It doesn’t take long in couples therapy to come across couples where the partners have a different style from one another in one or more areas. It is probably something that is true for all couples: there are areas where their style of doing something is different than the partner’s. Some examples that often come up: different ways of dealing with time, different styles with spending and/or saving, differences in seeing what work needs to be done around the house (inside the house, also outside the house), differences in time spent with extended family (parents, siblings and such), etc. So first of all, realize that you will be in a normal situation when the two of you have some differences in style in an area or two (or three). You don’t need to panic or fear the relationship is over because you have different styles about one or more issues.
A major task of couples counseling is to help the partners move down into what their values are that are under the differences in style. Because this is a style, it is probably long standing, and you probably believe your are right about it, and you probably believe that your partner should change. And that is ok. But it is also very highly likely that your partner believes the same things about his/her style. My job, most of the time, is to help the couple to see how they both are (or feel) right, that their style or way of doing things is the right way. And when both feel their style/way is the right way, they often move into telling the other one to change and how they are wrong.
If you came into a relationship and you think the other person is the one that should change, that is fine, as long as the other person does that without resentment. Most relationships that seek out couples therapy, however, have a balance where they are more or less sharing in their values and styles. It is absolutely ok (and can be a good thing to do) to talk about what you would like your partner to change, both inside and outside couples therapy. And if you are going to do that, then your partner should be able to do the same, right? So things begin to move from “I’m right” to “we both feel like we are right.” And that is a place where couples often need help. What to do when you are both right. More on that next time. But realize that if you can move from “my way is right” in your mind to “we are different about this” and “we are both right” you have made significant progress.
Couples therapists have different preferences for how to see a couple: individually to start and then conjointly; only together; sometimes they prefer a mixing of conjoint and individual sessions. My preference is for the couple to do the work together, for us to see what they have to say, to see how they both respond to the therapy. I will go a different route if that is what they feel they need, but it is usually best for both partners to go together to couples therapy. There are times when one of the partners does not want to go to couples therapy or therapy at all, so what is one to do?
There is a great deal of work that can be accomplished when an individual goes on their own to therapy, particularly if it is relationship work that the person and couples therapist engage in. One of the keys to couples work when both partners attend is when each party figures out that they themselves have to change. Waiting for the partner to change or even trying to make the partner change in couples counseling usually is not successful and usually stalls the relationship, in or out of therapy. So when the couple figures out that the individuals have to do their own work, they begin to change.
Similarly, when the individual in relationship counseling with a couples therapist figures out they they are the one that needs to change for change to happen, the relationship may begin to change, even though the partner is not attending the sessions. You can affect others, you can affect your partner—the most productive way is to change what you are doing and how your are thinking about the relationship. By all means, therefore, go to relationship therapy by yourself if you can’t get your partner to go. Some of the work is exactly the same. Begin to change yourself and you may also see the relationship change.
One issue that often comes up for couples outside of the therapy office as well as inside it, is that the couple hasn’t figured out how to find a mutually desired frequency of sex. One person wants it more frequently (HDP or high desire partner) and one wants it less frequently (LDP or low desire partner). Remember, this is always the case, that one of the partners will want it more and the other will want it less than the other partner. Often, when the desire levels are close, there is not much of a problem. More often, when the desire difference is large, there is a problem. This kind of problem will often have serious outcomes, whether the outcome is silent (resentment) or overt (arguing, leaving) and can lead to the need for couples therapy.
Many couples do not know how to work through a situation of disagreeing about how often to have sex. And some couples are not able to work this problem out: they disagree so much about frequency of sex that they divorce or estrange themselves from one another in the marriage.
Realize that this problem, differences in desire, is a lot like other differences, like how much money to spend on something or during a period of time. Two different people will have two different opinions about how much to spend because they are two different people. If they are not very far apart in this desire, they often don’t have much of a problem. If they are far apart, just like with a sexual issue, it is usually more problematic.
Think about the issue of differences of desire about sex. Try to think about it at more of a distance, as a problem of not having worked out the difference on this topic rather than “you want sex all the time” or “you never want sex” (neither of which are very often the case). A solution to the difference can begin to unfold when the couple begins to see that they have a desire difference rather than a sexual problem. This is not to say that sexual problems are always solved this way; I am not saying that. What I am saying is that to step back from a difference problem and begin to work together for a different way of being with each other can be a very good thing to do. If you need to go to couples therapy to have help with this, that’s fine. If you can make the step outside of couples therapy, that is a very fine thing also. By all means use couples therapy for difference issues you can’t resolve, including differences in desire.
