Couples Therapy: Every Question and Answer you might have
Do you argue with your partner? Do you feel like they don’t listen to you or understand you? Have you grown apart? Something is not right and you don’t know what? You may have considered going to couples therapy, but you’re still not sure. In this article we answer some frequently asked questions about couples therapy, such as what is it, what it does, whether it works, how to prepare for couples therapy, what to do if my partner doesn’t want to go to couples therapy, the types of couples therapy, some activities and exercises to do at home, and much more! If you have any questions, you can leave us your questions below.
What is couples therapy? Definition
Couples therapy is a form of psychological therapy where it involves helping the parties of a romantic couple in an effort to recognize, and to better manage or reconcile, troublesome differences and repeating patterns of stress upon the relationship. Nowadays, with the emergence of new relationship models, it is also possible to perform couples therapy with polyamorous relationships.
Couples therapy aims to improve how couples interact, particularly those who experience discomfort or dissatisfaction in the relationship. Such discomfort can come from a multitude of factors and situations, including poor communication skills, incompatibility, psychological disorders such as alcoholism, depression, anxiety symptoms, and domestic violence. The source of this dissatisfaction needs to be identified and a treatment plan implemented to alleviate symptoms and restore the relationship. Couples and sex therapy often go hand in hand.
Patients should keep in mind that sincerity, providing the necessary information, cooperation, commitment, arriving on time for appointments, and a genuine desire for change and improvement are essential for successful treatment.
What is the purpose of couples therapy?
Every couples therapy is different. Each couple has its own particularities so the therapy will focus on the demands of each one. How does couples therapy help us?
In the following video marriage experts, Ellyn Bader and Dan Wile discuss what couples therapy is and what it is not.
1. Changing the way you see the relationship
During the therapeutic process, we try to help the members of the couple see the relationship in a more objective way. They will learn to stop blaming each other and instead look at what happens to them as a process that involves both of them.
They will also benefit from seeing the relationship as something that happens in a given context. Couples who have financial problems will be under particular stress that will affect their relationship.
The therapist will begin by gathering information about how they interact to create different “hypotheses” of the factors causing the difficulties. Depending on the therapeutic orientation, different strategies will be followed.
2. Modify dysfunctional behaviors
Good therapists will succeed in changing the way each partner behaves with the other. This means that in addition to helping them improve their interactions, they make sure that they do not take actions that cause physical, psychological or economic harm. Depending on the severity of the case, a physical separation from the other partner may be necessary to avoid further conflict.
3. Decrease emotional avoidance
Couples who avoid expressing their feelings put themselves at greater risk of distancing themselves emotionally from their partner. Couples therapy will help them express the emotions and thoughts they are afraid to express.
Attachment-based therapies allow the couple to be less afraid to express their individual needs. According to this perspective, people who have not developed secure attachments in childhood will have unmet needs that will influence the relationship. The fear of showing their partner what they need comes from the fear of being rejected.
Cognitive-behavioral therapies assume that the fear of expressing their emotions comes because in the past they were not adequately reinforced. Either way, emotional expression will make it easier for the couple to grow closer together.
4. Improve communication
Being able to communicate properly is essential for a couple to function well. The therapist will teach them how to speak to each other, instruct them on the most effective and conflicting ways of communication.
They will learn how to listen in a more active and empathetic way. Although couples with a long history of mutual criticism may need a different approach than those who try to avoid conflict at all costs.
5. Fostering strengths
Good couples therapists point to strengths in the relationship and build resilience. Because couples therapy tends to be aimed at improving relationship problems, it’s easy to lose sight of the areas in which they work well. Pointing out and strengthening the positive side of the relationship can help motivate the partner and help repair damaged areas.
Couples Therapy: Does it really work?
Is couples therapy really effective? As with all therapies, effectiveness depends on many factors. It depends on the type of therapy, the therapist’s ability, the patient’s commitment, and factors outside the therapy. The result can be very variable.
The success rate is usually 70%, so it is considered useful.
When does couples therapy not work?
As in all therapies, there are times when we are unable to restore the bond or solve the couples’ problems. When does this happen?
