Fundamentals of Couples Therapy

By Michael Korson, MFT
A large portion of my psychotherapy practice is comprised of working with couples (both straight and gay). I very much enjoy this work, and I find working with couples to be a very dynamic experience. I believe the couples I work with experience me as an involved participant, not just a distant presence. Unfortunately, couples often come into therapy after experiencing severe problems for a long time. Fortunately, sometimes some couples don’t wait for things to get to this point and come in so as to fine tune their relationship. Almost always, couples come in experiencing ineffective communication that makes it difficult to resolve their problems and differences. They have their histories as well, both as individuals and as a couple, which influence how they act and what they think about intimate relations. It is my job, as someone on the outside who is able to peer into the workings of their relationship, to provide a perspective that can help illuminate the dynamics and assist in developing the kind of communication that will resolve issues and build greater intimacy.

At the heart of improving relationships and building intimacy is communication, and I am always focusing on how the couple communicates with one another. My job is not just to point out where communication goes awry, but to help the couple learn and practice effective communication skills. I often speak about empathy, really understanding the other, putting oneself in the other’s shoes, and creating a foundation of compassion.

When working with couples, my attention moves back and forth between the couple’s dynamics and each individual’s particular contributions to those dynamics. I will, for example, comment on what the couple is doing: about how people respond reactively or defensively to one another; how intimacy is expressed or thwarted; how compromises are forged or avoided. And I’ll comment on what I see as each person’s part and my understanding of what from that person’s history may be influencing his or her actions.

I know that human relationships have the potential to be rewarding and meaningful, as well as complicated and difficult. Relationships are not easy; they take work. I have worked with many couples. And while my approach is unique with each couple I meet, while I endeavor to understand their issues and help them with what they need, I have over the years seen that there are some fundamentals to this work. I’d like to share what I’ve observed. Below I comment on the process of creating truly effective communication, which in itself serves as the foundation for intimacy. And I also write about couples therapy as a way of helping individuals to heal from their past emotional wounds. While I present the different aspects of effective couples counseling in a somewhat schematic form in order to highlight them, the real experience is, of course, not so linear or formulaic. At any one time, couples in therapy are usually talking about current issues, impaired communication, arguments, differences between them, and ways that their pasts influence them.

Practicing Effective Communication: Creating a Solid Foundation for Relating

Ending the “Debate Mode”

As I said above, the foundation of human relations is based on communication. Usually couples come into therapy because they are not doing well and may be arguing frequently. (Sometimes they are actually not arguing and have to learn how to effectively fight.) Their arguments often tend to take a shape that I refer to as the “debate mode.” Instead of really listening to one another, the two people are engaged in a seemingly endless debate. “This happened.” “No it didn’t, this happened.” “No it didn’t” “You said this.” “No I didn’t.” Couples caught in this dynamic rarely feel any sense of real resolution. In fact, often they are quite despairing and feel hopeless about their future.

When working with such a couple, one of my first goals is to end this debate mode and help instill a process of genuine listening and more emotionally honest communication. I will first point out what I’m observing. This outside perspective is one of the most important tools that I have to offer a couple. When two people are fighting a lot and immersed in this dynamic, they can’t see the forest from the trees. They easily get lost and stuck. So I will point out what I’m seeing and usually suggest that it would waste everyone’s time to continue in this fashion here in therapy. With my help, they can learn and practice different ways of interacting.

Practicing “Active Listening”

Pointing out the underlying dynamics is only the initial step. From there, I introduce a different way of relating and communicating. This process is commonly called “active listening,” but I offer my own variations on the form. First, this process involves each person reflecting back to the other just what they are hearing the other say. The goal at this point is to simply get what the other is saying and not refute or react to it. While this may sound simple, it’s not (especially when people have heated emotions). And while it may seem formulaic, my experience is that couples, particularly those fighting to save or revive their relationship, appreciate the benefits of this type of communication.

An example of this might be one person saying “I hear that you are feeling criticized and attacked by me when I tell you…” Or “I know that it was your experience that I raised my voice last night.” We then make sure that what that person is reflecting is accurate; that the person really does feel heard. If anything has been left out, then we make sure to add it.

