The majority of people receiving relationship counselling are couples, what used to be called marriage guidance, but all kinds of relationships can have problems which will benefit from counselling, including a whole family. Sometimes a family will present to therapy with complaints about one specific family member who may, for example, have become a scapegoat for unresolved issues between the parents. Once those issues have been uncovered and resolved, other family problems may also be resolved.
When working with couples, the important principle in therapy is that the relationship is the client, i.e. the focus is on the complex relationship between them rather than their individual issues. Sometimes it is beneficial for both partners to receive individual counselling, with separate therapists, either before or at the same time as they have couple counselling. This is particularly necessary if both partners are not prepared to risk addressing joint issues. Unless both partners have a commitment to saving the relationship, even if it is not to the same degree, couple counselling is contraindicated.
Most relationship counsellors will be interested in looking at the families of origin and how their past influences have affected the current client, whether this is just a couple or a more extended family unit. The preparation of genograms showing the family trees and familial patterns, is often illuminating for both the clients and the therapist. They may reveal, for example, that one partner’s family have a pattern of dealing with conflict by aggressive behaviour whilst the other family completely ignores conflictual issues.
It is immediately apparent that this couple will have difficulty in resolving such issues within their own relationship, until they understand that their partner has a different agenda. Another area that counsellors may examine is the birth order of the parties involved, particularly relevant in couples. For example, two youngest children may both have problems with responsibility and decision making whereas an eldest child paired with a youngest one, will probably be comfortable in taking on those roles.
Relationship counselling is appropriate for all kinds of relationships, including:
- Married couples
- De-facto couples
- Gay/lesbian couples
- Sibling relationships
- Parents/children relationships
- Multi-generational relationships
What sort of problems can be helped by relationship counselling?
- Discouragement in the lack of direction in a relationship
- Lack of communication
- Relationships that have become emotionally abusive (sometimes)
- Sexual problems
- Dysfunctional behaviours within a family unit
- Lack of equality or respect in a relationship
- Questioning of reasons to stay
- No longer sharing common goals
- Sexual relationships, not currently continuing, outside of the marriage/partnership
- Clarification of common goals, beliefs and values (especially in pre-commitment/marriage)
What sort of problems is better dealt with by individual counselling?
- Ongoing sexual relationships outside the marriage/partnership
- Sexual and physical abuse
- Where one partner has no interest in saving the relationship
- Where one partner is afraid of the other
- If one partner or in the case of a family, several members, refuse to attend
If you and your partner, or family are having relationship problems, seeking help whilst you are still able to talk about them, may save a lot of pain and distress later on. Good relationships don’t just happen naturally; they need constant work and sometimes, the assistance of a professional counsellor or mediator.