Blogs for counseling couples

An ongoing series of informational entries

Finding the starting line: a few considerations for beginning couple's therapy

September 19, 2018

Thinking about going


Sometimes the decision to see a couple’s therapist comes seemingly out of nowhere. A life changing event causes a couple to evaluate their relationship and come to counseling. Other times, the decision to see a counselor can come after months of deliberation about how counseling can affect their relationship. It might be that one person has been thinking about it and has felt uncomfortable bringing it up. Sometimes the couple discusses counseling but with life’s other demands they have difficulty prioritizing it.


Why it’s hard to decide


Deciding to go to counseling has some explicit risks. Perhaps the most obvious would be coming to the realization that there are things in the relationship that are not as strong as you’d like them to be. Sometimes couples reach a point of being mutually dissatisfied, meaning that neither is enjoying the relationship the way they want while both are afraid to take a step to change it. Other times couples fear seeking counseling because of the potential of past pain and trauma being discovered that was previously unknown to the other partner. These are legitimate concerns that are often addressed early in the process.


Why people have different starting points


When finally deciding to go to counseling the couple can often have different ideas of where and how to start the process. I have heard people say, “I had to drag my spouse to counseling,” or “if I didn’t go they’d leave.” These statements show the disparity some couples have about going and what different ideas each person may have about the whole process. Couples sometimes make lifestyle changes that can have disparity on the rates of change. Diet and exercise are good examples of changes that can be made by a couple where each person has a slightly different starting point and can have different end goals in mind. Successful couples therapy doesn’t work that way.


The pursue and withdraw dance


Remember that diet and exercise example I just mentioned? This is a good example for how some couples demonstrate how they relate to each other. If you’ve ever attempted (like many of us have) to make a lifestyle change with your partner you probably learned a lot about how you relate to each other. For instance, you may have been faithful at following the rules and making changes when your partner seemed to push even harder for the status quo. The more you asked that person to join you the more it seemed they went back to old habits. This is common with couples and can be labeled - the pursue and withdraw effect. The way couples pursue and withdraw from one another makes a kind of dance that when further explored can create more understanding in the relationship.


The approach – conflict v. collaboration


The problem with the pursue and withdraw dance is that it sets up a storyline that gets brought into the counseling room. The story becomes, “I want change and they don’t. They don’t care about the relationship,” or “they are always on my case about everything and I just want some peace.” These two statements come from the perspective first of a pursuer and secondly of a withdrawer. Neither of them are focused on the relationship but only the other person. I’ll share this for the sake of knowing this before going to counseling: you will not change your partner by going to therapy. I’ll say it again, you will not change your partner by going to therapy. It is worth reading twice. On the other hand, your relationship might change if you go. You may notice that you see your partner in a different light after some sessions. You might even find that your partner is more able to hear you and respond in a way you’ve longed for. As couples decide to make the brave step into counseling it is important to work away from a “you versus me” approach and find a “what’s best for us” strategy.


Finding the starting line


You may be thinking, “yeah right, we are nowhere near the idea of ‘what’s best for us.’” This is probably true. Couples come to counseling because they feel disconnected. It would be surprising if both people stated the exact same goals. Early goals may be centered on the idea of changing one person’s behavior, while the goal of couple’s counseling is typically centered on having more health in the relationship. It should be noted, however, that in cases of abuse and domestic violence, couples counseling is not appropriate and each person should seek their own therapy. Aside from that scenario, couple’s counseling is about working with one couple, not two individuals. But when the two individuals come and sit on my couch with two different ideas: like the pursuer hoping to make sweeping changes or the withdrawer assuring that things aren’t really that bad; it can exasperate the process. So how do we start? We find the starting line. We listen to each other. We acknowledge both hopes and fears with the sincerity it takes to move each person closer to one another. Why do I say “we” instead of “I”? Because counseling is about the couple learning to hear and see each other.


Why finding mutual goals creates a scenario for success


When a couple identifies, and pursues goals for the sake of the couple they begin to unite and feel more security. The process of identifying these goals may not come in the first session. It might not come for several sessions but it is an intentional pursuit of all parties to work toward the development of understanding and connection. It is the pursuer learning to leave space for the withdrawer to express their emotions about why the status quo is comfortable. It is the withdrawer having the bravery to hear why the pursuing partner is feeling such a need for change. When a couple learns to listen to each other they build goals that are based in an authentic vision of what each person wants to give and receive from the other. This picture isn’t the same for everyone; but if it creates peace and connection in your relationship, then counseling is a success. I hope you decide to give it a try.