Couples Counselling: A Practical Down to Earth Approach

by Majella Phelan



This article explores the different aspects that form a practical and professional approach to couple counselling including the family of origin, emotional connection and maturity, healthy communication, self-care and lastly the impact of all these on a couple relationship. It asserts that the family of origin and the behaviours learned here, are often the root cause of conflict in couple relationships. The article references both marriage and family therapy articles and books, bringing both these therapies together as one cannot be omitted from the other. Finally, the article offers some practical tools that can be used with couples or, indeed, in one to one therapy.


Family of Origin


Our family of origin or the caregivers we were raised by are our first “emotional and psychological lecturers” where we learn, experience or absorb key beliefs about ourselves, our worth and value, our sense of self etc., including what a couple relationship looks and feels like. The relationship between our parents/carers that was modelled to us as children is the one we learn from and often repeat in adult life. Such an interesting theory being introduced early in the couple-work has proven to be a highly-informative opening exercise for both parties in the couple, once they’ve shared their story and what has brought them to couple-counselling. Once these introductory issues have been discussed it’s time to explore the above theory from both parties’ families of origin perspective. This can be such a powerful piece of enlightenment for both parties to engage in and witness in each other. It brings a level of awareness that was possibly completely missing hitherto. This will facilitate both parties in realising and accepting they have likely inherited healthy and unhealthy patterns of behaviour from their parents or caregivers that are impacting negatively on their own relationship. (Ballard et al) These unhealthy patterns of behaviour can include denial and secrecy, a closed system that restricted relationships, control and manipulation, rigid rules of living, verbal and emotional abuse, conflict and hostility, lack of empathy and respect, unrealistic expectations of partners and children, stifled opinions, emotional shut off, lack of boundaries between parent and child, the silent treatment, triangulation, enmeshment…. the list goes on! When the light is shone on these, it can help both people in the couple to understand themselves and each other so much better. That is, if both people in the couple are willing and able to do this depth of work. Sometimes there can be a complete emotional shut-off, often in one member of the couple that doesn’t allow them to engage at this level. This poses a problem in couple counselling that needs to be addressed early on.


Emotional Connection & Maturity


In my practice, I have discovered that it can be quite damaging to one person in the couple if there is an emotional cut off (Bowen. 2004) from their partner. A whole part of the person is missing which means they are not fully or holistically present. This can cause great pain to the other partner who cannot fully reach their spouse at an emotional level and means their emotional needs cannot be met in the relationship. It can also affect the intimate aspect of the relationship, both emotionally and intimately. Emotional shut off is a really common problem for so many people and it often starts in childhood. Somewhere in the early years, children got the message that it wasn’t okay or safe for them to feel their feelings. They learned to shut off this part of themselves in order to get their needs met by caregivers. When adults present for counselling who don’t feel their feelings or may not even know what that means, it can take a long time for them to reconnect to this part of themselves. It’s also a high possibility that these people have been through a lot of trauma (emotional and psychological) that has led to this happening in the first place. One of our roles as counsellors is to create a safe space for our clients so they can journey slowly and gently into this unknown territory. A first step can be helping clients to learn how to connect to their body as feelings are felt in the body. Couple-counselling is no different. A common trauma response is to live out of the head – thinking, overthinking, analysing, scrutinising, evaluating, questioning. It uses up a lot of energy and is ultimately an unhealthy practice for the body that can lead to a lot of dis-ease. Helping clients name their feelings and giving them language to help them do this can be beneficial. A dictionary of feeling words is a useful tool for a person who learns they are emotionally shut off and would like to reconnect with this side of themselves.


Healthy Communication


Communication is an integral aspect of any relationship. Depending on what was learned in the family of origin, either one or both people in the couple may have inherited unhealthy ways of communicating. The 4 most destructive ways of communicating according to Gottman include criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. (Gottman. 1999) One or both partners can exhibit some or all of these. When a couple comes for counselling together (sometimes they need to come separately) it helps the counsellor to see and understand the way they currently communicate. This can be reflected to the couple to make them aware of their pattern and where the communication is falling apart. It could be that one person is criticising and the other becoming defensive. One of the most simple but effective communication tools to empower a couple with is the “I feel, I understand” technique. This is where one person communicates their own feelings about something they are annoyed about, for example, instead of pointing the finger with the accusatory “you left all the dishes in the sink”, a person can say “I felt annoyed when I saw all the dishes left in the sink”. The other person in the couple then replies with “I understand you feel that way, I left the dishes there because I was so busy with the kids”.  This applies to the Pinch-Crunch Model (Sherwood & Scherer. 1975) where a pinch is felt by one party in the couple. The pinch needs to be recognised, confronted, responded to and problem solved. Even though the pinch is felt by one person, it’s negotiated by the couple. It becomes something they solve together. This is where the “I feel, I understand technique” can be helpful and is another powerful tool for the couple to aid them in navigating the inevitable disagreements/challenges in their individual lives and relationship together.




