What Does It Take: Great couples therapy…what does that mean? Couples who are great in therapy? Couples therapy with a great therapist? Great outcome to couples therapy? Here I mean the therapy couple who hunkers down and does the work with grit, fortitude and risk. It is awesome to observe.
A Profile of Great Couples: Over the years I have pondered the question, what are the shared characteristics amongst The Coupledoms with whom I have worked, who managed to move marital boulders in therapy? There is a kind of muscle that allows some to return each week to the room that strips them of their normal defenses, and pushes the truth out of their psychological insides. Gosh, it sounds more like a surgical theater, or a colonoscopy than a banal office with a couch, a chair, a desk and some windows. What is that muscle?
A Marital Probe Of Sorts: My style is to work deeply and intensively with couples, often putting in sequential sessions in one visit. The result is that however defended folks are when they walk in the door, walls up and pistols loaded, by the time they leave, we have broken through to the heart. It takes all that time to unearth the miscommunications and old wounds that lie like plaque on the marital wall, and to eek out the beginnings of mutual empathy.
Assumptions Tumble and Surprises Spill Out: One thing is certain, couples cannot read each other’s minds or intentions. The assumptions that are made are frequently off the mark, and not infrequently, downright contrary to the partner’s thinking or motivation. In fact, couples have a way of accusing each other of lying, because what their partner owns does not match up with what they have convinced themselves is true. When they disbelieve, reality testing is in order: “Do you think she/he is liar?” I ask. And when the answer is “not really,” then we move to further exploration. Either the partner is acting out something that stems from a more subconscious locale, or their spouse has to adjust their assumptions, check their “projections” and family history and question fast held beliefs. But all this takes time, focus and motivation.
How Do You Mend A Broken Heart? In couples work, hopefully together. The muscles required from The Coupledom are:
Curiosity; Individuals who find uncovering and understanding the workings of their psyche or their partner’s relevant and stimulating are well suited for the process of deepening mutual understanding.
Endurance or Stamina; Couples therapy is quite a work out. Emotions long suppressed push up with force and can be frightening at first. Folks try to retain some composure even as they cry or fight back, exerting enormous willpower to ward of the full punch of their hurt or anger, guilt, humiliation or fear. Folks often leave my office a trifle dazed, or even dazzled by the power of the process. And many are just plumb worn out. The Coupledom who sees value in that effort, weathering the emotional storms, fares well. It brings to mind how a visit to India is often described, “It is not for the faint-hearted but it is well worth it.”
Humor: The ability to laugh at oneself and at some of the antics of The Coupledom is a critical muscle that needs exercising and strengthening throughout the therapy. When I see a couple who still has some shared humor, whose members exchange a look or a smirk of mutual understanding, whether it be about an in-law, the children, each other or the dog, I am heartened; there is some friendship remaining in this Coupledom. Let’s breathe life into it. The stronger that muscle, the brighter the future.
Flexibility of Mind: This is critical. Rigidity of thinking is like a really stiff muscle with no give. It impedes movement. A key ingredient to personal growth is flexibility of thought. To heal The Coupledom, growth has to occur. Perceptions and long-held belief systems will need to be explored, questioned, perhaps modified or changed. For example, if your family of origin approached holidays in a set fashion, and your partner has new ideas, the more able each to flex and be open to accommodate a mutual goal, the healthier the Coupledom. A limber mind, as with a limber leg muscle, has the stretch needed for the challenge…of growing together rather than apart.
Delayed Gratification: The quick fix doesn’t work here. Most couples I see have been together for years and years. There are a lot of layers of scar tissue to peel back, and much plaque of pain to scrape off the heart walls. Process is everything. Couples with the muscle to handle the slow fix, and who can wrap themselves around the notion of time as an ally in the healing process, are more able to do the work of “great couples therapy” than those who have difficulty with more abstract goals and nuanced changes.
Mutual Investment As Muscle: There is no perfect balance in any Coupledom, in therapy or out. One partner may be more pro-active about engaging in the therapeutic process. The other may actually be more patient once the process begins. Someone who leans toward self-reflection may collect observations and insights for each session; someone else may cruise between sessions, hoping that nothing bad means all is good. One partner always walks in with an agenda. The other is often surprised to hear that. What counts is the sum of the parts; that is what wins the day here. The investment in a possible future for their Coupledom, whether because love still burns, and there has to be enough of a smolder of embers to catch a new flame, or the love that is born out of loving others, the children, or the shared life, the extended family, the desire not to lose all that has been built up over decades. These mutual investments are invaluable and provide the muscle to do the work, to stay the course and make the tough stuff of therapy worthwhile.
The Match Is Muscle Too: Now that I have described what characteristics make up Great Couples Therapy, The Coupledom with muscle to do the work, I must add that the team of three, the couple plus the therapist, has to have a chemistry too, a good enough cocktail that provides the punch and power to sustain the effort. That team can be one heck of a powerhouse, moving boulders that block marital happiness. Hard work for all but worth it.
Keeping The Couples Therapy Muscle In Shape: There are many couples who come back to therapy whenever their Coupledom gets derailed by some unforeseen challenge, or life passage. Once they have built up the muscle for couples work, it is theirs to keep in the relationship, to use day-to-day, to keep toned. If occasionally, toning up means coming back in, why not? No shame in that game. Not to me.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011