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Re-Defining Couples Counseling . . . Beyond Husband & Wife

Changing with the Times

Back in the Ice Age, marriage counseling was, by definition, limited to a husband and wife. Thankfully this outmoded label has gone the way of the Woolly Mammoth. The updated terminology is couples counseling.

The reasoning as it is explained by the people who decide such things is that the term "couples" is a more accurate reflection of society today. The new reality is that some individuals develop intimate relationships outside the bonds of marriage, including same-sex couples. Valid point. However, there is a case to be made to take it one step further.

In my private practice as a licensed mental health counselor in Weston, Florida, I've noticed a growing trend. More and more, calls come from couples who live together, "uncoupled" pairs with co-parenting issues, parent-child pairs at every life-stage, and even parents looking for help to resolve troubled sibling relationships between their kids. In a related twist, workplace partners are pursuing therapy to develop optimal working relationships.

From where I sit (on a comfy chair across from clients on the therapy couch), this change is a positive one. Think about it: When meeting someone new, I bet you define yourself in relationship to others. In session with clients I am a "licensed mental health counselor." At my nephew's wedding I am "the groom's aunt." At my BFF's party I am "a dear friend of the hostess." At a PTA meeting, I am "that kid's mom." At my spouse's annual company picnic, I am "his wife." At a custody hearing, I am "his ex-wife." (That last example is made up. I've exchanged vows once. Couples counseling has helped keep it that way.) You get the picture.

When conflict arises between two people, that means at least one member of the pair deeply cares to be seen, heard and acknowledged. That person usually also wants to be right, and for the other one to admit it. I will admit that conflict is unpleasant, frustrating and sometimes scary. The flip-side? Conflict also creates an opportunity to bring two people closer. A famous psychologist who literally wrote The Book (okay, a few books) on what we now call couples counseling is famous for his story about a wife who complained that her enraged husband had chased her with a butcher knife. "Oh," responded the famous psychologist. "So what you're telling me is that your husband was trying to get really close to you." Lol.

Joking aside, I have nixed from my vocabulary the term marriage counseling in favor of the more inclusive couples counseling. Changing the label is a start. Beyond that, it is important to consider what drives this trend, and how therapists must adjust their approach to best serve this new, broader definition of the category.


For one, it's old news that two people can have a committed relationship without exchanging wedding vows. The phrase "We're living together" generally doesn't raise eyebrows anymore. At the same time, divorce rates have started climbing again, following a relatively flat period before the economic crunch earlier in the decade.

Another interesting development contributing to the trend is the relatively new "failure to launch" phenomenon. That's pop culture shorthand for young adults who don't leave the nest -- or return to it -- because they lack the emotional or financial resources to spread their wings.

That said, here are some relevant stats and facts that might make you go "Hmmmmm"

  • A 2014 study by the Barna Group calculated that one in three adults age 18 or older who have been married also have divorced at least once.

  • The Barna Group research also noted that divorce is more common among couples who lived together before marriage.

  • From the same study: Research suggests the incidence of "serial marriage" has become a more socially acceptable option, especially among the Millennial generation, many of whom are children of divorced parents.

  • The young adulthood stage has lengthened since the 1990s, according to a 2014 study by the MacArthur Foundation. Traditionally, the stage of life between 18- and 24- years marks the transition from adolescence to independence. Current stats show that offspring often fail to reach this milestone until as late as age 30- to 35-years old.

  • A record-breaking 21.6 million young adults aged 18-24 are living at home with parents.


To best serve this expanded definition of couples counseling, therapists necessarily must take into account the specific nature of the relationships involved. Here is a sampling of what that might look like in each of these new categories. Feel free to scroll down to read a particular category that might apply to you or someone you know, or to read any or all that interest you.


In many ways, couples counseling for LGBT partners, whether it's two women or two men, or for a couple where one or both is bisexual or transgender -- is much the same as for heterosexual couples. However, additional unique factors often affect the dynamic of the relationship. In many cases, either or both individuals frequently have suffered discrimination, intolerance or abuse early in life simply because they are a member of a vulnerable minority. The therapist must carefully access for signs of this, and how it may have colored the individual's perceptions and self esteem.

