Couples therapy in a nutshell
Couples therapy is a process, a supportive and neutral space, where a therapist helps a couple navigate their challenges and improve their relationship. It is a space where partners can discuss their fears, frustrations, expectations and needs in a constructive way. The primary goal is to have healthier communication and a better understanding of relational roles and strengthen the bond between partners.
To reach out or not to reach out?
Even though couples therapy is a valuable tool to address relationship issues, according to renowned relationship expert Dr John Gottman, couples wait for an average of six years before getting help. Many couples hesitate for a variety of reasons:
- One or both partners might disagree that there is a problem in the first place or they might discount the effects of the existing problems.
- Partners might blame each other for the source of the problem (i.e. it's not me, it's you, so why should I seek therapy?).
- Couples might feel a lack of motivation or hope (i.e. it's not going to work anyway).
- There may be financial concerns.
Another important reason couples find it difficult to reach out is that there is still a cultural stigma around ‘going to counselling’. They might worry that getting professional help may indicate that their relationship (or themselves) ’failed’ in some way. Normalising couples therapy, and seeing it as a ‘tool’ to resource couples helps to break this stigma. Reframing the reaching out process as a sign of strength (rather than a sign of weakness) may also help.
How couples therapy works
Here are some of the most important aspects of couples therapy:
- It enhances communication and allows each partner to express their point of view and their own experience in a non-blaming and constructive way. The focus shifts from 'You always do this' to 'I experience this'.
- When partners express their unique experiences, they start becoming aware of their unique points of view. At this point, conflicting expectations regarding relationships, values and issues around power and autonomy may emerge. Understanding these differences (and their origins) may help the couple to resolve some of the conflicts.
- It gives partners tools to communicate (when to communicate, how to communicate, what to communicate), for example, using ‘I’ sentences and soft start-ups. This leads the partners to develop a language and shared understanding; their own narrative about their relationship.
- Once the communication improves and the partners feel like they begin to express their needs and emotions effectively, making it easier to navigate conflicts.
- Partners begin to see what they each bring into the relationship and understand this within a wider context (family, culture, etc.). In The Heart of Couples Therapy, couples therapist Ellen Wachtel encourages partners to think about the question of ‘What do you know about yourself that makes you not the easiest person in the world to be married to?’ This question can be applied to any relationship. Couples therapy stretches partners’ perspectives on every aspect of their relationship.
- When couples start seeing things from different perspectives and increase their understanding of each other and themselves (patterns, triggers, sensitivities, etc.), they begin to relate to each other in different ways. This leads to greater empathy and a deeper emotional connection.
Most importantly, through the process of couples therapy, couples reach a balanced view of relationships and learn 'how to repair'. All relationships have their ups and downs, unique challenges and inevitable ruptures. Therefore, learning to repair is a valuable skill in itself. By learning and practising to repair (through attentive listening, sincere apologies, making amends, and rebuilding trust), couples can heal their relationships.
If you would like to have support in your relationship as a couple, speak with a couples therapist who can offer you a tailored approach for your situation.