The 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne penned the immortal lines: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe” (sic) (Microsoft Corporation 1998). These words capture eloquently the fact that human existence, almost without exception, involves interaction with another. And in that interaction, a relationship exists. Relationships begin and relationships end. The relationship may be enjoyed, relished, celebrated, or simply endured. When a relationship ends, there may be relief, acceptance, even joy. But for many, the ending of a relationship is not what was wanted by at least one of the people involved.
A break-up may signal regret, resentment, guilt, anger, dismay or distress for that person. In such circumstances, they may struggle to resolve their inner conflict and ultimately seek the help of a professional counsellor. It is such un-satisfactory relationship endings that will be considered in this essay. With this in mind, the theoretical concepts of two approaches to counselling will be explored: the humanistic form of counselling known as Gestalt, and the broadly behavioural approach known as Reality Therapy (RT).
Particular reference will be made to the theoretical ideas about human development, the nature of the client/counsellor relationship, and the counselling process itself. When discussing the client, the feminine form will be used: the male form will be used for the counsellor. Gestalt therapy has a number of theoretical ideas about human development, and these theories underpin counselling practice. Firstly, humans are considered as whole, rather than made up of discrete parts. This means, “Man is … body, emotions, thoughts, sensations, and perceptions, all of which function interrelatedly” (sic), (Passons 1975 p14).
Individuals have personal responsibility for determining their own behaviour (The Gestalt Therapy Page 2001) and need to achieve awareness of all aspects of their being in order to live effectively. This awareness includes what they are thinking, feeling and doing. Lack of insight leads to many human dilemmas. Failure to achieve full awareness can result in what is known as “unfinished business”, where some event in the individual’s past was not resolved to their satisfaction (Clarkson 1989).
Unfinished business can lead to a variety of unexpressed feelings and tensions, which can be manifest in many verbal and non-verbal ways, indicating blocked energy. Fritz Perls (the founder of Gestalt therapy) says that of all the unexpressed feelings, resentment is the worst and most frequent (Corey 1996, p227). Rather than face and resolve unfinished business, people are often resistant, and avoid difficult issues. This could be because they catastrophise about the consequences of fully experiencing the associated uncomfortable and painful emotions.
With the example of relationship ending, the client’s pain might relate to the prospect of facing life on her own. It may be that when the relationship ended, she was not able to express all the associated feelings and emotions. She may have felt unable to express her thoughts, or may not have been afforded the opportunity to do so. In contrast, RT is based on (and has grown out of) a conceptual theory known as “Choice Theory”, devised by William Glasser. This theory contends that we all make choices in life as we attempt to satisfy certain basic needs (William Glasser Institute Ireland (WGII) 2001).
In this way, our behaviour has purpose – that of satisfying our needs (which we perceive as “wants”). These 5 needs are identified as: Power; Love and Belonging; Freedom; Fun; Survival (Brickell and Wubbolding 2000; Rogha 2001a). The behaviour that we choose in order to meet those needs has four components. They are: acting (or doing), thinking, feelings and physiology. Feelings and physiology are very difficult to consciously control, but RT suggests that if we can change our actions and our thoughts, then the feelings and physiological responses will alter correspondingly.
Changing our actions might be choosing behaviours that are more likely to enable us to meet our needs. Changing our thinking might involve deciding not to see ourselves as victim. A client’s response to the ending of a relationship might be to “depress” (choose to be depressed), because depressing behaviour carries certain advantages: Anger – Depressing might be an alternative to anger and might be safer. Control – over people and situations. Helps us avoid taking risks and stay in a safe environment. People will avoid upsetting us. Help – Depressing may get us help, without having to ask for it.
Excuse – for not doing what we should do. Avoiding pain. (Rogha, 2001b) The nature of the client counsellor relationship in Gestalt counselling is complex. It might be described as an active partnership, where the counsellor engages with the client and assists her to develop self-awareness in the “here and now” (Dryden 1996 p207). The counsellor gently challenges the client to become aware of various aspects of her whole being (verbal and non-verbal) at that precise moment in time. He creates a climate where she feels able to try new ways of being. He acts as a guide and a catalyst and he doesn’t force change through confrontation.
He pays attention to the client’s body language: sees beyond the words: watches for inconsistencies. The counsellor establishes and maintains a therapeutic atmosphere, but expresses his own (honest and immediate) reactions and observations and gives feedback to the client. The counsellor allows the client to be who she is, without trying to manipulate her. Thus, the “presence” of the counsellor (attitudes, behaviour, relationship) is more important than techniques (The Gestalt Therapy Page 2001). Corey (1996, p237) cites the work of many authors and eloquently concludes that:
Many contemporary counsellors place increasing emphasis on factors such as presence, authentic dialogue, gentleness, more direct self-expression by the counsellor, decreased use of stereotypic exercises, and a greater trust in the client’s experiencing. This moves the focus well and truly away from the utilisation of pre-planned techniques and much more towards the counsellor being with the client “in the moment”. It reflects the existential (here and now) nature of the Gestalt approach. The approach could be considered phenomological, since it is concerned with the client’s perception of reality (Manchester Gestalt Therapy 2001).
