How do I keep therapy from killing us so it can make us stronger?
March 27, 2012 1:21 PM   Subscribe

How can I keep couples therapy from ruining my relationship?

My boyfriend and I have started couples therapy to try to address some really big issues that we haven't been able to talk about successfully on our own. When I say "big issues," I mean stuff that's going to make or break the relationship, like does he really feel capable of being in a relationship at all and whether being with someone in a serious way is what he wants for the long term.

I don't think we made the mistake of waiting too long do this. He spent about 6 months or so trying to grapple with this stuff in individual therapy, and it was important to me to let him do that on his own and try to live our lives together despite how fundamental these issues were. We both made a great effort to try to not let them bleed over into our day to day existence as a couple, which is filled with affection and levity.

But as time has passed, that's become more and more difficult to do, both because we feel like we've been at an impasse for a while now and because my anxiety about where the relationship may or may not be going is becoming harder to manage (don't worry, I see an individual therapist too). All of this has been made even more acute by the fact that we are facing some pretty momentous decisions career-wise, and those decisions depend on what is or is not going to happen with us as a couple.

We had our first session with a couples therapist last week. We think the therapist is fine and as capable as anyone, but the experience of talking about these issues directly and throwing open the emotional gauntlet feels terrible. We both feel awful about it, but on my end in particular I'm holding on to things that my boyfriend said in the session- things that may be true but are also the sort of things that you say when you're talking about your most extreme emotions- and feeling terribly sad and hurt and hopeless, wondering how there can be any hope for us when he feels the things he feels.

I know that this is a process, and part of that process is talking about your worst and most troubling feelings. And I know that there are certain things that are said in a therapeutic context that you say to work them out, not because they are your final referendum on the relationship. But I don't know how to continue to live a joyful everyday life with my boyfriend that will remind us of all the reasons we are together while trying to keep this weekly hour of gloom and doom in perspective.

How can I allow some time for the therapy to work without having the emotions that come out as part of the process make me lose hope and disengage from the relationship I'm trying to have in the meantime? How should one's couples therapy sessions relate or connect or interface with your relationship outside the therapist's office, if at all? Is absolute compartmentalization the answer? Is it possible? Should I ignore what's said in the office for purposes of everyday living and spending time together?

[Possibly relevant details: I'm 37, he's 32, we've been together for a year and a half.)

I'd be grateful to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please don't go to DTMFA-land; we're in therapy because we want to try to make this work.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I know this is hard. My Bear and I married when older and our first year was very rocky despite being crazy about each other. Our couples therapist really saved this by allowing us to safely hear each other.

The name of the game is, as liketitanic says, to process your thoughts on your own when not in therapy, and bring up your hurt feelings and fears once there. The only thing you want to be talking about with each other that relates to therapy at this stage is to remind each other of the rules you agree to there (e.g. no arguments in the car.) Listen hard to what your partner is saying in session and try to really, truly understand it. It may not be true in an absolute sense, but it is a true statement of your partner's feelings, and you need to know what those are.
posted by bearwife at 1:32 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

It might help to keep in mind that if he didn't love you and want to be with you, he wouldn't be bothering to do any of this stuff. It sounds like, if this CAN work, it WILL work because you're both willing to put in the effort, and despite whatever misgivings he might have, that's a good sign.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:36 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

P.S. I should have added -- remember that this hour is one of truth. Your relationship is in trouble or you wouldn't need the couples therapy. On the other hand, there is lots of hope. That your partner is there, being honest, and making the effort, tells you there is a willingness there to try to do hard things to save the relationship.
posted by bearwife at 1:36 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

it is a true statement of your partner's feelings, and you need to know what those are.

I came to say exactly this. Assuming the good faith of all parties, if your boyfriend is saying these things in therapy it's because at least some of the time he is feeling them. They aren't all he's feeling, and maybe he's not feeling them all the time, but they're there.

And now you know they're there. Because he feels safe enough, in therapy, to bring them out. This is a good thing.
posted by gauche at 1:36 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

part of that process is talking about your worst and most troubling feelings.

Yes, to an extent, but it shouldn't be a firehose of badness that overwhelms you. Difficult feelings can be talked about kindly and gently. I don't think therapy ought to be a license to totally unleash on one's partner.

Our couples therapist really saved this by allowing us to safely hear each other.

The safe part is really, really important. If the therapist doesn't help you establish and maintain that safe zone in which to talk, they're not as competent as you think.
posted by jon1270 at 1:38 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would think that talking about these very questions could make for a useful and enlightening therapy session. If the way the sessions are going feel too much like "an hour of gloom and doom" right now, maybe all three of you (you, your partner, and the therapist) could explore structuring them a bit differently? Many marriage and family therapists, and researchers in that field, find that making a point of talking about the good and easy things in relationships as well as the difficult and challenging things can make for helpful sessions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:59 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

You do no disservice except to yourself when you qualify the advice you want people to provide.

