Discernment counseling opens with a two-hour session that starts with the couple, then goes to each individual separately, and ends with each spouse sharing with the other the takeaways from their individual sessions. I’d always started out the individual spouse conversations by talking to the leaning-out spouse, assuming that this person is ambivalent both about the marriage and the counseling. I’d strive to build a connection and learn more about what’s driving this person out of the marriage, so that I could fold that into the individual conversation with the leaning-in partner, who presumably is already on board to work on the relationship. Sounds sensible, right?
Well, I began to notice cases in which the leaning-out spouses were quite clear about what it would take to fix the marriage and their role in the problems, while the leaning-in spouses were pretty clueless about the problems and not sure what working on the marriage would even entail. One leaning-in but clueless husband, for instance, didn’t realize that his temper and outbursts were a serious problem for his wife. In this case, I adjusted my thinking and met with him first to get a clear picture of what he understood, so I’d know how to proceed with his leaning-out wife. While I was talking with him alone, he had a revelation that led me to make another shift in my thinking: Why wait until the end of the session to ask him to summarize for his wife what he’d realized with me? Why not have him share the new realization with his wife right away? That way, I could fold her response into my individual time with her.
Rather than offering a commentary on my experience with discernment counseling, my point in relaying this story is to give an example of how I continue to hone my craft as a therapist. In this case, I saw where my approach was breaking down and experimented with a more successful alternative.
I find this kind of self-correction great fun, and I revel in sharing my experiences with colleagues so they can experiment with the change in protocol if it makes sense to them. Experienced therapists have had enough training to avoid serious undertows or completely capsizing the therapeutic conversation, but the more we strive to learn how other therapists practice the nuances of their craft, the more skillful we ourselves will be at navigating out of the bogs and marshes where our clinical relationships get stuck.
William Doherty, Ph.D., is a professor of family social science and the director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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