they are “coming to the therapist for expertise” and request more guidance?

Counselors with an insight orientation may believe that awareness is sufficient and tend not to believe in skill deficits. What if the couple achieve a high level of awareness but their behavior still doesn’t change because they lack the skills to make behavior changes?

It’s clear that the therapeutic alliance could suffer if the couple and the counselor don’t agree on the reasons for the development of problems or on the ways to alleviate them. Sometimes, adherence to a pure form of a framework risks rupturing the alliance between the couple and the counselor. It’s up to the counselor to adapt the framework to the couple and not the other way around.

How do we do framework integration?

There are several ways of integrating models. Readers are encouraged to explore models of framework integration such as the metaframeworks model, as well as the works of William Pinsof, Art Nielsen, Ellyn Bader, Peter Pearson and Scott Miller, to name a few. Additionally, applying the stages of change model to couples work would shed some light on ways to integrate models.

One way to think about integrating models, according to Pinsof, is to apply the least amount of “medicine” to a problem and observe its effects. Counselors can go from the “here and now” approaches (solution-focused, narrative) to the “there and then” (intergenerational and psychodynamic) in a sequential manner by applying the least invasive, more direct interventions first. 

In this view, the framework we choose should depend not on the severity of the presenting issue but rather on what maintains the presenting issue, what roadblocks there are to solving the presenting problem and what constraints people have. 

Some couples who present with severe long-term distress, substance use issues or personality disorders may be able to improve dramatically in a relatively short period of time with direct, here-and-now, behavioral interventions, provided that the issues that maintain the problems are not too constraining or too deep. If what maintains the problem is relatively simple and superficial, behaviorally oriented interventions would be effective, no matter the severity of the presenting problem. It is the failure of such interventions that begins to tell us the structure of the problem is broader or deeper than we anticipated. Counseling involves the continuing testing of hypotheses about what maintains distress in a couple. 

Rido/Shutterstock.com

Another way to think about framework integration is to sequence the couples counseling process into stages. A successful stabilization of the couple can increase motivation for deeper work. Counselors never know how long the couple will commit to the process — whether it will be for five sessions or for 50 sessions. In the early stages, couples can get stabilized if the therapeutic alliance is strong and if they are committed and motivated to do some work on their interactional pattern. An approach that works well in the beginning stages is future-oriented, focusing on creating a vision of a better relationship and on strengths and resilience factors. The systemic, developmental, Gottman, solution-focused and narrative frameworks are most recommended for the beginning stages of counseling couples. 

In the second stage of the treatment process, when couples want to commit to going deeper, emotionally focused, imago, transgenerational and psychodynamic frameworks could be utilized. This is when couples agree to do a deeper exploration of their interactional pattern and its connection to their attachment histories and styles, and they want a better understanding of their individual vulnerabilities, their survival strategies and the coping mechanisms they use that maintain their negative interactional cycle. 

In the third stage, to deal with setbacks or to prevent relapses, couples who have done the deep second-stage work will be more inclined to strengthen their bond with behavioral or systemic interventions involving skill building and a change in the pattern of interaction. If separation or divorce is at issue, the process of uncoupling will be less marred with emotional upheavals if the couple did the deeper second-stage work. 

Case illustration using treatment sequencing 

First stage: Stabilization

When Roy and Beatrice — a heterosexual couple in their late 30s, married less than a decade, with two children under age 5 — came to their first appointment, Roy reported they were struggling with high conflict, that issues were never resolved and that he didn’t feel supported. Beatrice said there was a lot of tension and very little affection or sex in their marriage. She also said that she did not know how to deal with Roy’s intensity and anger. Their level of distress was moderate to high, and their level of hope about the viability of their relationship was low. 

When I asked them how they would know that the therapeutic process had been successful, they said they would have better communication and more sex. I also asked them what kind of partner they wanted to be. They agreed that they both wanted to have more fun; they wanted to take things more lightly and less seriously. 

In the early stages, couples counseling can focus more on “what could be” happening than on “what is” or “what was” happening. It is important to help partners focus on the “partner I want to be” rather than on the “partner I want to have.” This is what I did with Roy and Beatrice during the stabilization stage of treatment, and it reflects my use of future-oriented questions.

Generally, postmodern approaches focus primarily on the future. The proponents of these frameworks, such as the solution-focused or narrative frameworks described by Phillip Ziegler and Tobey Hiller in their 2001 book Recreating Partnership, are interested in assessing and eliciting strengths, resilience and pride factors. Some of the approaches are more behavioral, whereas others are more cognitive based. 

