five things every couple should know before entering couples therapy
Concept Number One: It Only Takes One
That is the answer to an extremely important question that most of us get wrong. The question is “how many people does it take to make a two person relationship work”? It seems logical that if we want a two-person relationship to work, we would want both people to be on board. However, try and imagine what would happen if someone offered you $1000 to go and upset someone you love in the next 3 hours. That would probably be an easy $1000. We can see from this example that one person certainly has a great deal of influence on a relationship when it comes to making someone upset or defensive. So, why not learn how to have a positive influence to keep your loved one from getting upset?
In order to make therapy and your relationship work, it is best to enter the room with the idea that although you don’t have total control of any relationship, you definitely have an impact on its success.
Skill #1 for therapy: “Although part of me would love to blame my partner for what is going wrong right now, I would like to spend some time being curious about what is triggering me that I can work on”.
Concept Number Two: Don’t Make the Other Person Defensive
This concept relies on our remembering Concept Number One’s premise that it only takes one person to make a difference in a relationship. If we accept that we have great influence, why not start with the idea of trying not to push your partner’s buttons?
There may be a part of you saying to yourself, “everything makes him or her defensive.” That is what we would call a “hopeless part” and it can probably be supported by a great deal of evidence from your relationship. Even though it may feel hopeless, it is more likely that both partners have just got into the habit of protecting themselves in ways that naturally trigger each other. You can absolutely learn how to trigger a better response.
Skill #2 for therapy: “Although it often feels like we can’t stop triggering each other, I am open to learning about what will make it more likely that my partner will feel less defensive around me.” Another way to say this is “I am willing to learn ways to make it more likely my partner feels safe, comfortable and appreciated by me.”
Concept Number Three: Understand That We are All a Collection of Parts
We are all a collection of parts and have many facets of our personalities. For example, one can relate to having a part of them that is playful, a part that is all business, a part that is a worrier, etc. We also have parts of us that are more and less likely to have a positive impact on our loved ones. When you are in the honeymoon phase of a relationship, the parts of you that are most obvious are easy-going, curious, compassionate, fun, etc. These are very easy parts to work with for you or your partner. However, we also have parts of us that are protective and defensive. We have parts that shut down, avoid, become angry, or attack. These parts are more likely to be troublesome for you or your partner.
One of the goals of couples therapy is to allow you to be in charge of which part of you shows up, rather than having that part of you in charge. For example, if one partner in the couple protects themselves by automatically shutting down (their “shut down” part) and the other partner gets triggered when it feels to them like someone is abandoning them, then that “shut down” part can lead to a partner feeling abandoned. When feeling abandoned, that partner may have a part of them that automatically becomes critical. This “critical” part of them makes it even more likely that the other partner’s “shut down” part will get more extreme. Vicious cycles like these can go on for years and years. Thus, it can be a wonderful skill to learn how to be in charge of one’s own parts.
Skill #3 for therapy: “Although I may not know how to control what parts of me show up, I am certainly willing to learn about them and learn how to be more in charge of them.”
Concept Number Four: The Two Most Important Conversations
For all important issues between you and your partner, you always have two conversations. The first conversation is with yourself and the second one is with your partner. It’s likely a part of you just said to yourself, “This Dr. Bakal is crazy, I don’t talk to myself.” We don’t always recognize the first conversation, because it is often unconscious or just happens so quickly.
For example, if you are mad at your partner because “he/she is acting so stubborn.” A part of you is saying that he/she is stubborn and this very much impacts your attitude toward him/her. It is not wrong to have these feelings or thoughts, it is just important to be aware of them. If we remember Concept Number Two and we know we want to make it more likely our partner feels less defensive or more safe when we are talking about difficult topics, than it will be important to learn how to listen to the first conversation with ourselves before beginning the second conversation.
Here is how it might sound in your mind on a good day; “Ok, I know I have a part of me that thinks he/she is acting like the most stubborn, closed off person in the world, but I sure don’t want to come from that attitude.” The conversation with your partner might start like this; “I know there is a part of me that thinks you are being so stubborn, but I will bet there is more to it than that and I really do want to know what is going on with you right now.” Of course, this conversation can go in many directions, but it is a much better start than the defensive/protective part of us may want to say. The protective part of us might want to say something like; “If you would stop being a closed off jerk, then maybe we can start getting somewhere with this relationship.” This beginning is sure to send you into a vicious cycle of defensive communication.
Skill #4 for therapy: When I have something difficult going on between my partner and I, I will be curious about what I am saying to myself, so I don’t come off with an attitude of attack or defensiveness when I begin to talk to him/her.
Concept Number Five: When the Work Clicks, the Energy Around the Couple is Magic
Marriage and marital therapy can be difficult. Sometimes it seems like if we really loved each other things should be easier. That is one of the great myths of relationships. In the honeymoon phase of most couple’s relationships, things seem smooth and are easy. People will say things like; “It seems like we could have talked forever and we had so much in common.” This is indeed a great feeling, but it really doesn’t last too long. In my opinion, the magic in a relationship comes from knowing how to work together toward being friends, partners, and creating a wonderfully close relationship in good and difficult times. In our culture, nobody teaches us how to do this or even that it is needed. This lack of understanding of how to work on a relationship can sometimes lead to affairs. Often times, affairs are just a honeymoon phase in another relationship when the one we are in seems so confusing or difficult.
When couples learn how to work together, although not perfect, marriage can be something really special. Rather than rely on the luck or fate of a temporary honeymoon feeling, people are able to learn how to be great together even when it seems like one partner or the other is having a tough time or “being difficult.” Knowing how to do this is a priceless skill. Over the past 15 plus years of seeing couples in therapy, I have realized that we have to learn how to do this in the relationship we are in, because we tend to create similar issues in all of our close relationships.
Skill #5 for therapy: I am willing to do the work necessary to learn how to have a relationship that can be lasting and something special.
To learn more about this concept of working with the different parts of ourselves please look into the work of Dr. Richard Schwartz and www.selfleadership.org. For more information about working in a way that makes it less likely that each partner will be defensive, please read the work of Dr. Brent Atkinson at www.thecouplesclinic.com.
- Mark Bakal, Psy.D., Extension 314