Getting the most from your couples counselling sessions
A full investment in the process will yield the greatest dividends.
What happens in couples counselling?
PHASE 1: RELATIONSHIP PAST AND DESIRED FUTURE Most of the first session(s) will be information gathering and assessment of how you got where you are and what you might need to do to move forward. However, this doesn't mean you won't walk out feeling or thinking differently about things. We will also move toward identifying outcomes and goals for therapy.
Clarissa allows more time per session (1.5 hours) so that you don't walk out frustrated that you only got time to say where you came from and with no idea of where to go from here (as happens in many early short sessions of couples therapy elsewhere).
Clarissa knows you are coming to couples counselling because you want solutions, and she wants to help you find them as soon as you can!
PHASE 2: WHO ARE YOU BOTH REALLY, AND HOW DID YOU GET WHERE YOU ARE NOW? The second and third sessions move towards a deeper investigation of your past both together and before you met, as this contributes to who you have become and what you bring to the relationship. New research into couples' relationships shows over and over that attachment styles play a huge role in your mate-ship patterns. So, in session 2 or 3 Clarissa will analyse each partner's attachment patterns and explain how your individual style can lead to greater understanding of how you operate in the relationship. Please allow two hours for this session.
PHASE 3: WHAT ARE YOU DOING AND WHAT DO YOU NEED TO CHANGE? The following session(s) look more closely at the interactional patterns that often contribute to a deep sense of misunderstanding in relationships. Clarissa will use her observations and insights to provide feedback and strategies at the most fundamental level of your relationship. You will be instructed and educated on skills for successful relationships that are specific to you.
PHASE 4: MAINTENANCE OF CHANGE Most likely you have spent years in a negative interactional pattern before feeling enough pain to do something about it, so establishing change is going to require awareness and commitment. We are creatures of habit and habit is the easiest path, especially if it is a well worn one. Change-maintenance sessions will be spread out according to your individual needs.
How many sessions will we need? This is a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question, but most couples will get a lot of benefit from three to four sessions, with significant relief being felt early on. Others need six or more sessions. It is really up to the duration and severity of the issues you are dealing with and your individual ability (and desire) to change. The main thing is that you are ready to work at repairing the relationship and stopping whatever it is you are doing that contributes to the pain of your partner. Many couples come in wanting to 'tell' on the other using counselling, as if there is a school teacher there for them to dob on their mate. That is not therapy, however: it is what therapists call 'acting out' (or if you were kids, it is acting up). This will prolong therapy and often cause more damage.
A common scenario observed with many couples attending counselling is that they feel great relief after the first session (some even get their relationship back on track from that point on!!). As couples return for the second and third session, feeling an alleviation of the problem, two things may then happen: They keep feeling well and we can step down therapy OR the original issues resurface and disappointment is felt. This is where many might feel that counselling is 'not working'. However, a two-steps-forward-one-step-back motion is a natural part of the change process. Bear in mind, however, that we are dealing with two people: while one may be ready for change, the other may not.
Research shows that lasting change needs 3-4 months to establish itself in a person or system and that this is when they are really focused on consciously make changes.
Couples who recognise this forward-backwards pattern as part of the 'work' of therapy and persevere are those who get the most benefit from counselling. As they say, Rome was not built in a day, and anything worth having is worth working for.
How long therapy takes depends on several factors:
How long the problem has been going on
How deeply rooted it is in the relationship and beyond
How much damage has been done while the problem has gone on
How each partner contributes and what they originally brought with them into the relationship
Whether other people are involved (e.g., ex's, in-laws, or lovers)
Whether addictions, significant psychological disorders or cognitive issues are involved
How realistic the couple are about the change process
How much responsibility each individual is prepared to take for the problems and how willing each is to contribute to solutions
Frequently Asked Questions
"Does going to therapy mean I have failed in my relationship?" No, quite the opposite. You wouldn't feel a failure to visit a mechanic for a broken car or an accountant to help with your financial issues, yet most people are not taught how to fix a relationship or how to make it work. Getting relationship help is the most sensible thing you can do, and the sooner you do it the better.
"I know people who went to couples therapy and ended up getting divorced. How do I know this won't happen to me?" I know it's a very natural fear for people who come to couples counselling that they are there for the other partner to dump them. Of course, I can't promise anything but I can say that I have had more couples stay together and work it out than I have had split up.
