Among the most common difficulties that bring couples to counseling are infidelity, financial problems, sex and intimacy issues, parenting challenges and ongoing tensions with the in-laws. Each of these problems has its own unique characteristics, but according to couples counselors, they tend to share a similar root cause — namely, lack of communication. The challenge for couples counselors (and their clients) is to identify how communication went awry — or if it ever truly existed in the first place — and then work to reestablish it.
Couples counseling is fundamentally different from individual counseling, says Paul Peluso, past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association.
“Too often, counselors think that couples counseling is ‘individual counseling times two,’ and they conduct individual counseling with each person, while the other partner observes,” Peluso says. “That really isn’t couples counseling. Instead, with couples counseling, you have not just two perspectives in the room that you have to balance, but you have the … relationship that you are working with. In fact, it is the couple’s relationship that technically is your client, not the individuals in the couple.”
Having a relationship as the client instead of an individual makes it much more challenging to build a therapeutic alliance, says Barbara Mahaffey, a licensed professional clinical counselor and ACA member who practices in Chillicothe, Ohio. The relationship is not just an entity, but rather two separate people who have different thresholds for opening up and trusting, she explains. Couples also come in with different goals and expectations. Mahaffey, who specializes in counseling couples and families, says her task as a counselor is not just to address these goals and expectations, but to help the couple discover how they can reconcile their personal expectations and establish new goals that will allow them to move forward as partners.
“Couples will come in and want to fight over who is right and who is wrong in the relationship,” Peluso says. “It is the couples therapist who has to sell the idea that no one is wholly ‘right’ or wholly ‘wrong.’ Paradoxically, neither is to blame and both are to blame — in the technical sense — for the state of the relationship at the same time. Both have played a role in setting up the conditions for the relationship. So the focus is on how each person’s behavior and reactions to [the] other affect the couple’s relationship. If each person wants to be in the relationship, then they have to take responsibility for how their behavior impacts the health of the relationship. And this is very different than individual counseling.”
Unfortunately, the catalyst that most often pushes couples into a counselor’s office is also one of the most difficult issues to move past.
“The single most common issue that brings couples into therapy is infidelity,” says Peluso, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) who has written several books about both infidelity and couples counseling. “Over the last 20 years, researchers have demonstrated that this is the most common presenting concern, and if it is not revealed initially, it is often disclosed in the course of couples therapy. Infidelity can take many forms, from sexual to nonphysical intimacy, and it now includes relationships online.”
“In terms of who cheats, researchers have found that women are just as likely as men to participate in infidelity,” Peluso continues. “As a result, practitioners have to know how to deal with the complex and often devastating issues that accompany infidelity. Unfortunately, when couples counselors are asked about it, they overwhelmingly say that it is the topic they feel least prepared to treat.”
Amber Lange, a licensed professional counselor who owns and practices at Bedford Health, a group practice in Lambertville, Michigan, can attest to the high demand for infidelity counseling. Her practice has become known for specializing in issues surrounding infidelity and betrayal. Initially, the sheer need for counselors knowledgeable about and willing to tackle this particular relationship threat astounded her. “I’ll never be out of a job [as an infidelity specialist],” she says ruefully.
Among couples for whom the act of infidelity is fresh, the nonoffending partner is typically experiencing acute stress and may even have symptoms that resemble posttraumatic stress disorder, Lange says. The offending partner, on the other hand, is typically feeling beaten down because he or she has repeatedly been asked blunt questions that shine a direct light on his or her indiscretions: What did you do? Where? How much money did you spend?
In cases in which the infidelity is years in the past, the core counseling issue more often involves a lingering lack of trust, Lange says. “The nonoffending partner [may have] forgiven the offending partner, but they have never rebuilt trust,” she explains. “So the nonoffending partner is hypervigilant about trust and the [possibility of the] offending partner reoffending.”
