Preparing for your first session: Couples Therapy Edition

Your First Couples Therapy Session. 

You’ve taken the first, most difficult step in getting support for your relationship by seeking couples therapy. It is a wise and very brave decision to see a couple therapist. Having a professional relationship expert to provide support, guidance, and another set of “hands” can be one of the most helpful things to insuring the long-term health of your relationship. We seek teachers and coaches in almost all other skills we seek to master, and yet confoundingly we expect ourselves to know how to successfully navigate our most important relationships without help. I am glad you are seeking help and look forward to providing you with the support necessary to build the healthiest and happiest relationship possible.

So, congratulations on taking that first step. You are well on your way to developing a healthy, happy, exciting relationship that stands the test of time. While it is not required to do anything to prepare, there are a few things you can do to get the most out of our first session.

1. Take some time to talk together about your hopes and goals together. Sit across from each other and listen to each other about what you each hope to gain from the experience. Are there specific skills you want to learn? Or is it an experience you want to have together that builds or increases something together? There are no wrong goals to have, and it is not important to have the same goals. What is important is to be clear about what your partner hopes for, so focus more on listening to your partner and hearing what they want from the experience, and let them do the same for you.

2. While you are talking, listen also for what your partner is worried about in the experience. What are their fears or anxieties about what may happen? Provide support in care in hearing these fears so that you may provide any needed support where necessary. Allow them to support you in this same way.

3. If you are interested in learning more about the therapy approach that I practice, Stan has a wonderful book Wired For Love (https://tinyurl.com/l8epxm5); as well as an audio book Your Brain On Love (https://tinyurl.com/mvzxrys). Either are fantastic resources for you to use to familiarize yourself with the research and theory behind the ways that I practice. Many couples prefer to see me before launching into reading, so this is strictly optional, but this is an option for you if you like.

Beyond this, there is nothing special to do to ready yourself for our first session. Our first session will be longer than traditional therapy, being 2-3 hours in length. This gives you plenty of time to provide all the important historical information for me to know you both well enough to be helpful. More importantly, it also provides enough time for me to see you interact with one another and for us to have some fun with exercises to that help you learn ways to care for one another in new ways that build a stronger connection. Much will be accomplished in that first session, so you can expect to leave with a greater understanding of one another as well as useful tools for creating a healthier relationship.

PACT therapy is very different from other types of couples therapy and you will find it to be very active, very fast moving and more focused on the ways that you interact with one another than on the things that you are talking about. While it is emotionally very demanding, I use humor and playfulness to help introduce fun into even the most challenging conversations. You can expect to be tired and challenged at the end of our first session, while also leaving inspired and more confident in what your partner and your relationship needs and how to achieve these. If sadly, you are seeking help deciding to end your relationship, I will help you clearly decide how and why to end your partnership and to do so with care and respect.

I love my job and feel powerfully about the best ways to help couples create the most secure connection for a vital, healthy and fun relationship that lasts a lifetime. I look forward to supporting you and your relationship!

The Ghosts of Injuries Past-Guest Post on the PACT Institute Blog

Stan invited me to share my thoughts on the topic of effective repair. Have a look, on the PACT Institute Website (The Ghost of Injuries Past) or below:

The Ghosts of Injuries Past: 

We all know the scene: a couple begin discussing a current challenge for them and are quickly down the rabbit hole of past injuries. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”

Jenny and Michelle have had a tumultuous relationship. They met right after college, fell in love quickly, and married after a year. They soon moved internationally for Jenny’s work, which was possible because Michelle had told Jenny her own work was mobile. However, Jenny soon discovered that Michelle had hidden things from her during their courtship, and lied about her work and financial history. These breaches led to a crisis and eventually divorce.

When Jenny and Michelle came to therapy, they had reconciled and were in a hurry to return to their earlier romantic feelings. However, in session, their discussion inevitably returns to the original injury. When they look to me in frustration, I ask if the original wound was ever repaired, and the room falls quiet. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Michelle asks. “It was ten years ago!” Jenny says.

We know from our studies in PACT that injuries must be tended to quickly so they do not enter into procedural memory. Strong eye contact, physical touch, and the right words can soothe many hurts and create connection. Error correction is one of the strongest means of building connection: we demonstrate our willingness to be vulnerable to our partner, we show our partner that he or she is more important to us than being right, and we put the health of the relationship above all else.