Like so many couples, as Roy and Beatrice got stabilized, their level of hope about the viability of their relationship increased dramatically after they discovered what strengths they brought into their relationship and described what gave them a sense of pride. They were able to focus on what kind of partner they wanted to be. They figured out how to shift their focus to the positives. In a short time, they increased their awareness of the impact of their behaviors on each other. 

They managed to create a vision of their relationship, but when they fought, things got out of hand because of their mutual blaming, so I turned to John and Julie Gottman’s model. Using the Gottman method, Roy and Beatrice figured out how to stop a fight; they learned to listen to each other and to recognize sooner when they got flooded so they could stop a conversation that was not going well. They learned to initiate conversations when they were not tired or hungry or emotionally depleted, helping them to avoid what the Gottmans refer to as a “harsh startup.” 

Second stage: Going deeper

Not everything was easy for Roy and Beatrice. Roy struggled with impatience when triggered; Beatrice struggled with shutting down when Roy became impatient. At one point Roy said, “I am a screamer, and I come from a screamer family. That’s who I am. Why should I change?” 

Beatrice said, “I guess I do defend myself when he attacks me, but what else can I do?” 

To answer those questions, I turned my attention to the emotionally focused therapy (EFT) approach to couples counseling. This framework focuses on strengthening the attachment bond through the awareness and expression of vulnerable feelings.

EFT also focuses on a systemic understanding of interactional patterns. Roy and Beatrice learned to identify their triggers, their feelings and their interactional patterns: The more impatient and upset he became, the more she got defensive and shut down, and the more she shut down, the more impatient he became.

To create a bridge between the interactional and the intrapsychic work, we explored what was under the anger. By then, we had a very strong therapeutic alliance, and the couple trusted me to guide them to explore their most vulnerable feelings. For Roy, it was fear of rejection; for Beatrice, it turned out that when she felt controlled, she decided that she didn’t need Roy and thus rejected him, completing the cycle. The more Roy felt rejected, the more inpatient and upset he became; the more impatient he became, the more she rejected him. Once we understood what was under the anger, we were able to turn our attention to Roy’s and Beatrice’s families of origin and their attachment histories to go even deeper into the intrapsychic work. 

Sometimes, with the application of EFT, Gottman method and solution-focused ideas, couples get better or simply move on. But other times, they are motivated to go deeper, or they don’t get better. One way to go deeper or to the past is to use intergenerational approaches, including Bowenian, imago and psychodynamic frameworks. 

As we delved into their life stories, I learned that when Roy’s parents were screaming at each other when he was very young, he often hid under the table and covered his ears so he wouldn’t hear them. Not surprisingly, Beatrice had complained that Roy “doesn’t hear” her and that he hid his feelings. 

Beatrice, on the other hand, had a chaotic childhood, moved frequently and was never in one place for long. She survived by learning to rely only on herself and solving her own problems. She learned not to depend on anybody. Roy complained that Beatrice rejected him and was not a team player, that she did her own thing and that she didn’t “need” him. Both Roy and Beatrice were reenacting in their relationship some aspect of their attachment history, as Nielsen described in his 2016 book A Roadmap for Couple Therapy: Integrating Systemic, Psychodynamic and Behavioral Approaches.

As time went on, I started interviewing Roy and Beatrice individually, but in the presence of each other. I wanted to understand their protective and defensive positions better, their sibling position in the family of origin and their attachment history. I empathized with each of them as we began to put words around their reactions. 

They were used to triggering each other’s childhood attachment injuries and shame-based reactions. Roy had been bullied and vowed that “nobody was going to make me feel weak and like a loser ever again.” When Beatrice complained, he felt inadequate and resorted to his survival strategy of counterattacking her. Beatrice on the other hand had been emotionally neglected, and when Roy attacked her, she literally shut herself off from him, went to her room the way she did growing up and said to herself, “I can do this on my own. I don’t need him.” This in turn triggered Roy’s fear of rejection and hostile behaviors. 

Third stage: Skill building, preventing relapses and dealing with setbacks

As time went on, the description of their interactional patterns became much richer. We worked on their family-of-origin histories and connected their childhood defensive positions to the ways in which they got triggered. In time, Roy and Beatrice accessed the origins of their shame and vulnerability. They were courageous and stuck with the process, but it was marred by repeated cycles of progression and regression. They would move toward greater openness and flexibility only to return to the old familiar negative cycles. 

It turned out that Roy and Beatrice didn’t have any role models they could draw on to build and maintain a successful and collaborative relationship. They needed skills, but they would not have been able to learn them without doing the deep work of the previous stage. So, we worked on an apology protocol to heal old wounds, discussed a variety of problem-solving strategies, looked for alternatives to disconnection and discussed ways to deal with disappointments and disagreements. They also learned to have calendar and division-of-labor meetings.

