Working with Family Members

As couple therapists, our training is focused on two people: a man and a woman, two women, two men, transgender couples. These are couples that have chosen to commit to a relationship. They have a history of meeting, dating, getting to know one another and (hopefully) falling in love. They come to therapy because their relationship is in trouble, and they want to understand why and how to resolve things.

So what happens when two sisters, two brothers, a mother and daughter, mother and son, father and daughter or father and son need help with their relationship?

When a client I have been working with asked if I would see him with his brother, I was in a quandary as to how I might serve them best. I decided that I would work with the issues that they wanted to address as I would with any couple. But was it as simple as that? What else did I need to consider?

I asked myself what the difference might be working with them, and what I came up with is that this ‘couple’ didn’t choose one another but were born into the same family. The other difference is that the family history is shared but not always experienced in the same.

What struck me about meeting these brothers was there was the same tension between them that ‘normal’ couples often bring into the consulting room. There was also a natural hesitance about delving into difficult feelings between them (opening the ‘can of worms’) and doubted that the other could understand them.

Mike and James grew up with a controlling and divisive mother who would keep one of them in favour and criticise the other. And then, periodically, she would switch. It felt good when they were the chosen one and both acknowledged how difficult it was to protect the other or name what was going on within the family.

By telling the story, the brothers were able to appreciate how they were caught up in a dynamic that they didn’t choose but were forced to adapt to.
As children, they had no guidance and did the best they could to manage, but it left them feeling unprotected and wounded with one another.

I worked with them for eight sessions and they started slowly to trust one another and move forward together. They consciously made a pact to protect one another when the other was out of favour and keep the communication between them open and loving. They realized that changing their mother’s behaviour wasn’t possible but they were determined to step into it, with one another, in a different more thoughtful way. After a time, they found that this made them stronger together and as a result, their relationship became closer and deeper.
Working with two people means simply learning to understand how they experience and relate to one another. Whether it is a romantic couple or siblings going through difficulties, therapy can help disentangle things between them.

Shirlee Kay

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