Why Going to Couples Therapy by Yourself Can Still Help
A first step, even alone, can break the cycle and lead to real change.
Posted November 3, 2015
It happens often: a potential client, usually female, calls to see if I do couples counseling. I say yes, we set an appointment, she calls back to cancel. The reason? Her partner feels counseling is unnecessary or is unwilling to come. She’ll get in touch again if her partner has a change of heart.
Usually that’s the end of it, but sometimes I follow up, and I’m told the relationship has ended.
I’ve now come to the definite conclusion that the person who calls would benefit from coming in anyway, with or without her partner.
But why? After all, it’s not what she wants. She wants to work on the relationship—and how can that happen if her partner doesn’t join her?
Except that she is half the relationship, so any change she may make in herself—be it new behaviors, feelings, or attitudes—will directly impact the other person, potentially prompting him or her to adjust to a new dynamic.
The American myth of individualism is just that—a myth. We have autonomy, yes, but are not free-floating, detached “units.” We live in relationships to friends, family, coworkers, partners, even the natural world itself. How we treat nature, the way we drive or behave in public—it all has an impact on others. And we do tend to attract what we “promote,” consciously or otherwise. The best way to bring more kindness and sensitivity to our relationships is to treat others with kindness and empathy, and set appropriate boundaries when others fail to treat us respectfully. Easier said than done, especially when you feel that respect isn’t coming back at you despite your efforts. Which is why talking about those efforts with someone, about how and why they should or shouldn’t continue, can be helpful. Because the therapist (or trusted friend or advisor) is now part of “the system” as an outlet, and can help diffuse tension.
We live in interrelation to each other in today’s interconnected world. To take a simple example, recall a situation where you felt angry with a friend or loved one, though you couldn’t quite figure out in whom the problem lay. Let’s say you’ve lent a friend some money. He or she fails to pay it back. Whose fault is this? Is it the other person, who often borrows and doesn’t pay back—or yourself, in forgetting that this person never pays and for expecting a different result? Did they take advantage, or were you generous? Maybe it feels like being stiffed, except that this other person is really struggling. So does this mean you’re being stingy? Except money doesn’t go on trees. And so on. . .
A more complex example involves sex with your partner: Maybe there’s too little of it recently, due (let’s say) to what seems to be your own lack of desire; for some reason you’re not feeling especially attracted to your partner. But maybe that’s because their desire seems strangely absent as well, acting as a damper on yours. Or is their desire low because you have been feeling more distant? Who started it? Who can “fix” it? And what exactly needs to be fixed? And so on. . .
Much of my work concerns treating those struggling with some form of addiction. Whenever a person calls me because their partner has a possible problem with drugs, alcohol, pornography, and so forth, the first thing I do is urge them to come in and talk about it, even if the partner can’t or won’t. Most of the time, this idea meets with strong resistance: “I’m fine, it’s him (or her)…”
So what’s the problem with this?
First of all, the person calling is often more motivated to change, at least more than the one with the addiction or potential addiction. Also, whatever the caller is doing to ameliorate or stop said addiction isn’t working, or they wouldn’t be calling, even though they feel strangely compelled to keep trying. It’s almost as if this behavior is itself addictive, in an attempt to ameliorate or control the partner’s addiction. This, in turn, makes the addicted partner angry, which becomes a trigger for drinking or drug abuse. This makes the other person hurt and angry, which causes more arguing, then more drinking or using, then more blame and anger—and the cycle keeps going.
The same is true where one person has a problem with anger, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other emotional struggles that impact relatedness. In fact, because we’re so attracted to the familiar (in ways both pro and con), we may seek out partners who match our historical experience; then our partner may unintentionally trigger the very childhood hurts we so badly wanted to avoid and/or “correct.”
Who started it? Who keeps it going? Who is doing what to whom?
It is easy to get mired in these questions, and have endless discussions about parsing answers. In the end, most couples say, "Who cares?" But the better question is, “What can I myself do to make this situation better? How am I contributing to the overall relationship, pro and con?” Beginning to address those contributions—with or without your partner—will have an effect.
Intimate relationships are complicated because there is so much to negotiate amid psychological and emotional overlap, unspoken feelings, differences, implied or mixed messages, and so on. Also, a charged situation leads to reactivity , so that each partner begins reacting to the other’s reaction, leading to confusion. Any new individual behavior has the potential to break the cycle. By breaking that cycle, even a micro-amount, our history becomes rewritten, one letter at a time.
This is why individual work is sometimes even recommended before couples counseling begins, so that each person begins to understand their own subjective emotional feelings and reactions. They learn what new behaviors they can employ to help facilitate solutions rather than perpetuating blame, defensiveness, and criticism.
These negative behaviors are destructive to intimacy, which requires vulnerability, tenderness, tolerance of uncertainty, and patience. Often, people new to treatment have real difficulty with the latter, given the intensity of anxiety, shame, and other painful feelings circulating in the system. (And we are not a patient society.)
Remember the old “birds of a feather” saying? So often the partner of an addicted (or highly depressed or anxious) person will say to me, “Whose fault is this really? I attract this kind of person over and over again, so maybe I’m the one to blame.” Except that, again, blame does nothing but collapse understanding and increase self-loathing.
Plus, someone with emotional challenges or mood/personality “swings” often has at least some moments when the stable and loving parts of them are present. So the problem for their partner is, it’s painful to be around them some of he time but not all of the time. The hard part is the oscillation, often volatile and inconsistent, which is a strain on intimacy.
All of this “seeking the familiar” is especially true when childhood trauma is in the mix. Individual work can help get to the root of what drives us to seek out unavailable or repetitively hurtful partners, and to learn new boundaries and ways of processing hurtful feelings, to lower stress and increase relational options.
It can be very hard to shake, however, the idea that life would be so much better if only they would change first . Often a caller says, “I’m a wreck and can’t be at peace until he/she gets it together.” But what if that takes months, even years? This is a recipe for resentment. Life is always more difficult under duress, so why not begin taking care of yourself now, since change is a process? Even if the “caretaking” person comes in for therapy alone, that itself breaks the cycle, offering a chance to find new perspective and solution.
We learn the dance of intimacy at an early age and forget that somebody taught it to us. However, if you learn a few new moves on your own, your partner will have to keep pace, if he or she wants to stay joined. For example, a person can say, rather than shouting blame or criticism, “You’re right, I have been at fault in ways and have a part in all this. I’m sorry and I’m addressing it. It would probably help us if you did the same.”
Note how “help us” might be a lot more inviting than pointing the finger.
Family therapists often like to use the mobile analogy (as in the mobiles that dangle over babies' cribs). If you poke one end or figure, the other pieces move too. When one person in a relationship “system” changes, the entire thing shifts.
Sometimes romantic relationships, wonderful as they can often be, turn out to be disillusioning. Our ideals and hopes can feel dashed when we discover that the other person is, after all, only human. They may even have some of the qualities we least wanted to find in a partner. But this needn’t always spell trouble. It can mean there's an opportunity to have a new relational experience, however hard it may be to believe. I see it often: When one partner gives therapy or counseling their best shot, shifts occur—and the other partner usually agrees, over time, to come in or seek help in some way.
Something changes; it has to.