How Couples Therapy works
Most couples therapies introduce a set of skills to help couples communicate more effectively, trust each other, and improve their intimacy. All of this is great and very helpful; however, there is so much more that’s needed to improve day to day interactions between partners. Unfortunately, many psychotherapy modalities tend to neglect important pieces of the entire puzzle. I use a Narrative approach to couples therapy because not only does it present new skills to improve immediate problems, but it also helps people comprehend their own stories and the meanings attributed to this. By doing this, individuals know how they may be contributing to the problems that exist in their relationship. In addition, your Narrative therapist will view your relationship as a unique experience which will allow him/her to address the specific dynamics affecting you.
As people who share the world with others, we accumulate an enormous number of memories formed by different events throughout our lives. The meaning that we give these memories generally causes us to predict what the future would be like. This is how stories are developed, by the person’s interpretation of events and memories. Couples bring in their individual stories and images of the world to their relationship which can create a level of disconnect and present a barrier to relating to one another in healthy and congruent ways. Oftentimes, these stories are invisible and individuals are completely unaware of how they impact their relationship. The stories contribute to the ways in which individuals view themselves. These stories need to be exposed, edited, and enriched; making the person’s present experience more realistic and consistent with their personal values, hopes, dreams, and commitments.
The couple describes their understanding of the problem that brings them to therapy. Everyone has a turn to speak and expand on what they believe is going on in the relationship. The therapist's inquiries assist the couple to richly describe the problem and negotiate an experience-near definition of it. By doing this, the couple can separate from harmful problem stories and work toward a preferred reality of their relationship.
It is important to establish a respectful, collaborative, and non-judgmental environment, which is often a reconstructive process in itself as many couples are accustomed to conflict, lack of acceptance, and sometimes blame.
Each person will have a chance to discuss other areas of their life such as work, health, other relationships, etc; to make sure that the therapist can fully comprehend individual narratives that may also be affected by the problem or problems in the relationship.
The therapist carefully listens to each partner's account of the problem or problems. The therapist is able to listen for gaps or exceptions to the problem stories that might become meaningful and useful tools for problem resolution. This process has the power to enrich interpretations of the story of the relationship.
The therapist will help the couple explore and thicken stories that have oftentimes been neglected or forgotten as a result of a dominant problem narrative of the relationship. Through the use of narrative therapy questions and other practices, the therapist assists the couples in making these stories visible and helpful. These new knowledges about the relationship not only enrich it, but presents a more accurate picture of each person and their role in the relationship.
The therapist may initiate an externalizing conversation process where the problem is deconstructed in order for couples to understand its influence on different domains of their lives and relationship.
The therapist is often curious about social or cultural factors influencing the problems in the relationship. The therapist oftentimes engages the couple in a conversation that allows for a deconstruction of social or cultural discourses in order to increase awareness about how factors outside the relationship might contribute to the problems the couple faces. These sorts of therapeutic explorations help couples view their relationship within a social and cultural context, which can empower the couple to make necessary changes for the well being of the relationship.
Throughout the process of therapy, the therapist may invite the couple to participate in creation of therapeutic documents. This is done to reinforce new discoveries and support the couple’s values, hopes, purposes, and commitments in the relationship. Therapeutic documents can come in the form of letters, summaries of therapeutic conversations, certificates of achievement, lists of skills, etc. The therapist uses therapeutic documents to affirm newly acquired information that strengthen the couple's healing process. Therapeutic documents immortalize new knowledges and skills which can assist the couple in future problem resolution.
The couple might be unaware of how they contribute to maintaning the problem or problems in the relationship alive. The couple will learn to uncover these dynamics and take accountability for their part in this. This process is extremely powerful as it places an emphasis on understanding the influence of individual behaviors on relational patterns or more specifically, the problem harming the relationship. This is a process that involves forgiveness, responsibility, and honesty.
The therapist's intention in this entire process is for the couple to eventually feel freed from the influences of the problems affecting their relationship. Couples therapy provides couples with an opportunity to make informed decisions about their relationships and improve their interactions by taking actions that are consistent with their values and hopes for the relationship’s future.
There is so much more that goes into creating a unique and specific therapeutic experience that assists couples in regaining control of their relationship. At the least, couples walk away with an understanding of the problem, how to manage it, and how to make changes to the relationship that can lead to preferred experiences.
Payne, M. (2010). Couples Counselling, A Practical Guide. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Stone Carlson, T. & Haire, A. (2014). Toward a Theory of Relational Accountability: An Invitational Approach to Living Narrative Ethics in Couple Relationships. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 3, 1-16.
I have a lot of experience working with couples in community mental health and through in-home services. My training in Human Sexuality prepared me to understand the dynamics within couples that oftentimes cause conflict and even rupture. Couples typically wait until the last minute to seek out professional help. Although it is never late to seek counseling, the best work can be done in the early stages of the conflict.
I use a medical metaphor to explain this. When a disease has invaded most of the body, it is more difficult to operate, but not necessarily impossible. It is essentially the same with couples counseling. The work may be a little more challenging, but totally doable. The most important aspect is wanting to save your relationship.
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