It is tough to choose to come to relationship counselling. When I am asked to help a couple willing to risk trusting me with their intimate and precious relationship, I feel privileged. I think it takes courage to admit you need some support and that you are feeling stuck. I also think that is why you may both feel uncertain in the first session, and it’s important to know that this is really normal and understandable. Hopefully, this blog will be a good introduction to our work and help you get the most out of coming to see me.
Why come to couples’ counselling?
Firstly, I need to let you know that if there is severe domestic violence, addiction issues not getting addressed or ongoing affairs in your relationship, couples therapy is not recommended. In these cases, you may need different kinds of specialist support. The more upfront you can be with me about what is going on, the quicker I’ll be able to let you know if I can help you with alternative kinds of couple work or refer you to someone who can provide what you need.
This blog is directed at those who are genuinely coming to get help with the problems caused by poor communication, fighting, unhappiness and distress. This is what my clients say to each other and me and if you can relate to any of these concerns then I can help:
- I’m always in the wrong — I can’t get it right for you
- I’m so angry I just shut down
- I get so fed up I just do my own thing
- I can’t stop crying and that makes him so frustrated
- We don’t spend any time together – and when we do we end up fighting
- He just doesn’t get me anymore
- She’s never there
- I’ve stopped trying — it’s too hard
- Can I forgive him/her?
- If I’m really honest, this cuts me deep inside
- I can’t believe it’s come to this
Commonly deep down many couples I see want to learn to get more closeness, comfort and support from their partner. You may hope to describe your distress and get me to teach you both some new skills to communicate better your needs and learn how to resolve problems you are having.
Usually, people come believing their partners have the most to learn out of the therapy. This is called “finding the bad guy” or “playing the blame game.” After many years of clinical experience, I have found that most of us find it tough to be self-reflective, and admit our faults and we all find it even harder to change ourselves, rather than imagine all the wonderful ways our partners could change.
This is the biggest and most shocking aspect of coming to counselling. To make it work for you it is all about you becoming a better partner. So the most important thing you can do is realise you have to stop pointing the finger at the other person, and begin to consider how you can change to make your partner feel safe.
Research now attests to the fact that we are healthier when our emotional needs for contact with intimate others feels safe and supportive. We do better and are happier in all areas of our life. Distress comes in our relationships often when we feel a very deep down feeling of abandonment. You may or may not be aware that this is the underbelly of the problem.
Why are we fighting?
When our intimate partner cannot meet our needs we get stuck in a negative pattern of fights or worse still silent withdrawal. The key underlying questions most couples are asking each other underneath their complaints and disgruntlement can be captured in their basic need to know:
Do you love me?
Am I important to you?
Are you committed to us?
Can I trust you?
One of the major aims of therapy is to help you get answers to these questions. To do this you need to increase your knowledge about how you are scaring the hell out of your partner. You need to truly listen and get what your partner is concerned about and you need to understand how you get caught in a negative way of reacting that fuels the fights. Therapy becomes effective as you understand how you get triggered into a negative fighting loop and instead you learn to apply new knowledge to break the loop. I can help you identify and then change the ineffective fight patterns and develop better ways of sorting out problems.
What will we do?
The key tasks of couples therapy are increasing your clarity about:
The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of relationship you want to create
Your individual emotional blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be
Challenging yourself to learn to interact with your partner in a more loving, responsive and emotionally connected way to make them feel secure.
A great resource to help is An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples. This resource describes in depth how to create sustained improvement in your relationship using the L.O.V.E. technique.
Listen with an
Open heart and mind
Validate and acknowledge each other (Learn to respect your partner’s view of the world)
Express thoughts and feelings softly, simply and slowly.
Difficult trade-offs and tough choices
In our work together we will be using your feelings to help you change. This can be new and scary, tuning into feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. For some people, it is like having to learn a whole new language. No problemo though I am fluent and here to act as a translator and help you get your key feeling messages across to each other. Using me as a translator you will learn to understand better what you feel and what you need from each other.
To create the relationship you really desire, there will be some difficult trade-offs and tough choices for each of you:
- TIME – The first tradeoff will be time. It takes time to create a relationship that flourishes: you have to carve out time to be together, time to be with family, time to; nurture, relax, hang out and plan. This time will encroach on some other valuable areas – your personal or professional time.
