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What to do when your couples counseling session just makes things worse

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The tension in the room was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Mike and Stephanie, a couple in their early thirties that I’d been working with for several months, sat in my office, awkwardly looking away from each other and occasionally shooting me desperate “Why aren’t you doing something” glances at me.

I was no better off. Even though I’m trained to deal with situations like this, licensed as a therapist, and a conflict mediator, I’m still human, and I still feel awkward, just like anyone else does. I had to actively resist the urge to “make it all better” and smooth things over, because as terrible as all that tension felt, I knew that it was necessary, even productive. And my jumping in and resolving it for them would deny them the opportunity to confront the things they needed to. So, I shifted in my seat, took a deep breath and accepted that this session just wasn’t going to end happily with shared understanding, hugs and compassion.

A couples counseling session that ends badly is the worst. For everyone.

There’s no denying that when a couple says to me, “We were doing good, ‘til we came in here,” it hurts!. Many people come to a session like this looking for better communication, problem solving and relief through couples counseling. So when a session doesn’t end well, it can feel doubly frustrating –– like, “If this thing that’s supposed to make our already-not-so-great relationship better feels terrible and seems to make the relationship even worse, then what the hell’s the point?”

As a couples therapist, I’m equally frustrated when people leave my office worse than when they came in. The feeling of leaving things unfinished, people being upset and angry/hurt as they leave my office; sucks. And often it is absolutely essential.

In order for things to truly get resolved, it often requires people to stop saying and doing the things they think they “should” and instead choose to say or do the things that “need” to be said or done. What the hell does that mean? It means getting real, being honest and doing it in non-threatening ways. And for most people that requires some vulnerability, faith, and fear. Which can often feel a bit unpredictable and risky.

So what can you do to make the most of a session that ends badly?

1.)  Ask yourself “What did I learn about myself? ” In couples counseling it’s easy to get really focused on the relationship and miss the ways each individual can grow in his/her own way. This is kinda ironic because all types of counseling are about increasing self awareness, and the relationship is made up of two individual people. Did you figure out a boundary you have the you were previously unaware of? Did you realize that underneath all that anger you’re actually heartbroken? Are you ashamed to recognize that you’ve been minimizing your partner’s feelings because you yourself don’t know how to deal with difficult emotions? It’s not all about the other person, some of it is about you. What did you learn about your issues?

2.) Recognize that growth happens at the edge of discomfort. Hard truth: feeling comfortable and growing as a person rarely go hand in hand.Typically we become complacent and sometimes even entitled. Use the uncomfortable feelings as pieces of valuable info. Whether it’s apparent or not right now, your pain is often a part of your progress.

3.) Remember clarity and authenticity trump peace-keeping and complacency. Every. Time. Many people I see think that conflict is bad and that if a relationship is good it should not involve disagreements, arguments or tension. In order to show up as your true self, it will at times inevitably mean conflict for the relationship. And conflict is not bad as a practice, it’s how conflict is handled that can be destructive. If people focus primarily on avoiding conflict they lose touch with their individual wants, desires and dreams. This is how some couples wake up one day after 20 plus years of marriage and just decide to divorce. To outsiders it appears shocking and confusing. But the people within the relationship realize that somewhere along the way their identity died a slow painful death within the relationship.

4.) Accept that improving yourself (and your relationship) from the outside in is a marathon, not a race. Really creating long term change can take months or years in many cases. Don’t expect counseling to be something you do for a month or two and then suddenly things are fixed. When we move toward problems and start acknowledging them by healthy processing we begin the journey of change. Often things get worse before they get better in therapy; this is a necessary evil. Trust in the process. Trust in your relationship. Trust in your therapist. And know that you are all trying to work toward the same goal. If you can’t trust any of the three above, reconsider if counseling is right for you or if you need a new therapist

There’s no way for me (or anyone) to subtract the pain and discomfort of leaving a difficult couples counseling session, so these are my suggestions for how to make the most of it. Instead of focusing on how bad it felt, try to recall what you found out that you didn’t recognize before. Even if it’s a painful reality it is a stepping stone toward figuring out what you do want and how to get it. Don’t waste your pain. Make it count. Make it useful. That is how you will create a life and relationship filled with love.

Couples counseling blowing up in your face? Need a sympathetic ear, or some guidance on what to do next? I’m here for you. Click here to schedule a free initial consult!

4 comments… add one
Alyssa Caldbeck May 1, 2018, 1:43 am

Great information Amber!

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Kerri-Anne Brown May 7, 2018, 2:01 pm

Great tips! There’s always something to learn that can be used either for personal growth or the relationship’s growth.

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Lynn Louise Wonders May 8, 2018, 6:41 pm

I love this article for so many reasons! 🙂 Love the marathon not a race idea!

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Kim June 4, 2018, 3:37 pm

Great and informative post

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