Mark's Couples Case Study
Adam and Tamra came to counseling to improve their communication. Both partners entered the relationship with mismatched expectations, much of which was rooted in their differing family backgrounds. Each partner’s approach to a disagreement was based on what they were used to, whether in their family upbringing or in past relationships. Both felt regularly misunderstood and had difficulty empathizing and focusing on the other person’s point of view. Additional goals were collaboratively created:
- Improve communication (less defensiveness/criticism, more mutual understanding)
- Affirm personal desires, needs, and emotions and those of the other partner
- Develop effective boundaries
- Build trust and intimacy
An underlying focus of therapy was to establish and maintain rapport with each partner, balancing each individual’s need to be heard while keeping the best interest of the couple as a whole in mind.
Sessions often began with whatever conflict the couple brought in (there was often a “fight” or two within a week). Conflict was regularly used as a platform to help each partner understand his or her communicative style. Tamra was normally more willing to engage in conflict, while Adam withdrew from confrontation. After years of dealing with unmet needs, Tamra also began to pull away emotionally and physically.
Strengthening each partner’s trust in the other was paramount to building the intimacy the couple used to enjoy together. Their mistrust was not based on fear of an affair, but on not feeling emotionally safe with the other. Both partners felt that they could not comfortably express their wants and desires without getting hurt. Additionally, they each had the unspoken expectation that their partner would meet all their needs, which was regularly explored and challenged in session. The goal in this area was to find a balance that would encourage each partner to care for him- or herself without relying so heavily on the other, while still being supportive.
Becoming more practiced at caring and speaking up for personal needs was vital to developing clearer boundaries. Primary ares of Tamra’s and Adam’s boundary work included: building the courage to say “no” to unwanted activities, establishing mutually agreed-upon times to discuss serious matters (rather than when only one person is ready to talk), and witnessing the other partner’s emotion (e.g., anger, sadness) without having to take it on as his or her own.
As both partners were given space to share their experiences, hurts, and hopes for the relationship, they became increasingly softened toward one another. At first, they needed regular interruption and redirection to ensure they were heard, and their messages were sifted through to identify the underlying hurt or missed expectation. The couple was helped to share their hurts with one another without attacking by focusing on their own experience, as opposed to framing their messages as accusations and insults. As they learned to offer one another space to speak and empathize with each other’s positions more regularly, they built more trust in the emotional safety of the relationship. Maintaining this is their current focus.