What is couples therapy?
Couples therapy (sometimes referred to as marriage counseling or couples counselling) is a specialized form of talk therapy focused on facilitating changes in how couples interact with each other, and takes place over the course of a number of sessions that happen weekly or biweekly. Therapy will be focused on creating changes in how you understand what is happening between you and your partner, as well as within you, during your interactions, and changes in what you say to each other, and how you say it.
Who comes to couples therapy?
Couples therapy is an investment in your well-being and the well-being of your relationship. For many of us, our committed relationship is the foundation of our success in life; in our career, our family, our financial successes.
Relationships ask us to grow, to consider, to adapt, to regroup, to rethink, and to reconnect at many junctures, as a result of the changing conditions of our lives. Whether it’s the arrival of a child, a 5/10/20 year anniversary, a change in economic or career trajectory, or finding ourselves looking at others outside the relationship or marriage, each of these events asks us to turn back towards our partner and ask “who are you?” and “how will we be as a couple?”.
I find that couples come to me in three general conditions:
How is couples therapy different from individual therapy?
In couples therapy, your relationship will be the primary client rather than either individual partner.
Long-term relationships and marriages are commitments made by two people (or sometimes more than two depending on your poly configuration) to join together in a relationship of mutual benefit, and these relationships flourish when partners experience them as responsive to their preferences and desires. At the same time, being in relationship forces us to balance what we would like with what our partner might like, and thus invites us to embody values such as mutuality, compassion, loyalty, and generosity.
I think of a relationship as the interface between each of your sets of desires, hopes and preferences. It is in this balance of our duties to ourselves and our duties to our partners that a couples therapist works. As such, a couples therapist will be on the look out for how to help the relationship rather than how to help each partner. Personal change that might happen is seen as the means of therapy rather than the end of therapy.
A couples therapist will also be more attuned to what’s happening between people, and utilize a knowledge base about how our relationships with others inform our behaviours, our emotions, and our evaluations of ourselves.
What kinds of concerns do you work with?
I have worked with couples seeking support with the following:
What kinds of things might we talk about in couples therapy?
Common questions we might explore in our sessions include:
Are you going to tell us to do things?
Most of the work of couples therapy happens in the therapy session. This is where I will facilitate dialogues that you may find you can’t have on your own, where we will establish a new understanding of what’s happening between you, and where you will take steps towards each other. My hope is that these conversations will act as a seed of something new and will linger with you throughout the week, informing your evaluations of what you’re feeling, doing and saying, and of how you are perceiving your partner. From there, you might find opportunities to do something different with each other.
Sometimes, you’ll leave a session with a specific therapeutic task to complete. These tasks are always based on our discussion in session, and might be thought of as a small experiment that let’s you do one of a few things:
Observe something: for instance, what’s happening in your body during an argument, or catching your partner doing something well
Try something: do something that we’ve talked about in session; take a risk; try a new conversational technique
Complete a structured exercise: if appropriate, and if couples are open to it, there may be times where I invite them to complete a more structured task; I’ll let you know why I am suggesting it, and how it fits into your goals
How often should we come, and how long will this take?
Relationship problems develop over time. Changing dynamics that have had months or years to grow often takes time. While there can sometimes be quick superficial changes experienced by couples over the first few sessions, for many couples, problematic interactions and feelings are resistant to a quick fix. I see many couples over the course of a number of months. Some couples who are in high distress or facing divorce work with me for a year or more. At the same time, I will be looking for ways to reinforce over and over again the opportunities each of you might have to do something different, and through the repetition of practicing new ways of interacting, new communication habits and patterns can form, and feelings can change.
When couples begin working with me, I often recommend that they commit to each other to attend sessions on a weekly basis for a period of 1-3 months in order to build on the momentum of their decision to work at what’s troubling them. Financial and scheduling considerations sometime inform a couples ability to make this commitment, and we will work together to find what works best for you.
Do all couples who do couples therapy stay together?
My goal as a couples therapist is to find new opportunities for the two of you to do things differently in order to make your relationship work. My assumption is that for most couples, there are strategies they have not tried in their attempts to make things better. However, not every couple decides that staying together is the right thing for them. It may be that they feel too much has happened to undermine the relationship, or that what is being asked of them is something they are not willing to do. Couples therapy is not about working miracles, or mandating behaviour, its about finding small opportunities for the couple to make meaningful changes over and over again. This can often be exactly what the couple needs, and sometimes, it's not enough.
What’s your training and experience?
I trained at the only clinical training program in Canada that is accredited by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) which is the pre-eminent professional association for couples therapists in North America. This meant that I came to be a therapist in an environment that focused on relationships, even when we worked with individual clients. I maintain my membership with the AAMFT and continue to do supervision and training with other members.
In my private practice in Victoria BC I work with couples, and with individuals seeking sex therapy, which is my other area of specialization. In order to stay at the leading edge of the theory and technique of couples therapy, I read most new books that come out on the subject, I attend trainings across North America, and I receive supervision from other AAMFT members.
In addition to all this, I too am in a relationship, in my case a marriage. My marriage is the testing ground for new ideas and strategies I come across, and I have seen the benefit in my own marriage of the strategies I facilitate for other couples. I am blessed to be married to a woman who is strong, passionate, driven and intelligent. I often find myself benefitting from her grace and wisdom, and our successes and failures inform my understanding of what it takes to be in relationship over time.