Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding

This article originally ran as an interview by Michael Breedlove for the Winston-Salem Monthly, reprinted with permission.

There’s no question about it—relationships are tough work.  It’s something Robin Chancer knows as well as anyone. As a mental health therapist and counselor with CareNet Counseling, a subsidiary of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Chancer has seen the good and bad side of love. She spends much of her time guiding couples through the often-rocky world of couples’ therapy, a profession one author compared to “piloting a helicopter in a hurricane.”

“Usually by the time couples come to me, they’re pretty distressed,” Chancer says. “I’ve read that a couple is typically in distress six years before they get counseling, and by that point, it’s often much harder. So if you really care about your relationship, my biggest piece of advice is to seek help sooner than later.”

Robin ChancerWho are your typical clients?
There really isn’t a typical client in couples’ therapy. I’ve had couples who have been together 30 years, and I’ve had couples who have been together a few months. Most are married, but not all of them are.

When should a couple seek counseling?
There are the common signs: frequent arguments, poor communication, lack of intimacy, lack of compromise. But really, I’d say any time at least one person in the relationship is feeling some distress that isn’t being worked out. If you’re feeling powerless and unable to resolve whatever’s bothering you, I would seek counseling as soon as possible. Most couples say “we should’ve started this a long time ago.”

What if someone’s partner isn’t open to coming in for counseling?
That’s a pretty common problem actually. Oftentimes, the person who wants to come to counseling feels like they’re less of the problem … they’ll say “I want to come, but my husband is really the problem.” That’s hardly ever the case. I’ve honestly never seen a case where one person is the sole “problem.” It’s usually the interaction between them that’s the problem. So I usually try to emphasize that counseling is for both of them; both people will have their point of view heard, and no alliances will be formed. I also tell them it’s OK to come in for one session to see how it goes without committing to a set number of visits. And I reassure them that everything is confidential.

What are the first steps during sessions?
I start out trying to be really open-ended; I try to get to know them and let the conversation go wherever it needs to go. Usually that will lead us into a lot of different places. And then I’ll narrow it down and say “Here’s the major points I’m hearing; out of this short list of things, which ones are the highest priorities to you?” I want them to clarify their goals so they know where we’re trying to go with counseling instead of it feeling ambiguous.

How long does therapy typically last?
Our sessions are 50 minutes. But the duration of the treatment really varies. I typically ask people to commit to meeting once a week for around three months (12 sessions total). Honestly, you might feel worse before you feel better, and you might feel like dropping out early on. So committing to 12 sessions lets you work through a lot of the hurdles up front.

Could counseling benefit couples in healthy relationships?
There’s always a benefit, because there’s always more to learn. We tend to get complacent in our relationships. We start out by asking each other tons of questions and really getting to know one another. Then, somewhere along the line, we stop. Maybe we assume there’s nothing else to know, or we get too distracted by our own lives. So in our therapy sessions, we ask each other questions we never thought of, or we find ways of interacting that might help you connect more. A lot of times, I’ll hear couples say “I didn’t know that about you,” even if they’ve been together 10 years.

Lastly, what is the ultimate goal of relationship counseling?
There are different kinds of relationship counseling. But since we’re focusing on “relationship enhancement” counseling, I’d say the biggest goal is just trying to help you connect as a couple again. I do a lot of what’s called acceptance-based therapy, which basically comes down to knowing and accepting your partner. A lot of us try to change our partners; we try to get them to be more like us or to be more like an ideal we have. So I try to help couples suspend their judgment, suspend what they wish were true, and just be aware of what is true. There’s something very healing about that. It brings on peace of mind and usually leads to a more authentic level of love.

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