What You Can Really Expect From Couple's Therapy
... if you and your partner give it a realistic shot.
Posted January 9, 2016
Maybe you're both tired of having the same arguments over and over without resolution. Or the arguments change but they always wind up in the same stalemate; you make up, but then days or weeks later you're back in the same rut. Or perhaps you don’t argue but you essentially live parallel lives—you eat dinner together, focus on the kids or small talk, then one drifts off with the kids or goes and watches TV while the other gets on Facebook. At 11:00 you go to bed and the next day do it again.
And you haven’t had sex in months.
Obviously you’re having a hard time working out your problems, and so now you’re thinking it may be time to consider couple counseling. Good idea: Research indicates that 60-70% of couples make some improvements in their relationships with even a relatively short stint in therapy.
Here are some steps you can take to help you move forward:
Do your research.
The starting point is finding someone who may be a good fit. In pre-Internet days, you’d have to have whispered conversations with your best friend about whether he or she knew of any couple therapists. Or you might have asked your family doctor. You still can, of course, but now you can get additional help by going online and looking at therapists’ profiles. Do it.
Compare and contrast.
You probably have some idea of what you do or don’t want—that you would rather talk with a male or female therapist, for example. Or maybe you’d rather talk to a female but you know you’re partner wouldn’t so you look for a male therapist. Or you want someone more "Dr. Phil-ish" who can give you specific suggestions and advice rather than spending months wading through your childhood. Or maybe you really want to figure out some things that have haunted you since childhood and include that in the mix. If you have been in therapy before, either individually or as a couple, think about what you did and didn’t like about the experience to help know what you do and don’t want now.
Make a call.
Most couple's therapists are willing to talk to you on the phone about their approach, what their assessment process is, whether there are forms to fill out in advance, as well as specifics about insurance, appointment times, etc. Have your list of questions ready, but keep in mind that what most couple therapists are not likely to do is spend a lot of time on the phone hearing your story. This is partly because they don’t want to do free therapy on the phone, but mostly because it unbalances the relationship. If your therapist has heard your perspective in advance, your partner will come into the first session feeling that the counselor is already biased—not a good start.
Agree to go together.
Ideally you have both agreed on a therapist, are both willing go together the first time, and know what you want to fix. If your partner is reluctant about going, ask if he or she is willing to go one time, just for you, to have a safe place to get some things off your chest. Most partners are worried about getting dumped on in therapy sessions or of getting locked in to going forever. Get a commitment to go once. Then it is up to the therapist to try and pull your partner into staying. That said, it’s common even in the best of circumstances for one person to be more in—more motivated to go to therapy and work on the relationship—and one person to be more out—more ambivalent about therapy or even about working on the relationship. That’s fine; your therapist is probably aware of this and part of the job to work around these differences. (While most therapists want to see you both the first time, some do like to see each of the individuals separately first.)
If need be, go alone.
If your partner is unwilling to go, go yourself, because it is possible to change relationships with only one person in therapy. Many relationship problems are about changing dysfunctional patterns in a relationship that create stuckpoints to problem solving. A therapist can help you learn how to break these patterns and give you tools to communicate better so that conversations can move forward rather than getting stuck in emotional mud. You can learn how not to overreact so as not to trigger your partner's, or your own, old hurt wounds.
You may want to go yourself, too, if you need help figuring out what you really want so you can present that to your partner; or if you are uncertain how committed you are to the relationship; or just to clarify what you may want to ultimately get out of therapy. Figuring these out will help you both hit the ground running if you decide to go together. (It also gives you an opportunity to see if the therapist is a good fit.)
If you go the individual route and want to or can bring your partner in at some point, talk about this scenario upfront with the therapist. If you go too far down the individual therapy road, beyond a few sessions, your partner would be entering the mix feeling like an outsider and at a disadvantage because the system is unbalanced; the therapist will know you much better. Some therapists will try to balance this out by seeing your partner individually for several sessions to rebalance the system before seeing you as a couple. Others might suggest that you both start fresh with a different therapist.
Give it a realistic shot.
However you start, give it a few sessions before deciding to bail, unless you find out the therapist’s approach is clearly not what you had in mind or you really have a sense that you can’t connect or feel supported, safe, and heard. That said, do speak up when you are not getting what you need within sessions. This can feel difficult to do, but think of this as your therapy, not much different perhaps than buying a car or refrigerator that you find wasn’t working as it should. Don’t be a passive passenger.
Have an agenda.
To maximize your time, be proactive and come prepared knowing what it is you want to talk about. While the therapy session is a safe place to be honest and have deeper conversations than you can at home, therapy should not be endless “fight of the week,” with divorce-court-type sessions in which you expect the therapist to act as mediator or judge. Instead, the ultimate goal of therapy is to help you learn the skills and develop the courage to productively solve problems on your own.
Be careful of the pseudo-affair.
Finally, If you do wind up going alone for whatever reason, you want to be careful that you don’t get emotionally pulled into what is essentially an emotional affair. The intimacy of individual therapy can unwittingly provide just enough support and meeting of your needs, and take just enough of the edge off of the angst you feel at home that rather than working on changing your relationship, you don’t: You stay in therapy forever but do little to really tackle the real problems in the relationship. This can be understandably seductive on both sides and more intense if the therapist is of the opposite sex or around your age. It is also unethical for the therapist to do this. While clinical approaches vary, the therapist's job is to help you solve the problems in your life, not merely increase your tolerance for mistreatment.
That’s it. Hope this is enough to get you started. As the old saying goes, the journey begins by taking the first step.
Take the first step.