There’s a stigma around couples therapy, we don’t end up having those conversations, and we can wind up feeling alone when, of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. People associate it with divorce. However, most people who come to couples therapy are not getting divorced—they’re building a healthier relationship.
Q: What can you expect to get out of therapy as a couple? And what can’t you expect?
A lot of people come to therapy thinking that they’re going to change something about their partner. When you come to couples therapy, you have to be prepared to make changes yourself. You can’t change another person. But you can influence another person. And that’s why it’s important to know that if you make changes, you will instigate change in someone else. Meaning you can’t tell someone to change, but if you change your behavior, they will change in response to you.
We think: How can we get them to do something that we want? But really, the way we can do that is by helping them first. If you can do something in a way that helps them, you will get back something that helps you.
Q: How do you take the first step?
By the time a couple gets into an office, there’s often some resentment. And because of the resentment they don’t feel generous toward each other. They have to remember that they do love this person, and that the person isn’t acting in this way to harm them; the person is acting this way because they are also struggling. If you can look at it that way, you might have more compassion for your partner, because you’re not the only one who’s struggling in this relationship. When you have more compassion, you can carve out a place of generosity for the fact that your partner is struggling, too.
Your partner’s reality doesn’t cancel out your reality. Just because your partner sees the situation differently from how you see it, it doesn’t mean that that person is wrong or that you’re wrong. It just means there’s room for both. Sometimes people don’t want to take the first step because they think: I need you to see it this way. I need you to see it accurately. I need you to see it my way. It’s important for both people to listen to how the other person sees it, but that doesn’t mean they have to agree with it.
Q: When is going to couples therapy a good idea?
Sometimes there’s a concrete issue, like you don’t see eye to eye on something like money or how much time you spend with the other person’s family. Or you have different ideas about how you are raising the kids. You want to go before it gets to the point where you’re both backed into your corner and you can’t listen at all to the other person’s point of view. A good time to go is when you can say, “Hey, there have been a few times when we’ve gotten really agitated when we talk about this with each other. Maybe we need somebody else to help us learn how to have this conversation, because it’s a really sensitive topic for both of us, and it’s hard for us to hear each other.”
Q: How do you approach the idea of therapy if your partner is averse to it?
It’s very important not to make it sound like, “We’re going to therapy because you have problems.” Some people even say, “We’re going to therapy because I can’t handle what you’re doing.” Or “I can’t handle something about you.”
Try something along the lines of: “We’re going to therapy because I love you so much, and our relationship is so important to me, and it breaks my heart when we argue. I would really like to go talk to somebody so maybe we can get some help with that.”
Q: How do you go about finding the right therapist?
Word of mouth is a great way to find a couples therapist, but if you’re hesitant to do that, you can look on Psychology Today. Look at therapist profiles in your area and see which ones have an approach that feels comfortable to you. But really, you won’t know until you get into the room and you see what it’s like when all three of you are sitting there.
“It’s tricky, because there’s so much shame around couples therapy—even more than with individual therapy. People associate couples therapy with divorce. But in my experience, most people who come to couples therapy are not getting divorced—they’re building a healthier relationship. The people who end up getting divorced are often the people who never got help.”
It’s really important to know that couples therapy is hard work, but it’s also very rewarding. You’re very exposed in a way you aren’t in individual therapy. In individual therapy, you can present yourself the way you want to present yourself. In couples therapy, your therapist is going to see you and your partner and the way you two interact with each other. You can feel very vulnerable. And you should—that’s largely the point, to be real with each other.
After your first session, did you feel like the therapist heard both sides of what was happening? Did you feel like the therapist understood some of the ways you two interact? That’s a good way to assess initially.
Q: What else can you expect from that first session?
You should feel that the therapist can hold both of your realities at the same time. You should also walk out knowing there’s a definite possibility that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives, and maybe some of those will come out in the first session. And that he or she has some flawed assumptions about yours. The therapist can help point out that maybe you were thinking that the reason your husband is never home for dinner on time is because he doesn’t want to be, or because his work is more important than you, or vice versa. But your assumptions are often wrong. A good therapist can help you learn something new—even in that first session—about the way your partner thinks and feels about you that isn’t as harmful or hurtful as you had imagined.
