When we picture couple’s therapy, we often think of a married couple’s relationship in which one person has discovered the other is cheating, or in which one person is just no longer feeling the spark anymore. Generally, couple’s therapy has been shown to lead to significant improvements in relationship matters, but these studies are traditionally carried out with romantic couples, like our example married duo. The fact of the matter is couple’s therapy can be conducted with any type of couple: platonic, work-related, parental, etc. It turns out that just about every kind of relationship could benefit from couple’s therapy, not just the type with couples who intend to get married or spend the rest of their lives together.
I spoke with licensed marriage and family therapists, social workers, professional counselors, and people who have gone through couple’s counseling to find out why it’s not only beneficial for romantic relationships, but for just about any relationship you can think of.
Couple’s therapy isn’t just limited to romantic couples
Couple’s therapy is really just defined by the fact that it involves a couple, that is, two people. The pair could be just about anyone: siblings, a romantic couple, and coworkers all fit the bill, among many others. Erika Boissiere, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Relationship Institute of San Francisco told me, “This can include business partners, friends, mother and daughter, or just about any permutation to the word ‘relationship.'” She went on to say that oftentimes, people struggle with relationships because of what therapists call blind spots. “Blind spots are things that you do, unknowingly, that others see but you don’t,” she said. “For example, say you are conflict avoidant. This will show up in your relationships by not being direct with people. You’ll say things passively, or not at all. By going to therapy, you will have a professional that will help you build in awareness as well as give you tools on how to be a better leader, a stronger coworker, or a more authentic and communicative partner.” The goal of therapy is to increase awareness and thereby increase choice. With choice comes the ability and chance to grow and do things differently. According to Boissiere, this is something from which every relationship can benefit.
Couple’s therapy is a sounding board
In every relationship, there are times when you just need someone to talk to. It isn’t even that you are looking for advice, just that you want someone to hear you out. “I have been married coming up on 21 years, and we use couple’s therapy on and off,” Christine Egan, author, speaker, and founder of Redefining Healthy told me. “We found a therapist that we both like, and we use him as a sounding board when we can’t seem to resolve issues by ourselves.” Egan went on to add that sometimes the issues are bigger than others. “We have used [our therapist] for various reasons on and off over the years: helping us deal with breast cancer diagnosis, raising three teenagers, me working again, and the death of parents.” This is an important point for couples everywhere, romantic or not. Therapy is a really great place to find a neutral party to listen to what you have to say and what’s going on, without having any skin in the game.
A therapist can help you understand relationship dynamics
One of the reasons that relationships are so messy is that every individual brings something different to a relationship. These dynamics can be hard for the average person to grasp, especially if they vary from a person’s upbringing. “Couple’s therapy allows the couple, romantic or not, to understand the dynamics between them,” licensed marriage and family therapist Michel Horvat told me. “Communication is the key to understanding; having a couple’s therapist facilitate communication and understanding of each other’s motivation and ongoing resentments and assumptions that might have built up over the development of the relationship.” This is especially important when your own motivations don’t match those of your partner, no matter if it’s a business partner, roommate, or romantic partner.
It can help you see the other perspective
Because we all bring a different perspective to the game, it can be hard to reconcile the differences of perspective in a relationship while accepting that both might be equally right or true. “Often when an individual talks about his/her significant other, they have trouble understanding how their partner views them. We all tell ourselves our own stories about what is transpiring, and accuracy is not 100 percent,” said Lynn R. Zakeri, LCSW. “When I see couples, I am able to see where the communication gets mixed. I know what he wants to hear and I know what she wants to hear. I know what he wants to convey and I know what she wants to convey, but they more often than not need my translation.” This third party in the room to help you navigate the other person’s emotions and thought processes can be critical. In fact, it could mean the difference between assuming your significant other is about to break up with you and realizing that your relationship is prepared to go the distance.
Couple’s therapy is a safe space
One of the best parts of couple’s therapy is that your therapist is not particularly loyal to anyone. Unlike family members who have a tendency to take sides during times of frustration and strife, the goal of a good couple’s therapist is to help illuminate both sides of a situation. This means that the therapist wants to hear from both parties, without judgment. This makes the therapy room a safe space. “People, including family members, relationship partners, and even business partners are now using therapy as a way of having a neutral third party bring out and discuss issues that come up on a regular basis in a safe space,” Dr. Ben Michaelis told me. “It can be a lifesaver to have a protected space where they discuss issues that is separated from the home, where they live.” This is especially important if your relationship has reached a point where one or both of the parties doesn’t feel like he or she has a safe space already. If you’re having a hard time saying what you mean because you’re afraid of what someone might say, couple’s therapy could be a great space for you to work it all out.
