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  • Writer's picturehanna basel

Things to know before starting couples therapy...

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

When I was in Graduate School one of my instructors described couples counseling as being similar to "assembling an airplane in flight." Highly stressful. Highly volatile. Potentially explosive. What I didn’t know then was that it would be the most rewarding, inspiring, and heart wrenching work I ever do. Couples therapy works, but it doesn't change things overnight. Here are some things to keep in mind when considering therapy for your relationship.

What You Should Know Before You Start:

Unlike traditional psychodynamic therapy for individuals, the most effective couples therapy doesn't plumb the unconscious or delve into the past or seek to identify the psychopathologies causing people to behave in destructive ways. Rather, couples therapy works best when it focuses on the systemic interactions between partners, that is, how the relationship dynamics are perpetuating patterns that are driving them apart and what positive steps each person can take to change them. You learn to treat the system, not the symptom.

Bill Doherty, director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota, has been writing about bad couples therapy for years. One of the most important questions people should ask when seeking a therapist, he says, is how much of their practice is devoted to couples. Look for at least 30 percent. Doherty advocates against couples therapy that takes a "values-neutral" approach that treats marriage and divorce as equally viable options or the "me"-oriented perspective that views relationships as platforms for people to be happy. That's not to say people should stay miserable. But Doherty notes that there's a lot of psychological research showing the pursuit of happiness is itself self-defeating. "Happiness is a byproduct of a life well-lived — of good relationships, of making a difference in the world," Doherty said.

When done right, about 70 percent of couples therapy cases show positive change, according to a study last year in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. When done wrong, it can make things worse. In particular, going alone to individual counseling for marital problems increases the chance of divorce, research shows. That's because the client is telling only one side of the story to an empathetic therapist, so it becomes a gripe session about how unhappy the person is in the relationship and the absent partner starts to look like even more of a monster, exacerbating the couple's polarization. That's not to say it's never appropriate to see an individual therapist for relationship problems. For example, if one partner's depression or commitment issues caused the discord, that person might benefit from individual counseling to work on those personal issues (though if the marital problems came before the depression, couples therapy is the way to go).

Start Now:

The sooner you get in therapy, the better. The longer you wait, the more entrenched bad relationship habits (criticizing, yelling, ignoring, prioritizing World of Warcraft instead of date nights) become and the harder it is to break them. Unfortunately, people tend to see couples therapy as an emergency measure, rather than a preventative one. It’s the equivalent of not worrying about those chest pains until you’re in an ambulance on the way to the hospital in full cardiac arrest.

Be Prepared, Be Patient:

Changing the course of a relationship is like pulling a U-turn in a cruise ship, not a mini cooper. It’s going to take a lot of time. You’re going to be asked to do a huge amount of emotional labor: to be vulnerable about your desires, to be honest about what you don’t like about your relationship, and to be open to hearing criticism of your own actions. Of course it’ll be enlightening and fulfilling. But it will also be painful and grueling and uncomfortable a lot of the time. Many couples come in shortsightedly expecting therapy to be a magic wand. But, just as it took some time for the relationship to deteriorate to this low point, it’s going to take a while to get it back on track and functional. While the specific number of sessions depends entirely on the couple and the approach of their therapist, on average, you can expect to spend anywhere from 12-30 hours. At one hour a week, that means it can take over six months of weekly sessions to get to a point where a couple feels like they’re ready to stop going to therapy.

Is Couples Therapy Effective?

Couples therapy can be very effective. The American Psychological Association (APA) states that marriage counseling that uses Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) is effective and helpful for about 75% of couples. Additionally, meta-analysis shows that close to 90% see significant improvement after going through EFT. The American Association of Marriage and Family conducted research that shows over 97% of surveyed couples feel they got the help they needed through couples therapy. And an incredible 93% of couples said the work they did in therapy gave them strategic tools to better-handle conflict in their relationship.

Couples therapy can be incredibly important if you’re looking for ways to strengthen or repair your relationship. You’ll get the tools you need to effectively communicate and build a strong, mutually rewarding partnership. If you want to start improving your relationship with your partner, connect with me today.

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