It’s always helpful for the therapist to reframe for people: “Hey, the reason that this or that might be happening is not because your partner doesn’t care about you. The whole reason that you’re both here is because you care about each other. If you didn’t care, nobody would be sitting in this room right now.”
Q: What kind of commitment is couples therapy, emotionally and timewise?
It depends on what’s going on and how long it’s been going on. That’s why people need to come in earlier, because if something is a relatively new issue between a couple, that can be resolved pretty quickly. If something has been going on for decades, it can’t be undone in four sessions. That might take a little bit longer.
The good news is that once you start seeing the underlying patterns, it changes most of your interactions. It won’t just change the one thing that you came in to talk about; it will change the way you see each other. You’ll see each other with more generosity and more compassion. You will take what your partner is doing less personally, and you will feel less injured by the other person’s behavior. That helps globally in the relationship. You don’t have to keep coming back every time you have a problem, because now you know more about each other in a way that helps you to resolve your own problems.
Q: How does couples therapy work in conjunction with individual therapy, if one partner already has a therapist?
Lots of people do that. You get different things out of them. You learn a lot about yourself individually in couples therapy, but sometimes people need extra support, or they’d like the extra support. Or they’re working through something personally that they need an individual therapist for. A couples therapist will generally not see either member of a couple for individual therapy, because we want that relationship to be clean. We don’t want any perception of the therapist favoring one person over the other. There’s often a lot of sibling-like rivalry in couples therapy, where people feel like they want the therapist to take their side, or they want the therapist to like them better. It’s not really in their awareness. People want the therapist to validate their position, but we’re not there to do that—nor would that be helpful.
Q: What are some tools that couples can try using to resolve conflict?
A lot of people say, “You’re not listening to me. You’re not listening,” as they’re talking over somebody else. Before you say you don’t feel heard, consider how well you listen.
People don’t realize they do that. They feel so unheard that they don’t realize that they’re making the other person feel unheard. You will be heard much more expansively by the other person if you truly listen to them. A lot of people don’t realize that they’re terrible listeners; they really just want to get their point across.
One of the most important things is to realize that you’re two separate people: You’re going to have different ideas and perceptions. And you don’t have to convince the other person of the truth of your perception. It’s important only that they understand how you feel about it. But neither perception is more valid than the other.
Q: How do you know when you can pause on couples therapy?
When the couple feels like they’re relating to each other better. When they feel like whatever they came in for isn’t really happening anymore, or at least it’s not happening to the same degree. Or even if it’s happening, they are able to stop before it escalates and not go down that rabbit hole the way they used to. It’s about changing the pattern between them.
All couples do a dance. If one person changes the dance, either the other person is going to fall flat on the floor or they’re going to have to change their steps. Usually what happens is the other partner changes their steps, too. And now the couple’s doing a different dance, and if they’re doing a different dance and it’s working for them, then they don’t need to be in therapy anymore.
Sometimes people are scared to leave couples therapy because even though their problem has gotten better or is mostly resolved, they fear that if they leave therapy, they will backslide at times. But that’s to be expected. I say, “Go out there and try it, and if you backslide, come back in. You know you can come in for a tune-up.”
There’s nothing wrong with coming in for a tune-up, but I do want clients to learn to trust themselves, to trust that they can do this and that they are going to backslide. We all have longstanding reactions that are very visceral, and sometimes we screw up. But that’s okay—nobody’s perfect. It doesn’t have to be very significant. It’s kind of like when people go on a diet and they eat two pieces of cake and feel like their entire diet is ruined. It’s not—you ate an extra piece of cake, and you move on.
You can always come back to therapy. It’s a conversation that you have with the therapist and with each other. But it’s not as though everything needs to be perfect for you to stop. No couple is perfect.
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