Knowing you want help and need help with your relationship is the easy part. You’re feeling unseen, unappreciated, repeatedly disappointed and pretty damn unsatisfied with him or her. Now what?
It’s kind of a daunting question and adventure…looking for a GOOD couples therapist. What does that mean anyway? What is a good couples therapist going to do and how is it going to help? And how do I know if I’ve found someone that will actually help us to feel better and want to be together again?
There are many different approaches to couples counseling. Many that are helpful and effective, and some that, well…aren't. While there are many good signs that you’re in the right place, here I’ll tell you 3 things that I think you should absolutely expect from good couples therapy and how that will help your relationship…and you.
1. Feeling Understood
You should start to feel understood, less crazy, and less alone in your relationship and life. Your partner should also begin to feel that way. A good therapist will explore and work to genuinely understand both of you in your own separate ways. That may feel like fresh, new territory since it’s likely what you and your partner have been doing is trying to get understood rather than give understanding.
Good couples therapy happens especially when another human being with their own life, history, emotions and relationship experiences sits down with you (along with all their training and expertise) and steps into your shoes, into the shoes of your relationship. You’re not in it all alone anymore. You’re not Alice lost in the craziness of Wonderland. You’ve been joined by a warm and friendly guide who will be in it with you as a means to understanding your experiences and then helping you to untangle them and turn them into something new and productive. Then as long as all that goes well, you should be able to begin seeing things from a new perspective which translates into new kinds of conversations with each other. This is the beginning of a new relationship for you and your partner.
2. Getting A New Point of View
As I was saying just above, you should begin to see things in a new way. Part of the problem is you and your Main Squeeze have been stuck in contracted and defensive ways of communicating, thinking and seeing each other AND the issues you’ve been grappling with. So, a really big part of changing how you interact and how much love and appreciation flows between you is in changing how you see each other. When both members of the couple do this, they usually start to soften and open up and that alone feels better. Then to receive that softness from each other is even more delicious and desirable. Now, how that change in how you see each other takes place is a topic for a future conversation.
3. Communication Tools
But for the moment, you probably want something more tangible, don’t you. I mean it’s nice to hear that things should start feeling better, but why? How do I know that will happen, right? What are the goals I can expect to meet? What tools should I expect to get? Yes, those exist too.
You should begin to experience a reduction in blame and criticism (see this article about Dr. John Gottman’s research on how damaging these are to your relationship), and an increase in expression of understanding via one of the most powerful and impactful relationship tools on the planet: Effective Listening. Effective listening, which is sometimes called active listening or empathic listening (as opposed to “kind of listening” or “listening while I’m planning my rebuttal”) is a gift. Along with more frequently expressed empathy, it’s a gift you definitely need in your relationship toolbox.
Effective Listening a gift you need to learn to give and receive in your relationship so that you can get more of the thing you both really want: Knowing that you’re important, cared about and interesting in your partner’s eyes. Who doesn’t want to feel important to their partner? Who doesn’t want to feel cared about and interesting in general, let alone from the most important person in your life? No one wants to feel like they’re boring, uninteresting, and unimportant. Yet, couples struggle with that all the time, wanting their partner to give them that feedback, yet struggling to give that very thing to their partner.
So yes, you should expect to feel understood by your couples counselor or therapist, and thereby not alone in the struggle you are experiencing in your relationship. You should begin to see your partner in a new way – you should begin to understand them in a new way and then see them in a new way. And you should begin to develop some new communication tools such as REAL listening, communication of empathy and understanding, and definitely a reduction in the amount of criticism and blame you’ve probably gotten into the (bad) habit of using.
These are all signs you’re on the right path with a good couples counselor. Yes, there are other signs, but without these it will probably be hard to feel motivated to stick it out.