By Howard M. Turney, Ph.D., MSW and Rebecca F. Ward, MSW, LCSW
Photography by David Yerby
Couples really benefit from therapy. Self-help books, TV, movies and commercials are all about relationships. We are a species that needs relationships; most of the happiest folks are those who have found good friendships as well as a close emotionally intimate relationship. This is a complicated union, and a marital relationship often needs help to guide it through developmental phases so it can progress to the warm, loving comfort of a good marriage.
How we learn about relating, loving, being loved and trusting is born out of our early interactions with our primary caregivers, usually Mom and Dad, who hopefully loved us enough so that we could learn to love, too. If they came when we needed them, calmed our fears when there were monsters in the closet, sensed when we were hungry or out of sorts and tried to figure us out and make us better, that helped us learn. Consistent nurturing treatment by our parents is crucial to our own ability to form good relationships.
Why do couples have so much trouble? Much of that likely has to do with unrealistic expectations.
We seem to expect far more from a marriage partner than they can realistically provide. Being married in and of itself cannot make you happy, though many expect it to. It takes two happy, relatively secure people who are pleased with the life choices they’ve made, the occupations they’ve chosen and the lifestyle they’ve created to be in a happy marriage. Just achieving these goals as an individual takes some time and that’s why many studies show the best time for a successful marriage to begin is ages 28 to 32.
In spite of the statistics about when to get married, couples come to therapy when they become so frustrated that they can’t handle the unhappiness in their marriage. They know something is just not working and they want to figure out what so they can address it. They can’t communicate, they don’t feel understood, heard or valued. Some come to couple’s therapy to save the marriage, some come in to see if it can be saved and some come in to end the marriage.
What happens in couples therapy? The therapist observes and inquires about the climate of the situation. From the first encounter the therapist’s goal is to gain insight into the problem by watching, listening and asking questions. The therapist is not there to referee, to judge, to determine who is at fault or find the “bad guy.” The clinician is there to find out why two people are unable to honor their original commitment. What ghosts from the past are interfering with the actions of the present?
The skilled practitioner probes into the past to see what kind of family each spouse was born into and raised. The therapist, knowing that the parental marriage is the prototype each spouse has, may ask questions like “How did their parents express affection to each other? How were feelings accepted and expressed in the family? How were conflicts resolved?” If the therapist finds out that one of the partners was left in an orphanage during hard times, he can understand why that partner cannot form trusting lasting relationships. The therapist may discover another spouse was abused as a child; another was raised by people who never expressed emotions. The therapist helps the couple look at their families of origin to discover how those relationships affect them today.
A huge part of the therapist’s role is helping the couple see how their emotional blocks are keeping them from experiencing intimacy and comfort and trying to bring what the couple is unaware of into their conscious awareness. With self-understanding, as well as understanding of the other, comes a sense that the two can control how much the past will control them going forward. The key factor is for each partner to assume responsibility for their part in the marital misery. Each needs to own their own baggage and not blame their partner for their own actions. When each realizes there are two people trying to succeed, but that they’re often sabotaged by outside forces, they feel a new sense of hope about what each can do to learn new ways to communicate so more understanding and acceptance is possible. The blaming stance is eliminated as each claims equal participation in the problems. They feel more positive about their marriage. They learn to have confrontations that are helpful instead of destructive as openness and transparency increase.
For certain, marriage grows people right up. And marriage is not for the immature soul who is looking for unconditional love. It’s a tough gig for sure, but it also gives us the opportunity to have the closest relationship we can have on this planet. Go for it.