A study on marital satisfaction says that 93 percent of Americans list having a happy marriage as a meaningful purpose to pursue in life. From low-key nights making dinner and watching Netflix to major milestones and difficult challenges, relationships with a significant other have immense effects on people’s lives. But how often do folks think about regular maintenance of those relationships with a couples therapist?
Most wouldn’t think twice about taking a car driven for over 100,000 miles to a mechanic, yet many people in relationships are likely to have an easier time taking their Hyundai in than asking their other half to join them in a couples therapy session.
“The amount that we can heal ourselves is extraordinary.”
If you find yourself knowing very little about the world of couples therapy beyond a few Hollywood-heightened examples in movies and on TV: fear not. HealthyWay spoke with some couples therapy pros who shared what they really want people in relationships to know about what they do.
The Number One Thing About Couples Counseling
There is one point that our couples therapy experts—and likely all couples therapists—have to say to people curious about couples therapy: Please do not wait to go.
Promptness is the initial message from Colleen Cira, Psy.D., founder and executive director of the Cira Center for Behavioral Health, for anyone in a relationship. Cira says that “If you’ve ever had a fleeting thought about ‘Maybe we should go’ … Go! Don’t wait.” According to Cira, time is critical for any couple who feels that things aren’t quite as they should be: “The work is so much less painful and difficult when you get in there sooner rather than later. That’s really important.” By getting in sooner, it’s possible less emotional damage will be done and, as a result, the healing process can seem less daunting.
This is echoed by Jessica Miro, LMFT, therapist at Pinnacle Counseling, who stresses the importance of speaking with a couples therapist before too much resentment or anger can build up. Miro states that often times “the most effective work is done with couples who are coming in to improve their communication before problems arise, or who are coming in at the start of a struggle before they are both unhappy.”
In many ways—and this point is no exception—mental health is a lot like bodily health. The sooner you get a “problem” checked out, the quicker and hopefully easier it will be to treat. Like a primary care physician who praises a patient for coming in when they did, so do couples therapists encourage those with relationship struggles to see them sooner rather than later (but later still works, too).
Top Misconceptions About Couples Counseling
There are plenty of misconceptions about what happens during couples counseling. One, perhaps brought on by conflict-loving screenwriters in movies and television, is that therapy is some kind of no-holds-barred argument hour. “People think that you go in there and scream at each other,” says Cira.
In short, anyone heading into couples therapy is better served leaving their overwrought insults and debate prep notebook at home. “The therapist is not a moderator,” Cira continues. “Honesty is important in couples therapy, but it is not an excuse to be cruel.”
Another misconception is people misunderstanding the “couples” portion and expecting a focus on only their partner’s perceived dysfunction. Cira says that it is regrettable “when people go in hoping that a therapist will ‘fix’ their partner. In these cases, someone is not ready or able to focus on how they are relating to their partner.”
“I am amazed at the resilience of people.”
Relationships are a two-way street, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that couples counseling is as well. Treatment is unlikely to work if both parties aren’t willing to put the work in: “People need to come in ready and open to change themselves and not just engage in finger pointing and blame.” Any measure of success will likely be proportional to how willing each partner is to engage in their shared issues.
That said, it is also true that therapists will not just stand by like neutral arbiters, acting like some uninvolved Switzerland while a relationship goes to war with itself. Cira says she would look dubiously upon any therapist claiming “absolute neutrality.” She explains that “a good therapist should know when to take sides and see the other partner’s perspective.” It is critical that all parties involved, including therapists, possess empathy and understanding in each session.
Not Always Happily Ever After
Couples may be let down if they think that the very act of going to couples therapy will magically fix everything, as if the Relationship Fairy Godmother will sing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and you and your partner can go off happily ever after in a tricked-out pumpkin.
“It’s not going to automatically fix something.”
Cira says that expectations “are everything.” Don’t plan on never having to worry about your relationship again: “If you go in thinking that you’re going to come out and everything is going to be butterflies and rainbows—that’s a setup for failure and to be disappointed.”
