Research suggests that couples who run into difficulties tend to wait, on average, seven years before seeing a therapist. It’s only natural to hope that problems will resolve with time, and many people are apprehensive about couples therapy. If you’d like to improve your relationship and are wondering what the couples therapy experience is like, here is a brief outline of what to expect.
The First Session
As I practice it, couples therapy tends to be more structured than individual therapy, especially for the first four sessions. For the first session, I meet with both partners, and my role is very much that of interviewer. I want to get a clear sense of how you define the problem, what drew you together, the history of your relationship, when the difficulties began, and each partner’s definition of what makes for a good and bad relationship. It also allows me to develop an impression of each partner’s emotional style. I will also inquire about other factors that may have affected your relationship, such as stress, losses, or behaviors that inevitably disrupt relationships, such as substance abuse, affairs, or emotional and physical abuse.
The Next Sessions
For the second and third sessions, I meet with each partner separately. During these sessions I will ask about your relationship history, the emotional and marital climate in your family of origin, and your goals for the current relationship. These sessions are more like individual therapy in that they allow us to explore personal concerns and difficulties (confidentiality is maintained; I only share sensitive information with your partner with your permission).
The Fourth Session
During the fourth session I provide impressions, feedback, and suggestions for therapy. For example, if the main problem is ongoing conflict, I will usually begin by giving you tools to de-escalate conflict and improve communication before moving into relationship process work (i.e., exploring the relationship “dance”). If however, the problem is one of emotional withdrawal, we might begin by exploring the factors that contribute to and maintain distance in the relationship.
I should add that many of my clients tell me that they felt anxious about starting couples therapy for fear that the therapist will be blaming, shaming or judgmental. Although there were many examples of such an approach decades ago (the “know-it-all” or harshly confrontational style), couples therapy is now conducted with the utmost respect for each partner’s dignity and point of view.
What About Infidelity?
Cheating causes divorce. Right? Not necessarily. In fact, infidelity itself is rarely the reason for divorce. Rather, it’s the emotional distance, loneliness, and/or conflict that set the stage for the infidelity that contributes to a breakup.
Many couples try to “put it behind them and move on.” In my experience, that rarely works, and if it does, the relationship is never truly healed. To do so is to miss an opportunity. A couple that is willing to really work at repairing the trauma of infidelity can lift the relationship to new levels of love, intimacy, and authenticity. In therapy, I guide couples through this process by encouraging the partner who had the affair to be scrupulously truthful about what happened, and help him/her understand the effect it has had on the other partner. Only then can the betrayed partner begin to slowly regain trust.