Couples Counseling & Therapy

Counseling couples constitutes about half my psychotherapy practice. Relationship partners usually need more than just a safe place to talk about their relationship. They need new tools for communicating and they need competent coaching on how to employ these new skills. Otherwise, they are likely to just repeat the old patterns that brought them to counseling in the first place.

The first session typically begins with introductions and a chance for each member of the couple to describe what they hope to address in counseling. Then I will often ask the couple to talk about an issue that is currently important to them. As the discussion ensues, I will help the partners identify where their communication could improve. Then I will offer new communication skills and help each partner use the new skills to successfully communicate about the issue at hand.

Once resolution is achieved, I will ask the couple to address another issue that may be troubling them. Again, I will coach them in new communication skills. After several such discussions (usually after a few sessions) certain themes are likely to repeat. These themes are clues to how the partners may both be triggering sensitivities in each other. At first, these sensitivities may be what the partners find most irritating about each other. But with greater understanding, the couple can discover that the ways they have been frustrating each other can be turned into ways that they can better understand each other. Then the relationship becomes a healing partnership rather than a repeating cycle of frustration.

Through couples therapy, partners learn to be more effective communicators. They also learn how they can be a powerful source of acceptance, intimacy, and healing for each other.

This table offers links to brief descriptions of the orientations to couples therapy that I use, and issues that couples therapy commonly deals with.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
Family Systems Approaches
Individuation Approaches
Healing Partnership Approaches
Reducing Conflict
Sustaining Long-Term Relationships
Resolving Extramarital Sex
Enhancing Intimacy
Sexual Issues

Heterosexual Couples:
As a man myself, I have a pretty good idea of how intimidating counseling can sometimes be for men. While I strive to always stay neutral in any conflict that a couple addresses, I also use my understanding of men to help both partners identify how to make the counseling process work well for both genders.

Gay & Lesbian Couples:
I have a great deal of experience working with same-sex couples. I enjoy the chance to offer an informed sensitivity to GLBT issues and to support same-sex partnerships and marriages to thrive.

Alternative Relationships:
Relationship structures and boundaries can be very diverse, including all variations on polyamory and all differnt types of friendships. Effective couple counseling supports people to succeed in whatever style of relationship they choose, no matter how different from the cultural norm. My practice welcomes people in alternative relationships. For information about individual counseling on this topic click here.

Therapy Chairs

Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a set of communication tools originally developed by Marshall Rosenberg, and strongly rooted in humanistic principles. It is not simply about talking things out without violence. It is a versatile guide to effectively generating cooperation between people. NVC teaches people to identify their own feelings and needs and to express them responsibly. It teaches people how to respond to other people’s behavior articulately and without judgment. It teaches people how to make requests of others in an empowered and respectful way. And finally, NVC teaches people how to compassionately empathize with one another.

The tools of nonviolent communication comprise a powerful skill set for improved relationships. Couples counseling is greatly aided by these tools. It is important for couples not only to understand their unproductive relationship patterns. They must also have access to better ways of communicating, if they truly want to improve their partnerships. A couples counselor well versed in NVC can teach these tools and coach couples in using them whenever their communication breaks down.

Family Systems Approaches

A systems view of relationship dynamics is a very important perspective for changing difficult dynamics between people. Originated by Virginia Satir and others, family systems therapy takes an insightfully broad view of human interactions. Rather than pathologize or scapegoat individuals, a systems approach seeks to identify how each person plays a part in the functioning of the whole system. No single person is ever blamed for what goes wrong. Instead, counseling reveals how each person can empower themselves to change how they respond to the system in order to get new and improved results.

Systems approaches to counseling are very effective in unwinding the power struggles or impasses couples often fall into. Sometimes people resist changing because they feel defensive. A systemic view depolarizes arguments and helps people focus on positive change rather than finding fault. This approach is useful in couples, families, and groups of any size.

Individuation Approaches

Sometimes couples have difficulty because they are not staying grounded in a strong sense of themselves as individuals. They may lose clarity about how they truly feel or want they really want. The emotional boundaries between partners may blur. Paradoxically, this enmeshment often breeds a sense of irritation and resentment rather than closeness.

