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  • Johanna Lynn

Therapists: 3 Tips for When You Are More Like A Referee Than A Therapist

Updated: Apr 16

Working with couples is more challenging than coaching individuals. Couples can get very complicated very quickly.

Especially when the fight that has been brewing – sometimes for years – breaks out during your session.


Having worked with a wide-range of clients, all at different stages of their relationship, I have learned what makes love thrive and what slowly tears it to pieces.


By understanding what this ongoing conflict is truly connected to, only then does reconciliation become possible.


We all come from a family and when we join in partnership, these family stories come together and eventually collide.  The combination of the two systems isn’t so visible at the beginning but eventually becomes evident with difficult patterns and cycles that couples are faced with.


If we can look at it that way, it gives a whole new perspective to the challenges we face in our relationships.

I’ve been connected to the world of separation and divorce for decades, originally due to my personal situation, then as a systemic therapist focusing on restoring relationships.


Here are my top 3 tips for what to do when you end up feeling more like a referee than a couple’s therapist:


1 – The importance of understanding the family imprint

How we were taught to love as kids affect our most intimate relationships and the relationship with have with ourselves.

This informs how much we feel we must give or what we have to do in order to keep our relationships going along well. From our earliest attachments, the adaptations we made in our childhood become the symptoms we display in adulthood. Here are some common examples:

  • I have to be quiet so Dad doesn’t get angry

  • I have to be helpful so Mom doesn’t call me selfish

  • I have to be good at sports so Dad is proud

  • I have to keep my challenges from school to myself because Mom & Dad already have enough going on.

  • I have to notice what others need, so people see me as helpful or nice, just like my Mom


The family you grew up in shapes your current relationship in ways that may surprise you. Your family of origin teaches you about love and conflict. The importance of recognizing how much this shapes us and our ways of showing up in our loving relationships is key to understanding why many couples get stuck in the same arguments.


2 – Keep your clients focused on their part, instead of complaining about their partner.

Blame is the cheapest hit of power going. Along with one of the best avoidance strategies out there.


We know our clients are off track when they say things like:

“my partner’s patterns or pain continue to leave me frustrated and disappointed.  It’s all his / her fault …”


If anger is the issue in the relationship, acknowledge the different approaches for each person in the relationship.


Quick-to-anger partners will need to find their own resources to respond differently to their triggers.


The partner on the receiving end of that angry response will do best focusing on their own boundaries and how to emotionally recover after the angry episodes.

Emotionally unavailable partners likely aren’t aware why they are emotionally unavailable or withdrawn – without some therapy. Are your clients aware of why they continue to pursue emotionally unavailable people?


Sustainable change comes from recognizing your part. Since we can only ever change ourselves, keep your clients strongly rooted in this place.


3 – Let the facts of the family guide you.

Keep your clients out of the story. As we recount that epic fight from a decade ago because that’s where the client believes everything started, all the same stress chemicals fire off in the re-telling of the experience.


We can’t tell the difference – on the inside – from an argument on the way to the session from one that happened 7 years ago.


This keeps your client, biochemically stuck in the pain, the problem, the hurt. Instead, we’re seeking creative, big-picture solutions for our clients that they can then bring home with them and apply from the first session forward.


Understanding what the hurt is connected to not only provides context but begins to build compassion and understanding. Pointing the work you are doing together in the direction of a resolution.


In your years of working with clients, have you noticed that the problems your clients bring into your work together are most often connected to a relationship problem?

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