This is a True Story.
A couple walked into a therapist’s office. (OK. It was my office…)
“If you would only stop doing what you’re doing we’d be fine!” yelled one.
“If you would only stop telling me what to do we’d be fine!” growled the other.
“Time out!” said the therapist (me), using the universal ‘T’ hand gesture.
The couple, united in intent at last, stared at me, shocked, as if a monkey had suddenly jumped on my head.
“Couples Therapy is not about having the same fight you have at home here in this office,” I said, “Just because there’s a third party witnessing it won’t make the fight, or your relationship, any better. Let me explain what it takes to be in couples therapy. Then you can decide if you want to continue.”
1. Have an agreed upon goal. If, as a couple you can’t agree on a goal before therapy, that’s OK. The first job of therapy then is to work towards that understanding. What you both want out of couples therapy? Many reasons may bring a couple to therapy. Only one is needed to help them stay. If either of you do not want to be there, or has a hidden agenda, it won’t work. The agreed upon goal can be simple: We want to be happier in our marriage. Or it can be more complicated: She had an affair, he drinks too much, we haven’t had sex in over a year. A good couples therapist can work with complicated issues as long as the ultimate goal is mutual.
2. Commit to the investment of time and money. Time: Scheduling one person can be hard enough. Trying to schedule two people can be five times harder. And that’s only the start. Therapy will be a non-starter unless both parties agree that their relationship is a priority, that they will find the time, make the time, not only for the therapy sessions but also for the relationship outside of the sessions. Financial: How much is your relationship worth? Only you can decide. Misery, possibly divorce, is very expensive. People often make the decision to buy the big screen TV, the latest fashions, or travel to pleasurable destinations. Somehow they find a way to afford it. Sacrifices are made. Why hesitate when it comes to therapy that could mean everything to your future? Maybe it’s because of #3…
3. Expect to be uncomfortable. For a while. Tips 1, 2 and 3 alone are uncomfortable enough to make a couple think twice about couples therapy. All tips are asking the couple to do things differently than they have done before which places them outside of their comfort zone, way outside. Revealing yourself to a stranger (the therapist) is uncomfortable enough. Keep in mind: The old ways aren’t working, new ways will feel weird until they begin to reap benefits. The couple who walked into the office only to continue the usual fight they always have are in their comfort zone. As miserable as they may be, it’s what they know. Approaching differences with kindness and vulnerability, that’s what’s new. That’s what may feel really uncomfortable.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. A wife once said to me, “I tried what you suggested. It didn’t work. What else can I do?” Not always, but sometimes in therapy that’s like saying, “I tried exercising for one day and I’m not strong. What else can I do?” What a good therapist asks of you is to stay outside your comfort zone long enough to give the new way a fighting chance to build healthier emotional bone.
4. Have a mutual vision of the relationship you want, the one you are striving to build. This will be your North Star during the adventure of couples therapy. Whenever you are tempted to go back to the old conflictual or avoidant ways, think to yourself, will this bring me/us closer to our vision or drive it further away?
5. Be open to individual growth. This is what I think is the most exciting part of couples counseling. It is so easy to point and say, “It’s all his fault!” Much harder to ask, “How have I contributed to this?” Be ready to be challenged to look at your own responsibility in the relationship. Even if it’s not obvious (He’s the one who had an affair!) a relationship does not fall off the rails by only one person’s actions. You will also be asked to behave like the partner you would like your partner to be. Ask yourself, am I really doing all I can to be a good partner?
The couple who began their first session fighting just like they did at home, decided to stick with it. They made the commitment to couples therapy, invested their time, energy and money. They had the guts to exercise a new way of relating and communicating. They each recognized and changed the individual behavior that was getting in the way of personal and mutual growth. They had set backs, recognized them and got back on track. After several months, my work with them was done.
On our last day of therapy they were sitting on the sofa hip to hip, holding hands. (I know. It sounds corny, but this is a true story.) They both looked at me smiling (no monkey on my head) and thanked me. Stories like theirs are a real gift to the therapist, so I thanked them, too. There are no guarantees, but we had reason to be hopeful and they were welcome to come back anytime for a “booster shot.”
It doesn’t always work out this way. The stats for couples therapy are pretty dismal, primarily, I’m convinced, because people too often seek out therapy as a last resort before calling a lawyer. All these tips are just too hard for them. Couples therapy cannot get you to your vision without both of you putting forth motivation, focus and commitment. Good couples therapy supports and guides you through all of these challenges, but the real work and reward is all yours!