Individuation approaches focus on helping couples better understand who they are as individuals. Personal compromises, made for the sake of the relationship, can be re-evaluated if they have become a source of frustration. New ways of accepting differences between partners can help each person experience more freedom to be himself or herself. This often results in partners feeling a greater appreciation for each other. Murray Bowen, Harriet Lerner (The Dance of Intimacy), and David Schnarch (Passionate Marriage) have all contributed to this approach.

Healing Partnerships

Relationships can be seen as partnerships in emotional healing. We all suffered from some degree of imperfection in the relationships we had in our childhood. A romantic partnership can offer the promise of being loved in ways we have not enjoyed before. Unfortunately, relationships also have the potential to repeat the same types of painful dynamics we already know too well.

Couples therapy can involve a psychodynamic approach that delves into the ways each partner may be emotionally vulnerable, due to past experiences. When couples understand the wounds they each carry, they can better offer each other support. And they can more effectively avoid repeating the painful dynamics of their early relationships. Harville Hendrix (Getting the Love You Want) describes how this approach can turn unconscious relationships into healing partnerships.

Reducing Conflict

Many couples seek therapy to learn how to stop from arguing or fighting. Sometimes the conflict is highly escalated. Sometimes it is more subtle or passive. But when the degree of conflict gets uncomfortable, couples therapy can help partners learn to resolve negotiations more effectively.
Sometimes conflict is dramatically reduced by learning and applying improved communication skills. Nonviolent communication is particularly helpful. Additionally, conflict may be reduced by identifying and reversing systemic patterns that both partners play a role in. Or the underlying cause of conflict may be a lack of individuation, or some unresolved issues from childhood. Counseling can use different approaches to deal with this very common problem in relationships.

Sustaining Long-Term Relationships

Many couples seek to maintain a long-term, stable relationship. Couples therapy can help partners identify behaviors that support or undermine the health of a relationship. John Gottman, a relationship researcher in Seattle, has identified many specific attitudes and ways of relating that he claims can reliably predict the sustainability of a relationship or marriage. Couples counseling can help people use this information to make adjustments that will improve the chances of their partnership lasting a lifetime.

Resolving Extramarital Sex

When partners have sex outside the agreed upon boundaries of their relationship, a crisis situation often results. The emotions evoked can be very strong (jealousy, guilt, anger, fear, abandonment, betrayal, etc.). The relationship itself may fall into question. An affair may mean the end of a relationship or it may be seen as a red flag that important issues need to be dealt with. Trust is often painfully damaged and in need of authentic repair. Either way, counseling can help couples sort out the aftermath.

It is important that counselors do not allow their own judgments to influence the discussion. Counselors are not the judge of who did something wrong. Rather, counseling can help both people express themselves fully, and see clearly what the full consequences of their choices are. And counseling can help partners identify how to respond in a way that furthers their true goals for relationship.

Enhancing Intimacy

Couples sometimes seek therapy to regain or enhance a sense of closeness or intimacy. They may be suffering from a lack of connection that makes their partnership strained or unrewarding. Or they may be functioning okay as a team in practical matters, but wanting a greater experience of love in their lives.

The vision of greater intimacy is a wonderful and often very achievable goal. Couple therapy can help partners identify the edge of their comfort zone, and then help them venture into the territory of deeper connection. Experiential exercises are often useful for self-reflecting on whatever may be blocking intimacy. With a counselor as a facilitator, partners can begin to reverse cycles of distancing and protecting themselves. They can step together into the deep, vulnerable, and passionate connection described by Psaris & Lyons in their book,Undefended Love.

Sexual Issues

Sometimes it is hard for couples to talk openly about sex. Couples therapy can help resolve a great variety of sexual issues, because communication is usually the common element in all difficulties with sex. Some of the issues commonly addressed in therapy include: erectile difficulties, orgasm difficulties (fast, slow, infrequent, non-existent), discrepancies in sexual desire, lack of initiation, pornography, and attractions outside the partnership.

Improving communication on these topics can result in dramatic improvements. Power struggles can be unwound, unmet needs can be addressed, and greater cooperation and satisfaction can be cultivated. It is important to have a therapist who is comfortable talking about the nitty-gritty of sex when need be. And it is vital to have someone who understands and respects both male and female perspectives. For more discussion about individual counseling on this topic click here.