Counselling Case Study: Relationship Problems
Mark is 28 and has been married to Sarah for six years. He works for his uncle and they regularly stay back after work to chat. Sarah has threatened to leave him if he does not spend more time with her, but when they are together, they spend most of the time arguing, so he avoids her even more. He loves her, but is finding it hard to put up with her moods. The last few weeks, he has been getting really stressed out and is having trouble sleeping. He’s made a few mistakes at work and his uncle has warned him to pick up his act.
This study deals with the first two of five sessions. The professional counsellor will be using an integrative approach, incorporating Person Centred and Behavioural Therapy techniques in the first session, moving to a Solution Focused approach in the second session. For ease of writing the Professional Counsellor is abbreviated to “C”.
After leaving school at 17, Mark completed a mechanic apprenticeship at a service station owned by his uncle and has worked there ever since. His father died from a heart attack when Mark was six years old and his uncle, who never married, has been a significant influence in his life. He is the youngest of three children, and the only boy in the family. One sister (Anne) is happily married with two children and the other (Erin) is single and works overseas. Mark and his mother have a close relationship, and he was living at home until his marriage.
Some of Mark’s friends are not married and say he was a fool for ‘getting tied down’ so young. Mark used to think that they were just jealous because Sarah is such a ‘knockout’, but lately he has started to wonder if they were right. In the last couple of months, Sarah has been less concerned about her appearance and Mark has commented on this to her. Sarah had been looking for work, but doesn’t seem to do much of anything now.
Three months ago, Sarah found out she can’t have children. According to Mark, she hadn’t spoken about wanting kids so he guessed it wasn’t a big deal to her. When she told him, Mark had joked that at least they wouldn’t have to go into debt to educate them. He thought humour was the best way to go, because he had never been very good at heavy stuff. Sarah had just looked at him and didn’t respond. He asked if she wanted to go out to a movie that night, and she had started to shout at him that he didn’t care about anyone but himself. At that point, he walked out and went to see his brother-in-law, Joe and sister, Anne.
Since then, he and Sarah hardly spoke and when they did it often turned into an argument that ended with Sarah going into the bedroom, slamming the door and crying. Mark usually walked out and drove over to Joe’s place. When Anne tried to talk to Sarah about it, Sarah got angry and told Anne to keep out of it, after all what would she know about it. She had her kids. Joe and Anne had kept their distance since then. Mark talked to his mother, but she said that this was something he and Anne had to work out together. It was she who suggested that Mark come to see C.
When Mark arrived for the first session, he seemed agitated. C spent some time developing rapport, and eventually Mark seemed to relax a bit. C described the structure of the counselling session, checked if that was ok with Mark, then asked how C could help him.
Mark: “I really wanted Sarah to come; my wife, but she said that I need to sort myself out. I have to tell you, I don’t think counselling is really for men. Women are the ones that like to talk for hours about their problems. I only came here because she insisted and I don’t want her to walk out on me.”
C: “Your marriage is important to you.”
Mark: “Yeah, sure. We’ve had fights before, but they weren’t anything major. And we always made up pretty quickly. But this is different. It seems like whatever I say is wrong, you know? Lately, I haven’t been able to concentrate properly at work and I wake up a lot through the night. I’m feeling really tired and I wish Sarah would get off my case.”
C used encouragers while Mark described what had been happening over the past few months. When he had finished ventilating his immediate concerns, C, moving into Behavioural techniques, summarized and asked Mark to decide what issue he wanted to deal with first. “Mark, you have discussed a number of issues: you are concerned that communication between you and Sarah has been reduced to mostly arguments; you’re unsure how to deal with the fact that Sarah cannot have children; you want to improve your relationship with Sarah; you are worried that Sarah might leave you, and you are feeling very stressed out. What area would you like to work on first?”
Mark: “I just want her to talk to me without arguing. All this is making it really hard for me to concentrate at work, you know.”
C: “Sounds like two goals there, to reduce your stress and to improve communication between Sarah and yourself.”
M: “Yeah, I guess so. If she would just talk to me instead of crying.”
C used open questions and reflections to encourage Mark to look at his feelings. “How do you feel when she goes into the bedroom and starts crying?” Mark: “Well, she’s never been a crier, and I don’t know what to say to her. If I mention not having children, she will probably cry even more.”
C: “So you feel confused about what to do, and anxious that you may upset her even more.”
Mark: “Yes, I just can’t seem to think straight sometimes. Like, I want things to be the way they were, but it’s just getting worse.”
