Couples Therapy as Prevention, Not Cure
By Ian Hammonds, LMFT-Associate
In my early years of training as a Marriage and Family Therapist, during the first several months of being licensed and completing my internship, I was exposed to a myriad of couples in various kinds of crises. Affairs, addiction, physical and emotional violence, terminal illnesses, etc. quickly became the norm in session. I became accustomed to meeting couples who were caught in a negative cycle, which they brought into our initial sessions. I got used to couples coming in and swearing at each other, partners storming out of session, and long-hidden secrets being revealed in unpredictable ways. I began to brace myself for various kinds of hostility in the first several sessions and got used to chaos being the norm in roughly 80% of the new couples I would meet with the first time.
Recently, I have noticed that the tides have been turning. While I still see a fair amount of couples coming to me in full on survival mode in their first session, I have been noticing a lot more couples wanting to work on their marriage as a preventative measure. They come to me in a peaceful state, able to turn to each other and respect each other’s boundaries as well as validate each other’s needs (skills that some high-conflict couples don’t even acquire until eight weeks into couples counseling!). These couples with low conflict and high levels of respect for each other’s needs are coming to counseling simply because they are preventing the frightful day where they become entrenched in conflict.
As a therapist, seeing this a growing trend is incredibly refreshing. Not only because you’re not bracing your seat by the end of session like with some highly conflictual couples (though these are welcome in my office as well!), but it is also incredibly reassuring that people are catching onto the idea of how many benefits counseling can offer! If a couple comes to me with little to no conflict and are wanting to see me on the mere basis of preventing any major problems from happening in the future, this speaks to each partners’ emotional maturity level and the overall strength of the bond the couple shares.
I am a firm believer that each couple who walks through my door, no matter how supportive or soft-spoken they appear to be, has an ingrained pattern in the relationship. Such common patterns are:
--Pursue/Withdraw: One partner reaches for the other partner more often than not, while the other partner has a general wall up against the other partner (conscious or not).
--Pursue/Pursue: Both partners put an equal emphasis in reaching for each other, and both partners are both motivated to find out if the other person is there reaching back for them
--Withdraw/withdraw: Neither partner wants to engage on an emotionally vulnerable level, and both partners appear to be shut down and resigned from each other.
As a couples therapist, it is my job to assess what kind of dominant pattern each couple has ingrained into their relationship. With most of the couples I see who are in a good starting off with little conflict, I typically see the pursue/withdraw pattern very present in the room. This pattern can also change over time, I have seen in my couples doing preventative work on their marriage, where one partner who initially pursued has withdrawn as they realized that there was less of a need to pursue their partner (i.e. they realized their partner had been there the whole time!) Conversely, I have seen the withdrawn partners let down their walls when they realize that it is safe to reach back to their partner.
Acknowledging Family Attachment
Like the couple patterns, I am also a firm believer in each couple walking into their initial session with some kind of past struggle that they have gone through within their family of origin. Each partner has their own unique story surrounding a relationship or marriage, and these kinds of familial narratives and patterns will undoubtedly impact their marriage in some way. Whether it’s something as simple as a particular kind of food a partner prefers or something all-encompassing as the death of a parent or close relative and the toll that took on the family. Each marriage blends in the effects of the family that raised each partner. This is unavoidable.
In my couples I see who are doing preventative work, there is almost always an overarching theme of family influence. Past abuse from a parent or family member, clashing ideals on raising children, and establishing boundaries with in-laws are some of the very common themes I have seen in couples work. It is important as a therapist to give each partner space to bring in their family history, because this will inevitably create conflict in a marriage.
The Role of Healthy Communication
Lastly, one of the most commonly asked questions from my couples is “How can we communicate well?” This can actually be a blanket question for virtually every couple I have seen. But more specifically, the low-conflict couples I see are wanting a therapist to give them useful communication tools to work on should they feel completely out of control of their conflict. This is completely fair as couples are constantly trying to communicate effectively.
Another role as a therapist treating couples doing preventative work is to educate them on what healthy conflict versus unhealthy conflict looks like. Recently i a fellow therapist shared her experiences of a case when she confronted a partner on their abusive tendencies in their marriage. The person subsequently stormed out of the room and commanded their spouse to follow them. While this couple by no means fits the mold of a low-conflict couple, the therapist in that case provided a much-needed educational voice. Abuse is never acceptable.
Some partners are not aware that how they communicate is emotionally or verbally abusive. Or simply that their words can harm the other partner’s sense of self. This is when a therapist can use reflection to call out the partner’s visible pain in reaction to the other partner’s words. In some cases, providing education on such harmful concepts such as gaslighting, blame-shifting, or belittling can mean the difference between a couple surviving or not!
Whether you are in crisis or are thinking about taking preventative steps to create a healthy relationship, marriage therapy can help! However, don’t wait until you are in the midst of crisis to seek skills around communication and conflict. Learning new ways to connect intimately with your partner works best in an environment of safety.
If you recognize that you and your partner are in a good place to begin preventative Couples' Therapy, or if you are still single, but want to understand yourself and your patterns, reach out! We offer free phone consults with any of our therapists here at Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center, or drop me a line at: email@example.com and start your journey to a STRONG relationship today!