Couples & Marital Counseling

“We Marry Our Unfinished Business.”
– Lori Gottlieb –

“Can my relationship be saved?” or, “Can you help us decide if we should stay together?”  These are questions I’m often asked and there is no one good response for everyone.  The most accurate thing I can say is something like this: “Couples work is hard and there are no guarantees, but you are wise to invest the time and you will likely learn something very important about yourself and each other.”

My Approach

I may view the process a little bit differently from some other couples counselors and it’s important that new clients understand my approach before coming in.  First, for this to be a valuable experience you must show commitment to each other.  That means you both show up and you have a shared goal.  Second, you are in couples therapy to change yourself.  Not your partner.  In other words, I approach my work with couples not with the goal of changing the other person but by doing your own individual work in a couples context.  The personal changes you make are the most effective way to improve the relationship itself.

Couples therapy isn’t looking for a victory.   The fundamental principle here is that you can’t control anything the other person does.  But you can influence what the other person does by changing your own behavior.  This is the principle that unlocks solutions.  And this is what may make my approach different from other providers.

So much more gets accomplished when you come in with this framework.  Because you know from the very beginning that whatever happens, you are going to have to change your response to what the other person is doing.  You are going to have to work on hearing the other person differently.  

The Problem

So many times when couples say, “he never listens to me” or “she never understands me,” I often ask: “how well do you listen to him or her?”  Many of the things we complain about with the other person are actually things we’re doing ourselves.  It just looks different.  The presentation is different.  Couples therapy is really individual therapy couched in the context of a couples counseling service.

So often we feel our partner should be telepathic.  “They should be able to see how tired I am,” or, “they should appreciate me and if they really loved me they would…”  But this is a very young place to be.  It is the child part of ourselves speaking.  We forget that as adults we can actually communicate with the other person and when we do so thoughtfully they will likely meet our needs.

What often happens in couples therapy is that couples come in and they talk a lot about complaints.  The complaining has usually been going on for a long time before they make it to my office.  It is a stalemate where the partners are stuck in a negative feedback loop, ping-ponging gripes about each other, back and forth.  Despite months, oftentimes years of this dynamic, the true message remains lost and change is evasive.  ”You’re never present,” or, “you’re always on the internet and I want to spend quality time together.”  The response might be, “I’m working hard to keep a roof over our head why don’t you get that.. why don’t you appreciate me?!” But here’s the thing: most of time the complaints are actually veiled compliments.

The Solution

This is a key point: the perceived complaint is actually a compliment.  She is really saying “I miss you.”  Interpreted differently, he’s not being a jerk he’s being vulnerable: “I love you and if I didn’t care about you I wouldn’t be saying these things.”

The problem here is that the presentation is bad.  A bid of affection that’s been mistaken as a criticism.  But both people really want the same thing.  They are each longing for the same connection.  But they don’t see that.  They see the other person as the enemy, as taking something from them.  

The focus is to change the way we hear the other person.  And then to change the way we communicate with them.  Two points: note the power of language as a fundamentally important principle with this approach.  Increasing awareness of the words and tone we use is its own discipline within couples counseling.  Next point, anger is the easiest way to soothe ourselves.  It’s innate in all of us.  Our amygdala (lizard brain) floods and we fight or flight.  Recognizing this normal phenomenon is another important facet of couples counseling work.  While the words and tone may convey anger, it’s what’s under the anger that’s really important: “I feel sad,” or, “I feel lonely, neglected and invisible.”  Those are the messages to extrapolate from the perceived criticisms.  When both partners are attuned and committed to working on themselves and the way they communicate their feelings, then we’re on our way in couples therapy.

The Discipline of Attunement

Along with the ubiquitous interruptions of social media and the breakneck pace of our lives, the efforts necessary to cultivate a relationship are often overlooked.  Relationships are inherently comprised of periods of acrimony.  This is normal.  But without sustained attention and maintenance, emotional intimacy wanes over time.  It’s possible to offset this distancing.  Whether you struggle to make time for one another, find it difficult to communicate effectively, or are dealing with something a little heavier, couples counseling is an important opportunity to shut out distractions and show up for one another.

Practicing Empathy

Increasing empathy toward one another is a big driver of change.  It can lead to more positive expressive practices between partners.  Counseling helps couples improve empathic communication and avoid the pitfalls around topics that lead to conflict.  As I’ve said earlier, the emphasis is not just on communicating, but communicating effectively.  Communication enhancement helps couples say what they need to say in better ways.  Every relationship has its strengths and weaknesses.  While some topics may be problem-oriented, effective counseling also celebrates and enhances strengths.  It helps couples identify the unique parts of their relationship and so they can explore and promote the better parts of one another.

Final Thoughts on Relationships

Relationships require work and are bound to face challenges.  Simple, everyday stressors can lead to a strained relationship.  However, most relationship problems are manageable as long as each partner is willing to address the issue at hand, look inwardly and pursue personal change, and actively participate in a shared solution.

1638 Eagle View Drive
Homer, AK 99603
(907) 602-2578

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