If any member of the couple remains "closeted" and is not comfortable being open about their gay lifestyle, this further complicates the healing process. Hiding one's sexual orientation creates tremendous stress on the individual and the partner, especially if the partner is comfortable with his or her own sexual orientation.

Another aspect of note: Gay men statistically are more likely than any other couples category to endure domestic abuse or violence. If abuse of this type is present, the therapist must address it immediately. Safety is paramount.

Fortunately, diversity training for counselors has become an area of emphasis in the profession, so today's therapists generally are more prepared to provide optimal care. Also, studies have shown that heterosexual counselors can be just as effective treating same-sex couples as LGBT therapists. Still, gay couples seeking counseling must pay careful attention to the therapist's level of acceptance, even if the counselor shares the same sexual orientation. Counselors are trained to recognize their own biases and work through them on their own time. Sadly, some clinicians remain unable to adopt an accepting attitude and may be unwilling or unable to avoid bringing un-examined intolerance into the process.


While it is is common for committed couples to live together without formalizing the relationship with a "piece of paper", this circumstance does change the dynamic to be addressed in therapy. For one thing, the "escape hatch" can be easier to consider, even if only logistically. This being the case, it is crucial that the therapist guide each individual to consider the motivation for leaning towards a split. Is the relationship truly beyond repair? Or, does the individual who wants to go AWOL have unresolved issues regarding commitment fears?

Beyond that, it must be determined whether one of the two people involved is ready to head to the altar while the other is content to keep it open-ended indefinitely, or is on a different timetable for entering into the bonds of marriage. This type of disconnect requires probing for the reasons driving each individual's perspectives, and then assisting the couple in negotiating the differences in a way that both can live with comfortably. Sometimes, as in traditional husband-wife counseling, that may involve splitting up. Therapy can help the individuals navigate that choice in a healthier way as well.


When we think of parent-child relationships, we usually envision the child as just that, a young person of school age. However, this category also includes parent-teen, parent-young adult, and even parent-adult child combinations. In fact I once treated a "couple" consisting of an 82-year old mother and her 45-year old daughter.

For parents of teens and young adults, the challenge often centers on guiding the parent to navigate the shifting roles, while simultaneously supporting the offspring in learning to embrace the responsibility that comes with independence.

Finally, parents experiencing conflict with younger children benefit from parent coaching to address the child's acting out behaviors, which may show up in the form of defiance, aggression or debilitating anxiety and depression, for example. Likewise the child may need help learning to identify and communicate the emotions that trigger the unproductive behaviors.

In any of these scenarios the two individuals involved must experience therapy in a non-judgmental atmosphere, so that each feels safe to experiment with a new and unfamiliar way of relating to each other. This entails avoiding the Blame Game, instead approaching the dynamic from a positive perspective that encourages bonding and growth.


The first rule of thumb in approaching co-parenting relationships is to impress upon the two adults that the child comes first. Often a child blames themselves for their parents' breakup. It is critical that the therapist coach both parents to clearly communicate to the child that "it's not your fault", and also to share with their offspring -- on a level the child can understand -- the reason for the split. This explanation must come without demonizing the other parent, and without revealing details that could be emotionally damaging to the child. Again, a counselor is trained to help sort these things out.

If the break-up was volatile, or if the individuals who have decided to split have conflicting parenting styles, this complicates the issue. Kids are confused when there are two sets of rules. This can provoke anxiety and loyalty issues.

Even for parents who have matching parenting styles, there are a number of challenges in helping the child deal with feelings that come up around their role in a family that has drastically changed. Some examples include: when there is a custody battle, when a parent begins to date, when one or both parents re-marries and there is a blended family, when a non-custodial parent chooses not to maintain a relationship with the child -- as well as any financial issues that might affect the children -- such as a parent who does not comply with providing child-support, or when the situation dictates a necessity to move because family income now must support two households. A qualified therapist empowers the adults to face these challenges emotionally and logistically.

Another vital component is identifying a situation in which a parent turns to the child for emotional support during what often is a turbulent time for the adult. The therapist must help any parent with this tendency to create healthy self-soothing techniques, as well to build a network of social support.