When I met Roy and Beatrice, I didn’t know how long I would see them. After a two-year process, their negative cycles had become less severe and were of shorter duration. They had learned how to fight fair, how to repair emotional wounds and how to have positive interactions. It is a testament to their courage and perseverance and to the strength of the therapeutic alliance. Not all couples stay engaged in counseling for so long, which suggests why an initial stabilization period is essential for many couples who don’t make it to stage two of the process.

There are many excellent models for doing couples counseling that I did not mention in this article. The frameworks I chose are based in part on my own beliefs about the reasons for Roy and Beatrice’s distress and my views about how they could improve, which I developed over time. 

To succeed at integrating models, every counselor who works with couples should seek answers to the following questions: How and why do problems develop in a couple? How do couples change? What is the role of the counselor? Theory integration is easier and less overwhelming when counselors develop their own views about these important issues and use them as their guiding principles.

 

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Sara Schwarzbaum is a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor. She is the founder of the Academy for Couples Therapists (theacademyforcouplestherapists.com), an integrative online training program for counselors who want to improve their work with couples, and the founder of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago. She is the author of Culture and Identity: Life Stories for Counselors and Therapists. Contact her at sara@theacademyforcouplestherapists.com.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Tapping the inner child to bolster couples counseling

By Scott Gleeson February 4, 2022

Robert Jackman, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in St. Charles, Illinois, found common couples counseling practices such as the Gottman method and imago relationship therapy to be helpful over the years in his work with clients at his private practice in the Chicago suburbs. But he also discovered that the one-size-fits-all approaches — by themselves — didn’t always get to the root of the problem right away within a given couple’s struggling relationship. That’s why he began to think outside the box. Or rather inside it.

“With almost all of my clients, I was seeing unresolved childhood wounding showing up in their adult relationship,” Jackman says. “I believe that a client understanding his or her own inner child, as well as their partner’s inner child, can help a couple reach past a familiar pattern and go deeper into a state of compassion and respect for one another.”  

Renowned psychologist Carl Jung originated the concept of a divine child archetype, and the term inner child was popularized by Lucia Capacchione and John Bradshaw in the 1980s and 1990s. The term has been used to describe a childlike aspect within a client’s unconscious mind, meant to identify a subpersonality to discover unmet needs and suppressed emotions from childhood. 

“I’ve heard at conferences for a while that this is an old term, as if it’s not really all that resourceful,” says Jackman, a member of the American Counseling Association. “But what I realized, as a psychodynamic therapist, is how much focusing on this concept can help cut through all the noise for a client.” 

Jackman wrote his first book, Healing Your Lost Inner Child, in 2020. He quickly followed it up with his second book, Healing Your Wounded Relationship, this past year because he found inner child work to fittingly parlay into couples therapy. “Couples come into therapy wanting hope,” Jackman says. “Understanding why they act the way they do, as well as the behaviors of their partner, can help restore a lot of that hope.”

Sara Schwarzbaum, an LCPC and founder of Couples Counseling Associates in downtown Chicago, likewise believes that conceptualizing the inner child can bolster therapeutic progress and help clinicians better understand disruptive patterns. 

“Within every couple lies their parents. The adult relationship is essentially a psychological regression because it reminds people of the emotional dependence they had as children,” explains Schwarzbaum, an ACA member. “When a couple comes in, one of my jobs is to identify their interactional pattern, which is based on ways in which they became organized growing up. Their defense or coping mechanism will often present as their inner child — where they’re trying to get those unmet needs through their partner. Understanding who they were as a child and what they needed from their parents gets right to the heart of the conflict.” 

A direct avenue to vulnerability

Thais Gibson, a certified counselor in Montreal and founder of the Personal Development School, specializes in attachment-based trauma. She says a couple are often drawn to each other in the first place because of a subconscious pull to heal wounds from childhood through their partner — hence creating an inner child bond. 

“The subconscious can rule so much within ourselves,” Gibson says. “The inner child can be an intuitive relationship with yourself that’s really a collection of subconscious wounds. Whatever we didn’t heal at age 5 or age 8 will show up in our 20s and 30s.

“The therapist will often play the role of helping to unpack those retriggered wounds with the person they’re usually most vulnerable with in the world — their partner.”

Reaching that place of vulnerability alongside a couple doesn’t happen overnight, so building awareness of the inner child through psychoeducation can be a helpful method for clinicians to parachute into the fray and spark healthy dialogue, Schwarzbaum says. “I firmly believe that vulnerable expression of feelings is essential for couples work. Unless you get there or a client gets there, you’re not going to make much progress,” she says.