If the act of infidelity is recent, Lange helps the couple work through their “why, who, where, how” stage. “I talk about the idea of how you can’t ‘unknow’ something once you know it,” says Lange, a professor of counseling at Capella University. “There’s a lot of knowledge that you can gain that may further traumatize you, such as the sexual positions that your partner was in with someone else.”
Clients may also wonder if their partner did things with another person that the nonoffending partner refused to do. If this information is disclosed, Lange explains, it can lead the nonoffending partner to do things he or she is uncomfortable with in an attempt to please the offending partner.
Instead of attempting to get answers to questions that can further damage the relationship, Lange encourages the nonoffending partner to ask structured questions such as: When did you start having sex? When did you stop? Did you have unprotected sex? These types of questions provide information that the nonoffending partner needs to know, Lange says.
The next phase of Lange’s therapeutic approach involves narrative therapy. As part of this stage, Lange might ask couples who delayed getting therapy after the infidelity to briefly touch on information about the affair as a way to see if there are lingering questions. This process also helps Lange to assess the strength of the couple’s bond.
The story of ‘us’
Regardless of whether the couple is confronting a recent infidelity or the infidelity happened years in the past, constructing the story of their relationship represents the core of the healing process, according to Lange. Couples build the narrative to gain a clearer understanding of how and when the cracks in their relationship developed, she explains. They talk about the beginning of their relationship and explore how they interacted. Were they friends and true partners? What happened that started pulling them apart?
“Life” — deaths, births, work, money and so on — is usually the answer to that second question, Lange says. In addition, people typically change over time, which further alters the nature of the relationship, she notes. All of these factors in combination can make a relationship vulnerable to disruption. Add in misperceptions and unmet expectations, and once tiny relationship fissures can turn into large cracks that cause couples to drift apart.
Among the most common life events that can start to pull some relationships apart is the birth of a child, Lange says. “Before the birth, couples were able to spend all their time and energy and money on each other. After the birth of a child, ideally, you love that child and invest all of that [time, energy and money] in parenting and child rearing — which is not bad, but [couples] come into my office, and they haven’t been on a date in three years.”
In addition to not making time for the romantic relationship, the couple may be trapped in patterns that are actively pulling them apart, Lange says. “You’ve been great parents, but the mother is staying home or working and raising kids at the same time, the father is working and overworking to pay for the mortgage and save for retirement — those kinds of things can hurt a relationship,” she says.
When a couple stops talking to each other, it creates a gap, and it is tempting to fill that gap with other people or activities, Lange notes. Partners may begin to betray each other in different ways, whether it is spending time on social media instead of with each other, watching pornography or working long hours, she says. “In the process, we’ve let the relationship go awry,” Lange observes.
But this risk of unraveling is not exclusive to couples with children. Those who get married or enter into domestic partnerships too quickly upon meeting or when they are very young are also particularly vulnerable, Lange says. For example, those who form romantic relationships in their teens or early 20s are in the midst of experiencing significant personal development. This may not happen at the same rate for both partners, eventually leaving them feeling as if they don’t know each other, Lange explains. Likewise, people who get married or form a domestic partnership in the matter of a few weeks have not typically had enough time to establish a strong base of friendship. Over time, it’s not uncommon for them to realize that they don’t even like each other, Lange says.
Lange asks clients not to make a decision about whether to stay together until after they have gone through the process of identifying what went wrong. Then, if they choose to stay together, Lange helps them start to discuss how to protect the relationship going forward. This typically includes setting aside time to talk with each other more frequently, being intentional about making time for dates and even going on vacations without the kids. But it also involves each partner identifying the behaviors in which he or she engages that play a role in pulling the relationship apart.
For example, Lange recounts something that a client recently shared. “One of the things that I have recognized about myself over the past six months is that I tend to withdraw,” the client told her. “When my partner and I got into an argument, I went away, slept in the kids’ room and wouldn’t talk. I would work 85 hours a week. Even when I wasn’t in the office, I was checking my email.”