It’s a place to learn to cope
Relationships are incredibly stressful on a good day. When you add in another form of stress related to a one-time traumatic event or a chronic source of concern, this can escalate. Carol Gee, author of Random Notes (About Life, “Stuff” And Finally Learning to Exhale), learned this when her husband experienced an illness. “For the past 20 years my husband has and continues to suffer chronic health issues,” she told me. “About 10 years ago, after a new health diagnosis, he was not taking the news very well. His reaction was to snap at me when I was trying to help him, when I was addressing my concern, etc.” This led to enormous frustration on Gee’s part, and she reacted with sarcasm and raised voices. “At my wit’s end, I gave him an ultimatum: we go to counseling or I wanted a separation,” she revealed. “Speaking to a counselor, my husband recognized how his action caused mine, [and] I acknowledged that I didn’t respond appropriately.” From there Gee’s husband was able to discuss how his illness was really affecting him, and counseling ended up improving their marriage overall, even outside of her husband’s diagnosis.
Couple’s therapy is like hiring a personal trainer
Often we think of therapy as a way to fix something that has gone wrong. In fact, therapy, including couple’s therapy, can serve as a way to strengthen an already good thing. “Most of us know working out is good for us and know a few exercises that we feel comfortable with, but we do not push ourselves quite as hard in a workout or get the same results as we would with a trainer guiding us through specific tactics geared for us,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec. “Couple’s therapy can teach valuable communication and problem solving skills that can be employed in the relationship but also in a variety of other relational settings like at work, with children or parents, etc.” Krawiec went on to note that couple’s therapy can improve intimacy (both physical and emotional) by creating a safe space to be vulnerable and open. “The act of going to couple’s counseling in and of itself is a positive testament to the strength/quality of a relationship,” she said. “That two parties, perhaps commonly in disagreement in other areas of their life, can identify a time to be together, for one hour, to devote focus to improvement of the relationship says a lot.” Going to couple’s therapy is the equivalent of strengthening a muscle. You may do it to make the muscle stronger today, but the added benefit is that it will hold up better to age in the long run as well.
Relationship education is key
For many people, the only positive relationship they’ve seen is on television. With the divorce rate ever-increasing and toxic relationships pervading reality television, understanding what it should mean to be in a productive relationship can be lost on a couple. “Having seen many couples in my counseling practice over the years, I see how helpful it is for couples to cope with problems early on, before little conflicts or annoyances or missed connections turn into larger problems that are harder to repair and manage,” Julienne Derichs, a licensed clinical professional counselor with 22 years of experience working with couples, told me. “When seeing couples, the relationship education component of couple’s counseling is essential. I teach couples about the keys to a successful relationship, communication, intimacy and connection, and shared goals and moving from ‘me’ to ‘we.'” It is this understanding of what makes a productive and happy relationship that can not only help couples deal with the problems they’re currently having, but help them preempt any issues that could arise later on.
An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure
Many of us think of couple’s therapy as something to do when you’re on the edge of ending a relationship. In fact, couple’s therapy can help a relationship long before anything actually goes wrong. According to a piece in Psychology Today by Dr. Mark Banschick, the divorce rate is around 50 percent for first marriages, 67 percent for second marriages, and 73 percent for third marriages. This tells us that there’s good reason for all couples to attend marriage counseling before divorce ever even comes into the conversation. “Often couples wait until they are hanging on by a thread before they seek marriage counseling,” said Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a clinical psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling. However, couples who proactively seek counseling before a crisis hits can help prevent the crisis from ever happening in the first place. Dr. Fisher went on to say that counseling can help couples identify their shortcomings and any wounds that they both bring into the relationship and how those issues might create or perpetuate vicious cycles in the relationship. “For example, a husband who had a cold mother may be married to a wife whose father was very rejecting,” Dr. Fisher told me. “Each time the husband isn’t affectionate the wife feels rejected like she did by her father, which makes her withdraw emotionally and physically. Once they understand these dynamics and where they come from, they are much more likely to address it constructively.”
Therapy isn’t punishment
Too often we think of therapy, including couple’s therapy, as the principal’s office of life. It’s where we go when someone has done something wrong that needs to be fixed. In reality, good couple’s therapy focuses on learning about what you bring to any relationship and how to manage the differences between you and the other parties involved. The ability to learn these things early, before habits and expectations take root, helps you to avoid the pitfalls that make relationships difficult. “People believe relationships are natural and, up to a point, they are correct, ” said Lesli Doares, a couple’s coach and consultant who has worked with individuals and couples on relationship issues for more than 10 years. “But every relationship runs into challenges because two different people with two different experiences and perceptions about life are involved.” She told me that couple’s therapy can help people navigate the differences in experience and perception in a healthy and productive way. “It can eliminate a lot of the unhappiness people experience in their relationships. It also can empower them to seek changes in the relationship, set appropriate boundaries, or even end it if that is the best course,” she said.
Couple’s therapy is for everyone
Whether you’re a recently engaged couple living on cloud nine but worried about the future, coworkers who can’t seem to get along, siblings who are experiencing true rivalry for the first time, or another type of couple, you might benefit from couple’s therapy. Although we traditionally think of couple’s therapy as the last ditch effort for romantic couples to save their relationship, the techniques utilized in couple’s therapy can be applied to virtually any kind of relationship. If you’re in a relationship that feels like it isn’t working at its best, couple’s therapy may be just the ticket to get you to 100 percent.