BY JIM Mcelrath, lcsw-r, DIRECTOR OF CLINICAL SERVICES, FAMILY SERVICE OF THE CHAUTAUQUA REGION
One of the most challenging types of counseling to participate in and to deliver is relationship counseling. It is often very difficult for persons in a relationship to agree that they need help sorting out issues that might help them improve their interactions and, subsequently, the health of their connections. If there is agreement, to then put your trust in a likely stranger further complicates matters.
There seems to be evidence that people are staying together more now than in the recent past. One reason appears to be that people seem more willing than ever to try relationship counseling. Unfortunately, there may also be a significant number of people staying together simply for financial reasons.
It’s true that the divorce rate has been declining but that does not necessarily mean relationships are not struggling as much as they ever have. For example, cohabitation has significantly increased in the past 40 years and relationship breakups would not statistically be reflected in these numbers.
There is considerable controversy about relationships that are unhealthy but remain together because of their children. Behavioral consequences exist either way if the children are exposed to conflict and tension which can have long-term consequences on the children’s eventual relationships. Many adult children of divorce tend to be more mindful of problems that impacted their own parents’ relationships but as with many learned behaviors they can repeat the negative behaviors as well.
Relationship problems often come down to two areas – poor communication and problem solving skills. By no means does this writer want to oversimplify an often complex story, but narrowing the focus can often bring focus to an otherwise overwhelming process.
Men have stereotypically been said to be more resistant to relationship counseling but this seems to be changing. For better or for worse, as our culture has evolved men and women are learning more about each other which is (and has) changed the relationship landscape. Though probably a bit extreme, it has been said that men are the women and women the new men. Role reversals and enmeshment are everywhere and in all types of couples.
Counselors can help structure and medicate the communication problem but “practice” between sessions is vital if couples are to sustain any progress they make. Couples may need to establish appointment times with each other, especially if they tend to avoid these often difficult to have conversations.
This toxic subject matter is often at the root of their difficulties and can become embedded in their memories which can distort their thoughts and feelings. Often, these memories can be triggered by tones, words, or actions that resemble their origin but then escalate or are easily aroused. A counselor can help couples identify and be more mindful of these moments so that more productive communication and problem solving can occur.
Extramarital/relationship affairs tend to be one of the major reasons that couples enter into counseling and/or end their union. Though this behavior can obviously be extremely hurtful to one’s partner, this writer has observed that if forgiveness can somehow be given, the relationship can grow out of this suffering.
Interestingly, second marriages have a higher divorce rate which may lend itself to the adage that the “grass is not always greener” somewhere else. The reconciliation process can often lead to improved dialogue and actions to address the reasons that lead to the affair. Serial affairs are another matter.
Picking and choosing your battles is another skill set worth developing for healthy relationships. This writer calls it “the cap off the toothpaste syndrome” whereby a seemingly insignificant issue escalates into a major conflict. If couples can learn to agree to disagree it adds an insulating layer to the relationship.
Many couples who would be considered successful argue frequently, but keep a proper perspective about the subject matter. This approach can increase thoughtfulness and compassion and add to the couple’s ability to be more accepting and tolerant of their partners. If couples can be more aware of the contempt, belligerence, stonewalling, and criticism that contributes to the breakdown of the relationships, these toxic conflicts can be reduced significantly.
Perhaps one of the most enlightening ideas this writer has heard and subsequently experienced in terms of contributing to a successful partnership comes from Joseph Campbell. His idea is basically that we get so caught up in our own stuff that we neglect to sacrifice to the relationship. What seems like such a simple idea is more difficult to put into practice and requires both individuals to contribute so that the two become one. This is obviously much easier said than done and might sound hopelessly romantic and/or corny but this writer is convinced that if couples can stay grounded in this idea, their ability to endure hardship and pick each other up improves greatly.
So many factions influence relationships. Sometimes opposites attract but have difficulty staying together. Other times they compliment each other beautifully. Conversely, like-minded individuals would seem to be a good match but don’t always work out either.
There are too many books on relationships to count. Certainly they can be helpful but if there was one way to sustain and improve how we get along, there would be one book. Through 20 years of doing this work and my own trials and tribulations with relationships, I believe it is worth doing whatever we can to pay attention to the positive elements that can enhance a partnership.
Relationships are often more work that we would like them to be but worth it nonetheless. They impact our lives and those of our extended family, our community, our work, and, by extension, our world.
Jim McElrath is the Director of Clinical Services for the Family Service of the Chautauqua region.