What is your favorite TV show?
There are reasons why you love the shows that you do. They involve characters that you both love and hate, or at least I imagine that is the case. Sometimes you think that your family is either better than the TV family, or just like that family. We watch TV shows because they entertain us, and they engage our sense of familiarity.
What does this have to do with couples counseling? More than you might think. Our life can sometimes feel like our favorite show. There is just one problem with that; TV show characters typically don’t change a lot. They hold constant to keep the plot line moving. Real life is more complicated. Fortunately, we can grow and change as “characters” in our own family show.
The “set” for change
Couples counseling is the “TV set” for change. The characters come in tired of their role and ready to audition for a new role – sometimes reluctantly, but nonetheless ready for a new role.
Couples counseling is about character development. Not necessarily morality development, but rather engaging who you are as a person. Your character has some real strengths; they have helped you get both the leading and supporting roles in many different scenes in life. Yet on the stage of life, you are ready for a new story line.
It is not unusual in therapy to hear about different TV shows that my clients have enjoyed watching or, at a minimum, identify with. It can become part of the transformative process. One thing that is true for all couples is that they want to be understood. We can use different paths to get there.
Let’s meet Dr. Miranda Bailey and her husband Dr. Ben Warren from the hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy, and see what they can teach us about couples counseling.
Miranda is the dominant figure in the show and in her marital relationship. She has worked hard from the time of being an intern to becoming the chief of surgery. She leads in a strong authoritarian way. Meanwhile, Ben is under career transformation; he went from practicing anesthesiology to step back and do a surgery residency. It is a challenging move, and also resulted in Ben losing authority and seniority because he is now in a training position.
Just in this short description, how many potential challenges do you see? Any? One, Two, or Twenty? There are some to consider.
Miranda has a child from a previous marriage. This creates a point of tension for the TV couple; there is a sense of division that Miranda feels when caring for her son Tuck and giving Ben authority to parent. While Miranda has been able to focus her career on upward mobility, Ben has temporarily stepped down in professional authority, which has created a power imbalance in their relationship. Ben is also in the difficult situation of working for his spouse, who is in a higher position of authority at the same workplace. These challenges happen to many of the business-owning couples with whom I work.
Both Miranda and Ben are highly educated and dedicated professionals who want to pursue their careers, manage their relationship, and raise a child. Are you saying, “Me, too?” Most couples I work with are also trying hard to balance work, relationships, parenting, and multiple other commitments.
What happens when Miranda and Ben ask for help with communication?
I will spend the first few sessions getting to know you as a couple. While you may not recognize this, I know that there are deeper issues at play than simply communication. I can certainly help with communication, but what you really will need help with first is getting an “x-ray” to see the “bones” of your relationship.
Couples counselors can take “relational x-rays.” We don’t use x-ray machines, but we instead use family trees called genograms. A genogram is a systematic way of understanding how each person’s family dealt with conflict, and it identifies residual relational wounds that need to be healed as a part of the process of improving communication.
In time, Miranda and Ben will come to understand that communication is more about who they are when they communicate, rather than the specific words they use (even though word choices are still important!).
My couples counseling practice is focused on relational transformation. While this will happen, it is not an overnight process. Rather, it is one that takes time to develop. My job as your therapist is to help that development happen at an appropriate pace that does not overwhelm you or underwhelm you. While you likely won’t see change immediately, you will experience change over time. I will help you see the growth.