Righting the Ship: What to Expect from Couple’s Therapy

Halifax psychologists for couple's therapy and marriage counselingMaking the decision to work on your relationship through couple’s therapy can be difficult, and for most people, there are a lot of questions about what to expect. This article will attempt to demystify the process, and address three of the most common concerns that couples have coming into therapy.

1. It’s about figuring out who’s right or wrong.

It probably goes without saying that most couples coming into therapy are not getting along; this can take the form of frequent arguments, sometimes about the big things (e.g., how to discipline your children), and sometimes about the seemingly inconsequential things (e.g., how to properly load the dishwasher). Or, for some couples there isn’t much fighting, but there isn’t much talking or intimacy either. In all cases, both partners are probably going to have strong feelings about what’s happening in the relationship, how it got this way, and ultimately, who is to blame.

If you and your partner’s interpretations of events are wildly different, it can be tempting to seek allies to take your side. For some, a therapist’s opinion may seem like the definitive ruling on who’s wrong and who’s right. However, for most couple’s therapists, this is of very little interest, and is in fact based on a flawed premise: that it is possible for either partner’s feelings or perspectives to be “wrong”. Perspectives, feelings, emotions – these are subjective experiences (as opposed to objective facts), and therefore cannot be determined right or wrong, correct or incorrect, true or false, etc. Ultimately, a skilled couple’s therapist will be interested in helping each person recognize and grasp their partner’s perspectives, feelings, and experiences with one another, however different they might be.

2. You’ll need to explain every detail of what’s happened in your relationship.

The longer two people are together, the more “stuff” is added to your history as a couple. All of the laughs, fights, tears, and everything in between – these are all threads that make up the fabric of your relationship. When considering seeing a couple’s therapist, it can be daunting to imagine explaining all of this to a stranger; “We’ve been married for 20 years – how will the therapist ever know enough about what’s happened between us to help?” To be sure, if it was the therapist’s goal to know every intricate detail of your relationship, counselling would be a long, arduous endeavour, and in all likelihood, ultimately an unhelpful one. Instead of “unweaving” the fabric of your relationship to examine each individual thread, a therapist will likely be more concerned with the overall pattern of the fabric, and how each of you feel about it.

3. Your therapist will side with one of you based on gender.

This concern relates back to the first point – if the belief is that the goal of therapy is to determine who is wrong or right, it’s understandable that there would be some apprehension about whose side the therapist is going to come down on. For some, there could be the fear that the experience of one partner will resonate more deeply with the therapist than the other partner’s, simply by virtue of the therapist’s personal life (e.g., a therapist takes sides with a partner who has been cheated on due to infidelity in their own marriage). Or perhaps, there may even be an expectation (for heterosexual couples, at least) that the therapist would be more inclined to side with the partner that is their own gender, following what is colloquially referred to as “bro code” or “sister code”.

Of course, therapists are not immune from having gut reactions and emotions to people and their stories – we’re not robots, after all! However, part of the skill of a couple’s therapist is being able to rise above the “blame game” and observing the couple as a unit, where each partner is an equal contributor to its success and its failure. Most couple’s therapists will make sure to hold both partners accountable for their actions; therapy would not be very effective if unhelpful and detrimental behaviours were not acknowledged. However, it is much less important to scold and reprimand, and much more important to figure out how that situation or pattern of communication may have arisen in the first place.

Ultimately, every couple’s therapist is going have a slightly different approach, and it’s a matter of finding out what works for you and your partner. If you are considering starting couple’s therapy, doing some research into a therapist’s training and theoretical orientation may help answer some questions as to what therapy will look like once you get started.