Article - What happens in couples/relationship/marriage therapy?
Couples come to counselling when they are stuck and in pain. Sometimes there is an immediate crisis such as an infidelity, a mental health concern, a problem with other family members, otherwise one or both partners have recognised the need for some outside help maybe because they are repeating the same discussions or arguments, cannot agree on something, are unhappy together, are not having sex, struggling to conceive, wondering about whether to remain in their relationship. So many reasons and yet one underlying cause and that is having reached the limits of their being able to work together to find a solution.
As a couples therapist I will find myself in the role of mediator, facilitator or referee and at the base of these three roles will be the need for new communication. Inevitably before a couple can move forward they need to be able to rest and relax and then look backwards, this can be difficult because it can feel like a repetition of hurts, a further waste of time and a further drain on energy.
Pausing and reflection is essential because the root of any impasse is generally a misunderstanding and identifying it and then recognising its impacts on the relationship and the current situation is the source of new insights, new communication and the way forward.
My assumption that the couple with me are in pain due to a misunderstanding means that I am experienced by both partners as being curious and concerned for them when their experiencing of themselves and each other has most likely become one of criticism and blame. Of course this assumes that both partners are not fearful of either therapy or me - in other words there’s no misunderstanding present in the therapeutic relationship.
My curiosity and concern can have the effect of breaking, pausing or allowing the current dynamic to be questioned afresh. In other words defences that have built up in both partners can be bypassed or taken down to allow for unhindered and fresh communication.
Another of the assumptions I bring into my work is that neither partner will have started out wanting to fail in their relationship. Failure is something that we try our hardest to avoid particularly in the key parts of our lives and as such we can end up trying so hard, using all the knowledge and experience we have of relationships that we end up working individually to solve the issues rather than working together.
It is still the case that myths around differences between people often results in couples trying to do what is expected of them. This is always driven by a fear of being shamed as though they might be found wanting - the route of discrimination is always in the biases we hold that direct the way in which we approach life.
Shame is a very painful emotion and particularly effective in silencing. For anyone who has been on the receiving end of shaming they will know that any short term success experienced by the person shaming will have a longer term effect of destroying the potential for a close and connected relationship.
Returning to working with a couple in therapy where one partner blames the other I will gently change the focus to find out about the struggle of the “blamer” to accept the others behaviour. For example, sometimes partners are unhappy about the way their partner is behaving with them but if I ask “how are they with other people in these situations?” the answer will be “the same”. What has happened in this situation is that a lack of communication results in the upset partner taking personally a behaviour that they find difficult, this often fits with the myths.
Another phenomena can be dishonesty. Dishonesty usually happens when one does not expect to be understood by the other. It becomes easier not to be truthful. I am sure that as the therapist even I get lied to but looking for lies is not the answer. Instead we look to identify what is hard to talk about, what might not be understood. For example, if a partner lies about their drinking, focusing on drinking is unlikely to be helpful, rather finding the unhappiness that is causing the drinking is what can bring change.
Conflict arises when we cease to be in connected communication and start to see the person or relationship as a problem to be solved. Such thinking, although completely understandable, leads to less communication, interpretations and judgments and not understanding and agreement.
Connected communication means couples agree to tell each other when they are feeling hurt, they explain their hurt, they offer a solution for the next time.