Relationship Counseling


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No way around it, the best way to work on a relationship is to work on oneself. Anthony Storr is a Jungian analyst who often points out the value of taking time for personal solitude as potent medicine for troubled relationships. He says, "The burden of value with which we presently load the interpersonal relationship is too heavy for that fragile craft to carry.So many of us suffer from the exaggerated belief that our relationship is deeply flawed if it doesn't provide us with an ideal happiness."

Dr. Jung himself said, "Harmony is to be established within the individual and not as a consequence of trying to make a complementary union with another person."

"To fall in love," says Robert Johnson, "is to project the most noble and infinitely valuable part of one's being onto another human. The divinity we see is truly there, but we can't actually see it until we have taken away our own projections." And when Robert says "take away projections", he means to do your own inner work.

Nonetheless, many of my favorite hours in the consulting room are when I'm working with couples. Before I begin relationship counseling sessions, I often like to warn couples (slightly tongue in cheek) of the following point:

"True intimacy is not for the weak of heart. It is not too late to turn back now and settle for what you already have!"

With couples counseling, since things often feel worse as they are actually getting better, couples commonly want to give up right before a breakthrough. And, like the above Jungians would all predict, couples counseling is most successful when we each find the one dear partner we most crave: our self!

Phases of relationships are frequently far more predictable than most people want to believe. Early on there's the Enchantment Phase when we say, "You're everything I've always wanted." Marion Woodman says, "This ideal kind of illusionary love is a lie because it's based on rejection of the shadow."

A little later, there's the Oops, You're Only Human Phase when we start negotiating power and then ask, "How can I be part of this union without being swallowed up by it?"

Master relationship counselor David Schnarch says, "In actuality, the 'work' in intimate relationships is self-maintenance in the face of fears of betrayal and abandonment." If we figure that out, our relationships can move on to phase three. In the Transcendence Phase, we might say, "Being together is more important than getting my way. What's important to me is your happiness and comfort."

In grad school, I did my Master's research on the development of cooperation and trust in small groups. In no other arena have I found that subject to be more relevant than to the very specific type of small group called a couple. How do we establish cooperation and trust? How do we restore it once broken? And how can we build enough trust to start facing conflict with integrity?

Once I heard Michael Meade say that if any of our relationships are going to survive, we must learn more methods of conflict expression. Naively, I chirped in, "Did you mean conflict resolution?"

"NO!" he said. "It's the rush to resolution that gets us in trouble. First, we've got to learn better ways of EXPRESSING the conflict!"

Perhaps most relationship battles would best be handled if each of the two individuals went into their own private chamber, owned up to their own insecurities, and perhaps pulled out his or her own hair in a private furious rage. Besides, aren't wigs cheaper than counseling fees? After all the craziness is discharged, the two could rejoin each other to address (what would likely be only) the remaining 5 -10% of the issue!

Conflicts change course profoundly when even one participant can gain enough composure to remember to ask himself or herself a few simple questions: How do I feel? What do I want (and/or need)? How is the past coloring my present experience? What am I getting out of staying stuck where I am? What do I need to say right now? What agreements have I broken? How can I be of service right now? Will my next statement throw water or fuel onto the fire of the conflict?

Any intimate relationship can serve as an excellent container for inner work, in which the fires of love or friendship can burn through the stuck places, open up the dark places and introduce us to ourselves.

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