World famous couples therapist Sue Johnson once said basically that when she started doing therapy with individuals or families, it was like having afternoon tea and when she started doing therapy with couples, it was like being on the freeway with two Mack trucks headed at each other from opposite directions with her in the middle. I have totally been there!
It can be uniquely challenging to remain hopeful in couples therapy, especially when most couples wait until their relationships are highly distressed before they seek therapeutic services. For example, a couple came in for their first therapy session and described their relationship challenges. At the end of our meeting, I explained that even though I understood that some of the betrayals had caused a lot of pain, there was no reason to believe that they could not reorganize their relationship into the type of marriage they both wanted. One of the spouses appeared surprised and said, “Really? How?” As I explained a course for change, I realized that my view from the therapist’s chair made it easy for me to be hopeful because I saw improvement in highly distressed couples every day. In contrast, most clients have little access to the marital challenges their friends and neighbors are experiencing, and as a result they often think they are suffering alone with no end in sight.
The emotions in couple relationships tend to be highly reactive. This is often the most important relationship to people, and when things aren’t going well the level of distress escalates at a rapid-fire pace. The emotional temperature in the room can shift instantaneously and, as a result, when deep emotions are accessed couples may feel terrified and even disoriented. However, it is always the case that the commitment and effort of both people in the marriage toward a common goal of bonding has power to triumph over any events which have disconnected them in their history. While I believe that a marriage is very hard to improve alone (and I have experienced disappointment with cases in which I only had the dedication of one partner), it is important for couples to know that even if they have never had the type of connection they seek, it doesn’t mean it’s out of reach.
Additionally, even if a couple has achieved connection, it can take time to integrate new patterns of closeness with old, disconnecting habits. As one of my couples in therapy walked into the room, I could tell that things were not going well. The wife marched in with arms folded and positioned herself on the far end of the couch, turning away from the middle. She clearly did not want to share the same piece of furniture with her husband. He had a familiar, “I’d rather be anywhere but here,” look, and took his place on the opposite end. “I can see you are both in pain … do you want to help me understand what is happening right now?” I asked. Immediately, the wife began sobbing and explained that after our last session, they had felt connected, and she was hopeful, but then life happened and they had a large escalated conflict. Her husband corroborated her story and added, “We feel like we have slipped back further than before.” I validated the pain that comes from losing connection. Sometimes couples in therapy may feel more distressed than when they began, because as they experience a movement toward connection, it provides relief and hope. However, as old patterns re-emerge, they can be overwhelming and appear to wipe out any possibility of maintaining new growth.
Here are some suggestions for remaining hopeful during Couples Therapy:
1. Imagine that the Relationship can be Different
When a relationship has been negatively colored by conflict, distance or betrayal, it can be hard for couples to even envision that it can be different. I will validate that I understand it is hard to even imagine that it could be better, based on their experience, and then guide them toward visualizing improvement. Having a conversation about how they want the marriage to be, if they were to imagine change, is an important first step in reaching goals.
2. Recognize that Negative Patterns Don’t Change Overnight
They just don’t; or at least they don’t on a durable basis. Relationship interactions are so rehearsed over a period of months or years that couples will react to one another anticipatorily. I have seen couples escalate over the raise of an eyebrow in their partners. Just like practicing a musical instrument over time generates automatic responses, so do marital interactions. It takes time to generate new patterns, which will often seem awkward and difficult at first.
3. Recognize and Celebrate Small Successes
Often negative emotion is so absorbing that it can instantaneously wipe out memories of anything positive in the relationship. I will often show couples “Angels and Demons,” a print by M.C. Escher to demonstrate how quickly the dark part of the print jumps out at them, and that it requires more careful examination for the lighter parts to emerge. Similarly, the “dark parts,” of our spouses jump out at us, but intentional seeking can help us see the positive parts. Sometimes if a couple comes in discouraged, I will remind them of a time when I saw them connecting in a positive way, and they realize they had forgotten because they felt so hopeless in the moment.
4. Communicate to Your Spouse that You Know it has been Difficult, but that You Want to Create Something Different with Them
As couples navigate new effective processes, I will often suggest a way they can slow it down — by narrating out loud, that even if they aren’t sure how, they do want something better than what they had before. I’ve had several couples report how useful it was for them to get caught up in a familiar negative pattern, and slow it down by saying, “Let’s try something different.”
5. Acknowledge that Your Reactivity is Likely Related to the Fact that This is the Relationship that Matters to You
Couples receive very paradoxical messages from each other, and often don’t realize that the reactive behavior they are seeing is a result of how important they are to their partners. Spouses who seem unreachable and emotionally withdrawn often become so because it is so hard to see disappointment in a partner. Thus, while they look uncaring, the opposite is often true. They disconnect as a way to try to bring the emotional temperature down in order to prevent conflict and potential disruption to the relationship. They in essence disconnect because they do care about the relationship. Pursuing partners who often appear critical and blaming are also frequently misunderstood. They are often lonely and want their partners with them, but in desperation, they often raise the volume in a way that paradoxically pushes their partners away. When I point out that I couldn’t get the same reactivity by saying the same things, because I don’t matter to them, they can see that this is the case.
6. Recognize that Just by Showing up to Therapy, there is LIKELY at least a Part of the Spouse that Wants the Relationship to Work
As a marriage therapist, I am very aware that most people would prefer to be just about anywhere else besides in my office. Therefore, if they bothered to show up and expend resources for the relationship, they at least in part want the relationship to work. There are occasions when people will show up just to say that they “tried marriage therapy,” when they have no commitment and no intention of saving the marriage, but in my experience, this is far less frequent. Overall, if both people are committed to the marriage, showing up is a sign that they are on a pathway to repair.
7. Remember that the most important variable of change in the equation is YOU!
Once after I explained to a couple how I thought the relationship could change, one of the partners expressed surprise and explained that a previous marriage therapist told them they had only a 10% chance of making it. I explained that I knew of no reliable metric for accurately predicting specific outcome since the most important variable of change is the couple. Just as a medical doctor can prescribe but not enforce various treatment protocols, a marriage therapist cannot follow you home and make you behave a certain way. Hours spent away from the therapy room always trump the limited time in the therapy room. I can attest to the fact that couples who improve in therapy are almost always the couples who are really trying to connect throughout the week when they are not in session.
Remember, if you need to, ask the therapist to tell you what your marital strengths are. If your marital therapist can’t tell you that, you might want to consider switching therapists.