I, along with most of my couples, have a love/hate relationship with couples counseling. It can be immensely challenging and can result in feelings of frustration, stagnation and hopelessness for all parties involved. Alternately, couples work can also be deeply rewarding, exciting and, in moments, full of laughter.
The primary reason this work is difficult is because the ways in which we are conditioned to function in our relationships are not easy to override; however, it makes the moments where progress does occur that much more encouraging.
I view couples counseling in the same way most people think of a dentist appointment or a check-up with a primary-care doctor: It is part of the maintenance necessary to sustain a healthy life. Through the occasional “check-up,” it becomes easier to ensure that you and your partner are communicating in healthy ways, avoiding the development of resentful feelings and continuing to look to the future in compatible ways.
I know that it isn’t especially reasonable of me to think that I can convince each of you that couples counseling is essential to the continued health of your relationship, so I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll offer a bit of a Couples Counseling for Dummies guide to DIY it. While every individual, as well as every couple, is distinctly different from the next, there are certain basic topics, issues and concerns that have a level of general relevance.
This month, we’ll focus on listening since it is just about the only way to engage in healthy and productive communication with your partner, specifically, listening only for the sake of gaining understanding of what your partner is saying is the current assignment. But first, raise your hand if you’ve ever listened to your partner speak solely with the intent of formulating your response (everyone’s hand should be up!). What have you noticed the result of that listening style to be? I’m going to take a guess that it has likely led to your partner not feeling heard or understood and that it served to perpetuate the disagreement or argument. This must be avoided whenever possible, despite how difficult it could be to do so.
The following DIY exercise will give you some practice at effective listening (listen first, think later!) and is one of my very favorite couples exercises. You are going to start by one of you opting to be the listener and the other opting to be the speaker.
The speaker’s task is to speak for 90 seconds to two minutes about a topic of relevance. Speaker, this is your moment to discuss freely any thoughts and feelings you’d like your partner to hear. Listener, your job is to listen with the knowledge that when your partner is done speaking, you have to summarize what they’ve just said, so listen carefully. As the listener, in order to successfully engage in the assignment it is crucial that you do not slant the information nor insert any personal opinions as you paraphrase it back to your partner. Next, you’ll switch roles and do the same exercise again.
Afterwards, take a minute to talk about how it felt just listening. Chances are, it wasn’t as difficult as you may have imagined and you may have even heard a useful bit of information that you’d been missing out on previously. Did you experience any empathy for your partner during the exercise? Talk about any increased insight or understanding you may have gained.
For best results, do this periodically and not just when things are rocky; do it when things are going smoothly in your relationship as well and don’t be afraid to laugh a little bit. Keeping a relationship healthy can be challenging work but there’s no reason why it can’t also be purposeful and fun. On the other hand, if this exercise goes poorly, it may be a good indicator that your relationship could benefit from professional help rather than the DIY route.
Good luck and enjoy!
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist specializing in issues and concerns of the LGBTQ community in addition to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental illnesses. Her private practice, Philadelphia LGBTQ Counseling, offers both individual and couples sessions (www.lgbtphillytherapy.com).