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Author: Esther Krohner LMFT & Karin Schalnger LMFT

It takes two to tango BUT only one to promote positive change

Couples therapy that works, using Problem Solving Brief Therapy.

Relationships are intricate tapestries woven with threads of joy, laughter and shared dreams but can
also face challenges, conflicts and moments of uncertainty. This is when, normally, therapists get a call. “We have tried many things and we are stuck. Please help”. The assumption by most therapists is that we have to get both parties in our office to get started, but we are here to say… not really! Read on; if you want to hear something different.

Have you started a conversation with potential clients only to realize that the partners are not on the “same page” with what they want or are willing to work on? We are here to talk about how you can impact a couple and their system by promoting change with only one of the partners: the one who is more willing to work. We are a minimalistic systems model that aims at saving time, money and advance therapy quickly. We use this initial flexibility to only work with the motivated person in the couple as a means to an end OR sometimes as a starting point to eventually engage the other partner in therapy. We don’t need both partners to be on the same page to have a positive impact for both of them

What kind of problems can we work on with just one member of the couple?

When a person in a committed relationship reaches out, they are trying to resolve something that hurts them. By the time a person reaches out for help, they have already tried many things to resolve the problem and to their dismay, they have not gotten the result they want. We know that the pain shows up in different ways for different people and we treat each couple as unique. Their descriptions of the problem guides us to find the point of inflection which, when implemented will have a different outcome, one of change in the right direction. We can apply this problem solving model to infidelity, financial problems, parenting problems, communication , escalating fights, life transitions and decision making. Those are some of the obvious ones, however we can also use this model effectively when alcohol, gambling, eating disorders or virtually any problem is putting a wrench in a relationship.

How is our model different and therefore more effective?

We emphasize motivation and figuring out who is interested in working on what from the very beginning. In fact, once you practice this model, one of the first questions when someone calls asking for couple’s therapy is: “How eager is your partner to come in with you?” The word eager is a useful one because it signifies a lot of what we are looking for: willingness to work towards achieving a positive change. Once our ‘client’ is in front of us, we build a therapeutic alliance with them and for this, we don’t have to wait for couples to be equally invested or share the exact intent. We also focus on what problem is showing up in the here and now, as a way to utilize motivation to pace our sessions and work with the client on sustainable change.

Our choice sometimes is to do solution focused relationship counseling with just one partner

We know that there is a communication loop, also known as a feedback loop, that occurs when conflict escalates or when power gets divided in a way that keeps partners stuck. Our premise is that if we change one significant element the communication will necessarily change. In a tennis match we do not need both players to put down their rackets to end a game, we just need one person to put the racket down to stop the volley. This is especially useful when one person wants the change more than the other or for whatever reason only one person is willing to invest in therapy.

Rather than pushing someone to invest, and especially when historically they dig their heels in when they are pushed, we can promote change with the willing person, or the person who is hurting the most. Karin currently has an example of someone who contacted her to request couple’s therapy. When, after a couple of weeks she hadn’t heard back, she wrote a brief note asking if they were still interested. The response came quickly: “I am trying to motivate my spouse to join because in my experience we both need to be there. It’s what my previous two couple’s therapists said”. To which Karin said that, from her experience that was not necessary.

She has been working with this person now for a couple of months and wow! Are there changes! The work becomes to center on how the person has approached the problem in the past that hasn’t worked and finding a way for them to do something differently that will disrupt the problematic cycle. We can oftentimes look at the communication feedback loop and consider the other partner’s point of view, even without them present.We can make that explicit: “I can almost hear your partner’s point of view on this: you haven’t been as involved in the raising of the kids, or you have not done the bulk of the wage earnings”. It is common practice to emphasize communication when working with someone reporting relational distress and problems. However, we provide an exceptional lens that allows us to focus on communication with only one partner, because when one partner acts differently, new options become obvious to the couple and the feedback loop that is problematic is harder to maintain. We seek to interrupt the painful problematic pattern. Sometimes it is faster to do this with just one partner.

