All therapists will know the feeling when the air in the therapy room feels thick and heavy. For both clients and counsellor, everything can seem to be slowing down to a tiring pace which defies logic. This is often the ‘stuck’ moment.
As a couple therapist, one of the signs of a static session is when I start imagining bright ideas that could ‘help’. This is quite a different feeling to that of sharing a conversation about creative ideas that can encourage clients to try to find new ways of interacting.
No, this is where I start to imagine nice places they can eat, or cheap locations for dates, even holiday destinations – when, of course, they are perfectly able to find these solutions without their counsellor acting as their social secretary.
This is often a clue to the ‘Yes, But’ moment, when one half of a partnership will stymie anything the other suggests. All ideas get blocked before they can be explored. Offering up any therapeutic reflections in the counselling room can be quickly shut down too. We are all caught up in the defensive process and ‘Yes, But’ is really taking a hold. The thoughts of the therapist are also pushed aside and there seems every logical reason why there is no space for reflection or insight.
This will also be part of the stage in many relationships when the couple report back week after week that they have been just ‘too busy’ to spend any time together, that they have ‘hardly seen each other this week’ (or last week, or next week)
This often evolves into a neat system of procrastination.
Ideas get deferred, babysitters can’t be found, snoring is keeping their bedrooms separate, the list can be endless. It’s a clever tool for resistance. But dig deeper and often ‘Yes, But’ is just a useful method for avoiding something that we are truly afraid to examine in case it won’t be how we imagine, or want, it to be.
Now it’s time for the big challenge and for the therapist to try and look at this situation in a way that will not feel critical, but can begin to acknowledge that the underlying problem is fuelled by deep fear.
We, as therapists, have to open up this dilemma and find a route into the clients anxieties that will tread a safe line between any possibility that an intrusive comment could feel unsympathetic or harassing, and that of being in tacit agreement, which colludes with them, but blocks any possibility of a shift in the status quo.
Intimate relationships open us all up to the fear of great vulnerability, and by continuing to find good reasons to stay put in their confusion, clients can find it easier to hold onto their defences rather than risk change
Allowing the challenge of being truly curious about how the other feels and reacts, can seem dangerous. We may not like what we hear in response if we expose ourselves to ask honest and interested questions.
‘Yes, But’ can be just one way to disguise the dread when clients feel they can’t really cope with the anxiety of accepting the other, and their differences, without it becoming a serious challenge to the bedrock of their relationship.
In therapy sessions, we can point out that listening does not necessarily mean agreeing, but it means better knowledge of each other. Listening without judgement is an art, and not always an easy one to master. We can all fear being criticised and a couple therapy room should be a safe place to find ways of open discussion and the space to play with new thoughts. It can allow couples to better know their differences and for them to believe they are both still loveable in spite of examining these tricky parts of the couple relationship.
Change is risky, but being stuck leaves couples in a gloomy and frustrated place.
Clients invest in therapy with hopes for change.
Turning ‘Yes, but’ into ‘Yes, …. and?’ can be a good start and brings hope of rebooting the impasse of the stalled relationship.