«We’ve tried everything”. «If only my partner changed». «I don’t trust my partner”. «We are overwhelmed». «We have no emotional intimacy». «I am sexually dissatisfied.» Do any of these statements resonate with your situation or with how you feel? 

You may be wondering if couples therapy can make a difference in these sensitive and complex issues. While there may be things in your couple’s situation that are difficult to change, the way of coping with different difficulties is something that can be worked on.  If you just remember one statement from this article, may it be the following: going to couples therapy can reduce the percentage of negativity you experience in your living together.

If you consider that there are more negative than positive interactions in your relationship then it may be a time to pause and consider a different approach. John Gottman’s magic ratio – based on years of research – states that a happy marriage (see also a happy couple) uses 5 positive interactions for every negative one; a ratio of 5:1 (Benson, 2017). This ratio is especially relevant considering the changes we have experienced as a society. Today’s so-called digital couple considers emotions and feelings experienced in the relationship of paramount importance and a priority (Requena and Ayuso, 2022). 

According to Bonior (2017) the following situations would be signs that indicate the need for couples therapy: that trust has been broken, arguments becoming more frequent, a poor communication, something being perceived as not being right (even if you do not know what it is), you wanting to communicate something to your partner but not knowing how to do it, one or both of you not managing conflicts well, that you have gone through something devastating that has changed the way you connect, being stuck in negative patterns, experiencing a lack or disappearance of emotional intimacy, and problems in sexual intimacy. 

Who comes to couples therapy? According to Ceberio and Maresma (2022) there are couples who come to address repeated crises, others who come with increasingly frequent problematic arguments/interactions and finally couples who come with a desire to prevent future problems (who only have a few current misalignments).

I would like to take the different components that make a computer function as a metaphor to describe relational conflict. I believe that in our «hardware» we have the necessary ingredients to know how to relate with each other and how to manage conflict. There are life experiences that can affect the hardware to a greater or lesser extent, but recognizing areas of vulnerability can restore its function. What does not always work is the software that is used. Although compatible with the hardware, it may be more of a barrier than a facilitator. Your own attempts at resolution may not lead to the expected result. In these cases, the attempts to solve the problem become a problem in themselves. Unlearning strategies that have not worked for you and consolidating more effective ones is something we work on in couples therapy. 

Although each partner has his or her own version of the problem and may have a greater or lesser idea of what he or she would like to see different in his or her partner’s behavior or attitude, it still starts with an assumption. In family and couples therapy, interactions are not seen in a linear way, that is, with a determined cause and effect. Rather, they are seen through a circular lens: a dance with a series of game rules that maintain a problematic interaction. Assumptions about blame and where the problem lies can become a problematic pattern in itself. If you find yourselves stuck in incompatible postures that seem irreconcilable, again, it may be a good time to make an appointment with a couples therapist. 

If you are a mixed couple, a reconstituted family, a couple in a long-distance relationship, or if you are going through times of transition and a lot of change (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic): the very context in which you find yourselves means that you have to deal with additional difficulties and challenges. Sometimes a couple comes to therapy when strategies that have been working for a while are not as effective with the particular changes and/ or demands that the couple has to face. 

Falling out of love is another issue that -although it may be more subtle- also deserves attention. Perhaps it may be possible to reignite the flame (even if sometimes it can no longer be restarted), find ways to reconcile differences (coming to celebrate some differences rather than seeing them as hindrances) and change the rules of the game in order to increase the relationship satisfaction. Couples therapy can also be a space to create a new relationship contract (Ceberio and Maresma, 2022) for couples who have been together for a long time. 

If on the other hand you do not know how to continue and you find yourselves stuck, couples therapy can help you to make sense of your needs, desires and dreams and see if you can be that person who comes alongside the other or, alternatively, that your lives take different and separate directions. 

Couples therapy is a matter of two. Although you can have some success through an individual form of therapy and your changes may have some impact on your partner, the couple is more than the sum of its parts. If the couple dynamic is like a dance, both partners have to learn not only the necessary moves, but they will have to coordinate and match each other’s pace. Maybe one of the partners is the one who wants to come, with the resistance of the other. How to get your partner to join you?

  1. Choose a good time and a safe environment (Ratowski, 2022). Suggesting couples therapy in the middle of a heated argument may not be the best idea. Postpone the conversation to a time that your partner is more open. Part of choosing a good time is also setting the stage by connecting emotionally: be sure to show your partner that he or she is loved and appreciated (Benson, 2020). 
  2. Be open to hearing your partner’s perspective from a non-defensive stance. Your willingness to listen may indicate to him or her that couples therapy is not about assigning blame but about addressing the issues that affect you. Although being non-defensive can be difficult, especially if your partner responds with accusations and blaming, perhaps that attitude on your partner’s behalf is a sign of his or her emotional pain (Benson, 2020) that can be alleviated by a gentle and empathetic response on your part. 
  3. When talking about your reasons for considering couples therapy, use phrases that begin with «I» and not «you». Talk about how the problem affects you rather than what you see that needs to change in your partner. If you are going to talk about problems, try to focus on specific issues and avoid generalizations. This might help to prevent your partner from becoming defensive and finding yourselves with an unresolved conflict.
  4. Highlight the attractive and positive points of going to couples therapy (Benson, 2020). Like selling a product, it will have to meet a need and be anticipated as beneficial (Gordon, 2022). 
  5. Invite your partner to come from a non-demanding stance (Benson, 2020). Respecting your partner’s response leaves room to talk about his/her position without pressure. Regardless of his/her response, use the moment to talk about it. His/her response can give you valuable information about your relationship. If your partner feels trapped with your way of proposing, he or she will be forced to submit or rebel to your approach.

Even if you have tried everything in your own efforts: give couples therapy a chance to try it differently. Seeing a couple’s therapist is a first symptom of change (Ceberio and Maresma, 2022): you would be trying to solve the problem in a different way.

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