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What NOT to Expect from Couples Therapy

Updated: Mar 6

A couples therapist is not there to take sides.

Couples usually walk into therapy in some obvious distress about the state of their relationship. Typically, they have a set of expectations about what couples therapy may be able to do for them. Some of these expectations may be reasonable, some less so.


Couple together on grass
It helps to have reasonable expectations

Here’s a list of expectations that range from the slightly unreasonable to the totally unproductive. Couples Therapist, Chris Langer, explains how such expectations can be managed for successful outcomes. Here's what not to expect from couples therapy.


Couples therapy will be an ‘instant fix’ for my relationship


This is extremely unlikely. It’s normally taken months or years for a couple to get to the point they don’t feel they can continue anymore. Habits, sometimes deeply entrenched ones, have formed. New, healthier habits will need to take their place.


Whilst the first few sessions may bring lots of relief because there’s a proper process in place, consistent effort will be required from both partners to change their relationship habits.

It’s reasonable to assume it will take 6-12 sessions to change things more permanently. The neuroscience of habit formation suggests it takes at least eight weeks for new habits to fully bed down.


The therapist will take my side because my partner’s in the wrong


A couples therapist is definitely not there to take sides. It’s never as simple as saying one partner is responsible for all the problems in the relationship. An even-handed, therapeutic approach will start to unravel the pattern of interactions.


In this way, both partners become aware of the part they play in maintaining the current pattern. It’s far more productive for everyone to be on the side of healthy interactions. Just as partners have created a certain relationship dynamic, they can be also creators of a new, healthier one too.


If I play along without putting in the work, I’ll get my partner back

Sometimes, couples therapy is treated as a way of getting a partner back after a breaking point has been reached. But showing up for couples therapy is not the same as actually putting in the work to make important changes for a long-lasting, healthy relationship.

 

The truth is that effort must come from both partners. Effective couples therapy is not about appeasing a partner to win them back. It’s about creating the right foundations and using the right skills to create a happier, more stable future.

 

It’s my partner that needs to change, not me


This is often an unspoken desire or expectation. However, it’s far more likely that the pattern and system of communication is responsible for the distress. Whenever we’re talking about a system, all parties need to become aware of their part in perpetuating it.


Saying just one partner needs to change is often a subtle form of finger pointing and is unhelpful. Accepting that real change involves the active participation of both partners is the key to overall improvement in the relationship.


Attending therapy without making changes outside sessions will be enough

 

Unfortunately, no. Couples therapy will provide the catalyst and impetus to change. But the key to a successful outcome is transferring the new knowledge and skills into daily life. This is the homework. A little practice outside sessions goes a long way.

 

The good news is that trying out new things between sessions massively increases the chances of success. Reporting back on what has worked outside sessions – and what hasn’t – enhances the learning from therapy.

 

Not saying how I really feel will make those feelings disappear


It’s understandable why feelings of anger, upset or resentment may be repressed and not fully expressed. But ignoring them creates further difficulties. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball under the water, it simply pops up again once you let go.


Bringing feelings to couples therapy and being able to express them calmly does in fact pay dividends. It’s not the feelings themselves that create issues in relationships, but the lack of calm, safe climate to express them.


Achieving this climate - often called ‘psychological safety’ - is an important goal for couples therapy.


It’s ok to criticise my partner’s ‘failings’


There are virtually no circumstances under which this works in practice. Instead, it creates defensiveness and, at best, an impasse in communication. Our brains simply go into ‘flight-or-fight’ mode because we are feel under threat if criticised.


Couples therapy is about building up a ‘culture of appreciation’. Once this is established, it is entirely possible to address valid concerns without it feeling like a personal attack to someone. There are proven techniques to help get the right results here.

 

To know exactly what you want from the outset


Couples often come into therapy in a distressed, confused state of mind. It’s not always possible to see the wood for the trees at this stage. Once the arguments stop going round in circles, the dialogue and direction of travel can be established.


When things settle down, partners often see that there is a reliable way of resolving conflict. New possibilities open up. An environment in which positive, healthy choices is created. This naturally feeds into a much clearer expression of what each person really wants.


Often, as couples therapy progresses, there is a recommitment to what is truly important to both partners. Both partners are able to state clearly in positive terms what they want, even when it wasn’t possible to say earlier on in the process.


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