What You Need to Know about Couples Therapy

What are the reasons couples come to therapy?divorce-908743_1280

“He had imagined that in marriage he and Nancy would cleave to each other and become one – in some vague biblical sense of the word – whereas he was constantly aware of the difference between them and she frequently unbalanced him when he had expected – hoped – her to root him” A God in Ruins. Kate Atkinson.

The most common presenting reasons couples arrive in my office are:

  1. “We have drifted apart, we feel more like room mates than partners”
  2. “We fight all of the time”
  3. “We can’t communicate”
  4. “He wants something different to me (or visa versa).”
  5. “He/She had an affair”
  6. “The relationship has changed since the children came along”
  7. “He/She is not the person I feel in love with”
  8. “I am not in love with him/her any more”
  9. “My partner is not in love with me anymore”
  10. “We are stuck”
  11. “He/She doesn’t want sex anymore”
  12. “He/She doesn’t understand me”
  13. “I can’t trust him/her”
  14. “She keeps nagging me”
  15. “He won’t help out”

And there are more. How I describe it is that couples are trying to negotiate and resolve their challenging differences and have not been successful in doing that themselves. One or the other will then suggest couples therapy.

Sometimes these issues are just emerging but often they have been lingering for a good number of years. Research has shown that on average couples wait six years before seeking help for relationship problems. This gives the issues a good long time to become deeply embedded. I would encourage you, if you are bumping up against regular problems in your relationship to go for therapy sooner rather than later as this gives more of a chance of repair and less years of frustration and anger.

What is to be gained from Couples Therapy?

“The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives” Esther Perel

By choosing to attend couples therapy you are investing in the most significant relationship currently in your life. From this process you will gain:

  1. A deeper understanding of yourself as a partner in this relationship.
  2. Awareness of what matters most to you in this relationship and ways to express that.
  3. More effective ways to communicate.
  4. A better understanding of where the relationship is getting stuck and what part you can play to get a more positive outcome.
  5. Ways to connect with your partner.
  6. More options to explore with your partner to resolve your differences.

This is not an exhaustive list. Some items will be more specific to your individual relationship.

My approach to couples therapy is non directive which means that I do not have any vested interest in you staying together as a couple or separating. My approach does facilitate you to make those choices with more awareness of what has been impacting on your relationship.


What is involved in the process of Couples Therapy?

“Resolving common marital problems requires personal development rather than skills and techniques” Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch

The model of couples therapy that I practice has been developed over years of training and practice implementing what I see as being most effective for couples. It is not a one size fits all approach but one that is tailored to each couple. It involves three core elements.

  1. I need to assess in what ways is your relationship uniquely getting stuck. Just like we are all unique individuals, each relationship in itself is unique. The relationship is a system with the elements of the system being yourself and your partner. Thus I need to understand what each of you are contributing into the relationship and assess why you are not achieving what you want to get from the relationship.The first way I do this is to start to understand from each of you what you want from the relationship and what is stopping you from getting that. Assessment will take approximately three or four sessions and will then be refined as we continue our work together.
  1. Working on the emotional triggers in the relationship. Relationships come with intense emotions. Both positive and difficult. Love, excitement, passion, joy, happiness. Also hurt, anger, frustration, disappointment, loss. Because our model of relationships comes from how we were loved as a child there are some emotions which will be strongly linked into experiences which evoke feelings familiar from our childhood. In order to understand these I explore the family relationship backgrounds of each person in the relationship in order to understand what responses we learned from the past may be interrupting our current relationships.
  2. Agreeing on Goals and ways of achieving these. Once we understand what is contributing to each of your issues in the relationship I will suggest ways of approaching these issues differently. So we experiment with new ways of approaching and responding to the difficulties and assess and fine tune these results.

These three core elements build on each other as the process progresses. Planning to attend at least 10 sessions is a realistic expectation of the timeframe of couples therapy. It may end up being a bit less or can also take longer than this.

What is helpful to know before starting couples therapy?