The next step – one that I particularly emphasize – is for that person who is doing the reflecting to add some of his or her feelings about what the other person is saying. Here I make sure that people talk about feelings and not judgments. Feelings do not include a “that” in them: “I feel that…” Nope, that’s not a feeling. So if the speaker has said that she feels criticized, the emotional response I’m looking for is something about how it makes the person feel to hear that his or her partner is feeling criticized. I often emphasize that this is not about blame or taking responsibility for the other’s feelings. This stage in the communication is about acknowledging feelings. “I’m sad that you feel criticized.” Or “Of course I don’t want you to feel this way.”

Impact and Intent

At this point, we have hopefully broken the debate cycle about whose reality is really real. And now we are moving more into the realm of feelings. The person reflecting back has acknowledged the other’s feelings or experience. And now the emphasis is on acknowledging the impact of his or her words or behavior on the other. What he or she has said or done has impacted the other; by acknowledging that impact, the person isn’t assuming responsibility or guilt. Instead, that person is really focusing on what that impact was. That person may say “I get it that you felt hurt by my words” or “I see that what I did had that impact on you.” Of course, there may be a time for taking responsibility. But at this stage in changing the way people communicate, the focus is on impact. In this way, the other’s feelings and experiences are legitimated. What one person said or did had that impact.

Now I help the person doing the reflecting to talk about his or her intent, what he or she was really trying to communicate or do. That person might say “I really don’t want to criticize you. But I am upset that you…” Or “I know that you felt criticized; I really just wanted to let you know that I felt…” Notice the use of “I” statements (a crucial aspect of effective communication). This member of the couple has a point of view too that needs to be heard…and then reflected back. That point of view is his or her intent. When couples are able to acknowledge impact and intent (of course, when the intent was not purposefully to hurt the other), great possibilities in communication opens up and defensiveness and reactivity diminishes. To truly get what the impact was on the other, while that person acknowledges and understands his or her partner’s intent, creates a bond of understanding that allows hurt feelings to heal and communication to better flow. The arguments that brought them into therapy generally decrease, and the couple’s ability to talk things out, in the room with me and outside of the therapy office, increases. This type of communication is essential for any couple to be able to relate honestly and sincerely and move through their issues. Fostering this ability to communicate – this way of intimately relating — is one of the essential goals of therapy.

Undoing the Lessons of the Past:
Couples Therapy as an Opportunity to Heal from the Past.

I am aware that there are certain schools of psychotherapy that do not focus much on a person’s family history. Instead, their focus is solely on resolving current issues. And while I strive to help couples ameliorate the issues that bring them in, I find that not focusing on their pasts, including their individual histories, wastes an opportunity for healing to occur for the couple as a whole and for each individual as well. I firmly believe that relationships often illuminate one’s issues from the past and provide the means to resolve them as well.

Often when I have been working with couples for a while, and we have been able to create better communication and alleviate many of the pressing issues that first brought them into therapy, a wonderful opportunity arises to help each person heal from some of the wounds of their individual pasts. I help create a focus on helping each person grow, heal, and become more of his or her genuine self. This process helps each person work through relational issues that predate their current relationship and that may have been forged long ago. Couples, married or not, straight or gay, come into therapy for help because of some troubling issues that often seem intractable. In the work that I do, we always have an eye on understanding how one’s own past, particularly the lessons and experiences obtained in one’s own family of origin, influences each person.

While the initial focus in therapy is the problems that brought people in – arguments that they are having, differences they are struggling to navigate — we tend to find in the process that people’s own histories influence the way they relate. With this view in mind, it is not surprising, for example, for a man to see that he relates to his partner as he did to other significant women in his past. Perhaps his mother was critical of him or overly needy. We see the man acting as if his wife were this critical or needy 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. This very human process is called projection: the way we take significant relationships of the past and make them into a blue print or lens for seeing the present. Our goal is to understand how the past functions in this way and to differentiate the past from the present — to see one’s partner more clearly without the influence of the past.

Of course, there is usually enough similarity in the partner to the parent or figure from the past that makes this projection onto him or her fit. However, it is our goal to see that he is not the father, she is not the mother. Once this dynamic becomes clear, a couple often relates more authentically, more warmly, and less in an as if way to past significant figures. Not only is there a better effect on the way a person relates in the present, but through this work, often involving very intimate and vulnerable emotions felt in the session, there is also a positive effect on the past. I often say that we cannot go back and change the past. But what we can do, and what often happens in couples therapy, is that we can heal some of the wounds from the past. When this is done in the presence of one’s significant other, it is truly an intimate process which builds greater closeness.

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