Actually I had two cases of couples that finished up their therapy this week and it set me to thinking about what happened. How is it they are done with couples therapy? How do couples begin to think that they are done with the work and can go back to their lives without going to couples counseling anymore?
Of course, different couples come with different needs, problems, and concerns so they don’t always “complete” the same sorts of things to feel done with the therapy. And there are often, also, some signs that occur that the couple is doing better, that they are on their way to a successful marriage and don’t need a therapist anymore. The first that comes to mind is that they argue differently. Arguments come up in all marriages. (Note: some couples don’t really talk about an argument and may not argue out loud, but that is not the norm and those kinds of couples have a different set of problems to deal with.) How the couple gets through the argument is what seems to make the difference. Is there resolution for many of their arguments? The couple that feels finished with their couples therapy, usually, are arguing differently because of the work of the therapy: they are having important changes in the arguing and they are coming to agreements about what to do more often. They are arguing better.
An aspect of arguing that I often notice and point out to the couple has to do with how they will begin to do two things during their more productive arguing: they will deal with the details BUT they also will deal with how they are arguing with each other. I have noticed that couples that argue better or more productively move much more easily in and out of the details and how they are treating each other. When couples don’t do this, they often “crash” in the argument and either escalate the anger and get nowhere except to feel badly or they quit and nothing is resolved.
Getting through arguments, therefore, and how a couple argues are signs of difficulty in the relationship, are also signs of progress in the therapy, and even are a sign that the couple no longer needs the therapist. Arguing well, and fluidly moving between details and how they treat each other, are very important issues in a couple’s relationship, and worth your time to look at and work on as a couple.
There is an interesting TED talk that you can view that I recommend to you by Mandy Len Cantron. Go to TED.com and search for her name or “falling in love” and you will find it. It is just under 14 minutes long. She was researching falling in love and happened to try it herself. In the research, the couple would read and answer 36 questions that were increasingly personal and then stare into each others eyes for four minutes. In the research, people were falling in love after doing this with each other. And Mandy, herself, fell in love with her friend (and he with her). She got a great deal of attention from people because this is an important topic for almost all of us. The question that she gets most often is, “Are you still together?” I’ll let watch the video (she doesn’t tell the answer until towards the end) to find out.
I have the suspicion that a majority of individuals who come to counseling about relationships think that someone else needs to change. In couples counseling, it is often the case that each patient tells me how the other (their spouse, significant other, etc.) is doing something wrong or something that causes problems. If the “Other” would just change things would be better. This last part is not said aloud, though I sometimes say it aloud, something I do when a thought or feeling is present in some way but not very fully expressed. “So if he would just do it your way then everything would be fine,” I might say (I have to be careful and not say this sarcastically or sound sarcastic, and I don’t mean it that way but it can be taken that way). We all would like others to do a number of things that would make our life easier. But in couples therapy, the two are usually locked into ways they each want the other to change and nothing is changing. So YOU have to change, or can you begin to think about that. It must be said that he/she has to change also…
So if you are in a relationship and locked in a conflict and find yourself thinking a lot about how he/she needs to change, try to also look at what you need to be changing. It could make a significant difference…
I find myself often referring to “the edge” for a couple as they talk about aspects of how they relate to one another. I will take my hands, holding them flat, twist one hand 90 degrees, and then bring the fingertips together, trying to show with my hands how they are crossing each other, how they are hitting each others “edge.” I have seen some aspect of this with the majority of couples in marital and couples therapy.
Sometimes one or both of the couple will think that it might be easier if they were with someone else, and that may be true, but my belief is that they would still “hit the edge” with a new relationship they would be in; it might be a different edge, but they will eventually bump up against their edges. If you are going to be around someone enough and/or have enough invested emotionally together, then the “edge” will come up. To try to define this “edge”: it is where you cross each other, where what he or she does grates on you, where you offend your significant other though you didn’t mean to do that at all—it is where, even though you may do well in many ways as a couple, you “bump up against each other” and it hurts. Many times, a couple will recoil when this happens, and some of the time that probably works out fine. But it is also often true that couples need to “get through” what happens when they crash into each other emotionally. So the edge is not really a bad thing, though most couples would think so.
Finding out more about you and your partner’s vulnerabilities can be a way to soften both edges, learning that it is ok for your partner to have feelings, learning to deal with your feelings that come up when your partner has feelings, building trust where it is difficult to do so—these are all ways of softening the edges, deepening the relationship, building intimacy, and countering the pain of “crashing edges.”
As you would guess, there are many reasons a couple might go to couples therapy. An affair is often the breaking open of troubles in a relationship that spurs a couple to seek professional help. And it is often the case that problems had been simmering for a while before the affair started. There is work to be done about the affair but also about the relationship if this is the case. And there are other reasons couples seek help.