C informed Mark about the use of relaxation techniques to reduce his stress and checked out if he would like to give it a try. “Mark, you appear to be having difficulty coping because you are feeling very stressed. I believe that learning relaxation techniques would decrease the level of stress and help you think more clearly. How does this sound to you?”
Mark: “I’m not into that chanting stuff if that’s what you mean.”
C explained that there are many forms of relaxation and described the deep breathing and muscle tensing method; Mark agreed to do this for 10 minutes twice a day.
As the first session drew to a close, C reviewed the relaxation technique and asked Mark to practise it as often as possible. A second appointment was arranged for the following week.
At the next session, C asked Mark how the relaxation exercise had helped. “I forget to do it some mornings, so I did it for twenty minutes at night instead. I told Sarah what I’m doing and she just leaves me to it. Not sure if it’s making any difference but I’ll keep doing it. It’s nice to have twenty minutes of peace and quiet.” At this point, C moved into a Solution Focused approach.
C congratulated Mark on commencing the relaxation practice, then checked out if it was okay to ask him some different types of questions. Mark agreed and C asked a miracle question. “Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and a miracle has happened. Your problem has been solved. What would other people notice about you that would indicate things are different?”
Mark looked at C, who waited in silence. Eventually Mark responded. “Ok, they would see me and Sarah talking a lot more, without arguing.”
C: “What else would they notice about you?”
Mark: “I would probably be spending more time at home. You know, not staying back so late at work.”
C: “What would they notice that was different about Sarah?”
Mark: “That’s easy. She wouldn’t be crying and yelling all the time.”
C: “So what would she be doing instead?”
Mark: “I guess she would be talking to me, and smiling.”
After spending some time exploring what would be different if the miracle happened, C asked Mark what he had tried in the past to improve communication. Mark revealed that he bought Sarah some flowers and a box of chocolates (his uncle’s suggestion) but it hadn’t really made any difference. C complimented Mark on his efforts and continued with an exception question.
“Can you think of a recent occasion, when you would have expected a quarrel to start and it didn’t?”
Mark furrowed his brow and appeared to be thinking deeply for some time. C waited in silence. Finally, Mark answered. “Actually, about a week ago, I was a bit late home from work and I was expecting another tongue-lashing, but it never came.”
C asked Mark what was different about that night.
Mark: “Well, Sarah was happier.”
C: “How did you know she was happier?”
Mark: “She talked to me, you know, just talked about something she had seen on the telly or something like that.”
C: “And how was that for you, Mark?”
Mark: “Not bad. Actually, it wasn’t too shabby. We did get to chat, and we haven’t done that for ages.”
C: “Can you explain, “Wasn’t too shabby”; I haven’t heard that term before?”
Mark: “Oh, it means it was all good, you know, it was okay.”
C: “So you came home and chatted with Sarah over a cuppa and you found that wasn’t too shabby?” Both smiled
Mark: “I really liked it. I remember thinking I would have come home earlier if I had known it was going to be like that.”
C: “If I was to ask Sarah what was different about that night, what do you think she would say?”
Mark: “Boy, this is getting weird.”
Mark: “Let’s see. She would probably say, “He actually sat and had a cup of coffee with me, instead of just flopping in front of the telly. She’s always griping about that.”
At the appropriate time, C called for a break. “I’d like to take a break and give us both time to consider all the things we’ve talked about. After that, I will give you some feedback.” After the break C summarized what had been discussed and complimented Mark on the work he had put into exploring his problems. He seemed less stressed and had shown that he was committed to improving his relationship with Sarah.
Counselling continued for another three sessions, by which time Mark’s stress had reduced considerably, he was coming home from work earlier and making an effort to talk more to Sarah. The arguments were less frequent and not so heated.
The Person Centred approach allows the client to take the lead and discuss issues as they see them. This encourages the client to talk openly, which was especially useful in this instance since the client showed a reluctance to do so at first.
The Behavioural technique of goal setting is used to clarify what the client wants to achieve out of the sessions.
Solution Focused Therapy, this approach acknowledges that the client has the ability to solve his own problem.
Miracle questions assist the client to examine how they and others would be behaving if the problem were already dealt with. This helps the client to look at their current behaviour and see what they can do to bring about the required change. Exploring what the client has tried in the past highlights that the client is committed to solving the problem. Exception questions help the client to see that there are times when the problem does not occur, and that they have contributed to that situation. This shows the client that they have control over the problem.
Clarifying client’s words, eg. “Not too shabby” shows respect for the client’s language and emphasises that the client is the expert.
Author: Jan McIntyre