The first step in building necessary trust quickly with a couple is getting to that place of vulnerability as a clinician. Jackman says understanding his own inner child and bringing that version of himself to life was fundamental to his incorporating the concept with clients. As he points out, it isn’t unusual to have six personalities in the therapy room: himself and his inner child, and a couple and their inner children. 

“We’re trying to create a safe container for clients, so we have to show that we have one for ourselves,” Jackman says. “That might seem [cluttered], but as a therapist, that immediately deepens the approach and can be easily folded into other models.” 

The next step is helping clients build awareness of their inner child on an individual level. Gibson first pushes to help her clients one-on-one in “reparenting their subconscious (inner child) with their conscious mind” based on the premise that healthy self-love can foster external love.  

“We’re drawn to people with patterns we’re still carrying,” she says. “If we’re drawn to a dismissive avoidant partner, we might be used to dismissing our own needs. Sometimes, we have to face our shadow to tell a different story than the one that we’re used to of being unworthy or unlovable.”

Alexandra Katehakis, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist and clinical director for Center for Healthy Sex, says the term “inner child” can often pinpoint those hidden self-loathing patterns. “When we ask clients about that, it actually reveals what their relationship with self-compassion is,” Katehakis says. “Are they disgusted at the notion of picking up the inner child and soothing them? That gives us information. Can we be kind to ourselves? So often we’re hurting ourselves, yet we don’t want to hurt ourselves. Then we’re hurting our partner.” 

Schwarzbaum notes that the individual self-discovery aspect doesn’t always have to take place only in individual therapy; it can also coincide with couples work. “A dirty little secret to couples therapy is that it’s actually individual therapy in the presence of the partner,” she says.  

Gibson agrees. Although she focuses largely on self-growth and individual work in her daily video series for the Personal Development School, she says clients often cannot understand their unhealed wounds or relational patterns without first experiencing conflict in the context of a relationship. In that sense, the inner child bond can often work as a double-edged sword in a relationship because clients can either heal through each other or trigger each other into separation. 

“That’s why communication is so important, because otherwise, trauma bonds can take over,” Gibson says. “Helping clients to understand and really know their inner child can be helpful because it creates an avenue to be more vulnerable with oneself and a partner. That makes it easier to say, ‘I feel afraid when you’re pulling away’ or ‘I feel smothered when you get too close.’ We can be our most vulnerable self with our partner, and it can be cathartic to share, to communicate our needs.” 

Katehakis believes “deep, vulnerable and empathic communication” is a goal that can be obtained through the vessel of childlike connection. She often encourages her clients to tap in to this reservoir of connectivity with their partner. 

“I think we’re doing inner child work with clients whether we call it that or not,” Katehakis says. “Clients already have a relationship with their inner child too. It’s just bringing it into awareness. When we say, ‘I want a pint of chocolate ice cream’ after a breakup, we’re giving the 5-year-old version what she wants because she’s sad.” 

Helping clients buy in right away

Schwarzbaum believes that theories and models — while necessary and resourceful — can often lead to rigidity or slower progress if leaned on too heavily. That, in turn, can offset the much-needed therapeutic alliance to win over each client in the first several sessions of couples counseling. 

“That bond and emotional safety with a client need to trump the framework,” Schwarzbaum says. “Being too married to a theory can lead to a scenario where you’re not personalizing the treatment process. 

“Couples become more stabilized if they believe you’re on both sides simultaneously. An alliance in couples therapy means that each of them believes I’m on their side and in agreement with them about what’s wrong and how to fix it. That’s where family of origin comes in.”

Many couples counseling outlooks that appeal to clients, such as The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, will address present-day desires and needs. And with clients wanting quick forms of relief, the idea of diving into the past can have a slowed-down connotation. Yet Jackman says that immediately addressing the “internal source” can lead to quick progress by offsetting emotional flooding and naturally personalizing the treatment. 

“I’ll often ask a client how old they are when they’re screaming at their partner,” Jackman says. “They’ll usually say a teenager, and that serves as a big clue. If a client comes and says, ‘I have anger issues,’ I immediately tell them that anger is necessary, but we need to understand it. And that it might be their inner child saying, ‘We need to stay angry so we don’t get hurt.’ So, it’s a way to respect how they’ve learned to protect themselves. To say, ‘I see you.’ It can totally disarm a client’s defensiveness because they can think, ‘Somebody finally gets it.’ It’s also a way of meeting them exactly where they’re at.” 

Schwarzbaum agrees that unearthing the genesis of relational patterns and conflicts can foster essential buy-in quickly. As such, she’ll often ask a couple to write letters to their parents early on.

