Traditionally, a couple is defined as two people involved in a committed relationship and who are (usually) in a sexual relationship. In the past few years, individual clients have asked if I could see them and a member of their family or a close friend in a therapeutic setting. The prospect of this both intrigued and slightly intimidated me. As a couple’s therapist I am trained to work with two people but had never worked with this type of dynamic. Of course, there have been issues that I’ve not encountered before with clients but I’ve managed to work through the ‘not knowing’ and managed to work reflectively through these issues. Because of this, I allowed myself to trust my instincts and agreed.
My first experience was with a client who wanted to tell her father a few things she found difficult to say to him. She felt ready to speak in what she believed was a safe environment, with the support from a therapist. We agreed on 5 sessions and in that time, they were able to disentangle some of their old narratives and heal deep historic wounds that had created distance between them. This helped my client feel heard in a way she had not experienced with her father and they were both able to begin to make sense of what happened between them and how this had impacted on their relationship. My admiration for this ‘couple’ was huge and it was to their credit that they managed to stay with the uncomfortable feelings and worked through their issues.
What struck me was that all people, no matter what kind of couple, share a sense of not being heard, not being seen, feelings of hurt and a fear of losing their relationship. The longing for repair and need for harmony between people is part of our drive as humans. We are born to connect and love but we don’t always have the tools to know how best to achieve this. This is when people reach out for help and therapy can be a tool that enables individuals to connect with themselves in order to connect with others. Couples bring their hope of creating a new understanding and better communication between the people they love.
There is clearly a difference between working with traditional couple issues and relatives or friendships. My own understanding of these differences has been informed by own experience, by my willingness to ask questions and to learn to not assume anything. As a therapist, I am disentangling and constantly trying to make sense of feelings and where they might be originating from. The dynamics between people, whether a romantic couple or between relatives or friends are usually based on a connection that has been severed in some way. In both cases, the work is the same, reestablishing that connection.