In essence, Lange says, the client just wasn’t “there” in the relationship. Other people do the same thing by burying themselves in hobbies such as sports or scrapbooking. As a result, they end up spending more time with friends or with hobbies than they do with their partner and family, Lange says.
The process of building the couple’s story in counseling and finding the cracks and vulnerabilities is a long one. For the first four to six weeks, when a couple is still going through the initial trauma phase of the infidelity, Lange has them come to counseling every week. Once a couple moves on to the storytelling stage, she has them come to counseling only about once per month, in part because she feels that much of the processing and healing needs to take place between sessions as the couple slowly rebuilds the relationship.
“They have to have time to figure out things … how to be in relationship, how to recreate their friendship and how to build [new] good memories,” Lange says. During the process of rebuilding the relationship, trust is also being reestablished and forgiveness is being granted. Then the couple can move forward, she explains.
Ideally, the couple will also identify potential problem areas and reach compromises on how to address those issues. For example: “You say I can’t work 90 hours a week, but we need money, so how are we going to figure that out? … This is [our] story. Here’s the way we go forward. Here’s what we need to do.”
Symptom vs. problem
Brian Canfield, a past president of ACA, also says that infidelity is the event that most commonly brings couples into his office. But he believes infidelity is always indicative of other underlying problems in the marriage or relationship.
“I view an affair not as the problem but as a symptom,” he says. “An affair is like malarial fever. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not the fever itself that’s going to kill you — it’s the disease.”
Canfield believes that if a counselor addresses the underlying issue first, it will help to stabilize the couple, which will then allow them to deal with the ramifications of the infidelity. “You [the counselor] have to assess if there is a commitment and desire to save the relationship,” says Canfield, an LMFT whose practice has offices in Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida. “Trust and betrayal, that’s not where you put the spotlight. The trust will return once you stabilize the relationship.”
Canfield starts by asking the couple what they want out of the counseling process and their relationship as a whole. “What would you like to see happen? If it is possible to salvage the marriage, would you be willing?” Canfield asks. “A lot of people want to know why [the affair happened], but here is where we are. Where do you want to be? If you were going to redesign marriage, how would it look?”
Canfield says financial difficulties are the most common underlying issue that couples bring into his office. In his experience, there is so much shame surrounding finances that most couples would rather talk about the details of their sex lives than money. He frequently encounters situations with couples in which one partner has been maintaining a hidden bank account or run up the balance on their credit cards without the other partner knowing. He tells couples that part of the counseling process involves full disclosure.
“A lot of couples are in tremendous denial,” Canfield says. “They don’t know how much debt they are in, what their bills are or have a good picture of how much income they are bringing in.”
Sometimes people feel entitled or convince themselves that it’s OK to buy what they want regardless of how it affects their spouse or partner. They tell themselves that they work hard and that they deserve it. Canfield sees part of his role as helping to bring clarity to these situations to encourage better choices.
“The other spouse may say that if this doesn’t change, I will exit the marriage for my own survival. Which circumstances are more important? Keeping the marriage or continuing to spend?” he asks.
Canfield doesn’t try to play the part of financial adviser to couples (although he does recommend that couples seek professional financial advice elsewhere if needed). Instead, he helps couples recognize their need to possess a clear picture of their financial situation and to develop a reasonable budget.
“It’s a matter of priorities and trade-offs,” he says. “The key as a couples counselor is to have the couple work together as a team. Most couples, when they work as a team, can find common ground.”
Canfield emphasizes that as a couples counselor, it’s not up to him to dictate how much a couple will spend on their priorities. Instead, his focus is simply on making sure that they have agreed on a plan going forward.
Once the underlying issues have been addressed, Canfield helps the couple deal with what he calls the “moral disparity” in a relationship in which infidelity has occurred. The nonoffending partner may feel like he or she has the higher moral ground, but to move forward, the couple must try to reach a “mutual amnesty,” Canfield says.
