When asked during an initial session why they felt the need to see a therapist, many couples aren’t clear about the specific reason. If there hasn’t been an inciting incident, such as infidelity or substance abuse, they may just cite general communication problems or conflicts. They do this because they’re unaware of their own or their partner’s relational patterns. As they talk, the therapist listens and watches how they interact—all the while wondering what’s really going on underneath their complaints about unequal division of labor, a flagging sex life, or fights gone wild. Our job is to help couples understand what in their partnership is causing distress, so we can work together toward solutions.
I’ve found that looking at how partners make decisions is especially helpful in understanding the dynamics between them. Every aspect of their life together is affected by their decision-making process. Whether we are discussing struggles over childcare, an incident of cheating, divergent spending habits, or something else, focusing on the relevant decision-making process can provide a quick road to greater clarity and awareness about the relationship in general.
Here’s what I look for:
- Typically, how does the couple make decisions?
- Is it a conscious process?
- Is it a fair process?
- Is it mutual or does one partner make decisions and the other go along?
- What agreements come out of their decisions?
- Do they aim for win-wins (agreements where both partners benefit)?
I also look for nonverbal cues related to the couple’s decision-making. For example, one partner might show a higher arousal level while discussing a decision, or the other partner might disengage when a particular decision is mentioned. All of this creates a rich terrain for discovery, and clarifies why the couple came to therapy and where we’re headed.
Kara Hoppe, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist, teacher, feminist, and mother. She has spent more than a decade as an inclusive therapist working with individuals and couples toward healing and growing; and toward becoming grounded, integrated people with better access to their own instincts, wisdom, and creativity. Hoppe currently lives in Pioneertown, CA; and sees clients in private practice via telehealth. You can learn more about her at www.karahoppe.com.