I've worked with many couples and it's part of my work that I find really rewarding - especially when I see couples heading off after just a few therapy sessions, feeling much more positive and optimistic about their relationship. I've prepared well for this work - in addition to my grounding in family therapy, I've also participated in training at the Gottman Institute in Seattle, USA. Professor John Gottman is currently one of the most prominent couple therapists in the world, with his work supported & validated by many years of research into couple functioning. So I'm fortunate to be one of a very small number of people in New Zealand to have participated in this training. I'm also influenced by Emotionally Focused Therapy, which also has a very solid evidence base to support its effectiveness.
Because many couples seek therapy in times of a crisis, they usually want therapy to be fairly brief and focused, so that they can resolve issues, collect some new tools, and get on with their lives & relationships. This will mean that there has to be maximum use made of a relatively small number of sessions.
Besides the actual crisis or issue that got them in the door, it's usually common to also look at all or some of the following, as these can often be tied in with the issues:
1) Conflict and how this is managed.
Conflict is actually OK, and it usually features in most close human relationships to some degree. So it makes sense for couples to recognise it, but also take charge of it, rather than have it run rampant and take charge of them. Strangely enough, repeated conflict patterns can often mask underlying bids for a deeper connection with a partner.
2) Emotional Distance.
This can often develop if couples do not deal with conflict well - and this can be very damaging for a couple relationship if it remains unaddressed. Emotional distance often goes hand in hand with a pattern of 'pursue and retreat.' This happens when one partner has an issue, and really goes after their partner about it. Their partner meanwhile, does not have an answer, or does not like conflict, and so retreats or shuts down. This frustrates the first partner more, who then pursues them further... and so it goes, with emotional distance being a frequent outcome. If this becomes a common cycle, it can be hard to come back from, and emotional distancing sets in.
3) Sitting with differing perspectives - and knowing that's OK.
We can only look at the world through our own eyes - and so each partner will have their own perspective. It's crucial that both partners learn to accept this, value their differences, and not try and mould each other to take on their partner's way of seeing things. Usually there is no right or wrong, just difference.
4) Roles - who does what, and why.
It's pretty common to slot into stereotypical roles, and this is especially so for parents of younger children. But it's important to review these from time to time, and evaluate if this still works best for everyone involved, rather than just do it, because this is how we've always done it, and this is how our parents did it.
(5) There are actually no soul mates (yikes!)
Although some chemical attraction might help a couple get together in the first place, it's never going to be enough to fuel the relationship for the rest of its days. Rewarding relationships come from working at them, and attending to them, and not letting them slip down the list of life's priorities. Yet this happens so often, with couples overlooking the fact that their original couple relationship was the foundation to much of what was to come later on in their lives - such as kids/careers/mortgages, etc, yet these then wind up having a higher priority. And the thing is, kids actually do better in their worlds, when their parents are actually in a solid, stable and loving couple relationship.
A central component of all intimate relationships, it's important for partners to each understand how it fits within their particular relationship, and if it's bent or broken, how it will then be attended to.
The full use of systemic psychotherapies in New Zealand remains quite undeveloped in comparison to other western countries, and there are still very few therapists in NZ who have completed substantial training in this approach. Yet the majority of us are shaped and influenced so powerfully by our families, with personal issues often developing within a family context. My main thought around this, is that if we don't see the person as having been strongly influenced by family, and also seeing family as a source of problem resolution, then we wind up working with just the tip of the iceberg.
I've completed lengthy training in a range of systemic family psychotherapies, with the first part of this process being completion of a clinical training programme in Melbourne, Australia. Since then, I've also completed many other shorter courses and programmes within the USA, Australia & New Zealand, and have had good exposure to the works of many of the leaders in the field. I have developed sufficient expertise to the extent that I have taught family therapy (at both post-grad and under-grad levels) in several different university settings, in addition to providing training for numerous agencies and groups over the years.
Systemic family therapy (as the family truly is a natural living system) focuses on the entirety of the family, how it fits together, how it functions. It is concerned with the family as a whole, and therefore being greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, I'm interested in boundaries and structure, knowing that families are healthier & more functional when these aspects are clearer.
Something useful to do is to weigh up as an adult, how caught up in family of origin dynamics you may still be. At one level, we will of course, always be influenced by family, and that is natural and normal, and is of course essential to many aspects of our functioning. Sometimes though, these influences can bring limitations and constraints which are no longer helpful, or even healthy. I believe family of origin influences sit with us throughout our entire life-span to varying degrees, and will shape many aspects of our being, in ways which we are often not aware of.
Family therapy addresses a whole range of issues- such as concerns regarding child or adolescent behaviour, blended family issues, parenting issues, the impact of physical or mental illness, the impact of life transitions such as relocation, migration or redundancy.
Although the focus of my work is on couples and families, I also work with a significant number of individual clients of all ages, as issues and dynamics present in couple or family relationships will or course have relevance for many individuals. Individual clients are also likely to be addressing any number of issues, such as depression, anxiety, excessive anger, self-esteem, relationship concerns, life transitions & recovery from significant early-life traumas, such as abuse. Referrals for individual counselling & therapy have come from GPs, emergency services, mental health sector bases, work-places.
I will often work systemically with individual clients - this includes looking at what influences have shaped their lives: whose values, whose attitudes, whose voices have had most sway over them, and how helpful (or not) has this been? In therapy with individuals (indeed with all clients), I have the belief that we are all resourceful- that everyone ultimately has the wisdom and the personal competency to do what they need to do to move forward.
A big part of my work with individual clients is with adolescents, who might be high school age, or older. Issues they might be grappling with will include those mentioned above, and they are often referred to me from their school, or by a parent or doctor. Although parents need to stay focused on supporting their young person through this important stage of their development , there is often usefulness in sourcing a fresh perspective from outside of home, especially if the issues are remaining unresolved, and are leading to increased conflict at home. Although the focus of these sessions is the young person, they can often be powerless to address some of the external factors that are limiting or distressing them. How necessary information is fed back to parents or caregivers, so that they can support the young person accordingly is very important.
I've noticed that parents can feel increasingly powerless, as adolescents move further into their teen years. Kids can sound increasingly articulate and rational, meaning that parents will often back away from taking a stand, for fear of it leading to escalations in tension and conflict in the household. It's important for parents to keep in mind that they are still the parent, that even though the young person may sound quite plausible, quite convincing, they still possess very limited wisdom and life-experience in comparison to mum or dad. Young people will generally push up against the boundaries or limitations that parents set for them, but will nevertheless feel heightened security when these boundaries are present, and when mum or dad stand their ground and are consistent.
So when Is the best time to go to therapy?
This is a really interesting question... As you can probably understand, most people tend to seek out counselling or therapy when they are in the midst of a crisis. And that makes sense. However it's really important too, to be able to reflect on how we are in a particular relationship or situation. More specifically, it's useful to look at the dynamics, the uniqueness of the relationship, and of course identify its strengths.
These tasks are probably best attended to when we are not in crisis, when we can take the time to learn to manage the relationship more pro-actively. This increases the resourcefulness and resilience of the relationship and the people in it, meaning of course that they are better prepared for the future, and thus more likely to not get into another crisis. So, now's good! Jump over here if you have questions about why/when to start therapy, that haven't been answered for you.