Most often when I meet new couples the relationship is facing a crisis. The effects of infidelity or addictions, financial or parenting stressors, sexual concerns or years of unproductive conflict generally take center stage during our first meeting. It makes sense, people come to a relationship therapist for help fixing a problem in their relationship, so we talk about the problem. Don't get me wrong, dissecting the problem can be very productive. However, I've found the most productive conversation starter in a first meeting with a couple is this: "Tell me about the first time you met."
When couples start to tell me about when they first met, the room becomes lighter. At some point in the telling of their story there is laughter in the remembering and surprise at the details each individual recalls. Our serious discussion turns, if only for a few minutes, to playful banter. This is one of my favorite conversations to be a witness to.
Connecting with positive emotions and memories during times of turmoil is not avoiding the problem, it is strengthening the positive storyline that is also part of the narrative of the relationship. Often times, there are solutions to the problem within the times when the problem is not present. So often, I am amazed by the ability of couples to strengthen their relationship by rediscovering how they find joy together.
After a meeting, couples sometimes ask me what they should do during the time before our next meeting. My response is often, "enjoy each other." Easier said than done when you've been in deep conflict for an extended period of time. People sometimes think that by enjoying each other they are ignoring the problem. Enjoyment doesn't have to mean avoidance, and doesn't have to mean acceptance of bad behavior either. We can enjoy our relationships in the midst of serious problems. Joy, sadness, anger and love can all exist simultaneously.
If you're reading this and your relationship is in crisis, I encourage you to give yourself permission to experience joy. Focus, for at least a few minutes, on those times when the problem is or was not present. You might find that the solution is closer than you thought.
-Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT