This document is reproduced from Psychotherapy in Australia, volume 15, number 1, November 2008 with the permission of the authors, Ellyn Bader Ph.D. & Peter Pearson Ph.D., clinical psychologists, and the founders and directors of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California.
This document is designed to help you get the most benefit from your
couples therapy. The first section is on how to prepare for our sessions
together. The second section is a summary of brief concepts about
relationships and productive couples counselling.
As your therapist, my primary role is to help you improve your responses to each other without violating your core values or deeply held principles. Your job is to create your objectives for being in therapy. Like a good coach, my job is to help you realize them. I have many tools to help you become an effective partner, but they are best when you are clear about how you aspire to be.
The major aim of therapy is to increase your knowledge about yourself, your partner and the patterns of interaction between you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply new knowledge to break old ineffective patterns and develop better ones. The key tasks of couples therapy are to increase your clarity about:
A common, yet unproductive, pattern in couples therapy is to focus on
whatever problem happens to be on someone’s mind at the moment. This reactive
approach is ineffective to working things through.
The second unproductive pattern is for you to show up and say, “I don’t know what to talk about, do you?” While this blank slate approach may open some interesting doors, it is a disorganized, reactive hit or miss process.
The third major unproductive pattern is to discuss whatever fight you are in at the moment or whatever fight you had since our last meeting. Discussing these fights or arguments without a larger context of what you wish to learn from the experience is often an exercise in spinning your wheels. Over time, repeating these patterns will lead to the plaintive question, “Are we getting anywhere yet?” By the time that question is asked, the answer is painfully obvious.
You can’t create a flourishing relationship by only fixing what’s wrong. But it’s a start. To create sustained improvement in your relationship you need:
There will be some
difficult trade-offs and tough choices for each person to create the
relationship you desire. The first tradeoff will be time. It takes time to create a relationship that
flourishes: time to be together, time to play, plan, coordinate,
nurture, relax, hang out, family time, etc. This time will encroach on
some other valuable areas - your personal or professional
The second tradeoff is energy. It takes effort to sustain improvement over time: staying conscious of making slow, gradual progress, remembering to be more respectful, more giving, more appreciative and so on. It takes effort to remember and act.
The third compromise is comfort. You’ll give up some emotional comfort by going out on a limb to try novel ways of thinking or doing things. It will be uncomfortable to listen with curiosity instead of butting in, and to speak up instead of becoming resentfully compliant or withdrawing. In the beginning, there will be emotional risk-taking action, but you will never explore different worlds if you always keep sight of the shoreline.
There is one more tradeoff that’s even more difficult for some people: improving your reaction to problems. For example, if one of you is hypersensitive to criticism, and the other is hypersensitive to feeling ignored, it will take effort from each of you to improve your sensitivity instead of hoping the other will stop ignoring or criticizing.
In all these areas, there is a conflict between short-term gratification and the long-term goal of creating a satisfying relationship. The blunt reality is that, in an interdependent relationship, each person must make and effort to achieve a sustained improvement. It is like pairs figure skating - one person cannot make most of the effort and still create an exceptional team. A more powerful approach is for each person to do the following before each session:
The following ideas can help identify areas of focus or stimulate discussion between you and your partner between meetings:
When it comes to improving your relationship, your attitude toward
change is more important than what action to take. What to do and how to
do it can often be identified easily. The real challenge is why you
don’t do it. How to think differently about a problem is often more
effective than just trying to figure out what action to take. Your
partner is quite limited in his/her ability to respond to you. You are
quite limited in your ability to respond to your partner. Accepting this
is a huge step into maturity.
There is a definite possibility that you have some flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives. And that he/she has some flawed assumptions about yours. The problem is that most of the time we don’t want to believe those assumptions are flawed.
Couples therapy is most effective if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner. I am at my best when I can help you reach objectives you set for yourself. Problems occur when reality departs sharply from our expectations, hopes, desires and concerns. It is human nature to try to change one’s partner instead of adjusting our expectations. This aspect of human nature is what keeps therapists in business.
The hardest part of couples therapy is accepting you will need to improve your response to a problem (how you think, feel or what you do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their response. It’s more common to build a strong case why the other should do the improving. You can’t change your partner. Your partner can’t change you. You can influence each other, but that doesn’t mean you can change each other.
You can learn a lot about yourself by understanding what annoys you and how to handle it. The more you believe your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change the patterns between you. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to change a relationship. Couples therapy more successful if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner.
All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships. All major goals have built-in contradictions; for example, speak up vs. keep the peace. It’s easy to be considerate and loving to your partner when the vistas are magnificent, the sun is shining and the breezes are gentle. But when it gets bone chilling cold, you’re hungry and tired, and your partner is whining and snivelling about how you got them into this mess, that’s when you get tested. Your leadership and your character get tested. You can join the finger pointing or become how you aspire to be.
The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness and persistence. You can learn to do these things even if other people don’t do them for you. Good communication is much more difficult than most people want to believe. Effective negotiation is even harder. We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.
These are the normal emotional reactions to feeling a threat or high stress. Improving your relationship means better management of these reactions. If you are asking your partner to change something, sometimes it’s a good idea to ask if the change is consistent with how they aspire to be in that situation. Businesses and marriages fail for the same three reasons. A failure to:
Effective change requires insight plus action. Action without insight is thoughtlessness. Insight without action is passivity. If you want to create a win-win solution, you cannot hold a position that has caused your partner to lose in the past.