A number of couples have come for couples psychotherapy because they were not communicating as well as they would like, or not like the used to. This is a very good reason to seek therapy—the situation is usually not as bad and repair can happen with less work. But there is work to be done, change that would be important, when a couple comes for this reason.
Couples also come because of disagreements, and sometimes those disagreements are about disciplining the children. The task might well be in couples therapy to get the two to respect each other more and find a way that works for both of them better than what they are doing differently from each other. Other disagreements that have come to couples counseling include disagreements over: their estates (who gets what, who takes care of whom), how much drinking or chemicals one partner is using, time away from home by one of the couple, lying, spending differences, larger family issues (getting along with the in-laws, or the sister, or the parent, etc.), sexual frequency issues, betrayal (emotional, with pornography, etc.), religious conflicts (who goes to church and how often for example), along with many others you might be able to think of. Helping the couple to communicate more clearly, see their patterns, look to him/herself instead of the other can all be a part of the work to change disagreements. Helping the couple to get through a disagreement is a good step—many couples don’t get through certain types of disagreements on their own, so helping them to get to a resolution is often helpful and can propel the couple into a better relationship.
Couples often don’t like emotions, actually certain, specific emotions, in the significant other. They can often shut down an interaction or argument when certain feelings come up and then they never resolve the issue. Learning to allow the other to have at least part of what he/she is feeling can also make significant progress and growth for a relationship.
And couples sometimes come to couples therapy when one wants out of the relationship (whether she/he is saying that or not) and needs help of some kind to get to her/his goal: to end the relationship. This is a valid reason to come to couples therapy, though one of the two people is often unhappy with that goal. The therapist’s job, in my opinion, is to help each person become healthier and help the relationship to be healthier, not necessarily to make sure they stay together. If the couple wants to make sure that they stay together, if this is one of the couple’s goals, then the therapist will work towards that. If one or both want to end the relationship, the therapist will help the two work on the relationship, even if headed in that direction, watching for opportunities to make the relationship work better, not pushing the therapist’s goals or values (whatever they might be), but helping the couple with theirs. This can mean that couples therapy, even successful couples therapy, may mean that the couple move apart and sometimes divorce.
I was sitting in a session, recently, with a couple and we were talking about their arguing. Since I have listened to numerous couples in marital and couples counseling over the years, I have thought a lot about and watched quite a few arguments. Over time, one of the aspects of arguing that I began to see was that it was emotional expression. Emotions are really not so good or bad in and of themselves: it is what you do with them that can be very, very important. Couples who don’t express their emotions with each other sometimes do just fine, but sometimes the feelings/thoughts build and come out in some form, and it is not always pleasant (a burst of anger is an example). If you and your significant other or spouse can argue well, congratulations. Many can’t and many couples need help with arguing, or, said another way, they need help with expressing their emotions to one another. Emotions could be thought of as another type of thinking, a part of us that is trying to tell us (or our significant other) something we feel/think. So as a couples therapist, I am tuned into what the people in front of me are thinking and feeling, and what they are expressing about those thoughts and feelings. In fact, a major portion of the work in individual or couples counseling is to help with what you are thinking and feeling. When you understand your thoughts and feelings better, you can make better decisions. And you can talk to one another more clearly. Watch for another post on emotions soon…
And keep on working on your relationships…
I often see couples who have some aspect of their finances as a flash point for their problems. As a couples therapist working with them, I am not too concerned if they are going into debt or if they should use a high percentage credit card or how much should they pay for interest on a house: I am not a financial adviser in that I am not the one to tell them the best way to invest, save, or spend. They have come in as a couple and one of my tasks is, often, to help them get to the same place (or a lot closer) about their finances. And not getting to the same place is, I believe, what often has brought them to me seeking couples therapy, whether they understand that or not. When a couple gets to a financial difficulty, it often can also be seen as a conflict, about each thinking they know what to do, about each having values (often long standing) about what is the right thing to do or the right way to spend. But the issue in couples therapy is to get each of the partners to see that they may have to make some change if they are to be a couple. Sometimes they compromise; sometimes it goes one way and sometimes the other. That is, if they are willing to move beyond being locked in their position, if they are willing to work on being a couple (instead of just being a “single,” that is, just doing it his or her way). Often, the answer is in their ability to be a couple, to work toward closer mutuality.
The Mechanics of Therapy
A therapist can help partners identify negative patterns in how the they interact with each other, with their children and with other adults. With a trained eye, the therapist is able to pinpoint undercurrents that make themselves felt in unexpected ways as the relationship plays out day to day.
Two people mired in a broken relationship don’t understand the submerged dynamics that cause them to repeat the same behaviors over and over, causing stalemates, anger and feelings of being overwhelmed. The therapist will work to demystify the dynamics, giving the couple the power to step away from an argument. The therapist can help the couple see strengths in each other, not just flaws.
