|by Flemming Funch|
I just realize that I'm not talking much about my counseling practice here. I suppose that's in part because I mostly talk about things I haven't quite figured out yet, and the focus of my learning is nowadays mostly in other areas.
And I can't really talk too specifically about the juicy details of my client sessions, because they're confidential. But at least I can talk about some of the principles at work once in a while.
For those who didn't realize it at all, I'm a counselor. I'm very low key at this point, seeing just a handful of people each week, and not really trying to get new clients. But since I've written a couple of books and get a steady stream of inquiries and questions, etc., I feel obliged to maintain at least a minimal level of visibility.
One of the types of work I can't say I've completely mastered is work with couples. I.e. two people, often a married couple, who are having some kind of relationship issues. Like when they're about to get a divorce, but they decided to try this as a last straw kind of thing. And there's certainly no guarantee that it will make any difference. That's a bit unnerving to me, because in my work with individuals I'm pretty much certain that I can always help them, as long as they show up of their own free will and sit down in the chair in front of me. For couples I have no such certainty. OK, maybe half of the time it works, their marriage is saved, they cancel the divorce, etc. Another percentage of times, they become more clear on the whole thing, and more certain that they don't belong together. And a certain percentage of time, they're just so entrenched in an unsolvable situation that there's no visible result.
One of the key things that is often "wrong" with a relationship is that the parties don't know how to deal with the fact that they're different people, with different ways of experiencing the world, different priorities, different habits. To many people that comes as a complete surprise, after a couple of years of marriage.
A relationship is of course based on having something in common. If nothing else, the decision to hang out together and share a big part of ones lives together. But a large number of people think that it is about finding somebody who matches all your criteria. So, you make a list of what you want. She needs to be blonde and pretty, and neat, and like to go to the movies, and she must like sports, and she should want 2 kids and to live in the country, etc. The more detailed the lists are, if two people actually manage to find each other based on that, chances are their marriage would last about 3 years. At first they're in love and they can plan it perfectly together, and they're busy arranging things according to their now common list of how it perfectly should be. But after a while that has mostly been done. Your wedding was perfect, you've had your honeymoon in the designated manner, you have a home together, with the right kind of furniture, etc. But after a while we start getting down to the things you didn't think of, the areas where you actually don't agree on your preferences. Little things like the stereotypical toothpaste. Little things that after a while become bigger and bigger. You start irritating each other, arguing, fighting, avoiding each other's touchy subjects, etc.
At that point, either some lights go on and you learn what it is really about ... or you decide to go back to the drawing board. Your list simply wasn't good enough, and now you know to make it much longer, and include the toothbrush and toilet seat and a bunch of other things on the list. So, you split up, decide he/she just wasn't the right person, and you go look for somebody better. But, no, that probably won't get you any success in relationships. Just a string of unhappy ones.
The apparently well-kept secret is that the core of a good relationship is about what you do with the things that don't quite fit. Its about whether you have a process for actually dealing with each other. Not just an approach for deciding who wins, but rather an approach to how you can change together, and how you can love each other even when things aren't perfect. When you realize that you're two different people doing things differently, and there's a collision there of some kind, that's where there's opportunity for the relationship to grow, and for each of you to learn something.
Some people avoid having to do such work by dividing things up in advance, so that the parties remain separate per definition. You know, we each have our separate checkbooks, we take turns doing the laundry and deciding what's for dinner. We divide the week up between us so that we can go to our separate activities, and we only do those things together which we already agree on.
Either way, those are often ways of not facing the actual relationship. Either if we try to match everything up so we agree on everything, or if we try to separate everything out so we each can remain in charge of our separate domains. They're ways of avoiding the scary territory of working things out and growing together.
Some couples just need to realize that their differences aren't necessarily a problem, that they aren't necessarily opposed to each other - they're just different. Very common examples are found in how people organize their minds differently. Some people think about necessities before anything else - i.e. they think about what must be done, what job is at hand. Others think about possibilities first, like, all the many different routes that could be taken, creative new things one could do, etc. Two people who use two different primary programs might consider each other opposed to each other when they really aren't. The person who's focusing on the necessities will think that the possibilities person is a flakey airhead who's bouncing all over the walls, dreaming about unrealistic scenarios. And the possibilities person will think that the necessities person is boring, and stuck in a groove, and ignoring much better ways of doing things. .. But if those two realize that they're simply doing things differently, and that if they look closer, they might realize that they actually complement each other well, and they might find that they're something more together than when they're apart. They're a team, with more awareness and ability together than any one of them has separately.
Some people are primarily visual - everything is something they see in their mind, and if they can't SEE it, they don't understand it. Other people are primarily kinesthetic, and need to touch it and FEEL it. A kinesthetic person might look down, break eye contact, and go inside themselves in order to decide something. The visual person would insist on eye contact and would look around and draw diagrams in order to decide something. If they realize they're a team, they can make better decisions together. But if they don't, they might have very negative opinions about each other. "Why are you looking away!? What are you hiding?"
People who have been married for 20 years, and who have annoyed each other for all that time, might have completely missed something like that. 1/2 hour in a processing session might set that straight and they can suddenly communicate again.
A harder thing to fix is the thing about them being able to process the areas where they're at odds with each other. Because that's something they need to do together, by themselves, whenever it is necessary. So they kind of need to invent it together. They need some kind of space where it is ok for them to talk about what they feel and think about life and each other. A space of dialogue where they can suspend their judgements, look at things together, and end up somewhat transformed from the experience. Nobody says it has to be in any calm and serene way. For some people it involves yelling at each other. The main point is whether they end up somewhere new together or not. If they just have a fight and somebody wins, the relationship hasn't gotten anywhere. If they just have a fight, and both give up and forget about it, another opportunity for growth was missed. If they avoid the argument altogether and both continue to ignore it, the relationship suffers equally.
Relationships are about relating. That's a verb, not a noun. It is something you do, on an ongoing basis.