How does it work?
I believe that most people come to couples counseling with the presumption that they and the therapist will quickly begin to work towards restoring and/or improving the relationship. I can’t speak for other therapists, but that is certainly not how I work. How can we fix anything… whether it’s a car or a relationship, before we know exactly what the problem is and whether it is even repairable?
Some couples may come readily prepared to work hard on themselves, individually and with each other, for the sake of the relationship. But, in my experience, most couples are not so clear about their goals. One [or both] may be too confused to know exactly how he/she feels or what he/she wants. Others actually come in order to achieve an amicable separation, though they may not always be aware of it. Most often, though, couples come with a mixed agenda… where one may be desperate to work on the relationship while the other is desperate to walk out the door.
When couples come to me for help, I will first listen to what the couple presents as the difficulties. There will be no decision to move toward repairing the relationship at this time. By the end of our first session, I will usually offer the terms that I find works best. It typically goes like this… I will ask to meet with each of the individuals separately, one or more times, in order to be sure that I “hear” each of the partners’ concerns. And, of course, we will also meet jointly.
Only when it is clear to me and to both partners as well, [it often takes four or five sessions] do we decide which path we intend to take – whether to work diligently on the relationship [which always includes much individual change], or to work towards a healthy and amicable alternative to restoration and improvement
– “If we do choose to work on the relationship, how long will it take?”
One of the most difficult problems that the couple and the therapist encounter is the pressure of time. Intellectually, people know that when damage has been occurring for a long time… months or even years… the repairs may take a significant amount of time. But we don’t always operate in an “intellectual” or even a rational manner.
Imagine this scenario: An individual walks into a Medical Doctor’s office. After a few questions, the doctor asks, “So when exactly did the pain start and what did you do about it?” The patient responds:
Well, I don’t recall exactly when the pain started… it has been a long time though… too long. At first, I tried to ignore it. But that didn’t really work.
When I couldn’t ignore the pain anymore I tried to convince myself that whatever was causing the pain was just something minor – that it was temporary and sooner or later it would resolve itself. But, it just kept getting worse.
To be honest, I did think about going to a doctor; but, no offense, I don’t like going to doctors. Maybe I’m afraid of them? Or maybe I was worried that a doctor wouldn’t be able to figure out what’s wrong.
Anyway, I then tried to believe I could just live with the pain… that I could find a way to accommodate it or integrate it into my life. But, slowly [and I didn’t notice at first] the pain began to increase; and later, it was like, exponentially worse.
By that time, I had already started to drive everyone in my family crazy. The pain affected everything… my mood, my functioning. Finally, I couldn’t deny that I needed help. My life became a mess.
So here I am! Now, I’m glad I’m here. So, doctor, what do you think? You’ll be able to fix me up by the time I leave today, right?
Similarly goes the usual scenario of entering couples counseling. By the time the couple walks into the therapist’s office, more often than not, you-know-what has hit the fan. There has been Suffering. Anger. Resentment. Sadness. Frustration. Hopelessness. PAIN! And so it feels to the couple that the “fix” needs to happen right now! [In fact, yesterday would be even better!]
Obviously, this is not a realistic expectation. However, miracles are not required. With commitment and faith, changes can happen. Like any other important skill, it takes time to acquire the insight and to establish new behaviors that are needed to restore and even to improve the relationship. We may not know how long it will take, but once a good outcome is achieved, it may last a lifetime.