Common Questions About Couples Therapy Answered
Why is there still such a stigma around couples therapy?
All of us are going to hit bumps in the road in our most intimate relationships. That’s a fact. Yet, the irrational fear persists that if you have gotten to the point where you need couples therapy, it means your relationship is really on the rocks and headed for divorce.
While sometimes divorce or separation turns out to be the conclusion, the assumption that couples therapy is the last pit stop before the end couldn’t be further than the truth for many couples.
When you make the decision to go to couples therapy—-you’re at a point where you’re humble enough to realize you don’t have all the answers, you’re both suffering and you want another perspective. A lot of people think couples therapy is only about re-hashing the conflict week after week or the feat that one partner is going to get cornered, shamed and blamed —and that’s a big misconception. Usually the first order of business is to learn how to turn down the heat on the conflict, but the conflict is often the gateway into much bigger insights about how your relationship actually works. We can’t see the forest for the trees when we’re blinded by emotional reactivity.
In therapy, you’ll gain the ability to see the shape of your relationship patterns, cultivate the awareness and tools to move out the patterns you’re stuck in—not just stay fixated on the pain points.
Many couples let the problems simmer for years —and suffer not only with resentment but the erosion of empathy. If you’re willing to be curious, compassionate and open to engaging in the self reflective work — couples therapy can not only be a reparative experience —but can be expansive and generative.
How is couples therapy different than individual therapy?
Couples therapy is a lot more dynamic than individual therapy. There are three people in the room—but the pace of the therapy only goes as fast or slow as the least reflective person in the room. Many couples come in with the intent of fixing the relationship—which is code for “fixing” their partner. What we uncover in the process is where the limitations are—both individually but also as a couple.
What are the pieces that you haven’t taken responsibility for or simply refused to—and what are the actual limitations that need to be accepted? Where is there room for negotiation? That’s an incredibly interesting threshold—to what degree are we malleable? Open to each other’s influence? Open to change?
Not just the idea of change—but how do we intentionally change our thinking, our perspective, and bring mindfulness to our knee-jerk reflexes? Perhaps you’ve made assumptions about your marriage that were never explicit. Maybe you want to re-negotiate things because you’re changed. Couples therapy provides an opportunity to get very specific about those assumptions and commitments and often times, redefine them.
What if your partner is resistant or refuses to go?
That’s a very common question and a difficult predicament to be in. One partner may refuse to go all together, in which case I would recommend getting individual therapy first to figure out your options. Going to therapy still has a stigma that is associated with shame and vulnerability —and vulnerability is scary, especially for men. But it’s not a fixed state. You don’t turn into a gaping open wound. You’ll learn how to be vulnerable to some degree—but in a way that feels safe, titrated and contained. It takes courage to do the work. It takes courage to risk asking for what you need in a way that is not attacking, despite the fear of not being met. But you’ll also learn how to attune and truly listen to your partner—how to talk to them in a way that invites conversation and empathy.
The more responsive you become with each other, versus emotionally reactive, you’ll both start to feel the ground solidifying beneath you.
That ground is a sense of trust in yourself but also in your process. While you may not be able to agree on everything —you can draw on a mutual foundation of respect, admiration, and empathy. I always recommend that both partners talk to the therapist for a few minutes before hand in a consultation to ask questions, to understand the process and to clear up some pre-conceptions.
How do you know you have found the right therapist?
A therapist might look great online or write great books— but you won’t know until you get into the room with them and feel it out. The difference is that in individual therapy, you just need to click with your therapist, but in couples therapy—-both of you need to engage with your therapist and with the process. I think of it a little like dating. It’s a gamble because you’re taking a chance by opening yourselves up. But the connection to your therapist should feel somewhat mutual. You need to trust that she/he has both of you. I would give it two sessions with a new therapist. You’ll have a sense if you want to move forward or not.
A good therapist is going to compassionately hold a mirror up—not coddle you or take sides. There is definitely going to be a challenge aspect to the process. They can also handle conflict and the intensity without shutting things down. They are there to be in the trenches with you—as you practice new ways of relating with each other— how to attune, how to truly listen, how to repair. These are learned skills. We’re not born knowing how to be relational experts. A good therapist is going to have a trajectory that helps you build a more solid relationship.
How long will couples therapy take?
It depends on the situation. There is no formulaic prescription as each couple and their specific needs are unique. I use the Gottman road map—the sound relationship house because it’s a complete model. I also use Emotionally Focused therapy to learn how to develop emotional intelligence in moment by moment interactions. The third cornerstone is mindfulness practice— to cultivate self regulation, compassion, and an inner dialogue —as there’s always a parallel process between the story you tell yourself and what’s actually happening or not happening in the relationship that you’re co-creating every day. Some couples need a communication tune up or come in to solve a particular problem. If there’s infidelity, major betrayal, addiction, or trauma—that can take much much longer. Often times the presenting issue turns out to be the tip of the iceberg. But I like to think of couples therapy as the next chapter in their relationship—a 2.0 version of it, or 3.0 version.
Once you let go of the thought that you can take a ride on the naive idea that love will carry the day, it actually frees you to become skillful, more more conscious, and a lot more intentional about your relationship.