What distinguishes a happy couple from a couple in distress? According to research, it's not that successful couples are more sexually compatible or have more common interests and values or even have fewer problems. It's that they communicate better and handle conflict better. Most couples have to make decisions about their life—work, money, in-laws, cultural or interfaith issues. Some couples solve problems on their own; others can benefit from the professional guidance that couples therapy offers. To find out more about this form of therapy, Aboutourkids interviewed Andrew Roffman, LCSW, Assistant Director of the Family Studies Program at the NYU Child Study Center.
What is couples therapy?
Couples therapy is an effective means of addressing problems that arise in significant relationships. These problems can result from sources both internal and external to the couple. Research indicates that conflict and stress in significant relationships (such as marriage) are major factors in both emotional and physical distress and illness. Stressful events can expose vulnerabilities in a relationship. Life transitions such as getting married, having a child, changing jobs, relocating, and dealing with illness or loss can increase conflict and strain partners' abilities to cope. Some couples have difficulty communicating effectively, making it hard for them to resolve problems on their own. Couples therapy tends to be practical and focused.
When should a couple seek help?
A couple can come for therapy at any stage of their relationship. Many couples seek help as they are forming a more solid commitment, for example, considering marriage. Therapy at that point can help a couple move forward and preventively address issues that come up in the future. For some couples, therapy can help build a kind of communications-based inoculation against future problems. Other couples come later in the development of their relationship, quite often around some significant stressor or life change.
What should you expect to happen in couples therapy?
Your therapist should develop an understanding of what the issues are in your relationship and a practical plan for how to address them. Couples therapists tend to be active, asking questions, focusing attention on specific present and past issues, and intervening in-the-moment in your interactions in the session as well as offering strategies for your time between sessions. For example, if you and your partner have been fighting over a specific issue, the therapist will explore the details of the issue, its history, how you have been communicating about it on your own and how you do so in the session, as well as what emotional reactions arise in each of you around the issues. Additionally, he/she will take into account the larger context such as each of your families-of-origin as well as cultural backgrounds and how these may be relevant to the issue. Finally, the therapist will help steer you through a more productive handling of the issue both in session by directing the conversation and outside of session through strategies and tasks for making changes.
Do both partners have to want to participate?
It is often the case that one partner is more interested in therapy than another. While it is ultimately necessary for both partners to participate, therapy often begins with one member more interested or motivated than another. However, the less interested party frequently becomes very involved and committed to the process.
How long does it take?
Every couple is different, so it is difficult to predict the length of therapy. Couples therapy does tend to be briefer than individual therapy, however.
What should couples look for in choosing a therapist?
While any licensed mental health professional can offer couples therapy, it is best to see someone who has had advanced training and supervision in the practice of couples therapy. An alternative is to see a clinician who is undergoing training in a recognized family and couples therapy program such as NYU Child Study Center's Family Studies Programs.
What about prevention programs?
Prevention programs such as the Prevention Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP®) offered at the NYU Child Study Center have been shown to increase relationship satisfaction over time. In either two-week or one-day educational and skill-building workshops, partners learn how to air their gripes and concerns constructively, how to solve problems and how to examine hidden issues and expectations that can act as a time bomb in a marriage. They also learn how to improve their sex lives, increase commitment, manage time together and have more fun. Programs such as PREP® are for non-distressed couples and thus are not a substitute for couples therapy.