If after a short 1.5 years you are in therapy, you're not married, there are no kids involved, and therapy is revealing such deep relationship wounds where you are struggling to be happy, why not look at the obvious solution?
posted by Kruger5 at 2:07 PM on March 27, 2012 [16 favorites]

If you're in individual therapy, I think you can find a good corollary. I frequently left therapy thinking I was a mess, focusing on the gloom and doom, and otherwise feeling like therapy was supposed to make me stronger but it felt a little like it was killing me. I tried to process those feelings a little after each session, and then I set them aside till the next session. Because otherwise it's just too much to live with all the time.

Treat your relationship as you would yourself in between sessions: try to set it aside with a strong sense that you'll come back to the hard stuff at the next session.
posted by ldthomps at 2:09 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with what most of the folks above have said; this is an absolutely appropriate thing to bring up with the therapist. Ask him/her to give you some strategies to deal with the feelings outside of the sessions. Ask how to inject some enjoyment in between sessions. Ask for help coming up with ground rules for when and how the topics are handled in session and out of session.

One thing I'm curious about and this may also be something to think about with your partner and your therapist: how do you typically handle conflict? It seems like voicing the things that are unhappy in your relationship feels overwhelmingly awful for you. Do you tend to avoid talking about conflicts and other negative stuff in your day-to-day life? If so, might that contribute to some of the difficulties you have been having?

Therapy is really hard work and it does feel overwhelming at times for everyone. It's worth it, though. It can help you forge a stronger relationship or if that is not meant to be it can help you come to that decision in a way that still honors your relationship.
posted by goggie at 2:23 PM on March 27, 2012

This all sounds really really awful, and like Kruger5, I suspect you are wasting your time suffering so much.

In fact, the exact thought I had reading your question was,"She sounds like she is doing all of this therapy to avoid the pain of breaking up."

I tell you with compassion that breaking up now will likely hurt much less, be over quicker, and leave both you and this man better off in the long AND short term, rather than engaging in this painful and arduous process (emotional torture??) you've begun.

Breaking up does not equal failure. It sets you up for better things to come.

On a practical note... If important career decisions are so seriously impacted by a 1.5 year long relationship with it's own burly obstacles, compounding matters substantially all around, then I think you are selling yourselves short to put this particular relationship ahead of other goals and plans.

Your ask didn't just sound like you are in a substantial amount of pain here, instead what you described sounded insurmountable from every angle.

If your question was worded accurately, please reconsider your plan. It doesn't at all sound like the investment and risk of couples therapy is going to pay off for you. It sounds like something you're going to use to beat yourself up with, which isn't productive.

My advice is for you to skip bean plating the laundry list of painful incompatibilities and unmet needs between you and this man, and instead for you to seek clarity and healing on your own.
posted by jbenben at 2:47 PM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

"safe" doesn't mean safe from harm.

Therapy will elicit changes, but whether those changes will help or hurt your relationship is impossible to say in advance. No one can predict the consequences of change--not for ourselves and certainly not for others. And none of us know how much change or hurt or "honesty" we can handle.

You may not be emotionally ready or prepared for couples therapy. I would gently submit that before going any further with the brutally honest stuff, you and your boyfriend ask yourselves and your therapist:

a) how do we open up difficult subjects in such a way doesn't derail larger goals
b) how do we handle situations and confrontations--outside of therapy, but elicited by therapy-- that evoke stronger emotional reactions than can be controlled or contained, and ultimately lead to less communication and more cutoff
c) how we will know if therapy is or is not working? How will we measure progress?

Every couple in couples therapy hopes for the best and thinks in terms of a long-term process. But few plan for the fact that therapy, in the short term, will probably hurt more than heal. The challenge, then, is to do everything you can in advance to make sure that the short-term worst doesn't obscure or impede the long-term best that couples therapy can help you achieve.

good luck
posted by BadgerDoctor at 3:04 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

like does he really feel capable of being in a relationship at all and whether being with someone in a serious way is what he wants for the long term.

What that usually means is he doesn't want to be in a LTR with you but can't quite admit it, to you or maybe even himself, because then it sets off the painful process of breaking up. Couples therapy is a good thing for addressing serious issues, but this is pretty basic stuff.

I'm not going to say DTMFA because (a) it's glib, and (b) neither of you are MFs, you just don't appear to want the same things. Which sucks when you otherwise love and care for each other a great deal.
posted by 6550 at 3:08 PM on March 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm a couples therapist, but not your couples therapist.

There is a lot of good advice in this thread, from both perspectives (that which sees the therapy as a process that should be able, through structure and facilitation, to withstand difficult revelations, and that which suggests that perhaps what you're hearing is communicating more than you'd like to hear). I think BadgerDoctor's comment is very good.

