Couples usually don’t know what to expect from a therapist or from the process of counseling. They often think of it as a place to report how unhappy they are with their partner. They hope that the therapist will provide some relief and help them to create a happier more functional relationship. They expect to learn some new or better skills but most people hope that their partner will do most of the learning in the problem areas.
However, this process works best when you identify and create goals for yourself rather than for your partner. You can’t change your partner any more than your partner can change you. Becoming a more effective partner is the most productive way to change your relationship.
My job as a couples therapist is to help you create your own individual goals and objectives for the process of counseling. Like a good coach, my job is to help you reach them. I have many tools to help you become a more effective partner. They work best however when you are clear about your vision of how you wish to be in your relationship.
In intimate relationships, our individual problems, communication styles and feelings become closely connected with our partner. Our issues and feelings play out in response to our loved ones. And they can easily turn into a relationship battleground. When communication becomes strained or even nonexistent, the foundation of the relationship is affected.
Although good communication and problem-solving skills are critical for relationship success,
healthy relationships require much more. Consistently communicating details to our partner
about our internal lives is a basic part of marriage. Speaking and listening at this level is a way to feel emotionally connected and to know one another. It creates relationship-relevant meaning within a couple for the purpose of connection and is the central life force in the relationship. It is the system for paying attention to each other and allows meaning and sentiment to flow between partners. (Gottman 2008)
It’s frustrating when your partner won’t listen or doesn’t understand you. As long as you continue to fight to make your point of view, you will likely be frustrated. What comes of this is a power struggle and yet another round of fighting. When we feel scared or threatened, we tend to react defensively and this interferes with our ability to problem solve.
Conflict is normal and can be a sign of a healthy relationship while utter lack of disagreement may signal trouble. Everyone has strong feelings about some things. For many couples, arguments are especially hard to resolve because of what was learned (or not learned) in their family about arguing and resolving disagreements, and although those patterns aren’t effective, they were carried over into adult relationships.
You can begin to identify the predictable way you and your spouse react to each other that leaves you frustrated and dissatisfied. You each bring your early experiences and history into your relationship. Gaining valuable insight into the role they play will create an opening to learn new skills for understanding and communicating.
Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into a few categories:
- Blame or attempt to dominate
- Resentful compliance
- Denial or confusion
When you are able to effectively manage these habitual reactions, your relationship will begin to improve.
One of the greatest challenges of couples counseling is accepting that you will need to improve your particular response to a problem, i.e. how you think and feel about it, and what to do about it. Few people want to focus on improving their response. It’s more common and more human to build a strong case for why the other should do the improving.
You can learn a lot about yourself by understanding what annoys you and how you handle it. The more you believe your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change the patterns between you.
The major aim of couples counseling then is increasing your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the pattern of interaction between you. This lays the groundwork for change. Knowledge is not power. Only knowledge that is applied is power. When you apply new knowledge to replace old patterns and develop better ones, change will surely follow.