Couples therapy is surrounded by a lot of misconceptions. Some people think that walking into a therapist’s office is an admission that your relationship has problems. Others think of couple’s therapy as merely a last resort when problems arrive. Even worse, some people think that going to therapy is a sign that their relationship is over!
Those with experience as patients or therapists know that the opposite is true. Couples therapy is a positive, constructive opportunity to enhance any and every relationship, no matter what stage it is at. It gives you the tools you need to build a strong foundation, reach shared goals, and find lifelong happiness. And if you are experiencing conflict, therapy will help you get through it.
Here are some of the unsung benefits of couples therapy:
1. You Can Strengthen Successful Partnerships
Couples therapy is about preserving and expanding the good, not just solving the bad. Just like a trainer at the gym can enhance your workout, a trained therapist can enhance an already flourishing relationship.
The art of relationships is like any other. Bringing in a therapist expands your “toolbox,” giving you new tools to appreciate, explore, understand, discover, and connect with your partner.
Therapists refer to their practice more and more as “preventative therapy.” It’s like the new paradigm that has revolutionized conventional medicine. You don’t just go to the doctor once you feel ill. You go regularly to learn about healthy behaviors and make sure no major problems are developing. The same holds for therapy. You’re there to reinforce what you’re doing right and learn new skills that help you connect.
2. You Will Understand Your Partner Better
Research by John M. Gottman, PhD, who is renowned for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis, demonstrates that great relationships are those where partners have a deep, complex understanding of each other’s interior worlds. You can think of your partner’s interior world — their desires, doubts, dreams, ambitions, and joys — like a map. The better you know that map, the more likely you are to have a close, lasting bond. Therapists will guide your exploration of one another’s maps so that all the landmarks and geography appear in greater detail.
Couples therapy also helps you understand your partner’s external expressions and behaviors. Have you ever heard of the concept of love languages?1 The idea is that every person expresses their love in a unique way — and that we need to learn to recognize how exactly our partners do that. For example, some people tend to show that they care about others by giving gifts, others by spending time, and yet others with physical touch. So much of our communication with our partners is non-verbal, but surprisingly few of us know how to recognize those signs. Therapists are trained help couples recognize each other’s love languages. In effect, you will be able to express your support and care for one another in five dimensions rather than one.
3. You Will Learn How to Handle Conflict
That said, experiencing conflict with your partner is almost inevitable. (In fact, Gottman’s balance theory posits that having no negative interactions is just as unsatisfying as having too many.)
When conflict does arise, you need tools to get back on the right track. Somehow, we are all expected to be able to do that, even though no one is born knowing how, and few of us are taught. Therapy is one place to learn. How can you recognize your partner’s needs? Once you figure out which needs are not being met, how can you come up with solutions? What is the right language to use when diffusing tensions and finding answers? These are lifetime skills that every pair needs to know.
For example, some therapists use lists of language that can help repair conflicts rather than make them worse. Couples can look at them and choose which types of phrases and see if any cause a negative reaction for either partner. The couple then uses the ones that are positive when conflict arises.
How to Get It Right
Concern has emerged from some corners recently about whether couples therapy really works. Indeed, some fear that couples therapy has mixed results, or that it can actually make your relationship worse. On the contrary, the research overwhelmingly demonstrates that, under the right conditions, couples therapy is extremely effective.2
But what are those conditions? First, you need the right therapist. The most important factors are experience and comfort level. Find someone with a track record and a good reputation. After the first session, make sure you and your partner feel you can trust them.
Second, success requires that both partners are motivated to improve the relationship. If you aren’t driven to put in time and effort, there is little a therapist can do. You need to be open to the process and willing to explore new roads.
Last, it’s optimal to start early. While therapists are trained to handle relationships in all stage, experience tells us that the earlier you start, the more successful you will be long-term.
- Chapman, G. (1995). The 5 Love Languages. Chicago, IL: Northfield Publishing.
- Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., & Christensen, A. (2011). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1). 145-168. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00249.x
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