On thing that couples don’t really think during an argument: “We really disagree on our values on this one!” It’s too bad—that thought could change the argument. When couples are locked into how they are both right, they often stay stuck with their “righteousness” rather than work their way out of the impass. Yet being able to take a step back and think, “we just disagree” often is not felt to be enough. We each often think/feel that we have our “right” point or issue and the other is wrong. But the partner is thinking the same thing. So to back out in your mind (or even by physically taking a step back) can drastically change the shape of the argument.
Michelle Obama has been publishing information about her life recently. And she and the former president have attended couples counseling. She said, “I want them to know Michelle and Barack Obama — who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other — we work on our marriage and we get help with our marriage when we need it.” If a former president and a former first lady think it is helpful, can’t the two of you?
And couples therapy is a place for change. She also said, “We learned how to talk out our differences,” which is something that is helpful for all couples and something that almost always comes up in couples therapy. You can work on talking out differences.
Maybe it’s time for you to consider couples therapy.
I am going to briefly talk about an issue I have not read about in the couples therapy literature, it is, instead, something I have observed. The issue is talking about how you talk to each other. Couples often get caught up in the details about an issue, who has done it the most, who wants it done, when it should be done, how it is like or not like something else, the details. And they don’t often move to how they are talking to each other about the issue. With many couples, I can tell that they are progressing with each other by their moving in and out of the details to how they talk to each other about those details and then back to the details. Not only is it progress but they are arguing differently in doing so and they feel better about their arguing, probably because it is accomplishing something rather than not.
Maybe once a month or so, a patient comes to relationship therapy alone and works on the relationship, hoping to make things better. There is plenty of work that can be done in individual work on the relationship. And when the patient brings up that the spouse says that they are “100% at fault” for what is bad in the relationship, it is not a good sign. It doesn’t mean that the relationship or the therapy is doomed to failure, but it does mean that things will be difficult.
When a partner believes they have no problems in the relationship, they are stuck. Not being willing to look at yourself or your issues in the relationship often causes problems in the relationship. One person doing all the changing can be a good thing, but it doesn’t always result in making the relationship better. When a partner is not willing to work with you in a mutual way about change, the relationship is hobbled.
Inviting the non-responsive partner to join the therapy often doesn’t work because, the non-attending partner often says, “it is not my problem,” or “you are the on that needs therapy, not me” or some such close minded statement. And being close minded is the end of change. The work, therefore, often is in the person willing to change (the one that choses to go to couples therapy alone, or relationship therapy) working on changing, working on seeing how the partner is seeing them, working on what would make the partnership better for the partner and as well as better for both partners. Working on better communication, blocks to intimacy, finding how one is too controlling, etc., will often help the solo patient begin to bring about change in the relationship. Even if the partner will not come to couples therapy. There is often plenty of work to do alone.
I recently wrote about different styles for couples and how couples therapy can help. Seeing that you are different and that you both feel right about your way is a significant step. Usually, when couples get to this place in couples counseling and they realize “we both are right” or “we both feel we are right” they sit quietly with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look—they don’t know what to do next. The simple answer is to keep going with the discussion, keeping in mind that you are both right.
Fighting has a lot to do with “I am right and you are wrong” whether folks have that consciously in their mind or not. Shifting to “we are both right” and then “we are both right and what are we going to do about it” are great, significant steps, because it is no long one against the other but “what can we do?” “We” do is very different than “you need to change.” Again, continuing the discussion with “we are both right” kept close at hand, kept in mind, changes the tone of the argument. That is a very big change.
So in therapy, when a couple gets to “we are both right on this one,” I am gently nudging them to “keep going” and what happens is often (not always, but often) amazing: one says a solution that just might work. Or the other says a compromise. Or a new part of the issue comes up that has been the problem all along. So I say again, because the couple in couples therapy has moved from “me against you” to “we are both right,” a shift has happened that often moves to different ways of looking at the issue/problem, which releases the gridlock, and a better idea (that is more mutual than “you have to change”) arises. Try it at home (or in couples counseling if you can’t get to it at home): in an argument about x (money, or child raising, or sex, or etc.), say, “What if we are both right? What might we do?” You could move to, “What works for both of us?” Let me know how it turns out.
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.
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.