Counselling Couples and Families: A Person-Centred Approach
Publication Year: 1999
‘Compelling reading.... I liked this book. It is intelligent, thought-provoking, occasionally funny and a delight to read. I warmed to the author's passion for the work of Carl Rogers.... All Relate counsellors will find something of value — even the strict psychodynamic practitioners’ — Relate News. ‘The author deserves congratualtions on his easy, readable style. This will ensure that the book will be read, rather than simply browsed by many’ — Sexual and Relationship Therapy. ‘Provides a very good introduction for counsellors in working with families.’ — British Journal of Guidance & Counselling.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: Relational Counselling and the Person-Centred Approach
- Chapter 2: Why Do Counsellors Stay Away from Relational Counselling?
- Chapter 3: Themes in Family Therapy
- Chapter 4: Relational Counselling and the Six Core Conditions of the Person-Centred Approach
- Chapter 5: Preparation for Relational Therapy
- Chapter 6: Getting Started
- Chapter 7: In the Middle of Relational Counselling
- Chapter 8: Ending Relational Counselling
- Chapter 9: Couples Counselling
- Chapter 10: One Family's Experience
© Charles O'Leary 1999
First published 1999
Excerpt from ‘Little Gidding’ in Four Quartets © 1942 by T.S. Eliot and renewed 1970 by Esme Valerie Eliot, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Inc. and Faber & Faber Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the Publishers.
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To Martha Beth, Gwenyth Kate and Emily Grace[Page vi]
Dr Charles O'Leary works in Arvada, just outside Denver, exactly midway between the politically contrasting communities of Colorado Springs and Boulder. Charlie is well suited to working with varied communities. Proud of his Boston-Irish background, he combines the humour of that heritage with an acute observation of human behaviour. This is a perfect combination for a family therapist, especially one who commentates upon family therapy through public lectures and now in this book. In his lecturing, Charlie is able to combine his sharpness of wit and observation to bring the client to life in the imaginations of his audience. Furthermore, he achieves that in such a fashion that does not demean the client but accentuates the humanity of all concerned. I beieve that he also achieves that in this book.
Charlie has his roots firmly set in the person-centred approach. When I first met him in 1972 we were both graduate students attached to the Center for Studies of the Person (CSP) in La Jolla, California. He had crossed the country to study with Dr Carl Rogers when CSP, in typical near-sixties fashion, had undertaken an unconventional academic programme.
The person-centred approach has always maintained an uneasy relationship with conventional institutions. Some years ago, a prominent voluntary counselling agency in Britain declared that the person-centred approach was inappropriate for couples work because its emphasis was on empowering the individual. Within the person-centred approach the response would be that relationships might be considerably enhanced if the partners gained even a little more power over the matter of their own living. Conversely, if relationships are to be preserved at the expense of human growth, then our humanity may be in terminal decline.
In fact, the person-centred approach articulates well with couple and family therapy. Carl Rogers' ‘Self’ theory, underlying person-centred work, is entirely ‘systemic’, to the extent that family therapy concepts can even be applied directly to the configurations and dynamics which operate within the Self (Mearns, 1999). As the person-centred therapist establishes contact with each emerging dimension of Self, she seeks to hold it in relationship while equally honouring [Page ix]other parts which may be in discord, and this is the case with many families.
Within the development of family therapy the parallels with person-centred counselling have been evident. In Chapter 4, Charlie articulates the fundamental nature of the person-centred ‘core conditions’ to family therapy. Indeed, sometimes we see therapists sharpening essentially person-centred ideas in their translation into family work. A prime example is the vibrant concept of ‘multi-directional partiality’ coined by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Ulrich, 1981). This challenges the family therapist not simply to be passively accepting of each family member, but to be experienced by every family member as ‘partial’ to them. Person-centred therapists will find their conception of ‘unconditional positive regard’ stretched by this kind of translation into family work. Indeed, that is what comes over well in this book – the picture of the family therapist being very active and stretched to engage fully with every person in the family.
While the book will be useful in helping couple and family therapists to see the relationship between their work and the person-centred approach, it will be invaluable to the person-centred therapist who is considering developing their couple and family work. Chapter 2, ‘Why Do Counsellors Stay Away from Relational Counselling?’, anticipates and discusses their fears, Chapter 5 helps them to prepare for relational counselling and Chapters 6, 7 and 8 follow the structure of the popular series ‘Counselling in Action’, also published by Sage, by taking the reader through the process of ‘beginnings’, ‘middles’ and ‘endings’ of the therapeutic process.
As would be expected by anyone who has been to a Charlie O'Leary lecture or workshop, the book is crammed full of illustrative material from couples and families, making it is a thoroughly good read for even the casual reader. I commend this book to the reader, whoever who are!
