Session 3: Parents Create Change in the Family System


Jenny* and Stefan are parents having difficulty with their 7 year-old son, Nicholas. They have come into therapy to create change in their family system.  This is their third therapy session.

Stefan:  I know we started seeing you for therapy because of Nicholas, but things are going much better with him lately.  Jen and I are setting limits and Nicholas is definitely responding.  There’s actually something else I’d like to talk about today…

Lorna:  Yes?

Stefan:  Well, in a nutshell, I’m worried that Jenny and I are growing apart.  I wish it was like it was in the beginning of our relationship.  I mean, I know we won’t be like that anymore because people lose interest in sex over time…but still…

Jenny:  (interrupting) I’m doing the best I can, I have work, Nicholas, the house to keep up…

Lorna:  Whoa, hold on a minute.  I see this is a difficult subject for both of you but let’s take it slowly.  One at a time.

Jenny:  I know, I’m sorry, I guess I’m a little defensive about the sex thing.

Stefan:  We both are!  Anyway, do I just have to get used to things the way they are? 

Lorna:  I don’t know.  What do you think Jenny?  Are you happy with your sex life?

Jenny:  No, not really.  I’d like to have more intimacy too.  It just seems like there’s never time.  Or I’m too tired, or I just don’t think about it.

Lorna:  Stefan, remember last time we met and you said that you do a lot of what you think Jenny wants you to do, even if you don’t agree with it?  And that maybe you learned to do that to get your Dad’s approval?

 Stefan:  Yes.  I’ve been thinking about that more lately.  I’m starting to see that I do a lot of what other people want me to do, just to avoid “rocking the boat.”  I do it at work, too.  I even do it with my mom-by agreeing with her when she complains to me about Dad, even though I hate it when she does that.  But I’m afraid of hurting her feelings if I tell her to stop it.  I’m starting to think I’m a real wimp!

Jenny:  And I’m starting to think you think I’m a real witch!

Stephan:  No…but you do like to get your way.

Jenny:  (smiling) I guess so.

 Lorna:  Stephan, what’s the down-side of going along with what everyone else wants? 

 Stephan:  Sometimes I just want to escape into my own world.  I check out. 

 Lorna:  Jenny, what are your thoughts about what Stephan is saying?

 Jenny:  I have a lot of thoughts about what Stephan is saying!  I know he checks out!  And leaves me having to take care of everything! No wonder I’m so tired. 

Lorna:  What do you think would happen if he started telling you what’s on his mind, rather than just going along to make you happy?

 Jenny:  Well, I’d prefer it, of course.

 Lorna:  Stephan, do you agree that Jenny would prefer you to tell her when you don’t agree with her?

Stephan:  No way. She’d just get defensive, like she did earlier in the session.

Jenny:  No I wouldn’t!!! Wait a minute…maybe I would…just a little…

Everyone laughs at this.

Lorna, Jenny, and Stephan continue to discuss the couple’s cycle of Jenny’s defensiveness and Stephan’s avoidance.  They begin to see how this pattern leads to, among other things, a decreased interest in sex, especially for Jenny.  Lorna explains to them that this is a common problem for many couples.  She calls it “accommodating to preserve harmony,” and describes how accommodating can lead to emotional distance.  Both Stephan and Jenny admit they do this because they both hate conflict.  They agree to observe this pattern more carefully and to discuss it further in their next therapy session.

*No one in this article represents a real person-except me.  The case is a compilation of many families I have coached in therapy.

To Read Session 1 go to :

To Read Session 2 go to :


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