3 Good Reasons to Believe Couples Therapy Can Help You

A couple reaches across a table with coffee and flowers to hold hands As a marriage and family therapist, I have met with countless couples whose frustration and disappointment have been sufficient to bring them through my door. In the majority of cases, couples are feeling misunderstood, underappreciated, and judged. It is often difficult to see any way forward.

The heightened emotional bond of marriage in particular puts partners continually at risk for conflict. Murray, Bellavia, and Rose (2003) concluded, “The experience of slights and hurts at the hand of a partner is inevitable. After all, conflicts of interest routinely surface, and even ambiguous behaviors, if sufficiently scrutinized, might seem to reveal a partner’s irritation, disappointment, or disinterest in oneself” (p. 128).

When conflict does occur, partners are often stuck in ruts of retort and resentment. Aggression and withdrawal in the midst of conflict are patterns of conditioned defense, covering up primary emotions, with primal cravings for understanding and support buried beneath. Knee-jerk reactions nearly inevitably result in perceptions of judgment, misunderstanding, and rejection, which diminish respect and increase disconnection. On the other hand, messages of understanding breed respect and connection.

Ontario psychotherapist Malcolm MacFarlane analogized, “I use [an] image of two magnets with the same poles facing each other to describe the sense of contact, energy, and anxiety that we experience when we enter the sphere of conflict with another person. Many people disengage from this sphere of conflict either by avoiding and backing off or by attacking, escalating, and then disconnecting. … The ideal is to learn to stay in the sphere of conflict while being authentic and working through the conflict” (personal communication, June 25, 2016).

Zig Ziglar said it best: “Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.” Agreement is not essential for respect and connection, which are typically what we want most.

Our emotions and thinking are inextricably tied to one another and together generate perception. When we perceive misunderstanding, underappreciation, judgment, or rejection, our defenses go up. As the walls rise, we have increasing difficulty hearing one another; of course, by that I mean understanding one another. In other words, empathy is a precursor to mutuality.

Couples who do not experience mutuality usually channel feelings of sadness, fear, or shame through self-protective or coercive behaviors that fail to achieve what is needed to move beyond them.

Couples who do not experience mutuality usually channel feelings of sadness, fear, or shame through self-protective or coercive behaviors that fail to achieve what is needed to move beyond them. When such interactions evolve into patterns, couples often experience a loss of trust or a heightening of fear in their relationship, which buries the deeper emotions even further.

There is an alternative to overt rage. When either afraid of one’s own anger or when emotion can be buried no further, logic—facts, details, beliefs—may provide concealment. Logic is yet another superficial, secondary, reactive, and protective layer of defense for the rawer, primary, underlying, and vulnerable emotions within—of which sadness, fear, and shame are prime examples.

The good news?

1. Couples nearly always already possess the resources they need for a positive relationship.

These resources ultimately involve increasing safety, empathy, and responsiveness. There are no magic facts that heal relationships. Intimacy is embodied, not encoded. Insight is often necessary but never sufficient in and of itself to bring about change. To recondition marital soil so intimacy may grow, expressions of vulnerability and understanding must increase, and reflexive, knee-jerk reactions must decrease. When highly committed to the relationship and highly motivated to see positive changes in it, partners are often quite adept in pivoting toward constructive and healing changes.

Healing is a function of growth. Growth, and thereby healing, occurs as two people lay down their defenses and connect in safe and constructive ways around the unresolved emotion, being careful to honor the unique emotional process of the one they love without stepping on and triggering emotional landmines. Couples therapy can lay the groundwork for this.

2. Changes must be experienced to be sustained, and therapy provides space for this to occur.

You can choose to keep on insightfully explaining what you already believe or risk stepping into a new terrain by exploring together how, rather than why, each of you feels hurt and anger. I’m referring to a shift between defending, criticizing, or debating facts to connecting on a more vulnerable and emotional level.

When one partner aggressively asserts resentments or withdraws in an emotional paralysis, the other partner may react in due pattern, understanding may be thwarted, and a cold distance remains. During this sort of interaction, partners typically feel—and this is where the mutuality ends—misunderstood and unsupported.

Where there is hurt, there must be—and let’s be clear that in some cases this requires great preparation and even facilitation—a coming together and a facing together of the underlying pain. Such pain generally involves sadness, fear, shame, or all three. Respect and connection do not occur at the secondary reactive level of emotion, through explosions, attacks, and retreats, and neither do growth and healing.

It is never easy to communicate vulnerably and honestly through the tremble of raw emotion. Couples have an opportunity to begin to experience a restructuring of their patterns of interaction and their experience of intimacy. When one chooses to communicate nondefensively upon feeling misunderstood or unsupported, the resulting mutual experience tends to be feeling mutual respect and emotional togetherness.

