Effective Couples Therapy: It’s Not What You Think

Posted by Stacy Bremner, MA, RP, Registered Psychotherapist. on January 17, 2023 at 12:00 AM
Stacy Bremner, MA, RP, Registered Psychotherapist.

8 minute read

couples therapy is not what you think

Human nature is fascinating. We want change, and yet we resist. We want love, and yet we push it away. We come to Therapy searching for "tools," and then we don't use them.

Couples Therapy can be difficult for some couples, especially when they show up to the first session, thinking the partner is the problem, and therefore they expect their partner to change. Expecting the other person to change is a very natural desire. So, let me share two opposite responses and outcomes for Couples Therapy.

The other day I was working with a new couple. During the intake, I learned the wife had been furious with her husband for over two weeks because he'd stayed out all night and refused to apologize. She would not let this go because he could not see her side of the story. During their therapy intake session, the husband became increasingly agitated and stood up abruptly to declare, "I am not going to change!" He then left the room and chose not to return. At that moment, as I sat with this very sad wife, it was clear her husband was unwilling to look at his role in his wife's distress or ways to improve their relationship in general. Sadly, I suspect those words and actions may have taken them in the direction of divorce.

If he could have stayed with the process, there could have been many opportunities for this couple to learn about their Power Struggle and eventually find relief. Without the willingness of both partners, it's much harder to shift a Power Struggle because it involves two complicated people with rich histories.

couples in a power struggle

How do Power Struggles Start in Relationships?

The average couple struggling in a relationship doesn't know about the unavoidable relationship stage called "Power Struggle." Most couples simply know they’re in distress and think the relationship isn't working. They want to feel better and re-create what they once had, yet their efforts don't work. Power Struggle is challenging to heal and resolve without help because emotions can run high, and that's where Imago Relationship Therapy comes in.

Couples Counseling After An Affair-1

Why Do Most Couples Seek Therapy?

  • Couples need help with "Communication."
  • One partner wants the other to be kinder or less critical.
  • One or both partners want to agree or "be on the same page."
  • Couples wish for the arguments to stop.
  • Partners want to be heard and validated.

It can be scary for some people to enter the great unknown of Couples Therapy; it may even be anxiety-provoking. Because of that, sometimes, people call the office and offer their ideas of how the Therapy will play out - all before the very first session. Some people think Couples Therapy is simply solving or fixing one or two problems. Or, they think they merely need some tools. Some couples believe they only need two or three sessions with a couple's therapist to solve and repair years of Power Struggle.

Let me share a secret about Couples Therapy: two or three sessions may not do the trick to repair years of damage and may not unfold as you think it will. Effective Couples Therapy requires both people in the relationship to be willing to do the unique work of connection for the relationship to heal and eventually thrive.

Couples Therapy "work" is actually about creating "a shift in character structure" for BOTH people in the relationship. Your partner will change, and so will you! But not from anyone PUSHING change. By its very nature, power struggles cause people to dig in and resist change automatically.

If your partner has asked you to change and you have resisted, and you have asked your partner to change, and they have resisted, why would it be helpful to hire a couple's therapist to tell you BOTH how you should change? Doing this adds the couple's therapist to the Power Struggle mix!

When a couple experiences an effective Couples Therapy experience, it will naturally lead to shifts for both partners. And those shifts can be pretty rewarding. Here's an example of those tremendous shifts in the story of "Billy and Elizabeth."

Imago Relationships Dialogue

Couples Therapy Success Story: Billy and Elizabeth

I met Billy and Elizabeth 5 years ago when they were 22 and 25. They had a new baby, and their Power Struggle largely centered around this lifestyle change. Elizabeth felt lonely and unsupported because Billy was unwilling to give up the "single guy lifestyle." Even though he would wait until after the baby was in bed to go out and party with his friends, Elizabeth still felt alone, abandoned, unsupported, and resentful. At that time, they did well in Therapy by learning The Imago Dialogue, but they disappeared after a few sessions.

When Billy and Elizabeth returned three years later to my office, they had two children. Billy was fresh out of Rehab for substance abuse, and Elizabeth had started to communicate with a guy on the side to meet her needs.

