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No relationship is perfect. Every couple has their fair share of ups and downs, but for the most part, these issues are often resolved amicably. Although two people may not see eye to eye on everything, these small understandings don’t snowball into a huge fight.
While conflicts are common, couples shouldn’t let these rough patches be the norm of their relationship. Worse, some might even brush these fights off as normal. But how normal is “normal” when it comes to misunderstandings? And at what point should couples need an intervention?
Admittedly, there can be fear and shame in opening up to relatives and friends about the state of your relationship. Some might judge what you’re going through as toxic, while others might even tell you that there’s no point in making the relationship work.
And while their points of concern may still be valid, that’s really not something you’d like to hear if you want to keep the relationship going. So wouldn’t it be best to ask for help from a stranger who’s trained to look at your relationship more objectively?
We sat down with registered psychologist and psychometrician Richthofen De Jesus, current clinical division head of mental health organization Empath, to discuss when and why people in turbulent relationships should consider going to couples therapy.
What is couples therapy and why you need it
In a relationship, the reasons for conflicts vary greatly. Among those causes could be finances, differences in beliefs and values, lack of intimacy, infidelity, not having enough time for one another, favoring their family or friends as compared to their partner, communications breakdowns, or even external stressors such as work.
Additionally, there’s also a difference in the intensity of the conflict and how each individual handles them. One partner might thrive in confrontation, while the other prefers to simmer and just be passive-aggressive. These can then lead to huge blowouts that could potentially harm all parties.
Instead of letting both parties hurt each other more, couples should rather start considering the idea of going to therapy.
According to De Jesus, couples therapy is wherein two people “engage in a process of discovering how their individual personality characteristics affect the dynamics of the relationship that they are in.”
De Jesus added that couples therapy is best for those whose “state of the relationship produces a significant distress to the individuals and is already on the verge of manifesting dysfunctions to their respective activities of daily living.”
Meaning, the problems they’re having in their relationship has caused them or their partner or both parties to feel distressed to the point that it influences and affects their normal functioning. The conflicts in your relationship could’ve debilitated your behavior in the relationship and the quality of how you’re treating your partner has also changed.
The main goal for couples who go to therapy, De Jesus said, is for them to “improve the quality of the relationship that they share, and develop an effective meaning out of it.”
Contrary to popular belief, couples therapy isn’t only for married couples, as it is also open to those who are still in the dating phase. There is also no requirement on how long the relationship is for a couple to attend a session. They may have been together for several months or already been a couple for many years.
Ideally, couples therapy requires the participation of both parties. However, if one partner is not open to it, one can also opt to do couples therapy alone. De Jesus, citing Sadock & Sadock (2007) shared that these are the different ways on how couples therapy can be accomplished:
- Individual therapy: One partner engages with a psychologist, and from time-to-time the other half comes in for a session to update the therapist and be coached on how to deal with the consulting client.
- Individual couples therapy: Each partner sees a different psychologist, but the two professionals exchange notes and provide recommendations on how to handle the case, but do not engage in a session simultaneously.
- Conjoint therapy: The couple sees a professional in one session. Sometimes, there are two professionals (representing both genders) who handle the case in order to lessen the feeling of being ganged up on by the majority gender. This is the most common set-up of couples therapy.
- Four-way Session: Each partner gets their therapist first and has a session with them. From there, the four of them get together in a single session from time to time. They then exchange views and methods on how to keep the relationship effective.
- Group Therapy: Couples, usually three to five pairs, with marital issues group together and are facilitated by a mental health professional (usually a couple themselves). The advantage of this is that each couple can realize that they are not alone with their concern, and can allow proper identification with others. Couples can also give feedback with each other, which gives a more neutral response.
- Combined therapy: A series where the other types mentioned above are experimented on to find out which fits better in addressing the concerns of the couple in question.
Starting couples therapy: Getting all parties involved
When a relationship is already on the rocks, recognizing and admitting that it’s already affecting you negatively is hard. Much more when you tell your partner that you’d want to ask the help of other people – and a stranger nonetheless! – to resolve the conflicts you’re having.
If not discussed properly, your partner might feel affronted and get defensive, or worse, might even deny that your relationship needs no intervention.
But if you genuinely feel that your relationship would benefit from having couples therapy, it’s best try to explain to your partner why it’s important to you and how you think it could help your relationship.
De Jesus shared that the first factor in starting couples therapy is having voluntary submission of all parties involved. Partners shouldn’t force their partner into therapy if the other party doesn’t want to.
“The problem with forced participation is that it can lead to a stronger level of hostility, which can even place more rifts with the couple,” he noted.
Next, both parties should consider their openness to discuss everything that is related to the problem.
According to De Jesus, there still exists a stigma wherein couples are wary of airing out their relationship issues to a third person. He said that in a collectivistic culture such as in the Philippines, many prefer to approach people they’re more familiar with, like parents, relatives, and friends.
However, he said that this set-up is a “high risk” since older couples can inadvertently project their own issues to the couple in question. Having personal ties and subjective inclinations also can put bias in their supposed advice to the couple and result in partisan comments and perceptions.
Which is why it’s best to seek out the help of professionals instead.
“The advantage of the therapist is that they are trained to see the relationship more objectively and would have a more open way to discussing the issues presented to them via scientifically derived means,” De Jesus explained.
