Wednesday, December 2 2020


Psychologists help couple and families as well as individuals

Update: December, 09/2019 - 10:11
Psychologist Matthew Ryan. Photo courtesy of Family Medical Practice

By Matthew Ryan*

Most psychologists are trained to offer therapy to individuals suffering mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. There is a specialisation in psychotherapy which focuses on relational problems – this speciality is often referred to as couple and family therapy. A psychologist trained in this form of therapy rather than focusing on the individuals that make up the couple or family assesses and treats problematic patterns that have developed between them over time. Just as an individual moves through a series of stages so too do couples and families. As a couple or family moves from one stage to another they can encounter difficulties because the skills and roles required by the next stage are often quite different from those of the previous stage.

For example when two people fall in love and decide to marry or move in together they move from a state of being on their own to sharing their lives. Some people who have been very competent looking after themselves can find themselves partially or completely out of their depth when they are required to live with and relate intimately to another human being. Some of the potential problems for a new couple include:

  • fear of intimacy
  • sexual difficulties
  • inability to share and communicate their deepest hopes and dreams
  • difficulties maintaining appropriate boundaries between the couple and their respective parents and siblings
  • significant differences between them in handling such things as finances and the raising of children, often as a result of what they experienced and consequently learnt in their own families of origin
  • emotional baggage carried into the relationship from previous relationships attempting to control or change one another an inability to compromise and find joint solutions together

Any of these difficulties can threaten to derail the couple’s relationship, causing misunderstandings, arguments, and disillusionment. Dysfunctional patterns of relating to each other develop and if not corrected become quite entrenched and very difficult to change. Without insight or help one or both partners can begin to sadly or even angrily conclude they have made a terrible mistake and begin to seriously consider separation and/or divorce.

A couple and family therapist is skilled at assisting the couple to discover new learning, behaviours and skills that will enable them to escape the dysfunctional patterns that have bound and imprisoned them so that they may joyfully reconnect with each other.

A very critical stage in the life of a couple occurs when the first child arrives. As in the move from being on one’s own to becoming a couple, they may be very competent and happy as a couple, but can find that the arrival of the first child causes significant challenges and difficulties. They must now assume new roles, that of mother and father. These are much different roles from that of lovers and partners. Some of the problems couples experience with the arrival of children include:

  • anxiety levels of many people are aroused by becoming a parent causing stress and subsequent arguments
  • the abrupt loss of freedom that a child brings can frustrate and make them feel imprisoned by their new responsibilities
  • differences in parenting can arise causing stress and arguments
  • the father can feel pushed away by his partner’s necessarily very intimate and time consuming focus on the new child causing him to feel rejected and jealous and the mother angered by her partner’s desire for intimacy
  • as more children arrive all the above difficulties can magnify and multiply

Again a family therapist can be very helpful in assisting the couple to deal with the challenges and difficulties that children bring.

All along the family life cycle new challenges present and possible difficulties between the couple as new stages are reached, such as:

  • the arrival of the second child may trigger anxiety and jealousy in the first child
  • children going to school for the first time can be a very anxious transition for parents, the mother in particular may experience
  • significant loss and grief, possibly triggering school phobia in the child
  • the stress and pressures of adolescence impacting on the parents
  • the emptiness and loss of meaning when the last child leaves home and mum and dad for the first time in many years finding themselves having to relate to each other intimately without their children to focus on, can be very threatening. Family Medical Practice

* Matthew Ryan is a senior psychologist who has been supporting and assisting people to work through their personal and relational problems, for more than 30 years.

As a couple and family psychologist, Matthew’s role is to help each person in the relationship see how they contribute to their dysfunctional ways of relating, and what changes are necessary to resolve their difficulties.

Matthew is also experienced in working with teenage males and females as they face the challenges of stepping into young adulthood. In addition, Matthew is experienced in providing counseling to people from the LGBT community.

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