Couples 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 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor
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