Many person-centred counsellors are seeking to learn more about couples and family counselling. Helpful individual counselling often stimulates clients' desire to involve partners, children and even parents in what has been one of their most significant life experiences. Further, since individual therapy often causes change in relationships, some counsellors and clients wonder if this journey of personal learning might not better take place in the presence of a partner rather than alone with a therapist. Sometimes therapeutic work on a relationship with parents or siblings raises the possibility of a meeting with such persons in the presence of a facilitator. Person-centred counsellors employed by agencies or in medical practice settings are often called upon to work with people having relationship difficulties. People ask, ‘Will you see my husband and me?’ When counsellors work with children, they often desire or are asked to meet with the child's family as well. Person-centred counsellors also hear about couples and family therapy attempted unsatisfactorily from other points of view and wonder if in a less directive, interpretive or didactic environment it might have gone better.
In this book, the reader will find my own active dialogue between the person-centred approach and the many ways of thinking and acting which make up the collective literature on marriage and family therapy or ‘relational counselling’, to use a relatively new term (Anderson, 1997). The term ‘relational counselling’ encompasses both couples and family counselling. ‘Couples counselling’ will refer to work with any two adults in an intimate relationship and the term ‘family counselling’ will describe work when more than two family members are included.
I have been offering workshops on relational counselling for person-centred counsellors for over ten years. In every workshop, participants reveal a desire for work with their own families of origins as well as with their spouses. People who, in person-centred groups, develop the habit of expressing their thoughts and feelings directly, would like to continue that at home without being seen as a threat, an eccentric or a bore. They reveal a longing to attempt the same deep connection that they find in the groups with mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers. They want a setting in which their family members can listen to their truest voice without feeling attacked, threatened or diminished.
[Page xi]I am writing this book because I believe that person-centred counsellors are particularly well prepared to undertake work with couples and families. Proficient person-centred counsellors will have developed that strong sense of self-sufficiency which enables them to ‘make themselves small’ (Friedman, 1991) thus creating a large therapeutic space essential for mutual support and challenge between members of a couple or family. Furthermore, person-centred counsellors have learned how to communicate their understanding of each family member in an atmosphere of acceptance, thus creating for each person the unique experience of being understood yet not judged in the presence of other family members.
However, I do not want person-centred therapists to attempt relational counselling based only on their experiences in counselling individuals or through participating in groups. Family therapy is a medium which must be respected on its own terms. It is not individual therapy done one by one with other people present. It is not group therapy or encounter group work where people can engage and then detach without concern about consequences in the atmosphere of their home or bedroom that very night. Family or couples counselling almost always has at least one person who is less engaged, less comfortable and more in the dark about the process of counselling. The relational counsellor must be congruent while learning how to welcome reluctant or uncomfortable participants. Family therapist Jay Haley spoke of this need to suspend one's habitual perspective when he said, ‘It is rude to be warm to a cold person’ (Haley, 1982). The power dynamic is more complex when dealing with a family than with an individual or a group of non-related people. In family work, for example, there is both opportunity and challenge to see such phenomena as ‘conditions of worth’ in action (Rogers, 1959). The counsellor is asked to relate simultaneously and with acceptance to a person who feels controlled by someone else and to the person who feels the need to exert such control!
This book will also raise important questions for every reader about how counselling changes when the dimension of active family relationship is added. Can we add without subtracting? Can we be responsive to the specific medium of family work without losing the unique values of the person-centred approach? I do not want to water down family counselling in order to make it compatible with the person-centred approach. It would, similarly, dilute the power of the person-centred approach to suggest that all, or even most, contemporary family therapy techniques are necessarily compatible with the person-centred approach. In revealing the criticisms that each approach might make of the other, I do not want to be simplistic. Good counsellors doing the best they can for their clients, practice these approaches and inevitably emphasize one side of [Page xii]human experience over another. I hope to lay different ways of counselling side by side so that each counsellor can find models from which to choose when meeting the clients who come to the office or clinic.
This book is one of many possible dialogues between principles of the person-centred approach and the activity called relational counselling. It is personal and descriptive rather than comprehensive or prescriptive. I have chosen to write this book as a series of reflections about the way in which the person-centred approach already enlivens the best of relational counselling. Many examples I give are drawn from the work of counsellors who do not identify themselves as person-centred. I have interviewed several practising family and couples counsellors in preparation for this work and will quote them throughout the book. I also reflect on ways in which the style of a person trained in person-centred individual therapy would be very effective in relational counselling, as well as the ways in which a counsellor may need to adapt. This is a contribution to a long series of reflections on the application of the person-centred approach to work with couples and families including Barrett-Lennard (1984, 1998), Gaylin (1989, 1993), Ellinwood (1989), Anderson (1989a, 1989b), Cain (1989), Levant (1984), Raskin and Van der Veen (1970), Bozarth and Shanks (1989), Snyder (1989), Thayer (1982), Warner (1983, 1989), Guerney (1984), Mearns and Thorne (1988), Mearns (1994a) and Rogers (1961c, 1972a, 1972b).
Like many writers before me (for example Mearns and Thorne, 1988), I do not think there is an exact or useful distinction between the words ‘therapy’ and ‘counselling’. I will use the word ‘counselling’ predominantly, although when quoting or discussing other writers, I will use the word ‘therapy’ if they do. I have approached the personal pronoun dilemma by alternating he and she, him and her whenever possible.
