The process of couples counseling can be intimidating, particularly for clients who are uncertain about what to expect. One of the first things I usually hear from first time couples therapy clients is, "I really don't know how this works," and that in itself causes anxiety beyond the already very good reason for being nervous. It is okay to feel this anxiety. I hope it's the first thing we discuss in therapy! And while I will be open, compassionate, and patient in the process of relieving that anxiety, I think it is far more helpful to let you know what you can expect from me, your therapist, and what I expect from you as the clients.
What to Expect from the Couples Therapist
Challenging both partners
Even those who have been in individual counseling may not be fully prepared for the different way in which the therapist interacts with the couple. In individual counseling, the therapist is on your side. The therapist doesn't see how you might actually be interacting with your partner. But in couples therapy, there is no place for one person to be the hero and one person to be the villain. We also get the opportunity to see the relationship dynamics in action, and the relationship is often far more honest than each person's perspective. So, one of the most important roles I have as a therapist is to really challenge the couple. A good couples therapist is on the side of the relationship and is committed to making it healthier. Relationship dynamics are created out of need for stability and predictability and are reinforced over and over for months, years, and decades. Sometimes these dynamics help the couple survive a difficult time, but then they can become the actual problem. It is not easy work to interrupt it. Over time, nuances in character can become erased or amplified by the other partner. For instance, two people who are both responsible with money get married. The couple encounters an unforeseen financial hardship early in the relationship, and maybe one person, the one who is more frugal, takes charge of the finances. The couple makes it through the hardship, however, the dynamics are already taking shape. An unequal power dynamic is born. One partner has been deemed "better with money", and after years that story becomes more solidified. In a way, each person feels both power and helplessness in his or her position. Conflicts with how to spend money are not handled as a team, but rather as a power struggle between the "frivolous" and the "controlling". This is just one area where I would challenge the couple and seek to point out the evidence that is contrary to those rigid roles and to help the couple feel like they are on the same team, working toward a shared goal. This can be irritating. You may think it is really annoying that I keep interrupting you, asking you to rephrase things, and asking things that you don't see as relevant. However, I do this with a purpose. I am working to interrupt deep-rooted relationship dynamics and to identify boundaries, so that the couple can begin to accept each other and find new, healthy patterns.
Facilitating healthy communication
The main way that I do this is through facilitating conversation between the couple. The most common reason couples cite for wanting to come to therapy is because they struggle with communication. While it is never just a communication problem, there is no doubt that most couples in distress are struggling to communicate effectively. I will ask you to be open to trying out new ways to say things, new ways to approach your partner, and new ways to deal with hurtful remarks. Some find the new ways cumbersome. They worry that their communication will become inauthentic or scripted. And guess what? It is! This is not going to feel natural at first! But the communication that has felt natural and authentic in the past is not exactly working for you. It may feel good to tell your partner off in the moment, but is it really helpful? Can you express your anger to your partner without being sarcastic or passive aggressive? Is it more helpful to talk about why the conversation is bringing up feelings of disgust for you, or is it more helpful to just have every word you say dripping with unspoken disdain? One thing I tell couples is that the things they are trying now are not a "forever" thing. Just because I am asking you to be super intentional or careful with your words right now, does not mean that you will forever be forced to consider a set of rules before speaking. I find that most people like the new way of communicating, and the rules become a part of how they naturally dialogue with their partner. It turns out, it feels good to be heard and to understand what your partner is saying.
Working toward a healthy relationship, not just saying together.
The motivation for most couples coming to therapy is to save the relationship. This is where some therapists differ from others in their goals for couples therapy. In my work, saving the relationship is not just a matter of being able to stay together forever. You can certainly do that unhappily. It is creating a healthy relationship, where both partners are able to accept the things the other cannot change, respect each other's boundaries, and communicate effectively. Sometimes in order to achieve this, the couple cannot have a romantic relationship. Ouch. I strongly believe that separation needs to always be an option. Oof! That's a controversial statement, I know. But that means that staying together is a choice that is made by each person, every day. Most of the time, I end up really liking my couples, and it's even hard for me to say, "okay, let's talk about the possibility of separation." I feel it is my responsibility to help my couples explore those options, as well as what it would take to stay together.
What is Expected of You, the Client?
