The question of joint interviews needs to be considered in relationship with two important facts - first, that nearly all marital disorders have very strong emotional components which by their very nature tend to take control of any discussions and to divert them from any "reasonable" path; and second, that the counselor will be carrying out with the partners something that they may have already tried many times without him.
But the presence of the counselor introduces a very influential element into any such discussion. Each partner will unconsciously as well as consciously relate his attitudes to the counselor in one way or another. He may try to win the counselor's emotional support, and he may well restrain himself from many obviously absurd accusations which he might have made otherwise.
From another point of view the counselor brings what can be a vital influence into such joint discussions in that if, say, a husband is deeply hurt in the counselor's presence, the humiliation may put him so much on the defensive that he might not feel able to go on in any but a superficial manner with further counseling.
It seems clear therefore that joint interviews need careful consideration and even more careful and tactful handling if the dangers of excessive wounding on the one hand or of loss of rapport on the other are to be minimized.
In most cases when the two partners come together for the initial appointment the counselor will have them both in for the beginning of the interview, and will observe them closely while he is listening to whoever is doing the talking.
When there is any indication of emotional tension in one or both, either outwardly expressed or less directly conveyed by sitting silently and looking away from the counselor and the partner, the counselor will generally suggest that it is mostly easier for people to talk freely in the absence of other people, and offer them the opportunity for individual interviews.
When put in this way the offer is usually accepted, and it is either left to the partners to decide who shall be first, or the counselor suggests that the one who seems to be least anxious to talk might have the first opportunity. In many cases this person has been a bit overwhelmed by the more active partner, and if sent out may feel even more crushed.
There is a good reason for the counselor wishing to arrange joint interviews. When one or both clients tend to concentrate mainly on the objectionable attitudes and the misdeeds of the other, and seem unable or unwilling to face their own contributions to the disorder, the counselor faces a dilemma. If the counselor just goes on allowing them to talk about their grievances in this way the counseling may well reach a point of "stalemate," unless their unburdening can go on well enough and for long enough for them to gain adequate insight.
When this doesn't seem to be possible it may be tempting for the counselor to bring up some point offered by the other one, for example, "Your wife seems to feel rather upset by what she thinks is your cruelty to her." A common answer to such a statement is, "She's exaggerating that."
What is the counselor to do then? Is he to take it up with the wife next time, and say, "Your husband thinks you're exaggerating," which would not be of any help to her or to the counseling because she would deny his remarks with indignation. The counselor cannot become a "tale bearer" without doing a lot of possible harm to the counseling.
When each client persists with accounts of the other's misdeeds and doesn't face any of his own it often helps to seek a joint interview, first asking the consent of each of them, and then asking whether each one would be able to bring up any matters which are distressing them. There are certain essential conditions of successful joint interviews which will be discussed shortly, and when these are fulfilled the counselor may find such an interview very helpful.
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