What is Couples Counselling?
When should we look for help?
- Do you notice a steady increase in negativity during interactions between you and your partner on a daily basis – increased complaining and criticism?
- Does it take you or your partner at least a couple of days to restore the normal communication after each fight?
- Do you fight in front of the children?
- Do you often feel invalidated trying to discuss things – this happens when partners do not seem to make attempts to understand each others points of view but only to win the fight?
- Do you feel trapped in constant misunderstandings happening between you and your partner due to negative interpretation of neutral or positive events (this often happens when one person does or says something that is meant to be neutral or even positive, but their partner interprets their intentions as hostile or negative)?
- Are you living under constant stress of being attacked by your partner any moment for something you do or say, growing more and more hopeless and frustrated, as no matter what you do or say, it just seems to make things worse?
- Are you experiencing your partner as stonewalling, withdrawing from you, unreachable and you are feeling/acting more and more desperate, losing hope to ever be able to get through to him/her again?
- Do you feel excluded, ignored, insignificant, taken for granted?
- Are you feeling constant resentment, anger, and dissatisfaction toward your partner?
- Do you sometimes feel cheated, disappointed about how the relationship eventually turned out, as opposed to your original hopes and expectations?
- Has there been an affair – physical or emotional relationship that made a crack in your marriage? Are you wondering how can you possibly allow yourself to trust your partner again?
- Are you the one who had an affair and now are at a loss of how to repair the situation and restore the status quo in the family?
- Are you suffering from jealousy, experiencing intolerable anxiety every time your partner is away, wondering where he/she is, what he/she is doing, endlessly replaying the most terrible scenarios in your mind? Are you trying to gain some peace by trying to get some control over what your partner does and how he/she interacts with others, but it makes things even worse for both of you?
- Are you a victim of your partner’s jealousy and are at a loss of how to prove him/her that you are not hiding anything? Are you feeling resentment over being controlled and manipulated?
- Are you on the brink of separation or divorce and can’t make up your mind what to do or how to do it – especially if there are children involved?
- Are you both gradually becoming painfully aware of distance or emptiness in the previously close, loving and supportive relationship and wondering where the love has gone and whether it will ever come back?
- Are you catching yourself thinking that the memories of closeness that you felt at the beginning of your life together, the fun you had together, the anticipation of being with each other now slowly fade away, and the happy times begin to feel like they happened in a dream or in some other life or that you just made them up?
- Are you struggling with serious illness or death in the family?
- Are there any taboos in the relationship that you can’t bring yourself to discuss openly but which needs to be brought into focus? Or some permanent themes that always lead to a fight but never get resolved, like sex, children, in-laws, money issues, religious beliefs?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, there is a high risk that if left unattended the relationship might sooner or later deteriorate and fall apart. The sad statistics is that the average couple with problems seeks help about six years after they should have done it, often at the point when the situation may be already beyond repair. This affects the average success rate of couples therapy: data analysis shows that about 55% of couples attending therapy make some significant improvement, but that distressed couples in no-treatment control groups deteriorate dramatically. Hope and motivation fade with time, so the sooner the couple comes to therapy, the more motivated the partners are, the higher the success rate.
How long does it take?
The average length of couples counselling is around 12-20 sessions. Sometimes the couple is trying to resolve one specific issue, and then a much shorter intervention or, occasionally, even one consultation may be enough. But in most cases it takes time to get to know the partners enough to be able to get to the root of their problems. It takes time to learn any complex skill and here we are talking of the skills that are to serve you every day for a lifetime and to affect not only the two of you, but also your children, how they would grow up and what they would remember of their childhood and of you as their parents.
Sometimes couples drop out of therapy as soon as there has been some improvement. Unfortunately if the progress is not consolidated, many couples relapse in the next two years. Ironically, we tend to put a lot of time, money, and effort into wedding arrangements, yet investing in couples therapy (something much less romantic but of much greater practical value for the couple's future) is often considered a waste of time and money.
Is couples counselling the same as individual, only with two people involved?
Couples/marriage therapy is a separate branch of therapy, very different from individual and even family therapy. Couples therapy has different underlying theoretical foundations, different principles and sets of interventions, a very specific ethical framework designed not to harm the couple, confidentiality issues are much more complex. Couples therapy requires special training and a very specific set of skills from the therapist, such as ability to manage conflict and anger in the session, ability to maintain neutrality in the eyes of both partners, to balance past and present, to create structure and properly choose and time interventions. Couples and marriage counselling is traditionally considered to be the most challenging kind of therapy work.
Unfortunately, the therapist often serves either as a listener for partners venting their weekly frustrations with each other, as behavior coach giving the couple tasks and exercises that they are often unable or unwilling to perform, or as a referee in the couples’ fights. These approaches usually do not work.
There are many different approaches to couples therapy, which one works best?
Sometimes couples therapy is reduced to a set of behavior interventions, so called "contractual therapy," which basically helps the couple to work out a contract: for example how to distribute family duties or encouraging "active listening" skills. This may work at the beginning but usually does not work long term, because the problem is not that we do not know that we are supposed to be nice to each other, or don’t know how, the problem is that for some reason we are simply unable to do it, being trapped over and over again in the same cycle of negativity or misunderstanding.
The latest research on couples therapy shows very clearly that the reasons for couples dysfunctions are usually much deeper and more complex then it may seem and cannot be resolved by simply making a decision to live a better life and not fight starting from Monday. More complex, planned, timed, and structured interventions are usually required, combining teaching useful skills (for example how to listen and communicate, how to set boundaries, how to argue constructively and to repair the relationship effectively after each fight) with a psychodynamic-based investigation, helping both partners understand how their past life experiences inevitably contribute to the types of attractions and conflicts that arise in their adult relationships. Ideally interventions should also take into account the latest developments in neuroscience, which finally start to bring some light on how our responses to others are dependent on the wiring of our brains and what is required to bring changes in.
(Based on research by J.Gottman, L.Cozolino, N. Jacobson, D. Wile)