Couples Therapy – What to Expect

(7 mins approx. to read)

We think for couples therapy as falling into three broad categories:

  1. Both partners are sure they want to stay and work on the relationship, or
  2. One or both partners want clarification as to whether the relationship can work, and become better, or
  3. The partners want support in how to separate in a healthy way.

So let’s consider what happens if you decide that couples therapy or counselling is what you need for your relationship. The definition of what couples therapy is will be somewhat different for every couples therapist, so what we’re going to be telling you about is the way that Amanda and I work. We’ve worked as Therapy Duo since 2006 – successfully, we believe, to make couple relationships better.

When we say “better” this often means that a couple succeeds in going to the next phase of their relationship, with more awareness and more intimacy. But it can also mean that the couple relationship comes to an end, in a way that’s acceptable to both sides. Both parties can then go on with whatever they might need or want to do next, without feeling damaged by the process, and by the relationship or its fallout.

So if you come to us for couples therapy, whether it’s with Amanda or Ron, we will initially spend time listening. We both studied Gestalt psychotherapy. This approach emphasises the importance of the here-and-now, so we watch what’s happening between the two of you in the room. We watch the interactions that are happening. Gestalt is very much interested in the attunements and mis-attunements that happen between people, in real time, and contain a lot of information about what’s really going on in the relationship.

Gestalt is an interesting model for couples therapy too because it’s interested in cycles. You can think of a cycle is completing a satisfying piece of behaviour, coming “full circle”, or you could look at it as a wave form, which completes an amplitude cycle. At many different levels from the micro level to the macro level we’re going through cycles, many simultaneously. We’re naturally trying to complete processes. We do this when we tackle tasks in the world. There are phases, and there are ways in which we can proceed with the task and we can complete it successfully. Alternatively, there are also ways in which we can become stuck at different stages of a cycle.

We can apply this model to couple interactions, and to the dynamics that occur between partners, and that make for a healthy or unhealthy relationship. Do the partners go through their cycles of interaction in such a way that it’s useful and helpful for growth for the individual and for the relationship, and where each person feels they have been heard and valued?

Gestalt is also interested in thinkers like Martin Buber. His idea of I and Thou is about experiencing the other person as a true, unique and complete person, a living and rich presence. The people that we meet in therapy are true “Thou”s – to us it’s always important to meet clients as real people and to understood them in their uniqueness.

Carl Rogers, in this person-focused psychology, was a big proponent of the idea of “unconditional positive regard” and the idea that the therapist should take the standpoint of unconditional positive regard for the client, or in this case the couple. This is humanistic therapy. So this is just to underline the fact that in couples therapy, in the way that we undertake it, no one is bad and no one is seen to be at blame. If we dig under the surface we usually find that people in a couple relationship are trying to do their best. They are trying to proceed in the way that looks after both themselves and the relationship. Now this might backfire and it might be misunderstood by the other party, and it also might not work for the other party, but if we hold a position that their intentions are good we usually get a lot further in the investigation of what is happening in the relationship.

So if you want to come to either of us for therapy, we will gather information in the first session. We don’t usually take notes during the session, but we do write up notes afterwards. (An exception to this is sometimes on zoom sessions we write a few notes during the session.) So although we want to gather information the priority when you come into the room for a session is that we want to know where the energy is: where do you want to grow as a couple and why have you come? What’s unsettling the relationship? What’s missing?

And it’s really valuable that the third-party (the therapist) is outside your dynamic and so can often see a lot more of what is going on in your relationship than what you can as a partner in that relationship. The third-party is trained to observe and is always trying to remain impartial; someone who is trying to bracket themselves and not be affected by their own psychological issues. And someone who wants to find the best for you two whatever that is: the best outcome. That could be that you become closer together, or alternatively that you move apart.

There are a number of models and processes that we can use to help in this. Models are always generalisations and oversimplifications, but they are often useful as stepping stones that can be used with the help of the therapist and then dropped later. A model is only going to take us part of the way, but it can be a way of getting distance when we’re too involved emotionally to see clearly the triggers for our responses.

We also use the concept of the safe experiment. This is another Gestalt idea. We can set up an experiment if we want to try something new. This could involve new ways of interacting, or new physical activities. We can set something up which we know is going be safe if it doesn’t work and is not going to make things worse. So there isn’t the potential for it to fail in some disastrous way, and we can use the results to feed into the ongoing therapy. It’s like doing science experiments in a laboratory – the therapy room is the laboratory possibly, but also we will set homework as any experiments usually have to be practiced and repeated for new behaviours to form.

So if you think you might be interested in couples therapy with one or other of us, contact us and we can discuss how this might work, either in the office in Double Bay, or online using zoom or another platform.