3 Things Couples Therapy Can't Help You With, No Matter What
Whenever there's trouble in paradise, it seems like couple's therapy gets trotted out as the miracle solution. It can be. But it can also be a tool of manipulation, especially if you don't know that there are some things couples therapy can't help you with, no matter what.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of therapy (shoutout to all the amazing therapists of the world) and I think that, in general, couples therapy is a wonderful, effective tool used by both happy and miserable couples to learn things like communication skills, conflict resolution skills, the art of compromise, and the path out of a rocky and troubled situation. It can help both members of a relationship to better understand their partners and themselves.
Unfortunately, couple's therapy is also a tool used by abusive, controlling, or just plain desperate partners to stall their victims from leaving, or to force them into second guessing their decisions to leave. I saw couple after couple struggle with this method when I worked as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator. It can be used as a weapon that forces victims to relive their trauma by talking about it to a professional. In short, it's not always the answer. Lucky for you, most well-trained therapists will be able to spot these types of situations shortly after they meet you. If not, let me break them down for you, because knowledge is power and because therapy doesn't solve all problems.
1. When You're In An Abusive Relationship
It seems like common sense that an abuser who loved you would want to go to therapy to fix your relationship problems. Here's the thing. If you're in an abusive relationship, you aren't the problem. You aren't the one who needs changing. Your partner, your abuser, is to blame. You may choose to talk to a therapist about issues involving healthy relationships, self-esteem, and how being abused has impacted your life, but those are things you talk to one-on-one with your therapist during individual therapy, not in front of your abuser.
See, when you're in therapy with your abuser, a couple of things can happen. First, your abuser can control the narrative. That means you might not feel safe or comfortable telling the truth or expressing your real feelings. Second, a skilled manipulator might paint a convincing and completely inaccurate picture of your problems, even blaming them on you, or minimizing what is happening. Third, no matter what you say, there's a chance you could have to pay for it when you get home.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline website has this to say about couple's therapy for abusive relationships: "In order for couples counseling to be successful, both partners must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and make adjustments to their behavior. Abusive people want all of the power and control in the relationship and will focus on maintaining that imbalance, even if it means continuing unhealthy and hurtful behavior patterns." Instead, they recommend that abusers who truly want to seek help attend a Battering Intervention and Prevention Program.
Abusers don't really want to use therapy to get better. They don't want a therapist to uncover what's really happening. What abusers are really doing when they beg you to go to couple's therapy is to stop you from leaving. Once the therapy starts to get real or hit a nerve, the abuser will likely say the therapist was biased or incompetent, then refuse to allow you to go.
2. When You Know For Sure That You Want To Leave
When you don't want to be in a relationship with someone, and you have accepted that as a fact, deep down in the deepest parts of your being, then going to couple's therapy is just delaying the inevitable. It's just a, expensive form of procrastination.
What's worse, it can make your breakup even more emotionally complicated. If you already know that you're going to end things, why subject yourself to hearing your partner pour their heart out about how desperately they want to be with you? Or worse, talk at length about your flaws, your mistakes, and the ways you've hurt them? It's like emotional masochism.
One good thing that can come from this type of situation is that a well-trained therapist can help you and your partner both to understand why the relationship isn't working, and to help your partner come around to the idea that the relationship needs to end. You'll have a trained professional present in case your partner doesn't take the news in a healthy way.
3. When One Or Both Of You Aren't Interested In Doing The Work
If you're not in an abusive relationship, but you have real problems you need to solve, like getting past infidelity, building trust, learning how to communicate, or moving past a betrayal, therapy can be your best friend -- if you're willing to do the work, that is. If one or both of you isn't willing to try to trust and open up to the therapist (a process which can take time) you'll never get to the real core of your problems.
If you have no problem opening up, you're still not off the hook. You both have to be willing to do the work. That means making the changes, having the hard conversations, admitting when you're wrong, and committing to the therapeutic process. If you're all in but your partner is not, then couple's therapy will do little to change your relationship. It's like being on a see-saw. It only works if you both put in equal effort.
When in doubt, individual therapy can help you decide if couple's therapy is a good choice for you, or if you'd be better off cutting your losses and leaving. Your therapist can help you make a realist plan, or refer you to the perfect agency or professional to help with your situation.
Next time one of your soon-to-be exes gets on their white horse and talks about couple's therapy, you'll have a better idea of whether it's genuine or a genuine trap. The fact that you even have to wonder probably speaks volumes about the answer.
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