Willingness to focus on how you contribute to the problem
You can probably list every way that your partner is contributing to the problem, but how you contribute is not always easy to identify. As I said earlier, there is both power and helplessness in this. The power comes from the feeling that you are right and justified, essentially "the hero," and the helplessness comes from a fear that you have no way to change the main source of pain in your life. Once we focus on our own contribution, we have actual power to change, to be relieved from pain, but this is the main source of resistance I see from clients. I ask "how do you benefit from this problem that exists?" Sometimes it takes some time to answer this question. That's okay. It's a lot to explore.
Openness in trying new things
Just as both partners are responsible for the relationship, so do both partners need to change in some way. Being open to new ways of communicating and behaving are essential to the success of therapy. Some may say, "my partner has bipolar disorder, what can I do to change that?" or "my partner was the one who had the affair, why should I have to do anything?" Both situations set one partner to be the holder of all of the dysfunction while also having the complete weight of finding the solution. This does not do much to help the couple work as a team. In my office, all problems are an "us" problem. While the injured partner in a relationship that suffered an affair is not responsible for the choices the participating partner made, they may have contributed to the environment that led to the affair. One of the hardest pills to swallow in couples therapy is the realization that sometimes things will feel unfair. "You're asking me to trust this person after they have hurt me so much." Yep. It doesn't have to be immediately, but eventually a healthy relationship will require trust. Do you want justice for your pain, or do you want a healthy relationship? Either choice is fine, but most people don't get both.
Make working on the relationship the top priority in your life
You've got jobs, kids, aging parents to care for, etc. You know you need help with your relationship, so you go see a therapist. Work's been crazy, so it's only convenient to go to therapy every other week, sporadically, or once a month. Why aren't things getting better?
I truly wish I had the power to effect long-term change for a couple who have been having problems for years all within the one hour a month I see them. But I can't force a couple to do anything once they leave my office, and I also can't force a couple to see me for the recommended weekly appointments. That has to be a choice you make to focus your emotional energy on repairing the relationship for your own sake and for the sake of all those who hold stake in your relationship. You can be the best clients if you are mindful of our therapeutic goals throughout the week, do the homework I assign, and make it a point to work therapy into your weekly schedule. Rest assured, I will be pushing you out of the nest as soon as I think you can fly on your own. In fact, my most successful couples often want to keep coming to therapy longer than I want them to! I do not want my couples to come to therapy forever, and I will encourage you to start spacing out appointments when I feel you have made significant progress. Basically, you get out what you put in, just like everything else. No one is going to advocate for your relationship like you will.
Honest and open communication with your therapist
Did something I say rub you the wrong way? Is there something not working for you? Are you uncomfortable discussing something that might be vital to our work? Was there something that I was not great at explaining that you need me to clarify? Please, please, tell me. I want to know how to best help you, and miscommunications can so easily be cleared up, especially when addressed early on. Any time something I say elicits strong feelings in my clients, it is usually a sign that there is growth potential there. Remember, I am a person, too, and although I try to always model the communication skills I want for my clients, sometimes I miss the mark. I still care for each and every one of my clients, and my intention is never to be hurtful or even unhelpful.
Some final thoughts:
I do not expect you to be perfect clients upon entering counseling. I know that it takes some time to build trust with me, and this work requires a sense of security in the room. I just want you to be honest with yourself prior to coming in and ask yourself the tough questions. "Am I ready to meet these expectations? Do I believe my partner is ready to meet these expectations?" This will start you off on the right foot in couples counseling.
I have outlined the major emotional expectations I have for you and myself in couples counseling, but here are a few quick ones that greatly aid in the success of therapy:
* I, as the counselor, will be on time, not change appointment times, or cancel without significant reason (usually an emergency), and I expect the same courtesy from my clients. Consistency in time creates security and safety in the therapeutic relationship, and it says that we all value the work being done.
* Do not expect to bring your kids to couples therapy. I might have to write another blog post about this, but for now, I will just say that it is a distraction for you and for me, as I find myself not wanting to challenge someone for fear that their anxiety, sadness, or anger will impact the child.
* Come prepared to work. If you need time to center or ground yourself after rushing here after work, take the time outside to take a few deep breaths and ask yourself, "what is my intention for therapy today?" That usually helps to focus on the here and now.
Thanks for reading my first blog post!
Jordan Robertson, MA, LMFT