Couples work is a dynamic therapeutic process that often yields beneficial results relatively quickly. When I work with couples, the couple is my client. I am allied with both partners as they work to express the painful feelings that bring them into therapy, and as they learn to talk and listen in more mutually satisfying ways. Couples therapy helps to provide containment for intense feelings, and supports each partner to speak honestly and to listen receptively so they can both begin to feel genuinely heard and understood. I typically provide active guidance, especially in the first phase of couples therapy, to help develop these effective listening and communication skills because they are the essential foundation necessary for understanding and empathic connection to develop.
One of the main reasons this is so, is that we are profoundly relational creatures who thrive when we feel seen, loved and accepted. These feelings and experiences are the basis of what is called secure attachment. This is what we needed in order to be emotionally and physically healthy as babies and children, and we need it in order to have healthy and fulfilling partnerships as adults. In order to feel seen, loved and accepted, we need our partner to relate to us with a certain amount of warmth, attunement and responsiveness. One of the main ways we express these qualities as humans is through the way we speak and listen to our loved ones– hence the crucial importance of knowing how to speak and listen effectively. We don’t need to experience warmth, attunement and responsiveness from our partner all the time – this wouldn’t be possible anyway, and besides, it would prevent the positive friction that makes for healthy separateness and the occasional good, cathartic fight. But we need to experience it enough to know we are emotionally held in the relationship.
Regaining Relationship Balance
Most distress experienced by couples is attachment distress – something has gone wrong with the delicate balance of secure connection and individuality. The relationship has come to feel emotionally unsafe which makes secure attachment impossible. Or, the couple has become so enmeshed that they are fearful of growing as individuals lest it threaten the fragile sense of connection.
In the therapy hour, couples engage in the work of communicating about especially difficult issues. I work to provide reflection, support and feedback to help them see and understand how unproductive ways of talking to each other and unconscious repetitive patterns are driving the surface-level arguments about who is right and who is wrong, and the constant feedback loop of bad feelings. By slowing things down and observing what’s going on with warmth, openness and precision, a much clearer picture begins to emerge of deep feelings that are unconscious and/or unexpressed. From here, it becomes possible to put these feelings into words and to break out of unconscious repetitive cycles.
Relief and Connection
Couples in distress often experience a great deal of relief and positive change when they have the opportunity to 1) learn how to communicate in a way that is satisfying, yet not destructively triggering to their partner, 2) learn how to self-regulate when intense emotions come up and 3) become aware of the deeper feelings that are behind dysfunctional relationship dynamics. When both partners learn and begin practicing these skills and awarenesses in therapy, they often have a renewed sense of power to positively impact the relationship. This sense of power can inject new life into the relationship, mobilizing hope and creativity. As an emotionally “safe enough” atmosphere begins to be co-created, it becomes so much easier to work productively through conflicts and to have a more fulfilling sense of intimacy and growth. This doesn’t mean that conflict disappears or that interactions are always peaceful. But it does mean that conflict can be enlivening rather than destructive and serves to help evolve problems rather than simply repeat them.
It’s very common for couples to believe that their conflicts relate to specific behaviors in the other partner that are upsetting, such as arguments about how money or household chores are being handled. However, these practical matters are not overly difficult to negotiate solutions for if the underlying emotional needs are addressed. For example, beneath criticizing your partner for how they’re handling money could be a deep-seated fear of scarcity or not feeling safe. Once that deeper emotion is understood and cared for, you and your partner can decide together how to handle the particular practical issue.
In my experience working with couples, about 90% are able to get great relief and healing from therapy. Sometimes, especially if there is significant unresolved trauma or personality disorders in one or both of the partners, they may not be able to properly develop communication, self-regulation and awareness skills in a couples therapy environment. In this case, couples therapy may need to take a backseat to individual therapy until both partners are able to reliably avoid becoming severely and destructively triggered in times of conflict. The process needed to develop this ability is central to the work of individual therapy.
Sometimes, couples therapy uncovers a true underlying incompatibility or inability to continue in the relationship in good faith. In these cases, which are rare in my experience, therapy may be helpful in navigating the ending of the relationship, including addressing how to best care for any children the couple may have.
If you would like to learn more about couples therapy, or wish to set up an appointment, please contact me here.