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Couple Counseling and Its Principles

First, it is of crucial importance to understand that such notions as couple counseling, marriage counseling, or marital therapy denote practically the same process. The only difference is which theory of psychotherapy is preferred by the psychologist, but such diversity of various terms should not create confusion because they are just different manifestations of the same phenomenon. This is the first point that is worth remembering.

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Overall, we can define couple counseling as a field of psychology that deals with married couples, and namely with the problems which are connected with their intimate relationships.

The earliest approaches to psychology, which were predominant at the beginning of the twentieth century, paid more attention to individual therapy rather than to interpersonal relations. The patient-clinician relationships were considered to be the most optimal way to help people with their psychological problems.

Prominent clinicians such as, for instance, Freud or Rogers, thought that while family life did form one’s personality, the strongest forces regulating human conduct were the personal, mostly subjective beliefs that patients had about their families (Guerney, pp. 1127-1135). Freud and Rogers were firmly convinced that the causes of mental disorders were neurotic conflicts or perhaps destructive relations in the family and that therapy would be most beneficial for the patient if he or she were separated from the harmful impact of relatives. Thus, patients were separated from their families, and therapy and treatment concentrated on their personal mental disorders.

The development of family counseling created an entirely new way of understanding and expounding human conduct. Family counselors believed that psychological problems should be researched and resolved within the context of family life. This entirely new contextual approach shifted the responsibility for the problems and the direction of therapy from the inner world of the patient to the family relationships.

Couples counseling is often considered to be independent or, to a certain degree, separate from psychotherapy because the special emphasis is placed on interpersonal relations, whereas in traditional psychotherapy intrapersonal approach is believed to be more efficient. However, this difference is not quite relevant because any psychological problem as well as psychological change may lead to some individual symptoms, for example, behavior, emotions, conflicts, and to some difficulties connected with interpersonal relationships(Johnson, pp.50-54).

This statement can be proved in the following way: for instance, if a person is constantly squabbling with his or her spouse, it will undoubtedly lead to chronic anxiousness, anger, or depression. As a rule, it works both ways: a person who is unable to keep his balance; is almost bound to have some difficulties in his interpersonal relations. Thus, it is quite possible to say that traditional psychotherapy and couple counseling are closely connected, and we have no reason to separate couple counseling from psychotherapy (Guerney, pp. 48-53).

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The main task of couple therapy is to identify the cause of the conflict or probably some misunderstanding and decide where a change is needed either in each partner or in the interpersonal relations.

There are many different models of couples relationships, nevertheless we should single out two major ones as: Positive Sentiment Override or PSO and Negative Sentiment Override – NSO. This classification was presented by John Gottman (1994, pp 10-20). Now we should clear out what exactly these notions mean.

The first model (PSO) means that positive feelings and emotions outnumber negative ones. This means that there is some kind of a “positive filter”, which changes the way, a married couple perceives their relationships. Such a couple can be characterized by the so-called” softened startups”, or delicate ways to raise a problem. Another marked characteristic of such couple is theacceptance of Influence”, so spouses (in the majority of cases men) can accept the views and opinions of their partners (mostly women); What is also should be mentioned is the so-called “Repair Attempts” or attempts to reconcile with each other by resorting to humor or conceding a point.

Approximately one effort is made for every three minutes. Moreover, partners try to suppress or to a certain degree to deescalate their hot emotion. As a rule, such partners do not have “gridlock” as Gottman defines it in other words inability to make a compromise with each other (Gottman, pp. 20-25).

The second model of couple relationships is NSO in other words, negative sentiment override, which means negative feelings and emotions outweigh positive ones. It is established, a married couple, which shows approximately one positive versus one negative comment, is very likely to divorce. This means that there is some sort of a negative filter that downgrades those few positive events that might be in their life. It makes a married couple look at their married life from a pessimistic point of view (Gottman, pp. 88-94).

In the vast majority of cases, these relationships are characterized by constant criticism. There are some malicious attacks between partners like for instance “What kind of person are you” or “I would never be so low as to do something like that!” Eventually, it results in “stonewalling” (constant mental isolation of partners from each other).

Gottman has developed his own model of family therapy for such couples. The first step to be taken is to “move gridlock to dialogue,” which means learning how to hold conversation more effectively. A partner should listen more closely and pay more attention to what the other partner is saying.

