Marriage and Couples Counseling Theories

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  • 0:06 Couples Counseling and…
  • 1:58 Psychoanalytic
  • 3:18 Structural-Strategic
  • 5:01 Social-Cognitive
  • 6:31 Only One Partner…
  • 8:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

When a couple enters counseling, their counselor can hold various theoretical approaches that will guide evaluation and treatment. In this lesson, we will look at three common ones: psychoanalytic, social-cognitive, and strategic-structural.

Couples Counseling and Theories

Couples may decide to go to counseling for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they are having difficulty communicating without arguing. Maybe one spouse is dealing with news of the other's affair. Maybe they just 'lost that loving feeling.' Or maybe it is all of the above. In fact, it is very common for a couple to have several areas that need addressing rather than just one.

Frequent issues couples have are related to finances, children, communication, sexual intimacy, and past events, just to name a few. Rather than feeling like they are on a team, spouses end up feeling as if they are on opposite teams playing against one another, as they try to prove their points and get the other to understand how they feel.

This is where an objective third party can be helpful. Enter the counselor. The counselor's job is to provide a safe place for couples to share their feelings, to be understood, and to be guided. The counselor should support both partners equally, while helping them learn what to do differently for a stronger union.

Theories in Couples Counseling

Today, we are going to meet a couple who has been married for 15 years. Their names are Tom and Nancy, and they have two children, Michael and Jenny. Tom was laid off from his job a couple years ago due to the economy and has not been able to find work ever since. Nancy is frustrated that her husband is still out of work. She constantly urges him to take any job he can find and even calls places on his behalf, but he always has a reason for not moving forward with any of them. They feel easily angered by each other and more distant than ever.

They have been offered the opportunity to meet with three different counselors to get an idea of different theoretical perspectives on their situation. The counselors they are going to subscribe to these three theories: psychoanalytic, structural-strategic, and social-cognitive.

Psychoanalytic Theory

First stop is a counselor who practices psychoanalytic therapy. This means he comes from the psychoanalytic framework of Sigmund Freud. He focuses on the relationships they had with their parents during childhood. He asks questions and tries to uncover their unconscious thoughts by holding up inkblots and asking, 'What do you see in this?'

The counselor finds out that Nancy's father was disengaged from the family and drank often. Her mother tried to get him involved with the children, but to no avail. Nancy missed a relationship with her father, while she also resented him. Tom on the other hand, never felt good enough as a child, since his parents were strict and constantly critical.

The counselor explains Nancy married Tom because she unconsciously wanted him to provide the love and help her father never did. Her anger toward Tom's lack of work was really resentment toward her father. He also shared that Tom's anger toward Nancy comes from unresolved anger toward his parents.

Treatment involves gaining full insight into how the past is impacting the present for both of them, helping them appreciate where the other is coming from, and then going back to those times as children to move past them.

Structural-Strategic Theory

Counselor number two practices strategic theory, which was developed by Jay Haley. Rather than spending the session focusing on past issues, he pinpoints present issues that need changing and then provides practical steps for achieving those changes. The aim is to provide focused, brief therapy where the counselor directs the clients toward new behavior and interactions.

The counselor examines why difficulties continue. Namely, what purpose do they serve or what pay offs come from unhealthy behavior. He stated that Nancy's payoff in controlling Tom was the belief it would motivate him. Tom's payoff in not taking a job was to avoid the possibility of failing at it.

The counselor also evaluates the invisible framework of their familial relationship, which describes structural theory, created by Salvador Minuchin. This includes rules and qualities of relationships between each member. For example, he points out that Nancy has more of a mother-son relationship with Tom. He finds out that she spends more time sharing her emotional burdens with her son Michael than with Tom. This causes stress for her son and brings him in between her and Tom, which only makes Tom feel more distant. This also means the structure of the family is unhealthy and needs to be corrected for optimal functioning.

Treatment includes goal setting, using outside resources, and changing the structure of the relationships by teaching strategies for acting differently - Nancy no longer babying Tom, for example, or disclosing too much with her son. This will create healthier couple and family interactions.

Social-Cognitive Theory

Counselor number three is coming from social-cognitive theory (SCT) , which was developed by Albert Bandura. This means she believes that our actions come from what we have learned from others.

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