My initial stance as a therapist is always curiosity, so I wondered how they stayed together through the years and even had another child. As I listened, I noticed that Billy was trying to "sell" her on his new great post-rehab attitude, and while Elizabeth was present with him, she was skeptical. Clearly, I needed to work with this couple to get underneath the surface banter to find out what was really happening in their relationship.

As we embarked upon regular sessions, they were each willing and available to do the Imago Dialogue. In Dialogue, they could both easily self-reflect and connect the dots to childhood trauma and wounding. They realized that Billy had an Anxious Attachment Style while Elizabeth had an Avoidant Attachment Style in relationships. Each could see how those attachment styles were set up during their childhoods. Billy would regularly pursue her with demands, and since she could not, or would not, respond to him, he would then abandon her. Elizabeth would also make demands, and when he could not please her, she would back away, distance herself from Billy, and hold a grudge. They had opposite and ineffective coping styles.

Billy and Elizabeth were able to understand that a relationship goal was to move toward a Secure Attachment - doing so intentionally and consciously.

The Imago Behavior Change Request Dialogue

Since they had learned about the Imago Dialogue a few years ago, we were able to jump back into the work quickly. Within just a few sessions, we started using an advanced Imago Dialogue called The Behaviour Change Request ("BCR.") And much to my delight, they took their "homework" very seriously.

After Billy's BCR Dialogue about his wish for more physical affection, Elizabeth chose to give Billy a one-minute, no-strings-attached daily rub. Elizabeth understood that she avoided touch and that her children also lacked affection. So she jumped in and "stretched" herself to gift Billy with a daily one-minute rub no matter how she was feeling that day. She noticed that over the 1st month, SHE became more available for affectionate touch in other ways. So this first BCR effort was win/win. When Billy joked in the next session that she could double it to 2 minutes, she agreed!

giving to your partner

Relationship Win/Win: Stretching for Your Partner Gives You Both a Win

The exciting thing about stretching into new behaviors for your partner's benefit is that the one who stretches receives benefits too! It's a win for you both, but you can only truly understand it once you experience it. Elizabeth liked how she felt as she gifted Billy with the daily rub. She began to feel safe and calm in their relationship.

In another session, it was Elizabeth's turn to do a BCR. She shared her loneliness and how she wanted to feel connected to Billy during the day when she was home with the children. As a conclusion to her BCR Dialogue, Billy chose to stretch himself and gift her with a stress-free, 5-minute daily phone call from work every day at 12:40.

When they came to their next session, they shared their successes with the daily phone call. Billy got to experience firsthand how to become dependable and supportive of Elizabeth, and therefore HE felt good too. Elizabeth appreciated his efforts because she was learning how to "receive" and enjoy what she had asked for, and she appreciated him for his efforts.

After only seven sessions, this couple came in happily, sharing the successes of how each of them had changed their character structures and how they were both feeling so much better! And they felt connected. They were well on their way to creating a Secure Attachment plus growing as individuals.

Benefits of Couples Therapy is a Happy Family

Imago Relationship Tools: Additional Benefits For The Relationship

As a side benefit from the daily rubs and phone calls, they noticed how they listened to each other more and felt more empathy and tenderness for one another. They also noticed they had more curiosity and less reactivity. Plus, they were willing to put in the effort their partner asked for in the relationship. And they liked doing it!

Over time, the new habits led to personal expansion and happiness. Elizabeth was more physically affectionate, and she gained benefits from that. She no longer feared the closeness nor pushed Billy away. Elizabeth didn't feel the need to go elsewhere for companionship and stopped talking to the other guy.

Billy noticed he liked being home, and he liked sharing time with his wife and children. He was now prioritizing his family. Elizabeth felt uplifted, happy, and more open to fun times and connection.