“I’ll tell clients the only way we can know why is to trace the family-of-origin pattern,” she says. “I won’t immediately ask a client about their mother because they’ll say, ‘That’s not why I’m here.’ But I’ll tell them why they’re doing what they’re doing. The more client A pursues, the more client B withdraws, for instance. Maybe client A wants respect because he didn’t get attention growing up with many siblings. And maybe client B learned to self-rely because they hid under the table and covered their ears during fights and conflicts growing up.” 

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock.com

Jackman says the delivery of information to clients can be key, especially early on. “It’s important clients’ patterns of what they’re doing are delivered with deep empathy because it’s not like one person is saying, ‘I have low self-esteem and you’re an abuser — let’s get together.’ They’re not doing it consciously, and it’s the underlying wounding driving them. Then they’re getting in the same arguments over and over, dropping those arguments like a hot potato, and returning to the same cycle.”

Jackman often uses the term synergistic wounding with couples to deter one partner from pointing the finger at the other. “It’s helpful that we all have a shared language, and by knowing that childhood wounding is getting triggered, they become less [adversarial], and it becomes a very open-hearted connection because they can see that tender part of the other.” 

Jackman created nine synergistically wounded archetypes in Healing Your Wounded Relationship to help couples quickly feel understanding from patterns with which they identify. The archetypes are the Wounded Hero and the Rescued Victim, the Blame-Shame Game, the Scorekeeper, the Mindreader and the Accused, the Fabulist and the Enabler, the Bickersons, the Oversharer, the Bad Boy and the Good Girl, and the Tug-of-War Controller. 

“Even though we are each unique and special, these patterns and themes are repeated universally,” Jackman writes in his book. “I define codependency as having a higher regard, esteem, love, trust and respect for someone else than one has for oneself. … Once this heavy curtain is pulled back, we begin to know more about ourselves and others.” 

Schwarzbaum says identifying patterns of both the self and a partner is fundamental. In a first session, she’ll ask clients separately, “What are their complaints about you?” That, in turn, increases the couple’s self-awareness to the impact of their behavior and creates a space to explore not just their own past but that of their partner’s. 

“Feeling unprotected, alone, attacked, not cared for, unloved — these are all inner child feelings and triggers,” she says. “It’s important a partner knows what they bring up for the other person and not just [for] themselves because they could easily build a long list of what their partner brings up for them.”

Penetrating shame walls 

What about sex? On the surface, a focus on the inner child wouldn’t seem to apply directly to a couple’s sex life. But Katehakis, a sex therapy specialist, says a breakdown in childlike bonding can be a determining factor in a couple’s sex life suffering. On the flip side, playful and childlike connecting can be a linchpin for emotionally available sexual connection. 

“In a relationship, we’re actually safe enough to hate each other,” says Katehakis, who authored a clinical workbook, due on bookshelves in 2022, titled What Turns You On. “So, we say things that trigger and bring up all the family-of-origin strategies for functioning. If the family fought dirty growing up, then that partner will fight dirty. If a family didn’t talk about feelings, then that partner might be too afraid to be vulnerable.

“Childlike connection is a crucial form of intimacy. We don’t see images in movies of couples being childlike together, tickling and cuddling. It’s too vulnerable in a way. But performative behaviors don’t define sex and fail to represent the actual tenderness of a sexual encounter.”

Schwarzbaum says partners will often trigger a negative view of the other through shame. “What people do with the shame determines the quality of intimate relationships,” she says. “Most people want their self-esteem to be enhanced through their partner, not the opposite.”

Katehakis concurs that shame can work as a massive barrier in a couple’s connection, which is why dialing a couple back to see themselves in childlike form can be a salve to that shame. “If we have a partner who sees us in that cherishing and amazed view of a child, we can tolerate or lean into some of the smaller frustrations,” she says. “Seeing ourselves at our most vulnerable state can help build the capacity for loving ourselves through another. Then we can start seeing ourselves as handsome and beautiful instead of throwing each other under the bus.” 

Gibson says that type of approach can get a couple back to a healthier time in their relationship, including the beginning phase. She has noticed that couples sometimes start criticizing each other shortly after the honeymoon stage, when the euphoria of infatuation and childlike connection fades and helplessness and powerlessness begin to surface. One of the biggest hurdles in working with a couple can involve peeling back the protective front they have built in the interim. 

“Most of the time growing up, our parents would always win, and we’d always lose,” Gibson says. “So, a relationship becomes an opportunity to change that. That’s how our partners become our enemies on accident. In response, we’re often protecting or building those invisible walls. Wherever we have wounding and imprints, we might’ve formed a shell and then hardened it. … But we’re not healing and growing if we’re hiding or even too focused on being seen.”