"How can talking about your problems change anything?" The golden question. For a start, couples counselling offers an equal playing field for each person to be heard, something that might not be happening at home! Secondly, I will help you see (or hear) things that you would otherwise be oblivious to. Finally, the way I do therapy isn't all talking: I have some interactive exercises that help you shift beyond 'just talking' to really understanding what's going on.
"We tried couples counselling before and it really didn't make a difference. How will this be any different?" If you had a bad hair cut, would you give up cutting your hair or would you keep looking for a skilled stylist who understood what you wanted? Sometimes it a matter of finding a therapist who gets you as a couple and can cut through the BS and help you really see and do what you need to.
" I am not a sit back and nod therapist, I know relationships and I know what you need to do to move forward. I like my couples to walk out feeling better than when they walked in, more hopeful and with some sense of direction."
How to Get the Most from Couples Therapy
As with any therapeutic endeavor, couples counselling is best approached as a collaborative event between the couple and the therapist. At the lower part of this page is an article on getting the most out of couples therapy, but first let's cover a few important points.
Who suggested counselling? More often than not it is one partner who suggests counselling. This partner is often the woman, as women are often more used to talking about their problems. The other partner, often the male, is not as socialised into talking about problems and may resist the idea. Indeed, he may not even see there is a problem and struggle with the very idea of going to talk about this 'problem'.
On the other hand, it may be the male partner who suggests counselling, often in response to an issue he sees in his partner that he needs assistance with managing (e.g., post-natal depression or an eating disorder).
In same-sex couples, it can still be one partner who is more motivated to see change than the other. Same-sex relationships do have their own specific issues, but at bottom the issues with misunderstandings and mis-attuned attachment patterns are the same with any pair.
In other instances we can find that one partner wants the other to go to individual counselling to 'fix' his or her problem. While sometimes it is one partner who brings a little more 'baggage' to the relationship than does the other, there is still a lot to be gained from analysing the relationship patterns overall. It does take two to tango!
While it may be interesting to consider who 'called' therapy, what matters most is that both partners attend with an open mind and develop a commitment to working on the problems within the therapy sessions and, more importantly, outside of session time.
Why couple and individual issues are best dealt with in joint counselling: Family systems theory and the field theory of Gestalt therapy have long realised that many of our seemingly 'individual' psychological issues are a result of relational trauma, that is, they are an outgrowth of a problem the person has, or has had, in a relationship. This theory has been reinforced by years of research into attachment. One of the fundamental principals of PACT couples therapy is that the relationship is the best place for healing wounds of all kinds. We don't exist in a vacuum, and one partner's psychological pain does not exist in isolation. Where one partner goes, so does the other. So whether a person came into a relationship with an issue or the issue developed within the relationship, the relationship itself is the best place to achieve healing.
What if my partner doesn't want to come to counselling? Unless both of you are on the same page with coming to counselling, one partner is likely to feel they are being 'hauled in' to the session. The reluctant partner is either resistant or truly unable to see the problem, let alone know how counselling could help. Alternatively they worry that the counsellor and their partner might be colluding to 'fix' them, or they may feel that they are now seen as the source of the problem.
A couples therapist's job is to help both of you see what's really going wrong in your relationship and then guide you towards your own solutions.
Won't a female therapist side with the woman's point of view? While it is true I am a woman, I also have a deep understanding of the male psyche and what makes a man tick. I am not on any one's side but am there to assist the two of you to move forward. I believe in relationships and it is not my place to call it off, any more than I would suggest you stay if you really want to break up. I am there to help you either way. If breaking up is what you eventually decide to do, then I will help you both to achieve that, and trust me, while breaking up sounds straightforward, it isn't. However, many couples come into counselling to save or improve a troubled relationship. Very often these troubles have deep roots, so resolution may take a while. While PACT therapy is pretty effective at cutting through to the real causes of dissatisfaction, change can still take time.
It can take couples in relational distress between 2 and 4 years of distress before they seek assistance. So why wait for things to get worse, more time to pass and more water to go under that bridge?
If you care to read on, the document below has been generously shared by The Couples Institute.
This document is designed to help you get the most benefit from our work together. The first three sections deal with how to prepare for and maximise the value of our sessions. The fourth section summarises some brief concepts about relationships and productive couples therapy.
