Tag Archives: Couples

Addressing intimate partner violence with clients

By Bethany Bray June 24, 2019

Licensed mental health counselor Ryan G. Carlson had just earned his master’s degree when he began working on a grant-funded project to provide relationship education to couples in the Orlando, Florida, area. Overseeing the intake process as local couples came into the university-based research center to participate, he quickly learned two things: Domestic violence “is very prevalent — much more prevalent than I realized — and it’s complicated,” says Carlson, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina. “Every case was a little bit different than the next.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines across the country receive more than 20,000 phone calls.

Approximately 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 16% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Carlson’s experience led him to study domestic violence while earning his doctorate, and it remains a career focus for him as he conducts research, does interdisciplinary work and conducts trainings for mental health professionals. “We assume when there’s violence in a couple’s relationship, they will tell us [in counseling]. What I’ve learned is if we don’t ask the right questions, they won’t tell us, and you shouldn’t ask those questions if you’re not ready for their disclosure,” he says. “It’s really complicated and emotionally charged. … A victim’s safety should be at the center of every decision we make as counselors.”

Handle with care

Counselors who notice patterns of maladaptive behavior, self-esteem issues or what appears to be poor decision-making by clients may automatically want to roll up their sleeves and dive into goal-setting and other go-to techniques to foster change and growth. However, engaging in change-focused work when a client is experiencing IPV may be harmful, warns Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit agency in Texas that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also offers an intervention program for offenders.

The tried-and-true counseling method of talking through clients’ life scenarios, behaviors and choices while asking questions such as “What could you have done differently?” or “What would you want to change if this happens again?” can be hurtful because a counselor may inadvertently be placing the responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of on the abuser, Cameron says. She cautions that counselors must choose their language carefully to avoid making the client feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse they have endured.

“Victims of domestic violence do many things to survive or to try to protect themselves within the relationship,” says Cameron, an American Counseling Association member. “However, the partner carrying out the abuse is solely responsible for the violence.” Ultimately, the client can’t control — and should never be made to feel that they shoulder the blame for — what their partner does, she emphasizes.

Carlson, who is also a member of ACA, agrees. He notes that it isn’t helpful for professional clinical counselors to identify client behaviors that could be changed or avoided when clients may have adopted those patterns as a means of self-protection.

“It’s important to be careful about how we phrase things with [these] clients,” says Carlson, director of the Consortium for Family Strengthening Research and coordinator of the Center for Community Counseling at the University of South Carolina. “Avoid anything that has to do with ‘what could you have done differently?’ questions, anything that would allude to how [the client] contributed to their current situation. … It’s a delicate balance, but it’s really important to avoid language that [even inadvertently suggests] a victim is somehow at fault for being in that relationship.”

“It doesn’t matter what they change about themselves because that is not going to change the other person,” says Margaret Bassett, an LPC and deputy director at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin. Counselor practitioners must consider the entire context of a client’s behavior to fully understand why they’re making those decisions, she says. Decisions that victims of abuse make — often for reasons of safety — can appear maladaptive from outside the context of the abusive relationship.

Bassett recalls a client who talked about agreeing to meet her estranged husband at a public library. Without understanding the full context of the situation — that if she didn’t meet with him, he had a history of escalating — a counselor might assume that the client was complicit in maintaining the abusive relationship rather than appreciate her layered safety planning, Bassett says.

“It was a brilliant move. It was safe to meet there because he couldn’t escalate without drawing attention,” Bassett explains. “Not meeting him just was not possible. This was meeting on her terms versus his terms. … This ties into [a counselor] listening and really hearing what the person is saying and not judging it out of context. Really being able to say, ‘That is a brilliant idea that you had.’ It’s not a good or a bad choice. Instead say, ‘When I hear that, I hear the safety it creates.’”

Victims of abuse often adopt patterns and behaviors that are the best choices they can make in a bad situation, Bassett notes. Professional clinical counselors should listen carefully to understand the full context of clients’ lives and then validate the choices they are making to safely navigate abusive and potentially violent situations. “Respect that they’re making a decision and really understand their safety concerns so your intervention is helpful and doable,” Bassett says.

Power and control

IPV happens between partners of all cultures and backgrounds — couples who are married and unmarried, heterosexual and homosexual, wealthy and poor, religious and nonreligious, white, Asian, Hispanic, African American and every other race. In addition, IPV often intersects with sexual assault; homelessness or disruptions in housing, schoolwork or employment; financial trouble; parenting issues; and myriad other challenges that spill over into the mental health issues that commonly bring clients to counseling.

Although the terms domestic violence and intimate partner violence both include the word “violence,” the abuse doesn’t always have a physical component, or the violent behavior is combined with emotional, nonphysical manipulation. What defines a behavior or relationship as abusive is a common thread of power and control. In its simplest definition, domestic violence is an intentional pattern of behaviors used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over another person, Cameron explains.

“It’s important to recognize that abuse is not an anger management issue,” she says. “People who are truly experiencing an anger management issue will go off on their boss, their cousin, the random guy at 7-Eleven. Abuse is carefully targeted at one person.”

Controlling behaviors are one of the biggest red flags counselors should be listening for to determine if a client might be involved in an abusive relationship, either as a perpetrator or a victim. Examples include checking or monitoring a partner’s cell phone, email or social media, or insisting that a partner text when they arrive at and leave from work every day. Other cues for which Cameron stays alert include:

  • Clients who clam up in session or appear to be afraid of their partner
  • Clients who are isolated from friends and family
  • Clients who feel they can’t go to work, school or social engagements because it upsets their partner
  • If one partner is the sole decision-maker or in complete control of the couple’s finances
  • If one of the partners continually feels guilty for their behavior
  • A partner who exhibits extreme jealousy
  • Clients who mention “walking on eggshells” around their partners
  • Clients who are having thoughts of suicide or threatening to harm themselves or their abuser
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to use drugs or alcohol or to not use contraception (or who lies about their own use of contraceptives)
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to have sex or to perform sexual acts that the person is uncomfortable with
  • Clients who talk about a partner belittling or embarrassing them in front of other people

Control tactics often go hand in hand with perpetrators minimizing or placing blame for their behavior, Cameron adds. Perpetrators of abuse may tell a victim that they wouldn’t have to act this way if the person came home from work on time, paid the bills on time, didn’t talk back, etc. Or, Cameron says, they may tell a partner, “It could have been a lot worse. I only shoved you. I didn’t punch you.”

In counseling, perpetrators may make statements such as, “I didn’t hurt her. I just punched the wall.” The behavior implies, however, that the perpetrator could have hurt the person, Cameron points out.

“Someone who is abusive will try and deflect attention away from the abuse,” Bassett says. “They will try and name what is happening. Maybe they push or strangle or pull their partner’s hair. But they will say, ‘I am not abusive because I never hit you. Have I ever hit you?’ or [point out that] there was no bruise. There’s a lot of crazy-making behavior that goes on. They’ll deny it ever happened or focus on something else. Abuse is a pattern of behavior, and the abuser will rationalize those patterns as something else. Pay attention to that as a therapist and help them to name the behavior [for what it is].”

If a client mentions that they fight a lot with their partner or that the partner has a temper or a “short fuse,” counselors can prompt the client to explain the fights, Cameron says. For example, “Tell me what these fights look like. Are there times [when] it feels unsafe?” Victims may use phrases such as “sometimes he is rough with me” or he “put hands on me,” not fully recognizing the behavior as abuse, she notes.

Carlson also recommends that counselors use carefully worded questions to follow up on statements made by clients to further explore the nature of their relationship experience. For example, ask clients how they handle conflict with an intimate partner and then use leading questions to learn more: When there is a disagreement, is it safe to talk about the disagreement? Is there any type of pushing, shoving, hitting, use of objects, physical violence, threatening language or name calling? Is jealousy a motivating factor? Does one partner place blame on the other, making statements such as, “You made me do this”? Is the partner violent or hostile outside of the relationship?

“Ask questions that determine if there is regret or remorse [after conflict] or if they recognize that there are other ways of handling conflict,” Carlson says.

In sessions with individual clients, Carlson recommends that counselors preface some of their most direct questions — such as “Are you afraid of your partner?” — with dialogue that prepares the client. “Say, ‘I have some questions for you about how you handle conflict in your relationship. They’re going to be very direct, and I wanted to give you a heads up, but it will help me better understand what you’re going through.’ Really tap into your basic counseling skills, the relationship-building skills that we learn early on, and emphasize those when such important questions are being asked,” Carlson says.

At the same time, Bassett adds, clinical counselors shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions of a client when appropriate. “Ask not just, ‘Has your partner physically assaulted you?’ but ‘Are you afraid of your partner?’ and be willing to explore that. Explore the emotional piece of abuse.”

Counselors can also supplement their own questions by using a formal questionnaire — Carlson recommends Brian Jory’s Intimate Justice Scale — or including questions on intake forms. Keep in mind, however, that clients may answer “no” to questions that later turn out to be a “yes” when explored in therapy.

Perpetrators of domestic violence often use manipulation to gain and maintain control over a person and keep them in the relationship, Cameron says. When alone with a partner, perpetrators sometimes threaten suicide if the partner ever were to leave them, or they make statements inferring that the partner would be worse off on their own: “If you leave, you won’t get any money”; “You will lose the kids”; “No one will ever love you. I’m the only one who will put up with you.”

“One of the biggest power tools is fear — abusers wield fear,” Cameron says. “They use fear to control their partner. In addition, abusers will often apologize for the abuse and say, ‘It will not happen again,’ without being accountable. Then they continue using control tactics.”

This can be complicated further if the couple’s friends and family take sides or if the victim comes from a culture or faith community that emphasizes submission to a partner, views marriage as an unbreakable bond, or values reconciliation over safety, Cameron adds.

Manipulation by a perpetrator can also extend to sexual assault, which often overlaps with domestic violence, Bassett says. “It’s also common for an abusive person to force or pressure sex [with an intimate partner]. They will define the experience as nonabusive and lay the groundwork for the survivor to agree to sex so that they aren’t forced,” she says. “The abuser is [then] able to say that they agreed to sex, making them complicit in what is actually a sexual assault. The abuser defines the experience, and the survivor needs the space and safety to name their experience [in counseling].”

Hard questions, empathetic listening

Most of all, clients who are currently in or have been in an abusive relationship in the past need a safe space to feel heard and validated and to be connected to resources to address their safety, Cameron says. It’s no surprise that building a therapeutic bond is especially important with these clients.

“Communicate that you believe them,” Cameron urges. “The most restorative thing [for the client to hear is] ‘it’s not your fault, and it’s not OK that they are doing this to you.’”