“Few of us enter therapy to change ourselves – we are usually seeking ways to change our situation or our spouse while we remain the same” Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch

  1. By far the most frequently encountered challenge in couples therapy is that the work of the therapy involves each partner working on their side of the struggles. Most often one or both partners believe that the solution will come from the other one changing.
    This is understandable. If someone is upsetting us or making us angry it is a natural reaction to want them to do something different. And you probably have worked hard to achieve this through discussion, threats, silence, anger, pleading, begging or nagging to no avail. So your deepest wish will be that I will be able to take over this role and succeed. I won’t.
    If this is the only way that you want to approach couples therapy then you will not achieve anything from attending sessions.
    I will work with you in order for you to have more choices to change the relationship but these choices will require you to do something different. This is will often frustrate people, “why should I have to do something different if he/she is causing the problem?”. My answer to that is that you are the only one that you can influence. You are the only one that can be responsible for your own happiness. So couples therapy will give you different choices in order to achieve that. They may seem counter intuitive at first. But so far the solutions that have made sense to you have not worked out so maybe an approach that makes no sense might offer a new solution.
  2. A second pitfall in couples therapy is “I’ll try to approach things in a new way but only if I see my partner doing this first”. It is easy to see the problem with this approach. If both partners keep this stance then the gridlock will never move. You need to be the one to make a change whether or not you see your partner doing so too.
  3. Thinking about the problem in terms of “we”. In the sessions you will often hear me asking you to say “I” rather than “we”. This is a way for you to be your own individual within the relationship and to be able to know what each of you want and are working on. These individual “I” goals then come together to improve the “we” in the relationship. You cannot work on a system overall (the “we”) you have to work on the elements of the system for example is isn’t so helpful to say the car is broken down you need to understand which parts of the car are not working in order to know where to focus the work.
  4. “Happy Wife Happy Life”. This comes out in a way that presents as a partner saying well I don’t have any problems but he/she does so I am here to make them happy. This comes back to the issue of self responsibility, if it is just one person in the couple who believes there is an issue in the relationship then both need to look at what is happening between them. If you come to couples therapy just to appease your partner and are not open to being reflective about your contribution to the relationship then it will not be an effective process.

How often do we need to come and long will it take?

The sessions are 90 minutes long. Sessions can be weekly or fortnightly or a combination of both.

In simple terms the more you put into it as a couple the more you will get out of it. I will be your guide and give you direction and homework between the sessions. You will be putting the time and effort in between sessions to do the work of couples therapy.

I can never know how long each couple will need to come. I suggest you build an expectation of 10 sessions but depending on the couple and duration and complexity of issues it may take longer than this.

Will you see us together in each session or at times separately?

This depends on the couple. Most commonly about 3/4 weeks in I arrange to have an individual sessions with each partner. These sessions allows us to go into more depth for that person with regard to their own personal insights and with what is impacting them with regards to the relationship.

I do ask you don’t disclose something to me in the individual session that you want to keep confidential from your partner. This has potential to create a collusion which for me as a therapist is not ethical when working with a couple.

Is what we share with you confidential?

Confidentiality is an essential element of the couples therapy process. I will not disclose any details about who you are or what you speak to me about. However there are some exceptions to this.

If there is physical or emotional abuse within the relationship I will work towards you getting the support you need in order to keep safe in these circumstances. If I am worried about your safety or you disclose fears with regards to safety of another I have an ethical responsibility to report this for the protection of yourself or another.

I am also a mandated person with regards to Child Protection. Under the child first legislation I am required to disclose and issues that come to my attending with regards to child protection and also I am required to report to Tusla disclosures of childhood sexual abuse.


When is couples therapy not recommended?

There are certain circumstances where I will not work with couples. These are as follows:

  1. Where there is violence in the relationship.
  2. When one partner is engaged in an ongoing affair, ie the affair has not ended.
  3. Where there is an active drug or alcohol addiction.
  4. Where there is a mental illness which is not being treated.

If you wish to discuss any of these in more detail please contact me directly.

What are the next steps?

If you wish to make an appointment please contact me directly on 086 389 3745 or at mail@karenmurphy.ie. I will go through some questions with you initially to ensure that I believe that couples therapy is the right option for you at this time. Then we will arrange for the initial appointment.