Jackman says he’s commonly convincing clients to focus less on the battle of “winning” and more on the war of “loving.” The notion of a client’s inner child being drawn to another’s inner child to mirror their own wounded parts might seem counterintuitive. But as Jackman explains, it’s also true that clients who come to couples therapy are there for a more important reason: They see and feel something in their partner that can be different and healing. 

“Achieving that means seeing the inner child,” Jackman says. “And both partners have to believe the cycle can stop. Then that hidden agenda [of healing] they both have carried not just in their relationship, but since childhood, can become unhidden and come to fruition.”

 

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Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor for DG Counseling in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent more than a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. His debut contemporary novel, The Walls of Color, will be published in 2023.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective: The unrecognized grief of IPV survivors

By Leontyne Evans February 3, 2022

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This is the debut article of a monthly online column about working with survivors of intimate partner violence written by a counselor who is also a survivor of domestic violence.

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In August 2021, I wrote an article for Counseling Today challenging counseling professionals to not ask survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) “Why didn’t you leave?” or to give the perceived notion that leaving would solve the problem. Doing so often causes confusion because most people believe that once someone leaves an abusive relationship, the problem is resolved.

So, let’s go with that for a second. Playing devil’s advocate to my own article, let’s say the protocol for assisting clients who have experienced IPV is to encourage them to leave. If they do leave, then what? What are the next steps? Where do they go from there? Is the problem solved? Will they no longer need the intervention of a professional?

As mental health professionals, we often believe we have all the solutions. We think our degrees, research, theoretical knowledge and certifications give us superpowers to fix people. But we often lack the real-life experience to understand the complicated layers of the situations our clients face.

If a client leaves their abuser, are you prepared to help them along their journey to recovery? Do you understand the journey? Do you understand the new set of problems that will arise after a survivor leaves?

Every counselor should not only be prepared to support their client in deciding how to safely exit an unhealthy situation (if that’s what the client wants to do) but also be adequately equipped to help the survivor prepare for what’s next.

You may be asking, “Well, if someone has removed themselves from an unhealthy environment, shouldn’t that be good enough?” Survivors often receive little to no support once the threat of abuse is gone because so many counseling professionals and organizations believe this very thing. It sounds easy enough: Leave your abuser and get back to living your life. Then all will be well, right? Wrong!

A survivor may experience unexpected issues after they leave their abuser that a clinician can help them to process and understand. As professionals, however, we must understand these issues first.

Each article of my column, “Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective,” will focus on one specific issue survivors may face post-crisis. In this first column, I explore how counselors can help survivors work through their grief and loss.

Experiencing grief and loss

One of the most overlooked side-effects of leaving an abusive relationship is grief. It may be hard to believe, and maybe even hard for some to understand, but there can be a lot of grief associated with ending an abusive relationship. Even if it was unhealthy, it was still a relationship.

Grief happens after people experience loss. A survivor who leaves an abusive situation may grieve:

  • Loss of self
  • Loss of love
  • Loss of the life they expected to have
  • Loss of the idea of who they thought their partner was
  • Loss of friends and family because of isolation

These are just a few examples of the types of loss survivors may experience. These feelings of loss are further complicated by the fact that survivors of IPV may not think sadness is an appropriate response to leaving a toxic relationship. They may find it hard to understand their feelings of loneliness and sadness when others expect them to feel freedom and happiness.

I still remember the day my abuser was taken away in handcuffs. I had looked forward to that day for months. I knew that he would be sentenced to four years in prison and that I would finally have my life back. The irony of watching him being arrested — not for the crimes he committed against me but for something totally unrelated — left me with a sense of bitterness instead of the peace I craved. After seven long years of being on an emotional rollercoaster, the ride was finally over.

However, when the authorities handed me his valuables, placed the handcuffs on his wrist and escorted him away from the courthouse, tears began to roll down my face. My bitterness was replaced with sadness. My anger was replaced with remorse, and my joy was replaced with the fear of loneliness. I cried the entire drive home.

For months, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the house settling at night caused me to awaken with anxiety. The stairs creaking at 3 a.m. reminded me of the nights when he would come home drunk and take his stress out on me.

I sank into depression, struggling to understand how my mind, heart and body didn’t seem to agree with the verdict. I became angry at myself for missing him, but I also knew I didn’t want him back. This whirlwind of confusing emotions made me feel out of control.

I didn’t understand what was happening then, but now I know this feeling was grief. Grief that I was too embarrassed to explain to anyone else. I was with my abuser for seven years. During that time, we woke up together, went to bed together, ate together, struggled together and celebrated together. It may be hard for some to understand, but I lost my friend. I lost a sense of familiarity. I lost what I thought was love.