Your job is to create your own individual objectives for being in therapy. Like a good coach, my job is to help you reach them. I have many, many tools to help you become a more effective partner – they work best when you are clear about who you aspire to be.
My goal is to help you each make better adjustments and responses to each other without violating your core values or deeply held principles.
Goals and Objectives of Couples Therapy
The major aim of therapy is increasing your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the patterns of interaction between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply new knowledge to break ineffective patterns and develop better ones.
The key tasks of couples therapy are increasing your clarity about:
The kind of life you want to build together
The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you want to create
Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be
The skills and knowledge necessary to do the above tasks
Tradeoffs and Tough Choices
To create sustained improvement in your relationship you need:
A vision of the life you want to build together and individually
The appropriate attitudes and skills to work as a team
The motivation to persist
Time to review progress
To create the relationship you really desire, there will be some difficult tradeoffs and tough choices for each person.
The first tradeoff will be time. It simply takes time to create a relationship that flourishes: time to be together, time to be with family, time to play, coordinate, nurture, relax, hang out and plan. This time will encroach on some other valuable areas – your personal or professional time.
The second compromise is comfort. That means emotional comfort, like going out on a limb to try novel ways of thinking or doing things, listening and being curious instead of butting in, speaking up instead of becoming resentfully compliant or withdrawing. At the beginning, there will be emotional risk taking action, but you will never explore different worlds if you always keep sight of the shoreline. In addition, few people are emotionally comfortable being confronted with how they don’t live their values or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.
The other comfort that will be challenged is energy comfort. It simply takes effort to sustain improvement over time – staying conscious of making a difference over time – remembering to be more respectful, more giving, more appreciative etc. It takes effort to remember and act.
The other effort is even more difficult for some people – that is improving their reaction to problems. For example, if one person is hypersensitive to criticism, and his/her partner is hypersensitive to feeling ignored, it will take effort to improve their sensitivity instead of hoping the partner will stop ignoring or criticizing.
In all these areas, there is generally a conflict between short-term gratification and the long-term goal of creating a satisfying relationship. The blunt reality is that, in an interdependent relationship, effort is required on the part of each person to make a sustained improvement. It is like pairs figure skating – one person cannot do most of the work and still create an exceptional team.
How to Maximize the Value from your Couples Therapy Sessions
A common yet unproductive pattern in couples therapy is making the focus be whatever problem happens to be on someone’s mind at the moment. This is a reactive (and mostly ineffective) approach to working things through.
The second unproductive pattern is showing up with each person saying, “I don’t know what to talk about, do you?” While this blank slate approach may open some interesting doors, it is a hit or miss process.
The third common unproductive pattern is discussing whatever fight you are in at the moment or whatever fight you had since the last meeting. Discussing these fights/arguments without a larger context of what you wish to learn from the experience is often an exercise in spinning your wheels.
Over time, repeating these patterns will lead to the plaintive question, “Are we getting anywhere?”
A more powerful approach to your couples therapy sessions is for each person to do the following before each session: 1. Reflect on your objectives for being in therapy. 2. Think about your next step that supports or relates to your larger objectives for the kind of relationship you wish to create, or the partner you aspire to become.
This reflection takes some effort. Yet few people would call an important meeting and then say, “Well, I don’t have anything to bring up, does anyone else have anything on their agenda?” Your preparation will pay high dividends.
Important Concepts for Couples Therapy and Relationships
The following ideas can help identify areas of focus in our work and/or stimulate discussion between you and your partner between meetings. If you periodically review this list, you will discover that your reflections and associations will change over time. So please revisit this list often, it will help you keep focus during our work.
Attitude is Key
When it comes to improving your relationship, your attitude toward change is more important that what action to take.
What to do and how to do it can often be easily identified. The real challenge is why you don’t do it.
How to think differently about a problem is often more effective than just trying to figure out what action to take.
Your partner is quite limited in his/her ability to respond to you. You are quite limited in your ability to respond to your partner. Accepting that is a huge step into maturity.
The definite possibility exists that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives. And that he/she has some flawed assumptions about yours. The problem is, most of the time we don’t want to believe those assumptions are flawed.
Focus on Changing Yourself Rather than Your Partner
Couples therapy works best if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner. I am at my best when I help you reach objectives you set for yourself.
Problems occur when reality departs sharply from our expectations, hopes, desires and concerns. It’s human nature to try and change one’s partner instead of adjusting our expectations. This aspect of human nature is what keeps therapists in business.
