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Soothing First

Over the years my way of working with couples have gone through many changes, shifts and transformations. And one of the critical first steps in the process is soothing. I know this may be called different things by different approaches, but the essence is usually the same.

By the time most couples walk into the door the have accumulated a legacy of injuries and fairly rigid and dysfunctional ways of engaging with each other. I will speak about this in another piece about caricatures. But the one things most couples have lost is the gentle interactions between them that are acknowledging, affirming and appreciative. All of this I refer to as soothing.

It is interesting that most relationships have an element at the start of noticing and sharing how the other person makes them feel good about themselves and good while being together, yet it is exactly that same group of behaviours that disappear as the injuries accumulate and the differences spiral. So by the time they come for therapy, most couples want to jump into the deep end and immediately tackle what they usually feel are the "core" issues in their relationship.

Initially I indulged them, but it never worked. It never worked because there are often so few resources and good will left to do the work. I usually describe this with reference to the body and the inflammation cause by an injury. The relationship is in pain and is inflamed, and the first thing that we need to do is to soothe and reduce the inflammation. And we do not do that by moving the injury around.

So one of the earliest stages of couple therapy is engaging the couple in routine affirmations, appreciations and acknowledgements. And no, this has nothing to do with saying thank you. This refers to the practice of daily noticing something the other has done that is meaningful, helpful, nice, supportive or whatever. Noticing and telling the person, without any added on requests for change. And this is the first homework couples get from me.

It seems so simple and perhaps simplistic, but it is a first step, and in many ways diagnostic for me of how the therapy process will go as a whole. Both are required to engage in this process, which may be about a quality or characteristic, or sometimes even the absence of a negative behaviour. The point is that it actually pushes both partners to start noticing the little things the other is doing that is meaningful, and reactivates a two-way soothing process.

And no, of course this does not address underlying dysfunctional patterns or longstanding conflict. It is not supposed to. It is supposed to reintroduce something healthy and curative, that soothes the heightened sensitivity of interactions and communication, and generates a tiny shift towards this feeling a little better and a little less hopeless. If we achieve that change, I am satisfied. It also means both are committed to engage in this process beyond the session.

The soothing process, which usually is reinforced over a few sessions, starts a shift. And this shift is also a shift in getting back a little bit of good will, tolerance, and a sense of we are doing this together. So for me the biggest milestone for the couple is to go home and do this between sessions, and come back with this small but critical shift.

I di not believe couple therapy is about talking everything to death, and I actually prevent couples during the first part of therapy from engaging each other directly. That comes later, when there has been soothing, when the inflammation has receded, when both are not constantly engaging from a place of hurt and defensiveness.


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