When we start out with our new “person”, it can be difficult to imagine that we would ever move out of the honeymoon phase. At the beginning, we love almost everything about our partner. We cocoon as we want to learn everything about them. We try to catch up on their life to date–family history, friends, favourite memories, previous relationships…the list goes on.
Time goes on…
However, over time, ‘real life’ starts to intrude into the special universe that we’ve created. Work pressures start to increase or are no longer able to be ignored. Friends want to spend time with us one-on-one. Perhaps, we’ve moved in together and the reality of being together 24/7 begins to hit. We start to look back on the early days of the relationship with a sense of longing.
As time goes on, not only can we lose touch with what attracted us to our partner, but we have compiled a list of all the ways that they have hurt or let us down. When we are hurt or feel that our partner “doesn’t have our back” the relationship becomes scarred. Scarring events can include such behaviours as infidelity (physical and/or emotional), addictions, putting other family members or jobs ahead of our partner, or any other action that threatens the attachment shared between partners. It’s up to each individual person in the couple to determine the severity of the damage because what is a big thing for one, may be ‘no big deal’ to the other.
Usually by the time a couple decides to see a therapist, the relationship has moved into a point of crisis. Often one partner has been ‘mandated’ by the other to come into therapy “or else”. Because someone could be using the support of a therapist as a way to tell their partner that they want to end the relationship, I usually ask my couples early in the process if the goal is “couple counselling or separation counselling”. Clients can find this question shocking as it may be the first time that one or both partners have thought about their situation in this way.
The focus in couple/relationship therapy is different than in individual therapy. In individual therapy, the individual is the client. In couple/relationship therapy, the relationship is the client. This means that work is done from the perspective of the relationship–i.e. what will make the relationship stronger.
Secrets in Couple/Relationship Therapy
Because the ‘relationship’ is the client, secrets are handled differently. Each therapist has their own way of dealing with secrets disclosed by the individual partners. I operate from the perspective that secrets are usually detrimental to the health of the relationship. While I won’t share the secret, I will help and support the partner in sharing it in a safe setting and in an appropriate way.
The First Four Sessions
As with any type of therapy, the first session can be intimidating–especially when someone is new to therapy. To lessen the anxiety, I tell clients upfront the agenda for the first four sessions.
At the first session, the goal is for the couple to talk about what brought them into therapy and what they would like me to know. This meeting gives us a chance to meet and determine if we can form a therapeutic relationship.
The second and third sessions are held individually with each partner. At these meetings, the goal is to provide each person with the opportunity to talk about their past history (both relationship and family), how they would like things to be different after therapy (goals) and anything else they would like to tell me. I also do a safety check at this time to see if abuse, addiction, etc. is occurring in the relationship.
The couple returns together for the fourth session and we discuss the conclusions from the two individual sessions. By then, I have a clearer idea of possible goals for therapy (as expressed by each partner) and we work on creating shared goals and a therapy plan.
As therapy continues we look at the scarring events that are affecting the current relationship, as well as skill building and ways to re-engage in the relationship.
As a couple you don’t need to be in trouble before talking with a therapist. It can be useful to think of therapy as preventative medicine before relationship scars deepen. If you feel that your relationship could benefit from therapy (either because of crisis as a form of prevention), feel free to contact me and we can explore how I can help.