The choice to begin couples therapy is often a major turning point in a relationship. And if individuals are really, truly honest with themselves, there may be a hidden motive that goes something like this: “Well finally, my partner is going to get some help for xyz.”
Coming to therapy in order to address your partner’s issues or faults might backfire, and here’s why. Couples therapy requires individual work, and that’s not a bad thing. While often it is the case that the thing that most irritates us about our partner is what gets us into therapy, the real surprise is often the self-learning that takes place. After all, relationships are a sacred mirror reflecting back parts of ourselves.
As the process of therapy unfolds, you may be invited to look at your own role in your relationship dynamic, or explore how your own family of origin shows up presently in how you relate. This is all part of the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. In other words, relationships parallel early childhood development and go through distinct and identifiable phases. Most times couples seek therapy during the differentiation phase, when they are actively working through their differences as a couple. The developmental “task” of this phase is to increase acceptance of differences, and learn to embrace those differences.
When individuals differentiate, a variety of things may occur. They learn to soothe their own upsets and nervous systems. They learn to voice their own needs and desires, even if there is risk of conflict. They may also begin to show up more for themselves. Enter individual work/therapy. This is an excellent time in the relationship to do individual therapy to look at your own part of the differentiation dance, and come back to yourself and your needs, thoughts, desires, as well as to integrate what comes up during the couples sessions.
For example, partners may feel like they’ve been blending so much that they’ve lost touch with old friends, former hobbies, or other parts of their lives and may begin to take time for these things again. Or perhaps you assured your partner during your “honeymoon” or symbiosis phase that yes, you love that hobby too, but you actually don’t so this has created a point of tension between you. Successful differentiation is creating space for your partner to come back to that hobby, while you explore something of your own that brings you joy. Often times couples are vying to keep that “togetherness” felt early on in the relationship, when really what might be needed is more individual time and individual work. This can be scary and feel like the relationship is coming unglued, but it is a normal part of the differentiation process and the overall development of a healthy relationship.
Another example and theme I’ve seen during this phase is taking up men’s or women’s groups. Many couples make their partnership their end all be all, which can put undue stress on relationships. Building community with peers is one way to increase differentiation. Men need the support of other men, and women need the support of other women. It’s okay to build those supports into your relationship through attending women’s or men’s groups or events that foster personal development and individual growth. The fruits of attending such events are increased confidence in knowing that you can be supported by people outside your partnership.
In closing, while the intention of seeking couples therapy may sometimes be to change your partner, you may be pleasantly surprised by the changes and transformations that occur within you. In the words of Carl Jung, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
If you need help as an individual or with couples therapy request a free consultation with one of our therapists here.
Katherine believes that the thread throughout all of her clinical work is the focus on relationships. She is deeply fascinated with relationships and how people interact and go about getting our needs met. She is committed to strengthening the quality of relationships and assisting others to be more authentic within those relationships.