Having a good relationship with a partner is one of the most difficult things you can do; an obvious statement. but one that still challenges us. It seemed so easy in the beginning of the relationship. The special moments of passion, easy communication, and genuine interest in the other give way over time to disillusionment and despair. The disappointment turns into a never ending power struggle over what's true and a cycle of blame begins over what's wrong in the relationship. Feeling devalued, unappreciated, abandoned, alone, disconnected, disliked, and a sense of losing ourselves...all these feelings and perceptions make us want to fight to regain connection or flee to protect ourselves from attack and misunderstanding. Sometimes, we are so churned up by the day-to-day conflicts that we are don't realize that we tend to choose people who resemble significant aspects of our parents, particularly the one with whom we had so much trouble. This is not by accident; it is as if we yearn to resolve unfinished buiness from childhood. So, it is actually through our current relationship conflict that healing is attempting to emerge - sort of like "no pain, no gain". What couples therapy aims to accomplish is a process of healing through increased consciousness, compassion, and behavior change. When we are injured in our current relationship, healing requires a repair process and not just a place to dump our anger...we need for our partner to "get us", and we also need to be able to "get" the pain of our partner. Couples therapy allows you to communicate your experience of upset without replaying the "blame-shame" cycle. We relive the past in the present, but hopefully we transform wounding into growth with our partner.
What Happens in Couples Therapy
Often, people worry that couples therapy will make things worse. In fact, many people have had bad experiences with previous couples therapy. Effective couples therapy needs to be conducted by someone who has advanced training in working with couples. Make sure you ask the psychologist or social worker with whom you are considring working, "Where did you get your training in couples therapy? Please tell me about it." One common misperception of couples is that they will go to an impartial professional who will be a referee, someone who will say who's right and who's wrong with each issue discussed. This is not what is most effective; usually this only leads to arguments in the parking lot with one person saying, "I told you I was right!". Effective couples therapy looks at the system, the dance that is being perpetuated by both people - one could call it the cycle that couples seem to enact over and over again until it feels frozen. The key is when both people are willing to "hold" their partner's upset, to minimize criticism and defensiveness, and maybe to even do the hardest part - to look at one's own part to creating/maintaining the problems in the relationship and how our own behavior impacts on the other. Then, real progress is possible. Of course, this is often not what it feels like in the beginning of couples therapy, particularly when some traumatic event has occurred (e.g., an affair has been uncovered). We first need our suffering to be understood. So, what are some of the features of how I do couples therapy:
- Assess the Problem including issues around creating and sustaining intimacy, life stressors, addictive processes, triangles (affairs), family of origin, one's own family, power struggles, ritual impasses, and personality issues
- Uncover attachment longings that relate to needs for connection in the relationship like availability, responsiveness, and engagement
- Identify complementary styles of relating and how they fit/impact one's partner - some people have an easier time expressing neeeds for closeness while others have an easier time with needs for separate space so that therapy helps to build underdeveloped parts of self
- Help couples Increase their ability to regulate emotional states in oneself and one's partner so that couples learn to develop a sense of safety in the relationship and restore a feeling of closeness
- Develop communication skills so that partners can effectively express their concerns and listen effectiveley to the other's upset
- Foster risk taking to have couple try on new behaviors so that a couple moves from a fused relationship where one reacts (often with anger) and the other adapts (just going along or withdrawing) to one where the couple can move between needs to nuture self/build boundaries and needs to foster empathy/care for the other
Sometimes, I like to do double sessions and on occasion even longer. It is very difficult to start a session and then hear "times up" from the therapist just as things are getting going or are heating up. So, I would rather meet with people less frequently and for longer sessions. The issues around frequency of session and length for each one is something I discuss with every couple. I begin all couples therapy with both partners and not with just one person. However, I do see a number of individuals to work on relationship issues; if the person wants to then include his/her partner, I will refer them to a colleague. Please feel free to call with questions before scheduling an appointment.
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