Learning From a Debacle

I hadn’t seen Tim and Maura for a while, but they talked about how much progress they were making. Then Tim brought up a time when he asked Maura for help with his small business, hiring a new employee. Maura was involved with the kids at the time and responded in an off-putting way. Tim was upset since Maura said she willing to help, but when he asked, she seemed dismissive. 

In the counseling session, the conversation devolved into Tim’s insisting she was being dishonest since her behaviors demonstrated that she didn’t want to help. Maura protested that she did. Tim continued to accuse her of being dishonest and she defended herself. They were caught up in a vicious loop.

I sat back shell shocked. They started with how great they were doing and quickly escalated into the pattern they described when they first came in. Since I didn’t see them as frequently, I was curious about what their fights at home must have looked like, so I sat back and watched. My poor night’s sleep also deterred me from entering this fray, but by the time I did, my interventions were useless.

I felt awful about what was occurring. They were fighting and my occasional attempts to shut it down were unsuccessful. I felt bad that they were paying me to have a fight in my office, which they could have done at home for free. 

I typically make it a point not to let couples escalate in my office. For some couples like Tim and Maura, I needed to intervene aggressively. With other couples, I need to intervene with subtle comments. Either intervention allows me to avoid the kind of debacle I was witnessing. 

By not allowing couples to escalate, I can teach them the skills to prevent escalation. I know escalation only takes a comment or two, and if I don’t intervene at that point, I’m ineffective. This incident validated that knowledge. Now I’m more determined than ever not to repeat this experience.