How To Get The Most From Couples Therapy
Adapted with permission from: Dr. Ellyn Bader & Dr. Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute.
This page is designed to help you prepare for our sessions so you can get the most from couples therapy. It is highly recommended that you create your own individual objectives for being in therapy, so that I can help you reach them.
I have many, many tools to help you become a more effective partner. They work best when you are clear about how you aspire to be, not how you’d like your partner to change.
My goal is to help each of you improve your responses to your partner without violating your core values or deeply held principles. This helps you act from your integrity and get the most from couples therapy.
The major goal of therapy is increasing your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the “dance” you do together – the pattern of interaction between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply this new knowledge to break your contribution to ineffective patterns of interaction and develop better ones.
Please write your answers to these three questions & bring them in to your first appointment:
- What’s the kind of life you want to build together?
- What’s the kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you want to create? (Focus on being your best self).
- What are your individual blocks which prevent you becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be? (Work against being your worst self).
My task will be to assist you to develop the attitude, skills and knowledge necessary to work through and achieve the above aims.
TOUGH CHOICES and COMPROMISES
To create the relationship you really desire, there will be some difficult choices and compromises for each of you.
The first choice will be time. It simply takes time to create a relationship that flourishes. Make time to be together, time to be with family, time to play, have sex, coordinate, nurture, relax, hang out and plan. This time will encroach on some other valuable areas – your personal or professional time.
The second choice is comfort. A) Emotional comfort: practice going out on a limb to try new ways of being, thinking or doing things. Listen and be curious instead of furious; speak up instead of being resentfully compliant or withdrawing. Emotional risk-taking will be required.
B) Energy comfort: make the effort to sustain improvement over time, stay conscious of making a difference over time. Remember to be more respectful, more giving, more appreciative etc. It takes effort to remember and act. Insight is necessary but insufficient for real change. Repeated action is required for real change. Humans learn through repetition and practice, over and over again. There is no short-cut.
The third choice is improving your reaction to problems. This is the most difficult. For example, if one of you is hypersensitive to criticism whilst your partner is hypersensitive to feeling ignored, it will take effort to improve your own sensitivity instead of hoping your partner will stop ignoring or criticizing.
In an interdependent relationship, sustained effort is required on your part to make a sustained improvement. It’s like pairs dancing – when one of you changes your steps, your partner will have to change theirs in order for the dance to go smoothly. One person cannot do most of the work and still create an exceptional dance team. Start with changing you first and notice what happens.
A POWERFUL APPROACH TO YOUR COUPLES THERAPY IS FOR EACH PERSON TO DO THE FOLLOWING BEFORE EACH SESSION:
- Reflect on your larger objectives for being in therapy, not just the current issues. An example of a larger objective is “I’d like to improve our relationship in the following way…”
- Practice being the partner you aspire to become. Ask yourself “Would my partner even date me if I keep behaving in these habitual, unskillful ways?”
This reflection takes some effort. Very few people would call an important meeting and then say, “Well, I don’t have anything to bring up, does anyone have anything on their agenda?” Your preparation for counselling will pay high dividends. Make the most out of your time and money investment in each couples session. Come prepared with what you want to achieve.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNICATION
The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness and persistence.
Communication is the number one presenting problem in couples counselling. Effective communication means you need to pay attention to:
•Managing your unruly reactions, such as your anger/criticism that is too intense, or your withdrawal/refusal to talk.
•How you are communicating – blaming, complaining, being vague, denying, shutting down etc.
•Being clear about what you want from your partner during the discussion.
•Clarifying what the problem means/symbolizes to you. Make complaints about the problem, not your partner’s personality.
•Being clear about the outcome you want from the discussion.
•Listening to your partner’s major concerns.
•Practicing how you can help your partner become more responsive to you.
We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.
Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into a few categories:
•Blame/criticise/use contempt/dominate. This is being “one up” or “better than” your partner.
•Disengage/withdraw/stonewall/play victim. This is being “one down” or “worse than” your partner.
•Resentfully comply/sulk – “one down”.
•Complain/whine – “one down”.
•Denial/confusion/overly apologetic – “one down”.
These are the normal emotional reactions to feeling threat or high stress. Improving your relationship means that you learn how to better manage your reactions. Take a responsible time-out whenever you feel fear or anger. Do not tell your partner they should take a time-out. This will increase the conflict.
Don’t just withdraw or shut down in an attempt to keep safe and avoid conflict. If you strive to always feel emotionally safe and avoid conflict in your relationship and you succeed, you’ll pay the price by becoming bored/disconnected in your relationship. If you never rock the boat, you’ll end up with a dull relationship. You need to learn to have healthy conflict so that you respectfully rock the boat. This brings about growth and change.
IMPORTANT CONCEPTS FOR COUPLES THERAPY AND RELATIONSHIPS
Attitude is Key
When it comes to improving your relationship, your attitude toward change is more important than what action to take.
Your partner is quite limited in their ability to respond to you. You are quite limited in your ability to respond to your partner. Accepting that is a huge step into maturity.
Focus on Changing Yourself Rather than Your Partner
Couples therapy works best if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner. As your counsellor I’m at my best when I help you reach objectives you set for yourself. It’s human nature to try and change your partner instead of adjusting your expectations. This aspect of human nature is what keeps us therapists in business.
You can’t change your partner. Your partner can’t change you. You can influence each other, but that doesn’t mean you can change each other. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to influence a relationship. The more you believe your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change yourself and the patterns between you.
Some Contradictions of Couples Therapy
All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that healthy conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships.
It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it and what they hear.
If you want your partner to change, what can you do to make it easier for them? When a problem shows up, it’s natural to think “What should I do about it?” A much more productive question is, “How do I aspire to be in this situation?” Be respectful, clear, persistent and patient. Successful relationships take time to build, they don’t come ready-made to order.
Some Final Thoughts
Trust and commitment are the foundational building blocks of a flourishing relationship. You create trust by doing what you say you will do, when you say you’ll do it. If you can’t fulfill your promise, renegotiate it with your partner. Failing to renegotiate breaks trust and commitment.
Businesses and relationships fail for the same three reasons. A failure to:
•Learn from the past
•Adapt to changing conditions
•Predict probable future problems and take action
Effective change requires insight plus action. Action without insight is thoughtless. Insight without action is passivity.