They were navigating multiple losses.
Allison recently lost her mother to dementia.
Chris was still mourning the sudden death of his father from 2 years ago.
They were struggling with their relationship and lacked effective communication
But their biggest fear was they felt they were losing their only young adult son, Eric, as their communications were frequently conflictual or nonexistent.
When I first met with Allison and Chris, they hoped to have Eric join them eventually. They came to me for family therapy, not “marital counseling.” They are not alone in this endeavor; family therapy does not have to begin with every family member present.
As we met weekly, addressing their losses and discussing their parenting and relationship challenges with Eric, they hung onto hope that Eric would soon join them.
They’d tell him they were in family therapy, and he was always welcome to join them to address his concerns about their family dynamics. But, he would not budge on his resistance.
Allison and Chris were committed..they were consistent and worked hard. And although their sharing of feelings regarding all the above losses felt healing and helpful, it was not until we began a special communication technique that they experienced their therapy work bridge onto their relationship with Eric.
We decided it was time to face their ineffective communication patterns and practice, in real-time, better ways to speak to one another, deeply listen and empathize with each other, and develop a new way of being emotionally present.
As with most couples practicing this technique, I had them face each other. What happened at that moment is something that I get to witness each time couples do this, and it can be a game-changer. Before I could share the parts of this technique, they sat closely, face-to-face, and both welled up with tears. It had been a long time since they sat in stillness, facing each other without distractions and with each other’s full attention. We even paused so they could hug each other and appreciate this moment.
Once we began the technique, they were amazed at how much clarity they gained and just how helpful this simple (yet not so easy to do) exercise can be. They were eager to continue practicing this at home and understood that we would also do this again in therapy, with me actively coaching them.
BRINGING IT HOME
The following week, what surprised me most was not how much more connected and better understood they felt but rather what Allison shared with me regarding a conversation she had with her son.
“I was so amazed by what happened between me and Chris and our learning more effective communication skills that I thought, why not give it a try with Eric? So guess what? I did! We were outside one evening watching our dogs play, and although we were both enjoying watching them, we sat in complete silence. I decided to ask him if he’d try something with me so we could talk differently with one another. To my surprise, he said, ‘Sure.’”
She added, “I told him the rules, we took turns going back and forth with a recent conflict we had, and although it was not perfect, it was by far more successful than the past ways we spoke to each other. And even better than that, he engaged with me and Chris the next morning like we had not seen in some time.”
We used the rest of this session to process more about Allison’s and Chris’ experience from the last session, including the moment of facing each other in tears, what felt most helpful about their communication practice, and how they can continue to bridge what they are learning and growing from in therapy to rebuild their relationship with Eric.
In these types of family situations, future sessions could involve the resistant family member over time, but it’s possible it would continue with just the initial committed family members, and the systemic ripple effect can be just as therapeutic to the whole family.
This was one of those cases. Eric did not ever join us….but Allison’s and Chris’ hard work, dedication, and determination provided Eric with exactly what they all needed from one another to heal and reconnect.
As a family systems therapist, I’ve seen these kinds of unique outcomes numerous times, and it never gets old. In fact, it is one of the reasons I have such a strong passion for this work.
There is no cookie-cutter path to family healing, and as I often tell my families, “One step begets the next.” This family was able to reach their goals without their son attending sessions. Other families get there by a longer path with more family members involved (albeit not necessarily all together for each session).
Although not limited to these, I have found the following combined ingredients often lead to family therapy success:
OPENNESS TO LEARN
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