For couples, just the idea of seeing someone to help work through their issues can seem defeating, or at the very least, make you feel like maybe you just weren't meant to be. Couples often come because during the course of their time together they lost touch with what made the relationship desirable in the first place. So, how does therapy help?
I guess I should start off by stating what couples counseling is NOT. This might save me a few sessions of changing expectations in the future. First, it is NOT a sounding board to get the therapist to validate that YOUR issue(s) with your partner are correct. In other words, don't come to counseling expecting the therapist to say to your partner, "oh, John is right, if you just do what he is suggesting, Jane, you'll be fine." If your therapist is blatantly siding with one or the other, it may be time to see another therapist. Couples counseling is NOT a venting arena as well. This may establish a baseline of what the communication patterns are like, but after a few sessions the communication should be improved and the disrespectful yelling, name calling, belittling, etc. should be improved. Finally, it is not a place to get the therapist to FIX your partner or your problems. For all the faults you may perceive your partner to have, successful counseling usually starts by focusing inward and relies on the COUPLE to fix the problems with insight provided by the therapist.
It may seem counterintuitive, but relationships thrive when the individuals involved first feel good about themselves. They are confident and secure in who they are and do not require much in the way of validation (see Maslow's Hierarchy and self-actualization.) Many relationship issues begin with the need for one partner to receive validation from the other. For example, "I did the dishes tonight so my wife should say thank you and express gratitude." When the validation isn't received the negativity cycle begins spinning out of hand and arguments ensue. "She didn't say thank you so I am not doing anything more tonight." Wife sees this behavior and questions it in an all too familiar pattern, "are you just gonna lay around all evening?" Knowing the mindset of the husband, how he is already primed for aggression, this response elicits further negativity.
Now, imagine if John had just done the dishes because he likes the part of himself that is helpful and didn't look for validation. What if Jane had expressed her concerns in a less aggressive way? What if John realized that he felt disrespected and hurt by his wife's reaction instead of going straight to anger and was able to share that and work through it with her? That is the essence of couples counseling. We first learn to undo some of the dysfunctional schema that result in unrealistic expectations for our partners. We then strive to build self-confidence and how each partner can aide in this for each other. Mindfulness strategies are often used to teach clients to "cue" themselves when they are starting into the old patterns of communication and to use a more positive means of communicating with one another. Therapists teach self accountability, taking ownership of your problems in the relationship and working together to fix those instead of pointing out how the partner is at fault. Homework assignments are often included to keep the couple on track between sessions. To summarize, in an overly simplistic way, couples counseling is the undoing of the patterns that lead to the undoing of the relationship. Couples who engage in counseling often go on to lead better relationships together than those who never went at all. It is not a sign of individual weakness, but an important step in having the best relationship possible.
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