Couple’s counseling can be a powerful experience. It can open up new dialogue about sensitive topics, which can strengthen a couple’s bond. People in long-term relationships who take each other for granted can learn how to reconnect more deeply. And those stuck in unproductive dynamics can learn healthier communication patterns so that their marriage is on a stronger footing.
Ideally, therapy brings clarity. For many couples who might be uncertain about staying together, this will mean an opportunity to strengthen their bond. For others, it can shine a light on a broken relationship and bring hard truths into focus.
It Takes Two
Some people approaching couple’s therapy see their relationship as the “client” — their communication patterns, issues around intimacy, the alignment of expectations. And while that is a useful framing in some respects, it’s also important that each individual partner sees themselves as equally and individually relevant. Couples counseling really only works if both people are open to the therapeutic process, willing to be accountable and make changes.
Most initial calls to a therapist are initiated by one partner, and the other partner may not yet be on the same page. That’s okay. People’s agendas are not always obvious, nor are they necessarily conscious of it.
At the beginning of therapy, I attempt to answer two important questions: First of all, do both people want to be here? Secondly, what is each person’s individual motivation for being in therapy? Perhaps you were given an ultimatum. Maybe your partner’s primary reason for seeking therapy is to save the marriage, while you are ambivalent. Transparency at the beginning of the process is critical. Are you being honest with yourself and each other? If not, are you ready to be?
Why, and Why Now?
The next task at hand is to find out why the clients are seeking help together, and why now? A wide range of valid issues prompt couples to seek the help of a therapist. Common issues include infidelity; loss of sexual passion and/or emotional connection; or mental health concerns such as substance abuse, mental illness, or emotional abuse.
It’s not uncommon for couples to embark on therapy with one set of stated issues and goals, only to uncover something very different. Sometimes there are hidden agendas, unexplored desires, or repressed misgivings. Partners in couple’s therapy have to be ready for these dynamics to evolve through this process. It’s possible to have emotional attachment and love, but be incompatible regarding the kind of marriage you want. You and your partner may have significantly different needs than you had when you met, and those need to be revealed and understood..
The beginning of therapy is a lot like looking together at pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Initially it can seem disjointed, but eventually the pieces will start to fit together.
Working together, we’ll create a space to explore each partner’s true thoughts, experiences, curiosities, and goals. This list of sample questions can give you a sense of the issues I will raise with you and your partner in therapy. Reflect on these as you consider the possibility of couple’s counseling.
1) Are you being open and honest with yourself, and your partner?
2) Are you remorseful about the ways you have hurt your partner, even if it was unintentional?
3) If there has been a betrayal, are you willing to repair and rebuild trust? This is a long term process, which requires commitment and patience.
4) Are you accountable for your actions? If you are struggling with addiction, are you in treatment? If you have been unfaithful, have you told your spouse? Are you willing to end the affair for good?
5) How is your capacity for insight? Are you able to self reflect, identify feelings and patterns, which have contributed to your current relationship dynamics? If this is difficult for you, are you open to individual therapy? ( Individual therapy is a great adjunct to marital counseling.)
6) How realistic are your goals? Do you place too much pressure on your partner for your own happiness?
7) Are there enough feelings of good will and friendship to make it worthwhile to stay? Are you still attracted to your partner?
The positive feelings of good will, friendship, and love are the foundation on which intimate relationships are built. If there is hostility and contempt, therapy won’t help. It becomes toxic for all involved. I am an optimist by nature, however, and naturally look for a couple’s strengths. Even if the spark of passion and affection has dimmed over the years, it can be rediscovered if there’s a strong foundation.
To each couple who enters my office, I offer hope. A loving partnership is worth saving, and is one of the best antidotes to an uncertain, ever changing world. Any relationship can be strengthened as long as both people are equal partners in its growth.