Do you experience your partner as not listening? Glued to social media? Annoying? What about arguments that start over the smallest things? Or the intimacy that isn’t like it once was? Do you sleep in separate rooms? Are you repeating an argument over and over again with no resolution? You may benefit from couples counseling.
Couples counseling is typically done with a professional psychologist, social worker, or marriage and family therapist. Sometimes when you and your partner decide to attend couples counseling it is a last resort, like throwing a Hail Mary in the last two seconds of a football game. No one goes into marriage wanting a divorce. When we commit to another person, there is no expiration date included. But sometimes couples recognize professional help could be beneficial early on, and go to couples therapy before things get too rocky, which can make fixing things a bit easier. Whatever stage your relationship is at, problems small or large can be addressed in couples therapy.
Several therapeutic approaches may be used when working with couples. The Gottman Method, Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Sex Therapy are all interventions that are used when working with couples. (These interventions are not limited to only couples.) Many therapists will take parts of interventions from several approaches to create a more eclectic intervention that fits the couple. The following approaches to couples therapy are most common, however, there are a multitude of approaches.
The Gottman Method. There are nine components of what the Gottmans call, “The Sound Relationship House.” This is a metaphor for building a healthy relationship: identifying the elements it takes for relationships to last. One of the insights of this science-based approach is that in the dynamics of relationship systems, negative emotions like defensiveness and contempt, have more power to hurt a relationship than positive emotions have to help a relationship. As a result, structured therapy focuses on developing understanding and skills so that partners can maintain or regain fondness and admiration, the ability to turn toward each other to get their needs met (especially when they are hurting), manage conflict, and enact their dreams—and what to do when they mess up (because it happens to all of us).
Emotion Focused Therapy. EFT is a therapeutic approach based on the premise that emotions are key to identity. EFT theory also sees emotions as a guide for individual choice and decision making. This type of therapy assumes that lacking emotional awareness or avoiding unpleasant emotions can cause harm.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a form of therapy that is based in mindfulness. Working with the therapist, couples learn skills to avoid being hijacked by endless narratives and judgements and the feelings that they trigger, to a more aware, present, and engaged self and partner. Mindful awareness allows one to be aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, fantasies, stories and other “events” happening in our minds. ACT pays particular attention to these events, especially the stories or narratives which often shape and direct our reactions in powerful ways. ACT guides you from being swept away by endless narratives and judgements and the feelings that they trigger, to a much more flexible and adaptable response to the demands of the situation.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT can help you manage problems by changing the way you think and behave. CBT is a process of reframing or restructuring cognitive distortions that are inaccurate, biased, and skewed. CBT looks at thoughts and assumptions that result in skewed thinking. Cognitive distortions disrupt how a person sees the world. CBT is a process of reframing or restructuring these faulty ways of thinking that can help you right the biased, skewed, or just plain inaccurate beliefs you hold that may be impacting your relationship.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy. DBT is not talk therapy. It is a specifically designed skill-based method of gaining emotional regulation, improving distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness, which helps you to get more of your needs met while improving self-respect and the respect of others. At the base of all DBT skills is core mindfulness; the act of using all of the information within and around you to become centered and in a good place. DBT teaches you how to have a healthy concept of self and others and to make healthy decisions by employing your wise mind. This is accomplished by straightforward facts without interpretation or judgment and eliminating stories and justifications.
Sex Therapy. Sex therapists can help with a wide range of concerns, including relationship issues, physical pain, intimacy concerns, erectile dysfunction, healing from infidelity, exploration of lifestyle that feels authentic to sexual preference and sexuality, and sexuality in the context of infertility. Sex therapists have several choices of ways to treat a particular issue when someone presents it and usually includes some form of educational component. Treatment is tailored to the person(s) seeking help.
Couples therapy is beneficial to begin before problems build up. Nonetheless, the reality is some people enter couples therapy after years of strife, and are still able to improve their relationship. Couples therapy is helpful for a wide span of couples dynamics and issues. Couples who are quick to argue, anger, and blame need more than just run-of-the-mill relationship advice to solve their problems in love. When destructive emotions are at the heart of problems in your relationship, no amount of effective communication or intimacy-building will fix what ails it. If you’re a part of a “high-conflict” couple, you need to get control of your emotions first, to stop making things worse, and only then can you work on building a better relationship. Any one of the aforementioned therapy interventions look at the role of emotion and the importance of changing the thoughts and behaviors associated with intense emotion.
It takes daily effort to build and maintain a healthy relationship with our partner. A healthy relationship is accepting our partner’s point of view, being affectionate and emotionally available and connected, focusing on the positive and not nitpicking the negative, the ability to own one’s mistakes and accept that sometimes we are wrong and apologize, and willingness to grow and create positive change in ourselves. At times, it can be useful to have a couples therapist help you improve your relationship.