What Is Couples Therapy?
There can be many difficulties that couples face throughout their commitment to one another. For starters, each person in the couple is their own individual person with their own individual thoughts, ideas and opinions. Each person has lived through their own life experiences and hopefully has their own set of values and morals prior to entering the relationship. Therefore, two people in a committed relationship probably will not agree on everything or do everything in the same way. This can be both invigorating and challenging for couples in relationships.
We learn how to engage in relationships throughout our childhood experiences. If we have suffered from adverse childhood experiences, than we may be more likely to have difficulty within our adulthood relationships. For example, if our parents provided what we needed physically and were unavailable emotionally than we may have developed insecurities during childhood that may cause us to appear to be clingy or needy in adult relationships demanding the love that we never felt we received from our parents.
Codependency is an example of a learned behavior that often is a result of growing up in a dysfunctional family or growing up with an unhealthy parent - maybe a parent that was suffering with alcoholism or their own mental or physical health issues.
It is often described as a one sided relationship where an individual puts aside their own needs for the sake of the other. This might look like a wife covering up for her alcoholic husband or a father going out of his way to get his delinquent son out of trouble.
It is all with good intention that we ignore our own needs to help our partner or child, however what we are actually doing is continuing to enable the unwanted behavior and not taking care of ourselves at the same time which puts as at risk for becoming irritated and resentful.
Our life experiences could affect how we communicate with our partner and how we perceive our partner. If we grew up in a household where hostile communication existed, we might be more likely to yell in our adult relationships and if we experienced an abusive relationship with a partner in the past, we may at times misperceive our current partner as an abuser. Loud disagreements and misperception of one another are most likely going to occur in a long term relationship from time to time, which is why transparency is crucial for the survival of a healthy, long-term relationship.
Most times the lack of communication within a relationship derives from fear. Each individual in the relationship chooses not to be completely transparent with their partner to avoid conflict or to avoid confrontation in an attempt to maintain peace and to preserve the relationship as a whole, however by choosing not to communicate how we are feeling with our partner we are actually harming the relationship. By not communicating how we are feeling, we are being dishonest by lying by omission and by automatically creating distance within our relationship.
The more communication within a relationship — the better.
Common Challenges for Couples
All long term relationships are going to go through some challenges along the way. Some of the most common challenges outside of communication are life transitions and family of origin.
Any transition in life naturally shifts a relationship and can bring new challenges. If a partner obtains a new job with a new schedule or a new location it can cause a shift in a relationship. When a couple moves in together, they might have difficulty delegating household responsibilities. Welcoming a child into the world and becoming parents can often be a major stressor for couples due to learning role delegation taking care of a child's needs and due to the loss of freedom. Step-families and blended families bring their own unique set of challenges into a relationship.
Family of origin can often be a challenge for a flourishing relationship. If we grew up in a dysfunctional household than we may not have the best boundaries with our own parents which could cause conflict within our relationship and within the family that we are trying to build in adulthood.
John Gottman and his wife Julie Gottman have conducted over 40 years of research and have studied over 3,000 couples. Gottman states that there are four horsemen responsible for the deterioration of a relationship. The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
Criticism occurs when we attack our partner’s character rather than just communicating a compliant. To be able to have awareness of this, it is important to know the difference between compliant and criticism. A compliant is practicing transparency and is when we express something that has bothered us.
For example, “You did not come right home after work and I was worried that something might have happened to you. Can you call me next time you are going to be late?”
Criticism in this scenario might sound like, “You never think about how your behavior is going to affect others. You’re so selfish.”
Contempt is when we communicate to our partner in a way that sounds condescending. It typically involves sarcasm or rolling eyes. The partner that engages in the contempt communication usually feels some type of superiority. This mindset comes up a lot in stereotypes about parents when Moms feel like Dads are not an equal parenting partner.
For example, “You’re tired? How could you be tired? I just took the kids the pool all day and got them whatever they needed and you literally just sat in this chair. You are actually a pathetic excuse for a Father.” Gottman says that contempt is the biggest indicator of divorce in relationships.
Defensiveness is almost always bound to come up in our relationships because we have all behaved in a defensive manner at times especially when we are feeling stressed or attacked. This form of communication can be most detrimental to relationships if it continues to happen or if the relationship is already going through challenges. Defensiveness occurs to deflect responsibility and only makes our partner feel like they are not heard in the relationship and that their feelings are not valid.
For example, “Did you wash that shirt I asked you to wash earlier in the week?” “I have been too busy with these kids and this house to pay attention to your shirt. You see how busy I am why couldn’t you just do it?” Not only does this response practice defensiveness, it also attempts to reverse the blame. A more helpful response would be something like, “No hunny, I am sorry I have been distracted with the kids. I will do it tonight.”
Stonewalling is when a partner stops engaging in the communication that is happening and is typically in response to contempt.
Couples Counseling can be for any couple, not just couples that are currently experiencing challenges. It can be beneficial for couples to be proactive in working with a therapist to discuss some of the above mentioned things and to engage in couples activities as a result of homework to build a firm foundation for any challenges that may come up later on.
If you are someone you know is interested in engaging in couples therapy,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Brooke! I'm a licensed anxiety and addiction therapist serving individuals,
adolescents and couples in the state of New Jersey. My experience brings both a personal and professional perspective to the work that I do with my clients. If you are struggling with relationships and would like to schedule a free consultation,