How Becoming a Relationship Counselor Changed My View of Relationships

Written by Morgan Johnson

Being a relationship counselor is steadily shifting my philosophical and existential understandings of what it means to be in a partnership–to have a partner(s) and evolve alongside this person/people, to validate and forgive things we may not be able to fully relate to at first, and to know that no matter what, someone has your back just the way you have theirs–on the ready with a whole, willing heart.

Our partners aren’t there to “make us happy;” loving connection provides a secure base from which we can explore and grow and yes–find happiness–but this expectation that relationships are supposed to do that leads to a lot of people coming into my office for counseling.

Especially being a lady who grew up in tiny, southern Fort Worth, Texas, it took quite a bit of mental fortitude to untangle these hyper-romantic notions of finding someone “perfect” to marry and settling down in wedded bliss and doing that quickly because you’re “supposed to” plus you’re biological clock is ticking. (The funniest thing to me lately is the idea that women have a biological clock and men don’t… but that’s for another time…)

I almost get a sneaky feeling if weddings didn’t exist in America, relationships would look pretty different and progress more slowly/authentically. The divorce rate doesn’t surprise me at all with this front-loaded frenzy to rush to the altar.

But I watch media, Instagram, FB, pinterest (actually, I don’t have pinterest, but most of my friends who have been getting married/engaged do, and they seem to have them on the ready for the proposal such that the wedding is already practically planned and color coordinated), etc.

The lack of realism and naturalism in portraying human intimate/romantic/lifelong relationships makes me queasy; I think it’s getting better slowly and somewhat more transparent, but we have long way to go. This article, on the other hand, gets real with relationship science and cuts the bs.

I’m obviously not bashing anyone who feels they found someone they perceive to be their perfect mate and married the shit out of them as quickly as possible. I’m just saying I wish that more people knew about relationship science before starting out into this journey of trying to find a life partner(s), because it tends to take a lot of the heartache, stress, and disappointment out if you’ve developed and matured in a culture like ours full of gendered stereotypes, romantic block-busters, false expectations, and pressure from all directions to find that lifelong, monogamous partnership.

Advice Doesn’t Seem to Help   

Ah, advice. Now this is an interesting topic.

Clients of mine who saw this would probably laugh. Some of my counseling relationships start out with my feeling the need to make it clear that I don’t view my role as being an advice-giver.

And clients in return sometimes feel a need to let me know how stupid that sounds given our context and stereotype-based expectations. 😜

I get that. I remember pressing my therapist as a teen for answers to my existential questions and advice–just *expletive* tell me what to do! I came to you because I can’t deal–just tell me what I need to do.

That lady had patience of steel. I’m so thankful she never caved and gave in to that urge to “fix” me. What helped the most was feeling not alone in the pain–feeling like I didn’t need to be fixed; being permitted to find and use my voice to name and understand my internal experiences.

If you think you know what to “fix” in someone or their life, you’re already getting into dangerous waters philosophically because that assumes a right and wrong way of being for them and you as some sort of authority on that. I don’t vibe with that.

(I hope the obvious counterexamples can go without saying, here–there are times to advise people who are incapable of using their brains in the way they need to make rational, healthy decisions because of things like substance use, disordered eating, etc. This writing is focused more on day-in-day-out experiences.)

I remind myself of that feeling of “Just tell me what to do!” when I hear desperation from clients urging me to step into fix-it mode. I get it.

But advice can be grandiose; it often comes from a one-up stance where a power differential can be assumed. It can say to one person that they are incapable. Advice can feel patronizing. And off the mark when the “problem” is a transitory experience like an emotion that will right itself anyway. Advice can also tend to be egoistic, short-sighted, and projective.

I should start by acknowledging that if clients present with intense distress and negative feeling experiences across a bunch of domains (family/social/work/school), because I’m more active and collaborative in my style than some, yeah I’ll dig in with my Gottman training especially to kind of support the righting of the ship through the worst part of a storm–so there is something to be said for goal-oriented practices to an extent, and problem-solving approaches in some situations. But never before a foundation of unconditional acceptance and total lack of judgment is solidly in place.

Once the boat is no longer at risk of capsizing so to speak, and everyone is kind of up to speed on their emotional intelligence, communication abilities, knowledge of relationship science and wellbeing enough to be able to ground themselves when getting deregulated and really do the heavy lifting, I bop is back to emotionally focused work. Then they’re able to decide if they even want to stay on the same boat and what course they want to take if they do.

It always has to go back to the feely feels, though, and the body, if we are going to go deep enough to hit the roots of an issue so that we can really understand it and know how to proceed and resolve it/manage it as best we can.

Many counselors use the acronym PACE to keep ourselves on track with supporting clients in the most science-based way, and there’s no one stopping you from snagging it to use in your own relationship(s)!

PACE: Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy.

I report what I notice and what makes me curious. I may help brainstorm ideas for solutions to certain issues or experiments to try, but I don’t tell people what to do. To me, that’s the main difference between advice and empathic support–with advice we say, “If I were you” or “Do such and such because I know better,” but with empathy we say, “I can see why that’s tough for you” and “It makes so much sense you are human-ing that way in that context given who you are–I get it.”

PACE > ADVICE.

You know what advice-giving gets you? Blamed or feeling guilty more often than not. Sometimes out of not thinking much of ourselves (or thinking too highly!) we can create vast ripples which affect multiple systems without realizing it. Language creates reality–don’t underestimate the power of your voice to impact others.

It can be a hard mode to switch out of–the problem-solver, fix-it, advice-giving mode. Go easy on yourself–most of us were socialized to track problems > strengths. It just takes repetition; brain plasticity rules! 🙌🏻

If you want to lift your partner(s) up–which is so often the good intention behind advice–do it in ways we know work. E.g., giving verbal affirmations and appreciations, checking in about needs and wants, using your partner’s love language(s) to show you care, or even just being there to hold your partner(s)–listening with patience, curiosity and an aim to communicate to your partner(s) the most important message:

I’m here, I’m with you, ride-or-die, come as you are, you make sense, I get it, I’ve got your back, I notice you, I choose you, I accept all of you, and if it comes to kickball teams getting chosen–I hands down always pick you first, no matter what.

The definition of trauma I dig the most is: “overwhelm in perceived isolation.”

Being alone feels literally dangerous to our bodies and nervous systems, and being on the receiving end of advice-giving can end up creating just such isolation.

Studies show physiological experiences like pain and psychological stress are actually objectively and subjectively reduced in painful, anxiety-producing situations just by being with someone we love.

With-ness. It’s like being a witness, but deeper. You are noticing, reporting back, but *sharing in* the feeling.

Morgan Johnson is a post-graduate counseling intern at The Center for Relationships with a Bachelor’s from Wake Forest and a Masters degree in professional counseling from St. Edward’s University.  She is the director of our Intimacy Support program as well as the creative force behind many of our innovative ideas.  Follow her on Facebook @MorganJohnsonATX and Twitter @MojoATX.  If you would like to schedule a meeting with Morgan, please call 512-465-2926.