Let’s say that you are in the market for a couples therapist. You go online and see what you can find. And what you realize after a little bit of searching is that there are many kinds of therapy and many kinds of couples therapy. One site, GuideDoc.com, lists nine, including the Gottman Method, Narrative Therapy, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, Positive Psychology, Imago Relationship Therapy, Analyzing the Ways You Communicate, Exploring Unconscious Roots of Problems (also known as at least two different main groups called Psychoanalytic Couples Therapy and Psychodynamic Couples Therapy), Enhanced Intimacy to Promote Closeness, and their ninth contender was Individual Psychotherapy to be used when one can’t get the partner to go to couples therapy. Please don’t get lost by all these ways (and there are others) that therapists have found to think about and work with their clients.
I just want you to remember one piece of research about therapists: experienced therapists are more like each other than they are like novices in their own theoretical orientation. Let me explain. Experienced therapists with any sense at all grow to be alike, in what they do well and what they stop doing that doesn’t work, no matter what style they focused on. And when you look at a lot of couples therapists, research their experience and their style or theoretical orientation, you find that a Gottman Couples Therapist, for example, with years of experience is more like a Psychodynamic Couples Therapist with years of experience than that Gottman therapist is like a novice Gottman Couples Therapist (a younger therapist with an emphasis on the same training).
And remember, many therapists have had training in more than one of these types of therapy. And also remember that someone who specializes in couples counseling or couples therapy (really, the same thing) probably has a lot more hours and training in working with couples, which is quite a different way of working than with an individual.
So I hope I can make it easier for you to decide: pick the therapist with extensive experience in couples work. That is what will serve you best.
One aspect of a relationship is how much power each person has. In couples therapy, it can become important if the couple disagrees about who has what power. All relationships deal with the power each person has, but most of the time the issue itself, who has how much power, is not discussed. Couples can run into trouble, however, if there is a power disagreement and they don’t talk it through. Couples therapy, if done well, will help the couple see if there is a power disagreement and will help them work toward talking it through to resolution.
For example, can you say no to your partner? And can your partner say no to you? And about what topics can you say no? And what topics do you allow your partner to say no? And, though not always required, can you talk about saying no to one another?
Say your partner wants you to take out the trash. If you take it out and it doesn’t bother you to take it out (there is no resentment), then there is no problem between the couple and nothing to talk about. If your partner asks you to do a task and you do it and you are bugged by it (there is resentment) and those feelings go away quickly, perhaps there is nothing to talk about. If this keeps happening, however, and resentment or anger builds, then the couple needs to talk about it and work out this disagreement of power. Can you say no when you are asked to take out the trash or do some other task? Can your partner say no to you? Can you talk about when you can say no with each other?
If you are having trouble with resentments, anger, and not being able to say no, and you can not talk it through, then it is time to talk with the couples therapist.
Actually, any way you come to couples therapy is a good idea. There is a lot of research to support that. There was even an article in Consumers Report years ago that reported how couples therapy worked pretty well. But the best way usually is for you both to go together, to know what you and your partner are both doing and thinking, and to know what the couples therapist is saying to you as well as your partner.
If you can’t get your partner to go, it is just fine for you to go, if you are going to work on the relationship, work on changing yourself, work on seeing how things that bother you about your partner are related to you and what you do. It is fine to also go to relationship counseling alone if your intentions are to complain about your partner, expect your partner to change, and think that you are not the problem. But if you do that, you are most likely going to be using the relationship therapy to get out of the relationship. Just so you know.
You can always go alone the first session. It might be a good idea to have your partner go alone one time also if you do that. But are you deciding to go without letting your partner know? Unilaterally deciding? You can, of course, do that, but what are the consequences and meanings of deciding to work on the relationship without letting your partner know? It would be important to look at that.
So one issue that is coming up in this article: what is your intention for doing relationship therapy? And are you doing it alone or together and what might that mean? Worth thinking about. And couples therapy is worth it with a qualified, experienced therapist, to look at making each of you and the couple healthier.
Couples often wait much longer than is good for them to go to couples counseling. They rather quickly develop patterns with each other, many which are good, and some that are not so good. Maybe something goes wrong or badly, and one or both become upset. But things blow over. If they really do blow over and there are no resentments from either, then that sounds like the couple got through a difficult time. But if some things happen and one partner doesn’t get over it, that may point towards a problem. If one party or both keep doing an action that causes a problem, that points to a problem. When one is not being heard or feeling like his or her partner is hearing he or she, that points to a problem. And it is often true, because of caring for each other, that one puts up with these kinds of problems, and that might be ok. Ok, that is, if it doesn’t cause the couple to move apart from each other. If it is causing the couple to diverge from each other, to grow apart, to talk less, if resentments are building, it is a good idea to contact a professional couples counselor.
It can, therefore, make sense to wait a bit to see if things get better. If they are not, it is time to call. If negative feelings are growing, even slowly, it is time to call a couples therapist. If resentments are growing, you are growing apart, communication is bad or getting worse, it is time to make an appointment for couples therapy. Dr. John Gottman taught me (a well know couples therapy author and research) that most couples wait six years to go to therapy. Sooner is better than later when it comes to seeking couples counseling.
