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Couples and marriage therapy techniques

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Couples and marriage therapy techniques

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Marriage counselling, couples therapy or relationship therapy can help anyone who is in an intimate relationship. Strong and healthy relationships are usually grounded in open communication, collaboration, the ability to problem-solve effectively together, and the ability to discuss conflicts or differences rationally and cooperatively.

A therapist can help navigate the nuances of building a long-term relationship. Especially after many years, people might become unsure about their thoughts and feelings about their partnerships and question things that used to be normal. We might also at some point need someone who can help us be honest with our partners in a safe and non-judgemental space.

Common challenges affecting couples

Couples therapy can be “preventative.” It can be useful to proactively build positive communication skills, uncover and understand each others’ core values, or to address individual issues (past or present) that may affect the relationship in the future. Premarital counselling is common for these reasons.

Partners may also seek counselling after a particular conflict, or if there are already-present issues in the relationship. These could include:

  • Infidelity
  • Addiction or substance abuse
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Disagreements about child rearing or blending families
  • Anger or domestic abuse
  • Loss or changes in intimacy 
  • Communication challenges, including tendency to fight about or ignore important topics

Signs you might benefit from couples therapy

When it comes to marriages in Canada, multiple sources cite the divorce rate to be about 40%. Recent data out of the US points to a new trend called the “gray divorce” pointing to an increase in divorce rates among those 50 and over, including in Canada. 

We hear those stats so often and they can seem scary especially when we encounter our own hiccups in our relationships. Committing to a long-term relationship is not easy, change is normal, disagreements are normal, and sometimes our feelings can change and that might be difficult to navigate. Often, both partners have their own pre-existing sets of unspoken expectations for one another and when those don’t play out as we thought they would, it can create conflict. 

Relationships require work and dedication by everyone involved, and reciprocity and respect are critical to ongoing success. These are not necessarily natural skills, everyone involved in a relationship has to practice and nurture them.

Common challenges that can be addressed in couples therapy:

  • You’re struggling to communicate. You’ll know something is not quite right with your communication if you feel afraid or stressed to bring up issues to your partner, if conversations often devolve into arguments, or you’re disinterested and bored with your discussions. 
  • Indifference or withdrawal. Arguing constantly can be a red flag, but so can never arguing at all. Resolving disagreements is a healthy part of a relationship. If you never challenge each other nor problem-solve together, it may indicate there is indifference. It could be a signal that someone is emotionally withdrawn from the relationship.
  • Your goals don’t align. Having individual goals can be healthy, but when it comes to big decisions, partners should be on the same page. You may need to talk to someone if one person wants kids and the other doesn’t, or one person wants to live somewhere else, or participate in a different kind of lifestyle.
  • There is a major problem that is not being resolved. This could be a period of financial hardship, infidelity, or even disagreements about household responsibilities. These ongoing issues can breed resentment.
  • Your sex life has changed. This can be a symptom of an underlying issue, and can cause real animosity and disconnection in a relationship. You might talk about this with a couples or marriage counsellor, or seek someone who specializes in sex therapy.
  • One or both have experienced trauma: when we live through something extremely distressing, it can impact our relationships even if the trauma happened outside of it. People in intimate relationships may benefit from a couples or marriage counsellor who specializes in trauma therapy to help both people work through those repercussions.

It can be challenging to recognize and admit there is a problem. Often partners drift apart so gradually that it’s not noticeable until the relationship is severely weakened. Seeking help is effective as these issues usually don’t resolve themselves on their own and we might need a trained professional to kickstart our ability to be open again with our partner, to be honest, and to feel normal in whatever we’re struggling with.

Techniques used for couples and marriage therapy

Couples and marriage therapy is a form of psychotherapy or counselling therapy. Often, your therapist will be there to ask you questions and help you open up about what’s going on. Importantly, they’ll also be there to be a good listener, and likely they’ll work on helping you and your partner(s) better listen to each other and hear one another.

Couples, marriage or relationship therapy can draw from a variety of therapy modalities (techniques). Some common techniques include the Gottman Method, emotionally focused therapy (EFT), and Imago Relationship Therapy.