- When the problem is of a personal nature and not deriving from the relationship. For example, in abusive relationships or domestic violence. In these cases, individual therapy is recommended before couples therapy.
- When one person forces the other to come to couples therapy.
- When there is no commitment and the therapy tasks are not carried out.
- When the therapy aim is not clear.
- When a safe space has been difficult to create and the couple doesn’t feel free to share their intimacies.
- When the couple is not comfortable with the therapist. It’s no easy task to find a good therapist to fit in with, so if it hasn’t worked for you, don’t give up. You must keep looking.
- When one of the partners has decided to break up and uses therapy as a way to communicate and to ensure that the couple has psychological support.
- When the relationship is too worn out.
When to go to couples therapy?
It is difficult to determine when is the best time to go to therapy. Usually, couples decide to ask for help when the relationship has worn out too much, so it will be much more difficult to resolve.
Don’t wait more than 2 years since the problems started to ask for help. The best thing to do is to go as soon as you feel that you are both dissatisfied and have tried to solve it but haven’t achieved it. Make sure you both want to solve it and have similar objectives. The following are situations where it’s important to go to couples therapy.
1. When trust has been broken
One of the most common reasons for people who go to couples therapy is when trust has been broken. Maybe it was sexual infidelity, or emotional infidelity, or lies and deceit in relation to money. In any case, rebuilding trust can be done by establishing a debate in which both sides express freely their vulnerabilities, as well as by establishing standards of honesty and sincerity.
2. Frequent discussions or arguments
Do you feel that your daily life is becoming more and more conflictive? There might be “small” discussions, or big explosions leaving a lot of drama to the relationship. Either way, if the pattern seems to be increasing, maybe it’s time to go to a professional. Perhaps one of the partners is going through a difficult time that manifests itself this way. Or it may be because of matters beneath the surface that have not been dealt with.
3. Bad communication
Maybe the problem is not the conflict but you feel ignored or misunderstood. You might feel the other person is becoming a stranger or feel a distance between you. You might not have an idea what is happening to your partner. Often, one of the most tangible results of couples therapy is an increase in communication, and in the quality of communication.
4. Something doesn’t work but you don’t know what or why
As with individual therapy, sometimes couples therapy is helpful not only in solving problems, but also in identifying them. Something may have changed in the dynamics of the relationship but you can’t describe it. Or you don’t feel as comfortable with your partner as you used to. Or you have a chronic grudge against them and you don’t know why. These are early signs that interactions are becoming unhealthy or dysfunctional. This does not mean that the other person is to blame, but that the relationship itself needs to be adjusted.
5. You want to tell your partner something, but you don’t know how.
Sometimes the context of couples therapy becomes a safe and supportive space to bring up issues that are difficult for them to discuss. A good therapist can help them overcome their fears by sharing something with their partner.
6. Conflict is not managed well
Both partners can behave in a dysfunctional way when arguing. This might be by fleeing, attacking, or behaving passively-aggressively. This causes the problem to remain unresolved and get worse.
7. Extraordinary Circumstances
You’ve been through something devastating that has changed the way you connect with your partner. Sometimes difficult life situations can have a negative effect on our relationship with our partner. Many couples break up when, for example, they lose a child, lose their job, have health problems, or have arguments with their partner’s family of origin. You may not consider going to couples therapy, because you have enough to worry about, however maintaining a strong bond with your partner can give you extra strength to overcome adversity.
8. You feel trapped in bad habits
Habits such as eating, sleeping, time spent apart from your partner, sharing household chores or interacting with your in-laws. Perhaps the habit of constantly complaining about work, unequal domestic distribution, etc. The longer a pattern has been in place the harder it will be to change it, so it is best to start early.
9. Emotional intimacy has decreased
It sounds cliché to say that couples have lost their “spark” after spending so much time together. Unfortunately, it is true that the day-to-day routine can make it difficult to connect with the other person, and it is simply a matter of re-prioritizing. Partners might have been slowly been drifting apart and becoming increasingly incompatible or they may have learned to meet their needs elsewhere, which drives a wedge in the relationship.
