Couples therapy: Do we need to see someone?
Wondering if you need couples therapy? We all want healthy relationships with our spouse or significant other. When the relationship is good, we are happy, hopeful, feel like we are on the same page, and have shared goals and interest. But what happens when we begin to have stress or conflict. Often, we try to avoid arguing. Then things build up over time and suddenly we have a full blown terrible argument. Generally, this leads to what I call, “unfair fighting” in which the language and tactics we use make the fight worse. Couples therapy can help!
In their book, Fighting for your marriage, 3rd ed., 2010, the authors identify 4 patterns that are destructive in marriages and relationships and can cause more and more damage as they continue.
3) Withdrawal and avoidance
4) Negative interpretations
Escalation is when a topic is brought up, perhaps in a positive or non-threatening way, and suddenly, things go very badly. Your partner may become very hurt or angry very quickly. Suddenly, your conversation has escalated into a huge argument, when that was certainly not your intention. The more this happens, the less you want to bring up topics.
The second pattern is invalidation. In this situation, when you bring up a topic, the other person says or does something that makes you feel like your opinion has no merit. It is not a valid point of view. Maybe only their point of view is right. This makes you feel terrible, unappreciated, and like you are not an equal partner in the relationship.
Negative interpretations occur when a topic is brought up, perhaps in a positive or non-threatening way; the other person takes it the wrong way. They may think you are attacking them in some way, or perhaps trying to bring up something old that they don’t want to talk about. In any case, the conversation does not go well and you feel like you have to back pedal. All of a sudden, you’re no longer talking about the topic, but about why you are so mean and disrespectful.
Escalation, invalidation, and negative interpretations lead to feelings that no matter how you bring up a topic, it’s not going to go well. We argue, we get angry, you feel terrible and blamed when you bring things up, and conversations are not productive and may be destructive.
The only strategy left then is one of avoidance and withdrawal. This may work initially. If we avoid talking with each other or spending much time near each other, we won’t argue. But then, problems are unresolved, build up, and there is an increased feeling of frustration and resentment. This then leads to escalation again but now you have a lot of issues that are all saved up and you are ready to explode.
Many couples in couples therapy have identified that they have all four destructive patterns and they think they are doomed. This is not the case.
If you begin to focus on creating fair fighting rules, communication skills, the ability to take a break when you are frustrated with your partner allowing you some space, you can have productive conversations. When you are no longer fearful that difficult conversations will result in big blow ups and hurtful conversations, you feel more trust and security. This can then lead to the ability for your relationship to grow and not stagnate. You will be able to work as partners through difficult life issues and come out on top.
Some people are structured enough to get a good couples book, schedule time to both read a chapter a week, and discuss with each other their marriage and how to improve it. They schedule a “business meeting” to work on their relationship.
However, most couples struggle to do this on their own. They don’t feel accountability or have a neutral third party (a couples therapist) to help them through the difficult issues.
Couples can benefit from a couples therapist in couples therapy when they have these destructive patterns present. A good couples therapist will provide a safe supportive environment in which both people can discuss and work through issues that are hurting their relationship.
There’s another group of people that also should consider couples counseling. This group is the couple that is considering moving the relationship toward a deeper commitment. Perhaps you are getting ready to move in together or get married. Although this group of couples may have little or few problems, research has shown developing these skills early in a relationship can serve as strength when there are problems. Couples who do this generally report happier healthier marriages and the ability to work out problems.
For those of you that have been in a relationship for a long time and now have those destructive patterns, don’t worry. Working with a couples therapist can truly strengthen for your relationship as well. People don’t want to argue and be in relationships that don’t feel good. You and your partner can create a strong and healthy marriage, partnership, parenting team, and friendship. You can break through destructive and unhealthy relationship patterns through couples therapy/ marital counseling. Couples counseling can help!
Markman, Howard, Stanley, Scott, and Blumberg, Susan, John. (2010). Fighting for your marriage, 3rd ed. Wiley & Sons.