Written by: Rebecca Murray, Director of Montreal Therapy Centre
You’ve been feeling angry and resentful toward your partner and you’re not too sure why. You can’t remember thelast time the two of you were physically intimate.
Even though you live under the same roof, you feel a growing distance between the two of you. You finally have a night away from the kids and don’t even know what to talk about any more.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not usually a big dramatic crisis that leads couples to seek professional help. Rather, it is often the common, more insidious challenges of daily life that erode relationship satisfaction and lead couples to feel disconnected and unhappy in their partnerships.
You may have reached a point in your relationship where this describes you and despite your good intentions and best efforts, you may find yourselves falling into the same arguments again and again. If you find that you are unable to connect with your spouse or you are just not feeling as satisfied with your relationship as you’d like to be, then it might be a good idea to consider couples therapy.
As a couple therapist with over 15 years of experience in the field, I have seen hundreds of couples make profound shifts in their relationships and attain new levels of intimacy and marital satisfaction. When both partners are invested in the process, they can achieve great things!
Though a significant investment of time, money and emotional resources, couples therapy can be very effective for many people who are looking to make improvements in their important relationships. I have compiled a list of tips to help you get the most out of your couple therapy experience.
- Consult sooner rather than later. Many couples wait until they are at the breaking point before seeking help. They have spent months, or even years, ignoring the warning signs, sweeping problems under the rug, and swallowing their anger, frustrations and resentment. Sometimes at this point, one partner already has one foot out the door and is no longer even willing to re-engage in the relationship. Couple issues are much easier to address sooner rather than later before patterns and problems have become firmly entrenched. As the old saying goes, “A stitch in time saves nine…”
- Focus on what you can change about yourself rather than what you’d like to change about your partner. Couples therapy is much more effective when each partner is able to take a long, hard look at themselves and attempt to understand how they are contributing to the current relationship difficulties. It takes two to tango and each partner is responsible for his or her role in the couple dynamic. When couples therapy sessions include open and honest discussions of one’s own role in the process, the stage is set for positive change. When one or both partners continuously fall into the blame game, sessions tend to become angry and defensive and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to make progress.
- Spend some time collecting your thoughts before the session. Imagine that you are preparing for an important meeting at work. You’d surely take the time to gather your thoughts and prepare an agenda. You don’t have to have it all mapped out, but it can be helpful to spend a little time thinking about some goals for the sessions, about the type of relationship you’d like to have with your partner, about some of your own personal obstacles you’d like to overcome in order to be a better mate, about some of the triggers you observe in the dynamic that cause the two of you to fall into your patterns, and so forth. Couples therapy can feel much more valuable if you take the time to reflect on what you’d like to get out of each session rather than showing up each week with your laundry list of complaints about your partner and a play-by-play of each fight you’ve had since your last visit.
- Be prepared to take a risk. For couple therapy to be effective, you want to create an environment of respect, openness and vulnerability. Taking these kinds of emotional risks can feel really scary at first, but they really do pay off. In allowing yourself to be truly open and vulnerable with your partner, you have created the conditions for true intimacy. It is a very powerful feeling to allow yourself to see and be seen by your partner.
- Change is hard- be prepared to work at it. If I have learned one thing in my years as a therapist, it is that change is hard work! Some people come to therapy hoping for a quick fix or expecting the therapist to wave a magic wand to make all of the problems disappear. Your couple therapist is more like a consultant than a fixer. Your therapist can ask the right questions, make observations and suggestions, and help you develop new ways of relating to one another, but in the end, it is up to you and your partner to work together to implement this change. You are probably only spending about one hour per week in therapy…so those other 167 hours between sessions have to count. If your therapist assigns you homework between sessions, do it! It can also be helpful to read and do some additional exercises with your partner. Two books that I often recommend to the couples I work with are John Gottman’s “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight”. Both are excellent resources for couples wanting to improve their relationships.
- Practice makes perfect. After being with your partner for a long time, it is very easy to fall back into your customary patterns of relating to one another. It takes a lot of conscious effort and practice to learn how to communicate with one another in a new way. Don’t expect it to come naturally at first. Like with any new skill, it takes time and practice before you get the hang of it. Be patient with one another and keep at it!
- Even when things are better, periodic check-ins can help keep you on track. After a period of time, you will notice some improvements in your relationships – maybe you are laughing more together, are experiencing less conflict, and hopefully have a greater appreciation of one another and an increased sense of well-being in the relationship. Even when you are beginning to see positive change in the relationship, it can be helpful to maintain periodic visits with your couple therapist to check in on how each of you are feeling in the relationship and ensuring that you are both feeling on track. Once I see that a couple has gained traction in maintaining positive change, I will generally suggest reducing the frequency of sessions but continuing with perhaps monthly check-ins until both partners feel confident that the changes are sustainable.
Couples therapy can be very effective for couples who wish to make improvements in their important relationships. Keeping these tips in mind will help you get the very most out of your couple therapy experience.