When Is Couple’s Therapy the Right Choice?
Here are 10 areas that partners can expect to explore in therapy together.
Having spent the better part of five decades working with struggling couples, I deeply understand the many ways that once-loving partners suffer when their relationships go astray.
It is often too easy for intimate partners to look aside as warning signs mount, only to be faced with a jarring crisis before they realize they are in trouble. But for many couples, it is not a crisis per se that threatens the relationship but a slow erosion of intimacy that has left them alienated from the love they once knew.
No matter what brings a couple into therapy to try to heal the destruction they are facing, they are often exhausted. They’ve done everything they could on their own, and none of it has worked. Now, they have come for an infusion of hope.
In our first session together, I will ask partners to share their individual answers to these three questions:
In what way do you each see the difficulties you’re experiencing now?
What do you believe are the resources you currently have to help your healing process?
Because successful therapy can present hard challenges, do you both feel that you have the motivation and energy to see this through?
The therapist must help the couple answer these initial questions as honestly as they can and then share with them what challenges they will likely be facing. It would be unfair and even unethical to predict an outcome that does not look promising.
If the couple is willing to proceed, the therapist will then expand the assessment by exploring the following ten areas with them.
1. Crisis or Erosion
A crisis is the most common reason why couples come into therapy. A breach of trust, an unexpected medical diagnosis, or an unpredictable loss has occurred that has put the relationship under intense stress.
How a couple was managing before the crisis occurred often determines whether the partners have the resources of time, money, energy, social networks, availability, and devotion to the relationship under fire.
It is not uncommon for one partner to be more motivated than the other. The partner who has less need for the relationship to survive always has the power to set the rules.
A successful outcome is dependent on both partners wanting the relationship to work. It does not bode well if one person is willing to do anything to help the relationship heal, but the other is OK if it doesn’t.
Commitment is different from motivation. It is the deeper value that is expressed by the unwillingness to give up without doing everything possible. For distressed couples to have a fighting chance, they must be fully devoted to keep trying no matter what challenges emerge.
As the partners open up authentically to each other, they are likely to hit unpredictable barriers along the way and must be willing to keep going until they can trust that things will get better.
4. The Willingness to Explore a New Vision
If either partner feels that the past will always predict the future, they will become the victims of that limited view.
All relationships scar, but they also have the capacity to grow beyond those scars. But if the partners cannot see a bigger vision of what the relationship could become, they can only try to stop the scarring, but the scars that remain can strangle what good might still be there.
5. Working as a Team
If only one partner continues to do most of the work, the relationship will buckle under that uneven effort. They don’t necessarily have to work in the same way or always on the same issue, but they must both be willing to put in the effort. If both partners feel the authentic presence of the other in working toward a mutual goal, the energy between them will begin to increase, as will the hope they need to succeed.
6. Personal Accountability
No matter how strong motivation and commitment are, no therapy can work if the couple is intent on making the other the one responsible for the relationship’s demise. There is never an exact 50-50 responsibility, but there must be personal accountability as the first choice for both partners. Otherwise, the counseling sessions will become continual outings of what the other partner is doing wrong, with an array of defensive maneuvers to avoid blame.
7. The Role of the Therapist
Couples counseling is tricky. It is an unavoidable triangle that can quickly become unstable if either partner feels a conspiratorial bias from the therapist. A solid triangle means that all three sides are strong. Both partners must trust the therapist to maintain objectivity, honest appraisals, and accurate feedback on what they observe.
8. Mirroring the Therapist
In any successful therapeutic encounters, both partners will learn, over time, to mirror the objectivity of the therapist in the way they begin talking to each other. They learn to separate out a part of themselves to join in the non-biased observation of the relationship as it is unfolding. Over time, that allows the couple to take over their own therapeutic process and to continue improving after the clinical part of their work is done.
9. Assessing and Minimizing Collateral Damage
Relationships falter over time, even when it appears that a crisis has been the reason a couple comes into therapy. Other relationships have often taken a hit along the way. Part of successful couple’s work is to assess the damage their floundering relationship has had on others and to add those amends to the work they are doing on themselves. Very often, until a couple regains faith in themselves, they can hold on by not wanting to hurt others if they fail.
10. Once the Assessment is Made, Questioning the Availability of Resources
Very often, prolonged stress, disillusionment, and disappointments drive couples into therapy before they have had the time and information to know if they can commit to what it will take for them to heal. Some issues are more easily resolvable, and stretching to make room for that is doable. But, as therapy evolves, early trauma, long-term deprivations, and unshared heartbreaks may emerge, dramatically changing the therapeutic landscape and increasing the need for more resources.