Whether heterosexual, gay or lesbian, romantic relationships can get complicated! Problems surface that do not emerge anywhere else. Relationships hold the possibility of enormous personal growth and joy or persistent emotional conflict and pain. Emotional distress resulting from relationship problems is probably the number one reason adults enter psychotherapy. Often the most practical approach to resolving relationship conflicts is in couples psychotherapy.
Many couples enter counseling pointing their finger at the other person. Often they begin marital or couples therapy with a very clear picture of what they think is wrong with their spouse or partner. Though this perspective can be helpful, the more difficult and humbling task is determining what changes you personally need to make. Too often our individual role in the problem is invisible to us. Ultimately, each partner needs to be able to answer the question, “What do I need to do differently?” Marital/couples psychotherapy can help create an environment where the answer can emerge.
Couples therapy begins with defining the problems. An initial session may start with determining if either person has difficulties that need to be addressed apart from the relationship conflicts. For example, it is important to screen for serious depression, alcohol/drug abuse or addiction, or other psychological problems that are in themselves a barrier to addressing the couple issues. A history of the family of origin and prior relationships helps to put the presenting problems in a wider perspective. Though we cannot simply blame our problems on how we grew up, our prior relationships predispose certain kinds of patterns. These relationships provide the positive model or negative model for later relationships. A history of the courtship itself and later events allows us to see a couple’s unique patterns.
I seek to facilitate a dialogue about what each person wants and needs within the relationship. This helps determine what each person needs to do differently for the relationship to improve. Couples establish a range of habits about how they relate to one another. Though many such habits may be kind, empathic and appreciative; other behaviors may tend to leave the partner angry, unappreciated, criticized or unfairly burdened. Each partner needs to understand the other person and learn what approaches work in promoting a productive dialogue about the conflicts. Couples often need to communicate in greater quantity to begin to establish the quality communication necessary to work out their differences and to stay emotionally close. Communicating effectively and empathically takes practice but the reward is greater intimacy.
Arguments are inevitable and couples need to learn to argue productively. Many of the issues that couples struggle over are longstanding. They become problematic when meaningful, empathic dialogue about them breaks down. The same conflicts come up over and over again. Some couples have been through the same arguments so many times they feel they could write the script! They need to learn to listen to each other and set ground rules for mutual respect during conflicts. It is important for couples to work out agreements on a broad range of issues. These might include the balance of responsibilities and chores, privacy, sharing money, work stress, managing extended family and friendships, sex, social and leisure time and parenting. The goal is to be in a relationship that is rooted in mutual compassion and understanding. Sometimes, changing some simple habits around communication makes a huge difference.
As with individual therapy, some couples come in for occasional sessions to resolve problems recur.