“It’s incredibly important to be nonjudgmental,” agrees Carlson. “There are so many practitioners who have a personal connection to this topic, it can be an emotive experience. The time of disclosure is a very important moment for the victim and can be filled with a lot of embarrassment and shame. When they are deciding how much to disclose, it’s often based on how they feel it will be received. … It’s important to manage your emotions in that moment because it’s such an important moment.”

“You may leave the room and feel, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an emergency. I have to get this person out.’” Carlson continues. “But remember that this is their daily reality. They’ve been living with this [abuse] for a while. It feels like an emergency to you, but to act on that may put the victim in danger. It’s important that the victim drives the steps of what happens next.”

Bassett agrees: “Be very aware that your goal [as a counselor] is not that they should leave the relationship. That needs to be a goal they make themselves. They have to own it, because any decision they make will potentially have ramifications for them.”

Cameron notes that taking decisions out of the hands of clients is one of the worst mistakes counselors can make when working with victims of IPV. “They’ve already had someone control their life, and we don’t want to step into that role,” she says. “The victim has the best knowledge about what they need.”

It’s vital for practitioners to explore a client’s experience with genuine care, says Paulina Flasch, an ACA member and an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University. “Really show concern and empathy and don’t sound like you’re interrogating them,” says Flasch, who runs a family violence research team at Texas State and worked at a domestic violence agency before and during her master’s program. “Focus on the counselor-client relationship, and ask [hard questions] because you really care. Share that what you’re hearing sounds abusive and that it must have been really hard [to go through]. … If you’re hearing that a past relationship was abusive, it’s important to call it that and identify its aftereffects. It can help validate their current experience and help them understand why they’re struggling. Help them look at patterns and how things tie together. … It’s a very powerful moment when the client connects the dots.”

“This is a person whose boundaries have been violated and who has not had safety and security — and we [counselors] have to be careful with that,” Flasch continues. “We have to let them know there will be a different response and they won’t be demeaned. If they went through that, they’re strong. Recognize that.”

All of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend using psychoeducation techniques and the Power and Control Wheel system (available at theduluthmodel.org) to talk through what a healthy relationship looks like (and does not look like) with clients who have experienced IPV. Bassett also stresses that work with IPV clients must be trauma-informed.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), expressive therapies, bibliotherapy or cinematherapy, grounding techniques and decision-making exercises can also help IPV clients, Flasch notes, as can attending support groups for IPV survivors in addition to counseling.

Victims of domestic violence often grapple with intense feelings of guilt or shame, sometimes made worse by harmful stereotypes and society’s general misunderstanding of the complexity of abuse. Victims can hear messages such as “Why didn’t you just leave him?” or “Why didn’t you get out sooner?” in both direct and indirect ways in popular culture, from family and friends, or in offhand remarks by acquaintances.

The reality is that it’s not that simple, Flasch notes. Victims of domestic violence are in the most danger when they are ending a relationship with their abuser (see sidebar, below). In addition, domestic violence often creeps into a relationship slowly over time in ways that are unrecognizable to the victim.

The relationship “hasn’t always been dangerous,” says Flasch, who has a private practice in Austin, Texas, and specializes in working with couples and individuals who have experienced trauma. “There have been a lot of pieces that have kept them in the relationship. If they had known this was going to happen, they would have never been in the relationship. Intimate partner violence is the breaking down of a human. They completely lose their sense of self and begin to believe everything the abuser has said about them. It happens smally and slowly.”

Pointing out this trajectory to the client emphasizes that it wasn’t their fault and helps them learn what to look for in future relationships, Flasch adds. “Normalize it with the client. This [IPV] is very common and very similar in the ways it comes to happen,” she says. “It’s a systematic breakdown of a person that happens in very small steps that no one would recognize unless you know what you’re looking for. Helping them understand what and how it happened can help take away some of that fault and blame. Then work on empowerment. Victims have had to ask their abuser for everything. It’s our job to get their voice back.”

Planting seeds

In addition to providing a safe space to be heard and empowered, counseling can be a place for victims of IPV to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. This is especially true for clients whose histories include past trauma (in addition to IPV) or who haven’t been exposed to healthy relationships in their life, Flasch notes.

“The counselor may be that first one, that first good relationship and having a feeling of being in a room with someone who cares,” she says. “Model that through your interaction with clients. Psychoeducation is a big part of working with [IPV] victims and survivors.”

Flasch suggests using the Power and Control Wheel while discussing what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship: What aspects are present? What does respect look like? How do arguments start and end? What does equality look like?

Making a list of the elements in a healthy relationship can also help, Flasch says. “It’s not tangible [to clients] sometimes. There’s so much self-blame and lack of trust of themselves and their own instincts. They often don’t trust themselves to make decisions or recognize if something [in a relationship] is dangerous.”

It can also be helpful for counselors to talk through boundary issues with IPV survivors, including what is and isn’t their responsibility in a relationship, Bassett adds.

“With someone who is abusive, that person will not accept responsibility [for abusive behavior]. The person who is being abused typically will accept full responsibility,” she says. “They may claim, ‘Oh, he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s so sweet, but when he drinks, or goes off his medication [he turns dangerous].’ That’s just not true: The good parts and the loving parts are part of the [control] strategy. Be very clear about that. … Help them not to buy into it, overtly or covertly.”

Couples counseling and safety

A relationship in which IPV is present has, at its core, an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance makes couples counseling an unsafe environment for the person experiencing the abuse, Carlson stresses. If a counselor is working with a couple exhibiting signs of IPV, he or she should take steps to terminate couples counseling as soon as possible while ensuring the victim’s safety, Carlson says.

“If power and control exist in the couple’s dynamic, it’s generally not safe to be in a setting [i.e., couples counseling] where they’re both on equal ground being asked to practice healthy behaviors and make changes,” he explains. “That can’t happen when there’s inequality.”

Cameron agrees. “Each session is posing a safety risk for the victim. In couples counseling, we’re asking both parties to be accountable for solving problems in the relationship, and part of the control tactics [of IPV] is making the victim feel that it’s their fault.” Perpetrators of abuse may retaliate against their partners after counseling sessions in reaction to what was said or disclosed, she says.

On the flip side, abuse victims may say only what they need to say to keep from “making waves” with their abusers during counseling sessions. In addition, “an abuser may be very charming and manipulate the counselor,” Cameron says. Counselors who don’t recognize the manipulation or other possible indicators of IPV can end up unintentionally colluding with the abuser, she points out.

Both Cameron and Carlson recommend that counselors — whether they work with couples or individuals — seek training on IPV to stay informed on best practices and forge connections with local domestic violence agencies. It is important to establish these working relationships ahead of time so that counselors can readily consult with specialists when they identify signs of IPV with a client (or a couple) on their caseload, Carlson says. “Consultation [with an IPV specialist] helps to create a methodical, well-thought-out plan for that point forward,” says Carlson, noting that any consultation must be done within ethical guidelines and without sharing any identifying details about the individuals involved.

Once a counselor has identified that IPV is present in a relationship, the steps to terminate couples counseling must be handled delicately. Counselors should never let the abuser know that they suspect abuse is taking place, Cameron emphasizes. At the same time, a fine balance must be maintained to ensure that a victim doesn’t lose contact with the counselor and is connected to resources before couples counseling is terminated.

“Never confront abuse head-on with both parties in the room. That will put the survivor at risk,” Cameron says. “Get creative for ways to get the survivor alone. … Come up with a reason to separate them and then check in with the survivor. Ask them if they feel safe at home. Just straight up asking if they are being abused — they are not going to recognize it that way. Often, the abuser has worked really hard to convince the victim that there is no abuse.”

Cameron has known counselors who separate the couple by asking one of the partners to fill out paperwork in the waiting room. Practitioners can also try to speak over the phone outside of session to clients who are suspected targets of abuse, as long as they ensure the client is alone for the call, Cameron adds.

Carlson notes that it’s not uncommon in couples counseling for a practitioner to meet with one of the clients individually to work on an issue. Counselors can fall back on that as an excuse to separate a couple when it is suspected that IPV is present, he says.

“When [you] first meet with a couple, separate them to fill out an intake questionnaire and speak with them individually. That way, you set a precedent of talking separately,” Carlson says. “Then, you can say later, ‘We are going to meet individually to follow up on some of the things we talked about’ [at intake]. There is precedence, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

Flasch agrees and suggests that couples counselors do full individual sessions with both partners after the first two or three sessions, regardless of whether IPV is suspected. In these sessions, counselors should always assess for IPV. She suggests asking questions such as “How do you and your partner show respect for each other?” and “Tell me about your arguments: How do they start and end, and who initiates?”

A counselor’s next step should be to connect the victim with local support services. This must also be handled carefully, Cameron says. For instance, a client could put a domestic violence hotline number in their phone under another name, or the counselor could give the information verbally to the client to remember and look up later. Cameron also recommends that counselors leave pamphlets and other information about domestic violence resources in the lobbies and restrooms of their offices for all clients to see and have access to.

If appropriate, Cameron recommends that counselors also connect perpetrators with a local batterer or offender program.

“It’s important to work in collaboration with your local [domestic violence] agency,” Cameron says. “For us to address abuse in our communities, there needs to be community accountability for abusers, and that can’t just come from domestic violence agencies. It needs to come from all aspects of the community. You’re not going to end domestic violence just by dealing with the aftermath.”

Once clients are given information about IPV resources, it’s up to them to seek help when they are ready and feel safe doing so, Carlson adds. It’s not a counselor’s role to ensure the client has followed up with those resources.

“Sometimes nothing happens,” Carlson acknowledges. “You present resources and opportunities and they know they have options, and that’s the biggest step they want to take at this point in time.”

Relationships post-IPV

Dating and forming new relationships can play a part in the healing process for survivors and help them learn more about themselves, their boundaries and their limits, says Flasch, who co-authored the article “Considering and Navigating New Relationships During Recovery From Intimate Partner Violence” in the April issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development. Counselors should be aware that the risk exists for survivors of IPV to find themselves in another abusive relationship. However, forging new healthy relationships — with a counselor as a support and ally — can be a helpful step in the right direction, she notes.

“Survivors have to work through these issues for a lifetime, so waiting for the ‘right time’ to date post-healing may never come,” Flasch says. “A counselor can be a great support for a survivor. We know that most people continue to date. To say that you should be healed completely before you go out, it’s not realistic. And healthy relationships can be incredibly healing. Having a person who is safe and loving and accepting is a huge benefit. We [counselors] shouldn’t necessarily discourage dating but help them navigate the process. Educate them about red flags and warning signs, and celebrate the successes of milestones reached through dating. Also [process] triggers and things that get in the way.”