Now as an expert in the field, I talk to other survivors every day who have had similar experiences. They are desperately trying to sort through their feelings and understand how they could miss something so toxic. I give my clients space to feel that loss, to grieve it. Similar to those who overcome addiction, survivors of IPV may go through withdrawals or even relapse. For these clients, having a counselor who understands that they are experiencing loss and is invested in helping them explore the journey back to themselves can be life changing.

What counselors must understand

No matter how much abuse was present in the relationship, it was still a relationship. At one point, two individuals loved each other. At one point, the survivor felt safe enough to allow their partner to get close to them to let their guard down. At some point, the survivor let their abuser in — not just into their home but into their heart. Because, let’s be honest, manipulation, gaslighting and the cycle of abuse would not be as effective if the abuser never gained the trust and love of their victim.

Imagine falling in love with someone, feeling a sense of closeness, and then one day waking up next to a stranger, feeling like you don’t know the person you’ve been sleeping with at all. Imagine that the person who once brought you immense joy is also the very person to cause you pain.

If you can’t imagine it, count your blessings to have never experienced something so psychologically damaging. This is indeed a loss. Grief comes in waves, and because the survivor is grieving multiple losses, they may find it hard to communicate or name their feelings.

The client’s mental conflict about ending the abusive relationship can easily be confused (by both the client and the counselor) with missing the abuser when, in reality, it’s often the uncomfortableness of being alone. Counselors can help clients process their feelings and learn to understand the difference between the two. They don’t miss their abuser; they miss themselves — the version of who they were before the abuse happened.

The client may have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to “fix” their partner, and now that they are alone, they may be faced with the idea of “fixing” themselves. Having to examine oneself closely is hard. A good counselor, however, can help clients realize that being in their own company is not necessarily a bad thing. 

How to be a supportive ally

You can be a supportive ally by putting a name to what the client is experiencing: disenfranchised grief (i.e., grief that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly supported). And you can remind them that grief is a normal response to any type of loss.

Give the client a sense of normalcy by explaining the cycle of abuse and why they may have these unexpected feelings. Become familiar with the power and control wheel, and help your client to understand it as well. Explain how manipulation and gaslighting play a part in the mixed emotions.

During sessions, you can also talk about various ways the client can rediscover themselves. Help them to sort their feelings and reconnect to the world in this new phase of their lives.

For example, they could join a club, find a new hobby or reconnect with a passion they had put aside because their former partner didn’t like it. As they grieve who they wanted to be, who they once were and the relationships that have been lost, encourage them to enjoy the journey of self-discovery and reconnection. It may be more manageable to help them acknowledge and work through each loss separately.

Now that you have a better understanding of one of the aftereffects survivors may face upon leaving an abusive relationship, you will be better equipped to serve as a professional and an ally.

PopTika/Shutterstock.com

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Leontyne Evans works as the survivor engagement specialist for Survivors Rising, where she helps to empower and uplift survivors by providing education and resources that encourage survivor voice and self-sufficiency. She is a published author of two books, Princeton Pike Road and Relationships, Friendships and Situationships: 90 Days of Inspiration to Keep Your Ships From Sinking, both of which support her mission of ending the cycle of unhealthy relationships. Contact her at leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

CEO’s Message: Love and hope

Richard Yep February 2, 2022

Richard Yep, ACA CEO

In this month’s column by ACA President Kent Butler, he provides examples of those who have shown their love for their fellow human beings and the benefits of such actions. Loving each other has become challenging with the great divisions being perpetuated on a global scale. It can be challenging to show love to someone who seems to be in a diametrically opposed position regarding politics, systemic racism, distribution of wealth, employment, social justice and, of course, issues related to the health of our communities. 

President Butler has embraced the work of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and provided examples of love in action by a few of his ACA predecessors who have recently passed. The ACA past presidents he referenced — Sam Gladding, Catherine Roland and Robert Smith — were incredible individuals who led through their scholarship, mentorship and dedication to the counseling profession. Above all of these things though, they led through their love of both the profession and of those with whom they worked and served.

As ACA’s CEO, I have witnessed the love that our staff has for the organization and its members. They have shown this through their dedication and commitment to our members, the counseling profession and the communities with which you work. Because of the staff’s love for the cause, the mission and the vision set forth by our volunteer leaders, we have seen growth in membership, support of our licensure portability efforts through the Counseling Compact and the achievement of milestones in ACA’s anti-racism plan. There are many other programs, projects and services that require a great deal of work, and I am constantly amazed by the creativity and work of our staff.