Conventional wisdom aside, the bottom line is that children of divorce are not automatically doomed to suffer because parents have decided to go their separate ways. An extensive body of research confirms that when adults in the relationship are aware of how their decision affects the children, and seek appropriate assistance in coping with those challenges, they can expect the kids will be safeguarded from emotional fallout -- feeling secure, supported and loved unconditionally. They also will learn the powerful lesson that "Things do not have to be perfect for me to be okay." This experience informs their lives in positive ways for years to come.


First, it is critical for counselors to consider the ages and developmental stages of the siblings involved. Obviously therapy would be much different for school-age siblings versus teens or young adult siblings. In any case, equally important is considering the nature of the conflict. Is physical aggression or bullying involved? If so, keeping everyone safe would be the priority. That calls for teaching the parent how to de-escalate conflict or sidestep it altogether. Beyond that, the therapist's focus with the aggressive child would be on teaching that sibling how to cope in more healthy ways with this type of acting out. Likewise, the targeted sibling benefits from learning how to safely seek support, how to defend against the outburst, and how to deal with the feelings of disempowerment and helplessness that follow a pattern of victimization.

For more "garden variety" sibling disconnect, a competent therapist would help the kids to identify the triggers for their conflicts, and then give them tools for communication and conflict resolution.

At the same time, this type of relationship struggle often can be a symptom of imbalance within the family as a whole. In this case, depending on the willingness of the parents to be involved in the process, this category of relationship counseling calls for switching gears and initiating family counseling.

The silver lining for this type of stormy situation is that sibling relationships are the first opportunity most individuals have to practice and experiment in connecting with peers. Resolving these challenges early in life is much easier to nip in the bud than waiting til adulthood, by which time the self-sabotage is full grown and becomes significantly harder to root out.


Corporate psychology is a relatively new field. This trend suggests that society at large now recognizes interpersonal relationships as the foundation for productive partnerships not only from an emotional perspective, but in a business sense too. My theory on this is that career has evolved to become a major aspect of personal identity. We tend to define ourselves by the work that we do. When our sense of self is so intricately tied to our career, conflict with coworkers or supervisors naturally takes on a deeper emotional charge.

Therapy in this case must take into account any power differentials between the individuals. If one member in the relationship perceives a sense of powerlessness, a sense of being unappreciated or unheard, business success is compromised. This state of being can send an individual spiraling into self doubt and helplessness that affects all aspects of life, career related or otherwise. It also tends to frustrate both individuals from a business perspective.

Therapy can help the "couple" understand each other's perspectives. This involves assessing the personality and leadership styles of the individuals. Do the two share common goals and strategies for success? Is there an introvert-extrovert mismatch driving the conflict? An imbalance of power that sabotages workplace goals? Does the dynamic between the two undermine the entire workplace in a way that torpedoes employee morale, supports infighting and drama behind-the-scenes? Is there an absence of mutual understanding that prevents the individuals from maximizing each other's previously unrecognized strengths? Are there personal grudges created outside the workplace that the pair is bringing into the work relationship? A skilled clinician will assess for each of these situations and address them accordingly.


"Times they are a'changing," the song goes, and so has the definition of couples counseling. However, a common thread ties each category together. It is a vital aspect of being human that we enter into relationships in all aspects of our lives: husband-wife, intimate partner, parent-child, sibling, friend, peer, coworker.

We forget that at its core, conflict between individuals means the two people simply want to get closer, to know and be known. Hard to believe when the relationship has spiraled in a tornado of anger, hurt and resentment. But consider this: Challenges in relationships exist to give each of us the chance to learn, grow and create meaningful connection with Self and Others. It's our choice. Remember that, and you will come out the other side all the better for it. Entering into relationship with a trusted, competent therapist streamlines the process.

Considering couples therapy? Let's talk. Call 954.494.3848, e-mail vzaffos@aol.com.

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor at Self Empowerment Counseling in Weston, FL, working with teens and adults, individuals, couples and families. She also is a certified hypnotherapist. Free one-hour consultations are offered to prospective clients.

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