Therapy for Couples

Here is what often happens when a couple is in my Seattle office. I’ll start to uncover some way in which each member is responding to what the other is doing in a way which backfires. Believe it or not, we tend to promote just the behavior we would like to diminish – and our partner is doing the same with us. For instance, there is a stress and partner A wants to talk about it. Partner B on the other hand experiences that there is stress when they talk. And so B will avoid talking. Partner A has more stress when they don’t talk, and so will escalate and talk more forcefully to B, who ups the ante by shutting down more firmly…and so on.

There are countless variations on how different areas of contrast between two people become more polarized over time, and this worsens as they try to rectify the problem. One wants more privacy, the other more mixing. One wants more sex so that conversation is stimulated, while the other prefers more conversation, partly so to promote sexual intimacy. Stricter parenting by one to offset loose parenting by the other… And so on.

Many times, one member is concerned about the other’s depression, anxiety, withdrawal, addiction, trauma, illness, response to unemployment or in-laws. There may be an emotional or sexual affair. There may be a lack of intimacy, conflict over money, difficulty with teenagers and so on.

About 40% of my work is with couples. I use the terms “marriage therapy” and “couples therapy” almost interchangeably, and the distinctions with “counseling” also don’t concern me. I work with gay couples on a semi-regular basis.

I'm not willing to work with a couple if there is current physical violence. One reason for this is that I can’t be sure of the safety level. Violence could stem from something said in couples therapy and I would be violating the “do no harm” principle. Another reason is that in couples and family therapy, everyone shares responsibility. There is little talk of “fault”. When there is violence however, the responsibility is with the perpetrator no matter what. I do not want to diminish this message by talking about what the victim did as part of the escalation.

Statistically, individual therapy is not good for relationships. It stands to reason that if therapists encourage clients to look after their own interests primarily, the interest of the relationship can suffer. Individual therapy also can reinforce the client's own perspectives, so that challenging staunchly held views (for example, "I'm a victim"), is more difficult.

With this in mind however, I can conduct therapy on behalf of a marriage even if I am seeing only one member, because my perspective is systemic: I want not just my client, but his or her family members to benefit from our work. If you say I'm feeling stronger", It's possible I'll ask ,"and what does your partner notice?"

Can you have individual and couples therapy with me at the same time? Sometimes yes, but there are pitfalls. For instance, it may be hard for me to keep my neutrality, or hard not to be viewed by one member as allied with the other. Also, while I have to respect confidentiality for the individual, I can’t be sitting on a secret as I see the couple. It’s icky and unprincipled even if I thought I could pull it off. And so the deal has to be that everything the individual tells me can be shared with the partner.

If your partner is highly reluctant to start therapy with you, check out I don't want marriage therapy.

Tom Linde M.S.W.
PO Box 28186
Seattle, WA 981189
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