by Phyllis L. Neumann, MS, MFT

          • Are you harboring years of resentment in your relationship?
          • Do you seem to fight all the time?
          • Are you considering a separation?

If any of these questions apply to you, then you might want to consider going to counseling together to see if your relationship can eventually give you what you want.

Although many couples often feel as if they’ve been hurt by their partner and it’s their partner who needs to change, they seldom see their own participation in the relationship. In any relationship both partners contribute equally to its problems — there is no victim and no villain. Couple counseling looks at both sides of the relationship, but does not place blame on either partner.

As feelings intensify, the surface issues usually give way to the more underlying problems in the relationship, leading to more intense feelings of hurt and rage. Learning to express these feelings in constructive ways, so that both people feel heard, is a large part of the counseling process.

Counseling, unfortunately, doesn’t always keep couples together. Sometimes, through counseling, the couple realizes that they don’t really want to remain together, but are staying together because of guilt, children or some other unhealthy need. The therapist’s role is not to determine whether or not a couple should remain together, but to help them look at the relationship in an honest way and to explore the alternatives available to them.

Relationships are never simple, mainly because couples bring their own past histories and personal issues into it. Once they can recognize their own emotional needs then they are in a position to change them, otherwise they may continue their own familiar behavior patterns indefinitely, continuing to choose people who will not meet their needs.

The counseling process is a long one, taking months, and even years, to unravel and make sense of all the pieces. Some people think that a few counseling sessions will air things out. It’s true that in a short period of time the surface issues will probably diminish and the relationship will appear to improve but, as in dieting or exercise, unless a new pattern of behavior is established and sustained, the old patterns will usually return. Changing lifetime behavior patterns takes a long amount of time and energy.

What if my partner won’t go to counseling?

If you are ready for counseling but your partner isn’t, then go to individual counseling for yourself. (Don’t ever consider going to counseling for both of you.) As you begin to change your own emotional patterns, the relationship will also be affected. As you develop a better self-image you will change the way you respond to your partner, and that will set a new tone in your relationship. If your partner is willing to shift his or her behavior to grow with you, then the relationship can develop in a positive direction.

In many cases, however, the person in counseling may find that, as their emotional needs change and their self-esteem grows, they eventually outgrow the relationship. In that case the relationship may actually restrict them emotionally, and it’s in their best interest to leave the relationship in order to continue their own personal growth. That is often rough on the other partner, whose needs have not yet changed, but who may still want the relationship to continue.

Should I choose a male or female therapist?

The sex of the therapist does not usually play a definitive role; however, if that is an issue for you then, by all means, select the one with whom you’ll feel most comfortable. For couples who feel there is an unequal alliance, you might consider working with a therapist who can work with another therapist of the opposite sex, making more of a balanced arrangement. However, the fee two therapists could be considerably higher.

If your relationship is making you unhappy, before you make any final decision, give couple counseling a chance. It may be just what you both need.


Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on June 12, 2008