The hardest part of couples therapy is accepting you will need to improve your response to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, or what to do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their response. It’s more common to build a strong case for why the other should do the improving.
You can’t change your partner. Your partner can’t change you. You can influence each other, but that doesn’t mean you can change each other. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to change a relationship.
It’s easy to be considerate and loving to your partner when the vistas are magnificent, the sun is shining and breezes are gentle. But when it gets bone chilling cold, you’re hungry and tired, and your partner is whining and sniveling about how you got them into this mess, that’s when you get tested. Your leadership and your character get tested. You can join the finger pointing or become how you aspire to become.
Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.
Fear lets you know you’re not prepared. If you view fear in that mode, it becomes a signal to prepare the best you can.
You can learn a lot about yourself by understanding what annoys you and how you handle it.
The more you believe your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change the patterns between you.
Zen Aspects of Couples Therapy (Some Contradictions)
All major goals have built in contradictions, for example, speak up or keep the peace.
All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or a striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships.
It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.
Solutions, no matter how perfect, set the stage for new problems.
Asking good questions – of yourself and your partner – helps you uncover causes beneath causes.
In a strong disagreement, do you really believe your partner is entitled to their opinion?
Under duress, do you have the courage and tenacity to seek your partner’s reality and the courage to express your reality when the stakes are high?
Why is it important to let your partner know what you think, feel and are concerned about? (Because they really can’t appreciate what they don’t understand.) What is the price your partner will have to pay to improve their response to you? How much do you care about the price they will have to pay? (Everything has a price and we always pay it.)
Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat him/her?
Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat yourself?
If you want your partner to change, do you think about what you can do to make it easier?
When a problem shows up, it’s natural to think “What should I do about it?” A much more productive question is, “How do aspire to be in this situation?”
The Importance of Communication
The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness and persistence.
Good communication is much more difficult than most people want to believe. Effective negotiation is even harder.
A couple’s vision emerges from a process of reflection and inquiry. It requires both people to speak from the heart about what really matters to each.
We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.
Communication is the number one presenting problem in couples counseling. Effective communication means you need to pay attention to:
Managing unruly emotions, such as anger that is too intense
How you are communicating – whining, blaming, being vague, etc.
What you want from your partner during the discussion
What the problem symbolizes to you
The outcome you want from the discussion
Your partner’s major concerns
How you can help your partner become more responsive to you
The beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem.
No wonder good communication is so hard.
Some Final Thoughts.
You can’t create a flourishing relationship by only fixing what’s wrong. But it’s a start.
Grace under pressure does not spring full-grown even with the best of intentions – practice, practice and more practice. Practice the right things and you will get there.
Love is destroyed when self-interest dominates.
If you don’t know what you feel in important areas of your relationship, it is like playing high stakes poker when you see only half your cards. You will make a lot of dumb plays.
The possibility exists that we choose partners we need but don’t necessarily want.
To get to the bottom of a problem often means you first accept how complex it is.
Trust is the foundational building block of a flourishing relationship. You create trust by doing what you say you will do.
It’s impossible to be in a highly inter-dependent relationship without ever being judgmental or being judged.
If you strive to always feel emotionally safe in your relationship and get it, you will pay the price by becoming dull.
If neither of you ever rocks the boat, you will end up with a dull relationship
Knowledge is not power. Only knowledge that is applied is power.
Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into just a few categories:
Blame or attempt to dominate
Denial or confusion
These are the normal emotional reactions to feeling a threat or high stress. Improving your relationship means better management of these reactions.
Everything you do works for some part of you, even if other parts of you don’t like it.
Everything you do that takes a sustained effort is governed by three motivations:
Avoid pain or discomfort
The benefits involved
Be a better person
It’s also true for your partner.
If you are asking your partner to change something, sometimes it’s a good idea to ask if the change is consistent with how they aspire to be in that situation.
Businesses and marriages fail for the same three reasons. A failure to:
Learn from the past
Adapt to changing conditions
Predict probable future problems and take action
Effective change requires insight plus action. Action without insight is thoughtless. Insight without action is passivity.
If you want to create a win-win solution, you cannot hold a position that has caused your partner to lose in the past.
“To be a champ you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will.” –Sugar Ray Robinson, middleweight boxing champion, considered by many to be the best fighter in history, pound-for-pound.