Let me say from the outset that working with couples is very different to working with individual clients. Furthermore, while I find working with both incredibly rewarding, to witness a couple move from stuck, hostile and distressed to accepting, open and loving is a wonder to behold and a deeply satisfying experience for me.
Regrettably, sometimes couples just find themselves in a funk. They suddenly look across the kitchen table to discover that they don’t recognise their partner anymore. They have become strangers to each other. The initial intimacy has seemingly been replaced by some ‘other’ domesticated (Perel, 2007) and diluted experience. Couples will often find that the relationship has become more central than the individuals within it. “Who am I?” they might ask, or “why do I feel so ambivalent toward my partner and what is this new sense of separateness?”
Dependent, dependable or co-dependent… conflict and distress will often occur when the individual starts to move away from the initial ‘romantic’ phase, where bonding and symbiosis were essential, to a more differentiated and autonomous phase of the relationship. It’s a little like the individual coming back to themselves and I like to work with the metaphor of ‘growing pains’ because relationships change and grow as much as the individuals within them.
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before… to test your limits… to break through barriers ~ Anaïs Nin
Working with Couples in Therapy
You might ask, what do I tell couples who are experiencing the above? Very little actually. Each couple is different and each conflict and solution is unique to each couples’ set of circumstances.
What does happen in therapy is that I witness the struggle, conflict and discomfort being experienced; I reflect back to the couple what they have shared and disclosed. I clarify, reaffirm and support. I sometimes reframe for the couple these moments to make them more accessible, reinforcing what it is that they find meaningful, intimate and important. I also support the couple as they distil their feelings down to the kernel of the conflict or concern. This brings insight and clarity, making the whole experience somehow more palatable and understood.
This, in turn, is another way for the couple to reconnect, repair and rebuild a pathway back to intimacy, shared experience and curiosity about each other. The more the couple can do this, the stronger the “couple bubble” (Solomon, 2013) around them that heals and protects them is. I also take care to facilitate communication and connection, shifting the focus between the couple, ensuring that each feels safe, understood, respected, and heard.
Relationships work when both partners are committed to taking care of each other’s vulnerable parts (Tatkin, 2012).
Why does it work?
Therapy becomes a neutral place and time for couples to explore, build meaning and grow. Why is this important? We all lead busy lives, so setting aside a weekly therapy session is a very positive way of saying to the other, “You matter to me, and this is worth working on and working through”.
In term of building intimacy, it’s also important that couples in distress get to experience from each other a sense of “feeling felt” (Siegel, 2010) Another way of saying this is that the couple gets to reacquaint themselves with connecting intuitively and empathically with each other. Of course, this is not possible all of the time, but at least in the therapy room, clients can begin to develop or revisit these skills.
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage ~ Anaïs Nin
The above example is just one of many scenarios. Others that bring couples to therapy include moving through and repairing a traumatic event or rupture; a breakdown of trust; infidelity; separation; divorce; and couples entering a new life phase, for example, retirement.
The simple idea is that therapy can support couples to reconnect with what’s valuable and meaningful to them and repair what’s broken so that they can experience more joy and a deepening of trust, collaboration, contentment and passion moving forward.
Therapy helps couples find pathways back to each other and importantly, themselves. It is a place where the individual in the relationship is respected and celebrated while still working toward a shared vision for how the future relationship might become more resilient, nurturing, loving, healthy and respectful.
Are you feeling overwhelmed or in need of support?
Relationships are one of my areas of specialisation. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above post resonates for you or you would like to set up your first appointment.
Perel, E (2007). Mating in Captivity – Sex, Lies & Domestic Bliss. London: Hodder & Stroughton.
Siegel, D., & Solomon, Marion Fried, editor of compilation. (2013). Healing moments in psychotherapy (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology).
Tatkin, S (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. NY: New Harbinger.
Siegel, D. (2010). The mindful therapist : A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration (1st ed., The Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). New York: W.W. Norton & Norton.