Re-learning to love: What should I know about couples therapy?

Beginning to think about couples therapy can be downright anxiety provoking, especially considering it is typically not the first choice of couples hitting a marital rift or lull. In fact, not only is it not the first choice, it is typically one of the last choices. According to The Gottaman Institute, the average couple spends about six years being unhappy prior to seeking marriage counseling. This means six years (or more) of hurt feelings, anger, and sadness. How can couples therapy help you heal and process interpersonal wounds when your wounds are constantly reopened? This is an excellent question, and part of why it is so important to seek help when feeling gridlocked in your relationship. 


So, lets quell those nerves and start with understanding what couples therapy looks like- in those first few sessions and in general. 



The First Session(s)


The first session is essentially an assessment period, and content varies among therapists. Depending on what method and approach your couples therapist is utilizing, he or she will typically ask both parties for their narrative of what has brought them to therapy. Your therapist may ask for you to dive into a conflict for about ten minutes to learn about the patterns of arguments that are occurring (don’t worry- your therapist is well aware that you will both be on your best behavior during this argument, and will learn more about your conflict patterns as therapy progresses). Sometimes there will be an assessment conducted to get a better understanding of your strengths and needs, and your therapist may send you home with questionnaires to complete. He or she will possibly request to schedule a session with each partner individually to gain a better understanding of family history, development, and relationship concerns. 



The Treatment


All couples therapists conduct therapy differently, however, there are some fundamental skills and processes that you will be engaging in with your couples therapist. The primary goal of most couples therapy is to develop a secure and fulfilling attachment and connection to your partner. This is typically done through three main processes: building friendship and fondness/admiration, increasing ability to emotionally regulate, and learning to manage conflict (even the perpetual gridlocks). 



Building fondness, admiration and friendship


Remember in the beginning of your relationship when you and your partner knew each other inside and out, admired each other, and were able to keep both passion and fun in your relationship? It is so normal to lose some of this as your relationship progresses and things inevitably change. Your jobs become more stressful, you have kids, and you have to deal with each other’s families, all among the plethora of other daily exasperations occurring. The first step of marriage satisfaction decline is the loss of those small, seemingly inconsequential moments of deep care and fondness displayed towards one another (think: expressions of appreciation, date nights, pillow talk, etc.). A foundational component of couples therapy is increasing the ability to rebuild core feelings of respect, love and friendship, and finding ways to do this with limited time, resources, and energy.



Regulating emotion


One of the most important tools couples therapy can provide you with is the ability to communicate while experiencing heightened emotion. On a day-to-day experience, all animals enter and exit something called a “window of tolerance,” a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel to describe levels of regulation*. In our window of tolerance, we are able to think, process and explore relationships successfully and openly. In any relationship, and especially when there is a history of wounds and hurt feelings, we are pushed out of our window of tolerance into a place of hyper or hypo-arousal. These responses can be generalized into the term flooding. Flooding is essentially an activation of the fight/flight/freeze, or survival, response. Our heart rates escalate and we can no longer think, hear, or process effectively.

Now, imagine being in that survival response (think: life or death situations) and communicating openly and kindly about who said they were going to pick up the kids from school today. Yes, impossible. 

Couples therapy can help you identify when you are flooding and find ways to regulate through self-soothing techniques (How To Improve Your Mental Health By Using The Window of Tolerance). Once regulated to heightened emotion rather than flooding, you and your partner are more likely to come to a helpful and respectful resolution (even if still difficult). Keep in mind that while it is not helpful to communicate when your body is telling you to shut down or run for your life, it is actually helpful to communicate during emotional states. This brings us to our next topic: managing conflict. 



Managing conflict


You will also learn techniques to manage conflict respectfully and effectively. Beware- this is not as easy as it sounds. This requires both parties taking responsibility for their faults in communication, and doing this while experiencing any of the pleasant or unpleasant emotions that come up. This also requires a certain level of vulnerability and acknowledgement of emotions in order to develop a felt sense of safety. In her creation of emotionally focused couples therapy, Dr. Sue Johnson emphasizes the importance of identifying and experiencing the emotion during conflict, acknowledging unaddressed needs, and creating an alliance with your partner. Couples therapy can get messy in terms of experiencing heightened and uncomfortable emotions, but these emotions make it more likely for you and your partner to ground in your alliance with one another and work together as a team instead of as opponents (Embracing Emotion in Couples Therapy). No pain no gain, right?


The Gotham Institute has identified four core communication styles that predict divorce (contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling) and your couples therapist can help you identify these in real time. An effective couples therapist will also help you replace them with more constructive communication techniques that can both help you be heard and help your partner respond in a way that is helpful. 



What is couples therapy not?


Finally, it is important you know this: Couples therapists are not mediators. Your couples therapist will not take your partner’s side and devalue your experience, and your couples therapist will not pick your side and focus on all the things your partner is doing wrong. Your couples therapist is there to help you with a multitude of facets in your relationship, but they are absolutely not there to penalize, shut down, or referee. 



So, should I go? 


Maybe you’ve been living parallel lives or haven’t had sex in months (or years), and you’re noticing you feel lonelier than ever. Or maybe one (or both) of you has had an affair, and you’re both finding it impossible to move past. Or maybe you’re having 100 different arguments about 100 different tiny and seemingly trivial things every day, and are fed up and frustrated by the small things leading to explosions. Know that a couples therapist is there to help you build on your ability to communicate and regulate, both in general and while arguing, and to help you re-find and build on your foundation of love, friendship, and deep connection. And remember, you and your partner are the experts in your relationship. We trust that you will do what is best for you- whether this means couples therapy or not. 



*Siegel, Dan (1999). The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: Guilford Press



Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW