What Is Couples Therapy, And How Does It Work?


What Is Couples Therapy, And How Does It Work?

What is Couples therapy?

Couples Therapy refers to a form of psychotherapy which, much like any other therapy, is aimed at relieving people’s distress. However, the key difference here is that it typically involves three parties – the therapist, and two clients who are in an intimate relationship. Every relationship has conflicts. Couples usually seek therapy to navigate these conflicts, which may arise because of myriad reasons, such as financial disagreements, infidelity of a partner, sexual difficulties, communication problems, disagreements with each other’s families, emotional distance, diverging parenting techniques, substance abuse, major life changes and adjustments, emotional distance, and more.

Couples Therapy vs Couples Counselling

Usually, the terms couples therapy and couples counselling are used interchangeably. Although they are similar, there are certain differences between the two. While counselling is focused on relationship challenges like future expectations and disagreements on parenting or financial matters, therapy is used to treat more severe issues. Therapy is required to treat mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Couples counselling tends to be short-term and is focused on making adjustments to resolve issues at hand, whereas therapy can go on for much longer and aims to uncover and change underlying patterns of behaviour, thoughts, and emotions.

How Does Couples Therapy Work?

Couples therapy sessions are usually conducted with both partners present along with the psychotherapist. The therapist acts as an impartial listener and adviser, helping the couple navigate their conflicts, improve communication, listen to and understand each others’ needs better, see things from each other’s perspective, and set boundaries. Therapists may also suggest techniques and exercises to the couples to achieve improved relations between the two and rebuild their relationship.

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A couples therapist may also take sessions with the partners in a relationship individually. This allows them to develop a deeper understanding of the perspectives of each of them by listening to their feelings which they may be hesitant to express in front of their partner. Let’s take a look at some of the various approaches and techniques utilised by psychologists in couples therapy.

What are Some of the Techniques Used in Couples Therapy?

Couples therapists hold advanced degrees in psychology, counselling, social work, or marriage therapy. Researchers have developed several therapeutic techniques and approaches to providing couples therapy after testing them empirically. Although these approaches reflect different theories about relational behaviour, their objective is the same – to improve the relationship of the couple who is seeking help.

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1. Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT):

EFT focuses on emotional regulation as a method of mending and improving the emotional bond and attachment between two intimate partners. It has been shown to facilitate long-term behaviour changes. It draws on attachment theory, enables the couple to identify their maladaptive patterns of attachment within the relationship, and helps replace them with secure bonds.

2. The Gottman Method:

This method, developed by Dr John Gottman and Dr Julie Schwartz Gottman, applies their research findings to couples’ relationship problems. It emphasizes the role of negative emotions in harming a relationship and creating conflicts. The specific identified behaviours in this method are – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling/withdrawal. These lead to discord between the partners, and even separation. It focuses on the partners becoming familiar with each other’s psychological world, making frequent bids for intimate connection, and repairing the damage done by missing those bids. These techniques help the couple improve their level of intimacy with each other.

3. Imago-Relationship Therapy:

This therapeutic approach was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980. It emphasizes the connection between childhood experiences with caregivers and adult relationships. By helping the partners understand each others’ childhood trauma, it aims at making couples more empathetic and understanding of one another. The goal is “getting the love you want”. Each person has an ideal of love they develop in their childhood depending upon their treatment by their caregivers. This therapy focuses on equipping the partners to provide the ideal love for the other. Partners take turns to listen and speak, repeat what the other said to demonstrate they have understood the requirement and validate each other’s perspective.

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4. Solution-focused Therapy (SFT):

This therapy is short-term and goal-focused. It is most helpful when the couple is undergoing an easily identifiable particular issue, such as burnout or parenting problems. As the name suggests, it is solution-oriented, and the therapist helps the client brainstorm and construct solutions instead of dwelling on problems.

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5. Reflective Listening:

This therapeutic technique builds the active listening skills of the clients. It is a highly beneficial exercise in which couples take turns listening to each other. An important component of this exercise is for the couples to replace accusatory “You” phrases with explanatory “I” phrases. For example, instead of saying – “You are wrong for doing this”, one should say “I feel hurt when you do this”. Therapists may also assign/suggest activities that intimate partners can engage in to help overcome their issues. Some of these exercises are:

  • Scheduling Couples Time: In a hectic life, one may face difficulties in making time for their partner. This can leave the other person feeling ignored, undervalued, and unappreciated. Therapists suggest that couples must schedule one-on-one time with each other several times a week. This time can be used to engage in crafts, watching movies, or simply having a conversation.
  • Showing Interest in each other’s day: Displaying curiosity in each other’s life outside of the relationship can have a significant positive impact. A simple 20-minute conversation at the end of the day during which partners discuss the proceedings of their days, how they felt, and their agendas and goals for the coming days can be very beneficial.
  • Sharing a list of your requirements from your partner: Having a concrete and clear idea of what your partner desires from you can greatly help in mending a relationship. Therapists may ask their clients to write down three things that their partner can do in a week that would make them happy. This can build trust and communication.
  • Eye-Gazing: Long-held eye contact has been found to help partners have a stronger connection. Taking time in the day to hold deep eye contact for a few minutes can help you recognize each other’s emotions, build trust, and improve intimacy.
  • Decrease phone time: Phone snubbing refers to the act of focusing on your phone instead of your partner when you’re alone together. This can do serious damage to a relationship. The feeling of absenteeism may seep into the relationship, which is why therapists recommend taking time away from your phones and giving your complete attention to your partner while in conversation.

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Couples therapy is beneficial for couples undergoing conflicts and problems that require a third-party mediator to resolve. Not only can couples therapy help rebuild a relationship after some occurrence that breaks the relationship (such as an affair or violence) but it can also identify and treat damaging patterns of behaviour which are interfering with the relationship, to prevent future mishaps. It can provide a safe and calm space for couples, facilitate constructive conversations, provide a fresh perspective on arguments and disagreements, build conflict-management skills, and help develop a deeper and more intimate connection between partners. However, a caveat must be given, there are some downsides to couples therapy too.

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It may not be helpful for all couples, and sometimes, it may deepen the cracks in a relationship. If the partners are not ready or committed to mending their relationship, therapy will not be beneficial. It can increase resentment in the relationship if one of the partners is unwilling to do the work. It may also cause a great deal of discomfort by forcing clients to open up about issues they don’t want to address. Lastly, it can lead to disappointment if the expectations are too high. However, if both partners are on the same page about wanting to work on their relationship, couples therapy can be a great tool to do the same.

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