I think it's hard to answer your question without knowing what the "things that my boyfriend said in the session- things that may be true but are also the sort of things that you say when you're talking about your most extreme emotions" actually are. He may have been saying things that are well within the bounds of honest and forthright communication said with every intention of strengthening the relationship, or he may have been saying things that are making you feel hopeless about the relationship because they communicate either his disrespect for you or his desire to end the relationship (even if neither of those are stated explicitly). In other words, you may be upset for a very good reason.

Many people enter couples therapy in order to leave a relationship, sometimes with the good intention of negotiating a loving separation, and sometimes out of a kind of disingenuous desire to say to themselves and their partner that they tried therapy. I'm not suggesting that that is happening in this case, as I say, it's not really possible to know without knowing more details. I would be curious to know what your individual therapist thinks about this situation, which my guess is you've described to her.
posted by OmieWise at 3:21 PM on March 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

I realize that what you told us in this post may be just one side of the story. But something to think about: it sounds like this relationship is causing you a great deal of pain. Are you getting any joy out of your partnership? Is being with this person enriching your life? Jbenben raises some good points.

It's a great thing that you want to go to therapy and try to work things out instead of just giving up. But don't martyr yourself. You have been in this relationship for a year and a half and have no children. If the pain outweighs the joy you might want to consider what is keeping you in the relationship other than "I am supposed to stick it out because it is the right thing to do no matter how miserable I feel."

As far as the therapy and the negative feelings are concerned: Can your therapist guide the two of you to balance out the negatives with positives so you don't feel caught in a shitstorm of bad feeling? Maybe your partner is venting, but your feelings deserve consideration too. What's good about your relationship? What nice things can your partner say about you? If the answer is "not much"... think twice about trying to salvage things.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:21 PM on March 27, 2012

This isn't a DTMFA kind of situation. He's not a MF and you both want to make it work and he's putting in the effort.

But you might want to be more open to the possibility that it won't work out, it could take some of the stress away. Explore in therapy who you two are as people, and at the end of that road see if you are truly compatible. It's not the end of everything if you aren't. Knowing you can be a happy fulfilled person on your own is a large part of being relaxed and anxiety free in a relationship.

He, and this relationship, not the key to your happiness, and this:

"All of this has been made even more acute by the fact that we are facing some pretty momentous decisions career-wise, and those decisions depend on what is or is not going to happen with us as a couple."

sounds like it has got to be one hell of a boulder around your neck.
posted by Dynex at 5:47 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, it sounds like your relationship outside the therapy is VERY stressfull just now. It will bleed over a good deal. Yes, bring it up. Putting your side on the table can only help you. Just... try not to panic, I guess? Acknowledging the issues and hurts and wounds is WAY better than stuffing them.
posted by Jacen at 6:12 PM on March 27, 2012

Couples' therapy after 18 months? What a terrible lot of work to do at a time when you maybe should be hitting your stride -- knowing each other, still sexy, digging your couple-power thing. Couples' therapy? Are you sure this is the way you want to be spending these early, unmarried days?

With respect to bearwife and OmieWise, I don't know one couple (and I know a dozen) that has entered into couples' therapy and stayed together. Not one.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:17 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

My husband and I spent two years in couples counseling, after we'd been together for five years, and it was some of the best time and money we ever spent. Don't fall victim to the idea that if it takes work, it must not be worth it; the skills we learned together in counseling have made our lives better each and every day. Sometimes you can really love someone and be really certain that they are the person you want to spend your life with, and still have troubles relating to old baggage or bad communications habits that you need the help of a professional to solve.
posted by KathrynT at 6:25 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sounds to me like he does not want to be in a relationship and that you want to be in one really badly. Maybe the couples therapy can bridge this gap, but maybe it shouldn't.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:06 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

With respect to bearwife and OmieWise, I don't know one couple (and I know a dozen) that has entered into couples' therapy and stayed together. Not one.

Well, the Bear and I did. And -- are you a couples therapist? Because otherwise I have to question the size and quality of your data base.

Also, please note the goal here is to respond to the poster, not to critique her decision to do this hard work on saving a relationship she obviously values.
posted by bearwife at 12:31 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

With respect to bearwife and OmieWise, I don't know one couple (and I know a dozen) that has entered into couples' therapy and stayed together. Not one.

No need to give me any respect, your experience is your experience. But I've got a sample size of hundreds of married and unmatched couples, and many many of them are still together, have subsequently gotten married, or done other things that demonstrate their longterm commitment. Sure, lots break up, but this is not a surprise. Many of the people who go to the hospital because they're really sick end up dying in the hospital, but that isn't because (primarily) because of the hospital, it's because they were sick in the first place.
posted by OmieWise at 5:54 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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