If one or both people in the couple are not looking after themselves, it will create problems in the dynamic of the relationship. A common issue that occurs is where one or both people are expecting the other to meet their needs. This is an unhealthy starting point. Again, it’s learned in the family of origin. How many of us have seen the overworked overburdened parent put everyone elses needs before their own? This people pleasing behaviour pattern may be more commonly seen in females. It can leave her resources completely empty for herself and creates resentment towards the partner. When it is witnessed by children it can often be normalised and repeated in later life. We are all responsible for meeting our own needs and looking after ourselves as individuals. When children come into the picture, both people need allowances and time to look after themselves. The word self-care has become massively mis-understood in the modern image important and commercial world we live in. The concept I use for self-care with all clients and couples comes from the great Virginia Satir’s book “The New Peoplemaking”. Virginia was way ahead of her time and possessed, in my view, great wisdom and intuition around the family and the impact a couple’s relationship has on the children in its care. Virginia devised an 8-aspect model of working with self-care which had its roots in healthy self-esteem. She calls it the Self Mandala. She asks us to look at ourselves through glasses that have 8 lenses – your body (the physical part), your thoughts (the intellectual part), your feelings (the emotional part), your senses (your sensual parts-eyes, ears, skin, tongue and nose), your relationship (the interactional part), your context (space, time, air, colour, sound and temperature), your nutrition (that liquids and solids you ingest) and your soul, (the spiritual part). (Satir. 1988) Majority of clients are not aware of these aspects and when they are explored, it opens up a whole new perspective on self-care and what that can mean!


The Relationship


When we train as couple counsellors, one of the first things we learn is that the relationship is our client. If a couple’s model of relationship has an unhealthy foundation from their individual families of origin, that will have a negative impact on their relationship. If there is an emotional cut off (conscious or unconscious) on one or both parties, that will pose problems in their ability to relate to each other both emotionally and intimately, also impacting the relationship. When communication is destructive, which it often is when a couple come for counselling, it causes continuous and detrimental harm to the relationship. When neither party is looking after themselves properly, if at all, that will have major repercussions and place a lot of pressure on the relationship. All these items need to be opened up, examined and explored with a view to change in couple counselling. Each sub-heading mentioned above interlinks with the others. I believe the family of origin is the root of most relationship challenges – it’s where unhealthy patterns are learned, emotional cut off is experienced, destructive communication is witnessed and self-care doesn’t exist. Our attachment to caregivers and ability to trust in them needs to be nurtured from the beginning in the sacred space of the family. When that doesn’t happen it affects our ability to love and trust ourselves. If it’s not shown to us, how can we learn it? ‘Relational competence in adult life starts in attachment patterns in childhood. Stress and trauma in childhood have long-term effects on an adult’s relational competence.’ (Holmes. 2001) When we don’t love and trust ourselves we may choose partners that aren’t good for us, or we may not choose any partner at all if we don’t feel safe enough within ourselves to do so. The most important relationship we can ever develop and work on is the relationship with ourselves and as we know, the best and most satisfying relationships need work. 




This article looked at the family of origin as the root cause of conflict in couple relationships. It discusses emotional connection and maturity as an integral aspect of a healthy and fulfilling relationship and offers a starting point with clients in helping them recover this when it’s missing. Emotional connection leads onto healthy communication with the “I feel, I understand” technique. Being able to name how we feel and understand each other simultaneously is a simple and underrated tool that may take practice but has proven to be so effective in couple work. The importance of individual self-care is highlighted and a mode of working with clients is offered using Virginia Satir’s 8 aspect model. The article ends by linking these sub-headings and showing how they all impact on the couple relationship, the relationship being the client in couple counselling. And lastly, the relationship we each have with ourselves is mentioned as most important and one that equally deserves development and work. 




Ballard, M. Fazio-Griffith, L. & Marino, R. Transgenerational Family Therapy: A Case Study of a Couple in Crisis.


Bowen, M. (2004) Family therapy in clinical practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. (Originally published 1978)


Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Orion Books Ltd.


Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base. Routledge: Sussex.


Satir, V. (1988) The New Peoplemaking. Science and Behaviour Books, Inc.: USA.


Sherwood, J.J., & Scherer, J.J. (1975) A model for couples: How two can grow together.” Journal for Small Group Behaviour, 6 (1), 14.

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