Couples therapy has a rather a bad reputation with some people. I know because sometimes when I tell them what I do, they say that going for couples’ therapy is thought of as the quickest road to divorce.
I also know because clients tell me of their previous experiences and sometimes my toes curl. Please don’t misunderstand me. My toes don’t curl because I think I’m better than everyone else, they curl because I love what I do. And because I’m a huge advocate of great relationships. I want people to thrive in life because they’re nourished and thrilled at home and I believe that most of us can be when we know how.
In defence of my profession, one of the problems is that people go to counsellors who say they do couples’ work but are not trained relationship specialists.
The work of individual therapy and couples’ therapy is completely different. An individual therapist will champion you. My job is to champion your relationship, to keep you both safe as you learn to share your fears and desires. My job is to hold the hope until you can catch it and run with it yourselves.
It takes courage to invest the time and emotional effort into couples’ work. As for the road to divorce – with the average cost of divorcing in the UK placed at around £70,000 these days, it’s a lot less costly both in money and in emotional fall out for the whole family.
So, what are the 5 things you need to know?
- The Blame Game
When you’re feeling hurt and afraid, it’s always easier to blame your partner. There is nothing more stressful than facing a potential split or a miserable future together. Many people turn up knowing there needs to be change but secretly hoping (and sometimes not so secretly) that their partner will do most of the changing.
But the intention of couples’ work is not to find out who is right and who has to change. It’s about showing up with individual responsibility. The key questions are ‘How did WE get here?’ and Where do WE go from here? Both partners ALWAYS play a role in some way.
Yes of course your painful experience is valid and will be heard but for the best possible outcome you will need to be willing to hold a mirror up to yourself as well. It’s often fear of that mirror that keeps us in the blame game.
- I’ve worked it out, can you help me convince my partner?
Most of us try to work things out when we’re suffering in our relationships. Who wouldn’t? The trouble is that once we have drawn our conclusions we interpret all new information in a way that supports our conclusions. We get stuck in our mental belief systems desperately trying to keep some measure of control. The irony is that control is the one thing we don’t have when we’re so rigid. The more you focus on your conclusions, the less initiative you’ll take to change the patterns between you. Letting go of preconceived ideas and assumptions is the first step. Creativity is not born in deeply held ruts.
Holding up a mirror can be deeply uncomfortable. Many of us have developed ways of avoiding seeing what we don’t like. You’ll need to push through your emotional comfort zones into your stretch zone. Try new ways of thinking and doing things. Be curious and see how many new things you can discover about yourself and your partner. Find the courage to speak up instead of resentfully complying or withdrawing. You will reap surprising rewards, plus it feels great.
- How long will it take?
Today’s tasks are often seen in terms of how soon they can be accomplished and how easy it will be to get a satisfying outcome. But relationships are complex and multi layered. It’s what makes them so rewarding. Be prepared to give the change process a lot of time.
You can learn communication skills and conflict management exercises but like plasters, they don’t create lasting change. You will need to look at your current relational style in the light of your historical relationship patterns.
Emotions are the heart of relationship but many of us are not used to recognising them and understanding the messages they have for us. Sometimes it’s not what we are getting that causes the problems but rather what we’re not getting and that can be harder to identify.
- Can you fix us?
This is a question that I’m often asked and the answer is ‘No, but you can fix you. Because the exciting part is that you are the ones who hold the key to your great relationship.’ Sometimes things FEEL absolutely hopeless and this is why I hold the hope for people when they can’t hold it for themselves. Chinese philosopher Laozi said ‘A journey of 1000 miles begins with one small step.’ I use this quote often because one small step is not so hard, and then another, and another….and before long, the journey becomes a pleasure again.
So, in a nutshell,
- Be prepared to look at yourself first
- Let go of all preconceived ideas
- Don’t be afraid of emotional discomfort
- It takes as long as you take
- You can ‘fix’ yourselves