When I tell people that I am a couples therapist, they have all sorts of questions. In today’s post, I thought I would write about the questions I’m asked most frequently about couples therapy and share how I answer them.
Who should go to couples therapy?
There are many reasons why a couple might want to go to therapy together:
- You might be in a relationship where you feel that you and your partner are stuck in an endless round of conflict.
- You might feel that your needs are unmet and you are at a lost as to how to meet them, or you feel unheard, unseen, and unappreciated.
- You might feel that some hurt from the past simply is not healing in your relationship and you now need help in how to “get past your past.”
- You might be preparing for a commitment like moving in together, getting married, or having a child, but want first to talk through all of the related issues with a third party facilitating the conversation.
What is couples therapy exactly?
There are many different forms of couples therapy, but two of the most popular evidence-based modalities, both of which are practiced by clinicians at the Heart of the Matter Counseling, are the Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Therapy (“evidence-based” means that researchers have demonstrated scientifically the effectiveness of a given technique). While there are differences in the two approaches, both focus upon implementing the parallel processes of de-escalating conflict while rebuilding positivity and connection in the romantic bond. This means that the therapist will help the two of you to slow down and turn down the temperature when you discuss difficult issues while finding ways for the two of you to re-engage feelings of mutual respect, affection, and care.
What’s the beginning of therapy like?
First you have to make the appointment, preferably at a time and on a day that you feel both of you will be able to commit to on a regular basis. In your first appointment, your therapist will introduce you to themselves as well as to their method of working and will ask you both to talk about your reasons for coming. The first session is also the beginning of an assessment period that will last for two more sessions. The assessment is done to make sure that the therapist has a strong grasp of all the issues that the couple is struggling with as well as to ensure that couples therapy is the appropriate course of treatment at this time. The second and third appointments will usually be made with each of you individually, to give you an opportunity to speak openly to the therapist and to feel that your point of view is understood and validated. In the fourth session, the therapist will then bring the couple back together and recommend a course of action based upon all of the needs and challenges that were assessed. This plan, which will be the focus of treatment going forward, usually consists of facilitated discussions in session and various tasks to be completed outside of session, both of which aim to de-escalate and work through conflict while building positivity and connection in your relationship.
What does the therapist do?
The therapist’s job throughout is to serve as a neutral third party who works for the good of the relationship, a facilitator of difficult discussions, a mentor and model of secure attachment and communication skills, and a source of reflection and validation. The therapist is especially responsible for making sure that both members of the relationship feel heard, seen, validated, and understood in their feelings.
What keeps people from trying couples therapy?
It is common for people to express to me a desire to try couples therapy, but they have concerns that get in the way. I think these fears are perfectly normal and useful to express so that your therapist is aware of them and will know to address them early in the therapeutic process. Here are some of the concerns that people have mentioned to me over the years, as well as how I address them as a therapist:
- I’m ashamed about the issue that is causing so much conflict and I don’t want my therapist to judge me or both of us. Your therapist has special training and experience in not only how relationships can go right, but all of the difficult ways that they can go wrong. A therapist leaves judgment at the door because judgment only gets in the way of understanding how the difficult issue came to be and how to help you deal with it. You can expect your therapist to treat you as you struggle with your particular issue with respect and compassion.
- I know that I have done/am doing something that has caused damage to the relationship, and I think the therapist will blame me for all of our problems. Your therapist is interested in understanding the forces that drive the unhealthy dynamic in your relationship, not in assigning blame.
- The therapist is different from me and more like my partner (for example, I’m a man and my partner and my therapist are both women)- wouldn’t the therapist naturally side with my partner? Your therapist has received special training on how to be a neutral third party who is aligned with the needs of your relationship and not with one or another member of that relationship.
- I’m afraid therapy will be all about fighting. The beginning of therapy can be an emotional time because you are being asked to openly talk about thoughts and feelings that you maybe haven’t been able to fully discuss in front of your partner before. It can also be emotional and uncomfortable to listen to what your partner has to say. The therapist’s job is to slow the discussion down and keep the exchange respectful, so that you both are willing and able to listen. Over time, these exchanges can open up to new perspectives and levels of understanding and compassion between partners. Eventually, couples start to apply the new skills that they have learned not only in session but during their every day life so that they come to view conflict and misunderstandings not as a “Oh, no, here we go again-“ scenario but as opportunities to learn new things about each other and to grow closer, not further apart.