What to Bring to Your Couple Counselling Session
Please read and apply the information contained here and it will help you make the most of your relationship therapy.
This valuable relationship advice is adapted from an article written by renowned marital therapy experts Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute USA.
Most people come to see me with little, if any, knowledge of the therapy process, never having had to seek professional assistance for their relationship problems before. This document is designed to help you get the most benefit from our work together. The first three sections deal with how to prepare for and maximise the value of our therapy sessions. The fourth section summarises some brief concepts about relationships and productive couples therapy.
Your job is to create your own individual objectives for being in therapy. And like a good sports coach, our job is to help you reach them.
Our goal is to help you both make better adjustments and responses to each other without violating your core values or deeply held principles. We have many tools to help you become a more effective partner – they work best when you are clear about how you aspire to be.
Goals and Objectives of Couples Therapy
The major aim of therapy is to increase your knowledge about yourself, your partner, and the patterns of interaction between the two of you. Therapy becomes effective as you apply new knowledge to break ineffective patterns and develop better ones.
The key tasks of Couples Therapy is to increase your clarity about:
- The kind of life you want to build together
- The kind of partner you aspire to be in order to build the kind of life and relationship you want to create
- Your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be
- The skills and knowledge necessary to do the above tasks
Remember, You are Not Alone!
Let me guide you with a few important tips for getting the most benefit from our work together and how to prepare and maximise the value of our sessions.
Take some time to think about your goals and what you want to achieve in coming to Relationship Counselling.
Here are a few questions you need to ask yourself to develop clarity about your relationship goals:
- What kind of life do you want to build together and individually?
- What kind of partner do you want to become so you can build the kind of life and relationship that is meaningful to you?
- What are your individual blocks to becoming the kind of partner you aspire to be?
- What skills and knowledge do you need to be able to do the above tasks?
You will notice that these questions are about zeroing in on what you need and value.
Interestingly, Relationship Counselling works best if you have more goals for yourself than your partner so:
- Focus on changing yourself rather than your partner
- Focuson learning something new and letting go of assumptions for your partner’s motives
- Focus on improving your response to a problem
This is one of the toughest challenges; You will have to accept your need to improve the problem.
How to tell if you are not doing this – you will be talking more about your partner and what they are doing or not doing and building a case as to why they should change.
There is only one antidote – re-focus back on yourself!
Focus on Learning About Yourself and Your Reactions
What this means is, you get to understand what annoys you, pushes your buttons, and how to handle things.
Trade-offs and Tough Choices
To create sustained improvement in your relationship, you need:
- A vision of the life you want to build together and individually
- The appropriate attitudes and skills to work as a team
- The motivation to persist
- Time to review progress
To create the relationship you really desire, there will be some difficult trade-offs and tough choices for both of you.
The first trade-off will be time. It simply takes time to create a relationship that flourishes: time to be together, time to be with family, time to play, coordinate, nurture, relax, hang out, and plan. This time will encroach on some other
valuable areas – your personal or professional time.
The second compromise is comfort. That means emotional comfort, like going out on a limb to try novel ways of things, listening and being curious instead of butting in, speaking up instead of becoming resentfully compliant or withdrawing. At the beginning, there will be emotional risks in taking action, but you will never explore different worlds if you always keep sight of the shoreline. In addition, few people are emotionally comfortable being confronted with how they don’t live their values or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.
The other comfort that will be challenged is energy comfort. It simply takes effort to sustain improvement over time – staying conscious of making a difference over time – remembering to be more respectful, more giving, more appreciative, etc. It takes effort to remember and act.
The other effort is can be more difficult for some people – that is improving reaction to problems. For example, if one person is hypersensitive to criticism, and his or her partner is hypersensitive to feeling ignored, it will take a lot of effort to improve their sensitivity instead of hoping the partner will stop ignoring or criticising.
In all these areas, there is generally a conflict between short-term gratification and the long-term goal of creating a satisfying relationship. The blunt reality is that, in an interdependent relationship, effort is required on the part of each person to make a sustained improvement. It is like pairs figure skating – one person cannot do most of the work and still create an exceptional team.
How to Maximise the Value from Your Couples Therapy Sessions
In order to get the most from your Couples Therapy sessions, it is helpful to be aware of unproductive patterns so you know what to avoid when you go to your therapy sessions.
A common yet unproductive pattern in Couples Therapy is focusing on the problem that you have at the moment. This is a reactive (and mostly ineffective) approach to resolving issues.
The second unproductive pattern is when both of you come to the session saying, “I don’t know what to talk about, do you?” Although this blank slate approach may open some interesting doors, it is a hit or miss process.
The third common unproductive pattern is discussing your fights – whether it be the fight that you are in at the moment or the one that you had since your last session. Talking about these fights or arguments without considering a broader context of what you would like to learn from the experience is often an exercise in spinning your wheels.
Over time, repeating these unproductive patterns will only lead to the plaintive question, “Are we getting anywhere?”
A more powerful approach to Couples Therapy is for each person to do the following before each session:
- Reflect on your objectives for being in therapy.
- Think about your next step that supports or relates to your larger objectives for attaining the kind of relationship that you wish to create, or the partner that you aspire to become.
These reflections will require some effort, but keep in mind that your preparation will eventually pay high dividends.
Important Concepts for Couples Therapy and Relationships
The following concepts will help you identify areas of focus in our work and/or stimulate discussion between you and your partner between meetings. As you review these regularly, you will discover that your reflections and associations will begin to change. We recommend that you revisit these concepts often, as these will help keep you focused during our work.
Attitude is Key
When working towards improving your relationship, your attitude towards change is more important than the action you need to take. It is relatively easy to determine what to do and how to do it. The real challenge is getting yourself to actually do it.
