Clarity is not an issue that I have heard any experts in the area of couples counseling talk about. And yet it a concept that I work with every day and almost every session with every couple. What do you mean? What are you really saying? What’s behind what you are saying? Are you sure that is what your partner means? You are assuming that?—ask him/her if that is true! Without clarity, we seem to constantly head into nowhere in couples counseling. And when we get clarity, the therapy begins to click and we begin to move towards something. I call that something that we move towards health.
I will often say that there are three things that I always am after in couples work, sitting and talking with them, the couple. I will say, “I want you to be healthy,” pointing to one of the two, “and you to be healthy,” pointing to the other partner, “and the couple to be healthy.” And I mean it, and I hope they can tell. You are, most likely, more attractive when you are healthy. You, your partner, and the couple will probably make better decisions when you are healthy. Getting yourself healthier feels better.
But what does a healthy individual look like? And what does a healthy couple look like? I can only begin to answer these questions. In regard to clarity leading to health, I see health improving when one or both work with me to say more clearly what he/she needs, wants, likes, dislikes. I often see improvement and increased health when I watch one or the other or both get stronger about their position and their feelings without being aggressive. Saying what is really going on, being clear, moves us forward into healthier decisions for the individuals, and that results in a healthier couple, it guides us where to go. You don’t have to go to couples therapy to work on being clear. If you need help with getting clearer, getting healthier yourself, and getting the couple clearer and healthier, then by all means come to couples therapy.
As a couples therapist, I have an interest in things that have to do with couples. A new movie, Lovers, is about a mature couple that are both having affairs but their own relationship starts to sizzle again. There was a review by Micah Mertes about the movie where he quotes his “twice-divorced” professor who warned him, “in this life you can either be bored or miserable. I recommend boredom.” Mertes tells of his professor teaching him that “passion is stupid.” He goes further, “Sooner or later it fades or, worse, curdles into crisis.” As cynical as this sounds, there is a lot of truth for couples in what his professor told him. But let me turn what was said upside down for you. He talked about it negatively, but crises lead to change, and that is often a good thing for couples.
Many, many committed long-term relationships sink into mediocrity and boredom. This is often true for them sexually as well as relationally. And that can often lead to a crisis. But this is normal (by normal I mean happening to a vast number of couples) and can be seen as a good thing, if the couple can begin to see it that way, if the couple will use the crises to change for good. In the movie (Lovers) the plot twists from the couples each having an affair to them also beginning to have hot relationship with one another. Their relationship is shown as rather dead in the beginning but then change happens. And when things heat up in good ways for a couple, that is pretty powerful. The power of that heating up, that crisis (sometimes called a crucible, see the works of David Schnarch) can force change in the stagnating couple.
So a crisis when you are bored, the process of moving into some “fire” in a relationship, dealing with each other more fully, can all be good things. They are change. Often couples need the help of a couples therapist to get through the difficulties and there are times when they just work hard themselves, change themselves, give up expecting their spouse to be the one to change, and the crucible (the heating pot of change) forms a new, more alive relationship. That’s a good thing. That’s not boring and that’s using the crisis.
You, as a couple, don’t have to wait for boredom or a crisis. You can go for couples therapy if things are going wrong. You can work on the relationship, add adventure to the relationship, talk to one another, or do anything from a whole list of other possibilities to enrich the relationship (take a walk, ask about his/her day, plan a vacation, spend the evening together, set up date nights, go dancing, etc.). Why don’t you start by doing something today?
Intimacy is an issue that comes up for couples and in couples therapy. How intimate should a couple be with one another? That is not a question that the therapist has an answer to, but rather one that the couple works out, and they may need a therapist to help them work it out. Couples will always work out how intimate they are going to be with each other, just as they will always work out how much time they spend together. But are couples good at figuring out how much intimacy (or time) they need with one another? Often they are not good at working that out. It takes work, hard work, to be in an intimate relationship. There is the issue of conflict and disagreeing, and is the couple willing to face some conflict? Many couples, in working on issues that are important to them (issues that are at least somewhat intimate) have faced difficulties with each other that lead to conflict and have not been very successful with conflict. Some avoid conflict quite often, and that usually builds tension. Some launch right into conflict, but do not know how to get to resolution well, or don’t know how to compromise well, or don’t know how to acceptance divergent opinions well, so they end up having a lot of conflict that is very bothersome and festers, not getting resolved.
