With couples therapy, I believe that setting yourself up for success is crucial. This means that when a couple first comes in, you will be educating them a little bit on how the process of couples therapy works, and what your role is in the room. For me, this includes specifically asking the couple if I can have permission to interrupt them anytime I see unproductive behavior or communication in the room. This is super helpful because once I have permission from them, they tend to honor that more than they would if I were trying to interrupt on the fly. If you are already working with a couple, it’s never too late to say, “You know what? I think we need to take a step back and go over ground rules for these sessions.”
I often begin with couples by identifying values they hold as a couple and goals stemming from those values. Then when they are arguing, it allows me to ask them, “Is this moving you closer to your value of X, or further away?” Often being faced with a contradiction to their own stated values is powerful.
Lastly, sometimes specific skills need to be taught before conflict discussions can even successfully begin. Some of these include:
- Learning what active listening is and how to do it
- Learning to monitor bodily responses and flooding
- Techniques to keep oneself calm, like taking a breath or asking for a moment
- Learning to remain curious and ask for clarification when something hurts
- Understanding that certain things are never productive, like arguing about unnecessary details or making blaming statements
As you can see, preventing unproductive arguments in session often begins long before the conflict conversation starts, with proper psychoeducation and prep work.
Lisa Gray, LMFT, is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she specializes in high-conflict couples and chronic illness/pain. After working as an air traffic controller for ten years, and serving as a peer debriefing counselor for fellow controllers, Lisa decided to go back to school to study counseling. She graduated from John F. Kennedy University in 2004 with a master’s degree in clinical counseling, and has been working in the field ever since. Lisa is passionate about teaching couples to practice healthy conflict, so that their relationships can thrive and grow. Lisa reviews self-help books on her Instagram, Therapy Book Nook. She lives in the Bay Area with her family and three large dogs.