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Guide to Couples Therapy

This guide to couples therapy was written for couples who are thinking of going to therapy sessions together.

As a therapist, I know that it's seldom easy for couples to commit to therapy, so I always feel truly honoured when two people, struggling with their relationship, put their trust in me to help.

Of course, it doesn't always work this way. Sometimes one member of the couple comes to see me first, and then it's quite a process to get their partner to join them in therapy. But for various reasons, he or she may not be keen to attend. I always encourage couples to attend together as the problems in the relationship belong to them both. 

If that's not possible, then it becomes individual therapy for the person who first came to see me.

What to Expect in Couples Therapy

The first step in couples therapy is usually the telling of your story. It's important to figure out your relationship dynamic and patterns, as well as the issues you are grappling with. 

Common reasons why couples may come to therapy include communication problems, intimacy and sexual issues, affairs, family difficulties, complications of blended families, past abuse, body image, and troubles that one or both partners may be dealing with, which adversely affect the relationship. Sometimes partners simply drift apart as they get older.

We also look at personality aspects of both you and your partner, and the past (sometimes traumatic) experiences both of you bring into the relationship. Close relationships are renowned for triggering old patterns of fear, passivity, rage or anxiety, to name a few. Each of you may also have your own view of what makes a relationship good or bad, based on your families of origin, and how each of your parents conducted their relationships. These views might be quite similar, or completely opposite.

The more information I can gain about what is really happening between the two of you, the easier I can form a plan in my mind to assist you.

Together, we then set an intention for therapy, depending on the issues you're experiencing. You may want to deepen intimacy, spend more quality time together, communicate better, express  emotions in more constructive ways, or deal with finances in a healthier way.

We'll then come up with a practical plan where we focus on negotiating change so that both of you have your needs met.

If you attend sessions over a period of time, we look at how you are doing with making change, connecting more and whatever it takes for you to move forward in a positive way. 

The Role of the Therapist

For me as the therapist, it's an awe-inspiring experience to support and enable you as a couple to shift from despondency to hope and a renewed appreciation of each other, even if it sometimes feels as if we're taking two steps forward and one step back on occasion.

When I begin to explore what is going on in your relationship, I have lots of questions in my mind, for example,

  • What is your communication with each other like? Do you listen to each other, interrupt each other, or talk over each other?
  • How do you organise the practicalities of life together? Is one doing most of the tasks?
  • Can you tell each other what you are feeling, or do you find it challenging to express your emotions?
  • Do you take responsibility for your part in the relationship break-down, or do you project onto and blame each other for all that's gone wrong?
  • Do you openly appreciate each other, or are you overly critical?
  • Is your relationship made up of two adults, or is one more of a 'parent' and the other in the role of a 'child'?
  • Are you affectionate with each other? Is emotional and physical intimacy present in your relationship? Do you both create this?
  • Are you both empathetic, kind, caring, supportive, and basically interested in one another?
  • What happens when you disagree?
  • Is one of you a 'victim' and the other a 'persecutor'?
  • Are you able to openly talk about intimacy and sex?

My involvement is simply being a guide. It's not about being IN your relationship, because the relationship belongs to YOU. My role is to be a coach, paying attention to the dynamic between the two of you, and guiding you to cope better with practical life, your styles of communication, expressions of love and empathy for each other, your patterns of intimacy, to name a few.

My intention is to get you to talk to each other, face-to-face, about what hurts, what is good, what you want more of, what you want less of, and how you would like to get your needs fulfilled. 

I might ask you to slow your dialogue, to truly listen to each other, to make eye contact, to engage with each other. I might also coach you to affirm what you are hearing in order to create feelings of connection, closeness, and empathy.

As you gradually learn to speak to one another about your deepest feelings, you will find that recurring sadness, pain, bitterness and anger start to diminish. Arguments hold less power, and you focus less on the content of disagreements, and more on HOW you're communicating your needs.

Everyday expressions of loving connection become more common-place, for example warm hellos and goodbyes, hugs, stroking, or cuddles on the sofa. And so intimacy grows, and even sexual fulfilment starts to flow more easily.

The Challenges of Couples Therapy

When relationship issues developed over a long period of time, change doesn't always happen as easily and effortlessly as it may sound.

You may get triggered by each other in all sorts of ways. One of the tasks of relationship therapy is to figure out what the triggers are about and where they come from. Sometimes we have to go through layers and layers of wounding to get to the bottom of the hurts. 

Sometimes it may feel too painful for one or both of you to continue with couples therapy... and then we have to find new ways for you to re-connect - emotionally, physically and even spiritually.

But if you're both committed to do the work, it's as if a new territory of possibility starts to open up for you. You may find that you WANT to spend more and more uncluttered valuable time together as a couple, and meet each other's needs every step of the way.

And that's a beautiful thing!

*ps. If you found this guide to couples therapy helpful, also check out my page on happy love relationships

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