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Couples Counseling

Whether or not yours is a traditional relationship that includes marriage, many factors can affect how you work as a couple. For instance,

Some couples feel they don’t have the skills they wish they had:

All relationships are prone to:

Other couples might have additional tensions:

All the factors of who you are add up to the recurring patterns of your interaction. The factors each of you brings can result in distancing, attacking, blaming, or withdrawing into other interests than the relationship. This turns into a recurrent cycle that is your fallback way of relating, and the purpose of marriage therapy or couples counseling is to make you aware of your cycle so you can relate in new ways, with new understandings of each other and your relationship.

Dr. John Gottman, widely acknowledged expert and researcher in how relationships go wrong, uses the following signs to predict how rocky a relationship is:

  • Discussions that ramp up into negativity in the first three minutes
  • Negative interactions: criticism, contempt (direct putdowns as well as sarcasm, both of which convey disgust), defensiveness, and stonewalling (refusing to engage)
  • Feeling flooded: hypervigilance and constant self-protective words or behaviors
  • Body language that connotes extreme distress and demonstrates neurobiological systems’ inability to let the partners pay attention, process information, or engage in creative problem-solving

Dr. Sue Johnson writes about deep primal needs for connection that make committed relationships more than just a bargain between two people. When the relationship is threatened, the thinking part of the brain shuts down because the inability to reestablish a connection gets people working out of pure emotion. Deep-seated emotions that people may be unaware of lead to behaviors that increase the conflict and spiral out of control. These emotions often relate to how secure the partners feel in their attachment to each other. Painful blow-ups happen fast. Learning the signs that you’re getting into your cycle assists you not to ramp up into high levels of anger and frustration where one or the other says or does things that hurt.

A decision to start therapy or couples counseling is a big one. Here are some of the situations that could bring people in:

  • You want to make sure that you are starting out together in a solid way.
  • What you have is good but you want more.
  • Perhaps your marriage, partnership, or committed relationship isn’t turning out the way you wanted but you don’t know why. It just hurts—and the two of you can’t even communicate about it.
  • You feel betrayed, not understood, unheard, lonely, controlled, diminished, defeated, disappointed, or confused.
  • You can’t come to agreement on money or parenting or friends or extended family or sex.
  • You feel trapped by the other’s addiction.
  • You wonder if you’re addicted to each other instead of building your love.
  • You want to make one last try before you separate.
  • You decide it’s time to find a way to separate that honors you both and, if there are children, helps them too through some tough waters.

Dr. Sue Johnson points out that people showed her.

They were more than willing, even if they had been terribly wounded by significant others, to fight their fears and to struggle to create a new kind of connection with their present partners.

That new kind of connection is the goal of couples therapy that takes partners beyond improved coping to the ability to understand and modify the patterns in their conflicts and the roles each one plays. The result can be a refreshing, new intimacy.

Recommended books

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Standard research-based approach to relationship attributes that are devastating and how they need to change.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy for Dummies

Provides clients powerful insights into practical ways to deal with emotional impasses to reach a deeper and more stable relationship.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In

How to think and act differently in arenas of conflict based on looking together at your best interest instead of fighting to hold onto your position.

Getting Past the Affair

For the relationship to survive, both the unfaithful partner and the betrayed one may need to communicate their pain and test their assumptions. They will need to confront their doubts and fears.