We are never so vulnerable as when we love.
— Sigmund Freud
Human beings are deeply relational, and we seek intimate bonds not only for our physical survival, but also for our emotional well-being. Much of our satisfaction in life depends on our ability to create and maintain meaningful and mutually satisfying relationships. Committed relationships (with or without marriage) can be our greatest source of love, support, and joy. In fact, there is ample of research demonstrating that a supportive, loving relationship is the strongest predictor of longevity, health, and overall well-being.
Even though most relationships go well at the start, many develop challenging problems over time. No relationship is perfect. Each person is a unique and separate individual with her/his own early personal history, models of relationship, insecurities, values, and opinions, which are not always match her/his partner’s. Our early relationship experiences with caregivers leave a psychological “blueprint” for not only how we perceive ourselves and others, but also the way we operate in our adult, romantic relationships. Additionally, some couples come from different cultural backgrounds, from which they developed different understandings of essential aspects of relationships (e.g., expression of feelings, needs for emotional intimacy, asking for help, non-verbal communication, gender roles). However, despite their differences, most people in a relationship have a reasonable – and often unspoken – fundamental need to be loved, understood, accepted, seen, and supported. There is a crucial, unspoken, mostly unconscious “question” that we ask: Can I count on you, my partner, when I need you?
Couples who are able to confidently respond with “yes” to this question, feel secure to seek help, comfort, and support from each other. For the most part, they feel seen, supported, and understood by their partners. Those who are unsure about their partner’s availability and support typically feel various degrees of insecurity and anxiety that, over time, could affect the quality of their relationships. Finally, individuals who answer “no” to that question often have little, if any, hope to be seen, supported, and effectively responded to by their partner. They often learn to often minimize their need for closeness and divert attention to projects (e.g., work), leading to a gradual development of emotional distance in the relationship. A growing emotional distance, negative feelings, and/or conflicts turn the relationship into a source of pain and tension rather than comfort and nurturance.
Lack of recognition of and attendance to one’s needs are at the heart of most relationship conflicts and difficulties, though they might be disguised under other presenting problems. In the face of unmet emotional needs and expectations, like many people, you may be ignoring or sedating your anger and disappointment, hoping “it’s just a phase” and “it will go away.” Unfortunately, left to fester, painful emotions may only worsen, leading to despair and thoughts of “wanting out” of the relationship.
You and Your Partner Should Consider Couples Therapy When:
- feelings of “us” are replaced with feelings of only “you” and “me”
- one or both partners are less invested in spending time together and/or develops a separate lifestyle that excludes the other
- you both agree you have problems, but don’t know how to resolve your difficulties
- your communication is filled with fighting, bickering, and criticism
- one or both partners feel alone and that their emotional needs are not being met
- there is persistent sexual dissatisfaction
- you or your partner are seriously considering having an affair or have been unfaithful
- you feel you are staying together just “for the sake of the children”
- cultural differences become a source of unresolved conflicts
- one or both partners avoid or withdraw from the other
- you and your partner begin to feel that your relationship difficulties affect your parenting, job performance, or social interactions.
- you and your partner simply want to strengthen and enrich your relationship
- you wish to iron out differences and develop better communication and conflict resolution skills prior to marriage
Couples Therapy: Transforming Challenges Into an Opportunity
You and your partner may already be aware of familiar circular patterns of interaction. But, despite genuine previous efforts, you may have been unable to reach any long-lasting, satisfying resolution. Like most couples, you may not yet recognize the more fundamental, often unconscious, underlying issues at the core of your difficulties. The problems identified by the couple take various forms, like a stage backdrop, while the “script” and their respective roles continue to play out just the same.
In the safety of couples therapy, you and your partner canexplore each of your needs and expectations that have gone unmet, the underlying dynamics that interfere with effective communication, and the “script” that keeps you feeling stuck in unsatisfying and disappointing relationship patterns. With increased awareness, old patterns can be interrupted and replaced by more constructive, mutually supportive ways of relating.
Couples counseling could help to rebuild your relationship and get it on the right track. Or, you ultimately could decide that you can’t and/or don’t want to work through your difficulties. Either way, with the help of a couples therapist, you could better understand the essence of your difficulties in the relationship and the respective roles each of you have played, so that you both can make a more informed, well-thought-out decision about its future.
Therapy can be also useful for couples who are planning to get married and wish to achieve a deeper understanding of each other and address differences. Regardless of where you are in your relationship, therapy can help you work toward greater understanding and fulfillment.
Help! I’d like to get couples therapy but, my partner refuses to go with me.
Indeed, it could be quite frustrating and disappointing if your partner refuses to go with you to therapy. It might exacerbate your feelings of despair and feeling “stuck.” Certainly, you can’t make someone do something that he or she doesn’t want do, nor do you want your partner to simply comply without a genuine interest and desire to make the most out of the experience. It is, however, important to remember that his or her refusal to attend therapy doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she doesn’t want to improve your relationship. There are many reasons for one’s refusal, including various fears, financial concerns, and confusion about what couples counseling is. Some of the main reasons people don’t want to go for couple therapy are:
- Fear of blame: Your spouse might be afraid that the therapist will side with you and blame him/her for the relationship difficulties. That might especially be the case if your partner has already some vulnerability towards feeling criticized, judged, or blamed.
- Denial: For a variety of conscious and unconscious reasons, your partner may be having difficulties fully recognizing the extent of the issues in the relationship and/or the extent to which you are unhappy. This could range from feeling that “it’s nothing that other couples don’t deal with” to: “It’s not that bad, let’s handle it on our own” and all the way to, “Problems? I have no problems. So if you do, you go to therapy.” This attitude toward getting help could be especially difficult to address if you and your partner have different “scale” to measure what is considered to be “difficult” or “problematic” in the relationship.
- Externalizing blame: Your partner might wholeheartedly believe that you are the one who needs help. If your partner does not appreciate that it takes two for relationship- “tango,” then he or she would be very reluctant to seek help as a couple.
- Pain and Vulnerability: Your partner might be going through a particularly difficult time in his or her life (e.g., significant loss, life phase transition), which makes him or her feel especially vulnerable. Instead of anticipating being helped and supported, he or she may perceive therapy, at this time, as a painful experience that would leave them too exposed and vulnerable.
However, don’t let any of these reasons to discourage you. One way to attempt and address these resistances or barriers could be talking to your partner about what you feel you need help with and how therapy could help you become a better partner. It is not about assigning blame nor tipping the scale to make one partner feel they bear all the responsibility for the difficulties. It is simply a way of acknowledging that you need help and guidance. And, it’s important for both of you to be heard, and you need him or her to join the effort.
And, if all still fails, coming to therapy yourself can prove to be greatly beneficial for you, and even for the relationship. Having your relationship difficulties in mind and working on yourself—even without your partner—can be a powerful first step. You could be supported and helped to discover ways in which you could improve your relationship, which at times, serves as an encouragement for your partner to seek help as well. But, even if your partner never goes to therapy, going alone can help you deal with stress and relationship difficulties while helping you figure out your next steps. So, if you are the one who wants couples therapy, but your partner doesn’t, take the lead. Take the first step and begin turning your relationship difficulties into opportunities for personal growth and even possible change in the relationship.
If you feel ready to address the challenges in your relationship, please feel free to call me 310-277-4305 or email me to learn more about Couples Therapy and to schedule an appointment. I look forward to speaking with you.