Couples Therapy - The First Session with Jane and Matt
Matt and Jane have been married 8 years, they have 2 small children, Emma has just turned 3 and James is about to start school in one month. They met in their final year of University. Jane was studying to be a librarian and Matt was studying accounting. Jane sent me an email when making the booking. This is our last chance - I don't think I can do this anymore.
They arrive a few minutes early for 8:30 appointment, both clutching hot cups of coffee. Steven comes out and greets them and ushers them in. They spend a couple of minutes in small talk, auckland traffic, the weather. Steven notices that Matt looks pretty nervous, glancing around the room, gazing at the floor, his voice a little higher than normal. Jane is nervous too (mostly about Matt it appears) she keeps glancing at him, quick darting sideways glances.
In these 2 minutes Steven already has a preliminary picture of the relationship. This couple cares about each other and the relationship. Matt is probably an emotional avoider which is why he is most nervous in this setting. Jane is a caretaker, but feeling overwhelmed, her quick gazes indicates she is unsure Matt will respond to caretaking. She is also unknowingly subconsciously triggering his fight/flight pattern - (quick sideways glances are a threat indicator to mammals).
Steven is smiling, breathing slowly and deeply. Seeing the couple's care pattern, even though it's not working well at the moment, gives him a strong sense of hope. Commitment and care are the two magic elements he can't produce - changing patterns on the other hand, that is a far simpler task. Knowing he needs to distract the couple from their pattern Steven thanks them for coming and starts to explain a bit about the process, he jokes a little, watching Jane visibly relax when Matt chuckles. He asks them about their counselling experiences - Matt none, Jane some individual counselling when her dad died.
Steven acknowledges that they would probably feel nervous, coming along and expresses his appreciation for their courage. He also comments that they clearly care a lot about each other to embark on this new experience. Matt and Jane glance at each other directly for the first time. Matt's whole face softens and he smiles gently at Jane. Her lower lip quivers and her eyes fill with tears. Matt starts to look alarmed.
Steven captures their attention, speaking as if he hadn't noticed. Matt clearly doesn't know it but he just made a big step. His loving glance (the first Jane can remember in months), along with Steven's comment about how difficult it was for Matt to come suddenly gave Jane some hope - her tears are hopeful.
Overwhelmed with the stress of being the primary caregiver, and managing a part time job Jane has been feeling neglected and unloved since Emma was born. Her typical response, to wait and then to complain in the hope of receiving emotional care simply triggers Matt's defense of retreating and working harder. He reads her tears as yet another signal that he has failed. Inside Matt wonders what happened to the gentle, loving, playful woman he met in University. He misses sleeping in, spooned closely together and the way she used to trace his face with her finger. Jane misses the responsive, confident, caring man she fell for. She misses how Matt could sweep her up with his energy and optimism. She misses the feeling of aliveness and sensual connection between them - she misses her friend.
Steven is feeling pretty hopeful, there are multiple markers of a strong connection and mutual care. His next task is to reduce their anxiety so they can see it. Steven guides them both in a centering exercise after briefly explaining the effect on the brain. Matt who would normally be averse to this 'hippie bullshit' was intrigued by the science and gives it a go. Steven notices their breathing slow as they both begin to relax, he guides them to think about their longings and their intentions. Still with their eyes closed he instructs them to turn their chairs to face each other. He instructs them that when they hear the bell chime to open their eyes and look at their partner.
The bell chimes. Jane's eyes are open instantly, looking at Matt. Her eyes already starting to narrow and her pupils constrict. Matt's eyes open more slowly he blinks a couple of times focusing on Jane's face, then a small smile curves on his lips, his pupils dilate slightly and he gives a gentle sigh. Jane's breath catches slightly, her face freezes and her lower lip starts to wobble, her eyes fill with tears. Matt starts to speak, catches himself, and looks incredibly tenderly at Jane. He moves his leg forward to brush against Jane. Jane takes a deeper breath and her face starts to relax, she returns a tentative smile. Matt beams. Jane leans forward slightly and touches Matt's knee and his hand reaches out to cover her hand. They have forgotten Steven is in the room.
This behaviour - called limbic resonance - entrains the couple's heart rhythm, synchronises their brain to work more efficiently, lowers stress hormones like cortisol, increases oxytocin and testosterone levels. What we call relational presence is the universal marker of attuned relationships. For Matt and Jane it feels like magic. Steven's aim in this first session is to create multiple opportunities for them to experience it. Along with explanations of what is happening so they can begin to duplicate it at home.
*because NZ is a very small and close knit society, and confidentiality is paramount we opted not to identify individual clients so this story is a kind of composite couple to help paint a picture.
With 80% of the couples we see at least one person in the relationship has had absolutely no kind of therapy or counselling before - which can make it a nerve racking experience.
Add to this the fact that kiwi men are taught very clearly that being vulnerable and talking about feelings means you are a lesser man and it's clear how much our male clients must love their partners to even consider coming to therapy.
So with this in mind, I'd like try to paint a picture of a 'typical' first session*. In a sense, I hope to lift the veil a little on the experience.
For website or general enquiries call Steven - 0274101102 firstname.lastname@example.org 94 Jervois Road Ponsonby Auckland