How to Succeed in Couples Therapy

What Makes Some Couples Therapies Succeed While Others Struggle to Make Progress

I was recently interviewed by a graduate student who is working on designing an app to help couples enhance their satisfaction with their relationships. In an industry dominated with dating apps, he wondered why there were no apps helping people stay together and improve the quality of their relationship with that special someone they had finally met.

In the course of the interview, I found some of his questions to be very thought-provoking, and one in particular stayed with me. “What are some of the main differences between couples who succeed in addressing their problems and couples who fail during/after couples counseling? What are the successful couples doing/not doing?”

These are very good and important questions, because in a way, as couples therapists, we are more the medium for the cure than the cure, and the success of the couples therapy depends on many different factors.

Motivated Couples are Eager to Work on Their Relationship

One factor I would like to discuss here is the couple’s “Sense of Responsibility or Ownership” toward the couples work. The attitude with which couples come into couples therapy will have a strong determining effect on the outcome. Are they coming in open to receiving honest feedback, some of which may not be easy to hear? Are they willing to make the changes necessary and do the work required to improve things?

Willingness to Work on the Relationship Outside of Therapy Sessions is Important

There are couples who come into couples therapy with a strong sense of investment in making things better. They are willing to do the work both inside and outside of the sessions to improve things, even if that work might initially cause some temporary discomfort. They take the work seriously and follow through on every suggestion they have agreed to in the sessions. Consequently, they tend to experience significant improvements in their relationships with their partners over the course of a few months.

In contrast to such motivated couples, other couples resist doing the work and come in week after week not having followed through on any of the assignments or suggested changes. Sometimes, they are both contributing to this lack of progress because they are ambivalent about truly changing things even though they are in enough distress to have come for help.

When One Partner Throws Up Obstacles

Sometimes the issue is related to one member of the couple who appears to not be fully participating. In such cases, that partner seems to be setting up obstacles to the progress of the couples work, possibly because they are ambivalent about staying in the relationship but not yet able to acknowledge it. They are typically going along as the relationship might be meeting enough of their needs that they could stay in it but they are not feeling inspired enough to make the necessary changes to really transform things.

Assessing Mental or Emotional Roadblocks

In such instances, it might be advisable to meet with that partner individually and first assess their mental and emotional functioning to see if he or she might be depressed or struggling with some other mental or emotional condition that could be interfering with their full participation. If so, they need to be offered the appropriate treatment, whether it be a referral to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation or to an individual therapist, because it is difficult to invest emotionally or to bring about relational changes when one is in the throes of a depression or other mental/emotional condition.

Private Therapy Meetings – Uncovering Hidden Agendas

The second task that meeting individually can assist with is to determine if there are issues and concerns that the partner is unable to raise in the couples work. There are clinicians who choose not to engage in such private information gathering meetings with partners because they feel they might learn of information such as a hidden affair that they can not then bring to the couples work. And this could become quite problematic. Personally, I have found that creating some space to express one’s concerns and possibly speak of illicit activities can be very cathartic to the work at hand.

Uncovering Why a Partner is Resistant to Progress

It’s true that it complicates matters to learn of an affair but without such information one could be stuck in a couples therapy that is never going to truly progress, which has an emotional cost of its own. In the case where the resistant partner is emotionally healthy, and where there might not be an affair, it could be that the resistant partner doesn’t want to invest any further in the relationship yet is fearful of going through the difficulties involved in leaving a long term relationship and starting over. They are creating roadblocks in the couples work but not acknowledging their desire to end things.

Giving them the space to explore these feelings and concerns individually could help resolve the resistance, either by working through them or by mobilizing them to speak up about it in the couples work and take some form of more decisive action.

Helping a Partner Invest in Making a Relationship Work

So in order to encourage a sense of ownership toward the couples work, it can be helpful to explore and work through the resistances to the work and hidden agendas, so that partners are able to more fully invest in the work at hand. Because being motivated to take on the work and taking ownership of their progress will make all the difference in the outcome of couples therapy.

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