This involves a delicate balance. Canfield tries to make the couple aware that the infidelity occurred because of the underlying problems — to which they both contributed — that were straining the relationship. However, he always makes it clear that it is not the fault of the nonoffending partner that the other partner cheated. Yes, they both contributed to the relationship’s problems, but the offending partner chose to act out by having an affair.
Matters of miscommunication
Mahaffey, an associate professor of human services technology at Ohio University–Chillicothe, finds that relationship difficulties usually involve a significant degree of miscommunication, which is exacerbated by a number of factors. She helps couples understand how communication can get mixed up by explaining the pieces of a “miscommunication model” that she has devised.
Mahaffey starts by asking both partners to list all of the traits they possess that are different from their partner’s traits. She then takes these lists and draws two people facing each other. This represents two people talking, whereas the lists represent their different — and sometimes conflicting — points of view. Mahaffey often also draws a “family rule book” between the two figures. This represents how a person’s family of origin can affect the way he or she interprets interactions with a partner. Mahaffey often asks couples about their family backgrounds and experiences to illustrate the influence of the family of origin.
Mahaffey will then ask both partners to think about all the times they asked for something and didn’t receive what they wanted from their partner. As they voice these details, it’s not unusual for one partner to exclaim, “You never said that!” Typically, the case is not that either partner is lying, Mahaffey says. Rather, it’s that one of the partners has not been phrasing the requests in a way that effectively communicates what he or she needs, Mahaffey explains. She also informs the couple that humans think at about 500 words per minute but cannot speak more than 125 words per minute, meaning there is ample opportunity for the intended message to get lost.
Other complicating factors in communication include different coping styles (such as one member of the couple shutting down verbally or retreating physically or emotionally during times of stress), the fact that women often process information differently than men and the daily anxieties of life, Mahaffey says. For example, it’s hard for a couple to communicate effectively when one or both partners are stressed about finances, work or the car breaking down.
The last part of Mahaffey’s model entails explaining how words themselves — or how people define them — can get in the way. For example, Mahaffey might ask a couple, “What’s the definition of love? Is it that supper is on the table when I come home? Or liking to snuggle? Or texting 60 times a day?”
At this point, Mahaffey has the couple use “I” statements and talk about what needs they feel are being unmet. One partner might say, “I like to have help with housework.” The other partner might note that the request usually comes during a football game or while engaged in something else that he or she enjoys doing. At this point, Mahaffey might ask if the partner would be willing to provide help either before or after the game. This exercise highlights just one example of an area of possible compromise. The larger point is that the couple needs to sit down and talk about what they need from each other and how those needs can be met, Mahaffey says.
Intimate partner violence
All counselors, but couples counselors in particular, should be looking for signs of intimate partner violence (IPV) among their clients, asserts Ryan Carlson, an ACA member and couples counselor who has done research on screening methods for IPV.
Because IPV is such a prevalent societal problem, all counselors — knowingly or unknowingly — will encounter clients who have experienced or are currently experiencing violence at the hands of their partners, Carlson says. According to data gathered in 2011 and published in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 4 women and more than 1 in 10 men in the United States have in their lifetime experienced sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.
Providing counseling in the presence of such interpersonal violence can be dangerous, not just to the victim but also to the counselor, says Carlson, a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Columbia, South Carolina. That is a primary reason it is important for counselors to be alert to the signs of IPV and to have a protocol to follow should a client be a victim.
Perhaps the most beneficial thing counselors can do is to get connected to the people Carlson calls the “real experts” on this issue — those who work at local domestic violence shelters. “Most of what I have learned [about IPV] has come from domestic violence advocates,” he acknowledges.
Not only can these advocates help counselors assess whether it is safe to work with a couple in which IPV is a reality, but they also stand ready to assist clients who are looking for help, says Carlson, an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina.
Carlson says he uses the term IPV because it is more inclusive than domestic violence. There is an IPV continuum, and domestic violence is on the extreme end of the spectrum, representing the most severe cases that involve, as Carlson puts it, “power and control,” as opposed to nonlethal violence or verbal abuse. From Carlson’s perspective, it is not safe to try to conduct counseling in those cases involving power and control.
