By Melissa Hansen, M.A., LPC
Couples often enter counseling hurt, angry, and blaming one another for the problems in the relationship. There are occasional couples who enter couple’s counseling just looking to enhance and deepen their relationship and this work is certainly easier and can be immensely rewarding.
One thing to consider before beginning couple’s counseling is that many people find couple’s counseling more difficult than individual counseling. Just as any therapy can stir up all sorts of reactions and feelings, so unearthing pain, sadness and anger in a relationship also does. It is one thing to sit on a therapy couch and have someone attuned only to you and quite another thing to hear your spouse’s experience of you and to engage with their pain. Most of us become defensive, blaming, or resentful in response. Growing as an individual is difficult and doing so with another person and the powerful pull of established patterns and dynamics should not be underestimated. Therefore, sometimes it is best for couples to pursue individual therapy in order to be more aware of their own issues.
The past is how we land where we are, and relationship wounds can run very deep. Addressing them is essential to relational healing. Still, both partners must be willing to work through things, take ownership of their respective parts, and then forgive and release their partner, and this is more easily done with the help of a trained professional.
One of the first tasks in couple’s work is for the therapist to help both parties focus on their own contributions to the state of the relationship and establish safety. Many people fear that if they begin to take responsibility this will abdicate their partner from taking responsibility. This is not the case. If one begins to recognize and take responsibility for one’s part, then one can also see what is not one’s responsibility. Establishing an environment of safety (initially in the therapy room and eventually elsewhere in the relationship) is essential to the healing, growth, and deepening of the intimate relationship.
Here are some ways to prepare for couple’s counseling:
- If possible, go to individual therapy first and openly share that process with one another, taking responsibility for your own life, feelings, choices, and behaviors.
- Remind yourself that your partner is not the only one at fault. While you may not be aware of the role you play in the relationship and dynamics, you have one. We are all human.
- You cannot do two things at once. You cannot be trying to divorce or having an affair and also, truly, be trying to redeem your marriage. Simply stopping an affair or taking divorce off the table will not solve everything, but focusing entirely on the healing and health of your marriage is an essential first step. And don’t wait long. Many marriages that are struggling will be sabotaged by the continual betrayal and deception that go along with continuing to put energy toward the dissolution of it or an outside party.
- Do intentional acts of love for your partner. Think of things that would be meaningful to them and then do those things. Set aside time to listen and connect.
- Some couple’s therapists recommend reading to help the couple make progress outside the sessions. While there are many good ones, here is one I would recommend: Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.
- Make the call to a couple’s therapist even if you have not done any of the above steps!