It's often said that in couples therapy "the client is the couple." This idea sounds sensible enough but it limits our vision of what the couple format has to offer. There are actually three clients in couples therapy: the couple, of course, but also the two individuals who comprise the couple. This distinction matters because couples therapy not only offers powerful opportunities for partners to change how they interact, but each individual is simultaneously challenged to grow in the process. For this reason, the couples format may be the most dynamic of all forms of psychotherapy.
The ideal of passionate marriage based on love is a relatively recent development, but the majority of Americans seek it. However, the companionate and pragmatic marriages which are the norm throughout most of the world, are also practiced by many in the US. These are often considered "second rate" marriages but, quite frankly, they can be more stable than the passionate variety.
I work with a huge variety of partners of all sexual orientations, whether married or not. Most are emotionally committed, but some are struggling to decide if they're a match. Some are on the brink of falling apart, while others are reuniting after a separation or divorce. Some of my clients are polyamorous, so I might see three people together. There are also important friendships, family connections, or business partners that hit a serious snag, but have invested too much of themselves to give up without a fight. My work with so many types of partnerships is most accurately called relationship therapy.
Besides the sexual desire discrepancies and erotic incompatibilities which I discuss on the Sex Therapy page, partners seek help for a multitude of specific reasons, but five general areas of concern are especially common:
- unproductive conflicts and power struggles
- disputes over preferences, priorities, and values
- withdrawal and emotional disengagement
- facing an affair or other crisis
- exploring non-monogamy
Unproductive Conflicts and Power Struggles
Every relationship has disagreements and tests of wills. This is especially true for couples whose original attraction was passionate in nature. As the American poet Archibald MacLeish once said, "Awareness of similarity is friendship; awareness of difference is passion." Passionate connections are energized by a fascinating sense of otherness. The spark between them is like electricity jumping between two poles.
Conflicts born of difference are not necessarily a problem, quite the contrary. When differences show up in daily life, they're all-important reminders that two separate individuals are involved, which helps keep their chemistry alive. Things turn destructive when one or both partners bring unspoken expectations to the table and set out to remake the person who once seemed so special. Worse yet, rather than discussing or arguing productively about their differences and expectations, some partners fall into adversarial roles that tend to escalate as they employ the most basic tactics of war: attack and defend. In this mode, partners quickly forget what they're arguing about and the only point is to make the other person wrong, while trying to salvage a shred of dignity for oneself.
The best alternative is for someone (often the therapist, at first) to raise two fundamental questions: (1) what does it actually feel like to engage in this pointless sparring? and (2) what's truly at stake for each person? Exploring these questions requires a set of skills that can be learned—especially the ability to examine and discuss a conflict while it's going on, or soon afterwards. Instead of shouting louder to get heard, a partner might say, "Help me understand what you're trying to say; tell me more" —the polar opposite of, “Shut up and listen to me!”
In effective couples therapy, partners jointly develop a common understanding or narrative about recurring disagreements, including the "buttons" from the past that each pushes in the other, whether deliberately or unwittingly. I also encourage them to give this predictable sequence a name. Some call it "our dance" or "that thing." So when an argument begins to heat up, either or both can say, "we're doing 'that thing,' aren't we?" With practice, this recognition derails the argument and may even lead to laughter.
When a couple continues with an unworkable repetition in spite of an obvious impasse, the most common reason is accumulated resentments from the past. I propose that each person independently develop a resentments list to eventually be shared and discussed. The goal is to listen and not react reflexively—no small feat. Hearing and expressing resentments takes a lot of courage but it's one of the best ways I know to gradually clear the air.
These discussions also reveal the depth of a couple's reservoir of good will towards one another. Good will counteracts the urge to ascribe negative motivations to the other such as, "He's trying to humiliate me" or "She wants to tear me down." Partners who are positively disposed toward each other are able to reach out in numerous subtle ways to diffuse conflicts—a smile, a touch, an expression of care or understanding. The effect can be amazing when a partner says during an argument, "I can see how you would feel that way."
On the other hand, couples who have run out of good will, or forgotten how to tap into it, are in much deeper trouble. Famed couples researcher, John Gottman, has pointed out that the emotional death knell for love and respect is contempt—a combination of anger, superiority, and utter disgust—that dries up the last drop of good will.
Disputes Over Preferences, Priorities, and Values
As couples become intertwined in daily decision-making, disagreements are bound to arise. Of course, there are countless minor annoyances—e.g., which way to hang the toilet paper or squeeze the toothpaste, or how many urine drops are tolerable on the toilet rim. But even these can spiral out of control when they become symbols of so much more than themselves. More significant are the styles of living that are difficult or impossible to ignore—e.g., the level of clutter, whether the TV stays on all the time, tastes in music or decor, how often to go out. These kinds of differences are ripe for compromise, probably the most frequently-mentioned "secret" of marital success.
