Does the thought of going to couple’s counseling make you nervous? If so, I don’t blame you! For many people, going to therapy sounds about as fun as going to the dentist. When we have a painful cavity, we know it needs to get fixed. We also know that that getting it fixed will cause more pain at first. Counseling is similar in that it usually gets harder before it gets better. However, after all is said and done, couple’s therapy can make our relationship stronger than ever before.
So why does it have to hurt before it can get better?
Usually, we go to counseling because something hurtful has happened in our relationship and we want to feel better. It’s hard to look back and remember times that our partner has hurt us. However, if we don’t look at the wound, examine it, and determine its cause, how could we possibly know how to fix it? Just as the dentist has to poke around on our gums to find the problem tooth, we have to poke around and find where you have been hurt emotionally. This usually involves your therapist asking questions about recent arguments or maybe even looking at ways you’ve been hurt in past relationships.
Why do therapists always get into the childhood stuff?
It’s not always necessary to get into childhood issues but it can be helpful. As kids, our brains were developing as we learned about the world. We learned about what love looks like, whether the world is a safe place or not, whether we can trust people, and so on. Sometimes we’ve developed beliefs that are harming our current relationship. For example, if I learned that people don’t like to hear about problems, I may believe that I need to keep my problems secret from my partner. If that is my belief, I will most likely think it’s not ok to ask for help. So, let’s say I’ve had a serious problem with my boss at work. When I come home work very grouchy my partner has no idea why. My partner may try to ask but I’ll just push them away. Being pushed away may feel hurtful to my partner, so they close down too. Now we have two people in a relationship who are both feeling very alone.
Who’s in the wrong here?
One could argue that no one is. I have been doing what I have learned is the loving thing to do in a relationship- keep my problems to myself. I think that I am protecting my partner from negativity by not sharing my troubles. Unfortunately, my partner feels like they must be doing something wrong. If I don’t share with them, they must not be a good partner. Maybe they believe that people who really love each other share everything with one another. They start to doubt my love for them. Now my partner is feeling insecure and alone. I am feeling overwhelmed and alone. Both of us are just trying to do the right thing but we’re operating from different belief systems.
Here’s the difference between blaming a person and addressing the system.
I learned in childhood that people don’t want to hear about problems. I believe I need to keep things positive and not complain. When I came home in a grouchy mood, my partner asked me, “What’s wrong?” I snapped back with, “Nothing.” My partner is not an idiot. They know that something is wrong. My lack of sharing has triggered some sadness in my partner. You see, my partner struggles with never feeling good enough. Now that they see their beloved withdrawing from them, my partner is convinced that they must not be good enough to share with. Now my partner withdraws too, feeling hurt and rejected. This example illustrates why it is so important to move away from blame and move toward self-awareness.
How does therapy undo the damage?
Therapy provides a safe place to come and get to the root of your issues with a neutral party. Therapists are trained to not take sides but to look at the whole relationship dynamic. If you’re in therapy, and you feel that your therapist is taking sides, you need to bring that up to them. You may even need to find a new therapist. The role of the therapist is to help you find what your underlying belief systems are. Notice I didn’t say that the role of the therapist is to find what’s wrong with you or your partner. Rarely is it one person that causes a relationship to struggle. It’s the system of communication that is based on faulty beliefs that is the problem.
Therapy helps us to see the unhealthy patterns that we slip into when life gets hard. Once we realize what we are doing, and why, we can address it. Using the example above, I must believe that my partner actually wants to hear about negative stuff that they’re facing. My partner must learn that I struggle with sharing hard stuff, but not because my partner is a bad partner. The hope here is that I will bravely begin to share more of my heart, even though I most likely fear they will be criticized for it. When I do share, my partner must work to make sure they are making it safe to share (not judging, giving advice without asking first, etc.). My partner must also realize that if I choose not to share, it may be because I am scared. See how this helps us both to have much more compassion for each other?
Results of Couples Counseling
When we have more compassion for each other (and ourselves) we are slow to criticize and quick to connect. Often, we take the behavior of our partner’s personally. In reality, we all come into relationships with baggage. We’re all wrestling with our own demons. Counseling helps us to reveal what those demons are and then learn new ways to relate so that they don’t effect our current relationships. If you feel stuck with your partner, consider finding a therapist near you. We all get stuck sometimes, going to a therapist can help you to identify the patterns you get stuck in and then give you tools for staying un-stuck.
In the meantime, here are some free resources to help:
- UnStuck Video Series
- What to Do Before You Go to Couple’s Counseling -pdf
- How’s Your Marriage? -article
Thank you for reading! Please share with anyone who might find this helpful.