Learning how to think differently about a problem is often more effective than thinking about what action you need to take.
The fact is, your partner is limited in his or her ability to respond to you and vice versa. Accepting this fact is a huge step towards maturity.
There is a definite possibility that you have flawed assumptions about your partner’s motives and that he or she also has flawed assumptions about yours. The problem is, most of the time, we refuse to believe that those assumptions are flawed.
Focus on Changing Yourself Rather than Your Partner
Couples Therapy works best if you have more goals for yourself than for your partner. I am at my best when I help you reach objectives you set for yourself.
You can learn a lot about yourself by understanding what annoys you and how you handle it.
Problems occur when reality departs sharply from our expectations, hopes, desires, and concerns. It’s human nature to try and change one’s partner instead of adjusting our expectations. This aspect of human nature is what keeps therapists in business.
The hardest part of Couple’s Therapy is accepting that you need to improve your response to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, or what you need to do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their response. It’s more common to build a strong case for why the other should do the improving.
It’s easy to be considerate and loving to your partner when the vistas are magnificent, the sun is shining, and breeze is gentle. But when it gets bone chilling cold, you’re hungry and tired, and your partner is whining and sniveling about how you got them into this mess, that’s when you get tested. Your leadership and your character get tested. You can join the finger pointing or become how you aspire to become.
The more you believe that your partner should be different, the less initiative you will take to change the patterns between you.
You can’t change your partner. Your partner can’t change you. You can influence each other, but that doesn’t mean you can change each other. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to change a relationship.
Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it. Fear lets you know you’re not prepared. And if you view fear in that way, then it becomes a signal to prepare the best way you can.
Zen Aspects of Couples Therapy (Some Contradictions)
All major goals have built-in contradictions. For example, speak up or keep the peace.
All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships.
It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.
Solutions, no matter how perfect, set the stage for new problems.
Asking good questions–of yourself and your partner–helps you uncover causes beneath causes.
- In a strong disagreement, do you really believe that your partner is entitled to their opinion?
- Under duress, do you have the courage and tenacity to seek your partner’s reality and the courage to express your reality when the stakes are high?
- Why is it important to let your partner know what you think, feel, and are concerned about? (Because they really can’t appreciate what they don’t understand.)
- What is the price your partner will have to pay to improve their response to you? How much do you care about the price they will have to pay? (Everything has a price and we always pay it.)
- Can you legitimately expect your partner to treat you better than you treat him or her?
- If you want your partner to change, do you think about what you can do to make it easier?
- When a problem shows up, it’s natural to think, “What should I do about it?” A much more productive question is, “How do I aspire to be in this situation?”
The Importance of Communication
The three most important qualities for effective communication are respect, openness, and persistence.
Communication is the number one presenting problem in couples counselling. Good communication is much more difficult than most people want to believe. Effective negotiation is even harder.
A couple’s vision emerges from a process of reflection and inquiry. It requires both people to speak from the heart about what really matters to each. We are all responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how others treat us.
Effective communication means you need to pay attention to:
- Managing unruly emotions, such as anger that is too intense
- How you are communicating – whining, blaming, vague, etc.
- What you want from your partner during the discussion
- What the problem symbolizes to you
- The outcome you want from the discussion
- Your partner’s major concerns
- How you can help your partner become more responsive to you
- The beliefs and attitudes you have about the problem
No wonder good communication is so hard.
Some Final Thoughts
You can’t create a flourishing relationship by only fixing what’s wrong. But it’s a start.
Grace under pressure does not spring full-grown even with the best of intentions – practice, practice, and more practice. Practice the right things and you will get there.
Love is destroyed when self-interest dominates.
If you don’t know what you feel in important areas of your relationship, it is like playing high stakes poker when you see only half your cards. You will make a lot of dumb plays.
The possibility exists that we choose partners we need but don’t necessarily want.
To get to the bottom of a problem often means you first accept how complex it is.
Trust is the foundational building block of a flourishing relationship.
You create trust by doing what you say you will do.
It’s impossible to be in a highly interdependent relationship without ever being judgmental or being judged.
If you strive to always feel emotionally safe in your relationship and get it, you will pay the price by becoming dull.
If neither of you ever rocks boat, you will end up with a dull relationship.
Knowledge is not power. Only knowledge that is applied is power.
Most of the ineffective things we do in relationships fall into just a few categories:
- Blame or attempt to dominate
- Resentful compliance
- Denial or confusion
These are the normal emotional reactions to feeling a threat or high stress. Improving your relationship means better management of these reactions.
Everything you do works for some part of you, even if other parts of you don’t like it.
Three Motivations Will Govern Any Sustained Effort You Make
You will seek to:
- Avoid pain or discomfort
- Create more benefits
- Be a better person
It’s also true for your partner.
If you are asking your partner to change something, sometimes it’s a good idea to ask if the change is consistent with how they aspire to be in that situation.
Businesses and marriages fail for the same three reasons – A failure to:
- Learn from the past
- Adapt to changing conditions
- Predict probable future problems and take action
Effective change requires insight plus action. Insight without action is passivity. Action without insight is impulsive. Insight plus action leads to clarity and power.
If you want to create a win-win solution, you cannot hold a position that has caused your partner to lose in the past.
“To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will.” – Sugar Ray Robinson, Middleweight Boxing Champion considered by many to be the best fighter in history, pound-for-pound.
Please review this document periodically as there is simply too much to absorb in one reading of it. We will all benefit from your efforts.
I look forward to helping you work to overcome your issues and have the relationship you desire, and for you to be the person you aspire to be in your life. Change is possible!
Thanks for taking the time to improve your relationship by reading this.
Philipa Thornton & Chris Paulin
Your Marital Therapists