Psychotherapy with Couples

Marital or couples therapy can help transform a relationship from one that is painfully difficult to maintain into one of mutual support and affection. While the process is somewhat different for each couple, I generally use several main tools to accomplish this:

  • Improve communication skills through exercises that address specific issues,
  • Uncover the historical expectations, good and bad, that are brought into the relationship,
  • Identify the destructive patterns that result from the combination of each partner’s unconscious blocks,
  • Observe and detach from the destructive expectations and patterns in the here- and-now of the therapeutic session,

Communication

How we express ourselves and how we receive our partner’s expressions determines the quality of our communication. Habitual ways of speaking and listening can lead to painful misunderstandings that can go on for decades, or they can be changed so that empathy replaces defensiveness.

Historical Expectations

It is not unusual for family-of-origin issues to lay dormant until we get involved in a close relationship. We enter into relationships with unconscious expectations, both good and bad, that begin to cause problems as time goes on and challenges arise. We begin to realize that that our partner is not exactly who we hoped they were and that they will not be able to meet our expectations for unmet needs. Anger and disappointment often follow. But if each partner is willing to try to see the other person as they really are, rather than who they want them to be, then a truly intimate and supportive relationship can develop.

Just as importantly, if we challenge the leftover unconscious expectations of how bad the other person will be, we can find relief from assumptions and accusations that make relationships so painful.

Patterns

In my experience, seldom is only one partner responsible for the problems in the relationship. I have found it much more productive to understand the problems as patterns that have been set up between the partners. Typically these patterns result from each partner trying unconsciously to work through their own personal psychological blocks in a way that conflict with the other person’s blocks. Successful couples therapy asks each partner to examine his or her own unconscious role in the problems of the relationship. Identifying and breaking the patterns that have taken over can be quite freeing, and offers the couple an opportunity to bond in a way that give them a more secure foundation. Couples therapy also offers an opportunity to understand our own selves and our own emotions better. For instance, stubbornness or anger may actually mask fear of being hurt, and some of the things we accuse our partner of may actually apply to ourselves. What we learn in couples therapy often applies to our relationships with other people as well. Consequently, couples therapy can also help us to grow in ways that enhance life outside of the marriage—which in turn can help the marriage.

Therapy Sessions

One advantage of couples therapy is that we can observe miscommunications, expectations, and patterns in the here-and-now. Observing and interrupting these problems as they happen can have an effective, lasting impact. Typically I suggest that couples plan to come for at least 12 weekly sessions. While some couples continue to use therapy to enrich their relationship after this period, some couples experience sufficient improvement at that point to finish. I usually meet with the couple together in the initial session, then meet with each person once individually to explore family background, and then resume conjoint sessions. I work with couples in 90-minute sessions, as I believe that it is necessary to allow enough time within each session to fully explore the process and arrive at insights and resolutions.