3. We are capable of increasing our capacities for emotional management and self-direction. 

Many couples struggle to manage intense reactive emotions they feel in the midst of conflict. We are not necessarily determined by our impulses. If you and your partner find yourselves in a tailspin of disconnection, make a decision today to lean into a new paradigm marked by respect and understanding and driven by intentionality. This is challenging work, and you may benefit from the facilitation a therapist can provide. Over the course of therapy, partners are capable of consolidating new positions, attitudes, and cycles of attachment behavior and experiencing conflict in a more satisfying, growth-oriented way.

Reference:

Murray, S. L., Bellavia, G. M., & Rose, P. (2003). Once hurt, twice hurtful: How perceived regard regulates daily marital interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (1), 126-147.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
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  • Maxine

    Maxine

    July 11th, 2016 at 9:35 AM

    best thing my husband and I ever did together

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 12th, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    I’m glad to hear that, Maxine!

  • Katy

    Katy

    July 11th, 2016 at 12:41 PM

    Magnificent article that truly validates couple therapy. The real golden nugget for me in Blake’s article is when he writes “changes must be experienced to be sustained…..”. This imply’s action and genuine empathy….the couple needs to feel; needs to act on something different within the relationship to feel change. When working with couples, I always express, we have 3 distinctly different things to make a relationship feel worthwhile….person 1, person 2, and the relationship….call it whatever works for you! It is the blending of both people, where the change beings to happen. Again, wonderful article.

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 12th, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    Thank you, Katy! :-)

  • Jack

    Jack

    July 11th, 2016 at 2:26 PM

    Just like with anything else, a lot of what you get out of something like couples therapy is going to greatly depend on what kind of effort you put into it to start with. If you do nothing to help it along then guess what? Chances are pretty good that you will get a little out of it. But if you work at it and do the things together that you should be doing then I think that you will come out of it a much stronger couple with a greater than what you had before.

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 12th, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    Indeed! Thanks, Jack! :-)

  • Laken

    Laken

    July 11th, 2016 at 4:56 PM

    Not sure how to even bring it up with my husband that I think that we could truly benefit from some work like this.

    he sees things that there is nothing wrong, and I feel like we are miles apart.

    Any thoughts on how I might could convince him that we should at least give this a try?

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 12th, 2016 at 8:58 AM

    Laken, I’m so sorry to hear that you’re having a difficult time. Although I’m not in a good position to be doling out individualized advice here, a good place to start may be thinking about one or two ways you believe it may be helpful and then sharing honestly with your husband that you’ve been feeling like you’re miles apart, that you’ve been considering whether couples therapy may be beneficial and have come to the conclusion that you could truly benefit, and then sharing these one or two ways you believe you may benefit.

  • Bill

    Bill

    July 12th, 2016 at 9:47 AM

    Sometimes we believe that everything is fine and strong but then you go to a therapist and they start pointing out all the ways that you could make things even better?
    I am all about self improvement but do you think that for some couples this could end up turning molehills into mountains so to speak, and make a bigger issue out of something that really isn’t that big a deal to start with?

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 12th, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    Oh, I suppose it could, Bill, but if the therapy results in making mountains out of molehills, so to speak, then it may not be good therapy. If the therapist is pointing out ways to make the relationship better when the couple believes everything is fine and strong, then it may not be good therapy. But then again, if the couple believes everything is fine and strong, why are they in therapy?

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    July 12th, 2016 at 1:57 PM

    My husband and I went but we just didn’t do the at home work that we should have. I think that this one thing really showed when we were not making as much progress with each other as I think that we both wanted because it couldn’t be just about that one hour every week.
    These had to become things that we put into practice in our daily lives all of the time.

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 13th, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    “These had to become things that we put into practice in our daily lives all of the time.”
    …”all of the time.” Although I would not endorse that strong of a requirement for therapy to be effective, I do agree with you, Jennifer, that there must be some meaningful and mutual effort on the part of the couple for therapy to be effective. “…it couldn’t be just about that one hour every week.” Indeed. Thank you, Jennifer.

  • reece

    reece

    July 13th, 2016 at 7:56 AM

    I know all of my friends go but then no one wants to talk about it. How do I get a referral to someone good?

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    Blake Griffin Edwards

    July 13th, 2016 at 9:22 AM

    Perhaps the best online directory you’ll find is right here at GoodTherapy.org, Reece. This is an excellent resource for finding good therapists. You might find two or three you’re curious about and link over to their independent websites for more information. Then, if you call and request a fifteen minute free phone consultation, most private practice therapists will be willing to speak with you a bit and answer questions you may have to help prospective clients assess whether a particular therapist may be the best match for working with a particular client or couple. Best wishes to you, Reece.

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