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A Beginner’s Guide to Couples Therapy

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couples_in_doorwayFor many, February means one thing: Valentine’s Day. At The Family Institute, we’re taking this opportunity to explore one of our favorite and most widely-discussed topics: couples. Today’s post comes from Institute staff therapist Jaime Henry-Juravic, LFMT.


We’ve scheduled our initial session- Now what?

Now that you and your partner have scheduled your initial couples session, you are probably wondering what to expect. And you are likely feeling a bit nervous. While all couples therapists approach the process in a unique manner, there are some fairly universal Rules of the Road when it comes to this type of treatment. Here are a few of those “rules”:

There will be questions- LOTS of them: The initial several sessions are considered the assessment phase of treatment. The therapist will want to hear from each of you about how you decided to come in for couples therapy. You may each have different versions of what led you here. That is perfectly ok.

The therapist will gather information about the present as well as the past, often dating all the way back to the family in which you grew up. This will help to provide context for each of you as individuals, as well as you as a couple.

These initial meetings may be a combination of individual and couples meetings, depending on the style of the therapist.

Some of these questions will be about sex and intimacy: While you may not be coming to treatment to discuss this area of your relationship, this is an important part of romantic relationships, and as such is important to discuss. It may become clear after the initial assessment that this is not an area in need of further exploration, or there may be some aspects of this part of the relationship that are in need of some work. This may feel a bit uncomfortable, which is totally normal. Rest assured (as best you can) that couples therapists are trained to explore this area in gentle and respectful manner.

You will learn alternative strategies to replace finger pointing and blame: These are two common pitfalls in a relationship, and both tend to elicit feelings of defensiveness in the partner that is in the “hot seat”. Rather than getting stuck in the cycle of blame, the therapist will ask each of you to focus on your own contributions to the strengths and challenges in the relationship. This doesn’t mean that you can never discuss how the other person’s behavior or communication style impacts you, but it will help you to do so in a more productive manner.

The therapist will not be the relationship referee: While having a referee during a conflict often sounds appealing, the therapist is not in the role of deciding who’s right and who’s wrong in these instances. Both of you contribute to the dynamic when the interactions are fulfilling, as well as when the interactions are difficult. And both of you have valid experiences and points of view. The therapist will help each of you to discuss these in a more productive manner, without getting stuck in the right vs wrong trap. (*Note: There are certain instances, such as domestic violence, where one or both partners have violated a safety boundary. In these instances, the therapist will be far less neutral and will work to ensure each partner’s safety in the relationship.)

You will be asked to try something different: If you have found yourselves attempting the same solutions to the same problems over and over again, with no success, it may be time to try something new. This may be framed as an “experiment” by the therapist and you will likely practice it a bit in session, before trying it on your own at home. These experiments will often focus on how you communicate with one another, including both speaking and listening. They may also focus on shifting your typical responses in times of conflict, so that each of you feels more validated and respected by the other. The assumption is that not all experiments will work; so trial and error is the name of the game here.

And, finally, you will be seen as the expert on your relationship: You both live in your relationship each and every day, and have a lot to teach the therapist about what works and what doesn’t in your unique relationship. The therapist will help you to better utilize the tools you already possess (but have perhaps been overshadowed by months or years of conflict or disconnection), or teach you new tools to more effectively navigate the relationship in a fulfilling manner.  Conversely, you may decide throughout the course of the work that what is needed is a dissolution of the relationship. Couples therapists are not always “relationship savers”. They may also help you navigate a safe and respectful separation or divorce.

 

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the couples work, a couples therapist is here to help each of you feel heard and validated, and to navigate the continued relationship or dissolution of that relationship with safety and respect for one another.  While each therapist has a unique interpersonal style and theoretical approach, I hope these general Rules of the Road will help to lessen some of the anxiety that can often accompany this type of therapeutic work.

 

 

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