This case study describes counselling work I conducted with a couple over the course of six months.
Background to clients
The clients are a couple that, at the start of counselling, had been together for 12 years, eight of which they have been married. The man, John was 36 and works as a financial consultant; the woman, Sara was 33 and worked as nurse. The couple had no children.
Sara’s presenting issue centred upon communication and the fact that she and her partner failed to communicate effectively with each other and make decisions. Also mentioned was the fact that Sara felt she had changed as a person, and John had failed to adjust to this change. For John, he reported being frustrated that Sara showed him little affection and was unclear how Sara felt towards him. John was also keen to start a family in the near future.
Theme 1 – Communication
Communication was a central theme that wove itself through the counselling process. There was a pervading sense in which Sara and John were somehow ‘missing’ each other. Work was done to help provide a greater understanding of this process, focusing upon how each hears the other. This was done by making observations as to how the couple conducts a discussion or argument. On a number of occasions, for example, arguments would erupt around the issue of where they would live in the future. Instead of focusing upon the content of the argument, interventions were made so as to shine a light upon how the argument took place and how they experienced the argument.
This helped provide a greater understanding of what messages were being communicated and what assumptions were being made by each party. An on-going attempt was thus made to tune into each client’s respective world, by not just attending to what is being said, but the way in which it is said and the clients’ demeanour as a whole.
Theme 2 – Adapting to change
Sara saw herself as changing her outlook and the way she wanted to relate to the world. Specifically, she wanted more responsibility in the relationship and more involvement in the decisions that were made. Linking to the exploration of ‘support’ described above, Sara felt increasingly uncomfortable being ‘looked after’ by John, of which financial support was just a small part. Sara wanted more respect to be shown towards her. It was important to Sara that she would become more assertive, not just with John, but in her life more generally.
Conversely, John was resentful of the recent change that Sara had made to her job and career as it manifested itself in her working increasingly long hours, and drinking more than she used to in order to unwind.
Theme 3 – Finding meaning in the relationship
Although the concept of meaning-making was not raised by the clients explicitly, exploration of the material being presented made it clear that this constituted an important and pervasive issue throughout our time together. We were therefore dealing with one of life’s ‘givens’, that life is essentially meaningless, and that this constitutes one of its inherent qualities.
People have to decide how to live their lives. Focusing on this helped inform and focus the work with the couple in question. Specifically, there were anxieties expressed that could be made sense of in the context of re-establishing some meaning in their relationships together. What meaning there was, appeared to be ebbing away and there was a strong sense in which the two of them were ‘drifting along’, unable to make decisions and take some agency over how their present and future together might look. As John put it quite poignantly, they were doing no more than ‘marking time together’.
In our working to understand their lives together, there was a sense in which the clients were failing to value their lives in the present – they were valuing the past and, for John at least, seeking out value in the future in the form of a new family. This was valuable material with which to work as it resonated with the couple and was something they were both willing and able to explore more fully over the months we worked together.