Couples Counselling: Can it save your marriage or relationship?
I’m not going to lie. Couples counselling isn’t an easy process for anyone. But, if you’re not ready to walk away from your partner, going to see a Relationship Counsellor might be the best decision you’ll ever make.
Why go and see a Couples Counsellor?
All couples row. My alarm bell rings when couples tell me they’ve never argued. “How is that possible?” I’m thinking. Arguments and disagreements are inevitable. We’re just people, and that is what happens.
Problems develop when you keep having the same arguments. When you have the same conflicts, it starts to chip away at your connection with each other. The distance between you grows. If you’re not careful and attentive, you risk growing apart without the chance to come back together.
In the heat of an argument, you say things that hurt. And, you get told things that hurt you right back. And once you’ve said it, you can’t take it back. Thoughts last forever.
Relationships endure when you stay together. They also need to mature, and you need new ways of connecting. The bond between you strengthens through conscious and intentional acts of kindness and care.
People crave intimacy. You want to be close to the person you love. You want to be with the one you love. And, yet, it is not easy. You are bound to experience mixed feelings as you get closer to someone. You’ll feel joy, tenderness and desire. And, you’ll feel scared, sad and sometimes profound shame.
These feelings bring out your learned ways of coping with emotions. In a close romantic relationship, there is little hiding from each other. And, naturally, conflicts can arise. For example, you might want more than your partner can give. Or you feel like everything you do is never good enough. Some people feel like they can’t cope independently and try to keep their loved ones close. You can get clingy or check up on them to see if they’re staying faithful.
Whatever you feel and do, we all bring past patterns of relating to people into our current relationships. It is easy to get stuck in the same conflicts. And, when you get stuck, your relationship gets damaged. When you can’t seem to stop, seeing a marriage counsellor can help you deal with your unhelpful coping strategies more effectively.
Why do you keep having the same arguments?
So, why do couples have the same old arguments repeatedly? Well, I think it is hard to change. You feel annoyed, irritated and frustrated by what your partner does or doesn’t do. You feel hurt, sad or hopeless. And, when you’re both feeling strong emotions, it can be hard to see what you need to do.
Conflict puts you on the defence. You are less likely to hear what your partner is saying. You are less likely to empathise with them deeply. Instead, you are more likely to do stuff that defends your position.
Many people get into unhelpful patterns of communicating. Do you recognise any of these?
- Shouting and slamming doors
- Ignoring and refusing to talk
- Criticising and blaming
- Checking up and seeking reassurance
- Nagging and Controlling
There are others, but these are some of the more common unhelpful ways of communicating. They hurt both of you.
These behaviour patterns can be understood when you know what is happening in the background. I mean, what baggage you’ve unintentionally brought to the relationship.
We all develop Interpersonal Life-Traps. Another word for these life traps is schemas. Schemas come from unhelpful experiences in your past. They often stem from childhood experiences with parents and other important people in your life—for example, teachers, community leaders and friendship groups.
A lot of the time, parents are just doing their best. They are trying to be the best parent they can be in the ways they know-how. And they fail. They fail because they, too, were once children who had parents who influenced them. And, so it keeps going back generation after generation. How you are with your partner is a lot to do with how your parents were with you and how previous parents were with your ancestors.
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In ACT for Couples, Avigail Lev and Matthew MacKay list several interpersonal life traps. See if you recognise any in you or your partner:
- They’ll leave me or reject me eventually. It is just a matter of time
- I can’t trust them. They’ve got an ulterior motive for being with me, and I need to watch out
- I’m not important, and they don’t care about me
- There is something wrong with me, and once they see the real me, they won’t be able to love me
- I don’t fit in with them. I’m different to everyone I meet
- I can’t cope on my own. I need others to make decisions for me
- I’m not good enough, and I’m inadequate
- I don’t see why I have to think about their feelings. I want to do what I want to do
- I don’t mind, let’s do whatever you want to do. If I say what I want, I might get criticised or shouted at
- We need to be perfect all the time. Anything less isn’t acceptable
Did you recognise any?
If you have more than one, don’t worry. Many people do. The point is to identify which are a struggle for you; once you know that, you know what to spot.
Both of you are hurting and doing the best you can
The Gottman Institute is one of the world’s most respected sources of relationship advice. They’ve produced several books on the subject for both couples and counsellors. And one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to ensure you act with enough kindness.
When you get caught up in your life trap, you are more likely to forget that your partner is also struggling. You get stuck in your head with your painful feelings. You stop seeing your partner as someone you love and care about deeply.
To heal your relationship, you can set a goal of being kind. For relationships to work and your connection to remain strong, it is helpful to be kind five times more frequently than you are mean. That may seem obvious, but it can be a useful compass when you feel lost.
What is unique about the way you work with a couple?
When you explore how marriage counsellors work, they often do something similar. One thing they tend to do is to start therapy by identifying what attracted you to each other. They try to remind you of what you once loved about each other.
At first glance, this seems helpful. And, for many couples, it may well be. But, I tend to do something different. I prefer to get straight into the conflict to save you time and get the root of the problem more quickly. Very early in the therapy, we focus on the same old arguments so you can start learning how to overcome them.
I’ve outlined a quick step-by-step process below to give you an overview of how it works. It describes the five phases of couples’ therapy that teach you how to break destructive patterns and become the partner you want to be. It looks like this:
- Identify your interpersonal life-traps
- Identify the unhelpful coping strategies that damage your relationship
- List the pros and cons of repeating these strategies
- Identify the kind of partner you want to be
- Learn and practice new strategies that help you be who you want to be and step over the urges to avoid your life-traps
When you try to avoid the pain of your life traps, you often do stuff that damages your relationship. Our job in therapy sessions is to help you get better at noticing when your life trap shows up. Once you’ve seen it, you can catch the urge to distance yourself from the painful emotions. We practice opening up to what hurts, so you can get better at having these feelings instead of trying to avoid them.
You might ask, why would I want to feel what hurts? Well, you can’t get rid of your life traps. Your life experience shapes you, and you can’t forget them. They are here forever. But, what you can do is get better at dealing with them. When you have the same conflicts in your relationship, you try to avoid what you don’t want to feel.
Getting more aware and open to painful thoughts and feelings has another purpose. It is to help you focus on what is more important. When you stop fighting against your life trap, you can start to pay more attention to who you want to be. And, when you focus on being who you want to be every day, you take care of your partner and your relationship.
Committing to relationship counselling is a brave step forwards. You both need to be ready and willing. And, you both need to want to stay in the relationship. If you can agree on this, then you have hope.