“Having experiences with other people and then processing it in counseling can be very powerful and helpful to healing,” she continues. “We can be great allies and celebrate with clients when they try something new.”

For the journal article, Flash and her co-authors studied the experiences of IPV survivors who went on to try new relationships, ranging from casual dating to marriage. Through these relationships, participants reported learning to trust themselves and their instincts and “reclaim parts of themselves lost during the IPV relationships,” Flash wrote with her co-authors, David Boote and Edward H. Robinson.

Dating post-IPV “can be a process for survivors to try and find corrective experiences and explore trust, make decisions that are theirs and be their own person, [and] learn about control and boundaries,” Flasch says. “But this is also a very scary process and one that has a lot of layers to it, so it can bring challenges. It can be hard to learn to trust when it’s been taken away from you in the past.”

 

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IPV: Need-to-know points for counselors

One of the most misunderstood aspects of intimate partner violence (IPV) is how complicated and dangerous leaving an abusive partner can be, says Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at a Texas nonprofit that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The power imbalance of abusive relationships often means that one partner has severely restricted the other’s access to finances, friends and family members, and community resources. Separating from an abuser often means starting life over, which is why there is an intersection of IPV and homelessness, she says. These factors are only exacerbated when children are involved or when the victim experiences other forms of systemic oppression such as racism, homophobia or classism.

“They are often trapped between violence and homelessness,” Cameron says. “The abuser has often messed up their credit and finances or totally controlled them, so they’re starting from scratch. The most dangerous time for a victim is during separation and when they are separated [because] the abuser is losing the power they have worked to gain and maintain.”

According to Cameron, IPV victims are at the highest risk of lethality under the following circumstances:

  • When the couple has separated or is in the process of separating
  • If sexual abuse or sexual coercion is present in the relationship
  • If an abuser makes threats of homicide or suicide
  • When a restraining order is filed
  • If the victim is pregnant
  • If strangulation is occurring
  • If violent behavior is occurring outside of the home (which indicates the abuser has escalated to the point where he or she does not care if other people see the behavior, Cameron says)
  • If there is involvement with child protective services
  • If the abuser has access to weapons
  • If the abuser exhibits stalking behaviors
  • If law enforcement is involved

Counselors should also keep in mind that even when victims leave an abusive relationship, they may still come in contact with their abusers — and be put at risk for retraumatization — through legal proceedings, child custody hearings or stalking behavior, adds Paulina Flasch, an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University.

“Just because someone is no longer in an IPV relationship doesn’t mean they’re no longer in it. Remember that and equip them with tools [to cope],” Flasch says.

 

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Important resources

 

Margaret Bassett recommends the following books for practitioners:

  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men by Lundy Bancroft
  • Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know by Sherry Hamby
  • Coercive Control: How Men Entrap women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence) by Evan Stark
  • Safety Planning with Battered Women: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies, Eleanor J. Lyon and Diane Monti-Catania
  • The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
  • Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies and Eleanor J. Lyon

 

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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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.

The miscommunication model and the WDEP system

By Barbara A. Mahaffey June 4, 2019

Helping clients keep or revitalize loving relationships are long-term goals for those who specialize in couples counseling. Those goals get derailed when one or both clients storm out of the room during the middle of a heated debate during an intake session. Therapeutic ruptures and divorces can happen if counselors fail to quickly mediate couples’ arguments, especially if the counselor has not yet established credibility and an alliance with the clients.

Success in couples counseling sometimes depends upon gaining a therapeutic alliance with both partners while simultaneously preventing or resolving emotional outbursts. However, simply teaching couples polite ways to communicate will not keep them together, according to John Gottman. Another technique or approach is warranted. Couples who come to counseling are seeking relief from anger, tension and communication breakdowns, so it makes sense for us to offer them a new way of relating to each other.

I developed a technique to help couples communicate and self-disclose in a nonthreatening way and used this technique as my intake in private practice starting in 1996. What is different about this creative technique? The secret may be the miscommunication model. I found the missing key to helping couples alter communication patterns was engaging them in creating a drawing that contained the reasons they struggled to keep calm and communicate their needs and wants. While completing this drawing, people gained insight into the ways they had been miscommunicating.

What is lacking for many couples is the ability to debate, relate and communicate without blame, shame and anger. While drawing the miscommunication model, each person recognizes that communication is difficult and that everyone struggles with multiple barriers. For most, the drawing is a cathartic exercise that can shift the common blame-game conflicts to goal setting and nonthreatening communication opportunities.

Most people come to counseling with the expectation of a tell-all session focused on disclosing problem after problem, or they complete a checklist of problems before a session begins. Unfortunately, intervention strategies specific to preventing or defusing negative or emotionally charged situations is a skill gap in counselor education. This raises an important question: How do counselors gain trust simultaneously with two strangers, provide tools to promote their affective connection, and prevent outbursts and ruptures during a volatile first session?

Establishing multiple therapeutic alliances

As is the case with individual counseling, a therapeutic alliance is the most important factor in successful couples counseling. Gaining a therapeutic alliance with two people simultaneously is a multifaceted challenge, however, especially when these individuals are trying to describe relationship concerns and upsets to a stranger.

Conflict resolution for couples begins after a counselor establishes ground rules and structure during the intake session. The first important rule is to establish how clients can have a calm session. If a first session is filled with anger and centered on problems, counselors will find it more difficult to form a bond with these individuals. Establishing a nonthreatening review of couple challenges is one way to provide catharsis, encourage openness and set ground rules. Sessions should also end with goal setting to keep a calm home environment in between sessions.

I developed the miscommunication model during years of intake assessments to deescalate anger and promote a working relationship among all people in the counseling room. As part of the effort to establish an alliance with both people simultaneously, the model provides counselors with a way to demonstrate barriers to a satisfying relationship while establishing nonthreatening goals and tasks. The first tasks are to provide the mechanism through which each client will participate in counseling, learn about barriers to healthy communication, and gain awareness of ways that relationships can be derailed. In demonstrating the miscommunication model, counselors can then help couples learn to express what they want.

Clients may not come to counseling with a set of rules for governing appropriate self-disclosure. Therefore, counselors can introduce the tenets of choice theory’s WDEP (want, do, evaluate, plan) system concurrently with the miscommunication model to add a directive structure to counseling sessions, according to internationally known choice theorist Robert Wubbolding. The purpose of combining the WDEP system and the miscommunication model is to first outline how common traits, past experiences, barriers, learned patterns, language and its meanings, emotional reactions, life interference and family rules contribute to a breakdown in couple communication, and then to introduce a way to build a happier relationship.

The miscommunication model approach to intake interviews

The miscommunication model was developed to help clients understand and conquer the many barriers to an improved relationship. One potential helpful insight is that people can and often do have different “wants” or needs in a relationship. Choice theory’s WDEP system provides structure when integrated in this model.

In some cultures, relationship conflict begins when one of the partners in a couple believes that both partners should share common wants. Counselors can provide conflict-resolution templates to help couples thwart power struggles (for example, by getting the couple to focus on helping each other attain goals rather than focusing on whose wants are more important). Guiding couples to learn aspects of negotiation and acceptance are additional ways that this model promotes a healthy relationship.

What has been missing in previous approaches to couples counseling is engaging couples in a conversation about the ways that anyone can be misunderstood when trying to communicate. One way to engage clients in intake sessions is to draw a diagram denoting two people communicating and then to explain the common barriers to and complexities of relationships. Framing this information in a way that suggests that interpersonal communication can be improved adds hope for couples with relationship ruptures.

Miscommunication barriers vary, and the model illustration on page 39 shows only a small sampling of these barriers. Clients can be encouraged to come up with more examples that fall under headings such as personal characteristics, past experiences, brain lies, family rule books, rate of talking versus rate of thinking, life event disruptions, and words and definitions. Counselors who draw a miscommunication model — with clients’ input — can integrate the goal-setting WDEP system tenets of “what are our wants,” “what will we do,” “evaluate” and “plan for and create a quality world.” This is a refreshing new way to engage clients in a nonthreatening conversation.

People who come for couples counseling typically have not been able to resolve their differences and are seeking assistance to do so. Learning that people miscommunicate many times a day helps to remove some of the blame, shame, guilt and anger that are often present in these relationships. These negative emotions can be the underlying cause of a ruptured relationship. Learning about the many ways that miscommunication has disrupted their relationship also serves to add skills to the couple’s toolbox. It is important for counselors to normalize the frequency of miscommunication by pointing out that everyone differs in some way and that disagreements are commonplace, not the exception.

Personal characteristics

Discussing the barriers that hinder relationships can be tricky business. People depend on counselors to lead conversations about problem-solving though, and the place to begin is by talking about the “elephants in the room.”

The first barrier to communication in the miscommunication model is each person’s differing characteristics. Each person has different traits, cultural influences, coping and defense mechanisms, learned behaviors, circumstances and life predicaments that can hinder relationship harmony. Some clients can easily list other attributes that differ, including age, race, religion, education, interests, abilities, sibling status, and work or military experience. Others may note differences in body language, personalities, parental influences, relationship histories, likes and dislikes, communication habits and health issues. A few clients might disclose traumatic experiences, medical histories and pre-existing thoughts about counselors or the counseling process.

This extensive list can be developed over several sessions if warranted. Counselors can explain that many of the barriers will be unspoken and unconscious. It is sometimes appropriate for counselors to note that barriers can be kept secret to protect the emotional safety of the clients. One example of this is that clients are not pressured to disclose childhood abuse. Significant others or spouses may not realize that certain topics are “off limits” for the other person in the room.

Preventing session blowups and engaging clients in a calm conversation about what has changed in their relationship involves helping couples gain insights into their communication skills. At some point in their couplehood, their ability to discuss what they want/need and how to share problems changed.

Sometimes the differences or discrepancies in how people relate to one another are obvious and sometimes not. When discussing relationship barriers, it is wise to point out how a person’s past or lived experiences can create a block to understanding another person’s actions, decision-making, problem-solving abilities, and likes or dislikes. For example, a couple might argue about going to a certain restaurant without being able to talk about a past negative experience that is influencing the thinking, emotions or actions of one of the partners. The miscommunication model would focus attention on this important discussion topic by adding it as a conversation bubble for one of the communicators in the drawing.

Talk about family rules

One way to introduce the “family rules” miscommunication barrier is to discuss the family-learned communication styles that Virginia Satir wrote about in Peoplemaking. Her communication styles and “family rule books” of placater, distractor, computer, blamer and open communicator can be added between the two people in the miscommunication model drawing. This is the counselor’s judgment call and depends on how volatile the couple’s relationship can be.

