Perhaps this scenario is familiar to you: you’re coming home and within minutes are battling it out with your spouse. You’re loading the dishwasher and folding laundry, paying bills and trying to parent, and every other conversation with your partner results in a heated argument, or perhaps even stone cold silence.
You look at this person you’re arguing with and you wonder for a moment how you ever even fell in love, let alone got married. And yet you recognize how much you do love them, and how badly you want this to work.
It is in this moment that you might realize that couples therapy is for you.
Who needs couples therapy?
After years of conflict, many couples decide to seek couples therapy. Often, it is because they recognize their differences – on issues such as financial decisions, intimacy, and relations with other family members - are now irreconcilable. With so much practice hurting one another and knowing what buttons to push, it’s likely that couples have grown into an entirely new relationship, one that is full of tension, distress and resentment.
Sometimes, couples feel as though attending therapy will fix their partner. They believe their therapist will take their side and influence their partner to see things their way. That is not the case. Couples therapy is not individual therapy with two people in the room; couples therapy is intended to show both sides that they have every right to be heard, that they are both good people, and how their own missteps have helped create persistent, difficult patterns. Fortunately, if a couple has decided together to participate in sessions together, that’s a good sign – it means that both parties likely want to repair the relationship, for their sake and for the sake of their families.
How can couples therapy help?
The goal of therapy for couples is for each party to understand their partner’s point of view. It is also intended to help each person understand how their actions and beliefs are contributing to the tension within the relationship. It is not intended to resolve specific issues – a therapist cannot take on the role of referee, defending one person from the other and vice versa. The therapist’s intention will be to help the couple learn ways of positively communicating with one another so that they learn on their own how to resolve conflict. The mental health professional will do this by way of teaching the couple on how to set boundaries, develop trust, and healthfully communicate instead of alienating one another.
At the beginning, the therapist will collect information about the couple, including number of years together, their current living situation, special interests and previous counseling experience. This initial conversation should be gentle and welcoming, so that the couple feels comfortable with the therapist.
In following sessions, couples will learn new methods of communication within the office walls, mastering them so they can bring these skills home. The most successful couples are those who focus on “we” rather than “me” – this kind of collaborative thinking helps couples find their way to a recovered and stronger relationship.
Beverly and Greg Robertson have been married nearly 20 years; together, they share one son, two dogs and four properties across the East Coast. When they first attended couples therapy, they believed their professional successes caused the demise of their marriage.
“I was two steps away from moving out completely… I was living in my home office,” says Greg. “It got to the point where we couldn’t even look at each other.”
“For me, it was worse,” says Beverly. “It got past not even being able to look at him. That was when I was just angry. I just slid away… I didn’t care whether he was there or not.”
At Greg’s urging, Beverly agreed to attend a session. It was, for her, a revealing experience.
“I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t care – I was just so accustomed to adversary that I shut down,” she recalls. “When we walked through our history and then examined how we communicated, we re-learned how to use positive behaviors and revised this image I had of Greg, which was not of the man I loved. The image represented my resentment, not who he really was.”
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