Recently, an otherwise happily married couple found themselves in the midst of some difficult communication problems.
According to him, he can’t talk to her about important relationship issues that arise, so they never resolve them. She thinks that she simply gets over issues faster than he does and talking rarely works anyway, so what’s the point? They were headed straight for an impasse.
Before too long, they both realized things couldn’t continue like this. Together, they decided it was time to see a marriage counselor.
When couples (or individuals, for that matter) begin therapy, it’s both normal and expected for them to have questions about the process. Starting couples therapy is a leap of faith that requires courageous action, and we as therapists don’t take this lightly.
So how does marriage counseling actually work?
While each couple is different, the process follows a similar arc. These three phases can help you know what to expect from your sessions:
1. Identifying patterns.
Usually, the challenges couples face are the result of just a few patterns between them. In this first stage, your therapist will help you recognize the negative patterns just underneath the surface and the different ways they manifest in your relationship.
In this couple’s case, he wants to hash things out with her, feels unresolved when they don’t, and then feels like she doesn’t care about him or the relationship. She gets overwhelmed by his intensity, freezes, and copes by avoiding contact, which only makes him more frustrated and intense. Stalemate.
Cycles like these can be demystified and resolved through couples counseling. Identifying the patterns will empower you to take a step back from conflicts as they occur, preventing further escalation. At the same time, the therapist will help you emphasize the strengths and resources in your relationship and learn how to nourish them.
2. Changing the underlying causes.
Once you’ve identified the negative patterns affecting your relationship, your therapist will help you recognize why they’re happening and assist you in changing them.
Getting back to our couple, in the sessions we discovered that he learned in his family that you never go to bed angry — if you love someone, you always talk things through. So, he interprets her distance as a distressing sign that she neither loves nor cares about him. In contrast, she comes from a relatively reserved family who didn’t talk about problems. For her, if you love someone then you don’t hold on to things. Instead, you move on and start over.
Understanding the context of your partner’s reactions can immediately deepen your empathy for each other and ease communication. From there, it may only take small, specific adjustments to change your relationship for the better.
3. Strengthening intimacy.
In this final stage, your therapist will help you practice and integrate the changes you’ve made. You might focus on understanding each other’s connection styles and what makes you feel closer to each other, or you might learn to interact in a way that meets each other’s needs and desires. Changes are tailored to your particular dynamics as a couple, so that you can maintain them over the long run.
The result for our couple? He learned to give her space and time to process things, while she learned effective ways to communicate with him so they can resolve their arguments.
In talking about what makes them feel more loved, they discovered how to reassure each other while also staying true to themselves. Marriage counseling effectively brought them to a more fulfilling phase of their partnership.