Each one of us is involved in relationships with many people and the quality of those relationships has a tremendous impact on our physical and emotional health. Of course, we all bring to any relationship our own way of being in the world and our own self-image. Often we seek out partners in the hope, maybe even a subconscious wish, that they can “fix” us or help us to gain the confidence and self-acceptance that, in fact, we all must find as individuals. The goal of course, in a couples relationship, is to love and be loved, in whatever unique way each of us seeks that form of mutual and ideal bliss.
Whether we tend to be a bit of a loner or gravitate toward crowds, the relationship patterns we form beginning at birth affect our personal connections and, in the long-term, have a tremendous impact on our satisfaction and happiness.
When a Relationship Just Isn’t Working Anymore
It’s common to seek guidance from a mental health professional because the relationship patterns we’ve been using just don’t work anymore and frequently are causing a situation to worsen. It may seem on the surface a cruel irony that the person we want to love the most is the one that can trigger intense feelings, and not always good ones. But if we look at the wider perspective, that often annoying partner gives us a chance to learn to be a more understanding and compassionate person, and in the long run, to bring respect and joy to our most intimate relationship.
5 Good Reasons to Begin Couples Therapy
- The relationship is stuck in negativity – A couple may seek counseling if a long-term relationship or marriage has reached a stalemate and issues cannot be resolved, but the partners want to make a sincere effort to find a new path toward resolution. Often one partner begins going to counseling, but there’s a much more realistic chance of creating a better relationship if both people seek out the guidance of an experienced therapist.
- Sexual issues – A healthy relationship must have a strong physical component based on the needs and desires of each partner. For some, probably for most couples, a passionate sexual relationship is desired, but emotional experiences from the past can get in the way of trust that leads to passion. For others, it might be important to spend time sitting close together on the sofa watching movies or walking hand-in-hand. Some couples enjoy close physical time in projects, perhaps building things at home, or may prefer hiking or camping. What can often cause a problem is the difference in the physical and sexual desires of the individual partners. That’s why it’s important to find a therapist you trust and are comfortable with, to clarify each person’s hopes and needs and find a way to reach a mutually satisfying physical relationship.
- Preparing for marriage – Sometimes couples seek counseling before marriage and some go to counseling even if they are living together with no immediate plans to make it official. Getting a good start can build a solid relationship that endures through times when there is disagreement or trouble not of your own making, perhaps a job loss or illness in the extended family. Life’s challenges can and do happen in any family, and a couple is bound to experience some unexpected turmoil during the time they are together. Two people are never mirror images of each other and learning techniques for managing differences will enrich a relationship and give it the strength to stay afloat through tumultuous tides and calm seas.
- Giving it one last try – People on the verge of divorce often go to counseling as a ‘last ditch’ effort to try to make it work. Working with a therapist you trust can help each person remember the reasons they were attracted to each other in the first place. If there are truly ‘irreconcilable differences,’ a therapist can help a couple understand why the relationship doesn’t work for the long-term, and guide each of the partners to move forward with insight to make future relationships better.
- Family problems – Parenting conflicts can force the two people to grow farther apart, so turning first to couples therapy can help develop unified family goals and create a more peaceful home. The therapist may suggest family therapy, if it would be suitable to include the children or teenagers at some point.
The common factor in any of these, and many other issues, is that no one lives or functions alone. In many cases, the issues can’t be resolved alone, particularly if negative interactions continue to worsen the relationship. Emotional ‘triggers’ are frequently deeply embedded from childhood issues or other traumatic or hurtful events, leaving a person consciously unaware of why they react the way they do. Our mental health, with its strengths and knots, is intricately involved in our closest personal interactions, so this is where healing begins, in the intensity of the one-to-one relationship.
What if the other people are ‘the problem’?
OK, we have to admit that people close to us can cause us much emotional distress, especially if they suffer from issues such as addiction, eating disorders, depression or the inability to manage anger. Just poor communication habits can lead to major disharmony. It’s also important to admit that it’s very possible that we played a role in our loved ones developing these problems. It’s our responsibility to improve and maintain our own mental health and do our part to contribute to the emotional health of the partnership, as much as is humanly possible. As part of a couple, one of our basic human instincts is compassion.
That’s why it’s critical for both members of a couple in a troubled or dysfunctional relationship to seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional and learn new ways to create positive relationship patterns.
Extensive research and ever-increasing options for couples therapy offer compassionate, results-oriented and confidential counseling that can spark breakthroughs leading to improved physical and mental health and peace of mind.
Some Options for Couples and Family Therapy
Each couple, and each partner in the couple, must be comfortable with the type of therapy chosen and find a therapist they trust in order to get the intended results – a healthier and happier relationship. Couples therapy is as much an art as a science and as such, it is important to find a therapist that you resonate with. Most therapists draw from an eclectic training background and often integrate concepts from various models, of which there are many. Here are just a few examples of the many options available in couples therapy.
Narrative Therapy: This method seeks to understand the stories or themes that shape a person’s life. The essence of narrative therapy could be, “The person is never the problem – the problem is the problem.” This therapy endeavors to uncover personal intentions, values and dreams and to recall and emphasize positive instances of those experiences. Discussing the mental health issues as a “story” helps externalize the problems, takes away some of the negative charge and allows the person to gain new perspective. For couples, narrative therapy helps eliminate blame by externalizing the source of conflict. For example, where partners feel annoyed with each other, they can view “annoyance” as an external problem to be examined and resolved, with guidance from the therapist, rather than blaming each other as the personal source of annoyance.
Imago Relationship Therapy: Detailed in the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, originally published in 1988, Imago therapy is based on the theory that we tend to choose a partner who brings to the surface the emotional issues we need to heal in ourselves. The concept is that we are wounded in some ways as children and the goal of the partnership or marriage is to heal the unfinished business of childhood. While that may seem a recipe for tension, the long-term goal of Imago therapy is to understand the differences we have with our mate, why our partner may have developed what we may view as an annoying habit or perspective, accept it, and from there develop true compassion and patterns that create a respectful and mutually nurturing relationship. To put it simply, Imago is based on the theory that we instinctively choose, not someone who is a reflection of ourselves, but a “complementary” partner who will help us become an emotionally richer, more compassionate and more fulfilled human being.
Gottman Method: This therapy, based on 40 years of research by psychologists John and Julie Gottman, focuses on the couple creating shared fondness and admiration for each other. Couples learn to replace negative conflict patterns with positive interactions and to repair past hurts. Interventions are designed to increase closeness and intimacy and are used to improve friendship, deepen emotional connection, and create changes that strengthen the couple’s shared goals. This method works to reinforce trust and commitment to a lifelong relationship.
Duration and Goals of Couples Therapy
Experienced therapists often use a combination of techniques geared to the unique needs of the individuals to help the couple reach the goal of a healthy, well-functioning and more joyful relationship. Therapy can evolve with the couple as the relationship changes and improves. Each person may meet with a therapist individually at times, and at other times meet as a couple. There may be weekend opportunities that allow the couple time to be away from daily responsibilities and focus on each other. The couple will determine the type and duration of therapy in collaboration with a trusted therapist.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “What is Marriage and Family Therapy?” Alexandria, Va., 2017
Imago Relationships International, “What is Imago?”
Gottman, John and Julie, “Gottman Method Couples Therapy,” The Gottman Institute, 2017
Sween, Erik, “The One-Minute Question: What Is Narrative Therapy?” Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide, Australia, 1988
Cotter, Lucy, “Narrative Couples Therapy: The Power of Externalization,” Goodtherapy.org, Dec. 2, 2009