Couples therapists are people just like everyone else. They vary, have differences, have different training and experience. Below is a list of recommendations in regard to training and experience:
1. Pick an experienced couples therapist, one that has been seeing many couples for many years. Being an experienced therapist and being an experienced couples therapist are two different things. Almost all therapists have seen some couples; most have only seen a few in their careers. Often, the better couples therapist is the the one that has more extensive couples work.
2. Pick the better trained couples therapist, the one that has more training. Ph.D.s have more training than Masters level therapists in their schooling. So they, Ph.D.s, usually have the edge in some ways coming right out of school. However, many Ph.D.s have little or no couples training in school! But how much training the therapist has after getting out of school matters more than the degree. So much is learned by practicing in the real world. So you might ask about how much training the couples therapist has after getting out of school and, if you care, how much couples training while she/he was in school.
3. In my experience, which type of therapy the couples counselor practices is really not so important. You want someone that knows what he or she is doing, not someone who knows a certain type of therapy better than someone else. Research has shown that experienced therapists are more like each other than they are like novices (newbies) in their fields. That means that experienced therapists over time have gravitated towards using techniques and practices that work for experienced couples therapists, which the novices won’t have learned yet.
4. The gender of the couples therapist does not matter, unless one or both of you have a preference—then you might choose to go with your preference.
5. The older more experienced therapist might be better than the younger inexperienced one. Sometimes that will not be true. But the older and experienced therapist often is that, older and more experienced, and will know more about helping you and your partner.
Disclaimer: I am an older and more experienced couples therapist and a Ph.D. psychologist. My biases will have shown through in this writing, but everything I have written has truth in it. You may want to search for what younger and less experienced couples counselors have to say in comparison.
Really, the best overall answer would be weekly. For a number of weeks in a row, probably a minimum of six weeks. Why? If you are going to take the time and expense to go to couples therapy, it would be best to optimize your experience. Going at least once a week for at least six weeks means that you will be really digging into the work, your work, the two of you, and what is going on between the two of you. Sometimes, when couples have less problems that are less severe, that would be enough, six weeks might be all that you would need for significant change. If there are deeper problems (financial, sexual, extramarital, familial, etc.) issues, you should be into the thick of it by six weeks of therapy, and the couple’s issues should be opened up by then and being addressed. You will be in the middle of couples counseling, seeing some change, seeing your part, seeing what more you need to be doing.
What if you can’t go every week? It is not the optimum, but can work, and work well for couples. Sometimes it helps to go to couples counseling for two sessions in a row (back to back, about 100 minute sessions) if you can’t make every week. Double sessions will add intensity when the schedule is not doing so.
Some couples therapy is better than none. If you can only go irregularly, that will still work. Meeting less often means that the couple has to do more work on their own in the interim periods, to think about what they each need to change in themselves, and to hang onto that rather than to use the time to slip back in to old ineffective and/or destructive patterns, to slip into the pattern of blaming the partner.
So: think about going, about doing the work, about changing the couple and changing yourself on a weekly basis if you want to enter into couples therapy. There is a lot of research over many years that shows that it helps couples change. Which is what you are after, right?
Recently, an important person was accused of using vulgar language to talk about a couple groups of people. Whatever your political persuasion, whether you are for or against or in the middle about someone is not the point here: the results are. In couples therapy, couples often get into arguments about who said what (as did the different people who were present at the event mentioned above, different people often have different memories of what was said). When a couple in therapy start to argue about what they remember, I will often listen for a bit to see what is going on, but I also often stop them from arguing about their memories—none of us are that good at remembering, none of our memories are that perfect. And, more importantly, what comes out of the conversation is often more important than any one word that was said. How people feel about and remember what they heard (not necessarily what was said) often has the most lasting influence. With a couple in couples therapy, I will try to move them to what they took from the conflict or conversation. Then we will try to find out what was meant by the words and the responses. We will clarify and look at what was really meant.
In a relationship, if both partners are willing to work on his or her own issues, are willing to work to listen to what the other meant and is feeling and thinking, we almost always make progress. Usually, the partners got stuck, caught in the language, caught by what they thought was said or meant by the other. But without clarifying what was meant, without honest conversation about what both parties mean and are feeling and thinking, we get lost with what really happened, what someone really said or really meant. Fortunately, it is easier for a couple (though it is difficult to accomplish without practice) to work through what was said and meant than for a group of people to do.
So have hope: you and your partner can work on what you really say and mean to each other, you can move to not worrying so much about exactly what was said but to what was meant, you can move towards clarity with each other. And you can work towards a healthier relationship.