10. Physical intimacy is a problem
Sexual problems can be both a symptom and the cause of your relationship problems, which means it is a recurring theme in couples therapy. Sometimes the change is obvious and frustrating. Sometimes it is more gradual, moving from full satisfaction to total dissatisfaction. Sometimes there is an open conflict where one member expresses frustration, accuses the other of rejecting it, or turns sex into a negotiating tool.
Guidelines before going to couples therapy
1. What are our objectives?
Think about what you want to achieve with therapy and make those goals realistic:
- What kind of life do you want to build with your partner and individually?
- What kind of partner do you want to become to build the life and relationship you want?
- What are the obstacles to becoming the couple you aspire to be?
- What skills and knowledge do you need for all this?
These questions make you think about your needs.
2. Accept your responsibility
Assume that the relationship is a two-way street and they both have something to do with how it goes. Focus on yourself and what you can do and how you want to change. Since you don’t have the power to change your partner.
3. Find the commitment to change
Without commitment, responsibility and motivation to change and improve the relationship, therapy will not work. Therefore, keep in mind that it takes work and effort from both of you. The therapist will not fix anything, they don’t have magic recipes or quick or miraculous solutions. They are going to help you work it out on your own, and that takes work.
What is couples therapy like? What to expect.
How couples therapy works depends a lot on the therapist and the type of therapy. Even so, the first interview will usually assess the problem and set goals. In this first session, both members will be there. Another common practice is that the second to third session each partner enter therapy on their own, that way the therapist has an idea of how each member lives the current situation. There might be other individual sessions if necessary between couples sessions. From the fourth session onwards, the big part of the couples therapy begins, where those issues that both partners and the therapist have considered to be of greatest relevance and urgency will be addressed.
Therapy aims to express emotions and thoughts in an appropriate way. Disrespect and any form of aggression are not tolerated. It is common to find this type of communication pattern in very deteriorated couples, but work is done to ensure that this does not happen.
The therapist is not going to take sides. A good therapist will remain neutral. In order to promote this neutrality, in some cases it can be very beneficial for the course of therapy to have two therapists (a man and a woman), making the couple feel more comfortable.
How long should couples therapy last?
How long a therapy lasts will depend on:
- The type of therapy
- Therapy goals
- The specific needs of the couple
- Non-Therapy Situations
- The couples’ disposition to change
There are times when the problem is solved in 5 or 6 sessions, when the objective is very specific, such as improving communication, solving day-to-day problems, etc. But other problems such as restoring confidence or modifying established patterns of interaction will require more sessions. The average is usually 12-16 sessions, around 4 months. There are no miracles or magic recipes. So it’s best not to rush, take the time, and don’t speed things up because it’s often counterproductive.
My partner doesn’t want to go to therapy. What can I do?
Sometimes one of the members is very clear that couples therapy is needed but the other one refuses or is reluctant. There may be many reasons why a person refuses to go to therapy.
It is not easy to discuss personal problems with a complete stranger, let alone to “air your dirty laundry”. There is also often a fear that the therapist will side with the other partner. Many believe it is a space where they will be criticized or blamed for the problems. It might be something from their past, like previous negative experiences with a therapist.
However, every patient should know that a good therapist will not take sides with anyone. They will remain impartial and will always give voice to both members to express their opinions, thoughts, and emotions freely.
Sometimes we believe that there is no solution to our problem, or that it doesn’t happen to anyone else, however, there is usually a way out, and our problems are not as unique or special as we might think. We may also believe that the problem is the other person and we are perfectly fine. However, in couples’ problems, it is normal for both to be partly responsible for the current situation.
And even if the problem remains unresolved and the couple breaks up, the therapy will help us to get to know ourselves better as well as ourselves as a couple, allowing us to learn for our next relationship.
1. Talk about therapy in a positive way
Talk to your partner about therapy. Let him know it’s not to point fingers or blame anyone. Many decide to go to therapy thinking they are going to be told they are right, however, if the therapist is an expert, they will manage the situation with caution.
Tell your partner that therapy is about helping them both stop the erroneous ways that they interact and hurt each other. It can also be helpful to take on some responsibility such as saying, “I want to learn how to be a better partner for you, I need someone to teach me. If you come with me, I’m sure it’s a lot easier. Will you come with me to therapy?”