Billy and Elizabeth continued to use another Imago Tool, the Appreciation Practice, almost daily, and they used a Welcome Home Hug to calm and reduce stress after work. They got creative and added even more connecting behaviors. In addition to the ideas we discussed in their sessions, they started cuddling in the morning and cuddling while falling asleep at night.

relationship vision for couple

Imago Relationship Vision: Growing into a Healthy and Happy Relationship

Next, Billy and Elizabeth felt ready to focus on their future with the Imago Relationship Vision and talk about sex, finances, and their social life, with an attitude of curiosity and adventure because they now trusted each other, and they trusted the Imago Therapy process.

When we started to work on the Imago Relationship Vision, Billy and Elizabeth had some questions for one another.

  • Billy asked Elizabeth, "How often should we have sex?"
  • Elizabeth responded, "5 times a week," (When I hear this, I think, "Wow, this guy hit pay dirt").
  • Billy asked, "Hey, what about morning sex? Hmm?"
  • Elizabeth responded, "Maybe I can, but I may need to figure out why I avoid that first."

What an incredible openness and connection that began to unfold for this couple! While we have more exciting things to work with and heal in session, I suspect they will do more independently too! I feel honored to have been a part of this couple's transition into safety, comfort, and openness as a couple. I am also happy their children will have such wonderful, connected parents as role models.

joyful couple experimenting

Experiment In Your Relationship With a Little Courage

Although Couples Therapy is not a quick fix, it doesn't have to take years to bring significant shifts to your relationship. You can feel better faster when you and your partner have support to drop your defenses (and offenses) and allow the therapy process to unfold. Couples Therapy moves quickly when you can reflect upon yourselves in a safe space and eventually be willing to try some new things together at home. Imago Relationships Therapy provides a safe space for this work.

Couples Therapy is not what you think! It's so much more. All relationships are a work in progress. The good news is the work of Couples Therapy can lead to beautiful shifts beyond what you might imagine. When you learn about "connection" versus "problem-solving," you and your partner can experience a deeper love. You might even re-discover the laughter and joy you thought you had lost!

If you're struggling in your relationship and want to experience effective Couples Therapy, we're here to help. Check out our Imago Relationship workshops and therapy. We have online therapy and workshops too!

Discover more about Imago with our Imago Professional Membership, Imago Professional Facilitators, Imago Professional Training, and Imago Educational Webinars.

Connect. Transform. Thrive.

Stacy Bremner, MA, RP, Registered Psychotherapist - Imago Relationships North AmericaThis blog post was written by Stacy Bremner, MA, RP, Registered Psychotherapist.

Stacy Bremner is in private practice in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. She holds a Specialized Honours B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Human Development. She is a Registered Psychotherapist (RP) with the CRPO (the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario), as well as a member in good standing with the OAMHP. Stacy is also a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist with Advanced Clinician status and a Certified Imago Workshop Presenter.

For two decades, she has assisted individuals, couples, and groups. She has taught a variety of workshops on topics such as relationships, communication, sexuality, healing, self-awareness, creativity, and self-help. Stacy has a background in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Meditation and Mindfulness, Psychodramatic Bodywork, Conscious Core Transformation (CCT), The DNMS, Discernment Counselling, and PACT. She also continues to study and teach in the area of Couplehood and sexuality.

Even before she became a Psychotherapist, Stacy was a spiritual seeker and passionate about her own healing journey. Areas of study for Stacy include Kabbalah, Buddhism, and ACIM (A Course in Miracles). Because she is so passionate about her work, she cannot resist the desire to upgrade her skills in an ongoing way through reading, attending workshops, and teaching. Stacy feels that all these efforts contribute to her growth as a well-rounded person, a therapist, and a spiritual being.

Check out Stacy's website: www.ameetingofminds.ca

Topics: Relationship Therapy, Couples Therapy, Relationship Vision, personal growth, Imago Relationships Work, Imago Dialogue, Harmony in the Home, Relationship Goals, Marriage Counseling, Communication In Relationships, Conscious Relationships, Relationship Stages, Growth Mindset, Relationship Tips, Marriage Therapy, Couples Communication, Relationship Struggles, Relationship Problems, Behavior Change Request, Appreciation Practice

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The Imago Relationships Blog features content from our team of professional therapists, workshop presenters and facilitators who are passionate about helping you discover a new way to communicate and love your life.

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