Couples Therapy When You’re in Different Stages of Healing

Couple looks at coastline, man stands, woman sits on back of carCouples who come to therapy typically hope for a renewed connection and deeper intimacy. Ideally, both partners are equally ready to be vulnerable and accountable. In the real world, though, one of you might be ready to dive deep into those emotional waters, while the other fears drowning. One of you is prepared to bear all, while the other feels dangerously exposed.

It’s common for partners to differ in their level of interest and openness to the therapy process. Depending on your presenting issues, your background, and any past therapy you’ve had, you and your partner may experience your therapy together very differently.

Maybe one of you has already done a great deal of internal work through individual therapy, spiritual exploration, or even self-help materials. Couples therapy seems like the logical next step because you want to use your personal healing to enrich your relationship. In some ways, the foundation you’ve built for yourself will be a great support to the work you and your partner will do together. Many times, you will enter into therapy with a great deal of patience and compassion to offer your partner as they try to meet you where you are. Perhaps your partner sees you as a model for where they want to be and uses that as motivation when therapy feels difficult or anxiety-provoking.

At the same time, however, your differing stages of healing can bring about unexpected obstacles. If you’ve spent months or even years developing self-awareness, you’ve become accustomed to the language of emotions and to the discomfort involved in exploring the deeper, lesser known parts of the self. Perhaps you’ve confronted shame, anger, and fear and have successfully come out on the other side. You learned facing your pain reveals a stronger, more resilient sense of self. You know the benefits of the work, and you’re ready to keep going!

Your desire to hit the ground running, however, might set you up for disappointment and resentment. You might feel impatient or frustrated if you use your personal healing as a measuring stick for how your partner’s progress should look. Expecting that your health will engender health in your partner places unreasonable pressure on both of you. Don’t make yourself solely responsible for lifting your partner up; allow them to develop the self-efficacy that comes from doing their own hard work. Feel free to maintain your own progress without feeling tethered to theirs. Act as a witness to your partner’s work and acknowledge their efforts. Remember the courage it took for you to get where you are today, and offer compassion to encourage your partner to keep moving at their own pace.

It’s important to note healing manifests in various ways. Assuming your partner’s journey toward health will resemble yours fails to take into account their personal history and unique way of being in the world. As you witness their journey, practice respect and acceptance for their individualized needs and development.

It’s important to note healing manifests in various ways. Assuming your partner’s journey toward health will resemble yours fails to take into account their personal history and unique way of being in the world. As you witness their journey, practice respect and acceptance for their individualized needs and development. Together, you can decide how to create a joint path to healing your relationship.

When you’re the one who has less experience with self-exploration, you face a different challenge. You might perceive your partner as soaring easily to newer heights of self-actualization, while you feel you are limping along, too far behind to catch up. Don’t judge yourself against your partner’s current experience of health. Your partner has been where you are right now. They have struggled to confront distressing emotions. They have felt discouraged when they couldn’t move forward with a new pattern of thought or behavior. And they have wanted to give up when fear or shame overwhelmed them.

Because self-improvement is an inside-out process, your partner’s growing pains might have been invisible to you. Imagine an iceberg; what we see on the surface of the water is nothing compared to the enormity of what exists underneath. Your partner’s comfort with introspection and emotional expression was hard-earned and the result of long-term, internal trial and error. Accept that you do need time, not necessarily to catch up to your partner, but to determine what the path to healing looks like for you.

If you’d like more time to prepare for the relational work, individual therapy is a great option. Sometimes it’s helpful to engage in both individual and couples therapy at the same time. Your couples therapist might even be able to offer a few individual sessions to acclimate you to the process and allow you to feel more comfortable.

At the end of the day, both of you need to feel you are working toward a common goal. Offer empathy and compassion to each other as you encounter deeper levels of intimacy. Give each other room to be vulnerable and authentic, offering acceptance and validation for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. No matter how far apart your healing processes seem to be, you can join together in couples therapy to create profound change. Your relationship can become a sanctuary—the place you both go to feel safe, connected, and finally at home.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S, Topic Expert Contributor

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

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  • Danielle

    May 4th, 2016 at 8:48 AM

    I have never really thought about that. Just because you are both ready to have a deeper connection with each other does not mean that you are both ready to go at the same rate or to even explore the same things. What could be bothering one of you might just roll off the back of the other. It would be nice to always be on the same page but I suppose that in reality you have to both go in and begin working to have those different needs attended to and met, in a way that helps both of you be comfortable.

  • Rylee

    May 5th, 2016 at 9:58 AM

    It would just be too much to ask for both of you to want the same thing at the same exact time wouldn’t it?

  • dayna

    May 7th, 2016 at 5:27 AM

    So you are both at different places and comfort levels. These are the things that your therapist will work with you on both together and separately so that hopefully the two of you will soon get back on the same page with one another again.

    I know that just can be hard when you are feeling that both of you are in this relationship but that ultimately you are both wanting very different things at extremely different times. But there is help for you when you are ready to seek that out. All is not lost simply because you don’t feel that connection anymore. The therapist is there to help you make that connection with each other again.

  • Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S

    May 9th, 2016 at 8:34 AM

    I think it’s important to distinguish between what partners want and what their present abilities may be. It’s common for couples to attend therapy with similar goals but not be “on the same page” with how to get there or what each can contribute to the process of change. Your therapist can be a guide for both of you to find your way back to connection. The therapist can process any disconnect you feel regarding your differing healing processes and encourage each of you to continue working toward creating the relationship you both want. It just might mean that your work looks different from your partner’s. And that’s perfectly ok!

  • Cason

    May 9th, 2016 at 2:53 PM

    Well the bottom line from my perspective is that if you were right there together all the time then counseling wouldn’t really be what you needed at that time, correct?

  • Windee

    May 10th, 2016 at 2:08 PM

    There will be times when couples therapy can be an awesome solution for the two of you and then there will be other times when you might need a little time to talk that is separate from one another. I know that there are people who don’t think that you will get the job accomplished by working separately but trust me there are going to be times when you want to be able to say something to your therapist without having the other person with you. Anyway it can make for some really great discussions the next time all of you get back to working together.

  • Laine

    May 11th, 2016 at 11:15 AM

    If those two very different starting points will be such a problem how about just working separately on your own counselling until you feel like you can merge?

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