Most mental health professionals prefer to work with clients individually. Each person has such unique needs, learning histories, beliefs, fears, and goals - and there's so much benefit from being able to focus all of the therapeutic attention to that one person.
But us humans typically don't function in a bubble.
Folks who are interested in improving themselves are often surprised how these changes can impact their relationships, too, for better or worse.
In fact, during the time I was in the counseling program in grad school, we often talked about the danger of our own relationships suffering as a result of the work we were doing to better ourselves.
This is one reason I love working with relationships in the therapy room.
The opportunity to see folks in the moment with one another gives me so much more information about their functioning. It's one thing to hear someone say, "I want to be better at communicating my needs" and another entirely to see them struggle and then succeed at communicating their needs to their loved ones. And then, as if that weren't enough to get excited about, we get to see their needs met and bonds strengthened in real time in the session. It's an incredible privilege to bear witness to these things.
Another reason I love working with relationships in the therapy room might surprise you.
Working with relationships in the therapy room challenges me.
It can be overwhelming sometimes to have folks come in, carrying all of their unique histories and needs and fears and hopes, and to see them struggle. As compared to individual therapy, I find myself continually working to balance the words, tone, body language and facial expression, and history of each person.
Much of the work being done in working with relationships is in focusing on what isn't obvious - and that typically takes a lot more mental energy.
Noticing facial expressions and body language as the other partner is talking.
Noticing patterns in arguments.
Tracking the communication skills of each partner.
Hearing what isn't being said.
Bringing all of these subtle, unspoken things to the attention of the folks in the room and connecting them to what happens outside of the room.
But relationship counseling doesn't always guarantee a happy ending.
This is one of those bittersweet truths about relationship counseling that we talk about in the first session. Even if folks are working hard to improve, love and care deeply for one another, and desire to be committed to each other - sometimes the best choice is to no longer be in relationship.
While painful and difficult, being able to work through the question of "should I stay or should I go" with partners can lead to folks becoming more of the people they want to be. It can lead them closer to their values. And contrary to how it feels sometimes, folks can learn how to be connected to one another without being romantically involved with one another (especially when co-parenting is involved).
It's one thing to be in a relationship with someone who believes they have to be with you because of their prior commitment and another thing entirely to know that they are choosing you each and every day.
When doing relationship counseling, the individuals are not my client. The relationship is my client.
This means my focus, as a counselor, will be on helping the partners create a relationship that is best for all and practice doing that relationship together in the room.
If you have interest in relationship counseling with Whitney, be sure to reach out.