Recognising a relationship as a system, with processes and faults, this can empower a failing relationship by recognising the changes partners can make together.

One Useful Task for Improving a Bad Relationship

7 Jan, 2023Blog, Relationship System

What is a System in Couples Counselling?

In systemic couple’s counselling, the term “system” refers to the couple’s relationship and the way it behaves.

Couples regularly come into counselling because their relationship has been going wrong (possibly for some time). Systemic counselling focuses on how the partners behave with each other within their relationship.

It’s not limited to couples (monogamous, polyamorous, open, etc), neither. Systemic counselling can be helpful to a polyamorous group, a set of friends, a family, even an orchestra, and many more combinations!

Systemic couple counselling helps the couple learn and recognise poor, bad, or violent patterns of behaviour and unhappy feelings. It aims to discover how the partners might intervene, changing some behaviours together, and eventually becoming independent of the counsellor. It works by being curious about how the relationship’s system works (what goes wrong, what works well), and the counsellor’s skills lie in their independent curiosity (they can ask about matters the couple might be turning a blind eye to). With curiosity comes discovery; we gain new information. With new information comes the opportunity for the couple to make new behavioural choices.

The counsellor helps the couple recognise that they have similarities and differences, and that the differences can be what make the relationship rich and vibrant (rather than, as some assume, the partners needing to be as similar to one another as possible).

Counselling also works to help the couple identify earlier when the unsatisfactory behaviour patterns are beginning. Changing the course of an argument, for example, is much easier when it is very early on and much more difficult when the couple is halfway through a blazing row.

Using Systemic Ideas to Help your Relationship

So you’re learning that your couple relationship can be viewed as a system; a system that you both created over time and that responds to various needs and circumstances.

When a couple gets together, we hope that our relationship will grow happily and that the two of you will work together to solve problems as they arise. But sometimes the relationship – the system – develops faults or brings in flaws from other places (such as our past experiences) that can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to fix.

This is where a therapeutic systemic approach can be helpful to a marriage in trouble.

A systemic model of therapy is an effective way for us to learn about where the system (the marriage) is going wrong, what’s contributing to the faults and inability to apply solutions, and what’s giving the marriage the power to identify behavioural changes (changes to their system) that they might make together.

What is a “System” in terms of your Couple Relationship

Let’s compare two systems: your washing machine and your relationship (trust me on this…)

Your Washing Machine.

You prepare the system with clothes and washing powder, then set it going. The machine will:-

  • add water,
  • agitate the clothes,
  • spin, rinse,
  • spin, add conditioner,
  • spin then stop. 

The washing machine employs a system that usually works well. However, each event is (helplessly) dependent on the previous one occurring.

The system can't go in a different direction or think about what to do (such as deciding to wash the clothes longer because they are dirtier).

Your Relationship.

You prepare the system with a conflicting proposal ("we have to visit my mother today"). You respond with:-

  • "I said I had an appointment."
  • Him: "her needs are important!"
  • You: "this happens EVERY time!!"
  • Him: "you're not listening!!!"

The relationship employs a system that usually works well. In this situation, a blazing argument is developing because each response has become (helplessly) dependent on the previous one.

The system isn't (yet) able to go in a different direction or think about what to do (such as considering a different response due to the escalating situation).

Each event  is (or has become) dependent upon the previous event (are you noticing the similarities between these two helpless systems?)

Of course, your relationship is not a washing machine, and in Systemic Couple Counselling we can help you and your partner make changes to your “human system,” your most intimate and important of relationships.

Change Direction (The Effective Task)

Thinking about the system above, you might see how each step is dependent on the one preceding it. He says “mother,”  and you respond (almost without thinking) with your (almost triggered?) response, which also happens to fan the flames further.

Can you see this pattern in the first Clock Image too? The arrow is going from noon, to 1pm, to 2pm and so on. Relating the clock to the argument above, this might be akin to:-

  • Noon (“We have to visit my mother”)…
  • 1pm (“I said I had an appointment”)…
  • 2pm (“Her needs are important!”)…
  • 3pm

…and so on.

So, now consider the next Clock Image.

