Like many things that help our relationships, couples’ therapy has a habit of sounding appallingly unromantic, involving patience, grueling work and a host of embarrassing conversations about matters it would be much nicer to never to have to think about – let alone discuss with a partner and a trained stranger. Our culture teaches us to trust and follow our feelings. But couples’ therapy knows this is to be a disaster, for our feelings are for the most part errant and encoded with primitive responses from a troubled past. So instead, it encourages a far wiser response: standing well back from our first impulses, neutralizing them through understanding and where possible rerouting them in less self-punishing and more trusting directions. Living alongside another person is obviously one of the hardest things we ever attempt; we should expect to get it wrong unaided and feel unashamed about the need for in-depth training.
There are a number of vital things we might learn in couples’ therapy:
- For a start, in a quiet room, we finally have the chance to define what we feel the problems in the relationship really are without things immediately degenerating into shouting, sulking or cynical avoidance. We’re normally far too cross with, or upset by, our partner to be able to share with them, in a way they’d understand, what we’re so angry and upset about. It helps to be in front of a stranger we’re both a little intimidated by and have to behave ourselves with. It is highly unusual to be able to put things so starkly but also so reasonably: For example: ‘That you never touch me and behave so limply and unenthusiastically when I touch you is slowly killing me – and though I love you, I don’t know how much longer I can take it…’How much better this sort of thing than a decade of low level sniping and repressed fury.
- Secondly, therapists are skilled at teasing out from us why what bothers us bother us. Normally, left to our own devices, we don’t unearth the emotional meaning behind our positions. We squabble about where to go on the weekend, rather than explaining what exactly going out or staying in represents for us internally. And as a result, the other finds us merely stubborn and mean; and all that is interesting and poignant in our position is lost.
- Thirdly, therapists break up unseen repeated patterns of upset and retaliation. A classic therapeutic game is to ask both parties to fill in the blanks: When you ….., I feel ….. – and I respond by …. So when you disregard the children, I feel rejected and then respond by trying to control who you see in the evenings. Or when you don’t touch me in bed, I feel invisible and respond by being ungrateful about your money.
With the therapist acting as an honest broker, new contracts can be drawn up, along the lines of: If you do x, I will do y… Once we get a little bit of what we really want (but usually haven’t properly asked for), the other’s needs feel a lot less onerous and hateful. Sometimes the advice in couples’ counseling is almost beautifully pedantic. Name three things you resent about your partner. And, next, three things you deeply appreciate. Also, keep the criticism specific: not ‘you’re cold and ungrateful’ but ‘if you can call me when you’re running late, then…’ Families can be kept intact with little more than this.
Through therapy, we are challenged to abandon some of our grimmer ideas about how people can be and what will happen to us in love: If I am vulnerable, I am not necessarily going to be hurt… I might try to explain, and the other could listen… We are given the security to throw out some of the scripts we grew up with about the futility of ever trying to be understood.
We can start to be moved by one another’s pain.
What does it feel like, a good therapist will ask, to hear your partner explain how it is for them when you… We can start to take care of each other. A remarkable idea comes to the fore; that this other person isn’t really our enemy, that they – like us – have some very bad ways of getting across what are, at heart, some very understandable and touching needs.
Couples therapy is a classroom where we can learn how to love.
We’re normally so embarrassed at not having the first clue how to do so, we leave things until we are too angry or despairing to do anything but hate. The most hopeful and therefore romantic thing we can ever do in love is sometimes to declare that we haven’t yet learned how to love – but, with a little help, are very keen to learn one day.
A Family Therapist offers professional couples counselling with qualified psychiatrists that can benefit people at all stages of their relationships.