While relationships can be fulfilling, inspiring and rewarding, they also bring with them a fair share of challenges. Does your relationship currently involve more stress and fighting than love and good times? All couples face conflict – this is expected, natural and healthy. What matters, however, is how that conflict is managed.
Read on to learn about how relationship counseling works and what you can do to make the most of such a service. By getting help, you can use your relationship fractures to become a more connected and resilient couple.
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What is Relationship Counseling?
Relationship counseling involves jointly consulting with a licensed professional to find ways of strengthening your relationship. Often, the counseling may focus on issues such as healthy communication, increased empathy, conflict resolution and increased understanding about why your relationship seems to be in trouble. There are many different forms of therapy that your therapist might use, one of the more popular options being Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which we discuss below.
Why Relationship Counseling?
Most couples go for counseling to avoid a break-up; and while couples therapy does often save relationships, the benefits can extend beyond this. Specifically, therapy can help you to increase your self-knowledge and repertoire of skills for interacting with each other and the world. Through this process, you’ll be able to grow as individuals and as a couple.
Gottman’s Four Horsemen
John Gottman is a renowned expert on relationship dynamics and counseling. The Gottman Institute has identified the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – a reference from the New Testament describing the end of time; or in this case, the end of a relationship. These are four conflict communication patterns that signal a problem in your relationship and can be addressed in couples counseling:
- Criticism: this horseman involves making comments or statements that attack your partner’s character. For example: “you never care” or “you’re always caught up in your own stuff”. Making negative comments about who a person is – rather than what they have done – can be extremely hurtful and may pave the road for other horsemen to appear.
- Contempt: this horseman often develops following ongoing criticism. We all know what it looks like to communicate with contempt – this might involve harsh sarcasm, rolling your eyes, dismissing, ridiculing or belittling your partner. By showing contempt, you’re telling your partner that they are wrong, worthless and morally inferior.
- Defensiveness: this horseman can play out in various ways. Essentially, defensiveness involves any behavior that allows you to avoid feeling discomfort. Examples include totally denying any responsibility and blaming your partner instead, framing yourself as the victim, bullying or lying. Defensive behavior sends the message that you are emotionally unavailable and unwilling to engage with your partner’s concerns.
- Stonewalling: this involves completely withdrawing from an interaction by, for example, turning away and ignoring your partner, turning on the television or flicking through your phone. This is a way of self-regulating intense emotions and we do this when we feel overwhelmed. Stonewalling can be very harmful to your relationship if it’s not followed by conflict resolution. Give yourself a chance to cool off before trying again to resolve the problem.
From Boredom to Growth
Periods of boredom are to be expected in long-term relationships. While this can create certain issues, relationship counseling can help you transform boredom into an opportunity to grow and strengthen your relationship, even if most couples don’t interpret it that way initially!
Why do couples become bored? Being in a relationship means developing a sense of familiarity, comfort, and security. This is exactly what draws so many of us to marriage: the fact that we know, at the end of a long day, we will be able to take shelter from the world and connect with our loving partner.
However, this safety inevitably comes at the expense of the growth that might otherwise be occurring if you were putting yourself out there and engaging with the world in a different way. You’re no longer feeling anxious and unsafe, but you’re not feeling excited and enlivened either!
The problem with boredom is that couples tend to see it a sign that they’re not right for each other. However, this isn’t true. Boredom doesn’t mean that the relationship is broken – it simply means that you need to alter your ways of relating, to allow for more risk, vulnerability, excitement, and growth. This is where relationship counseling can help. A therapeutic intervention aims, firstly, to help you understand the boredom and where it’s coming from. Then, you’ll work together with your therapist to find ways of moving beyond the boredom and allowing for increased growth in your relationship.
What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)
EFT is a form of talk therapy that has been scientifically backed as an effective way of managing relationship issues, which makes it a popular technique for relationship counseling. EFT works by exploring how your underlying fears and insecurities might be causing unhealthy behavior patterns that are played out in the relationship. If you carry a deep, underlying fear of abandonment, for example, you may find that you’re repeatedly getting into fights with your partner because a part of you wants to see how far they can be pushed before walking away.
Through EFT, each of you will learn to understand why conflict is happening and to develop new, healthier ways of interacting. This approach also aims to increase communication and bonding between the two of you, so that each of you can regain a sense of trust and safety in each other.
Tips for Couples Therapy
Here are five pointers to help you get the most out of relationship counseling.
1. Start Early
Relationship counseling, unfortunately, still carries a lot of stigma. Many couples are ashamed to admit that they need help and that they’re not able to sort things out on their own. However, we need to start seeing therapy as a preventative strategy: a way of building skills and competencies that will help you to pre-empt and address any relationship worries before they become real issues.
