What to Expect from Couples Therapy
Starting anything new can be a little scary, including going to therapy. It may even be a little scarier if you are going to therapy with a significant other, such as a partner or spouse. Just as with most things in life, though, it may help decrease your fear if you know what you can expect from the experience. All therapists work a little different, but below are some general concerns couples often have about starting couples therapy, as well as some things you are likely to see in couples therapy:
Will the therapist take my partner’s side over mine?
A good couples therapist is trained to stay neutral and not take one partner’s side over the other. The therapist’s job is to point out what they observe in the couple’s interaction and coach them on how to adjust this interaction to one that is more productive, ask good questions to help the couple have sometimes difficult, but important, conversations, and support the couple on their journey of growth.
Will we fight even more as a result of things brought up in therapy?
As with any type of therapy, things may come to light in the process that can lead to high emotion. Therapy is a vulnerable experience, and you and your partner may have conversations you have never had before as a result. While this can lead to arguing and escalated emotions for some couples, your therapist is there to help support you through that process. If you find that arguing increases outside of therapy, it can be helpful in the early stages of treatment to agree to table any arguments that may come up and bring them to work on in therapy where an impartial third party can help facilitate the conversation.
Communication, Communication, Communication
One of the hallmarks of most couples therapy is its focus on communication. Couples therapists help couples see that everything is communication - even not communicating is communicating! You will learn how your body language, eye contact (or lack thereof), words used, tone of voice, etc. is affecting your relationship. You will learn new ways to address your partner that will open them up to communicating with you, rather than leading to arguments or shutting down and walking away.
What’s Your Cycle?
Your therapist may refer to it as a cycle or a pattern, or even the dance, as Dr. Sue Johnson refers to it (Johnson, 2004). Couples therapy helps you and your partner learn the pattern of interactions that you may be stuck in that is contributing to problems in your relationship and find ways to shift this cycle to one that is more healthy and productive. For example, your therapist may help you see who generally initiates a discussion, and how this initiation may lead to either an argument or a shutdown of emotions. The therapist may walk through the entire process of an argument, from start to finish (or rather, oftentimes, where the topic is dropped and never revisited), and incorporate tools along the way to help you and your partner both leave the discussion feeling heard and having your needs met.
How to Fight Fair and then Repair
All couples will argue at some point, but what is important is how you argue. In couples therapy, you will likely learn tools to help set you and your partner up for success when you disagree, including tools such as I-statements and time-outs.
In addition, according to Dr. John Gottman, what happens following an argument is a significant interaction that often gets overlooked (Gottman, 1999). The strongest couples are the ones who do something Gottman calls repairing following a disagreement – in other words, do partners come together following an argument and reconnect through touch/affection, apologies, expressions of gratitude/appreciation, etc.? If not, a couples therapist can help facilitate a discussion about what each partner needs following a disagreement to be able to repair and move forward.
Yes, There's Homework..
While the work done in the therapy room is of course important, it is also important that couples continue to practice the new tools they are learning in everyday life outside of the therapy room. You will see results much faster if you intentionally work to continue growing your relationship on your own when you are not in therapy so that it becomes a normal part of your routine as a couple.
If you are considering beginning couples therapy, take some time to research therapists in your area who you feel will fit the needs of you and your partner. Both partners should be included in this process as much as possible so that you both have input about what you would like out of therapy. Some therapists offer free phone consults to make sure they are a good fit and to let potential clients ask any questions they may have – take advantage of this as you are doing your research. One of the biggest predictors of success in therapy is the relationship the client builds with the therapist, so you want to find someone who both you and your partner feel safe with in order to get the best results.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection (2nd ed.). New York: Brunner-Routledge.