Most couples find their way to my office at the lowest point of their relationship – often the lowest point of both of their lives. Couples counseling can be the start of an amazing transformation in your relationship, or it can be one more failed repair attempt on the road to divorce. Here are my top tips to help you get the most out of your couples counseling experience.
Einstein said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, and expect a different result. Many couples start counseling in a deeply painful spiral of defensiveness and attack. Each person convinced that their partner is the “bad one” and “if they could just change” they will be happy.
This defensive stance ignores the fact that a relationship between two adults is mutual and never just one person’s fault. I encourage my clients to boldly dare to be honest with themselves. Admit your contribution to the relationship problems. This can be scary. People quiver with fear at the thought and respond with, “but they will use it against me!” I encourage people to use the safety of the therapy room to experiment with honesty. You don’t need to do it all at once, but try use counseling to start establishing a virtuous circle of honesty and responsibility in the relationship.
The situation: your husband has just summoned up the courage to admit that he sometime pretends to be sick rather than attend your family events. Suddenly your blood boils. You think to yourself “I knew it! That bastard! Does he know how much trouble he has caused?” Somehow you catch yourself; some little voice in your head realizes that taking a pot shot at your husband would damage the fragile ground he is treading by being honest.
Take the high road and support your partner’s fledgling honesty. You may miss out of the short-term gain of a pleasurable pot-shot, but the long-term gains will more than make up for it. Think of it as an investment in the long-term sanity of your relationship.
All couples fight. The difference is that some couples successfully repair their relationships when they fight, and some don’t. It may be shocking for some of my clients to know that I often am not listening to the minute details of what they are saying, but rather I am looking for the arching overall patterns that hinder their relationships. What I am always looking to understand is, “Why does this fight occur over and over again?” “Why are they stuck?”, and “Why are there attempts to repair the relationship failing?”
I encourage my clients to make the same shift in thinking. When you stop blindly acting on your emotions; zoom out your camera lens; observe yourself; and get some perspective on your relationship. You will discover a whole new world of creative solutions, opening up. As your counselor, I will help you with this process to begin with (it is easier for me to see your problems, because I have some distance from them). Later, I encourage you to become an astute observer of yourself.
Our partners may do things we don't like, but how we feel about their actions is our responsibility. People can react very differently to the same event (e.g., one person may feel abandoned when their partner needs to stay late at work; while another may be glad to be cared for by someone so responsible).
Often we want our partner to change, so they do not hurt us. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get someone else to change. Whenever I hear a sentence that starts with, "I hate it when they…"; my response is usually, "How does it affect you when they do that?" My aim is to shift their attention from their partners actions (what they cannot control); to their reactions to their partner (what they can control). Rarely can you get your partner to change, but you can always self-sooth (see below).
Self-soothing is simply the greatest tool available for couples. Most fights are due to our frustrated attempts to get our emotional needs met from our partner. These emotional needs include closeness, distance, validation or comfort. When our partner cannot meet our needs, we may lash out or withdraw emotionally. In troubled couples, our natural reaction usually worsens, not helps the problems.
One of the things we need to do as adults is recognize that our partners are all too human – they cannot always give us what we need. In these times it important that we can give ourselves some attention and sooth ourselves until our partner or friends can help. Identifying what need you are trying to get met from your partner and soothing yourself of this unmet need, can help prevent a downward relationship spiral.
Watch out for signs that you are shutting down emotionally. When conflict becomes too intense, we shut down emotionally and enter a, "I am good; my partner is bad" mode. We stop listening to anything our partner is saying – everything seems threatening, and we are simply trying to protect ourselves. We are no longer in a “we” mode, but rather we are in an “I” mode. In this deeply self-protective mind-frame, we are only scanning for danger and looking after ourselves. Often the fear-based behaviors we do in this self-preservation mode, hurt, rather than help, the relationship.
It is important to understand your "triggers". These are the relationship events that send us into our self-protective stances. There tend to be a certain set of emotions, thoughts and even physiology we experience in this state. For example, we may notice that our heart rate goes up, we feel flushed, and we start thinking, "why do they always do that!"
When you are in this mode, any arguing is almost certainly fruitless. You need to take a time-out and calm yourself down. In counseling, I help my clients identify when they enter this self-protective mode. Over time, I encourage my clients to develop the self-awareness to do this for themselves.
If emotional distance is the main problem, understand that fighting more is a good sign. Often when couples are unable to resolve conflicts, they create distance in their relationship to avoid the irresolvable conflict. They settle into an uneasy truce, leading separate lives (see my article on "The Road to Separation" for a fuller explanation). As counseling starts, the couple will begin to reengage and the unresolved conflict will be stirred up. These couples may be very uncomfortable and believe that things are getting worse during counseling. It is important to understand that unresolved conflicts will need to be worked-through in order to restore closeness in the relationship.
For the first few weeks or months of counseling, couples often try be nicer to one another. This can be a pleasant break in the generally negative progress of the relationship. Sadly after some time, the couples tend to fall back into their old patterns. Their strong negative emotions overwhelm their ability to "be nice". Don’t be discouraged if this happens to you -- real change takes time.
Marriages are like two people dancing. There are two components to the quality of the dance. There is the skill of the two dancers individually; and there is also the quality with which they coordinate their individual dances. In marriage counseling, we tend to concentrate on the coordination of the dancers. However, individual sessions with each partner can help each of the "dancers" improve their individual skills. When one person is a better dancer, the quality of the dance as a whole improves. It is also true, that a better dancer can help, "pull up" the other dancer to their level. Ask your counselor if individual therapy would be a good adjunct to your work as a couple.
Most people start counseling at a low point in the relationship and life. The process can be long and difficult. Hang in there. There may be some low points, but the high points make it all worthwhile.
When a couple is doing better and are ready to end counseling, I often encourage them to see me like a “family doctor". They go on their way, with the knowledge that if they run into problems later on, they have an established relationship with me and can pick up where they left off. All marriages need support, and an on-going relationship with a counselor can bring an extra level of security and resilience in a marriage.
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