How Couples Counseling Works: Step 1

Over the next three blog posts, I'm going to pull back the curtain on how I work with couples. 

I have no intention of assuming that the way I do couples therapy is the way that everyone does it. In fact, many of my colleagues might take issue with one or two things I say.  I believe this is healthy. We keep each other accountable in conflict. The issue with conflict is not that it happens, but that sometimes, conflict escalates into competition and contempt. These are the real relationship killers. 

If you've ever sought relationship counseling, then your search may have been accompanied by the following question:

How did we get here?

Everyone who has ever stepped into my office has been bewildered enough to ask this question. After years of experience and training from some of the best clinicians and researchers in the country, I've learned that even though we can hone our theories to a near exact science, relationships are too complex and creative for one idea to encompass every lived experience. 

There do, however, tend to be some common threads.

First, couples break down in the absence of relationship repair. Repairs refer to the positive interactions couples need following or during conflict. I'm not only talking about apologies. In fact, sometimes apologies escalate conflict if offered too soon. This also means tuning in or  practicing empathy. John Gottman, a top marriage researcher, has observed that relationship conflict, or even relationship communication, is not the primary issue in distressed relationships. Rather, couples' failure to repair from conflict is the real sickness.

If you have a lot of conflict in your relationship, and you want to know whether it is time to get help, ask yourself how soon you and your partner repair from conflict, not only how much conflict you experience.

Couples who repeatedly miss the mark on repairing from conflict can start to adopt new overarching relationship beliefs. Beliefs you used have, like "he loves me," or "he cares about me," are replaced by beliefs like "she doesn't respect me," or "no matter what I do, it isn't enough." These beliefs permeate to the core of relationships and initiate a cycle of reactivity that can spark at any moment. 

This is why couples can fight over silly things.

If you've ever found yourself wondering what it was that you were arguing about in the first place, it may be that you're in the midst of a reactivity cycle that has more control over relationship than your intentions. 

Reactivity cycles are characterized by defensiveness, attacks, shutting down, walking away, or blaming. Partners who feel like they're being blamed retreat into a safe isolation, which leaves the one doing the accusing feeling more abandoned and alone. Your brains are telling you that this conflict is unsafe and that you should do anything you can to end the threat. You feel sad and alone, but you behave angrily. You feel overwhelmed, but you shut down. 

The purpose of step 1 in couples therapy is to disrupt reactivity cycles.

So how does it work?

First, I start by helping couples realize that there is a reactivity cycle in the first place. Most of the time, couples are entrenched in reactivity without even knowing it. Usually, they believe that they are in a relationship with an enemy. I start by pointing out in our sessions where defensiveness, lack of empathy, anger, or other relationship killers are present. These things fuel reactivity cycles. If I can help couples become aware of their cycle, I can empower them to recognize their role in the cycle. 

In this first step, the couples I work with start to recognize that their partner is not their enemy. They start to see that although they still feel angry or frustrated, they are both victims of a nasty reactivity cycle that feeds off their pain. Sometimes in this process, couples feel frustrated in therapy if they're not careful. Usually, conflict doesn't slow down in this first step. Sometimes, in fact, it escalates. 

When this happens, I ask couples to be patient.

Think about your relationship as a bone that has broken and been improperly set. Sometimes, it requires a new cast to reshape the improper growth. Sometimes, the bone has to be completely re-broken. In this step, couples experience new growth on an old break. It is hard to accept that things might be changing, and your brains are working on overdrive to convince you that this is not safe.

In this first step, couples usually exercise conflict reducing strategies like taking a time out or initiating common speaker and listener strategies. Both of these are excellent tools, but they are not long-term solutions. Exposing reactivity cycles is only the first step, and it's also the least important. It only has to occur first because unhealthy relationships are usually mired in frequent conflict that prevents repair. 

Conflict has a large wardrobe.

It can wear the mismatched patterns of volatility or the drab gray uniformity of silent apathy. The drab grays, in fact, are sometimes worse than mismatched patterns. Therefore, exposing reactivity cycles sometimes reduces conflict, and sometimes it increases conflict. It depends on the couple.

In my next post, I'll talk about how to create lasting change in a relationship. In this first stage, couples begin by recognizing that the cycle exists. In the second stage, couples work to eradicate the cycle, creating a safer relationship.

Dr. Mathis Kennington