- COMFORT – The second compromise is comfort. That means emotional comfort, like risking new ways of expressing your feelings or keeping your feelings to yourself if they are hurtful and unhelpful. Listening and being curious instead of defending and interrupting, speaking up instead of becoming resentfully compliant or withdrawing. At the beginning, there will be emotional risk just taking any of these actions, but if you want a better relationship you have to be prepared to do new stuff. In addition, few people are emotionally comfortable being challenged about their feelings/ actions/behaviours or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.
- ENERGY – The other comfort that will be challenged is the amount of energy you have to invest. It takes effort and persistence to sustain improvement over time: staying conscious of making a difference over a sustained period, remembering to be more respectful, more giving, more appreciative etc. It takes effort and hard work to remember and act.
- REACTION TO PROBLEMS – The other effort which may be even more difficult for you is improving your reaction to problems. For example, if one person is hypersensitive to criticism, it will take effort, for you to improve your ability stop criticising and just learn to zip it! Similarly, if your partner is hypersensitive to feeling ignored you may need to change how you withdraw from a fight or get space when you need it. Once again it’s about how can you accommodate your partners’ foibles and change what you are doing so they feel like you are in their corner.
The blunt reality is that, in an interdependent relationship, effort and hard work is required on the part of each person to make a sustained improvement. It is like playing doubles tennis – one person cannot do most of the work and still create an exceptional team.
How to maximise the value from your marriage therapy sessions
A powerful approach to your couple’s therapy sessions is for each person to do the following before each session, this is a tough ask but the best way to get the most out of it:
- Reflect on your reason for being in therapy. (By the way – if you are just coming to appease the other person it is not going to work…so consider your motives closely!)
- Think about the previous session, what it brought up for you, what do you want to go back to or where to from here?
- Take risks explaining anything you were not happy about / concerned about / enlightened about from the last session.
- Think about your next step that supports or relates to your larger goal for the kind of relationship you wish to create, or the partner you aspire to become.
Warning : This reflection takes some effort. Yet few people would call an important meeting and then say, “Well, I don’t have anything to bring up, does anyone else have anything on their agenda?” Your preparation will make all the difference.
Important Concepts for Couples Therapy
The following ideas can help identify areas of focus in our work and/or stimulate discussion between you and your partner between sessions. If you periodically review this list, you will discover that your reflections will change over time. So please revisit this list often, it will help you keep focus during our work.
- Your attitude is key – When it comes to improving your relationship, your attitude towards change is the most important thing
- Consistency and regularity of sessions (ideally weekly) increases your chance of cementing new ideas and making changes stick
- Identifying what to do and how to do it is often easy. The bigger challenge is why you don’t do it
- Learning how to make sense of emotions and the impact yours have on your partner will help you create a stronger relationship
- Your partner is quite limited in his/her ability to respond to you
- You are quite limited in your ability to respond to your partner
- Accepting that is a huge step
- The definite possibility exists that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives. And that he/she has some flawed assumptions about yours. The problem is, most of the time we don’t want to believe those assumptions are flawed.
Focus on Changing Yourself Rather than Your Partner
Couples therapy works best if you have more changes you want to make for yourself than for your partner. I am at my best when I help you: stretch to express your needs and longings in a soft, open way that your partner can actually hear and understand.
Also when I can help you move out of anger and blame and take responsibility for your half of what is going wrong in your relationship. This then allows you to see and experience yourself and your partner differently. This may proe a challenge but a worthwhile way to actually address the difficulties you are having head on, based on the changes you want to make.
Problems occur when reality departs sharply from our expectations, hopes, desires and concerns. It’s human nature to try and change one’s partner instead of adjusting our expectations to the reality of who we have chosen to partner with. This aspect of human nature is what keeps therapists being needed.
The hardest part of couples therapy is accepting you will need to improve your emotional response to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, or what to do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their response. It’s more common to build a strong case for why the other should do the improving.
You can’t change your partner. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to change a relationship.
So let’s get going, you now know that counselling is hard work and yet the big payoff is you get to create the relationship you have always wanted.