When I owned a coffeehouse several years ago, I had to learn a lot about cooking and baking on my own. (My mom’s instruction was limited to the Betty Crocker cookbook she gave me when I left home!) Usually, I’d take a basic recipe then add or subtract a few things until I arrived at something I liked. Something that worked.

Trust me, plenty of mistakes were made along the way, but over time, I found my own rhythm and made plenty of cakes and pastries my customers loved.

chocolate cheesecake

Fast forward many years later and now as a couples therapist, my approach to working with couples has evolved and continues to do so, just as my recipes once did. Through trial and error, personal and professional growth, and being flexible in my thinking, I’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, and what helps the most. Its important that I meet my clients where they are and not the other way around. Usually, that means starting with a solid understanding of each person’s history along with, of course, the issue that prompted the visit to begin with.

So, when couples start working with me and sometimes even before they do, I concentrate on four questions that encompass four areas that really help create a foundation from which we work.

What was your family like growing up? When you have an urgent problem right now, talking about your childhood (or what we therapists call your ‘family of origin’ or FOO) may seem irrelevant. However, for me, getting an overview of each person’s FOO during the first couple of visits is crucial.

This kind of history can reveal certain patterns in how you each relate and respond to stress, criticism, even affection; and it almost always comes into play when couples are in crisis. We often replicate the ‘live what we learn’ in our most intimate relationships.

What’s your attachment style? In other words, how do you relate to people in intimate relationships especially in stressful situations? Our attachment style shapes how we regulate our emotions and guides our expectations in intimate relationships, especially in stressful situations. No surprise, a lot of this is influenced and formed in your FOO, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. Although attachment styles are stable, they are not immutable.

Consider this example: People with an “anxious” attachment style tend to be emotionally cranked up; they often exhibit abandonment issues and habitually seek closeness. On the other hand, people with an “avoidance” attachment style often squelch their feelings as a means of self-protection. They don’t want to feel dependent on anyone. (Both of these styles develop as a result of having a caregiver that were neglectful, abusive, unpredictable, or inconsistently responsive). (Sue Johnson, 2013)

Further, difficulty in relationships often emerges with either two avoidant people (both partners reject emotional involvement) or two anxious people (both are too absorbed by their own worries, have significant emotional lability). Moreover, a more common relationship exists between an avoidant and anxious person. Although this can be problematic, there are times that the avoidant will be responsive and able to reassure the anxious person – at least for a period of time.

However, once each partner understands their attachment style as well as their partners and what’s driving certain behaviors, new doors for patience, tolerance, and change can open.

How do you communicate? Do you avoid or lean in? Can you handle conflict or do you run at the first sign of trouble? Can you use your voice to express how you feel or do you shutdown (or blow up)? You don’t need me to tell you that open and clear communication is absolutely essential in a healthy relationship. Getting a handle on how you’re connecting will be a huge factor in the direction we take. Our FOO gives us a template from which we learn how relationships work – or don’t – and how communication patterns often emerge.

What’s your “perfect” relationship? Figuratively, not literally. Here’s what I mean: If all of your issues where no longer present, what would your relationship or marriage look like? What would be different? What would be the same? This deceptively simple question does one very powerful thing: It gives you the chance to visualize a happier future. Once you have that picture to share, we can focus on the long- and short-term goals that can get you both where you want to be.

I find these four questions invaluable to the process when I start working with couples. We revisit these as time progresses. They help create a strong foundation from which we work. However, whether you are embarking on couples counseling or not, these questions might help you examine your relationship from a different perspective and make you think more critically about your current situation for greater understanding and insight.

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