So here you are. You find yourself seated on a couch next to your partner locked in a battle of wills over who said what and how that argument that you had last week really went down, while your couple’s therapist tries to wrestle back control of the session. You’ve been coming for a couple months now and it seems like things are getting worse, not better.
So what’s going wrong? Why isn’t this working?
Maybe you switch therapists. Maybe you stop going. Maybe you continue on this loop of nothing changing.
I am all for switching therapists to find the right fit, and in couples its a bit harder because you have to find someone that works for both of you, but if you find that you have gone through a few therapists and are still having this same issue it might be time to reevaluate the way that you are using your sessions.
Therapy is a strange thing – you get out of it what you put into it. I am part of the school of thought that puts a lot of responsibility for change on the therapist. But with that being, said even the most assertive and adept therapist has limits regarding change in a client that isn’t using sessions to the best of their abilities.
So lets talk about the ways in which you, as a couple, can give yourself a better chance at getting the best out of your couple’s therapy sessions by keeping these things in mind.
I Am Gonna Call You Out
First and foremost, you have to come ready to be called out on your shit. There is no way around this. Even if you think that it is all your partner’s fault, your therapist is not going to think so (unless there is abuse happening and if so then couple’s therapy is not appropriate).
When I meet with a couple I start off with the assumption that their behaviors are both problematic. In my head, and hopefully what I portray is, I am not taking sides. I want to help both people see what they are doing that is contributing to conflict and whatever I see in session that pops up first is usually what I am going to focus on.
So be prepared to be called out – and don’t take it personally. Its just behaviors we are looking to change to make your relationship more functional and both of you more content.
Come With a Goal of Changing YOUR Behaviors
An area where I see couples get in trouble is when they come to therapy hoping to change their partner’s behaviors and perceptions. I mean obviously to some degree we want to change what our partner’s are doing in couples because we are being hurt in some way by their behaviors. However, when your main focus is on changing their responses or behaviors without really looking at yours, you aren’t going to get much done.
When you come to couple’s therapy you have to be invested in understanding and changing your own behaviors. In regard to your partner, the goal is getting you to understand their perspective.
Leave it to me to help you both change your behaviors. The cool thing that happens when you shift your focus from trying to change someone else’s behaviors to trying to understand their perspective, is that they feel heard and then sometimes understood. When people feel heard, validated, and understood, they are more receptive to constructive feedback. Constructive feedback leads to – you guessed it – behavior change!
Give The Benefit of The Doubt
More often than not, by the time couples come to me, they have created a really negative dialogue in their heads about their partners and their partner’s motives behind how they are acting. These dialogues come in lots of different packages but are usually about their partner’s character or their feelings or motives.
For example, you asked your partner to do a task in the house and it doesn’t get done. The negative dialogue could look something like this:
” She is so selfish and inconsiderate. She doesn’t appreciate all I do for this house. If she did, she would do what I asked”.
This is what you tell yourself and then you react to your partner as if this is the only truth. Of course you are going to react negatively, I mean who wouldn’t with a story like this!
Giving the benefit of the doubt looks something like this
” Hmm, thats odd. I asked her to take out the garbage. I wonder what happened that it didn’t get done. Maybe the morning was super busy? I’ll talk to her and find out.”
See? In this response there is curiosity and room for multiple stories. Maybe she is simply just a selfish jerk, or maybe the kids were freaking out this morning and she didn’t have time, or maybe the bag ripped and there wasn’t time to address it in the morning but she plans to do it when she gets home – you get the point.
Giving the benefit of the doubt, or not assuming negative intent, allows us to approach our partners more reasonably and with the goal of problem solving. It helps criticism turn into complaints, which then make conversations more productive.
What You Are Actually Arguing About Doesn’t Really Matter
At least it doesn’t to me. I am not planning on weighing in on whether or not you should have another baby, if you should move, or where you should spend the holidays.
Of course I know that these are emotional and weighted topics for couples, and I don’t mean to minimize them, but the reality is that its not what you are arguing about that I am focused on but how.
The how is what’s the problem. Are you hearing one another? Is there defensiveness? Are you calling each other names?
These are the things that I am paying attention to. Coming to couples therapy is about learning how to communicate more effectively, not about a therapist giving you an answer to a conflict.
It’s easy in a session to get bogged down by the what – what you said and then what they said and then what happened – but expect that I am going to try to move you through that quickly. Really I don’t need all that information because chances are you are going to start repeating those same dynamics right here in session as you rehash it. And then I can see it in action. Which is what I am really looking for.
Prepare to be Interrupted
I am going to interrupt you. I don’t like it, I am not trying to be rude but sometimes I just have to stop the dynamic that is happening.
If I am interrupting in a session it could be because I am super excited about the interaction that just happened and I want to praise you and stop you before you go further and make a beautiful sequence less beautiful.
It also could be because what you are doing is harmful and not helpful and I want to help you figure out what is going on for you in that moment as well as help you to understand how you are being perceived.
Open Communication is Key
As with any therapeutic relationship, I feel that open communication between clients and therapists about the therapy process leads to the best results.
If you are confused about the direction of therapy, frustrated with therapy, unhappy about therapy, or super psyched about a session and how it felt – let me know!
If I know what is working and not working it helps me to be a better therapist to you both.
And you are also practicing asking for that you want and need which we can never get enough practice with.
Don’t Get Defeated
Change is super hard. You didn’t get here overnight. The dynamic that is so problematic is one that, as a couple, you have been engaging in for a long time and it is going to take some time to break it.
There will be moments of success. There will be moments where you revert back to old patterns. This is not failure. This does not mean that therapy isn’t working.
This just means that change is hard and that you are human beings. The important thing to take from those moments in which you revert or “fail” is that these are also opportunities for learning and growth.
What happened that got in the way of the interaction being more productive? What contributed to reverting to old patterns? In sessions we can explore these things and gain greater insight into each member of the couples barriers to change. Its not a catastrophe – its actually to be expected.
We like to test change. We like to see how it sticks so we revert back to old patterns sometimes. Its ok. Its a learning experience and if you go into treatment with this mindset it won’t feel so defeating when it happens.
Now I can’t guarantee that even with these things in mind that therapy will be successful for you. Couples therapy and couples issues are complicated and there are many factors that contribute to an unsuccessful experience in couples treatment. However, if you can go into treatment with an open mind and at least a little willingness to look at and change your own behaviors, you definitely have a better likelihood of success.
Now you are ready and equipped to put your best foot forward and try to get every last drop of change out of your sessions! So give it a whirl and see if you get different outcomes with a different mindset!