How to Get the Most out of Couples Therapy

couple walking together on beach Couples are often uncertain what to expect from couple's therapy and even more, they are not sure what the therapist expects from them.  I have found in my experience what can be helpful and not helpful in the therapeutic process.

What is Helpful

  1. Letting go of what's not helpful.  Problems occur when reality departs from your expectations of yourself, your partner and of therapy.  So it's important that you have realistic expectations and goals as a couple.  If you are asking your partner to change something, it's sometimes important that your expectations and goals are consistent with theirs.
  2. An understanding that change and couple's therapy takes time, patience and dealing with the uncomfortable.  It's like taking a wrong turn when you are already late, and you didn't realize it until you are miles down the road in the wrong direction.  When you do realize it and turn the car around, it is going to take some time to get back to the place you went astray.  And even more time to get to place you where you want to go.
  3. Change in how you see the problems in the relationship.  Remember, "it takes two to tango”, even when you and your partner feel like you are in a mosh pit.  See the problem as a relationship problem, not just what your partner is doing wrong or their character flaws.
  4. Focus on yourself rather than your partner.  A good way to think about it is to remember, "where there is an action there is a reaction."  Here are some good questions you can ask yourself to start doing that:
  • What is my partner doing that creates strong feelings in me?
  • What are those feelings?
  • How do I perceive what my partner is doing?
  • How do I react?
  • What does my partner see when I react?
  • How do they react to my reaction?

What is Unhelpful

  1. Couples see communication as the problem in the relationship and often see communication skills as the quick fix.  However, when I have sent couples home with the basic skills of how to communicate and fair fighting rules, they will often come back to tell me that they found themselves in the same arguments and conflict that they had previously.  Identifying what to do and how to do it is often the easy part; the bigger challenge is the why.  How you think differently about the problem is more effective that trying to figure out how to quickly fix it.
  2. "I don't know".  Partners sometimes use the "I don't know" as a block.  They become afraid of conflict and escalating arguments so "I don't know" becomes a way to safely avoid that, which is totally understandable, however this also blocks the therapist towards helping.
  3. The expectation that the therapist will do all the work. My hope is that the couple takes home what they learned in the session about themselves and the other person and practices those insights when they are not in session.  Also, a good couple's therapist will not be on your side or your partner’s side.  But keep in mind that although I am not a referee, I am not neutral either.  I may challenge one or the other at different times.
  4. The expectation that "my partner" needs to change and having an agenda of what that is.  It's easy in your frustration to see your partner as the problem because it would be easier for you if they did all the improving.  You can't change your partner, your partner can't change you, but you can influence each other to promote the change in the relationship.  The more you believe your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change what is between you.




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