Another Satir concept, “can of worms,” illustrates the complicated communication patterns in families and can be added in a future session should it become a hot button issue. If a client points out that the other person’s family has a rule book of open warfare and verbal onslaughts, I recommend noting this as a topic for a future session.

Another family rule book example that can be noted for future discussion is the concept of “life expectations.” Many times, derailed personal goals connected to children, work, education or bill paying can be hidden aspects behind relationship dissatisfaction. Although understanding a client’s values, morals and beliefs is an important part of establishing trust and a therapeutic alliance, an intense discussion around these topics can derail the focus on issues during the first session. It may be beneficial for counselors to be directive and to suggest that such topics be developed in future sessions, after the therapeutic alliance has been well-established among everyone involved.

Normalize individual differences

Yet another barrier to communication is our personal brain differences. Part of the benefit of the miscommunication model drawing is the catharsis clients feel when they realize that many other people have struggled to keep a relationship thriving. Counselors might point out the many possible differences between people in learning styles, intelligences, interests, values/morals and perceptual acuities/filters. Also, people “screen” in and retain information differently, yet they may not realize these differences.

In the miscommunication model, these differences can be demonstrated by drawing two brains and pointing out the different ways, speeds and processing pathways for each person. For example, Person A may process and filter by using cognitions or thoughts first. Person B may process by filtering feelings first. Yet another person can believe that they verbalized a thought even when they didn’t because we think faster as humans than we speak. Drawing the two brains can aid in emphasizing that each person in the relationship has unique qualities. Note that people have different processing speeds and rates of speech too. This provides clients with an opportunity to gain awareness and new insights.

Some counselors who draw the miscommunication model use the phrase “our brain lies to us” to describe another barrier: conceptualizations. To help clients grasp the concept that the brain sometimes “lies,” counselors can offer the examples of optical illusions or mistaken perceptions by witnesses. Some clients may resist the notion that their brain isn’t always a dependable source of accurate perceptions. The knowledge that information is not always perceived, interpreted, processed and retained correctly can be unsettling. Counselors may wish to ask permission to point out inconsistent communication to highlight instances when the “brain lies.”

When drawing the miscommunication model, counselors can also add the ways that people differ genetically, developmentally and stage/age wise, and then discuss those aspects.

The miscommunication model next leads to introduction of the Do tenet from the WDEP system. This helps clients shift to a discussion about how to resolve or respect individual differences.

Daily life barriers

Daily life disruptions are constant sources of miscommunication. Any number of new or co-occurring outside events can affect a person’s relationship and communication quality. Family, work, environment, health issues, money issues and other stressors can add to a person’s strife and grief. In the miscommunication model, the importance of these variables could be added or symbolized as a conversation bubble that is drawn or attached to the second person in the couple interaction. The risks involved in second marriages, deaths in the family, and child rearing are common topics within this barrier. During this discussion, counselors may engage clients in ideas about evaluating their situations, establishing their plans and setting goals.   

Words and language as relationship barriers

Words are one of the biggest hindrances to successful couple communication. How a person defines a word or phrase can cause grave misunderstandings, especially when there is a lack of clear definition related to emotions. I would caution counselors not to ask clients, “What is your definition of love?” because that query can result in a storm-filled diatribe in session. Conversely, pointing out that emotion-laden words such as love may be defined in many ways can be a healing approach.

Miscommunication also happens in cultural and historical contexts. Newly created terms used in texting, social media and alternative forms of communication (such as meta communication) only sometimes have shared meanings. For example, one couple split their household over the phrase, “I am done.” One spouse interpreted this as the intent to divorce, whereas the other spouse interpreted it as meaning their conversation had ended.

Another couple’s rupture was healed after talking about how one of them expressed love through behaviors rather than verbally. The husband realized he had learned about love from watching John Wayne movies and had internalized a belief that “I don’t have to say I love you, I just do.” He also learned an important evaluation skill — that challenging a learned reaction and confronting a prior belief could benefit both him and his wife. His wife benefited from learning that he was not intentionally dismissing the words that would typically be used to express an affective connection. She also started observing the favors and actions he did to show his caring for her between counseling sessions. This problem resolution happened because of her request to “receive the gift of a verbal love commitment — the statement of ‘I love you.’”

I have seen couples benefit from discussing throughout the counseling process words that have different meanings or definitions. Some examples of words that often have different contexts or descriptors include committed relationship, separation, affective connection, friendship, change and going steady.

Integrating WDEP’s problem-solving steps

The final aspect of the miscommunication model and the integrated WDEP system is the creation of a plan. (While the evaluation aspect of WDEP is not elaborated on in the model, it is part of the ongoing discussion orchestrated by the counselor in the room.) The plan can have three goal sections — one for each member of the couple and one for the couple as a unit. Each person is given a chance to state one goal that will facilitate the creation of their “quality world.” This is an important aspect to goal attainment and success, according to Wubbolding and his associate, John Brickell.

Typically, the couple goal is a fun and easy task or set of tasks. One of these might be to plan an activity in which both individuals create a new interest together and then report back to the counselor about what was accomplished. The plan should include a timeline and should feature positive, mutually agreed upon and doable activities, according to Mark Young, a counselor educator at the University of Central Florida.

One of the skills that counselors can model during the session termination phase is to frame plan changes in positive ways. For instance, instead of wording a goal with terms such as “unmet expectations,” counselors can help clients set goals that are “gifts for each other” that lead to relationship improvement.

Drawing the miscommunication model and integrating the WDEP system on a piece of paper that the couple can take home is a great way to assist them in recalling homework, goals and barriers to future interpersonal communication. It also is an unexpected presentation method. One benefit to drawing the dynamics of interpersonal communication is that couples can come to future sessions better prepared to diagram their miscommunications. This paves the way to increased insights about their conflicts and arguments.

When counselors try to teach clients different or accepted ways to communicate without first gaining their trust and, more importantly, their insights into barriers to communication, they often fail to help couples improve and stay in committed relationships. Relationships can improve, but it involves a process of learning how communication can go in a wrong direction. People can more easily change their attitudes and opinions about each other if they are given information that empowers positive change. The miscommunication model is a tool that couples can use to discuss their individual wants, intentions, behaviors and plans.

Simultaneously conducting an intake assessment and providing education about how to navigate relationships has been successful in helping me prevent couples counseling ruptures and storm-filled counseling sessions. Counselors can combine the miscommunication model with the WDEP system for a directive approach that leads to problem resolution.

 

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Helpful resources

  • “Applying reality therapy’s WDEP tenets to assist couples in creating new communication strategies,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey and Robert Wubbolding, The Family Journal, 2016
  • “Couples counseling directive technique: A (mis)communication model to promote insight, catharsis, disclosure and problem resolution,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey, The Family Journal, 2010
  • “Therapeutic alliance: A review of sampling strategies reported in marital and family therapy studies,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey and Paul F. Granello, The Family Journal, 2007

 

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Barbara A. Mahaffey is the executive director of the Scioto Paint Valley Mental Health Center, an agency that serves clients in five counties in Ohio with outpatient and residential facilities. Contact her at bmahaffey@spvmhc.org.

 

 

Letters to the editor:  ct@counseling.org

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

 

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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.

Stepping up to the challenge

By Lindsey Phillips May 29, 2019

Stepfamilies are complex and feature unique differences, yet on the surface, there may be little to distinguish them from “traditional” families. In fact, as Joshua Gold, a professor in the counseling education program at the University of South Carolina, points out, some counselors don’t necessarily think to ask if they are working with a stepfamily or blended family.

But perhaps they should. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, more than 40% of American adults have at least one step relative — a stepparent, a step- or half-sibling or a stepchild — in their family. Gold points out that of the eight most recent U.S. presidents, four (Obama, Clinton, Reagan and Ford) were part of stepfamilies.

“Often for counselors, it gets overwhelming to think about working with stepfamilies because it does look like so many moving parts,” says Jayna Haney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice at the Wellness Collective and at Red Dun Ranch in Texas. “But what is also true is that stepfamilies [tend to] have similar problems.”

According to Institute for Stepfamily Education Director Patricia Papernow in her 2017 Family Process article “Clinical Guidelines for Working With Stepfamilies,” stepfamilies face five
major challenges:

1) Insider/outsider positions

2) Children struggling with losses, loyalty binds and change

3) Parenting issues and discipline

4) Building a new family culture while navigating previously established family cultures

5) Dealing with ex-spouses and other parents outside the household

Normalizing stepfamily dynamics

Stepfamilies often assume that something is wrong with them if the family isn’t working well, so counselors should reassure these clients that crisis and change are normal in stepfamily life, says Haney, the founder of the Bridge Across for Single Parents and Stepfamilies. She will often tell clients, “It’s not you. It’s your situation.”

One tool that Haney uses to educate clients about the challenges of stepfamily dynamics is called the stepfamily triangle. She draws a triangle, and at the top she writes in the name of the biological parent. She adds the name of the stepparent in the bottom right corner of the triangle and the name of the biological children in the bottom left corner. Then she explains how the biological parent and biological children have three bonds — emotional, biological and legal — and each bond is as old as the children are. Haney draws three lines to represent these bonds on the side of the triangle that connects the biological parent and biological children. The biological parent and stepparent have an emotional bond and a legal bond (if they are married), so Haney adds the lines connecting them. The stepparent and stepchildren have only an emotional bond (one that is only as old as their relationship) connecting them, which Haney illustrates with one line at the bottom of the triangle.

“So, when stepfamily couples are confused or frustrated because it feels like the family dynamics aren’t squaring up, it’s because they’re not,” says Haney, a member of the American Counseling Association. To illustrate her point, she’ll often put her hands together in the shape of a triangle and tip it over to the left because all of the weight is with the biological parent and child. She has found this visual helps families understand the dynamics and challenges that stepfamilies often face. 

Gold, author of Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm and editor of the newly released book Intervening for Stepfamily Success: One Case, Multiple Perspectives (both published by ACA), also uses education as a means of normalizing stepfamilies’ experiences. Rather than directly asking stepfamilies whether a specific issue affects them, he provides general information about challenges that stepfamilies often face to see if anything resonates with them. He often starts counseling sessions by drawing two large circles — one for the clients’ lived experiences and the other for common stepfamily issues based on his professional knowledge. For example, in his circle, Gold may write that some stepfamilies deal with gendered expectations, such as assuming the stepmother will automatically be nurturing with the children or expecting the stepfather to be the disciplinarian. If the clients say they have experienced that issue, Gold will add it to their circle. 

