Couples generally come to therapy for one of three (conscious or unconscious) reasons:
- to find a way to stay together
- to find a way to break up
- to find out just which of those they really want to do
Often the therapist can figure out pretty quickly which kind of couple he or she is facing in the room. But the purpose can change as the work proceeds, and we have to be open to all the possibilities. It’s a guarded form of hope, a faith in progress that may or may not have appeared just yet. As the sessions unfold, more and more emotional contact is made, and the basis for that faith begins to materialize. With work and a little luck, their hope shifts onto a more realistic footing as the couple mourns for a lost ideal and embraces a new, more mature version of their love.
The role of a therapist
One of our tasks is to put the couple back in touch with the reasons they got together in the first place. What was it like to be in love? What aspects of the other person did they find most endearing, most relatable, most full of promise? Sometimes it’s clear what happened to change things for the worse—an affair, an illness, maybe some major financial setback—but sometimes nobody knows, and we put our heads together to think it out into the open.
As the therapist watches the flow of expressions on the faces of the couple, he or she is scanning for signs of resilience in the relationship. Sadness can be one of the most hopeful signs; it means the couple is capable of more than anger. On the darker side, there are two expressions that are usually very bad news for the future: the first is an angry smile, which indicates a gleeful rage that includes bitterness. The second is disgust, the death-knell of many relationships.
As challenging as it can be to improve a couple’s communication skills, it’s really the easy part. What’s harder and more important is what underlies the communication: wounds and unmet needs, and the deep feelings that pour off of them in waves. You can almost feel it in the air, when one or both members of a couple achieves a more merciful, long-term perspective, and forgiveness is kindled. Mourning is always involved, because loss of a prior ideal is what brings couples into therapy. But the mourning is what heals, and to see it happen is a privilege.