After recognizing what’s going on, the couple can work on changing their dynamics, their ways of interacting. The therapist assists with this process by helping each put the reactions of the other in context. This leads to understanding. The therapist can give them small, practical steps to adjust how they communicate, leading to a relationship that is more satisfying for both.
The therapist seeks to strengthen their bonds of intimacy, helping each learn the others communication style and what makes each one feel cherished. Two people learn how to reassure and support each other, while getting their own needs met in the process.
But It’ll Look Like I’ve Failed
Some couples and their families feel there is stigma attached to seeking counseling, as if they have failed to live up to perceived standards. Asking for help can be embarrassing. So the couple waits it out, hoping the problem will resolve of its own accord. They think that maybe all they need is try harder.
Often that doesn’t work. Sometimes an infection just keeps getting worse, whatever home remedies you try. Soon the hand is hurting, then the arm and shoulder. By the time you get to the doctor, he says it must be amputated. Ridiculous. Of course you would seek medical help long before that. But some couples keep putting off therapy in the hope the problem will get better by itself. It doesn’t and they seek a divorce lawyer instead. Therapy is preventive medicine, much like wellness-oriented healthcare. The therapist gives you positive methods to apply to lingering problems. With education and experience, the therapist can spot patterns that stay hidden to you. The tools you learn help you resolve old issues and prevent new ones.
A guest author penned these words–what thoughts to they bring to mind for you?
Some thoughts I would like you to think about in regard to couples:
Six simple rules for avoiding an argument becoming negative are as follows:
1) Don’t hide from the problem, but don’t dive straight into it either. Timing is important when looking to have a constructive discussion–that is why an arranged marriage counseling session is such a great option. Whatever happens it’s a bad idea to start a debate when one partner is at a disadvantage, such as after a bad day at work or after a sleepless night.
2) Never call the other partner names or hit below the belt. This is incredibly destructive and will serve only to set you both back.
3) Involving others is also a no-no; especially friends and children. They will feel extremely awkward, and it’s only going to create negativity. A controlled environment is essential with no interruptions.
4) An argument can only be constructive when conducted with mutual respect, interest, concern and participation. Questions should be asked of each other but at an emotive level more than a practical level, don’t demand answers like yes or no. The point is to be open and discuss the issue, not ‘win’.
5) Don’t criticize personality or character – try to keep it centered about the specific problem in hand. Calling someone idle, lazy, self-centered or such is very negative. Instead, keep focused on the matter at hand.
6) Keep to the topic and don’t change the subject. If there’s other debates to be had that aren’t part to do with this one, they can wait in turn. Bringing in multiple events will clutter and confuse the path to a satisfactory conclusion.
There’s much more to making an argument positive, but these are some basic tenants that will help from the very beginning. If a couple can learn to understand how these negative methods of conflict can be overcome and realize the benefits of constructive, open debate then the relationship will invariably become stronger, as a result. Marriage counseling is a way to get better at dealing with conflict – why not give it a try?
I’d like you to consider the following:
It may sound strange at first, but couples who don’t argue are often those with tensions bubbling under the surface while those who do argue may in some cases have a stronger relationship. As idyllic and romantic as it may be to dream of a perfect relationship where conflict is never expressed or vocalized, the truth is that couples who can learn to argue in a constructive manner usually have a better chance of staying together. There’s a big difference between what makes an argument constructive or destructive, and it’s not always something that comes to people naturally. With the help of a professional marriage counseling service, such positive arguments can be coached and subsequently be of great help in keeping a relationship happy and long lasting.
As time passes, it’s important to understand that conflicts are going to occur in any relationship, it’s how they are resolved that’s the key. There are many scenarios that may determine how people react to conflict, and the least healthy of all is to bypass the issue, as this will likely end up simply becoming self-perpetuating. No matter how little gets said – and so many couples even pretend that there isn’t an issue – resorting to playing a role rather than expressing their true feelings can be fatal to the relationship. Indeed it’s one of the most common scenarios seen by marriage counselors – a relationship where disputes have remained unspoken sometimes for years, yet have made the couple unhappy as much as they may try to hide it.
So how should we try to learn how to express our concerns and issues with a relationship? After all, many people dislike approaching conflict, especially when it’s with a partner who we love. Once more we return to the ‘fairy tale romance,’ and how important it is to overcome. A good piece of starting advice is to think back to other relationships – maybe friends or family – and arguments that have arisen in the past. Being in a romantic relationship makes people generally more inhibited in approaching conflict, because everyone has those disputes in the past that have been resolved after constructive discussion and moved on without any lasting damage.
It’s this willingness to discuss constructively that is at the heart of marriage counseling, without resorting to negativity or dispassionate concern to try and ‘win’ and argument. The only ‘winner’ is the couple when they have secured a consensus that pleases them both – it’s never a one-way process or a ‘first over the line’ victory.