Both Gold and Pat Skinner, an LPC in private practice in Denver, agree that the schools offer one effective avenue for easily reaching stepfamilies and helping normalize their experiences. Gold recommends that school counselors hold stepfamily groups. These groups can be promoted in the school handbook given to parents at the beginning of the year.

Skinner, an ACA member who specializes in working with stepfamilies, thinks that holding stepfamily groups or classes at schools helps address some of the time and financial obstacles that these families might otherwise face in getting assistance. She also says that groups allow stepfamilies to hear stories similar to their own, helping them realize that they are not alone in their experiences.

Integrating multiple perspectives 

Working with stepfamilies means having multiple voices and perspectives in each counseling session, which can further complicate the process. “The more complex the situation, the more flexible you need to be,” says Gold, a member of ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of ACA. “If I’m dealing with one client, I’m trying to meet one client’s expectations. If I’m dealing with five, I now have five sets of expectations.”

“It takes more skill and more orientation as a clinician to figure out how to integrate all these different voices,” he continues. “Most conflict is founded in the notion that it’s an either/or situation. Either you’re right or I’m right.”

Gold, a contributing editorial board member of IAMFC’s The Family Journal, advises counselors to help stepfamilies switch to a both/and mindset so that situations won’t become win-or-lose propositions. For example, rather than focusing on how the kids from one family ate yogurt and cereal for breakfast and the other family ate eggs, the new stepfamily could include both breakfast options.

Haney, who specializes in high-conflict situations, parental alienation and stepfamilies, has developed an integrated family protocol in which she spends three to four family sessions discussing how to convert high-conflict tendencies into something productive. High conflict involves rigid thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and blaming others. She advises stepfamilies to do the opposite: engage in flexible thinking, manage their emotions, moderate their behaviors and own their actions.

In the first session, Haney always discusses flexible thinking. She puts eight or nine items with various textures (such as slime, play dough, Kinetic Sand, putty and therapy dough) on trays and passes them around. Each family member plays with the items and discusses how the items feel. Haney then asks what all the materials have in common. Someone typically responds that all the items can be mushed or smashed. Haney points out that no matter what the family members do to the items, the materials remain flexible. To emphasize this point, she asks the stepfamily to consider what would happen if they punched slime versus punching a wooden box. The answer: Only the wooden box would break.

Haney connects this exercise to the importance of being flexible in one’s thinking and explains that all people and situations have some good and some not so good features. With this new perspective, she asks each family member to tell her one thing that they like about their other family members.

Next, they take turns telling Haney one thing that drives them a little crazy about their family. For example, a family member may say that they don’t like it when everyone is yelling or how one of the parents is constantly asking the children how they are doing. Haney purposely uses the phrase “drives you a little crazy” because she finds it helps clients think of small problems, not big ones. She also advises counselors against asking clients what they wish were different because that is often counterproductive, she says.

When a stepfamily walks into Darrick Tovar-Murray’s office, he observes where each family member sits and how they communicate with each other. Take for example a session with Jim (the custodial parent), Jeff (the stepparent) and James (the child). Tovar-Murray will call attention to the way the family is arranged in the room: “James, why did you sit closer to Jim than to Jeff? Help me to understand what you make of the way … the family is sitting in the room right now.”

Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, also points out subtle verbal and nonverbal communication: “Jim, when you said James is not doing well in school, your voice went up, and at that moment, James turned his back to you. Can you tell me what James may be feeling right now?” Teaching stepfamilies effective communication skills helps them to understand one another’s experiences and emotions, says Tovar-Murray, a member of ACA.

Haney encourages clients to explore the narratives they are telling themselves about certain situations while simultaneously accepting that everyone has their own perspective on those situations. For example, if a stepmother says that her husband is always looking at his phone and waiting for his ex-wife to call, the counselor can say, “I understand that bothers you. What’s the story you are telling yourself?”

The stepmother might say she feels like the ex-wife is still more important to her husband than she is. The husband says he’s simply concerned that he’ll miss a phone call from his children. To which the stepmother responds, “I don’t want you to miss a phone call from your children. I just feel like you’re always looking at your phone when we’re out at dinner.” The couple can then make an agreement for the husband to either put his phone away for an hour or call his children before going out to dinner.

Recently, Haney had a stepmother come in by herself because her 25-year-old stepdaughter was constantly fighting with or upset with her and her husband. Haney worked with the stepmother to help her understand that she could not control the adult child’s behavior — but she could control how she reframed the situation and responded to the stepdaughter. With Haney’s guidance, the stepmother changed her perspective and learned new skills so she would no longer get surprised, upset or disappointed when the stepdaughter turned argumentative.

“The hardest part in relationships is to realize the amount of power you have or don’t have to make change,” Gold says. “You have endless power to make change in self. You have less power to make change in others. And, sometimes, part of being in a relationship means you accept things you don’t really like.”

Establishing stepfamily structure

Haney often begins counseling with the stepcouple first because she believes the partnering piece needs to be in place before other issues can be addressed effectively. “If the stepfamily couple can create the structure within their relationship and they can get on the same page with some of these issues, the kids fall into line,” she says.

Stepcouples often face challenges with establishing and maintaining clear parenting roles. In fact, a primary area of conflict for stepfamilies is the parent–child relationship, Haney notes.

The stepcouple need to agree on what they want to teach their children and what the family rules are in the home, she continues. For instance, if the stepmother thinks the children should stop using their smartphones at night and tries to enforce the rule without the biological father’s support, it will cause problems. In such situations, Haney often finds that the biological parent agrees with the overarching rule; the disagreement is in the details. Perhaps the father thinks that 8 is too early to restrict phone use and that 10 would be a better time.

“The moment that you allow the biology to divide, then the house is really two different houses,” Gold says. “So, there’s got to be a set of rules for the house.”

Haney suggests that stepfamilies establish basic rules about bedtime, homework and family dinners. Every family member should also have his or her own space in the house, she says. For example, one person shouldn’t sleep on the couch while the others have their own bed.

Haney believes that the biological parent needs to parent, and the stepparent needs to let that happen. Gold agrees. The stepcouple should figure out the household rules, and then the biological parent should present those rules to the family, he says. Then, both parents can enforce those rules.

If a couple disagree on this point, Haney draws the stepfamily triangle so they can visualize the dynamics. This can help the stepparent realize that he or she may have been overstepping. Haney then asks, “What does the family need to do to make the triangle stay upright?”

First, the partners must be on the same page and create a supportive relationship in which they respect each other’s experiences and perspectives, Haney says. Sometimes, stepparents will need to take a step back, she adds. Haney tells stepparents, “When you assert yourself as a biological parent when you are not … you’re putting a target on your chest because you will always be the bad guy. You will never win.” The biological parent’s job is to protect the stepparent by doing the parenting, she stresses.

Second, Haney says, stepparents have to strengthen their relationship with the stepchildren, but they must also accept that it will take time. One activity she uses to help with this is the emotional bank account. When stepparents marry or move in with the biological parent, they assume a parenting role, she explains. Because biological parents already have a strong emotional, legal and biological bond with their children, they can discipline, set boundaries for, and offer advice and make comments to their children, Haney says. However, stepparents don’t have this emotional connection yet, so with every negative action (e.g., punishing, yelling, making comments, rolling eyes), they make a withdrawal from the emotional bank account with the child, she continues. “It’s not one deposit and one withdrawal,” she points out. “It’s one deposit, but for every negative nonverbal or negative interaction, it’s five withdrawals.”

Haney often helps stepparents realize that they are depleting this emotional bank account faster than they recognize. In such cases, they need to stop making withdrawals and start making deposits. Recently, one of Haney’s clients, a stepfather, was having a difficult time with his 14-year-old stepdaughter. He expected a lot of her and often critiqued what she did. For example, he would point out that he often needed to remind her to take out the trash and even made comments about the way she tied the garbage bag rather than thanking her for her efforts. Haney encouraged him to start making deposits in his stepdaughter’s emotional bank account by giving her compliments, texting that he was proud of her, or saying that he noticed how hard she had been working. When he followed through, their relationship took a 180-degree turn within a week’s time, Haney says.   

When a biological parent finds a new partner, the children are often expected to show love and respect for that new partner right away, Skinner says. However, it’s important to remind stepfamilies that neither children nor adults love immediately. It takes time.

In addition, the child’s developmental stage can affect the degree to which the stepfamily bonds. If children are approaching or into adolescence when the stepfamily forms, they may never feel connected to the stepfamily unit because they are focused on forming their
own separate identities at that point, Gold notes.

In her stepfamily, Haney and her husband developed a plan to handle the stresses and problems they faced. She encourages couples to follow a similar plan, which includes:

  • Talking to and reassuring each other that things will be OK
  • Creating daily habits that provide a sense of connection and support
  • Going out on dates
  • Limiting how much time they discuss children, stepchildren and exes

Haney also reminds clients to laugh. She and her husband found watching a daily episode of Seinfeld helpful during the difficult early part of their stepfamily’s life.

“A lot of times with stepfamilies, you’re sacrificing the me for the we,” Haney says. “If the couple … is willing to make these changes for each other, then it can be a really powerful experience.” In addition, the behavior of asking for help, finding solutions and making changes serves as a powerful model for the children, she says.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

“I think the big mistake that counselors make is they try to start with the problem,” Haney says about counseling stepfamilies. Often, stepfamily couples come in experiencing so much angst, frustration and confusion, they don’t know where to begin. If the counselor asks the couple to talk about their problems and feelings, the couple and the counselor all become problem saturated and risk becoming overwhelmed, she says. 

To avoid this, Haney starts sessions with a basic genogram, which provides her with all the names and connections between the family members. She uses colored markers and construction paper, drawing a circle for each woman and a square for each man in the family, including the stepfamily couple, the ex-partners and the children. Haney then asks the stepcouple’s ages and living arrangements, when the couple first met and when they started dating, and she adds that information to the genogram. For those who are married, she will also ask if they lived together before they got married, when they got married and how long they have been married. Finally, she asks about the most serious relationship that each of the partners had before they got involved with each other.

Next, she draws smaller circles and squares for the ex-spouses or ex-partners and asks similar questions such as age, length of time together, when they separated and if they have children together. If they do have children together, Haney connects the ex and adds in the children’s names and ages, as well as how the parents split their time with the children and how involved each one is with the children.

Haney always ends this exercise by asking, “Is there anybody else that we’re going to be talking about today or who is creating challenges in your stepfamily life?” By asking this question, she often discovers other people, such as one of the partner’s siblings, a grandparent or even the ex-spouse’s new partner, who are adding to the stepfamily’s problems.

