Does Couples Therapy Really Work?

In the Garden of Even

As summer moves into fall and I take more calls from couples seeking counseling, questions about the effectiveness of couples therapy inevitably arise. Sometimes, it is ineffective, but we can change that.

People often say they want therapy to improve their communication skills, but what they’re really doing, unconsciously, is trying to make their partner more like themselves.

I once worked with a couple who met in New Zealand when they were “WWOOFers,” people who travel the world working on organic farms. Both were raised in cities and dreamed of life in the country; inspired by the adventure and beauty of their kiwi adventureland and living in a community of like-minded others, they thought they were soulmates meant to be together.

When we first meet someone—especially when under the temporary influence of love endorphins—we are primed to notice all the ways we are alike. This creates a confirmation bias, and we look for evidence to support it. We find that we had the same favorite books as kids, have the same favorite films, prefer New York-style pizza—all is “proof” of having found a soulmate.

What this couple didn’t talk about was how, exactly, they wanted to live in the country, how the crops would be arranged, and how they would manage the farm. When they described their “shared” dream, they had different images in their heads. After their overseas adventure, they moved to Idaho, bought a farm, and started a new life together.

By the time they met me, they were arguing about everything. Where they once saw similarities, they now only saw differences. She wanted a farm where everything intertwined (“intercropping”) and was planted together; he wanted strong lines separating the crops. This divide revealed itself as they began implementing their dream and realized how differently they preferred things. She imagined working a day job nearby and employing locals for most farm tasks, while he imagined them both in overalls, digging the dirt together and dreamily watching the growing tomatoes and buzzing bees.

They came to therapy to communicate better, but what they were really looking for was a chance to prove to each other that their way was “right.” They each felt misled when they discussed their shared dream, but was this “betrayal”?

“Let’s live on an organic farm” conjured different pictures in their minds, ones they assumed were identical. They had never checked for possible differences in their versions. After I listened to them, they were surprised—and disappointed—when I said, “I think you’re both right. The problem is not that one of you is wrong; it’s that you aren’t listening to each other and giving each other any sense that their view has merit.”

Besides this power struggle, in which each held their position with righteous indignation, they were no longer nourishing the parts of the relationship on which they agreed. This insistence on mutual betrayal early in the relationship created significant mutual withdrawal; their intimate life was non-existent, and they each admitted that they spent much energy pointing out how the other was in the wrong.

I asked them, “Is one of you actually wrong about how to manage this? Or is it that you are different?” They acknowledged, a bit grudgingly, that they were different. It wasn’t about who was right or wrong.

Shifting the focus, I asked them to tell me their relationship story, what they noticed and liked about each other in the beginning. As they spoke and listened to each other, humor entered the conversation, followed by a little warmth. Soon, they were not sitting so stiffly apart.

When I suggested they put aside conversations about farm management and spend the next several weeks focused on things that have worked well for them, they agreed. They decided to table any farm-related decisions and build on what they liked about each other and their points of agreement.

Certainly, there are things we are right about: not intentionally hurting people, caring for pets or kids, or not engaging in willful deception. But, often, we are different regarding, say, how we wash dishes, think about sex, what turns us on, managing money, and so on. Has righteous indignation shuttered your heart in any of your relationships because you though the other person’s opinion was wrong? Maybe it’s just inconvenient, annoying, or harder to work out problems than arriving at complete agreement?

Couples counseling works when couples are curious to understand what blocks their ease of connection—and especially when, instead of focusing on what their partner is doing “wrong,” they bravely wonder about their own contributions to their problems. It works when a difference in opinion paves the way to things neither has considered before. It works when couples are willing to use rich communication tools to manage their flight or fight responses to engage in “real listening.” It works when people empathize with their partners and understand another point of view, even if it isn’t theirs.

Everyone craves connection, respect, and appreciation, mostly from our partners. When we are denied these, the disappointment—even isolation—leads to emotional shutdown, and then our protective stance is often to dig deeper into justifying our righteous positions. To truly improve communication, we must learn to listen with respect and curiosity, especially to opinions different from our own. When we let go of our rigid positions, we can find solutions we couldn’t think of before—that’s when magic really happens.

If you want to learn more, I invite you to attend the first class of my Love Skills class, on September 21 at 5:00 PM (PST) for free. I’ll talk about this and other “Love Secrets from the Masters.” Click here to sign up.

Current clients have asked to take the class but already are seeing me and don’t need the private sessions and some of my colleagues who are already working with couples have asked if people can take just the zoom classes in Love Skills so I am offering two ways to participate; one with and one without private sessions. Please check out both.

In the meantime, I wish you all the best for the end of summer rest and play. For me, this means dahlia season at its best, happy river walking with our doodles, the wonder of garden-ripe tomatoes, long easy dinners on our new back porch, and, of course, practicing what I preach (always my challenge and work), showing more curiosity and openness to the inevitable clashes with my partner, instead of trying to prove myself right.






A version of this essay originally appeared in mindbodygreen.