Never propose it as an ultimatum or as a threat.
2. Try workshops for couples
Although not therapy per se, some workshops can be powerful and therapeutic. It can help you understand the nature of love, make sense of what happens when a person feels uneasy and how it influences their behavior. It can also strengthen your bond.
3. Try some exercises
There are some exercises that can help increase the sense of security and confidence in the relationship.
You can ask your partner if they would like to create a weekly space where emotions are shared. A safe space in which to simply mirror each other, preventing it from becoming a debate or a problem-solving session.
You can also suggest activities that bring back passion and romance. You can propose to go out dancing, prepare a romantic dinner, etc. You can also work on improving your active listening and not explode when your partner touches a sensitive subject.
Another exercise consists of each night sharing something your partner has done or a quality that you truly appreciate. This must be unconditional, that is, you can’t say, “I like that you made X even if you don’t make Y”. Only the positive because it’s about improving the climate of the relationship. Maybe: “I liked it when you made me laugh last night after a long day’s work. Or “I liked the time we went away together.”
4. Go to couples therapy alone.
It’s best to go with your partner, but if it’s not possible, going to therapy alone can also help. Only one person can influence the functioning of the relationship and help the other change.
Types of couples therapy
There are many types of couples therapy, which can vary drastically. It is important for the couple to be aware of the different types of therapies available to see which of them can fit best with their type of demand. Some of the most popular types are the following:
- Gottman method: is a scientifically structured therapy that combines therapeutic interventions with exercises to address the problem. The main objectives are to achieve a deep sense of understanding, respect, empathy and overcoming barriers to self-reliance in the relationship.
- Emotional Focused Therapy: Focuses on emotional understanding and management. Each partner is encouraged to discuss their emotions in a non-judgmental environment to gain insight and perspective on their partner’s emotional reactions. The main objective is to create a strong bond between them, learn effective communication skills and develop trust in the couple.
- Solution-centered therapy: This is a highly organized and goal-oriented type of therapy. Rather than focusing on the effects of the problem, it addresses the desired outcome and creates a structured plan to achieve it. This therapy provides clients with skills and tools to help them manage the challenges of their daily lives.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This is based on forming a strong bond with the therapist and exploring the primary cause of the problem in the relationship. It encourages individuals to challenge their perceptions, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts to discover the root of the problem. It is also about communication, emotional management, creating a good climate in the relationship. It is one of the most effective and popular therapies.
- Systemic therapy: This therapy uses complex techniques to investigate the individual’s role in the relationship. In this type of therapy, the relationship is seen as a system in which the behavior of one partner influences the other. It analyzes the specific behaviors of individuals and how they affect the relationship to transform those behaviors into more appropriate ones.
Couple therapy exercises and techniques
1. Emotional ventilation
When was the last time you communicated how you feel? Keeping it all in to avoid conflict is not good, as it can turn into resentment, frustration and unconscious punishment behaviors towards our partner.
To do this, take a little time each day to talk about the things that have annoyed and irritated both of you so that they do not become major problems. This requires good social and active listening skills.
Express yourself from the “when you do X, I feel Y” point of view. And then listen, really listen, don’t try to correct the other person, take an interest in what they say, ask questions when you don’t understand.
2. Resolve arguments before bedtime
Unresolved arguments turn into resentment. Before that happens, fix it before the day is over. If the emotions are too intense to do so, agree to pause for the night and to resume the argument the next day with the full intention of solving it together.
3. Make a list of plans
What are the 10 fun plans you want to make with your partner? Make a list and be sure to cross out at least one plan each month.
4. Eat or dine together
Spending time at lunch or dinner together is a very basic way to bond. Find time to eat together and talk about goals and dreams. If you are in the middle of a discussion or the relationship is tense, let the meal be a time to pause the discussion and enjoy each other’s company.
This article is orginially written in Spanish by Andrea Garía Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Psicóloga General Sanitaria y sexóloga. Deseosa de mejorar la calidad de vida de las personas mediante la práctica clínica y la comunicación a través de la red.