The Trouble With Couples Therapy, Part 2: Partners aren’t ready, and therapists aren’t helping them get thereApr 11, 2023
Couples go to couples therapy with a lot of pain and a lot of hope that talking with a therapist about their problems is going to help them finally get past their struggles so that they can feel happy, connected, and secure again in their relationship. The trouble is, once they start, they often find themselves having the same kinds of conversations and unproductive results that they did at home! One big reason this happens is that partners aren’t ready– they don’t yet have the tools, skills, or information they need to get different results. And sadly, the structure of therapy isn’t really set up to help.
If you’ve read my previous blog post about the trouble with couples therapy, you know that I’ve got some solid experience working with couples. And I hate to admit it, but for most of that time, I was a part of the problems with couples therapy; I just didn’t realize that they were problems… at least not in the way that I now understand them.
But that’s why I want to talk about them– because when we can identify and understand problems, we can do something about them. So, let’s look at another really common problem that many couples experience in couples therapy– that partners may not yet be adequately prepared to experience the success that they want and deserve (and that therapy isn’t set up to help them get prepared quickly enough!)
“We feel worse than when we started!”
Here’s a common scenario in couples therapy:
Bob and Jane come in for couples therapy. They’ve been struggling for a long time, and have finally decided to reach out for support. The therapist asks them what’s been going on, why they came in, or what they’d like to talk about during the session.
Jane, so frustrated and hurt by the conflict, communication breakdowns, and disconnection in their relationship, erupts into a tirade about the most recent fight that she and Bob have had. She points out all the things he did to upset her and how they represent a pattern of the problem.
Bob is sullen and quiet during Jane’s rant. When the therapist asks him what his thoughts are, Bob defends himself and points out the ways that Jane is always this and never that. Jane interrupts him to argue that his accusations are not true, and suddenly the room is lost to a frequently-had argument playing itself out right then and there.
Meanwhile, the therapist, though probably aware of the patterns and problems underlying this conflict, like a deer caught in the headlights, simply watches this conflict unfold. Likely, they are unsure of where or how to interrupt, are overwhelmed by how to help the couple soften toward and really hear one another, and are probably wrestling with their own thoughts and feelings about who is right or how the hell they’re going to help this couple get to a better place with one another!
As you can imagine, the session is neither very productive nor helpful. Worse, the couple’s short 50-minute session is up before either partner can get back into a state of regulation or resolution. Bob and Jane leave the session more upset and disconnected than they did when they came in and wondering whether couples therapy is really going to be able to help them.
Isn’t this on the therapist?
Truth be told, a skillful couples therapist will know how to interrupt a conflict like this, slow the couple down, and help them to tune into one another and what is happening within themselves. If they’re lucky, they may even help the couple to soften toward one another and start to really hear and understand their partner. And this really helps!
And yet, as the therapist takes the lead and directs the couple to new ways of engaging with one another, the couple is still not empowered to understand what’s going on behind the scenes of their own conflict and communication breakdowns. That is, they aren’t often told what the therapist is doing, why, or how they can do it for themselves. Furthermore, the couple likely remains unaware of how their own thoughts, feelings, and reactions are contributing to their problems, and, even more importantly, they aren’t being taught what they themselves can do to participate in the solutions.
The missing piece
I say that most couples aren’t “ready” for therapy because they don’t yet have any new skills, tools, or knowledge to support them with intentionally participating in more productive sessions. That is the missing piece!
Consider–talk therapy uses communication as its primary tool for facilitating growth, healing, and connection, but most couples who come to therapy struggle with communication, especially around those topics that are causing them the most distress!
So they come to therapy to try to communicate about topics that they struggle with communicating about, without first understanding why they are having these troubles (it’s not actually communication that’s the problem, btw,) nor learning anything that might help them have more successful communication!
Awareness = Choice = Power
You may have heard me say this before, butand I’m a big believer in the importance of awareness. In fact, one of the key tools that we teach in our in-depth relationship curriculum is called the Power Formula; awareness = choice = power. This simple yet profound concept reminds us that when we have awareness about something, it gives us choices. Without choices, we are all reacting from the non-conscious, self-protective programming of our beliefs, biases, stories, and nervous systems. And typically, these non-conscious reactions don’t get us the kinds of results we actually want in our relationships.
Being able to choose a response, however, brings consciousness into the picture. And choices are powerful. Choices allow us to respond deliberately so that we can consciously and intentionally engage in our relationships. This gives us much more power to help create the kinds of experiences that we want to have.
But most of the time, when couples come into therapy, they don’t have any of this awareness. And it’s not their fault; NO ONE TEACHES US THIS STUFF! I won’t get on my soapbox about it right now, but suffice to say, we NEED to learn.
We ALL need more relationship education
If everyone were taught about relationships the way that we were taught math and science, I believe that we’d live in a whole different world– a much better world. Alas, we are not.
So, when couples come to therapy, they are tying to find ways to have more productive conversations, resolve conflicts, and find solutions to problems that they’ve as yet been unable to do, but they are trying to do this without ANY new skills, tools, or awareness (and thus choices) that would empower them to get different results!
Instead, couples hope that, by virtue of sharing their problems and having these discussions with a therapist, they will be able to find those solutions or learn how to have better experiences with one another. Somehow, the therapist is supposed to support them with all of this learning, growing, and healing in just 50 minutes a week.
It’s no wonder change in therapy takes so long!
Therapy isn’t set up to do this very well
Now to be fair, a good therapist will bring in some solid psychoeducation for couples, such that couples do learn some new tools, skills, and awareness that empower them to engage differently in their relationships.
The problem is that this educational piece has to be fit into a small window of time, most of which couples expect to be using for their own talking and sharing– to discuss their hurts, fears, frustrations, and challenges. That’s how talk therapy is setup; it’s not “teach” therapy, right?
But I stand by my point– trying to have the same conversations about things that aren’t working, in essentially the same way, without any new skills, tools, or awareness for getting better results, makes it really difficult to get better results!
I believe that couples are much better served when there is a solid teaching component provided along with the kind of support and feedback that a good couples therapist (or coach!) can provide.
And that is exactly why I have taken the core curriculum that Calvin and I teach in our high-level, high-support coaching program and created a digital version that ANYONE can access. Our goal is to help ensure that couples are getting the information, tools, and skills they need to be able to navigate their relationship from a more conscious and empowered place.
So, should a couple want to pursue the more hands-on support of couples therapy or couples coaching, they’ll be READY to really make the most out of it. And then, whatever support they receive is going to be sooo much more effective (and take a lot less time)!
Sounds much better, doesn’t it? 🙂
If you are interested in learning more about exactly what you need to finally move past the struggles and make dramatically improve your relationship, I invite you to watch our FREE relationship masterclass, “Stop the Heartache: How to make your relationship a source of energy, connection, and joy so you can shine your light in the world.” Watch it now!
And if you know that you are ready to dive in and empower yourself with the knowledge, skills, and tools to powerfully transform your relationship, then check out our Be the One digital course or schedule a free 90-min Relationship Empowerment call to see if working closely with us in our 6-month high-touch coaching program is right for you.
If you’d like to explore working with us in our Be the One relationship coaching program, make sure to schedule your FREE 90 minute Relationship Empowerment call!
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