Recently I read a funny editorial piece: “The Futility of Couples Therapy.” The author, Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje described her experiences with couples therapy.
…The therapist had covered an entire wall of her office in framed photographs of the same black horse. It seemed borderline obsessive to me, but what did I know?
“Do you love each other?” the therapist demanded, fixing us with a steely stare. It was the first thing out of her mouth. Mark and I sat speechless in our respective chairs, staring back. Did we love each other? Good question, but wasn’t that what we were there to find out?
This was just one example. The couple tried several therapists and each time were disappointed to hear the same “boilerplate” advice.
Stoeltje goes on to declare couples therapy “futile.” (It’s worth noting 30 years later, they’re still married. She’s obviously doing something right.)
The article made me smile, but I disagree with her conclusion. (Naturally!) If you’ve ever wondered, “Is couples therapy worth it?” this is the blog post for you.
Is couples therapy worth it? I think so.
There’s 2 things I wish Stoeltje had known before she went into couples therapy:
- The key to couples therapy that works is YOU! You do want to find a therapist you both click with. I’m assuming here you would be open-hearted when evaluating a therapist. Not too cynical.
- Some of the couples therapy “boilerplate” is boilerplate for a reason!
Any sound relationship advice sets the rules of the engagement so positive engagement can happen.
Structure brings the emotional temperature of your relationship back into the mild range so calm can return to your bodies and your home. It’s hard to connect when it’s too hot and angry – or too cold and distant – in there.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach to working with couples
IFS sees each of us as having an individual system of parts inside of us. If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile you know that all these different parts are like little people inside of us. Just like real people, they have their own wishes, dreams, and desires.
So in a couple, you have 2 systems of parts. And the relationship is a system itself. Did you know your relationship is a party of parts?
The party doesn’t have to be pandemonium. Each of you has your greater Self and its qualities of Calm, Compassion, Curiosity, and Connection, to name a few.
As an IFS couples therapist I support my clients in getting to know their own parts better.
- The better you understand yourself, the better you can understand your partner.
- As you discover your own parts, you can bring your understanding, compassion, and Self qualities to the inside and the outside.
- Which in turn creates more positive constructive dialogue and connection.
This is what I call “better relating.” I strongly believe that the better you can relate to yourself, the better you can relate with your partner.
What do parts of you look like in a hurting or fighting relationship?
Let’s look at what Internal Family Therapist Toni Herbine-Blank has coined the term “hot and cold protectors.”
Hot protectors are those parts that rush out angrily to our rescue. Usually this means they push away whoever is hurting us emotionally – not considering what kind of emotional damage they leave in their wake. They work fast so we don’t have to feel the emotional pain that is welling up inside of us.
Cold protectors remove you from the interaction. Instead of rushing out to shove people away, they pull you back. They help you not feel caring or love for the person who is hurting you. If your cold protectors get extreme you can become emotionally cut off. Some people have been cut off for years. Some people work or drink or stay super busy with the children to support their emotional cut off years.
Your hot and cold protectors mean well for you. They are trying to protect you! Unfortunately they prevent you from better relating because they’re too extreme to be good at their jobs. That’s where you need more Self.
When I work with couples I focus on helping each person in the room:
- Connect to what is happening inside of them
- Bring themselves compassion and acceptance
- Transform this into tolerance and even curiosity toward their partner’s struggles
When couples can access their own Self qualities on the inside they learn how to speak for what they need. Or even give to themselves what they hear they need.
I have a different first question for couples starting therapy
The therapist in the ‘couples therapy is futile’ article starts off by asking: “Do you love each other?”
Instead, I ask: “Why go to a couples counselor when you can look up help on the internet?”
Here are some of the answers I got:
“It’s like your relationship has a personality that you can’t see because you are in it. The therapist helps you see this personality and how as a couple we co-create it together.”
“Everything does seem to be out there on the internet but the therapist helps you take expert knowledge and apply it to yourself, your relationship, and your life.”
“Going to relationship therapy helps you customize all the suggested ways of being in a relationship and tailor them to fit your own relationship.”
Remember: the key to successful couples therapy is YOU! Be prepared to grow personally when going to a relationship counselor.