Disclaimer: Please note that the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationships.
If I were to ask how you feel about going to couples therapy, what would your reaction be? Perhaps you'd feel impatient, eager, or relieved at the idea. If so, you definitely wouldn’t be the only one to feel that way. But if you were to find yourself laughing off the idea, or feeling uneasy, indecisive, embarrassed, or hesitant, to name just a few responses, that would make a lot of sense too. The prospect of going to couples therapy can be intimidating, and there are assorted reasons for this. For one, couples therapy involves vulnerability. Imagine sitting side by side with your partner as you both recount the most private details of your life and relationship to a stranger.
Another reason is the bleak mental picture associated with it. Couples therapy gets a bad rap as the place where relationships go to die, so making a decision to reach out to a couples therapist can seem like an admission that the relationship must be taking its final breaths. Couples therapy can also bring up the image of a lion’s den for some folks, with at least one partner feeling cautious about going because they expect their partner or the therapist (or both) to see them as the sole problem in the relationship and make them "the bad guy."
Additionally, there’s a sense of inadequacy and shame that can arise for some couples, who criticize themselves for being unable to solve an issue on their own. Other individuals feel a sense of futility when thinking about couples therapy, as their inability to change the dynamics of their relationship feels like a sign that couples therapy couldn’t possibly help.
All in all, it’s readily understandable why people are not in a big hurry to give couples therapy a try. In this piece, we'll take a look at some of the myths surrounding couples therapy and try to unpack them.
“Divorce or breaking up must be on the horizon for people to go to couples therapy.”
Couples have varied reasons for going to therapy. True, some partners are on the verge of splitting when they meet with a therapist. In fact, there are couples who will work with a therapist to end their relationship in an effective manner. For other couples in therapy, one or both partners feel unsure whether they want the relationship to continue. In one study, this was the case for about 20 percent of the couples. In another study, 14 percent of couples started therapy to figure out whether they could save the relationship or whether they should part ways. These are valid, meaningful reasons to seek couples therapy.
A host of other couples walk through the door for different, yet equally valid reasons. For example, one team of researchers found that about 46 percent of couples wanted to handle conflict better, 30 percent wanted to restore their bond, and 25 percent of couples felt they were doing well and just wanted to enhance some part of their union.
Likewise, another group of researchers found that 57 percent of couples were hoping to increase their closeness or feelings toward each other and the same proportion wanted to improve how they interact and talk. Further, 32 percent wanted to address issues with their children, 28 percent were looking to enhance their physical connection, 15 percent were motivated by fondness for their partner, and 10 percent wanted to focus on maintaining the strengths in their relationship.
What this research tells us is that not only do couples have diverse reasons for seeking therapy, but there are also people who see it as a way to strengthen their relationship and be the best partners they can be. In other words, relationships don’t have to be in grave danger or have significant problems for partners to want to try couples therapy.
“If I go to couples therapy, I’m just going to get blamed and verbally attacked. No thanks.”
Although I can't literally guarantee this won’t happen, I can tell you that it shouldn’t happen. That won’t allow both partners to have a sense of safety in the room. It's important for couples to feel like they have a warm therapeutic bond with their clinician, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of their relationship.
Research suggests that when couples have a stronger connection with their therapist, this predicts enhancement in their romantic relationship. In other words, although your therapist may not necessarily agree with you and may ask you and your partner to make changes, you should feel heard and supported, not verbally assailed or treated like the villain in the relationship.
"We shouldn’t have to go to couples therapy. We should be able to fix this on our own.”
The choice to ask for help is a triumph of strength. It can be tough to reach out rather than march forward and go it alone, especially for couples who feel they’re supposed to be able to improve what’s bothering them without any outside help. One challenge with the notion that couples are supposed to address relationship issues by themselves is that it doesn’t map on to how human relationships work.
For example, not all relationship dynamics are clear and evident, especially for the people who are inside the relationship, so sometimes what seems to be the problem isn’t the actual problem. It’s sort of like fighting an invisible boxer. How are couples supposed to properly address the situation when they can’t see it, through no fault of their own? A couples therapist, someone who has a view from outside the relationship, can help couples see their relationship from a different perspective and interact in a new way.
Another challenge with this notion is that it doesn’t map onto other kinds of care we humans receive. How many of us have sought help, without blinking, from a physician, a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or a job coach? We don’t always think we’re supposed to be able to work out, eat well, enhance our careers, or care for our health on our own. Should relationships be any different?
“Why go to couples therapy? It won’t work.”
When partners have tried and tried to improve their relationship and nothing has worked, a heap of skepticism about whether couples therapy could possibly work makes sense. And in fairness, there’s no way to ensure that a relationship will improve. That’s part of the risk—things might not get better.
At the same time, sometimes the reason partners can’t imagine how their relationship could change is because they haven’t come across what works, not because their situation is irreparable. And there are approaches that work, such as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which has strong backing from scientific research. So even though it’s possible that couples therapy may not help, it may ultimately surprise partners with how much it can make a difference.
Of course, it’s perfectly all right to decide that couples therapy just doesn’t seem compelling, interesting, or relevant. But for those couples who might try it, but don’t, due to some of the obstacles we’ve talked about, I hope this piece offers a little help in addressing the disheartening barriers that partners sometimes see in their path.
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Doss, B.D., Simpson, L.E., & Christensen, A. (2004). Why do couples seek marital therapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35, 608-614.
Knobloch-Fedders, L.M., Pinsof, W.M., & Mann, B.J. (2007). Therapeutic alliance and treatment progress in couple psychotherapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33, 245-257.
Tremblay, N., Wright, J., Mamodhoussen, S., McDuff, P., & Sabourin, S. (2008). Refining therapeutic mandates in couple therapy outcome research: A feasibility study. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 137-148.
Weibe, S.A., & Johnson, S.M. (2016). A review of the research in emotionally focused therapy for couples. Family Process, 55, 390-407.