Most couples approach therapy with the notion that they will describe their distress and somehow the therapist will assist them in creating a happier and more functional relationship. However, most people hope that their partner will do most of the learning in problem areas. The therapist’s primary role is to help you improve your responses to each other without violating your core values and principles. Your job is to create your own individual objectives for being in therapy, and the therapist should help you reach those goals. The major aim of therapy is to increase your knowledge about yourself, your partner, and the interactions between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply this new knowledge of patterns to develop new and better ones.
The key tasks in therapy are increasing your clarity about the kind of life you want to build together, the kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build that life, your individual blocks to becoming that kind of partner, and developing the skills needed to do those tasks.
There will be tradeoffs and tough choices which will be difficult. But they are necessary to create the relationship you really desire. The first tradeoff here is time. To create this kind of relationship it simply takes time. This will encroach on some other valuable areas, such as your professional or personal time. The second compromise is comfort. That means emotional comfort, such as going out on a limb to try new ways of thinking/doing things or listening and being curious instead of retorting or reacting. In the beginning, there will be emotional risk in taking action but you won’t get anywhere if you always stay within your comfort zone. Another comfort that’ll be challenged is energy comfort. It takes effort to sustain progress over time. It takes effort to remember and act. A difficult effort for some people is to improve their reaction to problems. In all of these areas, there is generally a conflict between short-term gratification and the long-term goal of creating a satisfying relationship.
A common and unproductive pattern in therapy is focusing on whatever problem happens to be on someone’s mind at the moment. Another unproductive pattern is to show up and say: “I don’t know what to talk about, do you?” Even though this blank slate may open up some interesting doors, it is a hit or miss process. The third unproductive pattern is discussing whatever fight you are currently in or had since the last meeting. A better way to approach the sessions is for each person to reflect on their objectives for being in therapy and to think about the next step that supports the larger objectives for the relationship. Reflection does take effort, but this preparation will have many benefits. The following ideas can help you prepare for couples’ therapy:
Attitude is key. How to think differently about a problem is often more effective than the actions. Accepting that your partner is limited in their ability to respond to you, and that you are limited in your ability to respond to them is a great step into maturity. There is a definite possibility that both of you have flawed assumptions about each other, and it’s important to recognize that your own thinking could be distorted.
Focus on changing yourself rather than your partner. Couple’s Therapy works best if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner. Problems arise when your try to change your partner rather than changing your expectations. The hardest part of therapy is accepting that you will need to improve your response to an issue. You and your partner can influence each other, but you cannot change your partner any more than they can change you. The more you believe your partner should be different, the less action you will take to improve the pattern between you – and the less effective therapy will be.
There are tough questions to be addressed. Asking good questions of yourself and of your partner can help you find solutions. For example: Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat them? If you want your partner to change, what can you do to make it easier? What is your role in the problem? What are you not doing that could make things better? Are you really listening and understanding your partner?
Communication is important. The three most important aspects of that are respect, openness, and persistence. Good communication is much more difficult than most people believe, and effective negotiation is even harder. Communication is the number one problem in couple’s counseling, and in order to have effective communication you need to pay attention to how you manage your emotions, how you are communicating, what you want from your partner in the discussion, what the problem symbolizes to you, the desired outcome, your partner’s major concerns, how you can help your partner become more responsive to you, and the beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem.
Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into a few categories, some of which are: blame, attempt to dominate, withdraw, resentful compliance, whining, and denial. These are the normal reactions to feeling threatened. Improving your relationship means a better management of your feelings. Effective change requires insight plus action. Insight without action is passivity, and action without insight is impulsive.
If you want to create a win-win solution, you cannot hold a position that has caused your partner to lose in the past.
*Image taken from cartoonstock.com*
Adapted from Ellyn Bader, The Couples’ Institute