There were 10-minutes left in the session when I remembered a powerful intervention I learned a long time ago during my couples therapist training and I want to share it with you. I asked: When your children grow up, what words to you want them to use to describe your relationship?
We had spent the entire session talking about their-non-existent- sexual life. They both wanted to have more sexual encounters, but as they said almost in unison: “It’s just not happening!”.
Couples present with a variety of sexual issues. Sexual desire discrepancy is one of the most common presenting problem in contemporary couples therapy. But sometimes the partners come in saying that they both want more sex.
Some couples get lazy and don’t put in the time or the effort. Some mistakenly think that arousal and desire occur naturally after the romantic period wanes, and refuse to plan for it. And some couples have children.
I had a strong therapeutic alliance with this couple, and we had been talking openly about what gets in the way, what stops them from initiating, and what they can each do differently.
I had been asking each: What turn you on? What turns you off? How do you communicate this to your partner? After a while, the male partner suddenly said: “The children are a turn off for me!” He went on: “Just when I think I could get in the mood, I start stressing out when I think that one of them could come in to the bedroom and that just turns me off completely”. The female partner concurred and agreed that she too had been turned off by worries about the children barging into the room. They also said that they never locked the room, that they are always available to them, and that they didn’t prioritize their sexual relationship.
I was about to get in to what I call my “lecture mode”, a style of talking that I sometimes engage in when I am pressed for time in a session with a couple. I get tempted into “lecture mode” at other times too: when I don’t know what to do, or when my empathy for one of the partners drops dramatically during a session.
But my time was limited, and I remembered that my job as a couples therapist, among others, is to help couples author their own life story. “You don’t have to lecture, or tell people what to do”, I said to myself. “You just have to ask a good question; a question that makes them think about an issue in a way they never thought about before”.
Then, I did it. I asked the couple to imagine their children in the future. I started by saying: “I want you to imagine that your children are grown, say in their late 20’s or early 30’s and that they are looking back at your relationship. When your adult children talk to their friends about their parents relationship, what words would you like them to use with their friends- or their future therapists? What would you like them to say about what their parents relationship was like? Before you answer, think about the behaviors that you would have had to engage in, for them to use those words”.
This is what they said.
I would want my children to remember that we were smiling and flirty.
That they saw us hugging and kissing on the couch.
That we disappeared and sometimes they didn’t know where we were and they started to figure it out as they got older.
That they saw us walking hand in hand
That we enjoyed each other’s company and that it was clear that we were attracted to each other.
When they came back the next session, they had devised a plan that included locking the bedroom door on Sunday mornings. Timing is everything, so don’t get too discouraged if this question doesn’t necessarily have such powerful effects on some of your couples. Consider adding the question to your toolbox and give it try sometime when you think the timing is right.