But one partner's concept of compromise may feel like total defeat to the other. Compromising is the search for solutions that both can live with comfortably. This means that each person must have "veto power" over any proposal. Trade-offs are usually required to make compromise work. Some people refuse to engage in back-and-forth negatiations because they seem completely unromantic. Paradoxically, those who insist on "loving" decision-making usually end up in notoriously unloving stalemates or win-lose battles in which the most conflict-averse partner gives in and gets even in other ways, perhaps by withholding sex or affection.
Deeply held priorities and values are closer to the heart of a person and can only be compromised at substantial cost. Conflicting approaches to life—immediate gratification vs. long-term security, building a community vs. maximum time at home, actively participating in extended family vs. focusing on the nuclear family, or pursuing a new career vs. a dependable paycheck—can never be resolved, but must be taken very seriously in ongoing discussions. If one person's approach dominates and the other continually capitulates, the damage will quietly spread like a lethal cancer.
Surprisingly, many people aren't even aware of the crucial meaning and importance certain things have for their partners. I consider this to be among of the top-tier responsibilities of a loving connection: when it comes to a person's deepest values and dreams, it is a fundamental act of love for the partner to find out about them and do all in his or her power to promote them. Failure to claim this responsibility is likely to leave your partner feeling alone, misunderstood, or unloved.
Withdrawal and Emotional Disengagement
Few things in life are more distressing than being consistently lonely in the presence of one's mate. Yet this is the unwelcome legacy of feeling chronically unheard or ignored, or that one can't ever seem to do anything right. But sometimes it's hard to tell whether withdrawal is the merely the passive outcome of long-term problems, or their active cause.
Disengagement is a wordless statement. But what, exactly, is the intended message? Am I losing hope after trying everything I know how to do? Am I depressed? Could I be testing my partner to break through my icy barrier and prove his or her love? Am I keeping up a silent attack until my partner apologizes profusely for "making" me feel this way? Honestly answering these questions takes extraordinary courage. But here are some things to ask yourself: How often have I turned away from this relationship and under what circumstances? Have I felt and acted this way before or with other people? Does my behavior remind me of anyone in my family? If I were to write a headline for my withdrawal, what would it proclaim?
Pulling away can also be a silent cry for help. But as a therapist I need to know if emotionally distant partners have given up and need help saying so, or if they've retreated in hopes of better days to come. Luckily, this isn't my call to make, so I ask directly.
Separation, usually viewed as the beginning of the end, is a scary proposition. Yet sometimes it's essential for the rebirth of a relationship. Trouble is, it's not always clear which it's going to be. From my position of working with dozens of couples at the crossroads, I can tell you this: a decison to start over, to get to know each other anew, to jettison all expectations, to make dates, to be separate, to cultivate one's own interests—whether or not this involves physically moving apart—can be transformative. Forget about any guarantees, though. I've seen couples on the rocks who came to the realization they must be together, while others who had declared undying love in spite of their troubles vanished from each other's lives as swiftly as the morning fog.
Facing an Affair or Other Crisis
No relationship that lasts beyond the bliss of early romance can avoid being tested. Events like the first argument, bouts of insecurity or mistrust, or fundamental questions about the relationship are essential rights of passage. When partnerships survive these tests, they move forward stronger than before.
Sooner or later, more significant tests may shake the connection to its core. It might come to light that a partner has a drug problem, an unresolved past relationship, or a secret erotic obsession. Or someone might fall into depression, lose a job, or be hit by an unexpected accident or illness. Career and relationship goals may seem hopelessly at odds, family conflicts might erupt, or perhaps a miscarriage will shatter a lifelong dream.
Life crises put an enormous strain on the best relationships. I've known more than a few that barely survived their wedding plans. The key to enduring a crises is to face it as a team. This can be tough, as intense emotions rise to the surface and may come out with a blast directed at one's mate—an unpleasant side-effect of closeness. Keep two things in mind: (1) teamwork in hard times usually involves arguments and disagreements, and (2) partners who make it through will discover the true strength of their attachment.
Then there might be an affair—the greatest fear of many partners. Statistics are all over the map, but affairs are a common in both good and bad relationships, and among women and men alike. Violations of monogamous agreements range from seemingly minor trysts and dalliances, to ongoing or multiple involvements. But the initial reactions of a deceived partner—betrayal, rage, hurt, and profound mistrust—tend to be similar, regardless of the severity of the infidelity.
Acting out of protectiveness or their own histories, friends and family may expect or demand that the betrayed partner immediately throw the cheater out and never look back. But unless the betrayal is the last straw, many partners hang in there, in spite of the emotional pain. The most courageous couples confront these situations head-on and, believe it or not, eventually come through the ordeal more intimate and real.
How can shattered trust ever be restored? There’s only one way that I’ve seen: rigorous honesty. A hurt partner has questions—lots of them—and needs tons of reassurance. If the "cheater" truly values the relationship, he or she will say it and show it, again and again, even when it's difficult. All questions should be answered honestly, with one exception: most requests for sexual details should be gently declined, because they only cause hurt, with no redeeming benefits.
