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How couple’s therapy can help the whole family

By Erika Emerson, Family Counsellor

Parenting can take a toll on any relationship. But when you have a child with a life-limiting condition, everyday stresses such as managing finances are magnified and supplemented by extra pressures. As well as the usual parental mental load, you might be worrying about prescriptions, juggling medical appointments and never having a full night’s sleep.

We all have different ways of managing stress and sometimes that can cause problems within a relationship. I joined Chestnut Tree House in January 2023 as a family counsellor and I have always enjoyed working with children, but I also have a passion for working with couples so I decided to complete a diploma in relationship counselling.

When families first come to Chestnut Tree House, they are usually reeling from some kind of trauma. They may be processing a shock diagnosis, their child’s condition could be deteriorating or they may be newly bereaved. A stressed or bereaved couple can inadvertently resort to defensive patterns as a means of self-protection. Unfortunately, that can result in disconnection, frustration, disappointment and anger.

What to expect from couple therapy

We offer counselling for individuals, whether that is parents, carers or siblings, but couples can also be referred for therapy together.

The first referral usually comes from the nurse who is working with the family, who recognises that they would benefit from therapy. We would then get in touch and explain that therapy is available to them as a couple as well. Ours is a unique approach, because we are focusing on supporting a family going through their journey. We want to provide them with a space where thoughts and feelings are validated with the guidance of the couple therapist.

Sometimes, therapy sessions are the only time a couple has to discuss their concerns uninterrupted in a calm environment. I encourage partners to listen with respect, but also to learn skills that help repair rifts and ruptures in the relationship.

Stronger together

I try to help couples improve their communication, work out what they need from each other, and resolve conflicts in a more peaceful way. We’ll talk about feelings and emotions, which might be the last thing they want to do at home, when they need to be there 24/7 for their child. We also talk about their resilience and strength.

I might set a homework task for them to do – something that’s supposed to be fun and interesting and a bit out of their comfort zone. One couple said they never have enough time for each other, so I asked them to do the hugging exercise: hug each other every day for two minutes. Afterwards, they were giggling about it. She said, “My husband is chasing me around, always asking for a hug!” Before, she had complained that he never showed her any affection, so it was lovely to hear that.

A couple started therapy with me telling me they had heated, hurtful arguments at home. After a while, they agreed to “save” their arguments for the sessions, as it was safer with a non-biased person present. When we were close to finishing our course of therapy he smiled at me and said “We have to think of something to argue about just for you Erika, so you can see us arguing.”

Therapy gave both of them an equal opportunity to express their needs, learn to listen and therefore support each other better in their grieving.

Learning to listen

With couples, part of the work of therapy is making sure that both parties have a voice. Often, one partner will take a step back, and they just try to disappear or get on with the work. Couple therapy is much more guided compared to working with individuals, because I have to make sure that the balance is there.

Often, it’s a positive revelation for both parties to be able to communicate what keeps them together and how much they value each other.

We can hold therapy sessions virtually where necessary, but preferably they take place in person. Ideally, the couple would make the most of having some time alone and have a debrief afterwards, because it can be quite emotionally intensive. When they say they’re making the most of having childcare by going for a walk or a meal out, or they’re using it as a date night, that’s the best thing I could hear.

For me, the most important thing is for couples to learn about their capacity for resilience, which is the ability to adapt well in circumstances of adversity.

When rifts and ruptures can be quickly repaired, relationships can continue to grow and develop, even in the midst of grief or huge stress.