Forging an intimate relationship represents one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of life. We are commonly drawn to seek partners who may differ from us along numerous dimensions. These may include personality, interests, gender, values, childhood experiences, career, religious beliefs, life stage, culture, and future goals, just to name a few. Given this natural variation within couples, navigating the balance between prioritising your intimate relationship and remaining true to your individual goals can prove to be somewhat of a minefield!
All too often, we come to view points of difference with our partner as some kind of threat to the future of the relationship, or begin to interpret particular behavioural quirks as stemming from negative intent, rather than our partner’s learned experiences growing up. We set about trying to chisel and chip away at our partners, in an attempt to lessen the difference between us and them. This would likely work out fine, if our partner didn’t have the same bright idea in mind to encourage us to be more like them! These common dynamics mean that couples can end up feeling poles apart, as each partner digs in their heels in the struggle to coax the other to come around to their way of thinking. In fact, both partners often become so invested in justifying their particular point of view that they have little energy left to listen to other perspectives. This means that both partners can often end up feeling dismissed and disconnected from one another.
Adding to this complexity, individuals do not arrive in relationships as blank slates. We bring with us templates, based on our prior experiences, of how relationships ought to work and how we expect others to respond to us. This means that long before we encounter disagreement with our partner, we are already biased towards interpreting their behaviour in a particular way, and we hold assumptions about the intent behind this behaviour (whether our partner actually meant it that way or not). For many couples who have been together for a significant period of time, these assumptions can become even more automatic and entrenched.
With all of these dynamics at play, it is not difficult to understand why it may be necessary for many couples to consult with a therapist in order to have a third party help them make sense of this complexity and improve their sense of connectedness. Oftentimes people who have not taken part in couple therapy can hold the view that to engage with a couple’s therapist is to suggest that their relationship is ‘on its last legs’. Yet when one considers the above conflict between two partners as a natural outcome of two different people coming together, it becomes clear that even couples who are not considering ending their relationship could use the help of a neutral third party to enhance their union.
Couple therapy differs from individual therapy in various ways. Most obviously, sessions are usually conducted with both partners and the therapist in the room. Often it will be useful for the relationship counsellor to see the partners individually also, but this tends to be for a limited number of sessions, to achieve specific goals relating to the relationship. The reason for this is that, unlike individual counselling (where the individual is the client, and therefore the therapist prioritises interventions that are most likely to benefit the individual), in relationship counselling, the therapist views the relationship as the client (and therefore prioritises interventions that are most likely to benefit the relationship). Because of this relationship focus, it is especially important that the couple therapist takes a balanced approach in sessions, meaning that both partners have equal opportunity to air their concerns and specify agenda items for discussion.
Initially in relationship counselling, there will be a period of assessment in order for the therapist to get to know each partner and the relationship between them. This assessment period often involves going through the history of the couple’s relationship, discussing areas of conflict and motivations for coming to relationship counselling, identifying the strengths of the relationship, and gaining some information from each individual about their background. The purpose of this assessment period is two-fold. Firstly, gaining this information means that the counsellor can identify underlying patterns that are occurring between the partners and assisting them in altering unhelpful cycles. Secondly, having both members of the couple go through this information together helps to increase empathy for each other’s perspective, which assists with reducing maladaptive conflict cycles. After the assessment, the relationship counsellor will help the partners identify behavioural changes that they can employ to alter hurtful interaction patterns, and provide an ongoing forum for partners to continue to raise ongoing concerns as they present. In addition, the relationship counsellor will also be working to help the couple to increase the positive interactions in their relationship and enhance pre-existing relationship strengths.
The number of couple therapy sessions required for a couple varies widely, depending on the individuals in the relationship, the areas of conflict, and the external pressures that the couple is exposed to. Generally, it is helpful for couples to attend weekly to fortnightly sessions at the beginning of therapy, with increasing periods of time between sessions as treatment continues. Typically, the couple are the authority on when is the best time to conclude therapy, given they are most aware of when they have achieved their goals for their relationship.