In the safety of couples therapy, you and your partner can explore the underlying dynamics that are interfering with effective communication and reducing relationship satisfaction. Both partners can become aware of why certain predictable and circular patterns of interaction continue without reaching any satisfying resolution. Increased awareness, along with the use of new skills, helps yield change in feelings and behaviors within the relationship. Old patterns can be interrupted in couples counseling and replaced by more accepting, constructive, mutually loving ways of relating.
How does couples therapy help you accomplish these improvements? In a recent article, Benson, McGinn, and Christensen (2012) examined more than 40 years of research on couples and couples counseling and extracted five fundamental aims that must be present in couples therapy to maximize the chances of successful and lasting change in a relationship. You should make sure that your couples therapy pursues all of these important goals.
For couples counseling to be successful it must:
1) Change the partners' views of the relationship. Throughout the psychotherapy process, the therapist should help both partners see the relationship in a more objective manner. They should learn to stop the "blame game" and instead look at what happens to them as a predictable process involving each partner.
2) Modify dysfunctional behavior. Effective couples counselors should help change the way that the partners actually behave with each other. In addition to promoting improvements in their day-to-day interactions, couples therapists also need to ensure that their clients are not engaging in actions that can cause emotional, physical, or financial harm.
3) Decrease emotional avoidance. Couples who don't express uncomfortable, private feelings put themselves at greater risk of becoming emotionally distant and hence growing apart. Effective couples therapy helps clients bring out the emotions and thoughts that they fear expressing to the other person. Successful couples therapy also allows the partners to feel less afraid of expressing their needs for closeness.
4) Improve communication. Effective communication is one of the "three C's" of intimacy (along with Closeness and Commitment). Successful couples therapy focuses on helping partners to communicate more effectively. Building on principles #2 and #3, this communication should not be hostile, nor should partners mock or deride each other when they do express their true feelings. Couples may, therefore, require "coaching" in couples counseling to learn and practice how to speak and listen to each other in more supportive and understanding ways.
5) Promote strengths. Effective couples counseling highlights the strengths in the relationship and builds resilience, particularly as therapy nears a close. Because so much of couples counseling involves focusing on problem areas, it's easy to lose sight of the many areas in which couples function effectively. The purpose of strength promotion is to help a couple consolidate what is working well in their relationship so that they can maximize the enjoyment they feel in each others' company.
It's important to note that couples counseling is not just for unhappy or struggling couples - couples therapy can be used proactively to strengthen bonds and to gain a better understanding of one another in both new and seasoned relationships. In addition, before a marriage is launched, pre-marital counseling can be of immense assistance to couples who want to identify and then iron out differences in communication styles and compatibility before their wedding day.
Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common principles of couple therapy. Behavior Therapy, 43(1), 25-35.