Couples Counseling Works: When and Why
It is common for people who haven’t been in couples therapy to wonder if it works or not. Given that the reason I love my job is the rewarding feeling I get when I help a couple improve their relationship, and that this happens regularly, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on that topic starting with an acknowledgement that it doesn’t always work.
No, relationship counseling doesn’t work when . . .
In my initial phone call with prospective clients, I ask a few screening questions. Relative to couples therapy I ask whether there has ever been any domestic violence between the member of the relationship. When there is domestic violence as a part of the negative relationship patterns conducting therapy with safety and emotional honesty is not likely to be possible. While there are some situations where the partner violence is infrequent or minor enough for me to work with the couple, I often recommend that they seek individual therapy (which I could provide to one member) to help stop the pattern of violence before couples therapy.
I also ask about alcohol and drug use. When one or more people in a relationship are having a hard time regulating their use of substances, that person’s relationship with the substance, shame, and the emotional and cognitive consequences of being under the influence are likely to interfere with that person’s ability to participate in the relationship therapy effectively.
In addition to these issues, there are some much less frequent issues like individual crises related to safety or ongoing compulsive behaviors that may make couples therapy less effective for a time as well. It is my commitment, based on a principle of integrity, that when I consult with new potential clients I am honest with myself and with them about the limits or potential limits of the therapy. If I don’t think I have a good chance of helping, I won’t bring you in. I will share why not, and I will offer recommendations that might help you.
Yes, relationship therapy works when . . .
Most of the time I am able to help my couples counseling clients. There are some things that help the couples counseling to be more effective. Chief among these is a capacity for emotional self-regulation. That is, the ability to slow reactions, to be curious about your partner’s meaning, and to acknowledge when you are too upset to be productive. Don’t worry if you aren’t perfect at these skills, no one is. The therapy can help you develop them if you need some more support, but a certain minimum capacity with this can really help the therapy be more effective faster.
Another thing that really helps and which I ask about in the first session, is the reason that you love and respect each other. If you can answer this question with ease (and even better if doing so generates a sense of connection between you) then the therapy has a very good chance of being effective. This base of respect and mutual appreciation, helps become the springboard for experiences of empathy and kindness that can help replace the old patterns.
Finally, another facilitator for couples therapy is when both members of the couple are willing to make their own changes. I help couples to turn complaints about their partner’s behaviors into opportunities for the complaining partner to change. Once you are willing to make changes, I introduce the communication tools and skills to help you make the changes you want to make to become the partner you want to be.
Why relationship counseling works
Whether clients bring those prerequisites to the therapy or we’re developing them during the therapy, from the first session I interrupt and stop negative communication patterns from taking place in my office. I do not sit back but lean in, ask questions, and make suggestions about those negative patterns.
Instead of those old patterns I introduce a host of new communication tools that I have written about in more detail in other blog posts. Soon enough, the skills are natural and comfortable for you that you’ll use them outside of my office and you will be to have conversations that would have turned into an argument with relative ease.
This technical skill is certainly important but there’s another element I want to point to. An effective therapist makes a big difference. Whether you call if called couples counseling, marriage therapy, or relationship therapy I focus on this kind of work. Due to that focus I can detect ineffective communications in body language, tone, and your partner’s reaction very quickly. That means I can intervene earlier.
If you are still left wondering if couples counseling can save your relationship, give me a call. In our 15-20 minute call, you can express you concerns. I promise to be honest with you about whether I think I might be able to help and why or why not.