  • The Gottman Method: This method aims to help couples resolve or manage conflicts, increase intimacy and respect, and create shared meaning. It’s based on the Sound Relationship House Theory—building a structure of commitment and trust through nine components (“floors”) of a healthy relationship. Partners will learn about one another’s psychological world, their sources of stress and joy, their worries and their hopes.

  • Emotionally focused therapy (EFT): This method is applicable to families or couples, and is often utilized if there are relationship issues tied to depression. EFT is focused on the impact our emotions have on our stress levels, how we’re communicating and interacting with others. Therapists will help couples identify their emotions, regulate them and use them in a healthier way. This helps couples be more empathetic with each other, and build more positive interactions. Developed by Dr. Sue Johnson in the 1980s, research has since shown that EFT in couples therapy is 75% effective.

  • Imago Relationship Therapy: This method helps couples connect their childhood experiences to their adult behaviour. It theorizes that we all have an “ideal” concept of intimate love learned in childhood from our caregivers—whether positive or negative. This informs how we seek love in our adulthood. Through workshops and exercises, couples are encouraged to see one another’s child self (building empathy and understanding), restructure complaints into requests, envision the relationship as a source of joy and safety, and romanticize the relationship. 

When looking for a therapist that specializes in marriage or couples therapy, the most common certification in Canada is Registered Marriage and Family Therapist (RMFT). These professionals meet strict standards set by the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (CAMFT).

You might work with your therapist together through all of your sessions, or your therapist might conduct some sessions together and some sessions individually. Keep in mind, often if a therapist has been working longer term with one individual they will not start treating the couple thereafter.

How to convince your partner to go to couples counselling

It can be difficult and even disheartening to be the one in the relationship who wants to seek therapy and your partner disagrees. There are a number of reasons you may face resistance from your partner, especially if your relationship is already struggling or they’re simply not prepared to do the personal work yet. They may also have fear that they’ll be blamed or be forced to talk about things they’re not ready to disclose. Those are normal fears.

If you’re thinking about bringing up therapy and are expecting resistance, here are a few tips to prepare:

  1. Choose your timing wisely. Suggesting therapy in the middle of a fight— understandably, out of exhaustion and desperation to fix things—likely won’t inspire the other person to agree. If possible, try to avoid stressful times like right before or after work or if they’re already tired. If the relationship is very fraught, there may not be a good time but you can still be strategic with how and when you bring it up.

  2. Ask for a conversation, and give them time to respond. Instead of asking them to talk about it at the moment, let them know you want to have a conversation about your relationship and find a time to sit down. Be direct, don’t beat around the bush or be vague, tell them exactly what you’re feeling and what you want to discuss. If you or they are particularly anxious, you could try this approach in a written letter. Give them time to digest the information before expecting a response.

  3. Investigate the relationship together: When you do sit down together, try asking them questions and use “I” statements. Ask them how they see the relationship, what they think a healthy relationship looks like and what changes they’d want to see in your partnership.

  4. Keep the conversation focused on the relationship: It can be easy to flop into old fighting patterns, or bring up external stressors like money. Try to avoid those traps and keep things focused solely on your relationship.
  1. Avoid blame: They may start to lay blame, which is a normal defence mechanism. Do not get defensive in response. Try active listening techniques, validate their frustrations and verbally confirm if you agree—”I hear you’re tired of fighting all the time, and I am too. What do you think we can do to bring more happiness into our lives?” On your side, focus on your motives and your hopes for improving your relationship.

  2. Respect a “no”: You may still get a ‘no’ to your request for couples therapy. You can ask them if they’d be open to explaining why they’re declining couples therapy, as best they can. If they continue to say no, or they have an outburst, end the conversation. Give them space to think about it, and respect their choice. You might also look for a compromise, like just one session or a communication workshop instead of a therapist. One session could help quell any of the fears they might have about the entire process.

If your partner remains resistant to therapy, you always have the option of doing individual therapy on your own. It will likely make positive improvements for you and might make incremental improvements in your relationship. This could inspire your partner to be more open to the idea if they see positive change in you.

Remember, if you are experiencing violence in the home and are concerned for your safety and the safety of others at home, therapy may not be your best option. Contact 911 for emergencies or a local crisis centre for additional support.

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