In addition to serving as a reference tool that counselors can use throughout their work with the stepfamily, the genogram provides structure to the session. “Structure is a big part of doing a successful stepfamily session,” Haney says. “[It’s] knowing what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it so that you don’t allow [the session] to become problem saturated.”

Tovar-Murray uses a narrative approach to separate the family from the problem. For example, if a child feels divided between family members, he would have the family name the problem and then ask, “When did the sense of divided loyalty enter your family system? How has it caused you to think you are not a family who can be a cohesive unit? What would your future look like if divided loyalty were no longer present and you were operating as a family unit?” This approach encourages the family to fight together against the problem rather than letting it divide them, he explains.

To strengthen stepfamily cohesion, counselors can also ask family members to describe activities that might make them feel more connected and then encourage them to carve out time over the next week to engage in those activities, Tovar-Murray suggests. “We’re always looking for those unique outcomes, and those are the times in which the stepfamilies are not being saturated and influenced by whatever the problem is,” he says.

Separating the family from the problem is also helpful when there is resistance to the new family structure, such as when one of the partners resists embracing or blending two racial or ethnic identities. For example, in a household with a Latinx stepfather and an African American biological father, the biological father might say, “Maintaining my African American identity is extremely important, and I’m not giving that up. I’m going to see this as an African American family.”

“That resistance piece is just showing [the counselor] how important that identity is,” Tovar-Murray says. With this situation, the counselor could attempt to separate the family system from the resistance piece and reframe it. For example, the counselor could respond, “I can see that you have a strong sense of pride in being African American. Now, I also wonder how you can have that same sense of pride in the relationship that you just formed.”

The counselor can help the family reframe this racial pride and create pride in the new structure the family is developing. Otherwise, the stepfather may feel isolated, which makes cohesion and integration almost impossible, Tovar-Murray says.

Take a step forward

Both Gold and Skinner acknowledge that busy schedules and finances can be big issues for many stepfamilies. As a result, these families often are not looking to engage in long-term counseling.

Gold says that any counseling approach that is more “present-focused” works well with stepfamilies. He often relies on a brief therapy model — six to eight sessions — and finds that most clients will make a commitment to therapy if they know how long it will take. This model also works well with family schedules, he adds.

Counselors “need to remember that a stepfamily couple is going to be less likely to come once a week, every week, for six months,” Haney points out. “So, when [counselors] work with stepfamily couples, [they’re] really doing that solution-focused piece.”

In fact, Haney finds that when stepfamilies come to see her, they have already thought and talked a lot among themselves about the issues they are struggling with, so they want to know what to do. “They know where they are and they know where they want to be, but they do not know how to get there,” she says. Haney doesn’t direct stepfamilies on what to do, but she does help them figure out different paths for getting where they want to be.

After Haney finishes the genogram, she asks the stepcouple directly, “How can I help you today?” Some couples may get to the heart of the matter, whereas others may not have an answer. In those cases, Haney provides the stepfamily with information on the importance of partnering together, the stepfamily triangle and the emotional bank account.

Haney also asks the stepfamily, “What are the two or three things you want to accomplish or work on while you are in counseling?” The family’s answers must be something they have control over, she says. “You don’t have any control over the ex or the stepchild,” she explains. “You do have control over how you respond to the ex. … You do have control over how you respond to the stepchild, how you talk to your partner about the child, and what kind of stepparent or parent you want to be.”

In part because stepfamilies may attend only a few counseling sessions, Haney often spends a longer amount of time in the initial session getting to know the family members, figuring out why they came to counseling and making sure they leave with an action plan. In the initial session, which often lasts up to two hours, she spends approximately 15 minutes on the genogram and 15 minutes educating clients about common stepfamily issues. For the remaining time, she helps families determine two or three things that they want to accomplish.

By the time the family leaves, each family member “need[s] to have something that they’re going to do that’s doable and that they can work on,” Haney says. “Then they leave empowered because they know what to do. [They] leave … educated because you’ve shared with them some insights that help them change their perspective and reframe how it’s working. And … it helps them see their story and their family differently.”

 

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Invisible stepfamilies

The concept of stepfamilies can challenge traditional assumptions of the word family, which often evokes an image of a married father and mother with their biological children. But as Darrick Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, points out, this image doesn’t account for the diversity found within stepfamilies. In fact, because this assumption doesn’t recognize other types of partnerships or unions, it renders them “invisible,” he says. That’s particularly the case when these families include a noncustodial and custodial parent with at least one child from a previous relationship and encompass multiple racial, ethnic and sexual orientation identities — which he refers to as invisible stepfamilies of color.

“When you look at invisible stepfamilies of color, they tend to come from cohabitating relationships where there isn’t a marriage or legal contract,” Tovar-Murray says. “That legal contract should not be what defines a family.”

As society continues to grow more diverse, counselors will encounter more invisible stepfamilies of color and thus may need to challenge their own views of what family means, Tovar-Murray argues. Counselors also shouldn’t assume that a couple is married, he continues. In addition, asking “How long have you been dating?” implies that the couple’s relationship may not be as close or as integrated as a couple who is married, and that may not match the perspective the clients have of their relationship.

Tovar-Murray also advises counselors not to make assumptions such as thinking that a stepcouple’s decision not to hold hands is related to their lack of affection for each other. Based on their experience of racial/ethnic or sexual orientation microaggressions, many of these couples may engage in this or similar displays of affection only in spaces they consider to be safe. “As counselors, we cannot assume that invisible stepfamilies of color are going to be out in all spaces that they walk in,” he says.

For this reason, Tovar-Murray, an ACA member and co-author of a chapter on blended families of color in the book Intervening for Stepfamily Success, advises counselors to be open and direct about microaggressions. He will often tell clients, “I want to talk about something I think is important. We know that racism exists and sexual orientation microaggressions exists, and I’m wondering if you as a couple or if this family has ever experienced those things.” He also suggests saying, “I know biases exist, and some of the things that may affect a family system like this may even be biases within your own cultural groups. Have you experienced any of those? How have you successfully dealt with those things?”

“The assumption that [counselors] make sometimes is that [they’re] not going to bring [these issues] up because the client didn’t bring it up,” Tovar-Murray says. “But sometimes clients, couples and families may not know that [counseling is] the space [where they] can talk about those things.”

— Lindsey Phillips

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

How can we truly help clients in a relationship?

By Chris Warren-Dickins April 4, 2019

Couples therapy has been around for years, so it is easy to believe that we know everything we need to know about its underlying principles. Assumptions can lead to an overly narrow perspective, however, so I’d like to offer 10 ideas on which to reflect when it comes to couples therapy.

 

1) “Couples” are actually “relationships”: Perhaps the first way to truly help couples is to stop using that very term — couples. That’s because the term assumes a monogamous relationship between only two people and therefore excludes polyamorous relationships and any other type of romantic relationship. It might be argued that the term leaks something about our personal values, much like an assumption that a “marriage” can be between only a man and a woman. For that reason, I prefer to use “relationships” instead of “couples work,” and I refer to “clients in the relationship” rather than the “couple.”

2) Leakages of personal values: Of course, there is a risk that as counselors, we also leak our personal values in individual work. But it seems to me that the greater the number of clients sitting in the room with us, the greater the chance for this leaking to occur. When we work with relationships, we often see the interaction between the different members of that relationship. In real time, we bear witness to the dynamics of that relationship, and it can be challenging to have that played out before our very eyes. 

In our training, we are encouraged to intervene a great deal more in our work with relationships than we might if we were working with an individual client. We are told that there are more opportunities to offer alternative ways of relating to each other, and if we do not seize these opportunities, then the relationship may end up following the same patterns and learning nothing from therapy.

The question is, what is informing our intervention? Is it what we are actually witnessing in the relationship, or is it our own personal values and assumptions? For example, if we are witnessing a male and female client in a relationship, are we inclined to assume that the male client will be more domineering than the female client? I have worked with a number of professionals who made assumptions about domestic abuse, sexual violence and domineering behavior in general. They often leaked their assumptions that the only possible victims in these scenarios were female and that the only possible perpetrators were male.

The ACA Code of Ethics is clear. Standard A.11.b. says that a counselor should not refer a client to another counselor simply because there is a conflict in “personally held values” between the counselor and the client. Instead, counselors should “respect the diversity of clients and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.” I would imagine that this can prove extremely difficult for some counselors, particularly if their personal (for example, religious) values conflict with the client’s goals. However, as we have seen from cases such as Ward v. Wilbanks and Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, this does not give a counselor the right to refuse to work with that client. 

3) Formed alliances: If our own personal values are more in line with one of the clients than the other member(s) of the relationship, we could easily get dragged into an alliance with that client. For example, the counselor might share with one of the members of the relationship the personal value that a relationship must be preserved at great cost when there are children involved. But if this does not reflect the personal values of all members of the relationship, the counselor’s role is to remain focused on the goals agreed to by all the members of the relationship. To help with this, we can remind ourselves that the dilemma is not ours to resolve. We can work hard to help the members of the relationship resolve the dilemma, but we do not have to resolve it for ourselves.

Individual client work requires us to monitor the boundary between us and the client. But when we work with a relationship, the boundaries are multiplied. Yes, we monitor the boundary between ourselves and each client who forms that relationship, but we also monitor the boundary between each member of the relationship. Stephen Karpman’s drama triangle can take on an interestingly multidimensional feel to it because we can be one client’s Rescuer while simultaneously being another client’s Persecutor.

4) The blame game: Linked to the drama triangle, we also need to tread carefully as counselors so that we avoid the blame game. All relationships engage in the blame game to some degree, no matter how hard its members try to avoid it. To reduce the frequency, however, we should keep returning the relationship’s focus back to the present moment. The focus should be more on what is happening rather than on why — and who may or may not have caused it. Frequently, an opportunity exists to work together to resolve things, and the collaborative nature often can form a new bond.

One big step toward this is to adopt a relative perspective: There are no absolute rights and wrongs, there is only perspective. If each member of the relationship can show the other member(s) that they are willing to adopt this approach, it can allow for disagreement.

5) Commitment issues: I have often worked with relationships in which one individual was more committed to therapy than was the other(s). The shadow side of this is that sometimes the committed member of the relationship really wanted proscribed therapy for their “problematic” partner(s). They were not interested in looking at how each member of the relationship might have caused problems for the relationship and how that all interacted. This needs to be tackled early on if the work is going to continue. The party who appears “committed” to therapy needs to understand that all members of the relationship are clients, and all members need to examine how their processes may impact on the relationship.

6) Fine-tuning rather than replacing: Our job as counselors is to observe the relationship, witness reports by the clients in the relationship about interactions, create hypotheses about where things might be going wrong, and then help the relationship to establish a revised approach to these issues.