Sustainable couples therapy results with one partner?

Here is a case example. A couple came to Esther during a period of high conflict. Their chief complaints were weekend blowups and constant bickering . They had different cultural backgrounds and were both first generation Americans. Their ideas on work/life balance differed as did their styles of communication. One was concrete and structured while the other was abstract and spontaneous. In many ways they complemented each other, which worked well in some areas and nobody had complaints about.

However, on the weekends in particular and in matters around parenting, they would get into screaming matches that would escalate to intimidation and hostility. They would alternate between avoidance and pushing each other’s buttons. In the first two sessions it seemed that both were invested in change and they had identified the goal of listening to each other better and accepting one another’s limitations. They had agreed to work on these goals especially around parenting and utilizing unstructured or free time on the weekend. However in the third session it became evident that the husband was saying ‘yes but’ to the interventions and while he agreed to implement strategies, he did not follow through. This created further escalation. The wife got increasingly frustrated and we decided that she would continue therapy without her husband since, from her point of view, he was appearing for the sessions but not really changing any behavior.

She was very interested in tapering her temper and had plenty of opportunities to work on it. We were able to utilize counterintuitive interventions when conflict arose, which is usually the point of inflection to something new. When they would start to argue, she would say “ is this gonna be our big weekend fight? I’ve got energy for one big fight, is this what we are gonna use it on?” OR she would say “we have been getting along for a few hours, I suspect a fight is coming, will it be over chores or who gets to have a half hour to themselves ?” If they got through a whole weekend day without a fight, she was to invent a fight either over parenting or how to utilize free time before the end of the day. However, each time they fought, she was asked to set a timer and stop herself after 5 minutes, whether it seemed to be going anywhere or not. She was also asked to give her partner 5 minutes to tantrum when he did- but not to cave to any of the demands or requests when he was in that state. Simply to allow him to tantrum BUT not allow herself to cave to demands.

We implemented each of these strategies over a period of a month , one at a time based on the motivation and ability to follow through with them.This client had a good sense of humor, which came into play with these interventions. We do not recommend that you implement these strategies all of a sudden with all your arguing clients: we guarantee that it will take consideration with each client, their complaints and the context of your couple in particular.

As time went on, she began choosing to walk away from fights by stopping herself and responding differently when her partner was yelling. She also began to rebel against the idea of inventing a fight on the weekend. We then discussed what amount of fighting was acceptable and the acceptable number was one big fight a month and a squabble that could be easily recovered. She met that goal and their weekend blowups had resolved to a manageable level and the conlift was no longer a problem. Her husband learned a trick or two from her as well, which is part of the feedback loop shifting and then reinforces the positive change.

Does solution focused therapy work with more complex problems as well?

Yes, Problem Solving Brief Therapy works with many presenting problems. When people start to think in terms of possibilities and acting differently, then the relationships shift and the system shifts. We don’t have to teach a new language for people to change their approach in one area. However, we do need to approach each couple as unique so that when we do recognize what doing something different would be- that we are able to communicate it in a way that aligns with their motivation. We also need to ensure that it is a realistic expectation for where the client currently is and their ability to follow through.

Effective and sustainable couple’s therapy doesn’t need to take years

When we take the time to find out who is interested in working and on what, we can implement change much more precisely. When we allow for people to rise to the challenge when they are clear, we empower partners and couples to master their end of the relationship without overstepping and likely reinforcing the negative patterns that have been keeping them stuck. When we do this , not only are we helping the couple get unstuck, but we are modeling how to utilize problem solving in the future to prioritize and manage goals and their own behavior and communication. We know that most people are busy and put off therapy or drop out because of the time commitments, financial commitments and also because of the pressure they feel and the stigma around it. Often couples don’t come because one of the partners refuses. When we empower the one member of the couple to implement changes, we are no longer giving them fish, but teaching them how to fish for themselves.

Come and join our training to learn how to spot the motivated person , and help them figure out what they want to work on. We look forward to seeing you in February 23 at 1:00 pm. Register here and please share with a friend.

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