You, as a couple, will decide how much intimacy you are going to have. If you are both happy where you are in regard to your intimacy, then that usually works well. If one of you wants more intimacy, then you may have some work to do to figure out how you will be more intimate or how you will deal with the partner that wants more and is not getting it. You may have conflicts about intimacy. You may use conflicts to avoid intimacy also. Can you talk about your intimacy needs? Can you ask your partner about his/her intimacy needs? Can you talk about important issues, even argue about important and intimate issues with each other and reach a resolution most of the time? If not, it might be time to consider seeking out an experienced couples therapist for help.
Dr. Kraft can be found at www.CouplesOmaha.com.
There are a number of factors you might want to be aware of as you search online for a couples therapist. You can use the terms “couples therapist” or “couples counseling” or “relationship counseling” and you will often get different results, but usually they will overlap each other and come up with similar results.
Realize: the few listings at the very top of the page (it varies usually between a couple to about five) are paid ads. So they are paying Google to be up at the top. In the past, paid ads were just at the side, but now they are at the top and the side.
Realize: the next batch that sometimes show up are the listings on the map, and those are not paid for, they come up by location.
Realize: the next three listings often are all the same group of therapists, they are a directory built by Psychology Today. Because it is so big, Psychology Today not only gets the top “organic” spot (that is, the first real search item rather than a paid ad) for couples counseling, couples therapy, relationship therapy, but it gets the top three spots. And therapists are paying Psychology Today $29.95 per month to be a part of the directory. So really, the therapists are advertising there too, paying to get those spots.
Realize: there are some advertising sites that warn you about couples therapists and couples counseling. They seem like another paid site that gets your attention by trying to scare you about couples therapy.
So if you want to get beyond the ads, you have to scroll down to the middle or lower part of the page, past the listings that have “psychologytoday” in the address line, to find a true search for a couples therapist or couples counselor that is not appearing in the search because they paid the most for the advertising.
Ultimately, it will behoove you to see who the couples therapist is no matter where you find him/her. What are the credentials? How much work is devoted to couples? How does the person talk about dealing with couples? And it can be a good idea to talk on the phone with the therapist for a few minutes or ask questions through their website’s encrypted email to see what you think of her/him. It is often best to pick the well qualifed, experienced person. In the end, you’ll have to go in and see what he or she can do for you and your issues.
Many couples come to couples therapy to talk about a problem in their relationship. Sometimes what brings them is a sexual issue but often that is not their main issue. So will you have to talk about sex? You may be asked about it initially because it is a part of the larger picture of your relationship and the therapist may want to know what is going on with the two of you in a number of different areas, including sexual activity. In most cases with most therapists, you will be the ones to set up what is talked about in your therapy, that is, what is important for you to talk about is what will most often take “center stage.” So, no, in most cases where you don’t bring sexual issues as your problem then that won’t be talked about, and if you don’t want to talk about it or don’t see a problem in that area, you will not be talking about sex in couples therapy.
If you or your partner wants to talk about a sexual issue, then it will be something that comes up and will most likely need to be addressed in the work, just as any other issue you or your partner brings up. If the therapist feels that you need to talk about it and you don’t, you don’t have to talk about it—it is your time, you are paying for the sessions, and you don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about. If your partner wants to talk about it and you don’t, then it becomes an issue of what the couple needs to talk about, not just what you (or your spouse) wants to talk about. So if your partner wants to talk about sex and you don’t, it will come up in the work, and both sides of the issue will have to be addressed to help the couple with it. If the therapist wants to talk about the sexual relationship and neither of you want to do so, it is possible that it would be important for the therapy to spend some time on the sexual aspects of the relationship. But if it is not making sense to either of the couple that you are spending time talking on sex in the sessions and that is not what you want, it would be good to say that to the therapist. If the therapist is spending time on things that are not important to the couple, tell the therapist that she/he is off track. As well, people don’t come back to therapy when it does not stay mostly focused on what they came for.
In summary, don’t be overly concerned about having to talk about sex (or any other topic) when you go to couples therapy if both of you don’t want to talk about it. And do make sure to talk about and work on the topics you do want to talk about.
The Lovers is a movie about a married couple who, unbeknownst to each other, are each having an affair with a younger lover. But then (and you see this in the trailer) they wake up holding each other one morning, kissing, maybe even enjoying it, and figure out as they wake up that it is their spouse they are enjoying kissing and they quickly jump up and away from each other. It is a comedic moment—they are spouses, they have kissed before, but not lately, it seems, and what is going on that they are enjoying each other in this way? The trailer plays the movie to be a comedy, and the moments in the trailer are funny, many of them. The movie doesn’t have a lot more laughs than what is seen in the trailer, at least not out loud ones. There are moments that seem to be funny but the movie audience may not laugh because it is hard to tell what the story is telling us: are these things funny or sad? There is a great deal of sadness in the movie as we watch each of the members of the family (wife, husband, son) struggle and grieve about the crashing of this couple.