I would like to thank many counsellors, writers and friends who lent their energy and talents to this work. The great heroes of this book are Dave Mearns, my talented and thorough editor and friend, who in a supreme act of unconditional positive regard suggested this book and shepherded it into existence; John K. Wood, my thoughtful and persistent friend who lent his considerable understanding of the person-centred approach to help shape my thinking and this book; and finally my wife, Martha Johns, who was an indispensable support, inspiration, and imaginative and loving editor. Breffni Barrett, Eliot Weinstein, David Sanders and Ron Urone are generous and excellent therapists who each submitted to several interviews. Other friends who contributed clinical and literary wisdom or other support include Gay Swenson Barfield, Steven Bennett, Norm Chambers, Larry Chamow, Karen Dinan, Janet Elisita, Katie Elsbree, [Page xiii]Phil Elsbree, Dick Farson, Harry Johns, Molly Johns, Ralph Keyes, Elke Lambers, Bob Lee, Elias Lefferman, Etta Linton, Susan Lund, Joyce Marx, Jeanne McAlister, Bruce Meador, Milt Miller, Bob Mines, Maureen O'Hara, Kathleen O'Leary, Tom Owen-Towle, George Purvis, George Sargent (much missed since his death early in 1998), Wilson Southam, Linda Terry-Geyer, Brian Thorne, Ferdinand Van der Veen, Katie Webb, Doug Young, Marlyn Young and Alberto Zucconni. I am particularly grateful to three likeable and admirable people who in this book are known as the Clark family.[Page xiv]
There is more doorknob counselling when working with families and couples than with individuals. There are more people to talk to on the way out the door; more reassurances sought, opinions asked and sometimes, I'm afraid, opinions given. So it is with this book. What is left out? Lots. I have been thinking and learning about relational counselling for more than 20 years. I have not addressed the question of training specifically for family and couples counselling and, except in passing, the book has not discussed approaches to family of origin or ways to use adult knowledge, strength and skills to renew and revise connections with parents and siblings.
Here at the doorknob, there is not time for lengthy discussion of training. Relational counselling is an art form that requires efforts, intentions and cultivation additional to one's preparation for individual work. My own training included classes, workshops and immersion in books and articles about family and couples counselling on its own terms. Most importantly, I found supervisors who respected me and had a philosophy compatible with the person-centred approach who had spent thousands of hours in the world of couples and families. I observed their work, did co-therapy, and was observed on video, audio and behind a one-way mirror. Mostly I talked with them in the oldest style of supervision, letting conversation sort out what were my problems, strengths, needs and hopes and what belonged to my clients.
Interest in the exploration of family of origin emerges in any lengthy contact with clients or counsellors in training. The process of individual counselling often naturally includes exploration and revision of the self-concept in relation to the significant others of one's childhood experience. A rich literature exists (for example, Framo, 1992; Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krassner, 1986; Bowen, 1978) which may add an objective dimension to clients' and counsellors' searches to revise their early, so influential relationships. As simple an exercise as a genogram or personalised family map (McGoldrick and Gerson, 1985) can extend empathy into the subjective situation of persons formerly seen only in stagnant memories shaped by childhood powerlessness.
How has 20 years' experience with families and couples made me feel more helpful than when I began seeing more than one person at once?
[Page 150]My 20 years have given me consistent feedback that clients always react negatively to perceived counsellor judgement. They will usually catch us if we try to be clever or manipulative; will most of the time react positively to perceived counsellor empathy; and will almost always seek to find out about the persons we genuinely are. To be frank, I have found myself judging more times than I can count and neglecting empathy in favour of some lesson I thought I urgently needed to teach.
I have learned to notice and work with the client who is most likely to be or to feel judged. This feeling of being evaluated negatively is the most common experience in the painful side of relational living (see Rogers, 1961b: 330, for his realization of this persistent factor in breakdowns in communication). If I gently contact the person feeling most judged I can bring her into congruent participation and reduce the mistrust and distance of others present.
I have learned to expect that clients will allow me to facilitate. Clients have an investment in allowing counsellors to allow them to talk together. With rare exceptions, they will do so, if they feel that they will also have a turn to be heard.
I try to remember that the clients' ideas will hold the key to successful change. Twenty years have given me less cause to expect that my great insights will make a difference and much cause to expect that, if I am listening for it, some unfancy client remark will provide the key to the family or couple's next step. I am convinced that the relational counsellor is like a good teacher who is eagerly looking for subtle changes in her learners’ perceptions of their situation.
I have also learned to be active and verbal with clients while living out the core conditions of the person-centred approach in the intensity of the counselling sessions. Activity is essential when working with more than one individual, and can be consistent with the person-centred approach if one maintains multi-directional partiality.
The principles of the person-centred approach have become the deepest foundation for my work with any number of people in complex situations.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first timeT.S. Eliot
The best relational counsellor occupies the somewhat paradoxical position of the confident beginner, of which Carl Rogers was the master. The greatest gift he consistently offered was his willingness to learn from and with his clients.
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