There is an important place, especially after the acute reaction has calmed somewhat, for discussions about what the one who strayed was seeking, sexually and/or emotionally, that seemed to be missing with one's partner. I've noticed that the most valuable disclosures tend to be those offered unilaterally (without being questioned) and straight from the heart. I'll never forget the time that an emotionally cool husband, after staring into space as his wife cried and cursed, looked into her eyes and calmly said, "Do you wanna know what makes me tick sexually?" The healing had begun.
While affairs are far-and-away the most common type of non-monogamy, there are numerous other forms that are more-or-less agreed upon by both partners. Open marriage became something of a fad in the exploratory 1970s. But it was often practiced in a cavalier way with few, if any, discussions about attachment, insecurity, or jealousy.
For the most part, these experiments failed and the 1980s saw a resurgence of monogamous commitments. Yet, for some, an idea was planted that "responsible non-monogamy" could be approached in a way that works, and even contributes to stability of the primary bond.
Gay men are pioneers of honest non-monogamy. The fact that two men are involved and that men tend to be more interested in casual sex—combined with being "sexual outlaws" to begin with—has always meant that male partnerships either start out, or gradually evolve, to include some options for outside sex. While it's true that a minority of gay couples are completely monogamous after ten years together, it's not true that monogamy doesn't matter to a great many gays. Even gays who accept outside sex still embrace all of the values associated with emotional monogamy, including deep commitments, and a determination to hang in there for the long haul.
Regardless of sexual orientation, couples that allow for outside sex usually have agreed-upon guidelines. Hardly any have an "anything goes" attitude. Common agreements include: contacts must be only about sex without emotional involvement, mutual friends are off-limits, no one is to be brought home, and safer-sex guidelines must be followed. Some partners want full disclosure, while others prefer don't ask/don't tell; there's often disagreement on this point. Some only engage in shared outside sex, most notably "three-ways." The most popular straight version of shared sex is probably swinging.
Some gays, and many lesbian and straights, can't realistically agree to leave emotions out of sex. This is where polyamory comes in, a relationship style that accepts outside sexual and emotional involvements. Generally, primary partners want to know the secondary ones. It's easy to see why polyamory is the most complicated and challenging of all types of non-monogamy.
Sexually open arrangements are sometimes a solution for mismatched sexual interests or differing levels of sexual desire generally. I've seen some situations where opening things up actually improved the sex lives of the primary couple. Of course, the Internet offers a vast array of easily available sexual options—and lots of messy questions. Is it "cheating" to search for porn online? To engage in fantasy conversations with far away strangers? To masturbate while doing it?
Obviously, the risks of non-monogamy can be great. Jealousy runs deep and is typically impervious to intellectual beliefs that "enlightened" people don't have it. Opportunities for miscommunication and conflicting expectations abound. And one partner typically desires non-monogamy more than the other. No wonder so many couples considering or experimenting with non-monogamy seek assistance from a non-judgmental therapist.
My Approach to Couples Therapy
Couples therapy is an in-depth conversation between two or more partners and an unbiased therapist. Does such a therapist exist? Well no, not exactly. We all have biases and beliefs, and we deny them at our peril. But I usually find it quite easy to set aside my own ideals and preferences and turn my attention to what my clients are feeling and trying to say. Sometimes I'm a translator or a coach, but always an interested observer and gentle inquirer.
I always want to know about what originally drew them together, what keeps them together now, and what's most likely to pull them apart. The greater their current difficulties, the more I want to find out about the strengths they bring to the table, as partners and individuals. Likewise, I want to learn about their vulnerabilities and sensitivities
I want to know what they've been through, what were the absolute hardest things, what they'll never forget, and always cherish. Certainly I want to know about their shared goals, plus the ones that are out-of-sync. I also meet with each of them separately, to ask what they can't yet say and how they might be able to, and to find out how the relationship is advancing or hindering their individual development. And we'll open a discussion about the patterns and core beliefs they bring from their families and past relationships.
It's not my job to make any decisions about the relationship. But I don't hesitate to suggest experiments they might try, individually or together, to shake up an impasse or further their goals. Some goals I simply can't agree with, such as wanting one's partner to become someone different than they actually are. Other goals are equally unrealistic and counterproductive, such as wanting to feel as much passion after years together as they did at the beginning. I'll often reframe such a goal: "To learn everything we can about what makes us feel passionately towards each other today," and see if they can embrace it.
My definition of "intimacy" is clear and I always say so: it is the ability to become more of one's true self in the presence of the other. Intimacy takes two and has absolutely nothing to do with merging into one, and everything to do with genuine closeness and caring. It's always a work in progress, never complete or static. There is no intimacy without risk, and bold lovers cultivate a growing capacity to see and be seen.
To sit with a couple as they struggle to find each other without losing themselves is a great privilege. Recently, a friend asked if witnessing arguments has grown tiresome after all these years and my answer was "no." The hardest thing for me is watching a person or a couple helplessly repeat a painful pattern over and over. At such times I've felt helpless too, I must admit. But the far greater reality is that I've never stopped learning from the remarkable partners who've let me in on their deepest secrets. The search for enduring connection in a lonely world is one of life's greatest adventures.