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The next stage is to teach “recovery after a fight” Partners should be able to suppress or deescalate their negative emotions and feeling. Gottman believes that it is of utmost importance to teach a married couple such social skills as softening startups, the ability to accept influence (especially it goes for men), and the ability to compromise. Partners should also be able to determine their common goals and the way in which they are going to achieve them. What is also of great importance is the ability of the couple to share responsibility between each other.

David Jansen and Margaret Newman attempted to develop their own model of marriage therapy in their book “Really Relating: How to Build an Enduring Relationship”. The characteristic feature of this model is that it does not require intervention, in other words, couples can cope with their problems on their own (Newman, pp. 66-70). The authors try to teach married couples to resolve possible conflicts. They propose steps that have to be taken in order to clear out misunderstandings that might occur between partners. According to them, it is of crucial importance to put oneself into the position of your partner, which is not as easy as it seems to be at first glance.

The authors say that the true reason that is at the core of every conflict is the inability of partners to make compromise with each other. According to them, the most important ingredient for a successful family life is the sense of being understood by the other partner and the ability to share a meaning with one another. Partners should be the rulers of their emotions and not vice versa, because otherwise their family life will be entirely ruined. According to the authors, such notion as intimacy does not necessarily mean sex. The intimacy implies the ability to share one’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Without it, there will be a sort of estrangement between partners which will consequently result in “stonewalling”, the phenomenon which was described by John Gottman.

It must be taken into account that to a certain degree, counseling is a generic term, and many basic principles of couple counseling can easily go for other forms of counseling. In general, counseling is aimed, at least in theory, at gaining insight into the cause of the conflict and the factors that sparked it off. Couple counseling attempts to give the counselee encouragement, reassurance, support, and new perspectives so that he may look upon himself as but one of many who face or have faced similar troubles that can be resolved under some favorable circumstances.

To a certain extent, almost all types of counseling employ similar methods to reach their aims even though these methods can be entirely different in their fundamental and basic theoretical approaches. From time to time, almost every counselor is asked to give some advice or guidance. Some of them will employ these methods only as a last resort. Others will use these means more frequently because they feel that the counselee really wants, needs, and has the right to more direct and immediate assistance. They are firmly convinced, moreover, that if the counselee does not get such assistance, he will get despondent and will stop the counseling. The harm to the counselee from discontinuance when he needs counseling, they feel, is likely to be even more harmful than offering such assistance (Johnson, pp. 12-15).

The basic duty of a marriage counselor is to listen, understand, and contribute to a better understanding between partners. The key rules of couple counseling are non-judgment and objective attitude to both partners. Under no circumstance a counselor, at least a good one is allowed to take sides with the one partner or the other. Partners should always be on equal terms, because otherwise one of them will feel discriminated.

A good family therapist is a person who is able to put himself into the position of those people who have problems with their relationships. He must be able to look at the problem from different perspectives. To a certain extent, couple counselor plays the role of a peacekeeper (Hargrave, pp. 114-118).

Another marked characteristic of couple counseling is entire inadmissibility of stereotyping, naturally it does not mean that every problem a married couple may have is unique, but a counselor must always be contextually oriented which means he has to find an approach to every couple (Johnson, pp. 58-60).

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Thus, we may define the basic principles of couples counseling. The first principle that must be mentioned is the contextual orientation because every couple is unique in one’s own way and under no circumstances a family counselor may stereotype. The second principle is the necessity to put oneself in the position of a married couple that needs psychological assistance. The main peculiarity is that the opinions and beliefs of both partners must be taken into consideration. The final and the most important principle is impartiality a therapist must never take sides with any of the partners otherwise; the treatment itself will be of no use.


Anderson, E. (1998). Covenant marriage: Some do, more don’t. Times-Picayune, A1, A6.

Aponte, H. J. 1998. Love, the spiritual well-being of forgiveness: An example of spirituality in therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 20, 37-58.

Gottman, J. M. 1994. What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Guerney, B. G., Jr., & Maxon, P. 1990. Marital and family enrichment research: A decade review and look ahead. Marriage and the Family, 52, 1127-1135.

Hargrave, T. D., & Sells, J. N. (1997). The development of a forgiveness scale. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 23, 41-62.

Johnson, S. M. (1996). The practice of emotionally focused marital therapy: Creating connection. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Newman, M , Jansen D. 1989. Really Relating – How To Build An Enduring Relationship. Hutchinson Australia.

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