Relationship counselling offers homosexual and heterosexual couples the opportunity to explore the patterns they bring to their relationship, based on the values, attitudes and beliefs from their own background and upbringing in order to identify issues and what they would like to do differently. Using a genogram, a family tree, the couple gain an understanding of what meanings inform how an individual manages their emotions, communication, and beliefs about such issues as family, gender, ethnicity, and what it means to be a couple. Moving away from individual pathology and blame, the counselling process helps each individual to explore how they jointly construct patterns together, in their communication and in managing emotions, conflict and intimacy. Each client is an individual with their own personal history, strengths and vulnerabilities, and also makes up the couple.
The counselling can open up a broader understanding of each other by enabling each partner to gain an insight into what unconsciously motivates and informs the behaviours and styles of communication in the relationship. So, for example, in a family growing up where emotions were not discussed and things were swept under the carpet, an individual may bring this pattern to the couple relationship. Once having this awareness as an adult, the person can choose to keep patterns which are helpful but make changes to those patterns which they might have outgrown and are no longer useful. This awareness on both sides creates empathy between couples as they see how their partner in a different light and begin to understand their patterns rather than individually holding onto a resistance or embedded shame that might spring from the belief that he/she is the cause of the problem. Loss, patterns of health or illness, parenting styles and relationship patterns between parents, and between siblings can be identified in the genogram, as well as patterns around building and sustaining relationships .The couple counselling process models positive communication which enables couples to communicate their needs in a transparent and compassionate way and show acceptance and understanding to their partner’s needs. Each person’s sense of a situation and their feelings is equally valid and to be honoured, accepting the other person thinks and feels differently, but that there is respect for that.
Relationship counselling supports couples in managing the intimacy-togetherness dynamic and distance, being two separate individuals in a healthy way. This is often very challenging for clients with differing levels of need for closeness and separateness. Issues affecting the couple impact not just on the couple’s emotional intimacy but also on their sexual intimacy. Often, when issues such as an affair or money worries manifest, the hurt, anger or hopelessness is also reflected in a disconnection in the sexual relationship. As issues are explored in an open way, and difficult emotions tolerated rather than denied, trust, communication and emotional and sexual intimacy can be restored. The counselling process helps clients to pay attention, listen and reflect back what their partner is feeling and saying. Once each offers this attentive listening, both feel accepted, understood and respected and then there is a climate to make meaningful loving changes. When the relationship is closed off, there is no energy or playfulness or fun in it. Couples often come to counselling when they are stuck and the process connects them back to their resources and hopes.
Mostly, the counselling process facilitates resolution of issues and the couples often go forward with a fresh resilience and certainty about the relationship equipped with an enhanced set of communication tools to sustain changes. At other times, couples use the process to do a good ending on their relationship, having recognized that they cannot meet their needs in the relationship and work is done to plan how to go forward, for example as cooperative and loving parents.