Not every couple who has conflicts needs couple’s counseling— otherwise we all would be in couple’s therapy — perpetually! But much can be learned from the principles that couples’ therapists use when working with a couple to improve their relationship.
Many people assume that a relationship counselor acts as a judge or makes suggestions that will lead to compromises. However, neither of these will really restore a relationship.
A couples’ therapist will make suggestions for the purpose of helping a couple explore their relationship, or to introduce some playfulness or perhaps just to shake up a fixed pattern, but not as solutions to the couple’s conflicts. The therapist will give a couple the tools they need to continue a fulfilling relationship on their own.
The Spirit of Couple’s Work
Though reaching a compromise is not what couple’s work is about, the spirit of give-and-take is.
Notice what happens as Valentine’s Day or an anniversary approaches. You find yourself thinking more about your partner, paying more attention to him or her, and considering how he or she would like the day to be. You are recalling your courtship, or at least re-experiencing the spirit of it. You are thinking, or trying to think, of a gift— not something you would wish your partner would want, but something genuinely desired.
This is the atmosphere the therapist tries to engender in couple’s therapy. Some would call this loving-kindness toward one’s partner a “spiritual” undertaking: charitas in Christianity, chesed in Kabbalah, metta in Buddhism. This is never self-sacrifice, but simply letting go of your selfconcern long enough to pay sustained attention to your partner. And—this is the important part—in doing so you are opening yourself to both the excitement of greater intimacy and the possibility of being disappointed. You cannot have one without the other.
The Role of the Therapist
One of the quickest ways to develop a positive atmosphere is to ask the couple what drew them to each other in the first place. It is amazing to see how the very thing complained about is what was attractive in the beginning. A woman feels abandoned by her husband “withdrawing” when he is troubled by problems at work, though it was this very ability to hyper-focus and solve problems that she found protective and attractive in the beginning. He, in turn, found that her background in psychiatry opened whole new worlds of inner exploration to him; now he objects to her “psychoanalyzing” him when he is bothered by work issues. Being reminded of one’s appreciation of the very things that one readily complains about goes a long way toward engendering good will, kind regard and even humor during the sessions.
The sooner a couple can reach a place where they can speak and listen to each other, rather than make their case to the therapist, the sooner real work can begin. Present-centered therapists will focus almost immediately on communication. Some will do this through very structured exercises and some will look for “teaching moments” to highlight interactions. Either way, the therapist is familiarizing the couple with the idea that communication is not as easy as it seems. Language is by nature ambiguous—tone, voice and gesture are as important as words, and projection is inevitably mixed with understanding. What each partner has to develop is a genuine desire to listen to their partner, which requires an effort to examine one’s own assumptions, quick-takes and projections. And what each has to give up is the conviction that what they say or feel should be immediately—and effortlessly— understood by their partner.
Whenever there is a relationship, there is an opportunity for misunderstanding. But the task in therapy is not to figure out what “really” happened; this is why a relationship therapist can be truly neutral. In discussing an emotionally charged event, both members of the couple have to examine the possibility that they misunderstood. By understanding how fragile communication can be, riddled with assumptions and interpretations, the couple develops more tolerance and lightness around misunderstandings. The idea of “understandable misunderstandings” helps dissipate tension, without anyone blaming, or taking blame.
The Ability to Respond
Another method that present-centered therapists often use is to have minisessions with an individual in the presence of their partner. For example, a woman may realize during such a session that her way of handling fear in situations that she cannot control is to become irritable and bossy. This may be important for her to learn about herself, but the advantage of her husband witnessing the process is that in the future he can look to calming her fear, rather than taking her mood personally. Or a woman might see her husband discover that he covers his hurt with anger. Then when he is angry she can be less afraid and perhaps even have an idea about why he may be feeling hurt.
But isn’t it the responsibility of the wife to recognize when she is afraid, and the husband to recognize when he is hurt, and to express these directly? Well, yes and no. Coupleship is not about individual responsibility. Once you know what actually is going on with your partner, how the situation develops is as much your responsibility as anyone else’s. This is what responsibility means—the ability to respond.
These principles of cultivating lovingkindness, bringing the lightness of understandable misunderstandings and being able to respond rather than react to your partner can guide any relationship.
Kenneth Meyer Ph.D. is senior faculty at the Gestalt Center in NYC and maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Manhattan’s West Village and in Monroe. He can be reached by calling 646-504-0719 or emailing email@example.com.