Relationship issues

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How therapy can help your marriage or partnership

Humans learn and grow through relationships. We need to feel loved and valued in order to thrive.

Some cultures believe that it takes a whole community to support a couple in their relationship. Today many couples face this task on their own and find themselves overwhelmed by the issues they face. Therapy may be able to provide the necessary holding and support for a couple who feel stuck or are embroiled in turmoil.

Our relationships with significant others are very different to the relationships we have with friends and work colleagues. There are reasons why we notice and feel attracted to a particular person. And also why that one person can “push your buttons” like no-one else.

Each individual in a couple has developed a template for relationships, influenced by a complex range of factors in their personal history. These dynamics are not always clear to the couple so therapy can shed some light on the hidden terrain and help the couple navigate their unique relationship landscape.

The role of the therapist is to observe the dynamic and bring to attention what appears to be happening. The therapist is not there to judge or assign “blame” to either individual. Instead the couple are supported to explore and reflect on their relationship, and examine what does or doesn’t contribute to a healthy dynamic.

Some couples will decide that they need to separate. Others may decide that there is potential for change and growth in their relationship and will continue to work on what is difficult.

Even if the decision is to separate, therapy can help the couple grieve for their relationship and work towards a healthy separation. This is particularly important if there are children to be considered.


What is couple therapy?

Relationship therapy, or couple therapy, is when a couple (heterosexual or same-sex) see a therapist together. You might be:

  • Getting married and wanting to get to know each other in greater depth
  • Dealing with a significant life event: a death, redundancy, illness, fertility issues, an affair, children…
  • Feeling stuck in a rut and wanting to explore your potential together
  • Finding yourselves in constant conflict
  • Planning to separate and needing to grieve for your relationship and find a way forward

How does couple therapy work?

Whatever the reasons that bring you to therapy, the alchemy generated between two individuals is much more than the sum of its parts, and has enormous potential both to destroy and to heal the relationship.

  •  Both individuals must be present in the room
    It may sound obvious but plenty of clients attend individual therapy sessions to work on their relationship. What is absent in that scenario? The relationship.
  •  The relationship is the client.
    In couple therapy the “client” is the relationship, rather than the individuals.
    There are three people in the room to observe and reflect on the dynamics that arise. Initially it may only be the therapist who identifies the dynamics, but after a while your raised consciousness will make you fantastic observers and able to effect change from within your relationship.
  •  Content and process
    Each member of a couple may bring events and experiences into the therapy room, and to start with it may feel like a lot of “he said / she said,” “this happened / that happened.” However, with the support of your therapist you may begin to see how these different events reflect a number of repeated themes.
    There will be times when you need support dealing with a particular event that needs tactical exploration. At other times you will be supported to link a number of issues together and see if a strategy can be developed. Once a couple can develop a strategy they are better equipped to meet fresh challenges in the future.

Different therapeutic techniques

Different couples may meet the same challenge in different ways, so therapy is a very personal, tailor-made process. The therapist doesn’t hold the solution for you, but they should have the skills to help you find your own way forward.

Working with a therapist who has a variety of therapeutic tools at their disposal can be very effective. Creative and imaginative techniques can reveal rich layers in a relationship. They could involve some experiential work: sand trays, role-playing etc. This is not “playing,” but using metaphor to expose what may lie hidden in the unconscious of your relationship.

Clients who have used these different methods are always surprised at the depth of knowledge they come away with.


What if my partner won’t come?

It can be difficult getting both partners to commit to couple therapy. Couples who walk through the door together have already made a significant step.

If your partner is unwilling to try therapy, or is struggling to attend (for whatever reason), it could be helpful for them to:

  • Find out more about how therapy works
  • Have a telephone conversation with a therapist without any obligation
  • Attend an initial session, followed by time to consider their options
  • Attend a course of psycho-educational sessions together with other couples (a “low-risk” approach which may address some of their concerns about therapy)

I’m happy to discuss any of these options with you.

If your partner is really reluctant to attend then it’s not productive to coerce them. The issue then may be the feelings that you are left with, and it could be very helpful to get support for yourself.

Once therapy starts, for an individual or a couple, boundaries will be agreed which will be an integral part of the safety and trust which supports the process. These boundaries may determine whether individual sessions can become couple sessions at a later date, or whether either partner of a couple in therapy can have separate individual sessions as well. These issues need to be considered carefully with your therapist.

If one partner in a couple doesn’t turn up for couple therapy,in most cases the session would need to be rearranged (and you would be charged for the cancelled session).

Alternatively, it might be useful to use the session to explore the impact of the absence with the partner who is present. It could represent the reality of what is happening between the two people. The issues discussed in this session would be shared with the absent partner when both parties met again.


Therapy and divorce proceedings

Once a couple embark on divorce proceedings it is often (though not always) a sign that all communication has broken down. A legal battle can be costly, both financially and emotionally, and the impact on any children can be significant.

Thankfully, the use of mediation services, or a collaborative divorce approach, is on the increase. Many couples find that working on their emotional conflicts in couple therapy enables them to approach the legal proceedings in a less adversarial way.

Therapists are not lawyers or mediators and cannot advise clients on legal issues or processes. However, they can support a couple through the emotional turmoil, and often help to reduce the overall cost of the whole process. And if children are involved, therapy can also help a couple to parent in a healthy way, despite the pain they themselves are experiencing.


Practicalities
  • Regular sessions
    Can you both prioritise and commit to attending sessions on a regular basis? The number of sessions can be agreed with the therapist in advance and then reviewed as the work progresses. This should give you a clear idea about your time and financial commitments.
  • Daytime appointments
    Expect to attend sessions during the working day, exactly how you would if you needed a course of physiotherapy or dental treatment. Making time for this during the working day is part of your commitment to the process.
  • Cost
    Couple therapy costs more than individual therapy because working safely with relationships requires specialised training. It is a complex dynamic that involves particular therapeutic skills over and above those required for working with individuals. The fees reflect this.