Couples therapy can potentially save troubled relationships. But for many couples, therapy is an unknown process that makes them feel too vulnerable – like entering a real and possibly dangerous haunted house. Sadly, when partners wait until their relationship is almost dead before they seek therapy, treatment often fails.
Here’s a general overview of the therapy process, which will hopefully de-mystify it and encourage people to seek help. Because if you can enter treatment early on, before either one of you is on their way out the door, your chances of fixing the relationship will be much better.
Overview and evaluation: Treatment tends to begin with the couple describing their troubles. The therapist tries to gain an understanding and appreciation of the relationship’s strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics. Then the therapist will generally ask each partner about their history. (She’ll do this either with or without the other partner in the room.) This helps the therapist understand each person as an individual, beyond the context of the relationship. It also helps her understand what struggles each person brings to the relationship. Therapists often finish the assessment process by offering the couple thoughts about the relationship issues and an explanation about how therapy can help.
Interventions: In my experience, therapy offers two key levels of interventions, or guidance, to help the couple:
Healing: When people enter therapy, they are hurting and need healing. Sometimes the healing first needs to occur more within a person rather than between partners. Issues like depression, low self-esteem, or overwhelming anger can all prevent someone from being emotionally available to their partner. For therapy to be effective, both partners must be willing to address their individual struggles. They must also be willing to support each other in healing.
- Education: Couples can often greatly improve their relationship with some education, like learning to solve problems as a team or working on ways to communicate better.
Process: Therapy moves between focusing on each individual and the relationship as a whole. The idea is to help the partners truly listen, share feelings, and respond to each other in an understanding and compassionate manner. In the process, partners become a safe haven for each other during troubled times – even when they are in conflict.
Of course, there are different approaches to couples therapy, but most follow this basic outline. If you think this therapy might help your relationship, I suggest that you call some therapists and ask them to describe their approach. Shop around until you find a therapist who uses an approach that you think you (and your partner) will be comfortable with.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.