There are some misconceptions about couple therapy and how it works. Often, these ideas are rooted in images we kept from movies where couple therapy or counselling was depicted. The mentioned misconceptions range from the role of the psychologist, the theoretical framework used by the psychologist, the role of each partner, the process of therapy itself, and when therapy ends.
Let's start by addressing each of these points:
1. What is the role of the therapist in couple therapy?
First, it is important to explain that couple therapy differs from individual therapy. If you had experience with going to a psychologist for yourself, you will notice that things are slightly different when it comes to couple therapy. A therapist working with couples will not focus on determining who is right and who is wrong, or identifying distorted thinking patterns, or rooting your relationship issues on your relationship with your parents. A couple therapists understand that adult love relationships are a form of attachment, where both partners seek and provide support, validation, and reassurance to one another. The focus is on identifying what is the cycle in which you and your partner are stuck, how/when you became stuck and what is keeping you in such negative and vicious cycle. That being said, the therapist will talk about how each partner is contributing to the maintenance of the negative cycle and will help them develop more efficient ways of communicating, in order to break the old cycle and improve their emotional bond.
2. What does it mean to have a theoretical framework?
Having a theoretical framework is like having a map. While you and your partner "navigate" through the (sometimes tumultuous) sea of couple therapy, it is important that you know where you are heading. It is the responsibility of the psychologist, as the the captain of the ship, to guide you through the tough but also the good moments. This is done by helping you and your partner develop your goals and sticking to them, and using techniques that have been shown to help other couples (what we call "researched-based techniques", in psychology).
3. What is the role of each partner in therapy?
The main role of each partner is to be committed to, at least, try to make things work. What does this mean in particular? When some couples come for therapy, they are at the end of their tether and therapy is the last resort before divorce/separation. Because of that, some partners have already divorced their partners in their hearts and minds. If you are coming for therapy with that mentality, well... you will succeed in getting the divorce/separation you wish for! However, if the goal is to really try to make things work with your partner, then you need to be committed to that idea. What is the worst thing that can happen? The worst case scenario is that you both decided to not be together, and then you can actually talk about it civilly and together plan an exit strategy; or, in the best case scenario, your relationship really improves and you decide to invest in your relationship long-term.
4. The process of therapy? That sounds like therapist jargon!
Like anything else in life, therapy goes through a process, a flow. What this means is that while in therapy your relationship will experience various stages. In general, at the beginning, what you might expect is a slight relief because some issues are finally being spoken about. Then, there is a phase, after the beginning, when things start feeling better and you feel excited! After that, and as the negative cycle is being challenged, you might feel a little bit "resistant", wondering why you need to change and that your partner is the actual cause of the problem. A bit of resentment and disappointment for being where you are in your relationship might settle in. This is the phase when couples start thinking that couple therapy is pointless! What they miss to see is that this is the fear of the unknown pulling them back. It is the old cycle fearing losing its comfortable place in the relationship: - "At least the current situation is predictable". To change is to face a future that is unknown!". If you want your relationship to get better, you need to be prepared for change and some discomfort that might come with it. Persistence will pay off.
5. When will therapy terminate?
Therapy comes to an end when you and your partner reach the goals you set up in therapy, and adopt more efficient ways of relating to one another. In sessions, it will be discussed the progress towards the goals, and as things start to improve, the sessions will be spaced out until we terminate them.
After the end of therapy, we can arrange a session for 6 months after or so, just to check how progress has been maintained.
Note: the terms therapist, couple therapist and psychologist were used interchangeably throughout this article.