A couples’ counsellor can help a couple stay together, or help them to separate. (Getty: Maskot)
If a couple arrives at psychologist Geoff Dawson’s rooms and they’re not angry, he detects a little warning bell.
It might seem counterintuitive, but he says the emotion is a positive sign.
“If they are angry at one another, I think there’s hope. Because they still care. They still have passion about the relationship,” he says.
“It’s an indication that they want change, even though they may be going about it in a dysfunctional way.”
Both Mr Dawson and fellow couples’ counsellor Jo Corrigan say their role is to operate without judgment — and the job can be as much about helping people separate, as helping them stay together.
Mending a ‘stuckness or a disconnection’
People seek couples’ counselling for all kinds of reasons: maybe an affair has been found out, or a new child has changed relationship dynamics.
Or, says Ms Corrigan, a clinical psychologist, people in a relationship might be feeling a certain “stuckness or a disconnection”.
“It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic. It can often just be, ‘You know what, we’re just stuck. We are polarised in our reactivity’,” she says.
Counsellor Jo Corrigan says that when we argue, our cognitive faculties are ‘offline’. (ABC RN: Farz Edraki)
Whatever the motivation to attend counselling, strong emotion — even when it’s unproductive at home — can prove more useful than its absence in therapy, says Mr Dawson.
“Where the crucial point is, is where they shift from anger to indifference,” he says.
“If people are coming in and they are indifferent, it’s like they’ve given up and it is very hard to bring them back from that point.”
Honesty is essential, too.
“If someone has had an affair and they are not prepared to tell the truth, then you might as well whistle Dixie,” Ms Corrigan says.
Communication: a skill ‘none of us are very good at’
In an argument, people can experience what Ms Corrigan calls “physiological overwhelm”.
That brings with it an increase in heart rate and, once the heart rate’s up, “there is no point in trying to discuss things,” she says.
“Your cognitive faculties are offline.”
But she says things can improve dramatically if a couple simply takes a quick break from one another.
“They are self-soothing by distraction, by getting interested in some other topic, by just not staying in that emotional overwhelm,” she says.
“And you bring [the couple] back in together and they talk in a much more civilised, calm way because they’ve regrouped themselves; they’ve kind of diffused that overwhelm, and they are back online.”
Ms Corrigan helps couples to understand that their own — and their partner’s — heightened responses can come from vulnerabilities, that “produce intense reactivity and pain”.
“Like old injuries that are really sensitive to the touch,” she says.
The revelation that vulnerability, rather than maliciousness, is behind certain negative behaviours can make for some surprising moments in the counselling room.
“You point out to the other [partner], you know what? They are not actually trying to control you. They are really anxious and they love you and they are trying to communicate a sense of concern,” Ms Corrigan says.
“Often they go, ‘Really? I’ve never understood that. I’ve always thought they are just constantly telling me what to do or criticising me. I haven’t seen it as an anxious response’.”
Ms Corrigan says her work is also about teaching people to listen.
“It’s a really delicate skill that none of us are very good at,” she says.
“So you can just gently help them with communication skills — the tone of voice they use, the way they talk to each other.
“It’s sort of like, OK, just stop. This is not about you jumping in and saying what you would do or what your point is.”
No ‘right view’, just ‘different views’
Both counsellors say their job is not to sit and judge.
There are times — in incidences of domestic violence, for example — when they say it would be neither professional nor ethical to remain neutral.
Counsellor Geoff Dawson says with couples, where there’s anger there’s hope. (ABC RN: Farz Edraki)
But most of the time, says Mr Dawson, “we are trying to create an emotionally safe environment in which people can be more vulnerable with one another in the session”.
“The couple therapist is trained to maintain neutrality and not be drawn into taking sides — what we call coalitions against the other partner,” he says.
“You listen to everyone’s point of view and you empathise with it, but in the back of your head you’d never really believe that one person’s point of view is the right view.
“There isn’t a right view, there’s just different views.”
And a successful outcome isn’t necessarily that the couple stays together.
“I’ve done really interesting work with helping people to separate amicably or to be able to actually communicate exactly why they need to move on, and if they can do that in loving and more positive communication, it can be a really lovely outcome — particularly when there’s children involved,” Ms Corrigan says.
Mr Dawson agrees.
“If one person has really had enough and they think it’s the best decision for them to leave, we are not going to talk them into staying,” he says.
“We have to respect that people have that right to separate, if they feel that the relationship is just that dysfunctional or they are incompatible.”
Whomever the couple presented to them, the counsellors agree attempting to forecast an outcome is futile.
“The [couples that make] you think, ‘Oh gee, this is doomed, I can’t do anything here’, end up often having a fabulous response and write you letters saying, ‘Thank you, if it wasn’t for you, we would have divorced’, or ‘If it wasn’t for you, we never would have got married’,” says Ms Corrigan.
“You cannot predict what someone is prepared to do.”