Often, members of a relationship will assume that the relationship is fundamentally flawed. After all, clients rarely seek help unless things have started to go seriously wrong. At this point of crisis, it is hard for them to see how different things could be with a simple fine-tuning instead of a complete replacement. Our job is to support them as they try this fine-tuning. We need to emphasize the strengths and resources that exist in the relationship.

7) Building foundations, not fighting fires: As we emphasize their strengths, we will help the members of the relationship look to the future by developing strategies to resolve their issues. To do this, to really build the foundations of a sustainable relationship, we need to avoid the temptation of looking to the present or the past and trying to fight every issue that erupts.

Instead, we can teach members of the relationship about assertive communication. Often, people don’t really understand the difference between assertive, aggressive and passive (or manipulative) behavior. Counselors should monitor their work for assumptions made about assertiveness, including gender assumptions. For example, I have worked with male clients who have reported quite damaging experiences with therapists who jumped to conclusions about the male member of the relationship, forming an alliance with the female member of the relationship and overlooking (or remaining unaware of) her bullying behavior.

Empathic listening is another key skill to teach the members of the relationship. When I focus on this, I really stress the words “understanding” and “support.” It can be transformative for members of a relationship to see that their partners are willing to try and see the other person’s perspective. It can also help because they are showing their partners that they are willing to support them and help them work it out as a union. The worst feeling is when someone is struggling and they feel they are struggling alone because no one is willing to try to understand and support them.

8) The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Our clients bring their histories into the relationships they form, no matter how much they try to avoid this. There are parts of them that are made fragile — broken even — because of people from their past. The other members of the relationship might not even know this until they come across that part of their loved one and there is a subsequent explosion, withdrawal or threat of an end to the relationship. Our job as counselors is to help each member of the relationship gain perspective on this. Each member needs help in seeing that this wound is from the past and that agreement may need to be formed about how members of the relationship will approach this in the future.

One example is the wound of discrimination. Counselors should not underestimate the impact that the experience of discrimination has on a person’s ability to trust and form relationships. With members of the relationship who are ethnic or religious minorities or part of the LGBTQ+ community, counselors need to assess not only how much this discrimination affects their relationship now but also what experiences of discrimination each member of the relationship has endured in the past. For example, if one of the members of the relationship grew up as gay in the 1970s, they would have a vastly different outlook on their sexual identity and their relationship than would someone who grew up as gay in the ’90s.

When I worked at an LGBTQ+ organization in London, we encountered a number of Muslim asylum seekers who were fleeing homophobia in countries such as Uganda, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The wounds they brought to a relationship were vastly different from those experienced by their partners who had grown up as Christian gay men, or even Muslims, in London. 

9) Basic structuring: As I have outlined, there are additional complexities to working with relationships. There are multiple layers of boundaries to manage; there are in-person, live playouts of the dynamics within the relationship; there are greater opportunities for our personal values to be leaked; and there are greater opportunities to unintentionally form an alliance with one member of the relationship over the other(s). As a result, the basic structure of a therapy session with a relationship should be different. Sessions will tend to be longer than the typical “therapeutic hour,” and counselors should offer to see each member of the relationship separately as part of the assessment process. 

10) The healing power of play: To help the relationship develop open channels of communication, counselors might consider offering clients an exercise or two to try outside of session. There are a wide range of exercises available, including the Johari window (developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham) and the various exercises (even card games) available via the Gottman Institute. Games and exercises can loosen things up a bit, opening the possibility for people to release the roles they may have been adopting in the relationship. The Johari window helps people discover their own, and other people’s, blind spots. With greater self-awareness, and greater awareness of the other people in the relationship, it is easier to communicate feelings and needs. Without open communication, mistrust is inevitable, and a relationship without trust is like trying to grow a flower without light.

 

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Chris Warren-Dickins is a licensed professional counselor in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Before becoming a counselor, he practiced as a lawyer and taught law at the postgraduate level in the United Kingdom. Contact him at chris@exploretransform.com or through his website at exploretransform.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to 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.

Finding love in a ‘swipe left’ universe

By Bethany Bray November 28, 2018

When it comes to dating, it’s often said there are plenty of fish in the sea. But when you’re dangling a fishing pole in the seemingly vast ocean of online dating and not getting many nibbles, it can leave you with a seasick feeling. Or perhaps you’ve heard tales of other people connecting with really nice fish, but whenever you cast a line, all you seem to reel in are sharks and slippery eels.

Online dating can be a great way for people to meet those who are outside of their usual social circles and connect with potential partners whom they might never have crossed paths with otherwise. At the same time, getting to “happily ever after” can be an emotionally charged experience fraught with rejection and anxiety-provoking scenarios.

As with conventional dating, online dating carries with it the inherent risks of having bad dates and encountering hurtful behavior. But with online dating, the always-on nature of the technology allows users (perhaps encourages users is even more accurate) to check, recheck and overanalyze whether a potential match has viewed their profile, responded to a message or blocked the match entirely.

Yes, online dating carries the potential for disappointment and anxiety, acknowledges Rachel Dack, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in helping clients with dating, relationship and intimacy issues. However, she believes that online dating is a risk worth taking — if approached in a healthy way.

There are “normal highs and lows associated with online dating, and, unfortunately, many of those situations are unavoidable. … It’s helpful for counselors to understand that, oftentimes, online dating takes years [before finding the right relationship]. Helping clients with patience and setting realistic expectations is key,” says Dack, who writes and contributes relationship pointers for eHarmony and DatingAdvice.com. “Often, social media and pop culture can offer an unrealistic picture of it. It’s helpful to reframe a client’s view. It’s really important to normalize the online dating experience, including the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Fifteen percent of U.S. adults have used an online dating website or app, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Since 2013, usage of online dating has nearly tripled among adults ages 18-24 and doubled among those ages 55-64.

As online dating grows more widespread, it is also becoming more socially accepted. Pew reports that nearly half of all Americans know someone who uses online dating or has met a romantic partner online.

Online dating offers users opportunities to enter the dating pool at their own pace, pursuing and accepting as many messages and matches as they choose, notes Dack, a member of the American Counseling Association.

“It can be overwhelming to have as many choices as we have online, but at the same time, it’s an amazing opportunity to meet people,” she says. “Online dating can be a powerful tool for clients who are more shy or introverted and unlikely to approach new people in public. There can be a large sense of comfort found in starting communication [with a potential match] on a phone or computer and setting the pace for what communication looks like. You can get to know someone slowly, over time, instead of trying to approach someone and make decisions right away.”

 

Getting up to speed

The online dating market is a crowded one, with dozens of apps and programs available. Some require payment to join, and some are free. Some match users on the basis of sophisticated algorithms, whereas others allow users to “swipe” through profiles and choose only those that appeal to them. Certain apps are designed to allow only female users to make the first move of contacting another user. And yet others cater to LGBTQ consumers, those looking for matches of a certain religious faith or other demographics.

Although it isn’t necessary for counselors to know the nuances between all of these options, they should have a basic understanding of what online dating is and how it works so they can connect with clients who present with issues related to online dating in therapy sessions, says Mark J. Taliancich, a licensed professional counselor supervisor in New Orleans whose doctoral dissertation was on online dating. He suggests that counselors search for information online to bring themselves up to speed. Although scholarly research on the topic is limited, especially as it pertains to online dating’s connection to mental health, he says an internet search will yield plenty of consumer-focused reviews and news articles that detail the online dating experience and the pros and cons of different platforms. Should clients raise an issue specific to the online dating app they are using, Taliancich suggests having them talk through their experience in session.

Kathleen Smith, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., agrees. She says counselors should engage these clients by asking why they chose a particular app or platform and which features appealed to them. “It’s not the client’s job to teach you how it works, but also don’t just pretend that you understand,” Smith says. “Just having a basic knowledge can be important. [Online dating] is not just exchanging messages. Know which are the most-used apps and their features.”

Taliancich also stresses that counselors should drop any outdated or stereotypical assumptions they might harbor, such as the misconception that online dating is used only by people who are desperate or awkward and can’t find dates any other way.

“It’s similar to a multicultural issue, or working with a client who has an aspect of their culture that’s not familiar [to the counselor]. It requires doing a little research, a little homework. Realize that there’s a different process to each app,” says Taliancich, the clinical director of counseling solutions for the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Don’t go off of assumptions or things you’ve heard. It’s really easy to say ‘online dating is dangerous.’ But when you dig down into it, it’s as dangerous as traditional dating. … Two common criticisms of online dating are that it’s dangerous and people lie [about themselves]. I would argue [those things] can be true of traditional dating just as much.”

 

Diving in

The nature of online dating can exacerbate mental health issues, including struggles with anxiety, self-esteem and setting boundaries. For some clients, it can also dredge up feelings related to past experiences with rejection, abandonment, loss or trauma. For example, a lack of replies to messages could be especially damaging to a client who has issues with self-worth or rejection. Similarly, selecting photos for an online profile can bring up issues for those who struggle with their body image.

“Dating can be a very triggering and uncomfortable experience based on [individuals’] personal mindset about themselves,” Dack says. “A lot of negative feelings [about yourself] can be reinforced through online dating.” At the same time, she adds, “If you’re working to be your best, that’s what you will attract. [Clients’] attitudes about themselves and connecting to others are a major factor in meeting others and the dating process.”

Counselors can help clients work through past issues that spill over into their online dating experiences and prepare them for the challenges that can be a natural part of dating, Dack says. She emphasizes the need to offer both a compassionate and realistic approach.

“With rejection, reinforce that it’s a normal part of the dating experience and probably has nothing to do with them. But [for some clients], their past is going to make them believe that it has everything to do with them,” Dack says. “Hold space for the client to feel their emotions about the past and really grieve and work through it.”

“Online dating is setting you up to get rejected more frequently — remember that,” she adds. “It’s really hard for us to grasp the concept that not everybody is supposed to like us or will like us, and that comes [up] with online dating.”

Smith says she has similar conversations with her clients, the majority of whom are women in their 20s and 30s. She counsels clients that it’s more important to focus on themselves and becoming the person they want to be rather than on what they think a potential match might be looking for.

“The ability to step back and remember yourself versus being anxious about how to make a person not break up with you, that puts the focus on things that are easier and calmer,” says Smith, whose doctoral dissertation was on cellphone use and anxiety. “Help people recognize that dating, especially online dating, is an anxious process. It’s very risky, and you can only control 50 percent of the process. If your anxiety spikes during the process, it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. You’re putting yourself out there and engaging with someone you don’t know who is allowed to reject you. It’s what you do to manage it and respond to it [that matters].”