Any couple’s therapist will agree that it’s better to go sooner rather than later. On average, however, most couples wait 6 years before going to counseling – and this is often a last-ditch attempt to save a relationship that has been smoldering for ages. Until then, tension brews and festers: you may find that you have both become overwhelmed with fights, arguments and perhaps even infidelity. These sorts of issues are secondary to the underlying problem – and yet they are incredibly difficult to recover from. Don’t wait until the last minute before getting help!
2. Commit to the Time
Therapy requires your full commitment and it’s important for you to treat it as such. Prioritize it in the same way that you would any other meeting at work or with friends, for example. Repeatedly missing and canceling appointments is counterproductive; while showing up on time and committing to the session sends out an incredibly powerful message to your therapist and your partner that you’re motivated to make things work.
3. Do Your Homework
At the risk of sounding like your grade school teacher: homework helps! Your therapist might, for example, ask you to schedule in time for intimacy, notice and record specific patterns of behavior or practice conflict resolution strategies that you have covered in session.
Not all therapists prescribe homework, but when they do, this can help to consolidate and reinforce what you have learned in the sessions. Repetition also allows you to strengthen your brain’s neural pathways so that healthy ways of relating become the ingrained rule rather than the exception. Furthermore, you’ll likely save time and money: a study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy shows that couples who do their homework tend to complete treatment 50% faster than those who don’t.
4. Focus on How You Can Change (Not Changing Your Partner)
Couple problems are exactly that – problems involving two people, not one. It can be very tempting to blame your partner for all that’s going on, but the cliché – it takes two to Tango – is incredibly apt here. Even if it seems on the surface that just one person is causing the problems, conflict resolution only starts when you’re able to acknowledge how each of you is causing or maintaining the issue. In other words, if you truly want the relationship to work, you need to be willing to change yourself.
5. Go “All-In” on the Process
Therapy is always a challenge. This is a good thing because it means that you’re being pushed to grow and heal. However, because relationship counseling can be a difficult process, some choose to sit on the sidelines and go through the motions without really investing and involving themselves in what’s unfolding.
However, therapy only helps those who are willing to help themselves! Your therapist is an expert – sure – but they are not able to wave a magic wand and fix you automatically. They can only support, guide and facilitate your own process. If you’re not willing to do the work, then you’re not going to see the results.
So, if you find yourself in therapy, try to make a conscious choice to engage with the process. It will be challenging, but if you’re able to muster up the courage to be honest, vulnerable, motivated and involved, the benefits that you stand to gain are immense.
Challenges of Relationship Counseling
- As mentioned, couples therapy is rarely an easy process; but it’s effective because it challenges you. For example, relationship therapy asks you to take ownership and let go of blaming. Blaming your partner for what’s going on is a defense against the shame and anxiety that you might be feeling regarding your own role in the dynamic that has unfolded. It’s so much safer to feel angry with someone else, rather than feeling sad and remorseful about your own shortcomings. Letting go of these defensive feelings can be incredibly hard! But, once you’re able to acknowledge your own deficits instead of framing your partner as the problem, this is when healing can begin.
- Another challenging aspect of relationship counseling involves keeping secrets. If you, as a couple, are keeping secrets from one another, therapy is going to create a dilemma for you. On the one hand, you can hold on to your secret. The downside is that you’ll skirt awkwardly and uncomfortably around the topic in the presence of your therapist. More importantly, a lack of openness will get in the way of your therapeutic progress. Your other option is to reveal your secret, the upside to this being that you can create space for healing and resolution. The downside is obvious: you wouldn’t be keeping that secret in the first place if it weren’t incredibly challenging to open up about it!
Relationship Counseling Online
Today, a broad range of online therapy options are available with the click of a mouse. Whilst some psychologists are resistant to the way that the web is changing the profession, the internet has undoubtedly done an incredible job of making mental health services more easily accessible to people from various walks of life.
Research has shown that online relationship counseling may help strengthen couple’s relationships, with greater levels of happiness and reduced conflict happening post-therapy. People also appreciate the online option because the services are usually more affordable, they come without waiting lists and you can be counseled from the comfort of your own home. For people seeking to be matched with the right relationship therapist, Thrivetalk offers targeted treatment to anyone facing issues that might require relationship counseling.
Relationships Become Resilient When You Work on Them
Even the strongest relationships travel bumpy roads occasionally. This a normal, natural and healthy aspect of any couple’s journey. Unfortunately, relationship fractures, conflict and contempt often get swept under the rug because people are too embarrassed to admit that their relationship needs a little bit of help. But there’s absolutely no shame in doing this! With an objective observer and some evidence-based therapy techniques, you can use couples counseling as a way of patching up those relationship potholes and making your bond more secure than it has ever been before. Don’t wait until it’s too late!