With all that is currently going on in the world, I also continue to be in awe of the love shown by so many professional counselors and counselor educators through efforts to improve our communities. Whether you do this by impacting large groups of people or by providing direct, front-line service one person at a time, please know that you are making a difference. Your actions are grounded in the love you have for your fellow humans, especially those who face life’s challenges. 

Going hand in hand with love, of course, is hope. I think about what Desmond Tutu said: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” I’ve always felt that professional counselors do an amazing job of helping clients, students and entire communities find ways to see beyond the darkness. 

When I reflect on ACA’s role in the journey of a professional counselor, counselor educator or graduate student, I like to think that what we do regarding advocacy, public policy, resource development, ethics consultations and networking shines some light on supporting the profession. Even in really good years when we deliver on so many projects, we are still developing just as counselors develop — by building off of what we have done previously.

This year, my “hope” is that you will let me and the staff know what it is that will help you in your journey as a professional counselor. We collect a lot of data, we scan reports for trends, and we have a dedicated staff of 60 who are very good at what they do. But the most important thing that we depend on is you! Your feedback, suggestions, requests and, yes, even your critiques are what we find so compelling. We love what you do for those you serve. 

Knowing that you help others see beyond the darkness motivates us. So, please feel free to contact me, share some thoughts and let your professional association staff serve you. 

As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and thoughts. Feel free to call me at 800-347-6647 ext. 231 or to email me at ryep@counseling.org. You can also follow me on Twitter: @Richyep.

Be well.

From the President: Archbishop Desmond Tutu knew love

S. Kent Butler

S. Kent Butler, ACA’s 70th president

Love wants nothing in return. It is simply love, an unconditional gift that is shared without expectation. Seeing others transformed by your love is reward enough. Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke to the very nature of love when he shared that “we are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths.”

Sam Gladding knew of this love, stating after traveling to New York to counsel individuals dealing with the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy that the experience “strengthened my faith in regard to the goodness of people and the kindness of people and the generosity of individuals.” Catherine Roland knew love and embraced positivity as her mantra. Like Sam, she was impacted by world affairs and encouraged folks to love and not hate, to not be driven by ignorance, and to find our way back to civility.

I have been deeply encouraged by other words of wisdom that Desmond Tutu shared over the years. He spoke with such authority, and it is clear that his messages came from his heart and soul. He was dedicated to advancing our humanity. Like Tutu, the late Clemmont E. Vontress, a pillar in the counseling community, knew love, as evidenced by his belief that culture and race could transcend counseling when culturally responsive counselors embraced their clients’ humanity. He stated that “counselors must concern themselves with the human condition in general before addressing the specifics of the client’s culture because people are more alike than they are dissimilar.”

I am certain that when Tutu stated that “your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value,” he was imploring us to do better. It was his incredible way of letting us know that each of us must commit to changing the world and that when we do the right thing, ultimately we will find that “nothing is too much trouble for Love.” In fact, we need to reevaluate how we see love. As Tutu wrote, “We tend to think love is a feeling, but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others.”

I am sure this is how Sam Gladding, Catherine Roland and Robert Smith saw love as well. Each of these ACA past presidents passed away in 2021, but their legacies all leave a mark showcasing how much each loved the counseling profession. Robert, who was proud to work at a Hispanic-serving institution, believed that a graduate degree not only changed a student but also transformed a generation.

Author and activist bell hooks knew love as well. Through her feminist identity, bell made the bold statement that love does not inflict harm on the self or on others. Much like our counselor’s creed, agape love will “Do no harm.” She shared that “when we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist.” 

I love bell. She was radical, and she spoke the truth! In her book Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, bell wrote that “it is the most radical intervention anyone can make to not only speak of love, but to engage in the practice of love. For love as the foundation of all social movements for self-determination is the only way we create a world that domination and dominator thinking cannot destroy. Anytime we do the work of love we are doing the work of ending domination.” 

This February, let’s end the need to possess others, control their narratives and selfishly use fear to harm their growth and development. I want to let bell’s words close out my column this month, because — as the great voices elsewhere in this column echo — they resonate deeply and promise us hope for the future. I will cherish all that their wisdom has taught me. “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients — care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” I am a big proponent of society embracing difficult and truthful dialogues. She goes on to state that “as we love, fear necessarily leaves.” Profound words that I believe, in conjunction with action, will heal our nations. 

In All About Love: New Visions, bell challenges us to choose love: “When we choose to love we choose to move against fear — against alienation and separation. The choice is to connect — to find ourselves in the other.” How beautiful would that be to find ourselves in one another. 

Powerful! #ShakeItUp and #TapSomeoneIn.