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  • Dianne McCormick

What can you expect from couples therapy?

For many, the prospect of starting couples therapy may be daunting. Understanding the process can help alleviate concerns. In this article, Dianne McCormick, clinical psychologist and relationship therapist, outlines what can be expected in couples therapy.

Table Mountain

Relationship distress is common in couples and motivation for seeking couples therapy varies. You may want to restore a sense of connection, increase emotional intimacy, develop skills for better communication and conflict resolution, or you may have reached crisis point with your relationship with your partner. Couples therapy can help you to overcome your difficulties and make the most of your relationship.

Essential elements

The most fundamental task of couples therapy is to provide a safe space for self-reflection and exploring your relationship with your partner.

Although the theoretical foundation of the therapist will shape the therapy process, most practitioners use a blend of various approaches and techniques to address the presenting problems from different angles. The process may include an exploration of components such as:

  • Interpersonal interactional patterns

  • Communication skills with an emphasis upon active listening and clear, direct expression of feelings and needs

  • Relationship strengths

  • Individual personalities and individual coping dynamics

  • Unresolved past issues and emotional wounding

  • Family of origin dynamics and the impact upon current relational patterns

  • Conflict resolution skills

The role of the therapist

Some practitioners may be more fluid and informal, while others may adopt a more structured approach. The most effective approaches combine the couple’s needs with the unique style and talents of the therapist.

The role of the therapist is to listen empathically to each partner and to step back and observe the interaction between them. Often, the therapist will identify potentially destructive processes, describe what is seen and offer feedback. The aim is to provide alternatives to repeated patterns that are not useful.

Regarding communication skills, the therapist may encourage the couple to make their expressions and phrasing more constructive and specific. The couple may be requested to use ‘I’ statements, describe behaviour and impact rather than blaming, label emotions, and engage in reflective listening.

Frequently, the process emphasises gaining insight into the ‘something deeper’ that is happening within each person. For example, “why is the individual feeling defensive and what is the root anxiety underlying the defensiveness?” In facilitating greater insight, the therapist supports individual clarity, engagement, and responsibility.

Although couples therapy facilitates greater self-insight and mutual empathy, sometimes the couple is unable to resolve significant issues or bridge problematic differences. In such instances, therapy can facilitate a process that helps the couple separate and adapt.

Online couples therapy

Couples are increasingly utilising online adaptations of couple therapy as they may require the convenience, privacy, and accessibility of online consultations. Online therapy can be appropriate for those living in remote locations, restricted by time schedules, or with limited mobility.

There is no need for specific preparation for couples therapy. What will assist is arriving with a curiosity about yourself and your partner, openness to sharing your fears, needs and hopes, and an openness to receiving feedback. A good start would be to set the intention of discovering more about yourself and your partner through the therapy process.

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