Changing the Direction of Relationship Behaviour

You’ll see how the direction of the arrow has changed. Instead of the steps going from noon to 1pm to 2pm, the direction changes before we get to 2pm. 3pm isn’t going to happen! To put this another way…

  • Noon (“We have to visit my mother”)…
  • 1pm (“I said I had an appointment”)…
  • 2pm (” *PAUSE* …. OK, we have a problem, let’s discuss ways out of it”)

This time, there’s a change in direction between 1pm and 2pm. The 2pm reply (above) was: “her needs are important!” but now…

  • One of you realised what response he was about to give (and it doesn’t matter which one of you did this, or when on the clock it occurs).
  • He allowed himself a moment of pause to collect his thoughts. He took a break.
  • He then thought of a different response to the one he would usually give without thought.

Changing the Direction of Relationship Behaviour

Here’s the “Magic Secret”:
…we cannot change someone else’s behaviour; we can only change our own*.

If we can only change our own behaviour, what kind of change are we looking at? Well, the answer here is: very little (at least to start with). Change doesn’t have to be large. A small change can have a large and escalating impact on a relationship system. Whatever the change is, it must be one that you initiate.

Remember this idea.

Of course, it’s not easy to make a change in the heat of the moment! You must be aware of what is happening in that moment, and you must find the capacity within yourself to make that pause and refrain from releasing the killer response.

That response you’re just itching to give may be made up of point-scoring, upping the ante, needing to win the argument (at any cost), and so on. That’s what keeps you locked into the system. Instead, a pause can give you the space and time to make a change and not go to that next stage (the next “hour” on the clock, in our example). Take that moment, take a breath, and then think of a different response to the one you’re about to give.

(*although it’s true that we can only change our own behaviour, we can still put in a request (from time to time) for our partner to amend some of theirs, provided we understand that sometimes the request may be declined.)


Goals of Systemic Counselling

A systemic approach to counselling aims to assist the couple in developing their ability to recognise things going wrong, to put in place behaviours that quickly stop matters going wrong when they’re recognised, and to support both partners in using their inspiration to change the poor direction of their relationship .

Integrating Systemic Therapy with Psychodynamic Therapy (as does) combines two powerful therapeutic approaches: improving your current relationship and improving issues from the past that one or both partners are bringing into the relationship. 

Taking Things One Step at a Time

An overview of how LGBT relationship counselling works, starts with encouraging curiosity…

  1. Curiosity (initiated through Counselling)… leading to  →  New Information.
  2. New Information… leading towards  →  New Options.
  3. New Options… leading towards  →  Negotiating / Making New Choices.
  4. New Choices… leading towards  →  Transforming the Relationship (through informed empowerment).
  5. Transformation Underway… the partners are developing affective behaviours that address relationship conflicts (and may choose to leave counselling).

Curiosity allows us to discover new knowledge. New information provides us (and our partners) with new possibilities, which leads to us making some new (or newer) relationship decisions. When new decisions are made, the behaviour of the partnership can begin to change. When the partners' relationship is much more under their own management (again), they will recognise it's time to leave counselling.

Learning to Mitigate the Relationship System going Wrong

In counselling, we will turn our attention to inspired learning about what can be done to improve the marriage’s behaviour. We’ll rely on the marriage partners’ own ingenuity, inspiration, and ability to hypothesise (i.e. thinking about what might be going on, or what might be hidden feelings that may be masked by behaviour).

We’ll talk about how to stop a situation before it turns into an argument or physical abuse.

We’ll help the couple set up measures and stop-gaps that help them to stop or alter their direction when things start to go wrong.

Ending Counselling

By the end of counselling, the couple will be able to manage their behaviour themselves, without the need to consult a counsellor any further.

Couples don’t have to have all their problems wiped away in order to leave counselling. Even after couples leave, relationship problems still come up, but the couple is able to deal with them better than they did before. They have no need to talk things over with a counsellor any longer.

An advantage of this therapeutic approach is that the couple has learned to manage new/unknown problems as they arise.

We haven’t simply taught them instructions: “when this happens, do that!”. We’ve helped them learn about their relationship system so that they have the ability to manage future relationship problems as effectively as existing ones.

Gay Male Couple
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