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Couples Therapy - What to Expect

Updated: Mar 21

If you are considering couples therapy and feel anxious, intimidated, or mystified as to what to expect, you aren’t alone. You might be basing your ideas on what you’ve seen in the media, or perhaps they’re based on previous negative therapy experience. You might fear that you’ll be exposing yourself to criticism or that you’re going to be told all the ways you’re doing things wrong. These ideas may be stopping you from taking that next step to reach out for couples counseling, even though you’re feeling deeply unhappy in your relationship. So let’s talk about what you can expect in couples therapy so you can make a more informed decision. 

Now, each therapist works differently, so I can’t speak for all therapists, but I will share how I approach couples therapy. In my work with couples, I work from the stance that I have two distinct individuals in front of me who each have a whole lifetime's worth of experiences that inform how they show up as a partner in their marriage or relationship. Practically speaking, what that means is that I’m trying to understand you and where you come from - and how your story intertwines or clashes with that of your partner. I am not looking to judge or point fingers. Your actions and beliefs are byproducts of your experiences, and I am not here to judge them. What I am here to do is to work together to uncover how some of them may be preventing you from having the type of relationship that you wish to have with your partner (because otherwise you wouldn't be in couples therapy).

To give an example of how the context of each person’s life matters, imagine one partner who was raised in a low-income neighborhood, within a fractured household, having faced a number of adversities from a young age, and learning that to survive he must prioritize self-sufficiency at all costs, because he can’t rely on anyone else. For this partner, the world has been a harsh place, and his biggest priority in life is to preserve a sense of security - financial, physical, or otherwise. This mindset manifests in him saving as much of his income as possible, leaving little to discretionary spending, because he never wants to be put in a position again where he has to worry about having food on the table or electricity in the house. Then imagine if this partner were in a relationship with someone who grew up in a much more privileged environment, who was always able to count on the support of others, but who also experienced the untimely death of a loved one. This partner was able to surround herself with a solid support system as she overcame her grief. She learned that life cannot be taken for granted and that it can end any day. But it was also her experience that in the end, everything turns out okay and there are always people who are willing to help. For this individual, an important priority is to live in the moment and be adventurous. For her, this manifests in taking trips and enjoying the fine things in life, even if it means she spends most of her income.  If these two partners come together to create a life together, it could be a beautiful union of two worlds, where each can learn a great deal from one another. But it’s also not hard to imagine that their different outlooks on life may at times cause friction or resentment.

Things can become even more complicated when these partners’ lives get more intertwined - perhaps children enter the picture, in-laws become involved, and life responsibilities in general increase. Differences can feel more amplified as their views on key life decisions like child-rearing or finances diverge, and “agreeing to disagree” is no longer an option. 

Of course, the differences between two partners do not have to be this stark as in this example to cause profound distress. If a marriage or relationship is supposed to be like a well-oiled machine, then even a small pebble, if placed in a critical juncture, can cause it to break down.

As a couples therapist, then, I see my role as an impartial third party who can recognize the two realities that two partners bring to the table and serve as a bridge between the two. Because sometimes, when you are so “in it,” you can’t see that your reality, as valid as it is, is also subjective and there can be another wholly valid reality out there (i.e. your partner’s). And each reality comes with its own dreams and aspirations, as well as triggers and wounds that need to be heard and validated. 

To this end, an important part of my work with couples is the individual assessment sessions. After the first joint couple’s session, where I see the couple together and the basics of why you are in therapy, what you hope to get out of it, and some basic relationship history are established, I will then see each partner in an individual assessment session. In these individual sessions, I am able to dedicate the entire session to trying to see the story from your perspective, so that ultimately I can better understand how your stories intertwine - how they complement each other and how at times they may clash. With that basic understanding, when we return to the joint couple’s sessions, I am better positioned to facilitate the dialogue between the two of you more constructively. I can better anticipate what may be trigger points for you and why something may be a big deal to one partner and not the other. From there, the meat of the couples therapy can begin, where we can work on building trust, intimacy, conflict management, and a shared vision of life between the two partners.

At the end of the day, each couple is entirely unique. Each couple has unique challenges, needs, dreams, aspirations, and triggers. In many ways, you know yourselves and each other better than anyone else or any therapist. But sometimes, you may find yourselves so entrenched in conflict, or stuck at an impasse, that you feel like you aren’t even speaking the same language anymore. And in those times, it may be that you just need a little bit of outside help - in this case from a couples therapist - to serve as a bridge, so that you can move forward towards creating a future together that honors both realities.

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