For couples planning to do therapy, both parties should also feel confident enough to speak up on what they think and feel without the fear of being judged or blamed.
“The idea in couples therapy is that they should address the issue that is most pressing and create the greatest amount of distress,” De Jesus emphasized. “However, they should also be open to other non-pressing issues to be discussed since they may be secondary contributors to the issue they currently have.”
Which means each party should be open to their partner about how they felt about certain matters in their relationship. De Jesus also pointed out that holding back information to the therapist may prove detrimental since by doing so, they’re not given the complete picture of the problems they have to work with the couple.
What to expect
Once all parties are onboard with going to therapy, the couple should then also be involved with the selection process of the professional they would want to work with.
Before even delving into deep counseling, the couple should also discuss the matter more within themselves. Some points they could talk about are 1) their reason for going to therapy, 2) end goal for each session, 3) type of therapist they’re looking for, 4) any aspects of their relationship that they don’t want to discuss, and 5) subjects they’d like to raise first.
De Jesus shared that it’s during the first session wherein couples usually discuss the issues that need to be addressed by a therapist. “It usually involves a back-and-forth of how each member felt and perceived the issues being analyzed, and how they feel their partner could have done something to alleviate the distress,” he explained.
Aside from this discussion giving the therapist insights on the couple’s issues, De Jesus noted that it also enables the professionals to see the communication dynamics of the couple and how they could approach both parties in a healthy and productive way.
He also stressed that a therapist should remain neutral to both parties during the discussion, as well as be able to foster a sense of comfort during the communication process. If the couple, or any party, didn’t feel this way, then the therapist might not be a good fit for them.
Attitude, De Jesus emphasized, plays a big role during therapy sessions. He said that all parties involved should go there with the mindset that they’re to “facilitate healing for themselves and improve the quality of their relationship.”
As to what couples should do during their therapy, here’s what De Jesus advised:
- Being open and candid with what needs to be discussed during the therapy sessions
- Being committed to what was agreed in therapy sessions in order to foster a more effective bond
- Identifying your partner’s behavior and citing the context on how these behaviors come about
- Understanding that the therapy session’s goal is to make you become more committed to the relationship
Additionally, there’s also several habits that should be avoided while having couples therapy. These don’ts include:
- Retaliating to your partner after the therapy session for the things that they’ve divulged
- Disengaging with one another after the session ends, and going back to what life was before the session
- Blaming the partner directly for their behaviors and stating information with extreme descriptors such as “always” or “never”
- Seeing the therapy session as a “ranting board” and not doing anything about the insights developed from the session
While therapy is supposed to help resolve conflicts, it’s unexpected that not all sessions would be smooth-sailing. There might be times wherein one of the partners won’t agree to what is being discussed during the session.
De Jesus shared that these kinds of reactions are welcomed by the therapist and should be processed accordingly. “The goal is to be accommodating to the concerns brought by both parties, and to find a compromise between them,” he said.
How couples therapy can help you and your partner
Contrary to what some may believe, doing couples therapy isn’t just about lessening the fights, but more on helping the couples have better communication when disagreements and misunderstandings arise.
“The main benefit of therapy is the improved understanding of the self and how we contribute to the relationship that we have,” De Jesus shared. “It will help the couple to become more cognizant of their issues and allow for an improved manner of communicating.”
Instead of blaming each other or keeping tabs on who did what during fights, couples therapy teaches them how these patterns ruin their relationship, as well as give them strategies to help prevent and manage conflicts instead.
By doing therapy, couples can learn how to actively listen to what their partner has to say, give them space to express their feelings and thoughts without being attacked or invalidated, identify issues that lead to their recurring conflicts, and eliminate harmful behaviors.
Being open to hearing the argument from your partner’s perspective can help each couple approach the situation with empathy, as well as diffuse disagreements reasonably and respectfully.
“When couples in therapy are having a hard time, they should first try to resolve matters by themselves using the techniques that they learned from therapy. It would be highly helpful for them to recognize that they are already equipped with what they need to have in order to help themselves out,” De Jesus explained.
Moreover, the length and frequency of the therapy sessions depend on the severity of the issues presented by the couple. Those with serious concerns may have one to two sessions per week, while those with less serious concerns may only have one session a month.
For De Jesus, the criteria for ending therapy “depends on how the couple has mastered to live their life effectively, that they could already recognize their red flags and have adaptive coping strategies for it.”
Although most couples have positive results in therapy, De Jesus noted that “sometimes it can also be an eye opener that [some couples] really need to end their relationship as well.” He said that if a session has been going on for six months without any improvement, then it might be the best time to change your therapist or review your partner’s actions. – Rappler.com
Richthofen De Jesus is a mental health advocate, and the current clinical division head for Empath. He is a registered psychologist and psychometrician, and holds a certification in Clinical Dementia Rating and Psychological First Aid. He graduated from the University of Santo Tomas for both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology. His clinical career includes his track as a psychologist for the UST Hospital, St. Luke’s Medical Center-BGC, and currently, at the Asian Hospital and Medical Center. He also formerly taught at the University of Santo Tomas and De La Salle University. In 2017, he was the recipient of the Wundt Outstanding Teacher Award from the Iloilo Doctor’s College.