It’s very important that couples seek therapy early on, while there is still good will between them. Like with any wound, the longer it festers, the more difficult is the healing process. When couples enter therapy to “save” their marriage from divorce, often one spouse has already left emotionally, and there’s a lot of resentment and “water under the bridge.”
In conjoint or couples counseling, therapists should maintain a neutral stance between the clients and also as to outcome. Not all therapists agree with this, and others cannot maintain neutrality, if they are not aware of their biases.
In relationships, “There are neither villains nor victims, only colluders and collaborators.” This doesn’t mean one spouse may not be a victim of abuse, but on a psychological, often unconscious level, victims’ self-esteem or past may keep them from setting boundaries. Often people being criticized or abused minimize the problem or don’t even recognize it as such, but instead withdraw from their partner sexually or emotionally. In therapy, they can learn to value themselves and set appropriate boundaries.
If there’s physical or emotional abuse, the therapist must address this first, and should encourage prevention and the safety of the injured person. Sometimes, a therapist may spend time and empathize with the angrier, withholding, or abusive client, to the dismay of their more cooperative partner. This is because the therapist is trying to engage the more resistant spouse, who might be averse to therapy. Getting them to open up and talk also helps to reduce their maladaptive behavior. They need to learn to express their feelings appropriately and control their anger.
Many clients expect there should be no conflict. This is unrealistic in any relationship. Also, couples may only feel safe to express their fears or angry feelings in the context of therapy. They need conflict resolution skills and to learn to communicate and resolve conflict before it escalates into a fight – skills that may never have been learned, particularly in intimate relationships. Therapists teach listening skills, assertive communication, and how to identify needs and feelings, set boundaries, and problem-solve.
Frequently, the symptom is not the problem. Issues that clients’ aren’t aware of may eventually surface and need to be addressed. In any intimate relationship, there are always at least six people involved: The couple and two sets of parents. Sometimes a sibling or grandparent plays an important emotional role, and in today’s family structure, there are often step-parents, too.
The past is usually at play when couples are very reactive to one another, and have trouble learning to communicate better. They may be “enmeshed” emotionally and need individual support or therapy to separate their thoughts and feelings from one another. Deeper work may be indicated around issues of autonomy, intimacy, trust, and fears of being smothered, controlled, or abandoned. Our early childhood is when we learn lessons about intimate relationships.
All people project past experiences onto present situations when there is an emotional trigger. Whether from childhood or past adult trauma, talking about these experiences in a safe counseling environment together with your partner engenders vulnerability and trust between the two of you. When you realize that your partner’s motivations aren’t personal to you, you can drop your defenses and begin to empathize. You can then see your partner as vulnerable, rather than as an adversary, and good faith and good will can return.
Copyright Darlene Lancer 2011
By Darlene Lancer, MFT JD
All rights reserved. Any reproducing of this article must have the author name and all the links intact.