The Most Important Question In Couples Counseling

No matter what kind of relationship problems a couple is experiencing, there is one question that I've found goes a long way toward identifying the type of couples counseling that will be necessary to provide the healing and growth that will be required.

When I provide counseling to couples struggling with problems in their relationship, there’s one question in particular that I seek the opportunity to ask in the first session. Depending on the response I get I am able to make some crucial initial decisions about the way I'm going to structure my work with the people sitting in front of me.

Of course I’ll ask how each person views the issues they are struggling with and the goals they are seeking. I want to learn something about the degree of positive feelings they have for each other. Together we’ll gain some insight into their typical styles of communication and some appreciation for their challenges in light of the unique personal histories of each person. As the flow of conversation allows, depending on their situation we may talk about sexual issues, financial stresses, alcohol use, parenting, or any number of other topics. Throughout the entire process I'm building a foundation for greater insight, support, harmony, hope, healthier choices and the successful resolution of whatever dilemmas brought them to me.

But the subject that provides the greatest prognosis for their relationship is when I simply ask each person to speak about his or her own contribution to the problem. It’s as easy as falling off a log to point out the problems another person needs to face or change. The real trick is to capitalize on the potential for personal introspection that relationship struggles provide. To find one’s own reflection in the murky mirror of relationship struggles often reveals unresolved conflicts stemming from the prior family dynamics of each partner.

All relationship problems are fundamentally fueled by each person’s emotional limitations. This doesn't mean that one person can't be primarily responsible for the problem at hand, only that ten different people facing an identical problem will respond in ten unique ways. This means that these various reactions are not inherent to the situation but are shaped by the unique personality characteristics of the person making them. The relationship problem a couple faces doesn’t determine the behavior of each person so much as the other way around.

We can never do as much to change how our partner acts as we can about our own reactions. Couples who understand that they have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to use conflict for emotional growth can utilize couples counseling to infuse their situation with a deeper purpose, motivation and capacity for insight. It is these couples who have a much better degree of successful healing than those who simply want to fix “the problem” (usually meaning the other person) so they can fundamentally stay the same.

There’s a centuries-old tale of a man sobbing because he had finally met a wonderful woman. When asked why this made him sad instead of happy he cried out “because she’s looking for a wonderful man!” This is another version of the essential truth that we are better off in the long run focusing on our own personal shortcomings and potential for growth than we are trying to make someone else act a certain way.

All this is not to say that either person in a relationship has to be at a certain emotional level to gain the most from couples counseling. I've seen great success when working with couples representing the entire range of emotion, insight, motivation and problems. I've learned that no relationships are beyond the hope of getting better except those that aren't willing to try.


If I can provide more personal assistance to you, either in person, by phone or via Skype, please don't hesitate to contact me.