We all know romantic relationships are hard work. Like cars, they require regular maintenance to keep them running well. If there is a problem, it’s best to have it repaired right away to avoid further complications down the road. Often we can do some of the basic maintenance and repairs ourselves. Other times, despite our best efforts, we need to rely on a professional to take a look and give us a hand.
It is interesting how easily and quickly we take such steps to repair or prevent damage to our vehicles. But, when it comes to our relationships, we often avoid taking action until the situation has become much more serious. Unfortunately, many couples try couples therapy when a significant amount of damage has already been done. Maladaptive relational patterns have become entrenched, the emotional bond between partners has been severely weakened and there is a high level of resentment due to unresolved past conflicts. The list can go on and on.
Research indicates that the average couple is unhappy for SIX YEARS before seeking couples counseling.
This is not to say that couples therapy cannot be effective at resolving such long-standing problems. Nonetheless, it will be a much more challenging and time-consuming endeavor, requiring a great deal of commitment and effort from both partners. Misconceptions about what couples therapy is and its purpose can also prevent couples from seeking help early on. Some might think couples therapy is only meant for very serious issues affecting a relationship, including infidelity or addiction. Others may view it as a last-ditch effort before making the decision to end the relationship. Some think of it as a way to force their partner to change because they are “the problem.” Many people are not aware of the benefits of couples therapy in treating a wide variety of relational issues. They don’t know how instrumental it can be at improving overall relationship satisfaction.
Couples therapy is a type of psychotherapy in which a therapist with clinical experience working with couples helps two people involved in a romantic relationship gain insight into their relationship and resolve conflict and improve relationship satisfaction utilizing a variety of therapeutic interventions. Although the practice of couples therapy may vary depending on the therapist’s theoretical orientation, all couples therapy tends to involve the following general elements:
Couples therapy will usually begin with some standard interview questions regarding the history of the relationship as well as some exploration into each partner’s family-of-origin, values and cultural background. The therapist might use the initial sessions for crisis intervention if necessary. The couples therapist will then assist the couple in identifying the issue that will be the focus of treatment, establishing treatment goals and planning a structure for treatment. During the treatment phase, the therapist will help the couple gain insight into the relational dynamics maintaining the problem, while helping both partners understand each of their roles in the dysfunctional interactions. This will help them change the way they perceive the relationship and each other.
Although gaining insight is important, another crucial aspect of couples therapy involves actually changing behaviors and ways of interacting with each other. Couples therapists will often assign partners homework to apply the skills they have learned in therapy to their day-to-day interactions. Most couples can come away from couples therapy having gained insight into relational patterns, increased emotional expression and developed the skills necessary to communicate and more effectively problem-solve with their partners.
Couples therapy is beneficial for any kind of relationship, whether partners are straight, gay, mixed-race, young, old, dating, engaged or married. For example, a recently engaged couple might find premarital counseling an invaluable opportunity to address relationship expectations prior to getting married. Another couple, together 25 years, might discover couples therapy is an effective way for them to regain a sense of excitement and romance in their relationship.
Couples therapy can resolve a current problem, prevent an exacerbation of problems or simply provide a “check-up” for a happy couple that is experiencing a period of transition or increased stress. Common areas of concern addressed in couples therapy include issues with money, parenting, sex, infidelity, in-laws, chronic health issues, infertility, gambling, substance use, emotional distance and frequent conflict.