The counsellor would adopt this approach with the client whatever the reason for her being there, and would certainly be appropriate for problems related to a relationship ending. Available texts on RT say little about the nature of the client/counsellor relationship. Typically, it is stated how the counsellor must create a “trusting environment” (WGII 2001), although there is little that details how this environment is to be achieved. Corey (1996) expands the theme only slightly by stating how the counsellor can create a “therapeutic climate” by the use of listening skills and skilful use of questioning.
This is conceivably very important; at some point in the counselling process the counsellor is going to encourage the client to realise and accept that she has responsibility for her own behaviour, even when that means that she has chosen to “depress” (to use Glasser’s interpretation of the word). This must be done sensitively, so that the client does not perceive that she is being criticised. In a trusting client/counsellor relationship, such confrontation is not only possible, but arguably essential to the personal growth of the client; the counsellor’s failure to confront the client might be considered remiss.
The major goal of Gestalt counselling is awareness. This will lead the client to self-understanding and the knowledge that she can change. Simply talking about feelings is of little importance in Gestalt counselling, but experiencing those feelings “in the moment” is highly valued. To this end, the counsellor may devise and/or utilise “experiments” (or exercises/techniques/procedures), for the client to help her increase her self-awareness. The aim is to help her make contact with her experience vividly and with immediacy, so that her true feelings, emotions and thoughts can be explored.
The client will only participate fully in these experiments if the atmosphere is one of trust and safety. Corey (1996 p239) stresses the importance of recognising resistance to these exercises, and while acknowledging it, not to force the client to do or say things that make her feel anxious or foolish. He believes that the trusting relationship between client and counsellor will eventually enable the client to take the risk of engaging in exercises that might ultimately help her gain greater self-awareness. However, the power to take part in (or stop) the exercises, always rests with the client.
The counsellor remains alert to contradictions in the client’s verbal and non-verbal messages, and may bring her attention to them. She may be invited to exaggerate body postures etc. to discover blockages of energy, or may be invited to re-enact the past to experience a condition of being stuck and so get in touch with her frustration or fear or anger. By definition, it is difficult to say how the counsellor would deal with the client whose relationship had ended, because it would depend entirely on how that client was feeling and responding at that precise moment in time.
Certainly, the counsellor would spend time developing a relationship with the client by demonstrating warmth and empathy. While doing this, the counsellor would be alert to any signs of inner tension, as demonstrated by inconsistencies between what is being communicated verbally and what is being said via body language. Ultimately, he would want her to express her emotions related to the break-up of the relationship. In RT, the counselling process focuses first on helping the client to evaluate her current behaviour in terms of meeting her needs (Corey, 1996).
Her actions may not be enabling her to get what she wants. Through RT counselling, the client is helped to make a realistic and workable plan that will help meet her needs. RT does however, emphasise the right of others to meet their own needs in whatever way they choose (Rogha 2001c). When a relationship ends for example, it may be that the client wanted that relationship to continue, but the other person didn’t. That other person may have ended the relationship because it was not meeting their needs. The client may grieve the ending and suffer pain through wanting it to be renewed.
But if renewal of the relationship is not realistic, then she should consider how else her needs could now be met, given that the relationship has ended. Examination of the past is limited in RT. It may help to give some indication of the origins of a client’s ways of behaving, but the focus is very much on the present and “… empowering the client to satisfy his/her needs and wants now and in the future” (Rogha 2001d). By focusing on what the client can do, rather on how she feels, she might be enabled to engage in activities that will help her meet her needs.
This process emphasises strategies that are within the client’s control, while accepting that there may be some factors that are not. For the client whose relationship has ended, the counsellor might help her to see how her current behaviour is failing to meet her fundamental needs. He would help her to identify actions that might eventually lead to more positive feelings and physiological functioning, and to explore the extent to which the client sees herself as a victim in the scenario.
By utilising listening skills and questioning, the counsellor would help the client to examine the degree to which her plan of action is realistic in helping her to gain what she was previously getting from the relationship that has now ended. Both Gestalt counselling and RT place responsibility for behaviour squarely with the client. I believe that the approaches are in many ways different, yet complementary. With Gestalt, the emphasis is on examining the events of the past and enabling the client to express her emotional response to unresolved issues.
One could say that this does not in itself emphasise a way forward for the future. Reality Therapy on the other hand, pays little heed to the events of the past and this, I believe, is a weakness. But used in conjunction with an approach such as Gestalt, that explores “unfinished business”, the client could be helped to lay the ghosts of the past to rest. She could then move forward with a constructive plan to become a completely whole, truly authentic, and fully aware individual with realistic plans for future fulfilment of her needs.