“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” – J.K. Rowling
It’s the threesome no one wants: woman, man and therapist. But what really goes on behind closed doors? If you watch enough romantic comedies, you would be led to believe that couples therapy is basically all about a non-judgmental shrink, a nondescript couch and a whole lot of as yet unarticulated feelings flying around. Instead of relying on the Hollywood version of these proceedings, I asked a real-life pair to share exactly what goes on when the venting starts and whether it’s worth undergoing couples therapy when your relationship collides with a major speed bump.
The Couple: Steve and Paula have been together for 10 years. When their fighting intensified, they did an eight-week therapy program.
What Paula says…
“I definitely felt like our relationship needed help, so I was keen to start going to counseling. I wanted the chance to have conversations with Steve that we didn’t get the time for or we didn’t know how to have without someone mediating. I’d done some counseling on my own in the past, so I had some idea about what to expect, but I think Steve was pretty wary about the whole thing.
I was most worried about bringing up stuff I’d never talked about before and things that might upset Steve. I was also nervous about him being open to the process because there isn’t much point doing this unless you’re both into it.
The first couple of sessions were quite intense. Steve found them really challenging, but after that we eventually got comfortable talking about things. I found it useful that every session had a particular purpose. We weren’t just talking aimlessly about nothing. We’d have homework to do after each session, the results of which would be discussed at the next one. Steve got really into that. I think he liked having something practical to do, whereas I found it quite difficult because I would much rather sit around and talk about our issues. But I always looked forward to the sessions and actually quite enjoyed them while we were there.
I’m not sure how long our relationship could have kept going on the way it was: it certainly wasn’t in a healthy place. But now we are much better at talking about how we feel. We still argue, but we now know how to sort those arguments out. I’m grateful that we went to therapy. I think it’s better to try it before things get so bad that they become irreparable.”
What Steve says…
“I wasn’t planning on going to couples therapy, so it definitely took me a while to warm to the idea when Paula initially suggested it. I don’t find it easy talking about my emotions and opening up about things. Looking back, this was a good reason to go to therapy in the first place, but I was nervous and skeptical about the whole thing. I was worried they would say, ‘You two are completely incompatible. You shouldn’t be together and that’s our conclusion.’ John, our therapist, was quite honest about that; he admitted that the outcome may be that we shouldn’t be together, which was obviously tough to hear.
The first few sessions were difficult for me because I was asked to discuss our issues. Discovering what had been upsetting Paula for quite some time wasn’t particularly nice. There were moments when I wanted to interrupt and defend myself, but John monitored and limited that behavior.
One of our key issues was that we would fight all the time. John gave us tools, tips and techniques to try to limit that. We had to learn how to have a conversation in a more structured way rather than just screaming at each other. After a few weeks, this new way of speaking to one another became our normal way of communicating. Although couples counseling obviously focuses on the relationship, I feel like I benefitted greatly from it personally. I’m a much happier, more positive person now and Paula and I still practice some techniques we learnt in therapy. We are in a much better place.”
What the psychologist says…
“Couples should seek counseling when they realize that they are unable to change their long-standing problems on their own. They need to both be motivated to work on issues and be willing to learn to do things differently. There are a range of techniques that couples learn in therapy that deal with communication, supportiveness, intimacy and goal-setting. A psychologist helps a couple focus on solutions moving forward rather than dwelling on the past. The key question couples should think about is, ‘How do you want to do it differently from now on?’. Some couples will break up. However, if it’s not too late and couples are open to change, therapy can result in individuals breaking destructive patters and learning new skills that improve their overall levels of relationship satisfaction.”
Of course, every couple is different and what works for some, may very well not work for everybody. But whatever gives you the chance to open up to your problems in a neutral and constructive environment is bound to help, so don’t brush therapy off if you feel like your relationship is going to a rough patch.
Have a quietly happy week,
P.S. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a therapist, find a close friend who can work as a mediator between the two of you.