Karen J. Gless, Ph.D., MFT, RN
My patient Kathy sat on one side of me in tears, crying. On the other side sat her husband, Peter, with their newborn baby and he clearly wasn’t sure what to do. They were both tired and frustrated so they quickly made an appointment when Kathy’s sister recommended they see me for couples counseling.
I immediately suspected postpartum depression which is a serious illness and needs to be dealt with quickly and aggressively. The condition results from a hormonal imbalance that some women experience after giving birth. The symptoms range from mild unhappiness to severe depression.
Besides making a woman miserable, postpartum depression makes it difficult to care for her child and can lead to destructive, even fatal, behavior. It’s nothing to take lightly. But first I had to deal with the situation in front of me. What to say to Peter and Kathy?
I knew she needed individual therapy and most likely medication. But I also knew they needed help as a couple right away because I could see she was really depressed and he was in way over his head and didn’t know how to deal with the situation.
This is where learning some valuable relationship skills comes in and that is what you get in effective couples counseling. These skills help both members of a couple to win and feel good. As I listened to Kathy and Peter I could hear her hopelessness. I could also see him trying to do the best he could to help.
Kathy said, “This is supposed to be the best time of my life. I should be happy and not dreading to care for my baby.” Peter responded, “Sweetie, that’s why I told you to go for a walk and get out of the house. I can take of him for a little while.”
It was typical male and female behavior. Kathy was talking about her feelings and Peter was trying to come up with a solution. That only leads to frustration on the part of the woman who doesn’t feel like she is being listened to. At the same time the man feels frustrated because he is doing his best to help and everything he says is brushed aside.
That is when I told Peter that what he said was really nice and affectionate but that before he headed for a solution I would like him to really listen to Kathy. I asked them both to try and stay with the subject they are on, but for Peter to work with Power Listening. Usually it’s called active listening, but I find that the idea of Power Listening works much better with men.
Using Power Listening
Kathy began again, “I feel there is something really wrong with me. I want to be ecstatically happy about being with my baby, but I find myself dreading every second.” Then I told Peter to do a quick summary of what she said and then add how she seems to feel. He said, “So you want to feel happy taking care of our son, but it sounds like you feel scared.”
At that point, Kathy went into tears and began crying. She felt heard and was letting those feelings out. She said, “Yes, I really am afraid of taking care of him and sometime I am afraid I will hurt him.” It’s not unusual that once a person feels heard that they will let their deeper feelings pour out.
Peter started to go for a solution again but I helped him stop before he did. I said, “Stay with her. Don’t go for solutions or she will close up.” Peter then said, “I hear you saying that you feel bad and you’re really afraid of hurting our son.” Kathy actually perked up a bit and said, “You’re right. That’s why I know I need help because these feelings are not normal or rational and not what I want at all. They just come up and make me feel terrible about myself. That’s why I’m glad we’re here and that you’re here to help me, too.”
The rest of the couples counseling session went smoothly and toward the end I referred Kathy to a specialist in postpartum depression. She made an appointment later that day. Medication and talk therapy helped her a lot with the result that she soon felt much better and really enjoyed taking care of her son. It also helped a lot that she felt Peter was there for her, too.
Not the Same for Men
When it comes to dealing with a serious problem for men, Power Listening needs to be done a little differently. For example, most people feel violated and helpless if someone breaks into their home and steals everything they can. But for men you don’t want to emphasize those “weaker” emotions. Good couples counseling works with the needs of both partners and respects the differences between men and women.
Men try to work through problems by emphasizing solutions because that’s their go-to approach. When two guys are talking about a problem, the main thing they do is go over possible ways of solving it. So if you’re listening to a man talking about having his computer stolen, you might say, “It makes sense that you feel so angry about that creep stealing your computer. It’s a good thing you have insurance so you can make a claim.”
Anger is a nice strong emotion and the emphasis is on taking action. If you emphasize loss and painful feelings, a man can spiral down into feeling worse. For most men, planning and taking action improve feelings and give a sense of power over the situation.
To be a good Power Listener, be deliberate with your listening. Your goal is to truly hear what your partner is saying. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Then you respond in two parts:
- You summarize what your partner says to ensure you understand the message.
- Then you add an emotion.
Just remember that women are often more concerned about their emotional response and men are looking to take charge of the situation. The main idea is that you want to reflect back in a way that is comfortable for you and your partner.
The Value of Skills
Power Listening is a valuable skill to have in life in general. I think it is sad that skills such as this are only taught to counseling students or college students who take communications courses in their 3rd year of college. It should be required in high school if not earlier.
Skills taught in couples counseling focus on helping couples build mental and emotional resilience. They help couples overcome challenges that can stress or break a relationship. Some other skills are knowing how to make your partner feel loved and how to keep an argument from getting out of hand.
When challenges arise in your relationship that overwhelm your usual way of coping, couples counseling is a healthy choice. Of course, there are other ways to build skills for your relationship, but sometimes you need a professional to guide you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to get the help you need.
Dr. Karen Gless, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and maintains a private practice office in San Diego, California, USA. Please leave a comment at the end of this article. You can also contact me by signing up for my free booklet here. I look forward to hearing from you.
Karen Gless, Ph.D.