couples therapy: what to expect We get the low-down from the experts
Have you considered seeing a relationship therapist, but are nervous about what to expect? Larraine Sathicq gets the low-down from the experts
The idea of signing up for relationship counselling can be understandably daunting. Sharing the intimate details of your personal life with a relative stranger, and revisiting issues you may have discussed a million times in private might feel like picking at a slow-healing scab. But people who enlist professional help to mend a damaged relationship or find new ways to deal with conflict can learn valuable lessons and techniques to move forward as a couple. Time with a therapist might just rescue your relationship. Three experts explain what you can learn from couples therapy.
A good therapist doesn’t take sides
You might be the one who insisted on going to couples therapy and booked the appointment, but even if your partner’s behaviour is upsetting to you, a good therapist will want to hear both sides of the story. Relationship experts are neutral and even-handed and the end game is not about changing your partner to suit your ideal. Because most relationship crises are caused by poor communication, therapy provides a safe place for both of you to be heard without fear of judgment.
And everything is up for discussion. You will also learn how to listen to each other in a mature way, without taking everything personally. Your therapist is not there to mediate about the last fight you had, but rather to help you set goals for the future of your relationship through negotiation (or renegotiation), effective communication, and love. Philipa Thornton, psychologist and marriage counsellor
It really isn’t just about you and him
There are three needs in the room at any couples counselling session – your needs, his needs, and the separate needs of the relationship. For example, you may need
more support with parenting, he may need time out to pursue his hobbies, and your relationship may need both of you to put extra time and effort into really being alone together on a more regular basis. Couples therapy can teach you how to balance the needs of each individual with the needs of the relationship. Helen Poynten, family relationships expert
Destructive patterns are the real enemy
You go on the attack, he withdraws and stops listening, and eventually you both stop talking to each other for days. Most people get that relationship problems are a two-sided affair, but often turn up to therapy with a fixed idea in their own minds of who is really to blame. If every action demands a reaction and you both find yourselves repeating the same hurtful words and behaviours over and over, it might be time to have a rethink. Couples are always surprised at the number of problems that can be solved by simply recognising and stopping the cycle of negative feedback that keeps you in conflict. Margie Ulbrick, couples psychotherapist
Neither of you is a mind reader
Sometimes you have to clarify all of your expectations and really listen to your partner.
It’s easy to assume that he understands your definition of things like intimacy and monogamy. He might see intimacy as purely sexual and monogamy as just not cheating on you, but think it’s entirely reasonable to suggest a threesome as long as he’s not having an affair. Intimacy for you might involve displays of affection and monogamy might mean never being interested in anyone else.
Couples therapy provides a safe, non-judgemental space for clarifying each person’s position and finding a way to negotiate a shared net of expectations without dishonouring those of either person. Helen Poynten
The kids will likely benefit just from you attending
Taking steps towards relationship repair can improve your kids’ mental health, no matter what their age. Couples are often surprised to learn how much impact their relationship issues have on the moods and behaviours of their children, even the ones they think are too young to know what’s going on. Ongoing relationship issues can cause a generational pattern that creates problems long after the kids leave home. Your decision to have couples therapy can do more than just fix your marriage
– it could also improve how your children relate to others and boost their chances of having their own loving and happy relationships in the future. Margie Ulbrick
Yes, you can survive an affair... together
You may have always told yourself that cheating is a deal-breaker, but many couples have managed to put their relationship back together after an affair. A therapist can help you deal with the initial hurt and trauma of infidelity, as well as the ongoing anxiety and hyper-vigilance that can follow. Therapy can also help you both set firm guidelines that work to support this form of relationship trauma. This will help you both gain integrity while trust is being re-established. The process will connect you to what heals and what hurts, leaving you room to do more of the recovery with behaviours that help. You will initially need to look in the rear-view mirror to have an honest discussion about why the crisis happened in the first place. Although it might seem difficult or even completely impossible at first, couples who are committed to working through these stages, turning toward each other and their family, can find a way to stay together, even after a major betrayal. Philipa Thornton
Therapy can teach you how to balance the needs of each individual with the needs of the relationship
You can fall in love again
Therapy can show you how to see each other through fresh eyes. When you become more aware that each of you is a person as well as a husband, wife, father or mother, you’ll also improve your ability to speak kindly, listen fairly, and to understand each other. Even couples who are long past the ‘honeymoon period’ and believe they will never get back those enamoured feelings they had when they first met are really surprised at the energy and excitement that returns when they see each other in a different light and change how they relate to their partners as human beings. Margie Ulbrick
It doesn’t always work out the way you wanted
There are no guarantees that couples therapy will fix your relationship and put everything back to how it was in earlier days. But even if you do decide to part ways, you’ll have learnt enough about yourself to fast-track your own healing and overcome the stress, pain and the resentment that often comes with a break-up. This is especially important if you have children because you will likely still be in each other’s lives long after you move on. Therapy can strengthen and enhance your relationship as co-parents and help set you free to eventually find love again with someone else.