When some couples begin the therapy process, they want me to spare them the time, money, and agony of opening up their relationship for examination. If I would just tell them if it will be “worth the effort” then they could decide if they want to engage.
They are scared, understandably so, that their vulnerability and pain will be exposed, their wounds reopened, and the closeness, reassurance and love that they are longing for from their partner will never materialize. There is probably some measure of ambivalence in every couple that begins therapy for that very reason. It is a risk to step into the therapy process and it takes at least a small amount of faith to do so.
As a couple therapist, I have an obligation to the couple to be transparent and open about concerns regarding emotional safety, and what true engagement in the process might look and feel like for them. Each couple is, after all, placing trust in me to take care of them. I also have an obligation, I believe, to not simply dodge the question of how likely it is for them to work through their conflicts and challenges but to actually talk through the question.
I’m a psychologist, not a psychic, but over the years of my time with couples I have observed a few patterns when it comes to a couple’s chances of making it. I share these observations with couples.
The first pattern I share is that in my experience, the precise nature of the conflict – for example, whether due to infidelity, gradual drifting apart, constant conflict/tension, or perhaps changes in intimacy needs – does not provide much insight into whether the relationship will survive. I have worked with couples who present with multiple painful betrayals over the years who ultimately find their way through them and back into each others’ arms. I have worked with other couples who do not present with any dramatic or shocking rift but have simply evolved as people in different directions. In other words, the couple’s level of distress is not sufficient in determining their likelihood of working it out.
Also not necessarily predictive are factors such as how long the couple has been together, whether they have children, or other similar variables.
In my experience, there are two qualities of couples that have the best chance of reconciling and reconnecting: 1) how much they both want to stay together and 2) how willing each partner is in taking ownership of their role in the emotional distance that has developed.
Let’s start with the first factor which refers to the couple’s commitment level. A high commitment level on the part of both partners means that each person is willing to endure a considerable amount of discomfort in order to reconnect, forgive, and open their heart again. The commitment level communicates each partner’s sense that the struggle will be worth it -or not – in the end.
The second factor refers to each partner’s capacity for self-awareness and perspective taking. Of course, when our relationship is in distress, our ability to see past our hurt and anger is limited. We become more rigid, difficult, and uncompromising. I liken this to looking through a crack in a door because when we are in pain, our range of vision narrows. This makes it much harder to see situations from our loved one’s vantage point. So, at the beginning of couple therapy, it can be hard to fully assess this second factor. But I do listen closely for small indications that one or both partners can possibly imagine there is something they are missing or not seeing about their partner’s point of view. I also listen intently for any signal that one is able to acknowledge ways they may have behaved in a hurtful way or misunderstood their partner. I recognize that at the start of therapy, what I observe is not each partner’s full potential capacity for empathy. But even so, there are often tiny glimmers that there is more capacity lurking under the layers of hurt, resentment and loneliness.
Certainly, there is no way to predict the exact outcome of therapy. My goal, however, is to be intimately attuned to where both partners are, in terms of each person’s commitment level, ability to engage in vulnerable emotions, capacity for empathy and self-awareness, and self-protectiveness. I can then help each partner communicate where they are as clearly and directly as possible, so they can each get to the heart of what they truly desire.
For couples who decide they want to make it work, what amazes me time and time again is how much they are willing to put on the line emotionally in order to get back to that safe, soothing, accepting and loving place that they inhabited at an earlier time in their relationship. There is courage in that vulnerable effort.
It is also vulnerable to acknowledge that a relationship has run it’s course. In most of these situations, both partners do care deeply for each other, and sometimes there has been an avoidance of taking the step of going separate ways so as not to hurt the other person. I say to couples who ultimately decide that reconnection is not possible that the therapy process is still useful in that ending a relationship does not have to be traumatic even if it encompasses sadness and loss. Learning to better communicate one’s feelings and needs through couples therapy is a skill that can be carried into other important relationships.
Whatever the ultimate decision and outcome, my hope is that the couple’s experience in our work together feels respectful, caring and empowering to both partners.