Carlson advises counselors to use a formal screening tool for IPV at intake but says there are other red flags to look for, including a client’s unwillingness to take responsibility for actions. “Control over finances or transportation is [also a] red flag,” he continues. “Is one partner restricting access to cell phones, finances, the car, who the other partner can interact with? … Look for body language. Does one partner consistently look to the other when they answer questions? Is it permission seeking? Is there inconsistency in their answers? For example, as part of a meeting to determine whether or not a couple would want to participate in a research study I was doing, I asked about income. The husband gave me an answer, but when I met with the wife separately, she said the husband wasn’t really working and that she wasn’t allowed to talk about that.”
This one disparity turned out to be an indication of severe domestic violence. Carlson followed his protocol and was able to get help for the victim.
What does a protocol look like? Carlson says he has a formal memorandum of understanding with the local domestic violence shelter saying he can call at certain hours when he has a need for consultation. The memorandum also states that he will not provide identifying information about the client, only basic relevant information. This includes the presenting problem and any context he feels is important. The consultant can then advise him on whether the couple’s case might be a power-and-control situation. In those instances, Carlson must find a way to offer help to the victim without tipping off the partner who is engaging in the abuse.
With all of the couples Carlson counsels, his regular practice is to meet briefly with each individual separately at the beginning of each session. This is primarily so that he can get each partner’s point of view independently on the difficulties the couple is experiencing, but it also provides him with a chance to provide contact information for the domestic violence shelter if circumstances warrant. Carlson and the partner who is the target of the abuse may even call the shelter together.
In some cases, however, the victim of the abuse is not ready to leave the relationship. Carlson say many counselors may have a hard time relating to that. “We think we need to get the person out of the relationship immediately, but [we] need to do it safely,” he cautions
The victim has typically been living under abusive circumstances for years and may not yet have reached a crisis point, Carlson explains. Again, he uses consultation with his domestic violence resources to help him navigate this terrain. Regardless of whether the victim is ready to leave, Carlson says the average counselor should not try to continue providing services in these power-and-control cases. Telling the couple that he feels this particular modality will not work for them has proved to be a successful way of terminating treatment without escalating the problem of abuse, he says.
Lynn Linde, senior director of the ACA Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research, adds the caveat that counselors should make sure their states do not require them to report suspected cases of IPV under mandated reporting laws.
There are IPV cases for which Carlson thinks couples counselors are qualified to help. These involve lower lethality or “situational couple violence” (as opposed to one partner begin generally aggressive outside of the relationship as well). In such instances, a couple’s arguments may get out of hand and they may engage in behaviors such as pushing or throwing things at each other. “This can be dangerous, but it’s not as dangerous as choking or using a weapon,” Carlson says. However, he says, it is important for the couple to acknowledge that this behavior is unhealthy and to show a willingness to learn more appropriate ways to interact. It’s also essential that neither partner is afraid of the other, Carlson stresses.
In contrast, partners who engage in power-and-control tactics usually show little or no remorse and may exhibit antisocial-type behavior, Carlson explains. In fact, he says, studies have shown that when engaging in the abuse, these types of offenders typically experience a drop in heart rate rather than an escalating heart rate that is typically associated with anxiety over one’s situation or actions. Carlson also notes that whereas research indicates that men are almost always the perpetrators of power-and-control types of IPV, situational IPV is gender neutral.
None of this information constitutes a foolproof method for deciding whether it is safe for a counselor to work with a couple with a history of IPV. That’s why Carlson continues to do research on screening methods that are better at identifying the presence of violence among couples and where on the spectrum of severity that violence falls.
“Getting it wrong can be very dangerous,” Carlson concludes.
