The Benefits of Couples Therapy
We all know romantic relationships are hard work. Like cars, they require regular maintenance to keep them running well and if there is a problem, it’s best to have it repaired right away to avoid further complications down the road. Often we can do some of the basic maintenance and even some of the repairs ourselves and things turn out okay. Other times though, despite our best efforts, we need to rely on a professional to take a look at things and give us a hand. It is interesting (and also disheartening) how easily and quickly we take such steps to repair or prevent damage to our vehicles, but when it comes to the things we tend to value the most in life, our relationships, we often avoid taking action until things have become much more serious and may even be beyond repair. Unfortunately, many couples do present to couples therapy when a significant amount of damage has already been done- maladaptive relational patterns have become entrenched, the emotional bond between partners has been severely weakened, there is a high level of resentment due to unresolved past conflicts, and the list can go on. Research indicates that the average couple is unhappy for SIX YEARS before seeking couples counseling.
This is not to say that couples therapy cannot be effective at resolving such long-standing problems, however it will a much more challenging and time-consuming endeavor, requiring a great deal of commitment and effort from both partners. Misconceptions about what couples therapy is and its purpose can also prevent couples from seeking help early on. Some may think that couples therapy is only meant for very serious issues affecting a relationship, such as infidelity or addiction. Others may view it as a last-ditch effort before making the ultimate decision to end the relationship. Some think of it as a way to force their partner to change because they are “the problem.” Many people often are not aware of the benefits of couples therapy in treating a wide variety of relational issues and how instrumental it can be at improving overall relationship satisfaction, which in turn affects one’s own mental health.
What is Couples Therapy?
In a general sense, couples therapy is a type of psychotherapy in which a therapist with clinical experience working with couples, most often a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, helps two people involved in a romantic relationship gain insight into their relationship, resolve conflict, and improve relationship satisfaction utilizing a variety of therapeutic interventions. Although the practice of couples therapy may vary depending on the therapist’s theoretical orientation, all couples therapy tends to involve the following general elements:
1. A focus on a specific problem (i.e. sexual difficulties, internet
2. Active participation on the part of the therapist in treating the relationship itself, rather than each individual separately.
3. Solution-focused, change-oriented interventions early on in treatment.
4. A clear establishment of treatment objectives.
Couples therapy will usually begin with some standard interview questions regarding the history of the relationship as well as some exploration into each partner’s family-of-origin, values, and cultural background. The therapist may also use the first few initial sessions for crisis intervention if necessary. The couples therapist will then assist the couple in identifying the presenting issue that will be the focus of treatment, establishing treatment goals, and planning a structure for treatment. During the treatment phase, the therapist will help the couple gain insight into the relational dynamics maintaining the problem, while helping both partners understand each of their roles in the dysfunctional interactions in an effort to help them change the way they perceive the relationship and each other. Although gaining insight is important, an important aspect of couples therapy involves actually changing behaviors and ways of interacting with each other. Often, couples therapists will assign partners with specific homework assignments to apply the skills they have learned in therapy in their day-to-day interactions. Most couples can come away from couples therapy having gained insight into relational patterns, increasing emotional expression, and developing the skills necessary to communicate and problem-solve with their partners in a more effective manner.
Who is it for?
As was previously stated, couples therapy is beneficial for any kind of relationship, whether partners are straight, gay, mixed-race, young, old, dating, engaged, or married. For example, a recently engaged couple may find premarital counseling an invaluable opportunity to address relationship expectations prior to getting married. Another couple, together 25 years, may discover that couples therapy is an effective way for them to regain a sense of excitement and romance in their relationship that has recently been lost. Couples therapy can be beneficial in resolving a current or ongoing problem, preventing an exacerbation of problems, or simply as a “check-up” for a normally happy couple who is experiencing a period of transition or increased stress. Common areas of concern addressed in couples therapy include issues with money, parenting, sex, infidelity, in-laws, chronic health issues, infertility, gambling, substance use, emotional distance, and frequent conflict.
by Ivanna Colangelo, LMFT