Frequently Asked Questions About Couples Therapy
What will happen in our first session?
We’ll spend some time talking about your reason for coming in and discuss any goals you may have. You don’t have to fill out a questionnaire and I won’t ask questions that aren’t relevant to your reason for coming in.
In our first session I like to introduce you to an important tool that you can use during our work that will help you end all forms of criticismcalled the Intentional Couples Dialogue. I prefer to let you get familiar with how dialogue works by guiding the first few topics that you discuss that are not the most difficult issues in your relationship. The purpose of the dialogue process is to help you consistently create an atmosphere of safety and curiosity about how your partner sees the world. Once you get comfortable using dialogue together I’ll help you use it to address the issues that are causing the most conflict; sometimes this happens in the first session, but it is more common that these are gradually introduced in subsequent sessions as you get more comfortable with dialogue.
How long do you recommend we be in couples therapy?
For couples where one or both partners are not certain about staying in the relationship or are experiencing conflict, I recommend a minimum of 8-10 sessions. The simple act of commitment to work on the relationship for this specific amount of time often enhances the level of trust between you both. This is necessary in order to reduce reactivity and move beyond conflict. Couples seeking premarital counseling that are not experiencing distress often meet for less than 8 sessions.
What if one or both of us are thinking about ending our relationship?
I highly recommend that you put off this decision until after you have worked together for 8-10 sessions. After this amount of time I believe that you will have a much better idea of how much work it will take to improve your relationship. You can then decide if you are ready to do that work. If you do end the relationship later, you will be doing so with more of your wisdom and confidence rather than just reacting out of your pain and hurt.
What should I do if my partner doesn’t want to start (or continue) couples counseling but I do?
It is very common for one partner to have more interest in beginning (or continuing) couples therapy than the other. It’s so common that I lightheartedly refer to one partner as the “dragger,” and the other is the “dragee.” This difference in energy is something we will refer to often in our work because it affects all areas of your relationship; it is absolutely normal and yet at the same time there are some important ways to approach this dynamic. In fact, if your partner doesn’t want to come in to therapy it’s a perfect opportunity for you to create a new way of reacting to your differences before you even step foot in my office. Here is what I suggest:
Do everything within your power to make it clear that you view your partner as part of the solution and not part of the problem. The last thing you (and I) want is for your partner to feel like they’re being called into the principal’s office. I try to make your experience with me as different from that image as possible and it helps if you are working on that too.
To increase the chances that your partner will have a non-shaming experience, I encourage you to start to take unconditional responsibility for your part of the relationship issues. This isn’t easy because doing this increases your vulnerability before you have seen that your partner will reciprocate; trust that I will help your partner stretch to take responsibility in his/her own way also.
Don’t use “poisonous short-cuts” like threats, coercion or manipulation to get your partner to come to therapy. These are tempting because they can produce quick results but are always short-term and make the problem worse later.
Think of it as your (temporary) job to make it as easy as possible for your partner to come with you to therapy. Your partner will notice even little shifts away from criticism and you will have my help later to make sure your partner is doing just as much work as you.
Here are some examples of some non-shaming language to make couples therapy as inviting for your partner as possible:
● “I need your help to figure out what I can do to improve our relationship.”
● “I don’t like the kind of reactions I have sometimes to you when you _________[name frustrating behavior that partner does]. Would you come to therapy with me so that I can learn to react differently?”
● “I know that I have frustrated/hurt you when I ____________[name a behavior of yours that your partner has reacted negatively about].I want to work on that and I think it will go a lot faster if you are a part of that work.”
● “I really want to get things right with you and don’t want to assume that I know what you need. You are the best guide for what works for you and what doesn’t.”
● “I could go to a therapist on my own, but I don’t want a relationship with my therapist…I want a relationship with you!”
How do you define effective couples therapy?
In my mind, couples therapy is working when any or all of the following is happening:
1) You are more aware of how to communicate your needs without criticizing your partner
2) You have discovered (or are reminded) of what particular kind of stretching (growth) you need to do in order to make it easier for your partner to give you what you need. You actively experiment with adjusting your behavior (stretching) and monitor how, in turn, it affects your partner’s behavior.
3) You have identified caring behaviors that both of you have stopped doing and have committed to gradually start doing these again.
4) You have begun to identify your “exits” that take energy away from the connection to your partner, and have committed to gradually close as many exits as possible.
5) You are open to consider the possibility that your complaints and frustrations about your partner are primarily your issues (you can’t control your partner). I call this the 90/10 principle. You take 90% responsibility for your frustrations and your partner takes 10%. This means that you categorically stop blaming your partner for your frustrations. You begin to articulate your concerns in a way that invites your partner’s understanding and help.
Do we have to talk about childhood in couples therapy?
I believe that the simplest explanation for anything is usually the best. This means that we talk about the past only when it can help you in the present. We first focus on communication and behaviors you can do that may create an immediate change. Any discussion about the past is done judiciously and in the service of changing where you are stuck now.