Spoiler Alert: this article will now move to aspects of the whole movie and the ending, so go see it first if you don’t want to know how The Lovers ends.
The Lovers can provide a number of issues to look at, if one is willing to go there, is willing to explore the movie. The main characters never have a lingering verbal conversation. The longest “moment” they have of any connection with one another besides having sex may have been when they first have sex—there are looks, and he moves towards her, more looking at each other, and they both realize that they want each other and they open up to having sex with each other. But there are no discussions between the two where they might work on the relationship. Perhaps that is why the movie ends up where it does, with them wanting each other, even as they get what they want with their clandestine lovers. They get what they want, but they don’t. Of course they don’t—what they want is a satisfying relationship, but that doesn’t happen anywhere in this movie. The main characters (husband, wife, son, husband’s lover, wife’s lover) are all rather desperate as they look for something in life that they can’t find. And the lovers (wife, husband, and their lovers) seem to only use sex to feel better in a relationship. Is this movie telling us that sex can be great, it can be rekindled, it can drive us towards someone (or some two others) but it is not enough? Does the movie and its makers believe that it takes more than good sex to make a relationship fulfilling? And are they saying that getting what you want isn’t always what you really need?
In couples therapy and sex therapy, it is often the case that hotter sex is something that can be sought after and achieved, but there is almost always the need for more and deeper intimacy for most couples to get there, to get to hotter sex and to a better relationship. A couple can certainly want to come to couples and/or sex therapy to have hotter sex, and they will usually have to work on the relationship to get a better sexual relationship. They will usually have to work on being intimate with each other, and giving and receiving to get to better sex and a better relationship. The couples who get the most out of therapy are the ones that get the whole package, that work on their relationship, their intimacy, and their sexual relationship. So be prepared to work on all those areas when you go to sex therapy. Be prepared to work on all those areas when you go to couples therapy. Many therapists will want to nudge you towards optimum health, which usually includes a healthy self, a healthy relationship, and a healthy sex life.
There are many valuable books about sex, sex therapy, and their role in a couple’s relationship and in couples therapy (some good examples: Passionate Marriage, Intimacy and Desire, Resurrecting Sex, all by David Schnarch). And so the question comes up, “Will we have to talk about sex?” No, you do not have to talk about your sexual relationship in couples therapy. But it is important to add that you may want to or you may need to. One example of a couple that doesn’t need to talk about sex in couples therapy is when both partners are satisfied with the sexual relationship. If both of you are satisfied with how things are going sexually, then you most likely will not bring it up and the focus of your sessions will be on the issues you bring and not sex. If either of you (or both of you) are having a problem with your sexual relationship, then it may well come up and become one of the focuses of your work.
What might be some good reasons for sexual issues to come up in couples counseling? Simply put, if either of you have a problem with sex, that is a good reason to bring it up and work on it in couples therapy. Many couples put up with less than satisfactory sex because they don’t know that sex/couples therapy can help, that it helps make sex better. Many couples don’t realize that they could improve their sexual relationship if it is mediocre or less than what they are wanting. Many people have difficulties talking about their sexual relationship and shy away from talking about the minor or major issues that may reside in this area. Sex therapy can help the majority of couples find better satisfaction in their sexual relationship and can help with erection problems, rapid orgasms, delayed orgasm, desire problems, sexual pain, arousal issues, and lubrication problems.
If the couple moves to having a better sexual relationship and feeling better about each other, it often helps with getting through the other issues that come up. Bonding to each other, being intimate with each other, feeling connected goes a long way for couples. Is that something you want more of in your relationship?
Self-soothing and self-confrontation are two ways for an individual to work on him or herself. Working on yourself will increase your differentiation, your own health. (You can find out more about these terms by reading the works of David Schnarch. Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire are two books of his that have a lot to say about differentiation, self-soothing, and self-confrontation.) But what does all this work on yourself have to do with couples therapy, you might ask. Couples counseling is about the couple, right? These concepts—working on yourself and your own differentiation—are what make couples grow and heals them. It is what a lot of couples need to do to repair damage in their relationship and/or in their sexual relationship. But wait, what? Working on yourself strengthens the couple? Yes, working on yourself—getting yourself healthy (mentally and emotionally more so in this context), moving towards differentiation, soothing yourself when your spouse disagrees with you and doesn’t want things the same way, confronting yourself about what you need to change in the relationship—these all make for a stronger couple. This focus differs from what a lot of people believe. It differs from what many individuals bring to couples counseling when they are focused on what their partner needs to change or when an individual focuses on how their partner has the problem.