However, we often form relationships without having learned what it means to adequately repair injury. As a result, many couples carry built-up hurts, both big (affairs and large betrayals) and small (repeated slights). It is common for couples to have unattended injuries in a relationship, without any idea how to mend them successfully. Couples often avoid dealing directly with these wounds because of shame and regret for their mistakes or fear of old pain resurfacing. When triggered, old hurts—both within the couple and from their early life—pop back up, and couples often retreat into exasperation and hopelessness. The PACT therapist’s job is to confront the injuries the couple want to avoid; only by leveraging the pain can true repair occur.

Reenacting hurtful conversations in extremely slow motion helps couples see how these injuries have become stored in the automatic brain. Viewing injuries as stored, and responses to them as automatic, begins to reduce shame and defensiveness, opening the door to curiosity and compassion. Continued practice with declarations, using face-to-face attention and careful recognition of changes in each partner, promotes inquiry into whatever is driving the reaction. Learning to lead with relief facilitates a sense of safety and trust.

As Jenny and Michelle return over and over to the incidences of dishonesty, secrecy, and attack that marred their early relationship, gradual change occurs. Michelle is slowly getting better at dropping the explanations when she sees the hurt that comes out as flashes of anger and accusation. She says, “I’m so sorry for all the secrets I kept from you, Jenny. I know it hurt you. I am sorry. I love you.” And Jenny is learning to drop the escalations and insults she used to get Michelle’s attention and instead to take in her apologies without shame. She says, “Thank you. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m sorry for not making more space for you to tell me in your own way. I’m sorry for being judgmental about your ways of doing things. I love you.”

With practice, protecting the self from feelings of inadequacy and shame becomes secondary to providing whatever a partner needs to feel safe in the relationship. In return, receiving such care allows the injured one to drop the attack: he or she no longer needs to shame his or her partner again for the old injury. Both partners can receive care and provide soothing in return. Over time, this mutuality of care leads to healing the ghosts of injuries past, and to a much stronger connection in the present.

What’s the deal with those rolling chairs? Why can’t we sit on the couch?

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One of the first things many couples ask upon first meeting me, is:

“What is the deal with these crazy rolling chairs you’ve got?”

As a PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) therapist, my process is to create internal state changes in session that mirror the ways my clients feel outside of session when in conflict. We do so through psychodrama, poses, and exercises created specifically by the founder of this couple therapy approach, Stan Tatkin, PsyD. Doing so allows the members of the couple to understand and depersonalize their actions in relationship with each other, based on an understanding of their attachment orientation and arousal regulation mechanisms. With a deeper understanding of each other, I help them create new ways to support each other and develop a more secure functioning relationship.

These crazy rolling chairs serve as an assessment tool in this therapy that I use to observe the couple rolling closer or farther apart in response to each other, whether they turn away from each other, and many permutations. Often the members of the couple have no awareness of these movements and by just pointing these movements out, they learn about one another and their relationship. In all cases these movements mirror the dance they engage in outside of session. For example, when talking about a difficult topic, one or both members of the couple may push their chairs back from the other to get space. When this is pointed out, the couple has the opportunity to reflect on whether they meant to do so, what message they might have been sending, and observe their partners reaction. Simply in this close observation and reflection, couples learn a great deal about themselves and the ways they work together (or don’t!).

I also use these chairs strategically to move the couple closer together, thereby facilitating a nervous system state change. Because couples get stuck in their habits and long established patterns, I will often place couples in poses they are not used to. For example, I will have a couple roll their chairs very close to one another, have them hold hands, maintain eye contact and just notice aloud what they see in each other’s faces. Doing so creates a great deal of connection, and after a few moments, the couple can be seeing and sharing things with their partner that they have not done in a very long time.

These chairs are invaluable tools in my couples work, and while the couch (and floor!) does get used, it is these chairs that serve as the grounding spot for much of our work together.

Thanks for reading. 

Inaugural Post

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Welcome to my new blog! Here I hope to be able to talk in more depth about questions clients have asked about mindfulness, relationships, parenting and various tools to work with anxiety, depression and traumatic memories. I will also provide links to articles and blogs that I find useful. These will be quick and accessible offerings meant more to stimulate questions and thinking on your own, than to answer any specific questions. As my clients know, I believe answers are much more powerful when they come from the person asking than from an outside voice. So here I hope to offer bits of information or tools to help you in your own process of finding your way to whatever it is you seek.

If you have specific topics of interest or questions, please shoot me an email and I will do my best to answer. Thanks for visiting!

 

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Copyright Carolyn Sharp, LICSW

Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
2021 Minor Avenue East, Suite 1
Seattle, Washington 98102
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Carolyn Sharp, LICSW