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Couple and family therapy: a very rich experience

Hélène is a French, English and Greek-speaking Psychologist. She works with Adolescents, Adults, Couples and Families. She has presented several papers on Childhood Traumatic Experiences, Childhood Sexual Abuse, Violence in Couple' Relationships, and the Psychological Impact of Adult Traumatic Experiences.

I welcome the opportunity this Newsletter has given me to share some thoughts on my journey as a Couple and Family therapist. I believe that Couple and Family therapy has long been misunderstood. Years ago, people believed that going to a Couple therapist meant separating. I am happy to say that the feelings toward Couple therapy have evolved. More and more couples come to therapy, not only because they are desperate and almost ready to give up married life, but because they feel the need to improve it or to prevent it from deterioriating. I will present schematically two types of therapeutic processes with examples to describe what couple and family therapy entail.

Some couples with whom I work experience repetitive and painful impasses that have been deeply embedded in their relationship for years. They come to therapy with a lot of resentment, blaming their partners for anything that is wrong in their relationship. In the process of therapy, the couple discovers that present forms of interactions are often connected to dysfunctional past relational patterns learnt in their respective families of origin.

My work as a Couple and Family therapist is multi-layered. It requires an understanding of the present conflicts; it is an exploration of the tools of communication that need to be developed. In cases of violent outburts, an inquiry of child or adult traumatic experiences is advised. Ultimately, it is a search for the couple's own capacities to resolve conflicts.

Couple and Family therapy addresses the particular paradox of bridging our essential need for separatedness as well as for relatedness and intimacy. As such, the life-transforming goal is to help the couple learn to be truthful to themselves while keeping in mind the important other; to stay respectful to themselves and learn to be respectful of the other; to learn to cherish one's own boundaries without trespassing or ignoring the boundaries of the other.

The immediate job when a distraught couple comes to my office is to try to open up a space that will facilitate more meaningful communication. A simple motto at this point may be useful: it is impossible to fight and explore at the same time. Couples often discover that they have to learn to express themselves before expecting to be understood.

At this point, I would like to introduce an example of a couple that came to see me after the birth of their baby. The couple had been together for two years when Janine became unexpectedly pregnant. Benjamin wanted his partner to have an abortion and, to his dismay, she refused. The couple started to become more verbally abusive to one another. After the birth of their baby, the fights intensified and Benjamin, while fighting, would break valuable objects around the house. Benjamin accused Janine of being overly occupied with the baby. Janine was exhausted by the baby's needs and decided to move into the baby's room at night. Benjamin felt more and more enraged by his wife's behaviour. As for Janine, she felt abandoned by her husband and enraged by his constant criticism of her.

Let me say a few words about this couple's life prior to their meeting. Benjamin was a soldier in very dangerous missions in several war zones. At the time of their encounter, he had retired from the army and found a job as a security guard in a mall. He suffered from undiagnosed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) with violent flashbacks and nightmares of war. He was extremely sensitive to any change in someone's gaze or tone of voice, which would trigger intense fear or rage. Janine had an underprivileged childhood and had to leave school to sustain her family.

I soon discovered that Benjamin was terrorized by his partner and in an argument he would initially become submissive before being unable to contain his violent outbursts. Having enrolled in the army at the age of 18, he learnt to obey his superiors' instructions. At home, he was doing the same while feeling neglected and manipulated by his partner. As for Janine, life had been hard on her since no one ever took care of her but herself. On meeting Benjamin, she hoped that for once in her life someone would relieve her of some of her responsibilities.

Close contact in this couple was misinterpreted as an attack. Shouting and violence was used as a distance regulator. Since the couple could not concentrate or pause to reflect on what was happening I started to show them how to pay attention to the changes in their body sensations . Part of my role was to support the couple in developing their communication skills, not only to communicate with their partners but also to recognize their own emotional pressures. It allowed the couple to reassess and recognize that the present behaviours were related to unresolved past experiences. Through this process, Benjamin for the first time became aware of the impact of PTSD in his private and professional life. As for Janine, she progressively understood how her childhood experiences of neglect and abusive romantic relationships as an adult had hardened her in an attempt to protect her from further abuse. As they became aware of their resilience, their fear of proximity diminished. They learnt to enjoy their intimacy and leave room for their differences.

Other couples or families come to resolve more specific issues that serve very definitive goals. In such cases, our task is to define the problem in such a way that it can be addressed. To this end, the couple or the family learn to use: "feelings" statements instead of blaming the other; to actively listen to what the other is saying and take time to reflect on what everyone has shared in order to balance it in one's own mind instead of rushing to impose one's own view. These tools help bridging the differences into a form of encompassing resolution.

An example of this would be the following: Christina, a single mother, has issues with her elder son, Jerôme (12 years old) who is constantly teasing his younger brother,Valentin (8 years old). During the session Jerôme explains that he believes his mother has always been more lenient on Valentin than on him. I ask the boys if they would agree to draw whatever picture they want. For the sake of brevity I will only comment on Jerôme's drawing. He drew a knight in armour wielding a sword. The knight is fighting a huge snake which is next to a small figure lying down in a cot. Thoughts are shared by the family about the drawing. The small figure in the cot is associated to Valentin when he was born. At that moment, the mother starts to talk of the first months after Valentin's birth and her fears of death, when he was seriously ill. Since that time, Jerôme became very protective of his brother, afraid that he would die. The knight represented himself defending his brother from the sickness. Jerôme for the first time talked about his feelings of neglect and jealousy that were prompted by his brother's illness. Children believe that their thoughts are "magic" thoughts, which means that they have the power to kill or render someone sick. A part of Jerôme still believed that he had made his brother sick. Valentin in turn expressed his own anger toward his mother and brother that were overprotective toward him. This process opened up a space that allowed more forthright communication among the family members. At this point, another subject came to the surface, the absence of the father that could end up being at the core of further sessions, had the family decided to address it.

Couple and Family therapy is a very rich experience that allows to explore the ways relational patterns hinder or promote growth. This type of therapy invites each partner to address issues of intimacy, sexual life, parenthood, trauma or losses…To my mind, this process is about learning very essential skills : the Hope of being able to communicate with one another, being True to oneself and being Open to the other.

Hélène Béïnoglou

Couple and family therapy: a very rich experience
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