Another term used by Schnarch is fusion. Many couples end up with rather fused relationships. What does that look like? It often means that both partners look to the other for their own validation (other-centered validation). So when your partner doesn’t understand you, or goes a different direction, or doesn’t do the dishes the way you’ld like, it causes big problems. But as couples move away from being fused to one another—that is, they become differentiated, self-soothe, self-confront—the couple gets better.
Can you begin to have a different focus in your relationship? Can you focus on yourself and self-soothe when you are starting to get upset? Can you self-confront about what you need to be doing and changing?
This feels like a most controversial topic to write about. There is no known research about the topic, no known articles about it, no discussions with other professionals about it. It is just something observed many times over the course of a career. That is: when there is an affair or indiscretion, in my career, I usually see the problem happening twice. For example, a partner is caught in an indiscretion, caught doing something the partner should not be doing (having an affair, getting emotionally involved with someone else, hiding something important) and the couple ruptures as everything comes out and they come to couples therapy and they get through the problem and the betrayal and the issues and sometime later it happens again, and they go through it all again. And it is worse, harder for the couple to get through the second time. (Also, it seems like sometimes it has to be that serious, happening twice, for both partners to really get the gravity of the situation.) This could be an artifact of my career, something that doesn’t really happen that often but just, coincidentally, has happened in front of me most of the time with the couples I see.
So in thinking about this, there could be multiple explanations. I’ve stated above that it could be random, that it just fell that way with the couples I have seen in doing relationship work.
It could be that the couple–getting through the problem, the indiscretion, the affair, working in couples therapy on their relationship and their issues, and fixing their relationship–leave couples therapy too early, not fixing enough of what was wrong to decrease the chances of it happening again.
And that could lay the blame at least partially on my shoulders: it could be that I don’t help couples see well enough that, after they have gotten through the pain and are on a good healing path, that there is work to be done to decrease the possibility of the problem happening again. In confronting myself about this and trying to see what I need to do as a couples therapist, I will be nudging couples who feel they have worked through a problem of this nature to look to the future and what will stop it from happening again. I have always done a bit of that, but I will emphasize that more in the future. I believe that couples need to develop the relationship more after a crash like this, deepening the relationship more to try and decrease the potential for a future rupture.
There may be other reasons that “two strikes” couples have come before me. Can you think of what is getting in the way of your relationship that might lead to a “strike,” an indiscretion, a lapse, a rupture? Doesn’t it seem like thinking about the potential for future problems and working to make sure they don’t happen might be a good idea? Could you talk with your partner about developing and deepening your relationship?
Intimacy can be defined in many different ways. One expectation that seems to often come up as couples move towards intimacy is the idea of reciprocity, that is, that if one person shares, the other has to also. An example is: if I say I love you, you should say I love you back. If I say something about how the love making we just experienced was great, you would say the same thing back. But that expectation causes problems and even often hinders intimacy. Being in a couple is a great way to develop yourself—you are forced to deal with someone else and if you don’t there are consequences. A question will get you to thinking about this issue: Can you tell your partner important information about you and that’s it? She or he doesn’t have to say anything back? Can you be ok about that, accepting that you were intimate with your partner? Conversely, can you hear an intimate statement from you partner and not just parrot something back?
Let’s look at this from a different angle. If you are compelled or feel compelled to reveal something about yourself because your partner revealed something, are you being intimate, or just compelled? Revealing that you love someone is different than saying, “I love you,” after your partner has just said it to you. It can be surprising to some clients who come to a couples therapy office when they share something important and the therapist doesn’t make sure that the partner shares something as well.
Differentiation is a term that has been used for a long time in the marital/sex therapy areas (see Schnarch, or Kerr and Bowen). It is something you want but is hard to get. It is getting your self healthier, being stronger emotionally, being able to sooth yourself. And people that are more differentiated are able to share without expecting their partner to share back. And more differentiated people don’t share back only because their partner shared with them.
So, perhaps you could challenge yourself. Make sure your partner has your attention and no one else is around, then you share something important and personal about yourself with your partner, and that’s it. You don’t expect anything in return (other than you would like him or her to hear you, but you don’t even expect that). It would be an intimate thing to do.