 

Navigating the ups and downs

Counselors can help clients maintain a healthy perspective and remain true to themselves even as they navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of online dating. The following takeaways can provide some guidance.

Get to the why: One of the most helpful questions counselors can ask clients about online dating is why they chose to sign up in the first place. The answer can provide insights into the person’s goals, intent and motivations, says Taliancich, an adjunct professor in the master’s counseling program at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans.

“It’s entirely possible to dive into online dating and never have to spend a night alone,” he says. “People can go on four, five or six dates a week, for whatever motivation. But it can be a way to escape something or not deal with another issue. There is a range of motivations, just as with traditional dating.”

At the same time, Taliancich stresses, counselors shouldn’t assume that every client makes a conscious choice to date online versus pursuing more traditional methods. For younger, more tech-savvy clients in particular, online dating may be the more accepted way to meet people. Others may simply feel it is the best option open to them for any number of reasons, such as there being no eligible matches in their immediate social circles.

Set a good pace: “Helping people get the right pace is a conversation I often have [with clients],” Smith says. “Make sure they focus on work and friends and the life they had before they started to date. Clients often focus on whether a relationship will work or not, but breaking it down into manageable steps can be helpful. People tend to be so terrified that they don’t [date] or are so obsessed that they turn dating into a full-time job and get burned out and frustrated. I have conversations with clients about taking breaks when they need to. There’s so much data, you can spend forever looking at it and go on tons of dates. It can be very overwhelming for people when they see so many potential matches and they forget themselves and what they’re looking for.”

Conduct a time check: It’s important to ask clients how much time they’re spending on online dating apps, Taliancich notes, because in many cases, they may not even realize the degree to which it is eating into other aspects of their life, such as schoolwork or connecting with friends. He explains that the apps draw people in with behavioral “rewards” for staying engaged, such as notifying them that a match has viewed their profile or the app has developed a batch of new matches for them to view.

Smith works with clients to monitor and create boundaries for the amount of time they spend focusing on online dating. This can be especially important for clients whose anxiety fluctuates according to the number of responses and attention they receive from matches. She recommends asking clients, “When does [online dating] get in the way? How can you direct yourself away from that when you need to?”

It can also be helpful to remind clients that they can turn their app notifications off entirely or change the settings so they don’t receive messages that are particularly triggering, such as when a match looks at their profile or blocks them, Smith notes.

“How [a client] engages with the apps and technology is such a good marker for their anxiety,” Smith says. “Ask them questions: ‘How often do you look at the app?’ Gauge how much of their time this is taking up. Are they dating reactively or thoughtfully? People might not own up to that at first, but if you ask, it may be surprising how much they are focusing on it.”

Know your client: Clients who have struggled with anxious or obsessive behaviors in the past may find it difficult to resist checking and rechecking a dating app for messages or new matches. A counselor who knows that a client is sensitive to rejection can help prepare that client to manage his or her reaction when the inevitable happens.

“If it’s someone you’ve been working with, you’ll know how likely they are to be compulsive or sucked into that experience,” says Taliancich, who met his wife through online dating. “People who feel invested by chatting with someone, they can take it a lot harder when they don’t get a response or [the match] stops replying. It feels a lot worse for them because the rejection feels a lot stronger — feeling that stab, over and over. Whereas people who don’t feel as invested in that initial part tend to navigate it a little easier because it doesn’t feel as much like a personal affront [to them].”

Similarly, Smith notes, clients who have a history of relying on relationships to regulate their moods may find it easy to fall into bad habits with online dating. “Your mood will ascend and descend based on dates, inevitably, but if your sense of self is coming from dating, it will be worse,” she says. “Have the client ask themselves, ‘If I’m not paying attention, what might happen? What do I need to be aware of, be mindful of? How can I be my best self?’”

Celebrate goals, not boyfriends or girlfriends: Clients may assume that success in online dating equates to finding a steady relationship. The reality, though, is that it simply won’t happen for everyone. Instead, Smith urges her clients to learn from each interaction and to celebrate each goal they reach.

“There’s also successes such as being able to go out on a date when they haven’t in a really long time. Celebrate that. Or have the goal that I’m going to do this [go on a date] and be OK the next day. And that’s great,” Smith says. “Having those clarifying experiences, even if they’re breakups, I would see as a victory. Next time, things will go more smoothly.”

Turn “failure” on its head: Smith recalls one client who began dating a match whom she really liked. However, he wouldn’t respond to her messages consistently, which “was driving her up the wall,” Smith says. Eventually, the client was able to talk calmly to him and explain what she needed, and the pair came to the mutual conclusion that the relationship wasn’t going to work out. Although some might have considered that a failure, Smith helped the client to see it as a success: She had learned for next time what she wanted and needed in a match.

Likewise, counselors can help their clients reframe some of the things they experience in online dating. “Everyone in life has to learn that rejection and disappointment is inevitable. You learn that in different ways, and dating is one way,” Smith explains. “If you can find humor in it, that can help. Set a goal of going on one terrible date or being rejected a couple of times. It can help to laugh at it a little. It makes it not so intimidating. You don’t necessarily have to get better at rejection, but know that it’s not a failure. Knowing that you can only control 50 percent of the process, it’s more about managing yourself than trying to control another person.”

Stay true to yourself: Smith sometimes suggests that clients create a list of “guiding principles” they can focus on during dating and refer back to when they start to feel anxious. The principles can be as simple as “be honest” or “be kind.” Other clients may need to add more specific benchmarks, such as, “Don’t check my dating app more than once each day.”

As Smith explains, the guiding principles can offer reassurance whenever clients have a bad date or other negative experience. “Focusing on what they can control in the dating process can help them calm down and feel less anxious,” she says. “Measure progress not on whether a person liked [you], but ‘Was I the person I wanted to be? Was I myself?’ If you’re doing that, then you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Similarly, Dack works with clients, particularly those who struggle with anxiety, to create predate rituals that can help them focus on goals they have set. The rituals — perhaps listening to a favorite music playlist or repeating a positive affirmation — help them prepare and quiet down their predate jitters, she says.

Use role-play: Dack suggests that counselors use role-play exercises in session with clients to prepare them for interacting on dates. She asks clients some of the sensitive questions that might come up (for example, “How long was your longest relationship?”) and gives them feedback on their responses. This can help teach clients what levels of self-disclosure are appropriate when meeting a potential match and how to express themselves in healthy, genuine ways, she says. It can be particularly beneficial for clients who struggle with vulnerability or who view being vulnerable as a weakness.

Dack notes that questions about past relationships — or a lack thereof — can dredge up feelings of shame for those who view themselves as inexperienced. “We want to help them feel vulnerable and authentic while being confident about what they have to offer. With men in particular, there are societal expectations and poor dating advice telling them to portray themselves as super successful, masculine or strong. Sometimes, this can come off as sales-y or disingenuous,” she says. “I encourage my clients to be more open and real.”

“Remind clients that it’s important to be authentic and truthful, but there are layers to sharing,” she continues. “It’s important to share at an appropriate pace. [Find] balance in disclosure. Also, reading your date’s body language and responses is an important skill. My approach is very direct and feedback-oriented so [clients] can practice self-disclosure in a healthy way and learn what comes off as fake or manipulative.”

Be mature rather than anxious: Smith uses the word “mature” with clients to describe behaviors and reactions that are the opposite of anxious. This often comes up in conversations about online dating, she says. For example, when a match doesn’t text after a date or respond to messages right away, the client might be tempted to react in anxious ways: checking and rechecking the app, obsessing over the date’s social media accounts or barraging the person with follow-up messages.

With clients who find themselves overthinking aspects of the dating process, Smith says it can be helpful for a counselor to ask, “How would you know you are doing this as maturely as possible? How would you interact with this differently than you are now? What’s the mature way? What’s the anxious way, and how do you know the difference between the two?”

“Believe it or not,” she says, “there is a mature way to interact with these apps. The word ‘maturity’ helps people figure out a way to not let it take over their life or not make them want to throw their phone across the room. The more maturely you engage with it, the better the chance that you will match with someone who is mature and handling it well.”

Interrupt the negative spiral: Clients may approach online dating with negative assumptions that it won’t work out, especially if they harbor feelings of self-doubt or shame associated with being single, Dack says. Those feelings can be exacerbated when clients experience rejection or when they aren’t getting many responses from potential matches.

“They may be operating on a narrative that they’re not worthy,” Dack explains. “It can be very challenging to hold on to the belief that love will happen for you. That can be a very challenging belief to sit with. Feeling good about yourself and believing you have something to offer is a key part of dating success. But if it’s not going well, it’s hard to feel good about yourself. They may take the ups and downs personally.”

Counselors can equip clients to quell this negative cycle by teaching them how to use positive self-talk, Dack suggests. The intervention can help clients overwrite the negative thoughts and messaging that “can get particularly loud with bad dating experiences,” she says.

Dack works with clients to create positive affirmations that they can refer to whenever they’re feeling low. For instance, she says, counselors can help clients replace thoughts such as “I’m going to end up alone” or “I’m doomed in the love department” with messages such as “I am open and ready for love,” “I am committed to connecting with others,” “I am worthy of the type of relationship I’m looking for” and “I choose to accept and grow from my challenging relationships and breakups.”

In session, counselors can listen to clients’ language and point out cognitive distortions to help steer them away from negative thought patterns. For example, a client might remark “My dating life never goes right, so why bother?”

“They’re in an internal conflict because they really do want to date and find a satisfying relationship. It’s important to change any self-defeating narratives because these beliefs are going to make them feel worse,” Dack says. “Offer a realistic perspective while trying to step out of their self-narrative. If they say, ‘All men are jerks,’ break that down [with the client]. Look for exceptions and positives that can foster hope and clear out mental blocks.”

Helping clients focus on what they are able to control in the experience can also shift thinking away from the negative, Dack adds. For instance, they are not able to control whether a match responds to a message. However, they can pick and choose which dating apps they use,
what they say about themselves in their online dating profile and other aspects
of the process.

Accept some anxiety as natural: Counselors who understand online dating can help clients set realistic expectations about the process and prepare them for the reality that meeting new people and opening themselves to rejection is bound to involve some measure of anxiety, Dack says.

“With anxious clients, it’s important for counselors to understand that dating is basically exposing them to constant anxiety — everything from waiting to hear back from a date to showing up for a date and figuring out the frequency of communication,” Dack says. “It can be mentally exhausting, but it can also be really good. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. The anxiety about it is natural to living a full life. Anxiety is normal in dating, and it doesn’t have to keep you from dating. The more skill and intention that clients bring to their dating life, the better it goes.”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.