Counseling LGBTQ couples
Although the issues that bring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) couples into counseling are generally the same as those that affect heterosexual couples, the legalization of same-sex marriage has raised some issues unique to LGBTQ relationships, say counselors who work with this population.
“There is a tremendous validation both from the legal system and from society upon their relationships,” says John T. Super, an LMFT who is also a clinical assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Florida. “This validation can provide an emotional confidence or boost surrounding a same-sex relationship that lessens the perceived stigmatization that has occurred. Additionally, since the Supreme Court decision [legalizing same-sex marriage], we have seen a large number of those in long-term relationships choosing to marry and report feeling equality to traditional marriages.”
Although the Supreme Court’s decision is a huge advancement for the LGBTQ community and has given many couples the opportunity for which they have long waited, actually getting married has not been absent of negative consequences for some couples, says Super, a member of ACA. “Clients have explained [that] when they announced their marriage … it was in many ways similar to the coming-out process in that those who are choosing to marry and are in same-sex relationships may face resistance from friends and family as they legalize the relationship,” he explains. “I have heard clients say that their friends and family accepted their relationship, but when they choose to marry, the thought of the same-sex couple entering into a legal marriage is a line the friends or family are not comfortable crossing.”
Counselors have an important role in helping same-sex couples navigate the resistance they may face when they decide to get married, agrees Joy Whitman, a past president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. Amidst the joy of getting married, there may be feelings of hurt and loss from being rejected all over again by certain individuals or segments of society, she says. Counselors can help couples grieve and process this loss.
According to Whitman, who previously worked as a couples counselor, marriage can also exacerbate a common problem in same-sex relationships: unequal comfort levels with being “out.” Marriage can make the partner who is less “out” feel especially vulnerable, she explains.
Counselors should also be aware that for the first time, LGBTQ couples are facing divorce, Whitman says. Not only is this a new experience, but the need in many cases to stand up in court and disclose intimate relationship details can be particularly disconcerting for clients in same-sex relationships, she says.
Super and Whitman also note that counselors need to be aware of the generation gap among different LGBTQ couples. “Couples who are in their 20s experienced a very different level of social acceptance than couples in their 50s or older,” Super points out. “This generational difference can be important to understand when determining the levels of internalized oppression the individual or couple has experienced.”
Despite these issues and other issues that are specific to the LGBTQ community, Super and Whitman emphasize that couples counseling is couples counseling. Peluso, an associate professor of counselor education at Florida Atlantic University, agrees.
“In many respects, the practice of couples counseling shouldn’t change that much,” he says. “Focusing on the relationship means taking the relationship as it is created by the partners involved. The only judgment that the couples counselor is making is, ‘Is this healthy for you right now?’ and then seeing how the couple can change that. That is fairly universal.”
To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, see the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.
- “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone
- “Crazy Love: Dealing With Your Partner’s Problem Personality” with W. Brad Johnson
- “The Secrets to Surviving Infidelity” with Scott Halzman
VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas)
- “Five Counseling Techniques for Increasing Attachment, Intimacy and Sexual Functioning in Couples” by Elisabeth D. Bennett, Jaleh Davari, Jeanette Perales, Annette Perales, Brock Sumner, Gurpreet Gill & Tin Weng Mak
- “Helping Couples Reconnect: Developing Relational Competencies and Expanding Worldviews Using the Enneagram Personality Typology” by Thelma Duffey & Shane Haberstroh
- “Loving Kindness Meditation and Couples Therapy: Healing After an Infidelity” by Laura Cunningham & Yuleisy Cardoso
- “Supporting Same-Sex Couples in the Decision to Start a Family” by Debbie C. Sturm, Erika Metzler Sawin & Anne L. Metz
- “Working With Intercultural Couples and Families: Exploring Cultural Dissonance to Identify Transformative Opportunities” by Cheryl L. Crippen
- “Working With Sexual Addictions in Couples Therapy” by Sara L. Wood
Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
- “Counseling Couples With a Trauma History” by Catherine J. Brack & Greg Brack
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.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.