Finding the Right Helping Hands: Seeking Therapy for Your Relationship
If you’ve fallen into a bad phase in your relationship, it can be very hard to ask for help. Seeking couple therapy takes courage and persistence, and a willingness to allow a stranger to see your personal life exposed, at a time when you’re likely feeling at your most vulnerable.
Many, many couples have a horror story to relay about a really bad experience with couple therapy. The therapist might not have been able to calm down the couple, letting them argue in the therapy office, just like they do at home, with no useful intervention. Or the therapist may have taken sides with one member of the couple, or even suggested that one of the partners is wrong or bad, while the other one is right or good. Or the therapist may have assumed the role of expert instructor, offering tools and strategies for how the couple ought to behave before, during, or after an argument -- a prescriptive approach that may possibly seem useful in the moment, but in fact only superficially attends to the couple’s real needs. Or the therapist might have become only a negotiator for the couple, suggesting bargains like “you do the laundry on Thursdays, and you do the laundry on Sundays” without addressing the real, underlying reasons for the recurring disagreement.
The result of such experiences is that a couple likely will walk out of therapy feeling as hopeless as when they came in. With a few of the models described, there might be a brief respite at home from the usual tensions, but quickly the couple will fall back into their typical pattern of not getting along.
Not all couple therapy is created equally. What makes some couple therapy more effective? Although the behaviors of your partner may seem confusing or hurtful, they can all become completely understandable if you know something about how we humans are wired to connect and disconnect in times of threat. The best models of couple therapy understand that, and make use of this insight to help a couple step out of their recurring negative cycles and learn to do something different.
What should you look for in a couple therapist? Once you’ve located someone, interview him or her over the phone. Ask some vital questions. First, find out whether they’re trained to work with couples. An alarming 80% of all therapists offering couple therapy have no specific training in that area. And since working with couples requires a very different skill set than working with individuals, you’ll want to know that your therapist is appropriately trained. Second, find out how much experience they’ve had working with couples; the practitioner’s level of experience really matters. Third, ask whether they can describe their method of working. Does it sound like it will reach the deeper, underlying issues of connection and disconnection that keep fueling your recurring arguments? Is the method backed by research?
The models of couple therapy that are the most effective have three things in common:
they help people understand how their family history impacts the ways they react to their partner;
they are “experiential” rather than “content-driven,” focusing on feelings and behaviors that arise in therapy, in front of the therapist, rather than on concrete topics of disagreement;
they focus on getting the partners back on the same team: on becoming available, emotionally responsive, and emotionally engaged with one another.
When you first meet your new couple therapist, remember that you’re “shopping” for the right fit. Ask yourselves whether you both feel comfortable with the therapist, and whether you both have the sense that the therapist is capable and caring. Consistently, research on the efficacy of psychotherapy finds that an essential factor in predicting its success is the quality of the relationship between clients and their therapist. Do you both have a good feeling about this person?
Most importantly, when considering couple therapy, don’t wait too long before seeking help. Next time on this blog site, I’ll take a look at signs to watch for in your relationship that indicate the need for help, as well as common reasons couples delay.