Couples Therapy: As If

Recently a friend asked me about my experience working with couples. He wondered if the biggest issues people bring in concern sex and money. It’s true of course: those are often the issues that bring people in. Couples, married or not, straight or gay, often come into therapy because these and other troubling issues seem intractable and they feel stuck.

While we do focus on these issues – sexual issues, differences with money, ways to communicate more clearly and empathically — what we tend to find in the process is that people’s own histories tend to collide and impede relating. In the work that I do with couples, we always have an eye on understanding how one’s own past, particularly the lessons and experiences obtained in one’s own family, influences how one relates to others.

It may be that a man comes to see that he relates to his partner as he did to his critical or overly needy mother. We see the man acting as if his wife were his mother. Similarly if a woman had an overly strict father or perhaps a distant, removed father, we tend to see her acting as if her partner were her parent. The work that we do is geared towards differentiating the past from the present, to see one’s partner as he or she really is and, thus, be able to relate differently.

Of course, there is usually some similarity in the partner to the parent (or some other significant figure from the past) that makes this image of him or her fit. But it is very important to see that he is not the father, she is not the mother. Rather, one is relating unconsciously along well defined patterns. Once this dynamic becomes clear, a couple often finds themselves relating more authentically, more warmly, and less as if…

It’s my belief that relationships provide the opportunity to heal emotional wounds obtained from childhood and one’s original family. In this work, the man no longer has to respond as if to that critical mother; the woman no longer has to feel berated by that overbearing father. I have found that couples who do this work feel a great sense of relief and are more able to relate to the one they are really with.

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