Couples therapy may sound like something we would only be interested in if a relationship were failing; in fact, it is the single greatest tool that can prevent it from doing so. Every relationship has its strengths and challenges. Even great companionships have their problems. But learning how to fix the holes that threaten to uncouple you can be extremely valuable.
Couples therapy is a safe forum in which to discuss issues which, when handled by the couple only by themselves, can too easily descend into misunderstanding or recrimination. When we feel that we haven’t ourselves been heard properly by our partner, we’re less likely to want to hear them in turn. But in the consulting room, everyone can safely have their say, can feel acknowledged, and as a result, progress can be made.
Beginning any form of therapy is daunting, but in my experience couples therapy is harder in many ways for partners to come to than individual therapy. They think to themselves, “It’s unpredictable what my partner is going to say about me.” Instead of exposing your inner-most hopes and fears to a supportive stranger, your partner will be in the seat opposite ready to disagree, and possibly to undermine your opinions. He or she already knows so much about you from your day-to-day life together that laying bare your soul or secrets can leave you feeling particularly vulnerable. There is the added fear that the truth will upset or hurt your partner and make a bad situation even worse. When I finish therapy with a couple I often ask them to reflect over the course of their therapy. Most admit that, although they knew I was trained to be impartial, they feared I might side with their partner. I have only one responsibility; and that is to the relationship itself.
If you can get over the challenge of entering relationship therapy, the rewards are often much greater than those of individual therapy. In many cases, couples get an immediate short-term boost. This is partly down to a sense of relief that something is finally being done, but mainly because when you see our partner agreeing to attend therapy it is concrete proof that she or he cares.
If a decision has been taken to split up, therapy can also be helpful in helping to negotiate a graceful and kindly ending, one that honours the best sides of the relationship.
Inside a Couples Therapy Session
I am always interested in what makes a couple seek help right now, as opposed to in the months or years during which the problems have been building. I also like to hear each partner's individual perspective. Next, I like to put the couple's "presenting" problems - what they have come to me specifically to discuss - into the context of the whole relationship. So I ask my clients to tell the story of how they met - it helps relax people and remember the good elements of their relationship, and then slowly work up to the present.
During therapy I engage with couples to enhance their relationship and to help them work through challenges and disagreements sensitively and effectively. We work together to recognise and to manage communication difficulties and differences that cause stress or friction within the relationship. We also explore strategies to break repeating patterns of behavior and beliefs that may be destructive to the relationship. Although in our therapy sessions we will generally concentrate on issues arising during the week between appointments, I have a bigger agenda: to help each partner to be emotionally honest, to communicate in a healthy way with one another, to understand each other's feelings and to engage with and accept some of the more difficult bits whilst building on the couples strengths.
Typically after two or three months, I melt into the background. Couples discover they can do this work on their own, that their communication has improved and it's time to end our therapy. Most people leave having not only learned a lot about their partner and their relationship, but about themselves, too.