The average couple waits six years before seeking help from a couples counsellor, according to research by US clinical psychologist John Gottman.
By this stage, the couple are generally in crisis mode, often shown by gridlock over perpetual, entrenched issues which don’t seem to go anywhere when they are discussed.
So it makes sense that when your relationship is vulnerable, that you choose a couples counsellor that uses evidenced-based techniques to help you and your partner tackle the difficulties you are experiencing.
40 years of research
Fortunately, the Gottman approach is solidly research-backed, as John Gottman has completed over 40 years of study into the complexities of couple relationships.
The Gottman approach to couples counselling includes an assessment which looks at the relationship in terms of friendship, intimacy, how well each knows their partner, how emotions and conflict are managed, values and goals, and individual life meaning.
Other areas covered in the assessment include parenting, housework, finances and trust issues.
As the therapist works from this tool, it contains the therapy in a safe and boundaried way, something which is often needed and can be reassuring when stressed couples first get in touch.
The approach leans heavily on psychoeducation, meaning that the couple learn more effective communication skills quickly and efficiently, and if there are children at home, they will undoubtedly benefit too.
Most people engage quickly with the practical nature of the Gottman techniques, such as how to manage ‘flooding’ (when your heart rate gets up to 100 beats per minute), which if unheeded, leads to erratic communication and the slippery slope of emotional disengagement.
The four horsemen
When it has gotten to this stage, the couple is likely to engage in a variety of destructive communication styles such as criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – otherwise known as the four horsemen. According to Gottman, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.
Fortunately, antidotes to these patterns can be learned by the couple, allowing more healthy and productive communication to occur.
In my experience using this technique, partners often discuss being relieved to discover more about why they behave the way they do in their relationship; become more aware of their triggers and are then more able to make positive changes.
- Make sure you choose a counsellor or psychotherapist who has specialised training in relationship counselling – other models include Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT), Pact and Imago.
- Ask them about which approach they use and why – and check that it resonates with you.
- Make sure both parties feel like they can connect with the counsellor.
- If you have had individual counselling previously, couples counselling is different. Be prepared for this, as the ‘client’ is the relationship.
- If the couples counsellor feels you need more support than can be offered within the couples sessions, it may be suggested that you seek individual therapy also. The counsellor should be transparent with you around this.
Karen Holmes is a psychotherapist with over 12 years’ experience working with clients with a variety of presenting issues. Her main focus the past couple of years has been with female clients and couples. She works from her office in Robina on the Gold Coast and also offers online counselling.