So things have become strained in your relationship. Communication has gone out the window, you are fighting over petty things, and you do not seem to appreciate each other anymore. Maybe it is even something seemingly unforgivable, like infidelity. Seems like couples therapy might be a valuable option. However, there are a number of things you should consider before entering couples therapy. Are both members of the couple committed to this process? Too often one partner is pulling the other in by their ear, and this does not set great groundwork to start.
Do you have common goals, or are you coming from very different perspectives about what is wrong with the relationship? Is one person still actively carrying on an affair while entering couples work? This is a deal breaker for the work. Ethically, a therapist is not supposed to work with the couple until both people are fully committed to the process, continuing an affair would demonstrate a lack of commitment to the therapy. Lastly, has one member of the couple already decided they will be asking for a divorce, but has not told their partner? This could be largely considered entering couples work under false pretenses.
So you are both in agreement that couples therapy could be beneficial, or maybe you both believe it is your last chance. Regardless, you have both decided it is probably worth a try. How do you choose the right therapist for you? A good way to start is to find out who is covered by your policy, if you are not paying of pocket. You want to read up on the Psychologist or therapist’s style, background and philosophy. Does this seem like a good fit for each of you? When you make initial contact, does the person seem warm and welcoming, do you get a good feeling from them? I think that feeling we get in the pit of our stomach about someone is not to be ignored.
If you go through these steps and try and decide to try a therapist out, there are other important factors to consider. Is this person warm and welcoming? Do they make an effort to be fair, impartial, and balanced between each member of the couple? I cannot name how many times I have been told that one member feels that the therapist always takes their partners side. This should be addressed, is it true, or is it perception? If the therapist is not agreeing with your point of view 100% of the time due you feel like they are taking your partners side. Most importantly, are the three of you in agreement on the goals and direction of the couples work?
So now that you have found a therapist that both of you like, what kinds of things will you be working on, and what kind of “rules” should be in place for the sessions? I know that I try to set some firm boundaries to make each member of the couple feel safe. There is no aggressive behavior allowed, this includes verbal or physical threats. I have had to tell people to sit down and gather themselves a number of times, or to take a 5 minute break outside the room. There is no threatening the relationship as a manipulation. For example, you are not getting your way so you say, “Forget it, let’s just get divorced.” The person is often using it to stop a conversation or get their way, but has no intention of divorcing their partner.
Once we have addressed an issue and agreed to a resolution, we are not able to keep dredging it up and going back to it. You have either agreed to forgive and move forward, or you have not. As mentioned earlier, no partner is to be actively carrying on an affair while participating in couple’s work, as this shows they are not committed to working out the relationship. Lastly, couples need to work on the skills they are learning between sessions. Some couples say they will not even talk to each other outside of the session. If you are not applying what you are learning, and you are only willing to interact for an hour a week, you are not really giving the relationship a chance.
So what are the types of things you might be working on during sessions? Communication is the most common issue that couples report as goals to work on. A therapist can help the individuals understand each other better, and learn healthier ways of expressing themselves and getting their needs met. Another common issue is feeling unappreciated, and that there is not an equal division of responsibilities in the home and relationship. A therapist can help the couple to make a practice of telling the other person what they appreciate about them, as well as negotiate what each person feels is a fair and balanced division of responsibilities.
Finances are of course one of the most common relationship killers. Each person needs to understand the others views on money, and what they are rooted in. If, for example, one is a spender and one is a saver, work needs to be done to find a happy medium that each person can live with. Sex is of course another common issue. Whether it is inequity in sex drives, or a partner that has taken part in an affair, a therapist can help. When it comes to varied sex drives, conversations and compromises can take place that restore intimacy, and create a frequency that both people are comfortable with. In the case of infidelity, the therapist can help the couple work through the broken trust, establish if each partner is still committed to the marriage, and what it would take to start to rebuild trust.
In order for couple’s therapy to be effective, each member of the couple needs to be open and willing to engage in the process. There should be no forcing someone to go or halfhearted effort. The couple should be engaged during sessions, be as honest as possible, and be willing to try things that are outside of their comfort zone. It is vitally important that the couple is practicing the skills that they are learning between sessions. They will not see the progress they could if they are only working in them in sessions. Try and realize that the therapist is there to help you. If they make a suggestion about how you might have better handled a situation, instead of becoming defensive and assuming they are taking your partners side, step back and consider if there is merit to what is being said.
So after you have bared your sole, shed lots of tears, and been what has assuredly been an important emotional experience, how do you maintain all the progress you have made? You need to be certain that you are practicing and using the skills that you developed while in couple’s therapy. Be aware and catch yourself when you start to slip back into bad habits. Keep in mind the reasons that you did all of this work, and that things were working and better when you used the tools and techniques you learned. If things go a little too far off course, it is not uncommon for couples to either come back for a brief time to couples therapy, or to do “maintenance sessions” for a while where you meet monthly to check in, review how things are going, and make any needed adjustments.
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