The key for couples is determining what they’re looking for from therapy. And that is something that therapists can help with.
Miro frames success as a couple that feels “connected and safe with one another.” This does not mean that arguments are a thing of the past, but rather that “they aren’t intimidated by future fights and aren’t afraid that having conflict will disrupt their commitment to one another.” It’s not about stopping a couple from fighting; that’s an impossible task. The key is for that couple to be better to each other in an argument and not let it jeopardize the whole relationship.
And, of course, not all couples that go in to therapy will remain a couple. It is entirely possible that the therapy is there to assist a couple in a decision to break up. As Cira tells Healthyway, “You can go in to work on your relationship and end up pursuing a conscious uncoupling. It’s not going to automatically fix something.”
How to Think About Couples Therapy
While the greater public can have a variety of descriptions for what couples therapists are—antagonists, referees, miracle workers—the therapists themselves are unsurprisingly clinical about the work they do.
They are mental health professionals, with an emphasis on the professional. “If someone is opposed to seeing a therapist,” begins Miro, “I would challenge them to examine how they would treat a physical illness—if you broke your leg, would you be opposed to getting a cast and getting physical therapy?” Miro asks that people make a determination about the role that emotional health plays in their lives.
Similarly, Cira talks of understanding therapy as the routine maintenance that any relationship would have to undergo at some point. She says, “We talk about it in terms of oil changes. Or how you go to your primary care physician for a check up. The same can be said about couples therapy… and all therapy.”
Such framing is a reminder that mental health is ultimately about just that—health.
The Good News
When Healthyway sought to discover the biggest surprises therapists experienced in their work, the answers were resoundingly positive experiences regarding the strength of people and their relationships.
For all the negativity, heartbreak, and resentment that can come from couples who enter into therapy, Miro says that she remains “inspired by people’s ability to change.” Surprises for Miro come from couples who come in “with extreme egos and defenses” and individuals unwilling to “let their partner into the fortress they have built around themselves” only to “several months later to be willing to be vulnerable and open with this person in the spirit of deeper connection.”
Understand therapy as the routine maintenance that any relationship would have to undergo at some point.
Being open to change is one remarkable way couples can surprise therapists. Emotional strength is another. The durability of relationships can still stun a seasoned professional like Cira, who explains that “People can experience devastating things—miscarriage, losing a child, cheating—and they can work through them.”
In a profession that requires a fair amount of experience with pain and heartache, the buoyancy of the human spirit no doubt keeps these experts afloat. “The cool thing about working with couples is just how resilient people are,” Cira states, “I am amazed at the resilience of people.”
What to Do
If you are in a relationship and like the idea of improving how you and your partner communicate, there are a few bits of advice in order to make sure your treatment goes as smoothly as possible. As mentioned, the first tip is to move on those instincts right away: don’t let it become another item that lingers on your to-do list for weeks.
Secondly, Cira highly recommends doing a fair amount of homework to find the right therapy provider—someone with “good training and good reviews.” It is really important that both partners know they are in smart and capable hands.
If the research process seems overwhelming, you can brush up a bit on the different kinds of couples therapy approaches and then look for providers who specialize in the one that sounds best to you. There are a variety of different techniques that range from the Gottman Method, which has been in use for over 30 years, to the shorter-term approach of Emotionally Focused Therapy, to the more psychodynamic method of Exploring Unconscious Problem Roots.
Ultimately, experts say that the key is to be proactive about improving your relationship and mental health. And also to not distress, even if there is significant hostility. “Anger can be activating” says Cira, who notes that she has “a lot to work with” when there is anger in the room. Being mad is “a heck of a lot better than stuffing emotions down.”
The truth is that anyone in a relationship who wants to communicate better with their partner has tremendous resources before them in the form of couples therapists. The greatest surprise is that, in the end, the most valuable tools to interact with one another better come from within. “The amount that we can heal ourselves,” says Cira, “is extraordinary.”