It’s 2019. Happy New Year!
So you’ve both decided to start couples therapy. Good for you.
It’s a fair question. The best couples therapy is research-driven and science-based. There’s a lot of really bad couples therapy out there. And few distressed spouses attend a couples therapy intensive without fearing failure.
I wrote this post to help you both understand some of the most fundamental “Best Practices” of effective couples therapy.
Good couples therapy isn’t squishy.
What happens if you go at each other in couples therapy just like you do when you’re at home?
Some “General Practitioner” Therapists will utterly lack the courage to call you out on it.
I tell my couples from the get-go that they ‘re safer on my sofa than they are at home.
A good couples therapist always has a skilled handle on the throttle of emotion. Because emotional regulation is perhaps the most fundamental concern in early couples therapy.
If your couples therapist can’t hold it together you won’t either. It is also the most essential skill for couples to acquire.
Because if I can’t offer safety to both spouses, I can’t be a good couples therapist. Period.
This is obviously related to protecting you. “General Practitioner” Therapists are often inclined to be passive and hang back.
A skilled couples therapist will not do that. Once the assessment is over, and couples therapy is well underway, they will jump in and interrupt. Good couples therapy isn’t deferential or polite in the face of vicious, contemptuous attacks.
And they won’t surprise you..they’ll tell you that they’re going to do this well in advance. Couples therapy is not always a polite conversation. We try our best to never be rude, but sometimes we will interrupt you for your own good.
The more…the more. “The more she says this …the more I say that.” Good couples therapy promotes curiosity about how you set each other off. If you’re in the hands of a good couples therapist, you’ll see blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finger-pointing in a new light. The fancy term for this is “circular causality.”
A circular interpretation of marital problems looks like this: Mary influences John, and John in his response, influences Mary. The cycle is ongoing.
It could be either a vicious or virtuous cycle. A good couples therapist will help you unpack your cycle. In fact, identifying your repetitive toxic cycle is one of the essential tasks of science-based couples therapy.
I may be dating myself here, but do you remember the old “Bob Newhart Show” from the mid-70’s?
His client would discuss some self-defeating chronic behavior and Bob’s only therapeutic intervention was to shout…
“well...STOP DOING IT!”
Some therapists aren’t much better than Bob.
The most beautiful word in couples therapy is the word…instead.
What would you like to feel…do…or… be instead?
A good couples therapist will focus on skill-building. They will also work to help you choose, construct, and install new habits.
It’s not just about insight into why you’re triggered in a toxic way, it’s about being on purpose as a partner, and learning a new skill instead of the senselessly reactive way you’ve been behaving up to now.
Your therapist’s primary job is to help you find your own, improved way of interacting. They’re not a problem-solver. They’re a skill-builder.
A good couples therapist will offer you insight that will instigate growth. And growth will help you to not only understand why you react the way you do, but it will also give you more options about what to do instead. Couples therapy that works is behavior-based as well as insight-based.
Good couples therapy will notice and celebrate any hallmarks of change. They wisely choose what to attend to in each session. They notice deficits, but they don’t focus on them exclusively.
Their language is not “problem-saturated.” They notice what’s improving and they are not shy about calling attention to it. They are cheerleaders for change. But they credit the couple.
They don’t foster dependence on their insight. They tell couples that they can notice the good as well. As a result, couples start to feel “the win.” They build positive momentum and appreciate their partner’s changed stance in real-time.
If you think your couples therapy isn’t going anywhere, maybe it’s not. The problem might be you. You may have entered couples therapy with a “mixed agenda.” That’s not your fault. It’s the job of a good couples therapist to assess your marriage beforehand with skill and frankness.
Good couples therapy stays in the lane. it’s not all over the road. It knows where it is going. Their GPS is always focused on providing an opportunity for Greater Partner Skill. The destination is clear. They always know exactly where they’re going.
How did you become the partner and parent you are today?
One place. Your family of origin.
A good couples therapist will help you gain actionable insight into how your nervous system was shaped by your early life experience.
A good couples therapist will relentlessly point out how you are changing, growing, and improving. They will celebrate who you are becoming. They always have their eyes on the prize and invite you to both do so as well.
As if all the above wasn’t hard enough, a good couples therapist will like you and be likable. This is a “Therapeutic Alliance” that required trust and goodwill. If you’d don’t honestly feel that your couples therapist is rooting for you, you won’t be able to trust enough in the therapeutic relationship to work as hard as you’re capable of working.
What does good couples therapy look like? It looks like the two of you at your best.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.