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.
Some thoughts I’d like you to think about for couples:
Couples therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is meant to help couple recognize and resolve problems while enhancing the health of their relationship. These are some of the benefits couples should expect from a therapy.
It helps to modify dysfunctional behavior. The therapist will try to change how the pair usually behaves with each other. It means that besides assisting them to improve their interactions, the therapist will also need to make sure that their clients are not engaging in actions that can cause economic, psychological or physical harm. To do this, the therapist will have to conduct careful assessment in order to determine if their clients are at risk. If necessary, the therapist will make a recommendation based on the problems the duo is facing in order to stop the problem from escalating.
Therapy may reduce emotional avoidance. People who do not express their inner feelings are usually at risk of becoming emotionally distant. The therapist will help them to bring out the thoughts and emotions that they fear conveying to the other person. People who did not develop secure expressive attachments in their childhood have unmet needs that they carry over into their adult relationships. They are afraid of showing their loved ones how much they need them since they fear being rejected. It is therefore essential for people to express their real thoughts in a way that will draw them closer together.
Couples therapy strives to bring about an improvement in communication and aims on assisting partners to converse effectively. The communication should neither be abusive nor should the pair ridicule each other when they express their feelings. It means that people need help in order to learn how to speak to each other in a more supportive and understanding way. Being able to communicate effectively means the couples will learn how to listen more actively and emphatically.
Consider the following writing from an individual about ambiguity and then clarity in communication and counseling. I’ll comment at the end:
Ambiguity in communication is an indispensable aspect in marital counseling.
I have experienced several vital matters throughout the period I provided counseling in Omaha. These issues usually arise from married couples, work group, and none traditionally married couple and so on. Couples discuss these matters in a therapy session, and they often refer to their experiences outside their office environment. The scenario is described as the importance of “good interaction or bad interaction” and ambiguity in communication is the cause of it. Various aspects of spousal communication need to be improved upon; being certain and precise are a few of the issues that couples are advised to tackle. This would reduce the argument and create a strong relationship. I spend a few times every week, offering counseling services, where I noticed the arguers making frantic effort, though without sarcastic tones, trying to make a meaning out of what he or she has just said and what he understands the other person has said. Let me say that as soon as this happens again, I would point it out, and label it as an important thing that has just happened. I subtly maintained that simplicity helps to discover solutions and can put an end to a crisis; it could shift the ground of argument. I have made out a few times counseling couples just to make everybody understand things that were just said. We try to clarify whether the partners understand what was just said by asking, “Do you mean that you do not hear what I said well” or “do you mean you can no longer tolerate this.”
Clarity is a very important lesson which every couple must learn in a counseling session.
Clarity the basic skill to master in couples counseling.
You can improve your life and improve your communication, even in a situation of argument by being clear about what you say. You can apply the principle of clarity to avert conflict by understanding how to ask what the other person means, or understanding how much you have hurt the other person, and by tendering your apology and by saying I am not doing much here. All these need to be said without sarcasm or they won’t be effective. You can say something like “what do you want from me to make you happy,” “what is that you want from me.” This could put an end to any argument. You can put an end to the argument by saying something like “I do not think I am understood.” The chances are there that your partner may not understand you very well, and the implication of this is that your communication is misunderstood, and you need to make yourself clear. You must not participate in couples counseling to employ these tools to your advantage and improve your relationship. To make it clearer to you, if you strive to be precise, you can solve any type of argument. There could be several other hindrances, which could obstruct conflict resolution, but you are getting to the end of the conflict when you are certain, and this would make the other person understand you better. This would help you to grow your relationship.
Ambiguity and clarity are important, but in some of your writing it doesn’t seem that you know a lot about what you are saying, you just assert it. For example, to say, “… if you strive to be precise, you can solve any type of argument.” I do not find that to be true. Being clearer often helps with communication and can, sometimes, decrease conflict, but it does not, in my opinion, guarantee a solution.
Some thoughts about couples, conflict, and improving relationships:
Marriage counseling helps two partners resolve problems and improve communication in their relationship. The process almost always involves both members, but occasionally just one will work with the therapist. Here are some thoughts of the positive help therapy can provide for an ailing relationship.
The Reasons for Seeking Help
When two people are in trouble, often one will force the issue and demand that they seek counseling. Here are few of the most common reasons for getting help from a trained therapist:
If you are struggling with any of the above issues, perhaps it is time to consider relationship counseling.
A journal article I read recently reported:
“Divorce rates were significantly higher for secret infidelity couples (80%, n=4) than for revealed infidelity (43%, n=6) and noninfidelity couples (23%, n=26).”
What that means is that for the 36 couples that were reported on in the study, those with infidelity that was not revealed (not talked about) as an issue saw much higher divorce rates over the five years of follow up that the researchers did for this study. And those couples where they talked about the issues surrounding the infidelity were more likely to make it than those who kept such an issue a secret.
But there is more of interest: “Infidelity couples who eventually divorced reported the highest marital instability; however, infidelity couples who remained married did not differ in marital stability or relationship satisfaction from noninfidelity couples.”
So that seems to mean that if there was infidelity and they divorced, those were also the couples that had the highest marital instability and that would be expected. But the second part of the sentence says that when they remained married (and had been in couples therapy) couples with infidelity were as stable and satisfied in marriage as those that didn’t have infidelity as an issue.
One possible way to look at this finding is to say that infidelity does not mean a worse outcome for the marriage when the issues are worked on in therapy. And there is one more point that was made that I would like to state: “Furthermore, couples who remained married reported an increase in relationship satisfaction over time, regardless of infidelity status.” In this study, when couples remained married, they grew in satisfaction in the relationship regardless of fidelity status, that is, infidelity did not make a significant difference about satisfaction of the relationship. Remember that these couples had been in therapy. Also remember that this is one research paper with 36 couples.
My take on this: if you are willing to work on your issues, and work on infidelity in particular in couples therapy, you can (sometimes) find marital satisfaction at the same level as those who have not had infidelity in the relationship. That is something to think about. Couples therapy can make a difference, and working on your issues, even infidelity, can make a difference.
(Journal article: from Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.)