When I tell people what I do for a living, many people ask me how I can stand to hear so many heartbreaking stories of failed relationships and broken marriages. On the contrary, it is encouraging to see how many people seek help for their relationships before it is too late and how many of those couples do manage to rebuild, repair, or revitalize their bonds.
Some couples have been married for decades, and life together has become stale over the years or has become very complicated. Other couples are still early in their journeys together, perhaps contemplating whether or not they ought to “get hitched.” But whether the focus is early exploration or resuscitation after many years of struggle, there are several common themes which are essential in a great relationship.
After many years of experience I have compiled a list of seven topics which tend to be central in couple therapy:
Understanding communication in relationships.
Partners communicate on two levels at once whether they realize it or not. One level is overt and obvious—it is the level of “content” or “substance.” The other level is much more subtle and involves giving and receiving nonverbal cues that convey an impression of attitudes and motives—a sense of this is how I see you and this is how I see you seeing me. Many couples argue endlessly about the “same-old, same-old” because the real issue might not be what it appears to be. The real issue might not be about money or household chores or toilet seats, but something below the surface: something like I do not feel equal to you, or I do not feel you respect me, or I do not feel you see me for who I am.
It is vital to understand that conflict is a necessity in any relationship, not something to avoid but rather to work with as a tool. I find it very useful to assume that conflict comes from caring, and it might not be immediately obvious what the caring is about. The only relationships with no conflict are dead ones—in other words there is no relationship left and the partners have become “just roommates” because the caring has faded into apathy and indifference.
Many couples tell me they fear that has already happened, but usually that is far from the case when they come to therapy. Usually there is more than enough conflict (from caring!) left to work with. In therapy, couples learn how to engage in conflict together safely and productively so they can become more intuitive with one another and make adjustments without so much upheaval. A major focus of couple therapy is often to build a process for engaging in conflict and for learning from the conflict after it occurs. I call this “communicating about how we communicate.”
Quite commonly this process includes developing rules for “fair-fighting,” effective listening, and a mutually-agreeable procedure for the timing and pacing of difficult discussions.
Exploring and negotiating expectations.
When we first meet a new partner, our expectations are not always obvious, and they can change significantly over time. Some of them might be requirements we can only address for ourselves, while others might be inherited from our own upbringing and our past relationships.
Some of our expectations are essential, and others are probably not. Some are actually deeply-held values which are not likely to change. But in the absence of clear communication about expectations, partners typically rely on mind-reading or “trial and error” instead. Couple therapy provides a forum for exposing expectations which might or might not meet the eye and for negotiating what to do with them.
Negotiating boundaries and balance.
In our complicated modern lives, healthy couplehood requires a balance among work life, family life (with children if there are any), time with one another (both for continued dating and for working through the difficult discussions), and time to be alone and not subject to anyone’s demands for awhile. Realistically, such a “four-ring circus” is a very difficult thing to achieve, and balance looks more like an oscillating pendulum or a shifting weather map than a static arrangement.
It takes time, and it takes conflict and work, to build this kind of balance together with flexibility and compassion. Often couples may need to consider what they might have to give up in order get more of what they need. Part of the process, too, has to do with a negotiation of what is mine, what is yours, and what is ours. Usually it involves compromising. The juggling can get messy when it involves other family members such as parents and in-laws.
Keeping current with changes in our own sense of self.
Although in couple therapy, partners are generally focused on the relationship between them, each spouse has a relationship with his or her own self, too, which changes over time. Human development occurs throughout life, through gains and losses concurrently.
Partners might be grieving those losses without knowing it and might not understand their own selves as they grow and change over time, yet somehow they expect one other to address those needs. Couple therapy provides an opportunity to take stock of these changes together and to explore what needs to be done to support one another through the changes.
Creating an atmosphere of appreciation.
Everything I have described so far is difficult, and living together can be mentally and emotionally quite exhausting. We are surrounded by demands and exposed to criticisms from many sources in our daily lives, and yet home needs to be a sanctuary where we are appreciated even though we are far from perfect. Many partners feel like they are simply coming home to another job with its own job description and an ongoing performance evaluation which seldom goes well, and they are rarely recognized or rewarded for their work.
In a workplace, people can accept that neglect for a while, because there is a pay cheque, but at home there is not. Over time, partners become very discouraged and dispirited, yet it is a simple thing to get into a habit of noticing each other’s contributions and positive efforts. This respectful habit can go a long way to creating a sense of safety and security and can make the difficult discussions far less threatening!
Getting into a rhythm together.
Some couples I meet seem to be on the same page about almost everything, sharing the same values and expectations, the same vision for what they want, sharing well-developed means of communicating and engaging in conflict, and being flexible and appreciative with one other; yet something is wrong. These couples often remind me of two people who are trying to dance to the same piece of music but are “out of sync” with each other. In couple therapy it becomes possible to adjust the “timing belt,” so to speak, to create more unity. This can be very simple or it can be difficult.
These seven themes are common to what I observe in working with many couples. Other issues, such as healing a relationship after an affair, can be particularly thorny but can sometimes also be a source for discovering the true depth and resilience of a relationship.
No two relationships are the same and certainly none are perfect, but I am continually inspired by people’s ability and willingness to engage honestly together and to work through issues which appear at first to be irreconcilable. Even when the outcome is to separate, the work done in couple therapy can pave the way for a mutually-respectful and honourable separation process for everyone’s benefit.