Understanding Therapy Part 3: Couples Therapy (Marriage Counseling)
So how does couples therapy work?
Couples Therapy is different than individual therapy , because the therapist's job is to manage the dynamic between the couple in addition to the dynamic between each individual and the therapist. In individual therapy, the focus is on the interplay of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with the goal of the client becoming able to get their needs met. In couples therapy, there are two people who are aiming to get their needs met, and it is the nature of committed relationships that you are expecting your partner to be a part of the puzzle of getting your needs met (as they are with you).
So to put it another way, in individual therapy the changes sought are for the purpose of getting the client to get their own needs met, and in couples therapy, one of the most important lessons is to understand how to meet someone else's needs. To be clear, good couples therapy ensures that both partners are getting their needs met, and it is not up to your partner to totally sacrifice themselves solely to make you feel whole.
The rest of this page will focus on different aspects of couples therapy that you will likely encounter, no matter which therapist you see:
emotional regulation during conflict
uncovering and understanding partners' needs
All of these are important for a well-functioning relationship. It is like a machine with moving parts that all must be tuned to work together, or the machine breaks down. For example, uncovering and understanding your partner's needs won't work, if communication breaks down or emotions become dysregulated first. There are other focuses that can be employed to fix other problems commonly encountered in relationships, including problem solving, teamwork, acceptance of certain differences, and more. Different models of couples therapy place different emphasis on the different aspects of this machinery. However, I will discuss what I believe to be the most central, common issues in couples work, regardless of the model chosen.
Focus on Communication
It’s easy for individuals to fall into a habit of lashing out and blaming their partner when their needs aren’t met. You may even be right that your partner shoulders some of the responsibility for the things that aren’t going right. Yet when we feel blamed ourselves, that is when we are least likely to be motivated to respond to our partner to change things. It is likely that we feel we are putting a lot into the relationship, and there may be something we’re not even aware of that is causing the problem. So why should the blame be on us? We can think of things about our partner that aren’t perfect too.
This dynamic tends to lead to escalation of negative sentiment rather than problem solving. Therefore it is critical for communication to be tuned so that our partner is most likely to hear us and be receptive to it. The timing, the tone, the phrasing, the context, and more are all critical ingredients of effective communication. Therapists will often have clients practice in session or even reverse role play their partners. This is a skill, and practice is important to get better. Just as important, discussion of and practice of how to be a good listener is given time as well, so your partner feels like they were truly heard. Only then can you move forward with an accurate understanding of the issues.
Focus on Emotional Regulation
When you have committed your life to someone else, and expect they will be a significant source of happiness and fulfillment in your life, not to mention a person you depend on to help with all the responsibilities, it is natural that discussions surrounding the fact that you’re unhappy will be fraught with heavy emotions. The complainer might be very scared of how their partner might react to the complaint. The receiver of the complaint might get very upset at being blamed. This is an inevitable consequence of being in a close relationship.
Therefore, it is an essential skill of happy couples to be able to work through and regulate those emotions when they arise, so they don’t derail important discussions that allow each partner to share what they’re thinking. Emotional regulation and effective communication go hand-in-hand. It can be important to push into a place in a therapy session where the emotional state that is derailing your relationship comes out. This is because practicing skills to change the dysfunctional patterns is most effective when it happens in a situation that is most similar to what you encounter at home, outside of therapy.
Focus on Uncovering and Understanding a Partner's Needs
It is just true that your needs will not get met if your partner doesn’t know what they are. We think our partners know us well enough that they should know what we want and need, and yet surprisingly often our partners actually don’t know exactly what’s on our minds.
That’s why so much of couples therapy focuses on allowing partners to bring up the issues they have that are ultimately related to their needs not getting met. It can be hard to push through these conversations that often reveal years of unmet needs or dashed dreams. But they are necessary and important for the relationship to right itself. It often turns out that a superficial complaint, like the house being too messy, is the smoke coming out of a fire that’s hidden. The fire is the real issue, and it often takes a few sessions to uncover what the issue is. Part of the therapist’s responsibility is allowing the partner who feels sad about their unfilled dreams to say what is on their mind, while also respecting how difficult it might be for the other partner to hear it. Allowing the necessary information to come out, while keeping the conversation constructive is the goal for the therapist.
Above all, the couples therapist is there to advocate for the relationship. They are not there to side with one partner and collude to ‘fix’ the other person. Change in couples work might very well involve one or both individuals changing their behavior so that it meets their partner’s needs better, and in this way it might seem like they were ‘fixed’. One of the important differences between positive change, and ‘fixing’ your partner is that in the best kind of change they can voluntarily change because they want to meet the challenges of the relationship better, or instead by 'fixing' them they can begrudgingly change because they are being threatened.
The ideal of course is for each partner to have new insights into what their partner needs and desires from their relationship. They can then go forward together as a team to make sure that both people get their needs met as best as possible. Combined with skills of effective communication and emotional regulation will give this the best chance of success.